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8 Cat Food Mistakes You Might Be Making

cat eating cat food
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Pet parents do their best, but sometimes it’s easy to overlook things when it comes to a cat’s nutrition and feeding. You can work towards giving your feline companion what they need by learning about some of the mistakes people make when deciding how to feed their cats.

Here’s a list of eight common cat food mistakes and how to fix them.

Mistake #1: Free Feeding

Leaving a bowl of dry food out for your cat to eat whenever he wants might be convenient – and it might be necessary at times, such as when you won’t be home for a while.

However, according to Dr. Jessie Markovich of NorthStar VETS in New Jersey, free feeding all the time isn’t a good idea. “Free-choice feeding your cats is the most common mistake that I see, which often leads to overweight cats,” she says. Overweight cats have a higher risk of developing chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or arthritis, and live shorter lives on average than their lean counterparts.

An unhealthy weight isn’t the only risk of free feeding your cat. “The other mistake that I often see is owners who, due to free-choice feeding, try to have all cats in the household eat the same diet irrespective of their age or disease states,” Dr. Markovich adds. “It would be better to train your cats early to eat two or more times per day, which will allow you to feed them the correct amount per day and monitor the amount that each cat is eating.”

Dr. Karolina Holda, an expert in canine and feline nutrition whose work includes writing, lecturing, and offering online courses, agrees. She says food that’s left out might spoil, and cats might eat out of boredom and gain weight. Instead of free feeding, she recommends portion feeding.  

Mistake #2: Not Feeding a Complete and Balanced Diet

When selecting your cat’s food, make sure it’s complete and balanced to ensure your pet is getting the right number of calories and nutrients. Dr. Markovich says a food label should feature an AAFCO statement “defining whether a diet is complete and balanced or to be used as a supplemental diet.” Treats should not be used as your cat’s main source of calories and nutrients.  

You can contact manufacturers directly to ask them about the quality of their foods. Also, Dr. Markovich and Dr. Holda recommend reading the WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee: Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods.

Mistake #3: Not Feeding for the Correct Life Stage

Kitten looking at food bowl

It’s wise to consider your cat’s age when selecting a food because a pet’s nutritional needs change over time. AAFCO statements will indicate if a diet is nutritionally balanced for growth and reproduction or for adult maintenance. Some diets are approved for all life stages.   

Dr. Holda explains that an active and growing kitten will require kitten food with more calories per cup or can compared to an adult cat’s food. Therefore, an adult who continues to eat kitten food might gain too much weight. Also, senior cats might have specific dietary needs, especially if they develop health problems. Your senior cat may benefit from a prescription diet in some cases, such as if they have hyperthyroidism or chronic kidney disease.

Mistake #4: Switching Up Cat Food Too Often or Too Quickly

Sure, there may be times when you need to change your cat’s food. For instance, if a food is discontinued or your cat stops eating it, you’ll have to find a new diet that meets your pet’s preferences and needs. Also, you might have to switch foods if your cat has been diagnosed with a health concern or food allergy.

However, if you just want to give your kitty some variety with different flavors and brands, don’t overdo it. “I would actually recommend limiting your rotation and brand switching as much as possible because it promotes pickiness (now your kids know about all of the flavors!), which makes things difficult when they become ill and we need to change the diet, or if we need to be able to tempt them with something different,” advises Dr. Markovich. 

When transitioning to a new food, introduce it gradually over days or weeks. Making the mistake of switching too fast may lead to digestive upset.

Mistake #5: Too Many Treats or Table Scraps

When it comes to treats, Dr. Markovich recommends limiting them to 10 percent of the total daily calories. This can reduce the risk of unbalancing your pet’s complete and balanced primary food. Feeding too many treats or table scraps also increases the likelihood of obesity. If you aren’t sure, you can ask your veterinarian for calorie recommendations.   

Dr. Holda warns that many human foods are toxic to cats. Examples include grapes, raisins, and chocolate. So, if you’re going to give your kitty some of your food, make sure it’s totally safe.

Mistake #6: Not Providing Enough Moisture

Dr. Holda explains that cats are desert animals who drink small amounts of water because they get much of the hydration they need from prey. Therefore, only feeding your cat dry food might result in your kitty not getting enough moisture, especially if he isn’t drinking enough water. Plus, wet cat food may better satisfy a cat’s appetite, while also helping to support urinary health.   

“Canned foods contain a higher moisture percentage (78 to 82 percent water) as compared to dry diets (10 to 12 percent water), which can be helpful to manage certain disease conditions, such as kidney disease or lower urinary disease,” says Dr. Markovich. 

No matter what, make sure your cat always has access to fresh, clean water. “If you feel your cat is not drinking enough water, consider changing to wet food or mix wet and dry,” says Dr. Holda. You can also encourage your cat to drink more water by having multiple water dishes or small automatic water fountains throughout the home.        

Mistake #7: Making Food at Home Without Veterinary Support

Woman cooking her cat's food

Some pet parents want to gain more control over the quality of their cat’s food by preparing recipes at home. If you want to take this route, work closely with a veterinarian or board-certified veterinary nutritionist to ensure the diet will be properly balanced.

What about all those recipes that you can easily find in books and online? They may not give your cat exactly what he needs to thrive. “The majority of recipes found online or in books are not complete and balanced,” says Dr. Markovich.  

“There are many recipes on the internet or in books, but one should always be careful about the quality of these sources,” adds Dr. Holda. “The food should not only be palatable but also balanced and complete. Lack of, or even excess of, nutrients can cause various health problems.”

Mistake #8: Feeding Incorrect Amounts of Food

Feeding your cat the right amount of food every day is important. If you aren’t sure how much your cat should be eating, consult with a veterinarian.

“If you find that you are feeding less than 80 percent of the volume that your pet food bag recommends, then you are likely restricting nutrients (vitamins and minerals) in addition to restricting calories,” says Dr. Markovich.  

You can use the information on a pet food label as a guide, but Dr. Holda states that a cat might need more or less food based on his unique needs. She also recommends dividing the daily dose of food across multiple small meals per day.  A cat’s energy level spikes around the time they are expecting a meal, so feeding your pet multiple times per day also encourages your pet to be more active.     

Final Tips

Woman reading cat food label

Read pet food labels closely.  Keep the pet food fresh by following the label’s directions on proper storage. It’s often recommended that the food remain in its original packaging and that it’s sealed between uses.

Save pet food bags. Consider saving food bags and labels for potential pet food recalls. In the event of a recall or other concern, you’ll have the information you need.

Reevaluate your cat’s diet regularly. Pay attention to your cat’s changing needs and discuss your cat’s nutrition with your veterinarian. Regularly reevaluating your cat’s diet will help ensure he’s getting the highest quality food that meets his needs for overall wellness and a healthy weight.