What should I feed my cat?

A client posed a question about the food she was feeding her cat, which is a well known national brand hairball formula. Since it also happens to be National Hairball Awareness Day (I didn't know that was a thing until this morning), I'm going to address Feeding the Feline today. The two most important things I want people to know about feeding their cat are: 1. Cats are obligate carnivores and 2. Hairballs are almost never just hairballs.

What does is mean to be an "obligate carnivore"? Cats in the wild will eat prey. Their diet consists of mostly protein (55%), fat (45%), and trace carbohydrates (1-2%), typically whatever was actually in the stomach of their prey. Most commercial dry cat foods are higher in carbohydrates than is optimal for a cat. I know people want to feed their cat what is best, but how do you tell what is best? And its just so darn convenient to open a bag and fill a bowl, right? Lets look at the label for the cat food in question and see what it has to tell us. Here are the first 5 ingredients of their original formula, copied and pasted from their website.


The nutritional analysis states 30% protein and 11% fat. Carbohydrate % is not listed but we can all do the math.

The hairball formula does have meat as the first ingredient, but overall is not that much different and there is still only 31% protein.


What is the problem here if you are feeding a carnivore? Can cats eat corn, rice, soy, etc? Sure they can and they obviously do in the foods we give them. Is this the optimal nutrition for the health and longevity of the individual cat? No. What are the features then of a good quality cat food for optimal nutrition?

Protein, protein, protein, fat, essential amino acids and vitamins/minerals, and water.

The optimal diet for a cat is actually canned food (but what about their teeth??? Doesn't all that kibble keep tartar away? Nope, dental disease is a disease of genetics and inflammation and the best way to prevent it is daily tooth brushing - another blog post for another time). Canned food is higher in protein and moisture and much lower in carbohydrates. I often recommend it for cats with chronic kidney disease, lower urinary tract disease, diabetes, obesity, and more. The research suggests that I will see less of all those things more cats ate canned food right from the start. That being said, I have a cat and I actually feed him both dry and canned food. I did a lot of research before choosing a dry that I thought was trying to follow the rules of holistic feline nutrition and I went with Dr. Tim's Chase cat food, and there is a canned version as well. The first five ingredients of the dry are as follows:

Chicken meal, brown rice, chicken fat (preserved with mixed natural tocopherols, a source of vitamin E), dried egg product, catfish meal

Three protein sources, a fat, and one carbohydrate. The nutritional analysis states 37% protein and 22% fat. This is not necessarily the only good one, its just the one I went with. Hopefully I've given you enough info to examine your pet food label with a critical eye. If you want to know more or find out where you can get Dr. Tim's check out I get mine right next door at Northern Tails Pet Resort in Thompson, MI. For more information and myths about general cat nutrition see this excellent article from Veterinary Partner I will add a caveat to the article that I am also not a fan of raw diets, however I am in favor of home prepared diets if done properly. Doing it properly often ends up being prohibitively expensive and time consuming for the pet owner so not many people do it, but I am happy to help anyone who wants to do this find the resources to do so.

Now what about hairballs? If your cats vomits intermittently, whether or not it contains hair, this is not normal and there is an underlying cause. Disease problems which can cause what looks like "hairball issues" include overgrooming due to skin disease, pain, and anxiety, gastrointestinal disorders such as food allergy, inflammatory bowel disease, abnormal intestinal motility, parasites, and cancer, and metabolic disorders such as kidney disease and hyperthyroidism. Hairball foods and other remedies that are symptomatic and do not address the underlying disease only delay diagnosis and treatment of the real problem. If you have one of these "chronic puker cats" (a phrase I heard the exam room all the time) I strongly encourage you to mention it to your vet. For more information please check out this article

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