Feline Nutrition: Crumbs from the Queen’s Table

Like most feline myths, the myth of the cat as a fussy eater does have some foundation in fact. Being a solitary species, the mother wildcat (queen) teaches her kittens how and what to hunt before she weans them and sends them on their way. These early lessons remain deeply embedded in the feline mind because, once on their own, the young wildcats can’t count on the presence of more skilled, older animals to help them locate and kill their prey like a young wild dog in a pack can. When we add the role of this early experience to the wildcat’s survival to the domestic cat’s relatively recent arrival on the scene, we can appreciate why some pet cats fed only one food when young may be reluctant to eat another diet when they get older.

What difference does it make if the cat’s on a balanced diet and experiencing no problems? For one thing, the phrase “a balanced diet” tends to be arbitrary at best. For most cats, a mouse constitutes the most balanced diet, and the pet food industry spends millions trying to create a humanly acceptable mouse-in-a-can (or bag), using beef, poultry, fish, corn, and many other ingredients. Consequently, nothing we feed our cats fits the definition of “all natural” from the feline point of view. That being the case, food allergies can and do occur.

Other times cats develop medical problems–such as those involving the heart or kidneys–and require special diets that would spare these organs. Cats locked into one food since birth may reject these life-saving foods.

If owners offer a variety of cat foods and allergies later occur, they can  drop the problematic foods from the lineup rather than try to convince a cat used to only one food to eat another. Similarly owners of cats fed a variety who later require a therapeutic diet report having fewer problems transitioning their cats to the new diet than those whose cats were locked into one type of food. I recall some cats belonging to the latter group who could detect less than an eighth of a teaspoon of the new diet mixed in with a cup of the old. Once they did, some even would refuse to eat the old diet too. Needless to say, this complicated their owners’ lives enormously because then they had to deal with two problems:

  • The medical problems caused or aggravated by the old diet
  • All the hassles related to getting the cat to eat the new food.

Consequently, it makes sense to offer kittens a wide variety of different foods so they become accustom to different food odors, textures, and tastes. While some owners alternate different foods, others find that mixing several kinds of dry food in a plastic storage container works better. In addition to its convenience, this approach prevents the diarrhea that some cats may experience when they change from one food to another. Those who feed canned food usually alternate on a daily or every other day basis, depending on the amount of food they feed the cat.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we see barn cats like Slick accustomed to dining au natural who found himself adopted by a loving owner determined to atone for his “wretched” previous diet by feeding him the highest quality commercial cat food available–which the ungrateful beast totally rejected. Or so the owner thinks.

However, if we look at this from Slick’s point of view, we see a completely different picture. We know that, like the typical night-hunting cat, Slick responds first to the sound of his prey, then its motion, then its odor, then its texture and, finally, its taste. While Slick will stalk a sound or motion at the drop of a whisker, it takes more and more stimulation from any possible food-source to tempt him pounce, kill, and eat it. While this all may seem terribly remote from that sleek creature lounging on the corner or his owner’s desk, this sequence provides us with the answer to the question, “What stimulates a cat’s appetite?”

Once we know that sound, motion, odor, texture, and taste trigger the hunting cat’s appetite, we can see once free-roaming Slick’s dilemma. Does that top-of-the-line the food his owner offers him make any noise? Not unless she happens to rattle the bag or turn on the can opener when she first opened it. What about motion: Can Slick count on that food in his dish to move? Not a prayer. If it did, his owner would whisk it away before he grabbed a mouthful. Most likely any sound and motion after this would occur when his irate owner called the cat food manufacturer to complain bitterly about the poor quality of the food!

What about odor? Unfortunately, like a lot of cat owners, Slick’s owner refuses to feed any canned food she doesn’t like the smell of. So now poor Slick’s food doesn’t make any noise, it doesn’t move, and it barely smells at all. What about texture? Although those little star-, triangle-, and doughnut-shaped pellets might rank as shapes cats find easier to pick up, they’re not exactly what you’d call mouse-like in texture.

Because the goal of all this sound, motion, odor, and texture business is to entice the cat to at least taste the food, and his owner’s offering provides none of this, we can understand Slick’s less than enthusiastic response. Rather ironically, and sadly, those with cats like Slick often start out berating their cat’s indiscriminate rodent-eating habits, then turn around and berate their animals for being such fussy eaters when their cats won’t eat what the people think they should.

Am I saying Slick’s owner should go out and get him some mice? It depends. She may find that upgrading her feeding ritual will do the trick. This might mean adding more sound and motion to the process, feeding a product with a stronger aroma, or adding chunks of cooked chicken or turkey to a less textured food. While logic says heating refrigerated foods in the microwave will enhance odors, tests indicate that heating only to room temperature gives the best results. If Slick still refuses to eat, then his owner may need to gradually wean him off his wild diet to one she considers more suitable.

One final point in this very brief foray into a very complex subject. Given what stimulates the feline appetite, we can understand why some cats easily could reject their food in favor of people food. While the cat’s food sits in its dish doing nothing, the owner enjoys a variety of different foods with different textures and odors, all accompanied by the sounds and motions of human mealtime. At such times the temptation to feed the cat from our plates looms large. But unless we eat cat food ourselves, our meals won’t fulfill our cats’ highly specialized nutritional needs. Such feeding habits may result in a fat cat, but for sure they won’t result in a healthy one.