Cat and Kitten Nutrition 101

Written by Small Door's medical experts

With hundreds of pet food brands, crazy treat trends, and confusing ingredients, it’s hard to know what’s best for your cat. In an age of technology where it’s so easy to be misled and get inaccurate answers online, we’ve put together a comprehensive nutrition guide, complete with all the information you need to plan for your cat’s diet.

How to choose the right food for your cat

Step One: Ask your veterinarian.

If you have questions about your cat’s nutrition, your veterinarian should be your go-to resource. Our doctors at Small Door are here to provide you with support and make sure your pet is getting the best nutrition possible.

Step Two: Look for an AAFCO statement under the ingredients list.

If you see a statement from the AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials) on your cat’s food bag or cans, you’re on the right track. This is a sign that your cat’s diet meets all the necessary nutrition requirements.

Step Three: Don’t dwell on the ingredients.

It can be really confusing to look at the list of ingredients on your pet’s food. Pet food companies not only use their ingredients and labels for science and nutrition, but also for marketing purposes.

They may highlight different terms like “human-grade” to draw you in, but these are usually made up terms with no nutritional or medical values. When in doubt, talk to your veterinarian.

Step Four: Assess the manufacturer.

This is where your veterinarian can help guide you. Where your pet’s food is manufactured can play a big role in how nutritious it is. Here are some questions we ask:

  • Where is the food manufactured? A good manufacturer owns the plants where their food is produced.

  • What quality control measures are taken? This looks at quality of
    ingredients, consistency and nutritional value of the end product.

  • Do they employ at least one full-time, qualified animal nutritionist, and does this doctor formulate the diets?

  • Do they conduct and publish research in peer-reviewed journals?

  • Can they provide nutritional values for any nutrient, beyond what’s listed on the label?

These are just a few of the questions we ask pet food manufacturers to ensure we are recommending the best diets to our members.

Specific requirements for cats and kittens

Cats are stubborn creatures, especially when it comes to their diets. Providing a complete and balanced diet is very important, but it can also be difficult given their fickle nature. Consider the parameters below when you’re looking into your cat’s nutrition:

Kittens need kitten food. Kittens need food that is tailored to fuel their development into young adult life. Kitten food has more calories, with a higher fat and calorie content to help support their fast growth.

The more canned food, the better. Ideally, feed your cat only a canned or wet food diet. For those that prefer dry food, we recommend that you feed a combination of wet and dry food to cats for a variety of reasons.

  1. It will help them get enough water, which they may not seek out on their own. Cats have a low thirst drive and are designed to get most of their water with their food.

  2. As indoor cats do not get a great deal of physical exercise, combining the two food types is beneficial, because wet food has fewer calories.

  3. The high water content in canned food will encourage your cat to urinate more often, flushing out their bladders. This is important to help reduce urinary tract issues, especially in indoor cats.

  4. As cats get older, certain conditions like diabetes and kidney disease respond better to wet food. If you start feeding some canned food to your cat when they’re young, they may not be so picky in the future. If you have an adult cat on an all dry diet, your vet can help with tips to transition your cat from a dry only diet.

Cater to their carnivore nature. You cannot feed your cat a vegan or vegetarian diet, because cats are obligate carnivores – this means they can’t get the nutrients they need from plants, and so must eat meat and not a lot of carbohydrates. This is most notably because they get taurine, an essential amino acid for heart function, from their diets.

Look for diets with more protein than fat (a protein content of at least 45% is ideal) and a carbohydrate content of less than 10%. Home-cooked diets need to be very carefully considered, and planned with the guidance of your veterinarians.

Grain-free does not mean carbohydrate free! Many grain free diets have replaced traditional grains with peas, potatoes, and sweet potatoes – none of which have any proven health benefits for cats.

You cannot feed your cat a vegan or vegetarian diet, because cats are obligate carnivores – this means they can’t get the nutrients they need from plants, and so must eat meat and not a lot of carbohydrates.

Best practices when feeding your cat

Because cats can be stubborn eaters, it’s important to think about how you’re feeding them. A fun feeding routine can improve your furry friend’s quality of life. Tailor your methods (how, when, and how much you feed) to their predator instincts.

  • Feed them alone. As carnivores with a hunting drive, cats prefer to eat alone. If you have multiple cats in the household, make sure to separate their feeding areas and give them space. Feeding together can cause anxiety, aggression, and stress, not to mention weight issues if they eat from each other’s bowls.

  • Switch up the feeding location. You don’t have to feed your cat in the same spot everyday. If they get meals in different locations throughout the day, they will be more mentally and physically stimulated.

  • Make sure they drink enough water. Some cats drink well out of a water bowl, but others won’t even touch theirs. If your cat is on the stubborn side, try a cat water fountain to increase water intake as many cats prefer fresh, flowing water.

  • Give smaller meals more frequently. Cat owners often leave out a full bowl of food during the day. This doesn’t tap into their inner predator or make eating exciting. In fact, it can cause overeating and lead to obesity. Equally, feeding large meals twice daily can lead to the ‘snarf and barf’ syndrome that is so frequent in indoor cats. A cat’s physiology is designed to eat little and often. When fed large amounts twice a day, they take in more than their stomachs are designed for, leading to frequent vomiting. If your cat eats smaller meals more often, they won’t eat out of boredom and they’ll be healthier overall.

  • Keep it fun and engaging. Try using a puzzle feeder to mimic hunting instincts. We recommend the indoor hunting feeder by Doc and Phoebe’s to help mentally stimulate your cat, while providing smaller meals more often. If you have multiple cats that give you trouble during meal time, try automatic feeders that work on a timer and can be set to individual cat microchip numbers.

Recommended food and treat brands

The following pet food brands are recommended by our medical team in consideration of these nutritional best practices. Some of these brands produce multiple food options, which can vary extensively; we recommend choosing options with a higher protein to fat content, and low carbohydrate content.

It’s also good to bear in mind that while we all aim to feed our pets the best of the best, often our cats will ultimately make the final decision on food, given their fickle nature!

Please note that we do not have a vested financial interest in any of these foods. Following thorough research, our vets have determined that they include the right nutritional components from AAFCO, undergo proper quality control measures, and their production is overseen by veterinary nutritionists:

  • Hill’s Pet Nutrition

  • Royal Canin

  • Purina Brands (One, ProPlan, Friskies, Fancy Feast)

  • Farmina Pet Foods

  • Wellness Complete Health

  • Almo Nature

  • Weruva

  • Tiki Cat

  • NomNomNow (Fresh food)

  • Just Food for Cats (Fresh food)

If you are interested in an exact calorie count for your cat, speak with your veterinarian instead of using an online calculator, which may not always be precise.

Also, find out which human food treats are suitable for cats, and make sure you avoid these common household pet poisons!

Please do not hesitate to reach out to us at Small Door with any
questions about your pet’s nutrition. We are available 24/7 on the Small
Door app.

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