Cats have very unique nutritional needs. They are neither little humans nor little dogs. If you want your cat to have a long and healthy life providing him or her with a species-appropriate balanced diet is key.

What's so special about the feline diet?

Quite a lot.

Cats are obligate carnivores. That means they have to consume some form of meat to get the full array of nutrients their body requires. Specifically, the feline body cannot synthesize taurine, an amino acid that's only available in meat sources. Without taurine, a cat will go blind and suffer heart damage, to the point of heart failure and death.

Taurine isn't the only consideration though. The Association of American Feed Control Officials, also known as AAFCO, has defined guidelines regarding the nutritional requirements of various species of pets, including cats. The Cat Food Guidelines state allowed ranges for protein, fat and a variety of minerals and vitamins in cat food. In the US, these guidelines must be met by pet food manufacturers for their food to be legally labeled as "complete and balanced". While no lifetime studies exist, these guidelines are generally accepted as the best representation of feline nutritional needs.

What should I feed my cat?

Your cat must eat a nutritionally balanced diet. It can be one of the widely available commercial cat foods, as long as that food is labeled as "complete and balanced" (or the equivalent local version outside the USA). It can also be a homemade diet, in which case you must take care to follow an approved complete and balanced recipe. If you're unsure about how to prepare such a diet, you should consult with a veterinarian who specializes in nutrition. This is especially important if your cat suffers from any medical conditions which may be affected by his or her diet.

The dangers of unbalanced diets

Most pet cats have no access to hunting and that's not a bad thing. Hunting wild prey puts a cat at risk for contracting parasites and diseases, as well as exposing him or her to other dangers that lurk outside. Allowing a pet cat to hunt is also bad for the environment.

Yet, without hunting, 100% of your cat's diet depends on what you feed. If you provide too much or too little of certain nutrients your cat will suffer the consequences. An unbalanced diet could cause nutritional deficiencies or excesses which could lead to many acute health problems. Damage to the heart, kidneys, liver or brain can be the result of overdosing on certain nutrients while not having enough of others. Some types of damage can show up relatively quickly, while others can take years to develop.

So, can't I give my cat treats?

Cat treats, whether commercial or homemade, can be safely given to healthy cats but only in moderation. Even the best quality treats are not formulated to provide your cat with a complete and balanced diet. They are often rich in fat and calories, which is what makes them so delicious to our cats. If your cat eats them in addition to eating a complete diet this could mean excess calories and a gradual weight gain. If consumed in lieu of regular food, there's a greater risk of the cat not getting enough of the nutrients a balanced diet must include.

If your cat is generally healthy and has no weight issues, it's ok to give her or him the occasional treat. Most experts agree that treats should never add up to more than 10% of the cat's general food consumption. If you're feeding a homemade diet, you may want to keep that figure even lower unless you're absolutely sure your recipe has excess amounts of key nutrients, as commercial cat food does.

Can't I just let my cat decide?

No. It's up to you to provide your cat with wholesome nutrition.

Just like people, some cats will prefer tasty over healthy. Even if your cat loves tuna fish, chicken breast or liver, eating any of these excessively could quickly cause severe health problems. Just because something is natural, or even healthy, does not mean it is risk-free when fed to the point of creating a nutritional imbalance.

The bottom line is simple -

Feeding an unbalanced diet can be very dangerous for your cat, so limit treats and make sure Kitty's overall diet is complete and balanced.

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