Marmalade, my first cat after college, was a large Maine Coon with tufts of golden fur between his toes, a mane like a lion, and a quirky doglike personality. The strangest quirk to me, though, was his picky appetite. If I offered him a piece of salmon steak, he’d turn up his nose; he didn’t seem to recognize it as food. He would not eat chicken or turkey and he refused canned cat food. He would eat only kibble.
So I humored him. Over the years his weight steadily increased from an already hefty 12 pounds to 16. "Weight management" kitty kibble had no effect. Upon reading about the "Catkins" high-protein diet, I tried wet food again. No dice. He lived to be about 19, but suffered from diabetes and then kidney failure.
When my next cat, Foxy, rejected her rich kitten food, I figured she preferred kibble, too. So that’s what I gave her. Her weight fluctuated from vet visit to vet visit. By age four, she had a big belly and tipped the scales at 14 pounds. Once again, "weight management" kitty kibble proved ineffective.
I felt increasingly guilty. I worked in a holistic veterinary clinic and kept hearing that wet food was better. When a local pet-health-food chain in my neighborhood offered a cat-feeding seminar, I signed up. What I learned turned Foxy’s life around. I left the seminar with a bag full of samples, and to my surprise, the older, mellower Foxy ate every type of food I offered. Within a few months, her belly fat was gone. In the subsequent three years, she’s maintained a stable healthy weight.
Donna Kuck, a retired veterinarian, empathizes with the cat-feeding dilemma. "Among my household and my sister’s household, we have 12 cats," she says. "One is 19 years old, nearly toothless, and likes only the pate mixed with warm water. The 18-year-old prefers the flakes. The male with urinary problems hates canned and loves kibble. And then there is the 30-pound cat …"
Feeding a picky feline can be a challenge. Get it right, and you may improve your cat’s health, lengthen his life, and even stop her from climbing on your head at 5 a.m. Here are some tips and issues to consider:
1. Cats are obligate carnivores
A cat’s diet should consist of less than 5 percent carbohydrates. Dry kibble typically uses grains as a binder. This is the case even in the high-protein brands.
2. Cats have a low thirst drive
As they are descended from desert-dwelling creatures, cats do not naturally seek water. They get most of their moisture from flesh. While it is not normal for a healthy cat to have to drink much water, a dry diet may result in a chronically dehydrated cat, which is hard on the kidneys. To encourage your cat to drink more, try a fountain. Cats prefer moving water to standing water. (A sudden increase in thirst may indicate kidney disease or diabetes.)
3. The kidneys are No. 1
We need to focus on our cats’ kidneys the same way we prioritize the cardiovascular system in human health maintenance. That is their Achilles’ heel. Consult your veterinarian before making the transition to a high-protein diet late in your cat’s life. Dr. Kuck says, "[Take a chronically dehydrated cat] then add a high protein diet … perhaps explains a lot about high incidence of chronic renal disease in old cats."
4. Figure out your cat’s appropriate weight
You should be able to feel the ribs easily but not see them, and the cat should have a waist. If your cat has a weight problem, favor lean game meats like rabbit and venison over fatty meats like duck and beef. (Chicken, lamb, and fish fall somewhere in between.)
Exercise helps, too. If your fat cat is also lazy, she may be on the sugar roller coaster. Feeding a higher protein diet may increase energy levels and lead the cat to exercise more. She may also stay full longer -ÔÇô and not cry for food while you’re trying to sleep in.
5. Avoid unhealthy starches
Are there healthy carbohydrates for cats? Think in terms of food that might be found undigested in the belly of a mouse — fiber like peas, grass, or vegetables. (Foxy loves broccoli and Brussels sprouts -ÔÇô she’ll steal them right off of my plate!)
6. Canned food is better
Cats prefer food at “mouse body temperature.” If you feed two meals from a single can, your cat may balk when you present food that’s been refrigerated. Heat the second serving in the microwave for 15 seconds to bring it to room temperature.
Wonder why cats get "addicted" to dry kibble? Dry foods are actually sprayed with additives to make cats prefer them.
7. Don’t be afraid to experiment
If your cat doesn’t like canned food, experiment with the type of meat as well as the texture. For example, try shredded, pate, or chunks. Read the labels: If the ingredients list "meal" or "by-products," it’s hard to know what parts of the plant or animal are included.
8. Ease the transition to wet food
Try mixing dry and wet food together. If you “free feed” dry food, try moving to a two- or three-meal-a-day feeding schedule before bringing in wet food.
If you just present wet and dry as options, the cat will most likely continue to choose the dry! Sometimes it works just to sprinkle some dry on top of the wet. Dr. Kuck adds, "The older the cat, the harder it is to switch them from one preference to another. It helps to start them young."
9. Let your carnivore kitty rip and tear
Raw food allows the cat to do what it was designed to do. If you want to feed raw, do not use supermarket meat intended for humans. This meat is not kept at a constant temperature, because it is assumed it will be cooked to kill any bacteria that develops.
10. Find a feline specialist vet
Try to choose one who loves cats and seeks out specific information about feline medicine. The majority of vets see many more dogs than cats, and their physiology is different.
Dr. Kuck believes that most health problems originate in the environment — and that includes diet, love, grooming issues, exercise, emotional traumas, and socialization. The right food might just be the way to your kitty’s heart … and her health.
Barbara Saunders is a writer who lives in the San Francisco, Bay Area. Her first cat was a feral kitten the family dog found in the doghouse. She has previously worked for animal welfare organizations in San Francisco. She shares her home with Foxy, a tabby, and Bandit, a shepherd/hound mix.