The best diet for your cat
It’s really important to choose the right food for your cat. Feeding them the correct diet means they will have all the nutrients they need at the different stages of their lives, helping to keep them healthy and happy.
Why is my cat's diet important?
Feeding your cat the correct food is really important for their health. Just like us, your cat needs to eat a balanced diet each day to give them energy and nutrients.
There are certain nutrients that cats are unable to make in their own bodies like we do, so the right diet will provide them with everything they need. These include amino acids called Taurine and Arginine, essential building blocks for protein in the body, which can only be found in animal meat as well as certain vitamins. Because of this, cats are classed as ‘obligate carnivores’, meaning that they are strictly meat eaters. If your cat isn’t fed a diet that contains these meat-based nutrients, they could become extremely ill. Taurine deficiency can cause life-threatening heart problems and eye issues that can lead to blindness.
Feeding your cat the correct amount of a high quality, complete cat food and keeping a close eye on your cat's diet can also help them stay at the ideal weight. Obesity is a growing problem for the UK's pets, and overweight or obese cats are at risk of serious health problems including diabetes and arthritis. Regularly weighing your cat will help you spot quickly if they're putting on any weight, so you can adjust their diet as needed.
What should I feed my cat?
With so many different cat foods available, choosing one can feel a bit overwhelming! Here’s what to look out for when picking the best diet for your cat:
Complete: Always feed your cat a food that is labelled ‘complete’ because this means that it contains all the nutrients they need. ‘Complementary’ foods can be given in small amounts alongside their main diet.
Commercially available: It’s really difficult to give your cat everything they need in a homemade diet so we advise to always buy a commercial cat food rather than making your own at home. You can buy these from pet shops, vets, supermarkets or from our PDSA Pet Store.
Life stage appropriate: The nutrients your cat needs will change as they grow older – for this reason, it’s important to make sure you’re always feeding the right food for their stage of life i.e. kitten, adult or senior. If your cat has any extra requirements such as being pregnant, needing to lose weight, or if they have a chronic illness, speak to your vet about ensuring their food is right for this, too.
Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association (PFMA): Look for a manufacturer that is part of the PFMA. Food manufacturers who are members of this organisation meet extra quality standards than the legal minimum.
Wet vs dry: Most cats like variety in their food, so many owners choose to feed a combination of wet and dry – you’ll just need to make sure that you’re feeding them the right amount by looking at the packets and working out the correct portion sizes. Feeding a wet diet can help to increase your cat’s water intake if they’re not keen on drinking.
Flavour, texture and ingredients: Your cat may enjoy a variety of flavours and textures, or they might prefer to stick to a particular type – it doesn’t matter which one you choose, as long as they are happy. While it’s nice to know what in your cat’s food, the ingredients list can be confusing. All pet food ingredients need to legally pass a vet inspection as ‘fit for human consumption’, so unless your cat has a food allergy, the exact ingredients don’t really matter.
Vegetarian and vegan diets for cats
If you’re not a meat eater yourself, it can be hard to feed meat to your cat. While we can choose not to eat meat and get a properly balanced diet from plant-based foods, cats need meat to give them certain nutrients that they can’t get anywhere else, so it’s very difficult for them to survive and stay healthy on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
We always recommend feeding your cat a high quality, complete commercial diet. While there are some vegetarian and vegan cat foods available, before you start feeding them, it’s essential to make sure your cat will still get all the nutrients they need to stay healthy. Speak to your vet for advice if you are unsure.
Raw diets for cats
Some owners choose to feed their cats a raw diet with uncooked ingredients instead of the more traditional cooked varieties. Raw diets can provide all the nutrients your cat needs, however, unfortunately, they can increase the risk of certain diseases or health problems, especially if the diet isn’t prepared or stored correctly.
If you decide to feed a raw diet to your cat, choose a commercially prepared, complete raw diet. These will have the correct balance of nutrients and will have checks in place to reduce the risk of any problems. As with any diets, we do not recommend trying to make a raw diet for your cat at home, as it is extremely difficult to get the right balance of nutrients.
Some of the diseases caused by raw diets can also be passed to people, so it very important to have strict hand and food hygiene if you decide to feed your cat a raw diet. If you’re worried about yourself, or someone you know after you have been in contact with a raw food diet, or a cat that has been fed raw, contact your GP or the NHS for advice.
How much should I feed my cat?
Most cat food packets have feeding guides on them to help you decide how much to feed your cat. However, your individual cat may need more or less than these guides, so it’s important to monitor their weight regularly to check you’re feeding them the correct amount. Remember that you’ll need to feed them for their target weight, which might not be what they weigh currently if they need to lose or gain to reach their ideal weight. If you’re not sure how much to feed your cat, talk to your vet practice for help and advice.
It’s a good idea to weigh out your cat’s food at the start of the day (or weigh out daily portions for them once a week), so you’re not tempted to over feed, and to make sure other people in the household don’t feed an extra meal by accident. Most cats are very good at knowing how much they need to eat, but some really like their food and will keep asking for more. If your cat eats all of their daily allowance in one go and begs for more, try feeding them several smaller meals a day, splitting their daily allowance between them.
Life stage feeding
You need to make sure your cat’s diet meets their changing needs as they age. As well as energy, cats need different levels of protein, fats, vitamins and minerals in their diet depending on their life stage. Many commercial cat food companies research and design diets for specific ages to make sure your cat is getting all the right nutrients throughout their lives. Don’t forget to change your cat’s diet slowly between each life-stage to avoid tummy upsets.
Feeding your kitten
Your cat is usually considered to be a kitten for around their first year of life. During this time, it’s important that they are fed a food specifically for kittens that contains the correct balance of nutrients for their growing bones and bodies.
Kittens start to eat solid foods from about three weeks of age, so will start their first food when they are still with their mother. This first food should be soft and easy to digest and will be supplemented by their mother’s milk. Young kittens need lots of small meals to keep their energy levels stable throughout the day.
When your kitten is ready to come home with you, which is usually around eight to twelve weeks, try to continue with the same food they have been fed at their breeder or rehoming shelter to help to avoid stomach upsets. If you decide to change to a new diet once your kitten is settled, this needs to be introduced gradually.
Over the next few months, the number of meals your kitten has can gradually be reduced. Most cats will be happy to have two meals a day by the time they are six months old, but many cats prefer to have access to their food throughout the day so they can eat small amounts whenever they feel hungry.
Feeding your adult cat
Once your cat has grown up, they’ll move onto an adult diet. These contain a balance of nutrients that will maintain your cat’s energy, and keep them healthy and at their ideal weight.
Your cat is usually considered to be an adult from around 1 year old until they’re 7-10 years old. There are many types of adult cat food, some of which have been designed for different lifestyles, such as indoor cats, or cats that have been neutered. You may also need to feed your cat a specific diet if they have a medical condition or need to lose weight. If you’re not sure which diet is best for your adult cat, ask your vet for help.
Feeding your older cat
As your cat gets older, they need a diet to meet their more mature needs. Your cat is often considered to need an adult plus or senior diet when they are around 7-10 years old (depending on the manufacturer), and they are classed as geriatric or aging once they are over 10-14 years old. Senior or aging cat foods tend to be more easily digestible and contain a balance of nutrients which can help to compensate for some of the changes older cats experience.
Diets for older cats will contain different amounts of certain nutrients compared to younger adult foods. There are some parts of your cat’s diet that become harder for them to process as they get older, such as salt. The altered amounts in senior foods help to support their organs, such as their kidneys, as well as helping them maintain their weight and muscle.
It’s important to know that many senior and geriatric cat foods often contain more calories per gram compared to adult cat foods. This may mean you need to reduce the amount you’re feeding them to make sure you’re giving them the calories they need each day.
With geriatric and senior cats, it’s even more important to monitor them closely to check how much they’re eating and drinking each day. Eating less, eating/drinking more or losing weight can be a symptom of problems such as organ disease (e.g. kidney disease), dental problems or diabetes, which become more common as your cat ages. If you’re worried, always speak to your vet for advice.
Your vet might recommend that your cat is fed a special diet if they are diagnosed with certain medical conditions. These will often be prescription diets, which have been designed to help (or even treat) some cat illnesses such as skin problems, obesity, kidney disease and diabetes. If your cat has an illness and you’re not sure which food is best for them, speak to your vet for advice.
Treats for cats
Just like people, many cats enjoy the occasional treat, but it’s important to remember that cats process their food and calories in a different way to humans. They are also much smaller, so something that seems like a small treat for us could be a lot of calories for our cats!
Treats are classed as a ‘complementary’ food, which means they are fed in addition to your cat’s normal diet. As long as you’re feeding a complete diet, your cat doesn’t actually need treats to meet their nutritional needs; any treats you give will take up part of their calorie allowance without providing your cat with the correct balance of nutrition. Unfortunately, some cats that are used to getting lots of treats might find their normal food less appealing and be put off eating it, meaning they might not get the nutrients they need from their food. It’s really important to continue to feed your cat their normal cat food even if they seem to prefer their treats to make sure they stay healthy.
To avoid your cat gaining weight if you feed them treats, make sure you count the treat towards their daily allowance of food. If you buy cat treats, the packet will often let you know how many calories are in each treat, which means you can keep an eye to make sure that the little extras don’t add up. As a guideline, if you’re not sure how many calories are in the treat, reduce your cat’s normal food allowance by around 10% when giving your cat a treat, to stop them from piling on the pounds.
If your cat is struggling with their weight already, or has a medical condition which means they can’t have any food other than their diet, it’s best to avoid feeding extra food treats altogether. Instead, you can find other ways to ‘treat’ them. Why not try playing a game or spending time with them, instead? You can also put aside a small portion of their regular food to use in a puzzle feeder or during training – this is a great way to encourage your cat to exercise their mind as well as their body.
Can I give milk to my cat as a treat?
It’s a myth that cats need a nice saucer of milk. Cows’ milk contains lactose, a sugar that cats find hard to digest and can give them an upset tummy. Cream and dairy products are also high in fat so will contribute to your cat piling on the pounds. You can buy ‘cat milk’ for your cat, without lactose, but this is still high in calories and doesn’t contain any nutrients that your cat won’t be getting in their compete diet.
Can I give human food to my cat?
There are some human foods that are safe for your cat. A small amount of boiled chicken breast or a few flakes of tuna can be a tasty treat for your cat when given occasionally. However, feeding human food can mean lots of extra calories for your cat, so it’s important to feed cat sized amounts to keep them at a healthy weight. There are also some human foods that are toxic to cats, so if in doubt stick with food that has been made specifically for cats and skip the scraps.