We all know that when it comes to diet and nutrition, you are what you eat. However, this is also true for cats, who need a carefully balanced, wholesome diet to lead a long and healthy life.

Ensuring your cat receives the right food, as well as the right amount of food, based on their life stage, general health and lifestyle will not only help keep their teeth, bones, coat and internal organs healthy, but can also help prevent diet-related health problems, such as diabetes, pancreatitis and food allergies.

Here you can learn all the basics of feline nutrition, including what constitutes a healthy feline diet and information around toxic foods, cat treats and obesity.

Obesity in cats

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 8 out of 10 pet owners feel their pet is a “normal healthy” weight. However, APOP also estimates that 59% of cats in the United States are, in fact, overweight or obese.Read on to learn about the common signs of obesity in cats, and find out the steps you can take to help your cat reach a healthier weight to prevent future complications. What is obesity in cats? Obesity is a nutritional disease which is becoming increasingly common in cats. It’s also extremely serious, and can cause your cat to develop other health problems and even decrease their lifespan. The signs of obesity in cats include: Noticeable weight gain A weight which is 10-20% more than the optimal weight for your cat’s age and breed, or a higher than average body condition score (BCS) An unwillingness to exercise You may not notice the weight gain if it happens over a long period of time, which is why it’s important to keep a close eye on your cat’s body condition during grooming sessions and visit your veterinarian for regular check-ups. What are the risks of obesity in cats? Obesity significantly increases the risk of your cat developing other serious health problems. A cat which is carrying just 1 pound of additional body weight is equivalent to us humans carrying an extra 15 pounds, so it’s easy to see how this excess weight can quickly take its toll on your pet’s health. Some of the most common health issues that can be triggered by obesity include: Damage to joints and bones, including arthritis and lameness Skin disorders, such as dry, flaky skin and feline acne Respiratory disorders Diabetes Decreased immune function Increased anesthetic risk Problems giving birth Liver disease Decreased life expectancy What causes obesity in cats? One of the most common causes of obesity in cats is overfeeding. It can be easy to overfeed your cat, particularly if their diet is not tailored to their life stage or activity levels. While some cats lead very active lifestyles and spend lots of time outdoors, others, particularly older cats, will spend much of their lives indoors, sleeping, and simply won’t need the same number of calories to stay active and warm, so it is important to adjust your cat’s diet accordingly. Some owners find it more convenient to leave dry food down for their cat to graze on throughout the day, or invest in self-filling bowls which automatically dispense cat food. However, both can lead to your cat consuming more calories than they need. Feeding your cat too many treats between mealtimes can also lead to rapid weight gain, while fatty scraps of meat and other human foods will not only cause your cat’s body fat mass to increase, but could potentially be toxic to your cat and can lead to other serious health problems. There are some underlying conditions which can cause obesity in cats, however these illnesses only make up a very small proportion of the total reported obesity cases in cats. Pay a visit to your veterinarian if you believe one of the following diseases may be responsible for your cat’s weight gain: Hypothyroidism Insulinoma Cushing’s disease (Hyperadrenocorticism) Does neutering cause obesity in cats? While neutering is not a direct cause of obesity in cats, the change in hormones does slow down the cat’s metabolism, meaning that they do not need as much food to sustain themselves. As long as food intake is reduced by around 20-25% after neutering or spaying, there should be no risk of obesity. Your veterinarian can advise you on how much less you should be feeding your cat to ensure they maintain a healthy weight, but still receive all the nutrients they need to stay healthy. How can I help my cat lose weight? If you think your cat needs to lose a few pounds, always consult your veterinarian for advice in the first instance. They’ll be able to determine whether your cat is suffering from any medical conditions which mean they are predisposed to obesity, and if so, prescribe the right course of treatment. Your veterinarian will also be able to let you know your cat’s ideal weight based on their age and build, and offer advice around how your cat can lose weight gradually, as suddenly restricting food will do more harm than good. Your veterinarian is likely to recommend making changes to your cat’s diet. Canned food tends to be lower in calories, higher in protein and contain as much as 80% water, so it’s much better for weight loss when compared to dry food. Cat foods which are specially formulated for weight loss are also available, and they contain higher levels of protein and fiber which will help keep your cat fuller for longer. It’s important to accurately measure the amount of food you’re feeding your cat at mealtimes using a measuring cup or scales. Refer to the label on the cat food for recommended serving sizes based on your cat’s age and size, and reduce the amount if advised to by your veterinarian. Feed your cat several small meals a day and don’t leave food down for your cat to graze on. Always transition to a new diet gradually, as suddenly changing your cat’s diet may cause stomach upsets. As well as making changes to your cat’s diet, encouraging them to be more active will also help with weight loss. This is particularly important if you have an indoor cat, and just 10 minutes of play each day can make a big difference. Laser pointers, climbing posts and cat trees are great for encouraging your cat to run, jump and climb, while toys such as puzzle feeders will ensure your cat has to work for their treats. And if your cat doesn’t show any interest in playing with toys, you can always try using some catnip!

Healthy diet for cats

A good diet is essential to your feline friend’s overall health. Providing your cat with all the nutrients they need to stay happy and healthy will help reduce the risk of them developing diet-related diseases and health problems in the future. What should I feed my cat? Cats need a nutritionally balanced diet to stay happy and healthy. As cats are carnivores, their diet should contain lots of protein, as well as taurine (an essential amino acid), vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. Veterinarians will normally recommend feeding your cat a high quality manufactured cat food, as this should provide your cat with a complete and balanced meal. When choosing food for your cat, always check the label to ensure that it meets or exceeds Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards. It’s also important to choose a food which is suitable for your cat’s life stage. Most adult cat foods will contain everything your cat needs to stay healthy. However, if your cat is pregnant, or if you have a kitten or a senior cat, your veterinarian may recommend a diet which is specially formulated for their life stage. While some owners choose to feed their cat a home-cooked diet using fresh, all-natural ingredients, it’s important to seek advice from your veterinarian beforehand to ensure you aren’t depriving your cat of the essential vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy. What should I feed my kitten? Unlike adult or senior cats, who need a low-calorie diet to prevent obesity or other health problems such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes, kittens require a diet that is high in protein and fat to support their rapid development. As kittens are also much more active than older cats, they require the additional calories in kitten food for energy. A feeding chart should be provided on the label of the kitten food and this will let you know how much to feed your kitten based on their age. You kitten will start eating solid foods from around three weeks old, and to begin with, will need 5-6 smaller meals a day. Between the ages of four months and six months old, you will need to increase the meal size and decrease how often you feed your kitten to 2-4 meals per day. Once your kitten reaches six months old, they should only require two meals a day, and can continue eating twice a day throughout their adult life.   Can cats drink milk? Contrary to popular belief, many cats are actually lactose intolerant. Like other mammals, kittens will drink milk from their mother while they are young. However, as cats grow older, their small intestines produce less of an enzyme known as lactase, which is used to break down lactose, the sugar found in cow’s milk. As a cat’s digestive system is unable to process cow’s milk properly, drinking milk can lead to vomiting or diarrhea. Many pet stores or veterinarians sell milk which is specially formulated for cats, and this fine to give to your cat as an occasional treat. However, it’s important to think of cat milk as you would any other dairy product, and it shouldn’t make up a significant proportion of your cat’s diet. How much should I feed my cat? Obesity is a growing problem in cats, which is why it’s so important to feed your cat the right amount of food. Your cat’s age, life stage and activity levels can all have an impact on how much your cat needs to eat, and feeding your cat too much or too little can lead to health problems. Your chosen cat food should include guidelines around how much you should be feeding your cat based on their size and weight. It’s a good idea to measure how much food you give your cat at each mealtime using a measuring cup to ensure you are feeding your cat the same amount each day. This will enable you to easily alter the amount you are feeding your cat if your veterinarian recommends increasing or decreasing the size of your cat’s meals. It’s always better to feed your cat two smaller meals a day rather than leave food out for them to graze on throughout the day. Not only will this help you to monitor any changes in your cat’s appetite, which could indicate your cat is stressed or has developed an underlying health problem, but it can also help you to manage your cat’s weight more easily. Is dry or wet food better for cats? Many owners will only feed their cat wet cat food, while others swear that dry food is best for their pet. There are benefits and drawbacks to both wet and dry cat food, and some veterinarians will recommend feeding your cat a mixture of both. However, sticking to one type of food or the other, or feeding your cat a mixture of both wet and dry cat food is fine as long as your cat is receiving the balance of nutrients they need to stay healthy. The benefits of dry cat food Many cats enjoy eating dry food, and the good news for owners is it can be easily stored and measured at mealtimes. It can also be left in your cat’s bowl for longer periods than wet food, and won’t spoil in warmer climates. The texture of some dry cat foods can also help remove plaque from your cat’s teeth. However, dry foods are high in carbohydrates, which can cause cats to develop diabetes, obesity, urinary or kidney problems, or cause diarrhea or vomiting. Be sure to look out for grain-free varieties or feed your cat specially formulated dry food if you cat is suffering from one of these conditions. The benefits of wet cat food Some cats prefer the texture and aroma of wet food, and it’s usually the better option for elderly cats or weaning kittens, as the food is softer and easier to chew. As wet food contains more moisture, it will help keep your pet hydrated, so they won’t need to drink as much water. Some varieties of wet food are stored in single serving sachets for convenience, however if you choose to feed your cat canned food, you should keep the can in the fridge once opened to ensure it stays fresh. How can I tell if my cat is overweight? It can be hard to determine whether your cat is overweight, particularly if your cat is a long-haired breed. However, all cats should have a slender shape and clearly defined waist. You should be able to feel your cat’s ribs if you run your fingers across its body, and you should also be able to feel the bones at the base of the tail. Your veterinarian will be able to confirm for sure if your cat is overweight and will be able to check if the weight gain is the result of any underlying health problems. Obesity is a huge problem in cats, and can result in your cat developing other health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. It can even cause skin problems, as if your cat has reduced mobility, it will be unable to groom itself properly. If your cat is obese, your veterinarian will be able to recommend the best course of treatment to help your cat lose weight. They will likely prescribe cat food which is specially formulated for weight loss and will recommend cutting back on the treats throughout the day. They may also recommend you decrease the amount you feed your cat at mealtimes, or ask you to encourage your cat to become more active by playing. 10 Tips for feeding your cat Ensure your cat always has access to clean, fresh water. A number of human foods are toxic to cats, so keep them well out of reach and familiarize yourself with the symptoms of poisoning. Choose shallow food and water bowls, as they enable your cat to still look around while eating. They also prevent your cat’s whiskers from brushing against the side of the bowl. Metallic bowls can sometimes create shadows or reflections in the water, which can put your cat off drinking, so opt for a ceramic bowl instead. Avoid using strong detergents to clean your cat’s food and water bowls, as the strong odors can easily put cats off their food. Cats like their food and water to be separate, and many will prefer drinking from a bowl of collected rainwater in the garden. If you want to feed treats to your cat, be sure to reduce the amount you’re feeding your cat at mealtimes, as you may end up overfeeding your pet.  Ensure you’re feeding your cat healthier treats, such as lean meats or fruits and vegetables. Some fruits and vegetables are toxic to cats, so be sure to do your research beforehand. If your cat uses a litter box, place its food bowls away from this area, as cats prefer to eat away from their toilet site.  Store wet food in the refrigerator and ensure it’s consumed within two days, and store dry food in an airtight container until the best before date.

Toxic food for pets

Cats are curious by nature, and unlike dogs, can easily explore those harder to reach places around the home. However, it may surprise you to learn that some foods which are perfectly safe for humans to eat could harm your cat’s health and some could even prove fatal. It’s important to know which foods should be safely stored away in kitty-proof containers and cabinets as well as the symptoms to look out for if your cat has eaten something they shouldn’t.   Alcohol Just like in humans, alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, causing your cat to become drowsy and disorientated. Alcohol is absorbed by a cat’s body much quicker than a human’s, and if your cat is exposed to higher levels of alcohol, they may suffer from alcohol poisoning and experience vomiting, dehydration, breathing problems and loss of consciousness. Alcohol isn’t just found in beer, wine and liquor; some foods, cough syrups, perfumes and even mouthwashes can all contain alcohol, so be sure to keep all these items well out of reach.     Avocado Avocados contain a toxin called persin, which is found in the leaves, the pit and bark, as well as the fruit. Persin is poisonous to cats in large doses can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Kittens and senior cats are likely to be affected more by persin toxicity, so be sure to give your veterinarian a call if you think your cat has consumed any.   Bones and fat trimmings Fat trimmings from meat can cause the level of lipids in your cat’s blood to rise, which leads to a condition called pancreatitis. This condition causes your cat’s pancreas to start digesting its own tissue and can be fatal in the long run. Cooked bones, such as chicken bones, are not only a choking hazard, but they can splinter easily and can damage your cat’s teeth, tongue or mouth, and even puncture their digestive tract, so it’s best to avoid feeding scraps like these to your cat.   Chocolate As most pet owners know, chocolate is a big no-no for cats and dogs. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea, or more serious issues such as heart problems, seizures and even death. The toxin found in chocolate, theobromine, is more concentrated in dark chocolate and cocoa powder, but it’s important to get in touch with your veterinarian for advice if you think your cat has consumed any type of chocolate, no matter how small the amount.   Coffee Coffee contains caffeine, which can be fatal to cats in high doses. The symptoms of caffeine poisoning include increased heart rate, restlessness and vomiting, and in more serious cases, your cat may even collapse or experience seizures. Energy drinks, tea, cold and flu medicines and coffee-flavored products can also contain just as much caffeine as your morning coffee, so be sure to get in touch with your veterinarian for your advice if you believe your cat has ingested something containing caffeine.   Grapes, raisins and currants Grapes, raisins and currants are dangerous to cats, even in small quantities, and the toxins found in these fruits can even cause kidney failure. If your cat has accidently eaten grapes or raisins, or you suspect they may have, then look out for signs of lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration and get in touch with your veterinarian for advice. Remember that foods such as mince pies, hot cross buns and fruit cake all contain dried fruits such as raisins and sultanas, so be sure to keep them well out of reach.   Liver Feeding your cat too much liver can cause them to develop a vitamin A toxicity. The long-term effects of this condition include deformed bones, bone growths on the elbows and spine, and osteoporosis. In extreme cases, it can even lead to death, so it’s better to be safe than sorry and eliminate liver from your cat’s diet entirely.   Milk and cream Believe it or not, most cats are lactose-intolerant, meaning they struggle to digest dairy products and, as a result, can suffer from an upset stomach and diarrhea. Higher fat foods, such as cream, contain less lactose, which means your cat is less likely to experience an adverse reaction after drinking cream than if they had consumed low-fat milk. While the occasional saucer of cream shouldn’t do any harm, it’s best to keep treats like these to a minimum or purchase some lactose free milk as an alternative.   Onions and garlic Onions, garlic, leeks, shallots and chives are all poisonous to cats, and are equally dangerous in all forms, including raw, cooked, dried or powdered. The toxins found in these plants can cause damage to your cat’s red blood cells, which can lead to anemia, organ damage and, in extreme cases, even death. Look out for signs of weakness, lethargy, dark colored urine and occasional vomiting and diarrhea, as any of these symptoms could be an indication of garlic/onion toxicity.   Raw fish, meat and eggs While many pet owners believe raw diets are beneficial to their pet’s health, raw eggs, meat and fish contain bacteria which causes food poisoning. Bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli are common in raw eggs, while raw fish such as salmon, trout and sturgeon contain parasites which cause “fish disease” or “salmon poisoning”. If your cat experiences symptoms including fever, vomiting and enlarged lymph nodes, consult your veterinarian straight away.   Tuna While tuna-flavored cat food is perfectly safe for your cat to eat, canned tuna contains high levels of mercury, which can be poisonous to your cat in large doses. Tuna is also high in unsaturated fats, which can cause your cat to develop a vitamin E deficiency. This leads to a painful condition known as “yellow fat disease”, which is when fatty tissue in your cat’s body becomes inflamed.   Xylitol Xylitol is a sweetener which is commonly found in foods such as candy, sugar-free gum, baked goods, toothpastes and diet foods, and it’s extremely toxic to cats. Xylitol affects your cat’s blood sugar levels and can even cause liver failure. The symptoms of xylitol toxicity include vomiting, weakness, lack of coordination and seizures. Liver failure can occur within a matter of days, so seek help from your veterinarian straight way if you think you cat has eaten something containing xylitol.   No matter how cautious you and your family are and how much you cat-proof your home, there’s always a chance your cat may end up eating something they shouldn’t. If you think your cat may have swallowed something toxic, call your veterinarian for advice or get in touch with the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center or Pet Poison Helpline as soon as possible.