The focus on feline health and nutrition continues throughout National Take Your Cat to the Vet Month.
As the pet parent of two cats, himself, Doylestown’s Dr. David MacDonald, DVM, CVA, CVSMT, understands fully the importance of a balanced, nutritional diet for our feline friends, and regularly doles out advice to cat owners who are uncertain of the best kinds of food to feed their animals.
There are typically two broad categories to consider when determining the best diet for your cat, Dr. MacDonald says: Commercial and Homemade.
The Pros and Cons of Commercial Foods
When considering a commercially produced diet for your cat, the big question often comes down to one question. Wet or dry?
“The foundation for what is appropriate for cats is going to be slightly different than other species, because of how cats operate,” says Dr. MacDonald.
“Cats are obligate carnivores. This means they’re meat eaters by obligation. They need to have meat protein as their main source of nutrition. So, what we shoot for in a commercial diet is high protein and very low carbohydrates. In fact, they don’t need carbohydrates at all.”
Processing is a huge part of the equation.
“The difference … just in those two simple aspects of protein and carbs, is that you can have a high protein diet in a dry food or a wet food and can still hit that number pretty close to what you want it to be. However, when processed into a dry kibble, by obligation manufacturers have to put more carbohydrates into that food just to make it a kibble.”
According to Dr. MacDonald, when assembling a complete, balanced diet, certain ingredients are called for: a meat protein, some vegetables, some grain, and some fats.
“If you take all of those ingredients and form them into a dry kibble, then make those same ingredients into a wet food, the resulting end products – and what you feed your cat – would be dramatically different.”
More carbohydrates = more opportunity for inflammation.
“What we struggle with as veterinarians, and what we see frequently, is that clinical illness in most animals has a basis in inflammation. When you consider that from a nutritional standpoint, it’s the carbs that are driving that inflammatory state. So, any time we can minimize the carbohydrates in their food, it’s always to their advantage because we’re decreasing the amount of inflammation that their bodies are generating.”
Beyond the inflammation standpoint, the moisture content of wet food is also highly beneficial, Dr. MacDonald says.
“When we think of kidney disease or urinary problems, that moisture content that cats take in from wet food is really healthy for their urinary system and their kidneys. And you don’t have that in the dry food.”
Just like humans, when a cat’s daily intake of moisture is lacking, problems invariably ensue.
“Even if they’re drinking an appropriate amount of water with their dry food, it tends to be different compared to a wet food,” Dr. MacDonald says. “You’ll see some of these cats start to have urinary problems, like a tendency for urinary stones or urinary tract infections or potentially early stages of kidney disease, just because they’re not getting enough moisture.”
Metabolism makes a difference.
Wet food, Dr. MacDonald says, is going to be much closer to a cat’s dietary needs for a healthy metabolism.
“They utilize that food and nutrition and put it to good use in the body,” he says. Again, with dry foods, there is a change in the metabolic state, making cats more likely to put on extra weight.
“They’re more likely to have disturbances with how their body uses that nutrition, and that can set them up for things like diabetes.”
The benefits of wet, commercially produced food are clear to see. But what about pet owners who don a chef’s hat and decide to make cat cuisine at home?
Better Health Through Homemade Foods
In the same way that a homemade meal is better for us as humans – versus anything you buy at the store in a package or a can or from the frozen food aisle before warming it in the microwave – lightly cooked meals made at home are better for our cats.
Dr. MacDonald is a big advocate.
“The processing of any commercial food – even a wet food – is going to change that food’s nutritional profile, which is different than if you were to take that list of ingredients and make it in your kitchen,” he says.
“Homemade meals are just much more nutritionally complete and biologically available to your cats to make use of,” he continues. “There’s a good reason that homemade foods are always going to be better than the best of the best of the best of commercial foods.”
The high protein, low carbs formula is still at play, and pet owners should understand there will be some work involved for preparation and making sure meals are nutritionally complete, with all of the vitamins and minerals that their cats need.
At Doylestown Veterinary Hospital, doctors give clients the background and knowledge required to be a cat’s culinary specialist.
“We help guide them,” Dr. MacDonald says. “We give them recipes and ways to be able to do this, so they feel confident that they’re actually feeding good food to their pets and not just kind of winging it.”
Go even further with a raw diet.
While homemade, lightly cooked meals are so much better than processed, canned food – a raw diet is the closest a pet owner can get to the actual, foundational diet that cats should be eating, Dr. MacDonald says.
“This is what they would be eating in an actual wildlife situation,” he says. “That’s what their bodies were made for. Now, I’m not going to recommend someone should go out and catch mice to give their cat, but you can certainly replicate that kind of opportunity to have a diet that reflects a high meat protein.”
When cats are fed a raw diet, there are little to no carbohydrates involved at all. And because the meal is not even cooked, the processing element is eliminated.
“The question remains whether cooking changes the nutritional value,” Dr. MacDonald says. “If you lightly cook, it probably doesn’t – but you’re always going to do the best by keeping foods uncooked altogether, to make sure it’s as close to a real, natural diet as you can get.”
The recipe for success.
Dr. MacDonald suggests homemade cat diets should likely consist of close to 50% protein: “whether that’s beef, chicken, turkey, venison, or rabbit. At least half would be meat-based.”
“Cats don’t need a lot in the way of vegetables, but they are a good source of vitamins,” he continues. “Would cats really be eating vegetables? No, they wouldn’t be out in your garden eating the tomatoes. But when you consider the prey model, catching mice and whatnot, those creatures are more like vegetarians, and those prey animals would have some vegetables in their digestive systems. Cats would ultimately be taking on some of that nutrition that their prey would have ingested. So, there’s room for us to say that it’s OK for them to have vegetables in their diet. It’s something they can certainly utilize.”
Grains, too, like rice or barley – “or quinoa would be OK for most animals” – are incorporated into contemporary homemade diets, says Dr. MacDonald. But even then, those are in tiny amounts, simply to provide another source of healthy vitamins and minerals.
“Also beneficial are some fats in the diet,” he says.
“From a human perspective, we think ‘fat is the bad guy.’ That’s not exactly true for animals. In fact, it’s a good energy source and in a healthy animal with a healthy digestive tract, they can take on that fat and do OK with that. So, I would include what we call Omega 3 fatty acids – or short-chain fatty acids – which are beneficial and include things like fish oil, coconut oil, and flaxseed oil,” many of which have anti-inflammatory effects.
For pet parents who perhaps don’t thrill to the thought of preparing raw meats for kitty, there are alternatives.
“There are some good commercial raw food diets these days,” Dr. MacDonald says. “I feel pretty good about offering those as a way of providing a diet that is still close to what we want.”
Feeding the Finicky Cat
Many cat owners may be familiar with the finicky feline who blanches at the first sign of a new brand of food in their bowl.
Transitioning your cat to a homemade or raw diet does not have to be a chore, however.
“I always think of it as doable,” Dr. MacDonald says.
“Individual cats may present their own obstacles, as far as how you get from point A to point B. But the cats who are probably most challenging are those that have had a dry kibble their whole life, and resist going away from that.”
Think of the sugary cereals you may love, he says. “Those are good, and you think you could sit and eat those all day. But then if someone were to take that away and plop a salad down in front of you, you might think, ‘Hmm… This isn’t what I want.’”
Cats who have become accustomed to a lifetime of dry kibble will occasionally resist a change, even to wet commercial food.
“You can get through it as long as you have a strategy that is defined for that individual cat,” Dr. MacDonald says. “And this is where a customized approach with individual patients in the exam room comes in. There, we can kind of tailor a diet to your cat’s needs.”
The secret is perseverance – and taking things a step at a time.
“You don’t want to rock the boat too quickly where all of a sudden it’s a drastic change. Nobody likes that. That creates an aversion not only for the cat but also for the pet owner who is saying, ‘This isn’t working. We’re not going to do this!’ You just need to ease into things and take them slowly, and you should be able to do it successfully. You just have to have some patience.”
Dr. MacDonald encourages patients to offer a regular rotation of different foods, as some cats prefer the change, and others gradually learn that variety is the spice of life.
Some clients wonder why their cat suddenly stops eating one type of meal, prompting a switch, which is then tolerated for a while before also being refused. And so on, and so forth.
This is natural, he says.
“Sometimes that is the cat’s natural rhythm. They are telling us what they want – they want variety. They want a few different things rotated through their schedule, so they don’t get stuck on just one thing.”
“Even if your favorite meal is lasagna, if you eat lasagna every day, it’s probably not good for you,” Dr. MacDonald says. “You’re not getting the full spectrum of everything you need.”
Dr. MacDonald strives to bring the topic of nutrition into every veterinary appointment, particularly when there is room for improvement.
Many health issues requiring medications and other interventions exist because cats have already been set up nutritionally in a way that their bodies are out of balance. Finding the best diet for your cat is paramount.
“If we can create the balance nutritionally, then that wipes the slate clean and their bodies do better with all of those things,” he says. “A lot of things fall into place when a cat’s diet gets better.”