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The Principles of Nutrition for Adult Cats

What to Feed Your Adult Cat

By Mary Kearl. November 19, 2012 | See Comments

  • expert or vet photo
    vet verified

    Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM

    Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

    Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

The Principles of Nutrition for Adult Cats

Cats reach their adult years at 10 to 12 months, and they'll need a different diet from when they were kittens. Find out what to look for, and what to avoid, in your adult cat's diet.

Your cat may still be a kitty to you, but once your pet is older than 10 to 12 months, it’s time to switch to the adult cat diet. So what do you need to know about food and nutrition for grownup felines?

Unlike omnivorous humans and dogs, cats are carnivores—meaning they rely on nutrition found from animal sources to survive. As such, cats have adapted to eat a diet that is protein-heavy, with moderate levels of fat, and that contains a minimal carborhydrate content.

What to Look For in Adult Cat Food

Commercially prepared cat food should contain all the essentials your loved one needs, including the right balance of proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins, and minerals.

Look for one of these labels or claims: “complete and balanced nutrition,” “meets the nutritional requirements of cats established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO),” or “complete and balanced nutrition for cats based on AAFCO feeding trials.” This will ensure that the food you’re buying follows the nutritional standards set by the AAFCO.

When browsing commercial food for your cat, you’ll have the choice of dry, semi-moist, and wet food, all of which are healthy options. If you want to make your pet’s food at home, seek the guidance of a veterinarian or board certified veterinary nutritionist.

To be sure your cat is getting the right balance of protein and fat, look for the following percentages:

  Dry Food Wet Food
Protein 24% or more 6% or more
Fat 16% or more 4% or more

Proteins:

Cats need 20 amino acids—“building blocks” of protein—to sustain life, 10 of which they can make on their own. The remaining 10 must come from what they eat. In particular, you want to make sure your pet’s food contains enough arginine, as it helps with cats’ natural ammonia detoxification process. Another nutrient to monitor is taurine, which is sometimes grouped with amino acids, though it serves a different function: it helps maintain cardiovascular, reproductive, and visual health for cats.

Fats:

Fats help to fuel your cat, assist in the absorption of important vitamins, and promote the health of your cat’s skin and coat. Cats, unlike dogs, need dietary sources of arachindonic acid, which is found predominantly in animal sources, and linoleic acid. Fats are important for your cat’s health, but be careful about overdoing it—too much fat could contribute to weight gain and obesity.

How Much Is Enough?

The amount of food your cat requires each day will depend on a number of factors, such as their age, breed, sex, level of activity, behavior, environment, and metabolism. Store-bought pet food typically lists suggested portions to feed cats, tailored to several different body sizes. Follow these guidelines to start with and then modify portions to fit your pet’s needs.

Cats should be fed one to two times a day. Either measure the food into their bowl in order to control their portion, which is the recommended feeding method for obese cats, or leave food out for free-range grazing. Underweight cats should always have food readily available. Because cats tend to snack on their food intermittently throughout the day, cats can eat up to 20 small “meals” a day, so it will take some cats many hours to finish a portion.

If you’re planning to switch your cat to a new food, be sure to do so gradually. Blending the new kind of food in with the old diet over a few days to a week will help your pet adjust to the change.

Don’t Forget Water!

Water is the most important nutrient that cats need to consume. But since cats have a low drive to drink, they don’t make it easy for you. Leave plenty of fresh water available in multiple places around the house, and consider serving wet canned food if your cat isn’t getting enough water, since wet food can help to supplement water intake.

What to Avoid

  • Milk:

    Milk does not make for a great treat or substitute for water. In fact, it can actually make cats vomit or have diarrhea. Many cats have lactose-intolerance, just like some people do. So while a saucer of milk may seem to be a good idea, it can cause some gastrointestinal problems in cats.
  • An Overdose of Supplements:

    One common mistake pet parents make when caring for pets is over-supplementing their pets’ diets with vitamins and minerals, which could potentially have serious effects on pet health.
  • Too Many Treats:

    Don’t overdo it on treats. A good tip to remember is that these special items should only make up five to ten percent, or less, of your pet’s daily calorie intake.
  • Dog Food:

    Don’t feed your cat with dog food. As highlighted above, there are many differences in what a dog needs to survive and what helps our cats thrive.

Transitioning to a Special or Senior Diet

Cats typically are considered seniors starting at 12 years of age. Commercially available food has been formulated for cats at various life stages, such as “senior” and “geriatric” and for cats with specific conditions, including those with heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, digestion issues, food allergies, and more. Speak with a pet health professional before transitioning your pet to one of these products.

More on Cat Food and Nutrition:

Food for Cats with Liver Disease
6 Pet Food Ingredients that Burn Fat
Food Allergies in Cats and Dogs

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.

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