Feeding Cats at Any Age

Feeding Adult Cats

An adult cat with normal activity requires only a maintenance diet. A good-quality commercial cat food that is complete and balanced for maintenance or for all life stages is appropriate to feed to adult cats that are not pregnant or nursing. Cats should be fed as individuals, and the factors that influence the amount of food a typical adult cat requires to maintain good body condition include activity level, temperature, and body metabolism. A good body condition is one in which the animal is well proportioned, with an observable waist behind the ribcage, and ribs that can be felt with a slight fat covering over them.

Because cats tend to be nibblers or "occasional eaters," they should have access to their food for several hours each day. And as with other animals, an available source of clean, fresh water is important for virtually all body functions - digestion, absorption, circulation, transporting nutrients, building tissues and helping to regulate body temperature.

Cats require a higher level of dietary protein and a different nutrient balance than dogs. Like kittens, mature cats require the addition of taurine to their diet while dogs do not. These unique dietary requirements are met by providing cats with complete and balanced cat foods, and for these reasons it is recommended that adult cats not be fed dog food. A cat can be fed a maintenance diet after it is one year of age. Maintenance diets are not appropriate for kittens, or pregnant or nursing females.

The average seven- to nine-pound cat requires about three ounces (three quarters to one 8 oz. measuring cup) of dry food or semi-moist food, or 6 to 8 ounces of canned food per day. The amount of food needed will vary according to the nutrient density of the food and the individual cat. Even when all factors are the same, two cats of similar size, age, and activity may need different amounts of food simply because they have different metabolism rates. A cat's appetite and total food consumption will vary from day to day. Loss of appetite or reluctance to eat are not problems in adult cats unless they persist for several days or the cat shows symptoms of illness. If this happens, the cat should be examined by a veterinarian.

Feeding During Pregnancy

While nutrition is a key factor in keeping a cat healthy, its importance is heightened during gestation and lactation. The diet must supply essential nutrients in the proper balance for the developing kittens and prepare the female for the stress of lactation. Diets labeled for adult maintenance, intermittent feeding, or therapeutic uses are generally inadequate for gestation and lactation. A diet selected to be fed during this time should be labeled as nutritionally complete and balanced for all life stages of the cat or for growth and reproduction. This claim should preferably be supported by animal feeding studies. Diets formulated to provide at least 30 percent protein and containing more than 1,700 kcals per pound of food are recommended. If a maintenance diet is fed prior to breeding, a gradual changeover should be made to a diet appropriate for reproduction during the last trimester of pregnancy.

Breeders sometimes believe that dietary supplements are needed in addition to the regular diet to provide the extra nutrition pregnant and lactating queens require. This need for extra nutrition can be met by feeding a good-quality complete and balanced diet, thereby eliminating any need for supplements.

Throughout gestation, the female may show a slow, steady increase in body weight and at the same time a gradual increase in food intake. Hormonal and behavioral changes that occur during reproduction may cause periods of undereating, overeating, or not eating. For example, many queens undergo a short period of partial appetite loss at about the third week of gestation, lasting anywhere from 3 to 10 days. A certain amount of owner anxiety is to be expected, and it is important to resist making changes in the diet or feeding program every time the queen reaches a "dip" in the roller coaster. However, if undereating is prolonged, or if the female's body condition begins to deteriorate, she should be examined by a veterinarian for health problems. As littering nears, a female may also lose her appetite. Food refusal during the ninth week of gestation is frequently a good indication that littering will occur within the next 24 to 48 hours. Usually within 24 hours after delivery the female's appetite will slowly increase.

Feeding During Lactation

The demand for milk by nursing kittens will continue to increase for about 20 to 30 days. Consequently, the female's food and water requirements increase during this time. Females may have to be fed two or three times per day, and fresh water in a clean dish should be available. Dry food should be fed moistened during lactation to increase the female's food and water intake, and to encourage kittens to start nibbling solid food.

When kittens are three to four weeks of age, interest in solid food begins and the female's interest in nursing declines. Moistened food in a shallow dish should be available to the kittens for several hours each day. Weaning of kittens usually takes place between 6 and 8 weeks of age.

For females that continue to maintain significant milk production, mammary congestion and discomfort can be a problem. Resolution of this problem may be hastened by limit-feeding the queen according to the following procedure:

On the first day of weaning, the queen should not be fed, but a source of clean water should be provided. The kittens should be separated from the queen and offered food and water. Dry food moistened with warm water may help stimulate the kittens' food intake. On the 2nd, 3rd and 4th days after weaning, limiting the queen's food to 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 the usual amount, respectively, is recommended. By the fifth day, food intake should be resumed to the queen's normal amount fed prior to gestation and lactation.

Feeding Kittens

Research shows that a kitten grows from infancy to young adulthood in approximately one year, and during its first 20 weeks a kitten can have a 2,000 percent increase over its birth weight. At 26 weeks of age, the growth rate starts to level off. However, kittens continue to develop inside with normal growth ending at about 12 months of age. Kittens also require about twice the energy per pound of body weight as a mature cat.

Kittens should be completely weaned by six to eight weeks and be accustomed to a regular diet of a complete and balanced growth-type food for kittens. Kittens require higher levels of protein than puppies, and also have a unique requirement for the amino acid taurine. Lack of sufficient taurine in a kitten's diet could result in impaired vision. For these and other reasons, it is recommended that kittens be fed only foods developed for kittens and not puppy food. When a nutritionally complete and balanced food is offered to a normal, healthy kitten, supplementing the diet with vitamins and minerals is not necessary. Supplementation may upset the nutrient balance of the food and too much may be harmful.

It is recommended that kittens be fed two to three times a day during this period of rapid growth, and many owners make food available at all times along with a source of fresh, clean water. Dry food can be moistened with warm water to help soften the food and make it easier to eat. Moistened dry food or canned food left at room temperature can become unpalatable and may even spoil if left out for several hours, so uneaten portions should be removed and discarded after one hour. As with other animals, any diet changes should be made gradually over a 7 to 10 day period to avoid causing digestive upset.

Kittens tend to be "occasional" eaters as they take a large number of small meals throughout the day. Normally the kitten approaches the food, sniffs it quickly and then starts to eat. After consuming a small portion of the food, the kitten leaves and returns at intervals to eat. This behavior should not be confused with a reluctance or refusal to eat. Too much noise, new surroundings, the cleanliness of food/water dishes may all be factors to consider if a kitten refuses to eat. If food refusal is prolonged and/or the kitten shows signs of illness such as listlessness, diarrhea, repeated vomiting, discharge from the eyes or nose, straining to urinate or constipation, or unusual hiding in dark places, a veterinarian should be consulted.

From six months to one year, kittens should be fed twice a day if they are fed a canned, soft-moist, or moistened dry food. Dry food can be fed free choice, filling the bowl with a sufficient quantity of food once each day. However, overfeeding should be avoided. Kittens should be fed as individuals, and amounts to feed will depend upon activity and body condition. It's a good idea to start with amounts recommended on the package label, and to use this information as a guide. Adjust the amount fed to obtain a healthy body condition. It is also appropriate to consult with your veterinarian when having the kitten examined on a routine health check.

Package feeding instructions should be used as a guide to any cat's daily feeding. Active cats, or cats exposed to the outdoors, may require more food in order to maintain a good body condition. If a cat becomes overweight, its food intake should be lowered. A veterinarian can help the owner assess the cat's body condition and, if necessary, help plan an appropriate weight reduction program.

Cats, like people, have individual food preferences. Kittens from the same litter may acquire different tastes and eating habits. However, the cat's reputation for being a finicky eater is usually the result of feeding practices established by the owner. The more variety a cat is offered, the more variety it will expect. With the wide choice of commercial cat foods, it is easy to provide a nutritionally complete and balanced diet that a cat will eat.


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