Feeding a Cat or Dog
About Feeding a Cat or Dog
Each animal differs in his or her nutritional requirements — kind and amount of food — because of size, physical activity, age, health, or individual dietary restrictions. In this factsheet, we discuss various options for feeding cats and dogs. Keep in mind, however, that you should always consult your veterinarian before making a change to your cat's or dog's diet. Introduce new foods gradually.
Cats' Dietary Requirements
Carbohydrates come from seeds (grains and legumes), vegetables, and fruits. Although much of these carbohydrates are dietary fiber and cannot be digested by cats, they are essential for healthy intestinal function. There is disagreement among veterinarians about the amount of grains needed by cats.
Cats require more protein than many other animals. A cat's diet should consist of about 30% protein. Protein can be derived from animal and plant tissue, but it varies in digestibility. Meat (including poultry), dairy products, and eggs are highly digestible to a cat and therefore are high-quality sources of protein.
Fats are found in animal tissue and vegetable matter. Fats are necessary for the absorption of vitamins and the formation of certain hormones. Cats should consume about 20% fat in their diet. Cats also require a specific arachidonic acid that is found only in animal fats, especially poultry. Since this is an expensive ingredient, most petfood manufactures substitute beef tallow, an inexpensive but poor source of essential fatty acids.
Both water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins are important to maintain a cat's health. Oil-based hairball remedies can interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, so these should not be given on a regular basis.
Cats need essential minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and, sodium. Most healthy cats can maintain the proper amount of minerals in their bodies. Always check with your veterinarian before giving supplements. Some commercial cat foods use meat ingredients with a lot of bone in them. The minerals in these bones exceed the cat's mineral requirement and are eliminated in the urine.
Water is essential to a cat's health, and without it a cat can die in days. Be sure the water is clean and fresh. Rinse and wipe the water bowl every day to keep it clean. If you believe the tap water in your area might not be pure, buy bottled spring water for your companion animals.
Cats are usually free-choice eaters and will eat when they please. Be sure the food is replaced frequently so it is always fresh. All food should be replaced at least daily. If you like to control their food, or if your cat tends to overeat, feed adults twice daily and kittens at least three times daily. The important thing is to measure out the daily amount and to be consistent in your feeding pattern. The food should be room temperature.
Dogs' Dietary Requirements
Depending on the age, weight, and size of your dog, carbohydrates should make up about half of his or her diet. These carbohydrates can come from corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, or other plant sources. Certain dogs may be allergic to one of these carbohydrates, and some dogs may experience an upset stomach from soybean formulas.
A puppy, a very active dog, or a pregnant dog may require a diet consisting of almost 30% protein. However, a typical adult dog only needs about 18% protein in his or her diet. Dogs can digest protein from plant foods as well as from animal tissue.
Fats, in small amounts, are essential to a dog's health. Again, the requirements vary greatly for individual dogs. For an adult dog, fats should only comprise about 10% of his or her diet. Omega fatty acids play a large role in keeping a dog's skin and coat healthy.
A healthy dog should have the proper amount of vitamins. Vitamin deficiencies can lead to many health problems, but as long as the dog is fed a well-balanced diet, this should not be a problem. Excess of certain vitamins can lead to bone disease or calcification of soft tissue.
Dogs need essential minerals such as potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, sodium, and copper. Dogs will maintain the proper amount of minerals in their bodies, unless they grow old or become sick. Always check with your veterinarian before giving supplements.
Fresh water should always be available and refilled daily. Rinse and wipe the water bowl every day to keep it clean. If you believe the tap water in your area might not be pure, buy bottled spring water for your companion animals.
Feeding your dog twice a day is easier for digestion, helps maintain a consistent energy level, and helps avoid behavior problems associated with hunger and irritability. Small dogs should never be fed less than twice a day, and puppies should be fed about four times a day. The food should be room temperature. Always discard uneaten leftovers at the end of the day. All food should be replaced at least daily.
Obesity can shorten a companion animal's life by contributing to heart and liver problems, diabetes, arthritis, bladder cancer, and skin disorders and it can put a cat or dog at higher risk while undergoing anesthesia and surgery. A veterinarian should be consulted for the appropriate amount and type of food to give companion animals who are overweight.
Many commercially prepared petfoods are tested on animals. The dogs and cats used in these experiments are subjected to incarceration in testing facilities and often to painful invasive procedures. This is in spite of the fact that the nutritional requirements of dogs and cats are well established, both in health and in disease. Many large petfood companies are now subsidiaries of even larger chemical or pharmaceutical corporations that are heavily involved in animal experiments. Unless your veterinarian specifically prescribes one of these brands for your cat or dog, please try to avoid them. See Petfood Testing.
Organic and Natural Diets
There are many different kinds of petfoods on the market today, but as a buyer, you should be aware that many of them are unhealthy. The meat by-products in many commercial cat and dog foods are actually slaughterhouse remnants and may include moldy, rancid, or spoiled, processed meat and diseased tissues. Many animal feeds contain animals killed by illness, road kill, and in some cases zoo animals or shelter animals. Meat that is "unfit for human consumption" is included in your dog's or cat's food. Most people have no idea that rendering factories process thousands of dead animals, gallons of kitchen grease, and tons of frying oil into animal feed.
It is important to maintain your cat's or dog's health by feeding healthy, nourishing food. Organic food is preferred over all others. A product labeled organic means it is untouched by preservatives, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics. Organic food can be more expensive, but it is healthier and will help prevent your companion animal from developing serious illnesses, such as various cancers. Many of the chemicals used to grow food are carcinogenic.
By buying organic food, you will also be supporting sustainable methods of land use that result in far less environmental pollution than conventional agriculture, which uses toxic chemicals. Synthetic pesticides and herbicides not only leave toxic residues on food; they also threaten the health of farm workers and disrupt natural ecosystems around the farm. Chemical fertilizers pollute lakes, ponds, rivers, and groundwater.
Natural foods are recommended over processed and artificial foods. However, when purchasing prepackaged dog or cat food, it can be confusing to determine what exactly is natural. Because of mislabeling, in the summer of 2001 the Pet Food Committee of the American Association of Feed Control Officials authorized guidelines for petfood manufacturers to follow when referring to the term natural. The use of the term natural when labeling commercial feeds, petfoods, and specialty petfood is only acceptable when all of the ingredients and components of ingredients meet the definition. The term natural on the label is false and misleading if any chemically synthesized ingredients are present in the product. Even with these rules, be sure to read the labels of any food you buy. Avoid brands with long lists of chemicals, preservatives, colorings, and artificial flavorings. These products are unhealthy, especially as they accumulate in the animal's system over time.
Although reading the labels can help, even labels can be misleading. The amount of crude protein in the food is different from the amount your dog or cat can digest and use. Labels do not factor in the protein's biological value and digestibility. The carbohydrates in dog and cat foods also come from many empty calorie sources, such as sugar, propylene glycol, and corn syrup.
There has not been quite enough research on healthy vegetarian or vegan diets for cats for us to recommend such diets. Cats, unlike dogs and humans, are carnivores. Some people suggest that vegan or vegetarian diets for cats will work with the right supplements. However, some of the nutrients that cats need come primarily from animal sources. Cats need arachidonic acid (an amino acid), taurine, vitamins A, B12, and D, and certain fatty acids. While some animals can synthesize some of these themselves, cats cannot. Nevertheless, we look forward to the time when non-meat diets can be unconditionally recommended for cats. Meanwhile, try to buy food made from organically grown, free-range animals.
Dogs need half as much protein as cats, and unlike cats, dogs can benefit from and adjust to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Like humans, dogs are omnivores, not carnivores, and they do not need meat to survive. In fact, many dogs who previously were ill improved significantly after switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Vegetarian diets are well known for relieving arthritis, skin and fur problems, and obesity. Speak to your veterinarian before removing meat from your dog's diet. Your veterinarian might want to test your dog's urine periodically because vegetarian diets tend to make the urine more alkaline, which may cause urinary tract infections.
Make sure your dog is getting enough minerals and vitamins, particularly B12. High-quality prepared vegetarian and vegan dog foods are available. These foods have added the vitamins that may be lacking as a result of the removal of meat. To help adjust your dog to a vegetarian diet, mix the new food together with the food you usually serve. Gradually change the proportions until the meat is eliminated.
After switching dogs to a vegetarian diet, monitor them closely to make sure their new diet agrees with them, especially if they are still puppies. Watch for gastrointestinal problems, and note any new health problems. If there are any changes in your dog's health, be sure to take him to the vet.
If you intend to cook your dog a vegetarian diet, tofu, eggs, or cottage cheese can be substituted for meat products. Puppies and dogs who are overweight, elderly, or sick will have different nutritional requirements. For more information about special needs diets or home-cooked vegetarian diets, please read Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn, Rodale Books, 3rd edition, revised and updated, 2005.
Making Your Own Cat Food
Some veterinarians recommend a raw-food diet for cats. This is a controversial subject, however, because bacteria and other harmful organisms can contaminate raw meat. Some people prefer to feed a vegetarian or vegan diet to their cats. However, although a carefully composed vegan diet is fine for dogs, such diets for cats are far more problematic. The majority of veterinarians still believe that cats are natural carnivores and need meat as protein in their diets, as well as plant foods. Some veterinarians do not recommend cooking your own cat food because cats have fairly strict nutritional requirements in terms of protein, calcium/phosphorus, and, particularly, taurine (one of the amino acids). A taurine-deficient diet can cause severe and possibly fatal heart disease as well as serious eye problems. In addition, some human foods are toxic to cats.
If you are planning to feed your cat fresh food instead of prepackaged food, consult with your veterinarian about your cat's specific needs. Organic and minimally processed foods are the best. Try to use mostly lean meats, such as turkey, liver, chicken, heart, or lean hamburger, and, occasionally, mackerel. Be sure to use variety, as too much of one meat may cause an overload of one vitamin and a deficiency of another. Ground meats are preferable for cats so you can blend in the other ingredients. Eggs, preferably free range, are also a good source of protein. Selected dairy products, such as cottage cheese, yogurt, or goat's milk, can also be a source of protein. Please note that some cats have a problem digesting any dairy products, and most cats have a problem digesting the lactose in pasteurized cow's milk. If such is the case with your cat, do not feed that product.
Cats need grains for digestion, but since their intestines are shorter than a human's, be sure to pre-cook the grains before feeding. Oatmeal, cornmeal, millet, and bulgur are well-accepted by cats and are high in nutrition. Please note that there is disagreement among veterinarians about the amount of grains needed by cats. Other plant foods, such as corn, peas, beans, and broccoli, are nutritious as long as they are precooked. Vitamin A, essential for cats, is found in cod-liver oil. Taurine, as well as Vitamins A and E, can be bought in capsule or liquid form. Remember to be cautious when giving your cat vitamins because excess vitamins can cause just as many problems as vitamin deficiencies.
An excellent source of recipes for your cat is Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn, Rodale Books, 3rd edition, revised and updated, 2005.
Making Your Own Dog Food
Cooking a healthy, nutritious meal for your dog requires having all the information about your dog's specific needs. So before making your own dog food, consult your veterinarian. Dogs do very well on a vegetarian or vegan diet. However, if you want to include animal food, a general guideline is to use 1/3 meat, eggs, or dairy, and 2/3 grains and vegetables. Nutritional requirements will differ individually. For example, a typical 15 pound (7 kg) dog needs 550 kilocalories a day, whereas a 100 pound (45 kg) dog needs about 2,270 kilocalories per day.
Feed your dog organic and unprocessed foods, if possible. If you are going to feed your dog meat, free-range, organic meats are the best. As with cats, use a variety of lean meats. Eggs and dairy products can be used for protein unless your dog does not digest milk well, then exclude it from the diet.
Cook any grains before feeding. Dogs cannot digest uncooked grains. Legumes are also beneficial in a dog's diet because they provide a great deal of protein. Any bean should be well cooked to reduce gas and intestinal irritation. If your dog is experiencing bloating, then exclude all beans from the diet. Tofu can also used as a source of protein.
Some dogs enjoy chewing raw vegetables, such as carrots and zucchinis. Carrots can help clean the teeth and gums, as well as aid digestion. Other vegetables, such as broccoli, are nutritious but should be cooked. Many dogs like fruit, including dried figs, prunes, and dates, and fresh fruits. Fruits can be great sources of vitamins, minerals, and energy. For best digestion, feed your dog these foods as a treat, separate from meal time.
An excellent source of recipes for your dog is Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn, Rodale Books, 3rd edition, revised and updated, 2005.
Foods and Beverages You Should Never Give Your Cat or Dog
If you are going to make your own dog or cat food, there are many potentially toxic ingredients you should exclude. And keep the items on this list out of reach of dogs and cats.