CATS, the obligate carnivores living with us under one roof and habitually rejecting the expensive food we give them, are not exactly finicky eaters; we just have to understand the essentials of their diet.
In a visit to the Philippines, Dr. Elena Pagani, a veterinary nutritionist from Monge, a leading Italian pet food manufacturer, shared with groups of cat lovers an overview of cat nutrition and the ingredients that must be present in its food at all times.
For a cat to be heathy and live its reputed nine lives, it needs enough proteins, fats, fibers, vitamins, minerals and water. To understand the role of each nutritional item, Pagani provides the following insights:
Cats need more protein than dogs for normal body functions. Pagani said humans typically need about 14 percent of protein in their daily diets. Dogs, on the other hand, need to have at least 18 percent to 25 percent of protein in their meals. As for cats, they need a quarter (25%) or more (35%) of protein in their food.
All cats, even kittens or seniors, can benefit from a moderate protein level of 23 percent to 33 percent.
Pagani also said cat owners should make sure they are giving their cats high quality protein.
Animal-based protein helps promote an acidic urine for optimal urinary tract health and to provide essential amino acids, Pagani added.
She also noted that contrary to popular belief, quality chicken meat is the best source of protein for cats and not fish.
Of the 22 different amino acids (protein building blocks) that make up proteins, Taurine and Arginine are very important to cats, Pagani said. Both are found only in animal, fish or egg proteins.
Arginine is necessary for normal metabolism while Taurine is necessary for healthy heart, eyes and reproductive system.
Pagani warned cat owners about serious health disorders resulting from taurine-deficiency such as blindness, tooth decay, digestive illness and, in severe cases, the weakening of the muscle cells in the heart.
Of the various protein sources, eggs contain all the amino acids required by cats.
Fats are essential for the absorption of some vitamins that strengthen pets' immune system, particularly Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 benefits cats by fighting inflammation and supporting natural healing process, while Omega-6 helps by improving a cat's skin, coat and joints, among others.
Omega-3 fatty acids are in fish meal, fish oils and flax (linseed). Omega-6 oils are in animal fat, corn oil, vegetable oil and sunflower oil.
Pagani said cats can better absorb animal fat than vegetable fat.
Wondering why there's ash on your cat kibble? Pagani reassured cat owners that ash is only a measure of mineral in pet food.
“Don't be scared in the amount of ashes shown in the pet food label. Ashes are minerals,” she said.
A high ash content in a pet fod diet may indicate a lesser quality protein source since poor quality protein sources will often raise the ash level.
Cats also need their alphabet—of vitamins that is. Just like in humans, vitamins provide substances that the body needs to grow and develop normally.
Monge's resident pet nutritionist said fibers don't provide much nutrients, but cats need them for their gastro-intestinal wellness.
Grains such as barley, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat are common carbohydrates starch sources used in pet food.
Pagani said dogs and cats don't really need much carbohydrate but, since domestication, their systems learned to absorb it and convert it into energy. Cats, however, cannot store large amounts of carbohydrates which is a quick energy source, so they also need fats.
But carbohydrate is a key ingredient in the production of kibble or dry cat food.
“Check the pet food label and I'm pretty sure it will show that it is 50 percent starch because it is needed to make the kibble.
Pet foods usually have additives. Pagani busted that all food additives are bad by saying that there are certain additives that are good for cats that are not available in homemade diets.
Additives commonly used in pet foods include colorants, flavors, preservatives and emulsifying and gelling agents.
This doctor said no to vegan diets, especially for cats which cannot adapt to low-protein diets. As obligate carnivores, cats have a high protein requirement. Also, while dogs can absorb vegetable protein, cats simply can't, said Pagani.
Pagani is also not a fan of raw feeding which she said is something that animals in the wild adapted to, but not domesticated pets.
“Raw meat is full of microorganisms that could be dangerous to cats. Animals in the wild can destroy the microbiota in raw meat. But not cats that have been domesticated for so long. Always cook the meat for cats,” she emphasized.
Biases aside, Pagani also recommended that cat owners feed their cats quality manufactured pet food over homemade pet dishes.
“Using technologies, pet food manufacturers can standardize everything. Home-made pet food, although usually more palatable than processed ones, is subject to mistakes as no one is checking unlike in pet food companies where everything is being checked (including by a third party veterinarian),” she said.
She also noted that many diseases in cats and dogs can be prevented and cured with specific dietary formulations which a pet nutritionist like her can provide.
When switching to a new type of cat food, Pagani advised cat owners to allow a one-week transition period for the cat's gastro-intestinal tract to adjust.
Pagani attended the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Turin (Italy) and took a three-year doctorate at the University of Utretch (The Netherlands) while also doing an internship in Animal Nutrition.