Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cat Health: Nutrition

We all know that it's important to feed our feline friends good food to keep them healthy, right? I'd like to take a look at what cats' nutrition needs are and why they are that way. Today I'll focus on wet food.

First, cats are obligate carnivores. That means that they evolved such that their bodies can't process nutrients from plants. They can't, for example, eat carrots and turn the beta carotene into vitamin A like humans can. Cats' can only get plant nutrients from their prey. They need the prey's body to process the nutrients into forms that they, the cats, can use. That's why cat advice books (columns, articles, websites, etc.) always say not to feed your cat a vegetarian diet. The easiest way to be sure that your cat is getting the nutrients she needs is to feed her an AAFCO-approved commercial food.

There are some problems with commercial foods, though. First, we don't know what conditions the animals used in the food live under. As an animal lover, I want to be sure my cats get the right nutrients, but I don't want to do that at the expense of cruelty to other animals! A second problem is that AAFCO allows pet-food manufacturers to use ingredients that might not be wholesome for our cats. As I mentioned above, cats are obligate carnivores. They don't need (nor can their bodies use) grains. Grains (corn and wheat, primarily) are typically the second or third ingredient in cat foods. These grains are fillers. They bulk up the food so it costs less to manufacture (and in turn costs less for us to buy). Corn costs much less than meat, after all!

Another problem with most manufactured cat foods (and many dog foods) is that they contain animal by-products. "By-products" aren't necessarily evil, but they don't include muscle meat, and are therefore not high quality proteins. Another name for animal by-products or by-product meal is "animal digest".

A final problem with commercial food: remember the pet food recalls of 2007 (and several times since)? Many beloved pets died because of contaminated food. None of us want to face that!

So, what can you do if you want to avoid these problems? Well, there are a couple of options. First, you can buy a high-quality cat food. This will mean reading the label, learning about the company, and doing some research. There are a number of pet food brands that use no animal by-products or grains. If you learn about the company and check product reviews, recall news, etc. frequently, you can be comfortable that your pet food is safe and healthy. Simply googling the name of the food will typically get you plenty of information. Check the company's website as well as consumer reviews and FDA recall lists. You should be able to find out where a food is made, who owns the company, what's in it, whether there are any recalls, etc. I've had good experiences with Taste of the Wild, Instinct, Harmony Farms, and Blue Buffalo, among others. (Please note: I am not in any way affiliated with these companies, and I receive no compensation for mentioning them. As far as I know, they don't even know I exist.)

The problem? Higher-quality pet food costs more! How I've solved this (I'm way too cheap to pay for the expensive pet food!) is to make my own. I use a recipe by Dr. Michael Fox, a veterinarian who writes syndicated pet-care columns in a bunch of newspapers. It's not difficult to make, and one batch lasts about a month for my two cats. Click here for the recipe. I feed Hide and Seek about a tablespoon a piece two to three times a day. One batch usually lasts me at least a month, so it's worth the time & effort to make it. I also give them high quality dry food (usually Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain Venison formula. Again, no affiliation.) to "graze" on throughout the day.

It can also be difficult to find the higher quality foods; I get my high quality stuff at a small local pet store called Whole Pet; I haven't been able to find most of them in regular pet stores. I have found some (Harmony Farms, for example) at the grocery store.

Between the home-made wet food and the store-bought dry food, I think I spend about $30 a month on cat food. I do occasionally supplement Hide & Seek's wet food with a little bit of canned food (see the brands I listed above) as a treat. I add a little bit of the canned food to their regular portion of home made food, and they love it!

What to do if you can't afford the high-quality manufactured stuff, but don't have the time to make your own? Compromise, of course! Try making a batch of cat food (it takes about the same amount of time & effort as a batch of chicken soup) and mixing that with your kitty's regular canned food. Try buying some of the high-quality stuff and mix that with the regular food. Find coupons & sales. Partner up with a friend & split the cost & effort.

If none of that works, just feel good about the fact that you love your cat.

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