Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Food for Thought on Cat Food


Pet Column for the week of May 6, 2013


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Netherton
Information Specialist

The pet food aisle has turned into multiple aisles. With all the choices on the market, how can you pick the “right” food for your cat?

Dr. Kelly Swanson, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences who lectures on nutrition at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, recently shared his thoughts on the matter.

There are hundreds of commercially available pet diets, according to Dr. Swanson, and a majority of them are “complete and balanced.” This phrase means that the foods meet the standards for dog and cat food established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) for content of protein (crude protein plus 10 amino acids and taurine, which is a beta-sulfonic acid), fat (crude fat and 2 fatty acids), vitamins (13 of them), and minerals (12 of them).

However, within those broad standards are many variations. For example, the concentrations of protein, fat, and fiber can vary; the specific sources of protein, fat, and carbohydrates can come from a great many different ingredients; and the diet may be sold dry, semi-moist, or wet (in pouches or cans).

The taste and texture of the food will depend on these variations, with a potential for great variation in impact on the animal’s stool volume and consistency, skin and coat health, and oral health.

“The food selected will likely be based on the preferences, life stage, and living conditions of the pet, such as whether the cat is allowed outdoors and how much of the day it may be home alone,” explains Dr. Swanson. “The personality and beliefs of the owner are additional factors in determining what is the ‘right’ food for any individual pet.”

When comparing diets that have all the necessary nutrients needed for a pet, selection usually comes down to the convenience to the owner, price, owner beliefs (which may or may not be based on facts) of what their pet should be fed, and the reputation of the company selling the food.

Marketing research has shown that ingredient selection is one of the most important factors to owners in selecting a pet food.

“In my opinion, most pet foods on the market today are of high quality and promote health and longevity if fed in proper amounts by the owner,” says Dr. Swanson. “What owners must remember is that cats and dogs require nutrients, not specific ingredients. While ingredient quality and source are definitely important, the selection of foods based merely on ingredient selection is rather shortsighted.”

The food should be appropriate to the age of the animal. Kittens are growing, and they need more protein and energy than do adults at maintenance. Dr. Swanson explains that vitamins A and D and minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium need to be at slightly higher concentrations in a kitten’s diet to meet the increased needs for muscle and skeletal development.

The nutritional needs of senior cats are a bit more controversial, according to Dr. Swanson, and depend on weight and health status.

“In general, senior diets will include higher antioxidant concentrations and may contain other various ‘functional’ ingredients, such as omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, that may provide additional health benefits,” he says.

Studies have estimated that up to half of U.S. pets are either overweight or obese. This is a cause for concern because obesity increases the risk of many other diseases in pets, as it does people. To help keep your cat at a healthy weight, Dr. Swanson says to start by feeding the amount recommended on the diet label and adjust the amount of food based on the animal’s body condition over time. If the pet is losing weight, then feed more, and if gaining, cut back.

Owners must remember that all foods or treats provided to their pet contribute to daily energy intake. A couple extra treats here and some table scraps there can really add up.

Likewise, just as people do, animals need adequate exercise to maintain a healthy body weight. Diet should be adjusted according to activity level; older animals and those that have been neutered or spayed likely need less food than young and intact pets.

“Regular visits to the veterinarian, feeding to maintain a healthy body weight, and providing and promoting adequate exercise are the keys to pet health and longevity,” advises Dr. Swanson.

For more information about nutrition for your pet, contact your local veterinarian.