There’s a lot of confusion about how best to feed your cat. Here’s what I told a reader.
Q: What are the best ingredients for cat foods? I’ve read different opinions, and I’m confused. All protein — or some grains?
A: Good question. I asked cat nutrition expert Tony Buffington, DVM, to weigh in. Cats are what biologists call “obligate carnivores” or “hypercarnivores.” That means that to survive, they need to get nutrients from animal tissue or synthetic sources in their diet, thanks to a lack of some enzymes needed to produce them. Cats can’t make the essential amino acids arginine and taurine; vitamins A, D and niacin; or certain essential fatty acids.
But cats can’t survive on “all protein” diets. According to a recent study, when fed diets of similar palatability, cats seemed to prefer diets containing about 30% of calories as protein, 27% as fat and 43% as carbohydrates.
Cats can digest and absorb carbohydrates from grains that are properly processed and cooked, and they may get some benefits from them. The body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which provides energy to the brain, red blood cells and other tissues and organs. Fiber from plant carbohydrates can help to give a feeling of fullness and help the gastrointestinal tract work more effectively.
The bottom line is that there’s a lot of debate about the appropriate amount of carbohydrates in cat food, and we don’t really know how much is optimal. Factors that may affect the appropriate level of carbohydrate intake for an individual cat include age, whether the cat is spayed or neutered or lives indoors or outdoors.
The best thing you can do is to choose a commercial food with a statement on the label saying that the diet is complete and balanced for a particular life stage — such as kitten or adult — and has passed animal feeding trials for cats. If you prefer a homemade diet, be sure it has been appropriately formulated by a boarded veterinary nutritionist and that you prepare it carefully in accordance with the recipe.
There’s more in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.