Cat's have their own individual nutritional requirements. There are several low cost diets available over the counter that have poor digestibility and low levels of nutrition that are not healthy for your cat. There are also some very good quality over the counter diets. You want figure out the diet which keeps your cat at a healthy weight, reasonable price without causing health problems in your cat.
The first thing to look for in a diet is, that the food meets the AAFCO(Association of American Feed Control Official) guidelines. The bag or can should have AAFCO on its label. Example: "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that XYZ food provides complete and balanced nutrition". If the food does not have anything claiming to be following AAFCO procedures, then we do not suggest feeding it to your pet.
Dry diets. These are the most convenient diets. They do help to a small extent to keep teeth clean, but they are also very high in carbohydrates, calories and fat. Many cats will do just fine on dry food. However, some cats will become overweight on a dry food diet. The high level of carbohydrates tends to cause cats to become hungry again sooner. The constant availability also gives cats the option to snack all day. While some cats will self regulate their weight with dry food available all the time, several cats will need to have their food measured out for them daily to avoid overeating.
Moist diets. These are a little better suited to cats, they tend to be lower in carbohydrates and calories, but they do nothing to keep the teeth clean, and they are not convenient diets. They have to be fed as meals, and they tend to get bad quickly when left out at room temperature. However, most cats can learn to eat meals rather than snack all day, and if they were in the wild, that is how they would eat. Moist foods are high in water content which is very good for cats, since cats don't tend to be water drinkers by nature, they tend to get most of their moisture from their food.
Raw diets. There is a lot of controversy surrounding these diets. A cat in the wild would live off of a raw diet - they would catch mice, rabbits, etc. But when a cat eats an animal, they eat everything, not just the muscle meat. In addition, cats can pick up parasites and bacterial infections from eating uncooked food. If you are thinking of making a homemade raw diet for your cat, we strongly advise against it unless you are working with a veterinary nutritionist. You just cannot give a cat all of the nutrients they need from just a few ingredients. Now there are some over the counter commercial raw diets that are balanced for cats. If you are thinking of feeding a raw food diet, we recommend trying one of these diets. If you are looking for a specific brand recommendation, please call us.
Calories. While most foods do not have the calories per cup or can listed on the label, you can generally get that information from the company website. An average indoor only adult cat should eat about 20 calories per pound to maintain weight. An active primarily outdoor cat should eat about 35 calories per pound to maintain weight. Young adults that are indoors but extremely active should be somewhere in between those two numbers. Kittens should have full access to eat as much as they want until their growth starts to decrease at 7-12 months of age, at which point they can be transitioned to an adult diet and calorie level. Senior and geriatric cats should be fed according to their health status.
Weight loss. This is a common issue with cats that have already become overweight or even obese. There are a variety of ways to get your cat to lose weight. If your cat is a dry food only eater, then you will have to control their calorie intake. You can do this by a variety of ways.
You can calculate how many calories they normally consume in a 24 hour period, and then very gradually, over time, reduce the number of calories by 5-10% every few months. You never want to feed your cat fewer calories than for 2 pounds less than their current weight, or they may not receive enough nutrition. You can either feed them their regular diet, or a low calorie diet. We have found though that most low calorie over the counter diets do not contain enough bulk roughage to compensate for the lower fat content, and so most cats are continuously hungry on these diets - they just never get full. With regular diets, you just have to be careful not to drop too fast, or your cat will not get enough nutrition. You can also get a prescription dry weight loss diet - these are generally better balanced to keep your cat satiated while still eating the same amount in bulk, just few calories and fat.
Moist food only is probably the best way to get cats to lose weight. You may still need to calculate calories, but because most quality moist foods are lower in carbs and higher in protein, cats tend to feel satiated longer, and so eat less calorie wise. Some cats will lose weight with no calorie counting just on their own with a wet food only diet. Quality of food does make a difference here though, there are some lower cost over the counter wet foods that are still quite high in fat.
Exercise, just like in people, is always beneficial in a weight loss program. Getting your cat to chase a toy, a laser pointer, or anything to increase their activity will help. Some owners will separate litter boxes and food/water on separate floors to get their cats to go up and down stairs more often. Some owners will feed their cats by hand, tossing pieces of kibble for their cats to fetch to eat to encourage them to move more. You can also harness and leash train your cat to go on walks, but that is a whole other ball game in terms of work on your part, and pros and cons.
Prescription Diets. Many cats, especially as they age, develop various health issues that have prescription diets made just for those issues. The advantage is that these diets are a type of medication without having to actually medicate your cat. The disadvantage is that you can only get these diets from a veterinarian or with a prescription from a veterinarian, and so they tend to be a bit more costly. However, as a certain veterinarian has been known to say, you can either pay the money to the food companies, or you can pay it to the vet. Wouldn't you much rather keep your cat as healthy as possible just by feeding it a certain diet, as opposed to paying for more frequent veterinary visits and medications to your vet? Something to keep in the back of your mind the next time an expensive prescription diet is recommended for your cat.
OTC Specific Diets. Over the counter diets can be very targeted to different ages, weights, and even breeds. The most common age diets would be kitten diets, maintenance diets, and mature or senior diets. Kitten diets will be higher in calories and fat since kittens are growing rapidly and need more energy in their food. Maintenance diets are targeted towards young and middle aged adult cats, and mature diets are targeted towards cats over 7 years of age. Mature diets tend to contain lower level of calories and fat since older cats become much less active. The primary weight diets will be Light diets for your overweight cat. These have much lower levels of fat and calories, but unfortunately, most of them do not have the bulk in them to counteract for the lower fat, and so your cat will not be satiated, and be perpetually hungry on these diets. Breed specific diets are generally more expensive brand diets made for certain breeds such as Persians and Maine Coons that have been around for a long time. Breed diets may have a few small advantages in being made for a specific breed, but the difference is negligible.
Food imprinting. One other thing to keep in mind is that cats imprint on food when they are young. If a cat has never had moist food, and you give them moist food for the first time at 5 years of age, they will look at it like it is a foreign object, and not eat it. If you obtain your cat as a kitten, we recommend feeding both moist and dry food to get them to recognize both as food. If you obtain your cat as an adult and they won't eat the food you would like to feed them, don't despair, you may just have to get very creative to get them to recognize it as food. If your cat will only eat one brand of food, and you want to switch to a different brand, you may have to work at it for awhile.
Do not ever think that your cat will finally eat a new food when they get hungry enough. Cats will literally starve themselves to death before eating something they don't want to eat. Never ever withhold food from them to try and get them to eat something different. You have to outsmart them when it comes to introducing new foods. Any time you switch a diet, you always need to mix the old food with the new food for a few weeks until you know for sure that they are eating the new food. It is also not a bad idea to offer a mixture of foods routinely just in case one particular brand or type of food becomes discontinued or unavailable for a length of time.
Treats. While treats are great for cats for training purposes and to make us feel better that we are spoiling them, cats don't necessarily need treats. Most treats are fairly high in calories. However, if you feel that you absolutely need to give your cat treats, do so in moderation, and maybe consider giving something like dental treats so they are at least achieving a beneficial effect other than just a treat for your cat.
Human food. Can you give your cat human food as a treat? Absolutely. Should you? That is up to you. There are two ingredients that you should never give your cat - anything with onions or garlic. These are both toxic to cats, and can cause a life threatening anemia called heinz body anemia. (Nothing to do with the ketchup.) Cats should also never have chocolate, and most cats are lactose intolerant, which means lactose rich foods like cow's milk can give most cats an upset stomach. Other than that, human foods are fine for cats in small doses. But if you start giving your cat what you are eating, beware, they may start helping themselves from your plate.
Supplements. Cats on a well balanced nutritious diet do not need to be on supplements. While there are some health issues that can benefit from specific supplements, if your cat is eating an AAFCO approved food, and he or she is healthy, you do not need to give your cat supplements. If you cat does have a health issue and you want to give your cat a supplement, talk to a veterinarian about it first. Some supplements can cause more harm than good, especially homeopathic or holistic supplements that are not veterinary approved. We can recommend a supplement for your ailing cat, and that includes homeopathic and holistic supplements if that is what you are looking for. Please, just check with us first.