Why a healthy, balanced diet is important for your feline friend

Stop a moment and consider your own diet. If you don’t eat a healthy, balanced one your body won’t get the important vitamins and minerals it needs to stay healthy. For example, if you don’t get enough iron in your diet, you’ll develop iron-deficiency anaemia and you will begin to feel exhausted, look pale and even experience heart palpitations.

On a poor diet, your cat can also develop nutritional deficiencies. Imbalances can occur both ways. The body either receives too much of a particular nutrient or a deficiency in another. Cats need a balanced diet to ensure that their nutritional needs are met. When they are fed a single protein, human table scraps or even dog food, they don’t receive the nutrients they require to stay healthy. For example, a cat with a vitamin A deficiency may develop complications that can lead to blindness, or calcium deficiencies when fed a diet that comprises mainly carbohydrates like rice and pasta.

Important nutrients

So, do cats need protein to live? “Technically, cats don’t need protein per se, just amino acids, the building blocks of protein in the body,” explains Dr Guy Fyvie, veterinary advisor to Hill’s Pet Nutrition South Africa. “Proteins are used in just about every metabolic process in the body as well as all tissue, including skin, bone, muscles and blood.”

Dr Fyvie explains that cats have a unique metabolism that means they need a slightly higher protein intake in general and also a higher level of certain essential amino acids – like taurine. This is an essential amino acid profile for cats, best delivered by animal protein.

“It’s not only due to amino acid requirements that animal protein is important for cats,” says Dr Fyvie. “There are other nutrients that the cat is unable to manufacture internally, like vitamin A and arachidonic acid, an essential fatty acid, both of which are contained in animal protein ingredients. Cats also like the taste of animal protein, so the inclusion of animal protein improves palatability as well.”

Choosing a diet for your cat

The right diet throughout your cat’s life will keep her healthy for longer. When choosing a diet, start with an assessment of her age. Kittens, adults and senior cats have different nutritional needs and may benefit from more or less of certain nutrients at these different life stages. In the case of an adult cat, her activity level should also be considered. Is she an active outdoor cat, or happy to spend her day snoozing on the couch?

“Cats have very specific nutritional needs, so it is always best to look to a trusted brand of cat food with a good track record,” suggests Dr Fyvie. “Cats are not as adaptable as dogs to inadequately balanced food or poor-quality ingredients. Some foods made with low-quality protein or increased levels of animal protein are high in phosphorus, which can accelerate the progression of kidney disease. Urinary tract problems are another common issue associated with poor-quality cat food. Bladder stones can cause a life-threatening blockage.”

Nutrition tips

* Make sure your cat has access to clean water every day.

* If you feed a good-quality, balanced cat food as recommended by your vet, it will provide all the amino acids and other nutrients your pet needs for long-term health. There is no need to supplement the diet with chicken, fish or turkey. Supplementing a balanced commercial diet can lead to imbalance and health issues.

* Always consult your veterinarian before placing an obese cat on a diet. Cats on a diet must be properly monitored to prevent malnutrition and health issues, which can occur if they lose weight too quickly.

* You can also offer your cat some healthy treats, but they should not exceed 10% of her daily kilojoule intake.

* Kittens should be fed four meals a day up to about six months old based on the recommended daily allowance. Thereafter, you can feed three meals a day, but if you are unable to, two meals are adequate.

* Check the feeding guidelines on the back of the pet food bag or tin and stick to them, unless your vet suggests that you make a change based on your pet’s current health situation.

* Cats with health problems or illnesses may require a special diet. Speak to your veterinarian about a prescription diet that is formulated for your cat’s condition.

* Some cats will start to show signs of aging at around eight to 10 years of age, while others at 12 years and above. Speak to your veterinarian about your individual cat’s needs for the senior years.