Greens such as bluegrass, fescue, ryegrass; Japanese barnyard millet; oats; rye (beware of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus); sprouts (alfalfa or bean), in small amounts; and wheat are easy to grow and provide safe munching, if your cat is so inclined. Avoid seeds treated with herbicides or insecticides, though.
Food is composed of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins, minerals, some other nutrients, and water. All foods provide nutrition, but the value of a specific food to a particular type of animal depends on that animal's nutritional needs and the ability of the animal's digestive system to process that type of food.
Cats are carnivores. The bulk of their diet in the wild is meat, and their teeth are designed for shearing, not for chewing up vegetable matter. The cat's digestive tract processes meat proteins efficiently and doesn't break down the tough cellulose walls of vegetable matter.
Still, cats need to eat some vegetable matter. Wild felines eat the stomachs and intestines of their prey, including the contents, which are partially digested, making the nutrients available to the cat. Domestic cats need to have their veggies cooked to break down the cellulose. Cats also like to munch on greens, and many people grow grass to satisfy their cats' munchies—and save their houseplants!
Now let's look at the nutrients that make up food and provide for your kitty's good health:
Incomplete proteins lack some amino acids that cats (and many other animals) require. Most plants provide incomplete proteins.
Cats require a lot more fat and protein than dogs do, so cat food and dog food are not interchangeable. Sneaking a little food from the dog's bowl every now and then won't hurt your cat, but a long-term diet of dog food will cause severe malnutrition in a cat.
- Proteins are composed of amino acids and are found in high concentrations in meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, yogurt, fishmeal, and eggs. Soybeans and dehydrated plant extracts also have high protein content, although plant proteins are incomplete. Your cat's activity level, age, and health status as well as the digestibility of the food determine his specific protein requirements.
- Fats cushion the internal organs, insulate against cold, provide energy, and help transport vitamins and other nutrients to the organs. Fat also makes food taste better. Meats, milk, butter, and vegetable oils are rich sources of fats. Dietary fat in proper amounts is vital for good health, but in excess, it will provide energy but won't provide the protein, vitamins, and minerals essential for long-term health. Because fat is cheaper than protein, some lower-quality cat foods are high in fat.
- Vitamins are chemical compounds that support good health in many ways. High-quality cat foods provide vitamins in the proper amounts, but light, heat, moisture, and rancidity can destroy vitamins, so it's important to store food properly and to use it before its expiration date.
- Minerals strengthen bones and cell tissue and help organs function properly. High-quality cat foods provide minerals in proper balance.
- Water is vital. Cats get water directly from drinking and indirectly from food. Your cat should have access to clean water at all times.
How can you tell if your cat's diet is healthful? If your cat is well covered with flesh but not overweight, is active and alert as appropriate for her age, and has healthy skin and coat, her diet is probably fine. If not, make an appointment with your vet to have your cat examined, and consider changing your cat's diet.
Commercial Cat Foods
Commercial cat foods are available in mind-numbing variety. There are foods for kittens, adult cats, senior cats, cats with tartar, fat cats, cats with allergies … Foods contain fish, chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, duck, and venison. Foods come dry, semi-moist, canned, and frozen. And because cat foods are not all created equal, it's important to know what you're buying. Although many high-quality foods cost more per pound than poorer foods, they might actually cost the same or less per feeding because you feed less for the same nutrition.
A vegetarian diet is not suitable for cats be-cause cats require taurine, an amino acid found in meat. (Trace amounts of taurine are found in some vegetable sources but in insufficient amounts to support feline health.) Taurine deficiency causes blindness and can cause fatal cardiomyopathy.
What's “better” about better-quality foods? First, they contain higher-quality ingredients used and less filler, so they are nutritionally more dense. Your cat eats less and, therefore, eliminates less (no small thing if you're in charge of the litter box!). Most higher-quality foods contain no dyes, which have been linked to allergies and other health problems and are the main reason cat vomit is notorious for staining. A better diet also makes for better skin, coat, and better overall health, and a more pleasant companion all around.
Now let's look at some of the other choices you have in commercial cat foods:
- Dry foods. Dry food, also known as “kibble,” is easy to store and feed and is readily available in a wide range of qualities, prices, and ingredients. Many cat owners find that a diet of dry food helps keep their cat's teeth cleaner because the food is less likely to cling to teeth and gums and the hard nuggets scrape tartar from the teeth when the cat chews. Stools are firmer, too, making litter box cleanup easier. Dry food tends to cost less than moist and wet foods and doesn't spoil as quickly or have as strong an odor.
- Semi-moist foods. Semi-moist cat foods are essentially soft kibble. They tend to be more expensive than kibble, and they don't help with tartar control. Semi-moist foods usually contain dyes to make them more appealing to people (cats don't care). Finally, preservatives used in some moist foods have been linked to allergies and other problems in cats.
- Wet foods. Wet, or canned, foods are expensive, and the extra money essentially pays for water and a can. For cats with certain medical conditions, particularly those who need to consume more water, good canned foods are beneficial. On the other hand, a diet of canned food only usually leads to tartar buildup, flatulence, bad breath, and soft, strong-smelling stools. Canned food also attracts insects and spoils quickly, so dishes need to be washed thoroughly after every meal. For healthy cats and their owners, canned foods don't offer much benefit except perhaps as a special treat in small amounts.
- Treats. Most cat owners like to give their cats special treats from time to time as rewards in training or “just because.” Given in reasonable amounts, treats are fine, but they shouldn't take the place of your cat's normal, balanced diet. When selecting treats, use the same basic guidelines as for foods—try to find nutritionally balanced treats and avoid those that contain dyes and other chemicals.
If you want to give your cat an occasional dairy treat, make it cream. Most adult cats are lactose intolerant, and milk will give them diarrhea. Cream is lower in lactose, and most cats like and tolerate the butterfat. Just remember that cream also has lots of calories, so keep servings small and infrequent.
Commercial cat foods are convenient, and the good ones provide properly balanced nutrition. However, some products are made of questionable food sources as well as preservatives, dyes, and other chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems. Be a smart shopper, and choose a cat food with high-quality ingredients. You'll save money in the long run and have a healthier cat.