There are some 38 species of cats on Planet Earth. Seven of them are the “big cats” we are most familiar with: lions, tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, mountain lions, leopards, and clouded leopards. The other 30 species are smaller, about half of which are smaller than the average house cat. Many are rare and seldom seen. Others, like the wildcat, range across half the world, from Scotland to Asia. Last but not least, is the domestic cat, house cat, or moggie, among its many familiar names.
Cats are distinguished by their prominent fangs, curved claws, and a pair of hefty cheek teeth (the carnassials) for shearing meat off the bone. Cats only have 30 teeth, compared to dogs’ 42. They don’t have any chewing teeth, like the flat-topped molars found in dogs, bears, and humans.
Cats’ teeth and claws make them perfectly designed to catch, kill, and eat prey animals suitable to their size. Lions prey on zebras and wildebeest; cheetahs pursue antelope and wild pigs; lynxes specialise in catching snowshoe hares; and the small cats go after rodents, rabbits, birds, reptiles, and insects.
So, what does this tell us about feeding our domestic felines? Few of the offerings from major pet food companies bear much resemblance to the cat’s native diet. To attain optimal health for our cats, we must “build a better mouse” with the ingredients we have available. While no formulated diet is perfect, there are ways to come close to the ideal. And even the smallest steps toward that ideal will make a big difference for your cat!
1. Top Cat Health Conditions 1. Bladder or Urinary Tract Disease ✓ 2. Dental Disease ✓ 3. Chronic Kidney Disease ✓ 4. Vomiting/Upset Stomach ✓ 5. Excessive Thyroid Hormone ✓ 6. Diabetes ✓ 7. Upset Stomach/Vomiting ✓ 8. Lymphoma ✓ 9. Upper Respiratory Infection ✓ lo. Skin Allergies ✓.
Every single one of these common feline diseases has a major dietary component; meaning that diet causes or contributes to the disease; diet is part or all of the treatment; or both.
One significant and very common disease not listed above is obesity. That’s because practically nobody takes a cat to the vet for being too fat. However, obesity is a major problem affecting well over half of American cats. When we talk about nutrition-related diseases, we often have to start with obesity because it is such a big factor in many other diseases. Then we’ll talk about the other most common and troubling nutrition-related diseases.
Finally, a condition that is greatly affected by nutrition is ageing. Although we were always told in veterinary school, “age is not a disease,” there are many diseases that arise with age. But they don’t have to; and we’ll take a quick look at how nutrition affects the ageing process.
Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorders (FLUTD)
Also known as cystitis, FIC (feline interstitial cystitis), urinary tract infection, crystals, stones, urinary blockage, FUS (feline urologic syndrome), and “Pandora” syndrome, this painful condition sends about 3% of cats to the vet every year. That doesn’t sound like a big number, but if it’s your cat, you know how frustrating and frightening it can be. It’s frustrating because cats with this problem often urinate outside the litter box; which in turn is a common reason why cats are exiled, confined, abandoned euthanized, or relinquished to a shelter. It’s frightening because blocked cats can die, and die fast.
Bladder problems occur equally in both male and female cats, although males have a far higher risk of life-threatening blockage of the urethra. It is usually first seen in cats between 2 and 7 years of age (though some very young and very old cats may develop signs).
Diagnosis and Treatment of LUTD
Diagnosing LUTD is tricky due to the many manifestations of the disease, and the potential for inappropriate urination (outside the litter box) to be a purely behavioural problem.
If your cat goes outside the box, the first step is to have a veterinary exam and urinalysis. In most (but not all) cases, inflammatory cells, stones, or crystals will be obvious under the microscope, and a urine “dipstick” (quick in-clinic analysis for abnormalities) will show one or more positives. (Note, however, that cat urine nearly always turns up positive for white blood cells, whether there are any or not; hence the need for a microscopic exam as well.) If evidence of LUTD is found, then a treatment plan can be formulated.
But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there may still be a physical problem going on regardless of test results. One clinician found this out the hard way. He had a patient, a cat who chronically urinated in various places, that he had tested repeatedly over many months. Nothing ever showed up on urinalysis; no behavioural modifications worked, no behaviour drugs helped. Finally the frustrated guardian had the cat euthanized; and the curious and equally frustrated veterinarian did a necropsy. He was horrified to find that the bladder was streaked with purple haemorrhages, scarred, and thickened: all signs of severe chronic FIC. He killed the cat for a painful problem that he had never treated appropriately.
Dental disease is the most common medical condition seen by veterinarians; it’s present in a large majority of cats by the age of three.
But here’s the deal: dry food does not clean the teeth. This is a myth that pet food makers just love to perpetuate. The best that can be said for dry food is that it produces less tartar than canned food, but far from none. In fact, a study was done in which cats were fed by tube no food ever touched their mouths yet they produced tartar anyway! There are now several brands of dental diets that have been shown to reduce tartar, but they are dry foods that still have all the other problems associated with those diets, including generally inferior ingredients.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The best way to keep your cat’s mouth healthy is through home care and regular dental checkups and cleanings by your veterinarian. Dental food, dental treats and even raw bones may keep the visible surfaces of the teeth clean, but it’s the bacteria and plaque under the gums that cause painful periodontal disease.
Most cats don’t consistently chew dry food; they tend to swallow it whole. Obviously, without contacting the teeth, there is zero effect on tartar buildup. But even for cats who do chew dry food, consistently or occasionally, there is still little or no benefit. The kibbles shatter under pressure, so contact between the kibble and the teeth occurs only at the tips of the teeth. This is certainly not enough to make a difference in the formation of tartar and plaque at or under the gum line.
Keeping your cat’s teeth and gums healthy requires a commitment on your part. Regular veterinary checkups and cleanings are still important.
Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
Chronic kidney disease (formerly called Chronic Renal Failure, or CRF) is a common problem in cats, and is a frequent cause of death. I have seen common kidney failure in cats as young as 4 years, but it occurs far more regularly in much older cats.
However, due to the melamine adulteration of pet food in 2007, a great many cats (and dogs) developed Acute Renal Failure due to the poison. The tens of thousands of pets who got sick but recovered often have some kidney impairment, and the principles of treating CKD will also apply to them.
Diagnosis of CKD Laboratory tests are needed to definitively diagnose CKD. A blood test alone may not be sufficient; ideally, a urinalysis must be taken at the same time the blood is drawn. Kidney disease is likely present when the cat is azotemic (high levels of kidney indicators; see Glossary), AND the urine is not sufficiently concentrated. The measurement of urine concentration is called Urine Specific Gravity (USG). If the cat’s USG is less than 1.035 AND azotemia is present, then kidney function is abnormal.
CKD is considered progressive and incurable. The most significant problems caused by the loss of function are dehydration, a build-up of blood toxins, and anemia. These can cause vomiting, loss of appetite, weakness, weight loss, lethargy, and other signs of illness.
So, let’s sum all this up. Cats are all built the same, from the tiniest tabby to the most titanic tiger. The size and looks are different, but the internal workings are identical. Logically, our companion kitties should eat the way cats have eaten for millions of years.