Feeding your cat and getting the balance right

As a cat lover, you’ll want your furry friend to lead a long, healthy, happy and active life. One of the best ways to achieve this is by making sure your cat’s diet has the right balance of the five major nutrient groups: proteins, fats & oils, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates.

Cat behind owner's shoulder

What’s in a balanced diet?

Cats are ‘obligate carnivores’, which means they need meat in their diet. So unlike dogs, they can never be vegetarian or vegan. Felines rely on protein as their main source of energy, and need higher levels of protein in their diet than dogs. Not only is meat a ready source of protein, it also provides three essential nutrients that cats can’t live without: taurine (for heart and vision), arachidonic acid (for skin and coat health) and Vitamin A (for coat and vision).

To keep your cat fit, you need to give them the correct balance of all the essential nutrients in their diet. A good-quality, complete cat food should be carefully formulated to provide them with the perfect balance of all the nutrients they need to thrive, while, at the same time, still being delicious to eat.

It might seem like a treat to you, but adding human food or supplements to a nutritionally balanced, complete cat food can actually throw off the finely-tuned balance of your pet’s diet and give them an upset tummy!

Kittens have sensitive tummies, and will need a special diet rich in protein and other nutrients to help them grow up big and strong. A complete kitten formula will make sure that they are getting everything that they need. Our guide on feeding your kitten can provide more useful information on making sure your little one is well fed.

From 12 months of age, a normal, healthy adult cat will receive their appropriate cat nutrition from a balanced complete diet designed for adult cats. When they reach their senior years at around the age of seven to ten, they will need to switch to a senior diet tailored to their changing needs. Take a look at our page on feeding your senior cat for helpful tips to keep your older cat happy and healthy.

Kitten lying down

Water is essential for all living beings, and your cat is no different. Even though cats were originally desert animals and, because of that, are naturally very good at concentrating their urine, they can end up with bladder problems and cystitis if they don’t drink enough water. Make sure your cat can access plenty of clean, fresh drinking water, from a bowl or water fountain, throughout the day and night.

You’ve probably noticed that your cat just loves to drink water from unusual sources like dripping taps or shower trays, but those should never replace an easily accessible source of constant, fresh, clean water. Their water bowl should be placed a little distance away from their food bowl wherever possible, and well away from their litter tray. If you notice that your cat has suddenly started drinking from unusual places, it may mean they have a medical condition that’s causing excessive thirst. So it’s worth discussing this with your vet.

Cats use protein, made from amino acids, as their main source of energy. As cats can’t make these basic chemical building blocks in their own bodies, they have to rely on specific essential amino acids in their diets. The proteins found in complete balanced cat food, such as meat and fish, should contain all the essential amino acids your cat needs to form and maintain healthy muscle, skin and fur, as well as being a key part of their immune system. If your cat doesn’t get enough protein,they can end up with poor growth, loss of muscle bulk, poor coat condition and increased risk of infection through a poor immune system.

Fats, made from small units called fatty acids, provide ''fuel'' to keep your cat active, as well as insulation and protection of their internal organs. Essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6, are vital for keeping your cat’s skin and coat healthy and are an important part of your cat’s nutrition. Without them, your cat could develop poor skin and coat condition.

Complete and balanced cat food should contain all the essential fatty acids your cat needs.

Although carbohydrates (starch and fibre) are not an essential part of your cat’s diet, they do provide a readily available energy source. Prebiotics (soluble fibres) also help maintain a healthy gut by promoting good bacteria, while insoluble fibres promote normal intestinal function and a good stool quality.

Minerals, like calcium and phosphorous, are essential for strong, healthy teeth and bones. So your cat’s diet needs to include the right quantities and right balance of each, particularly if they’re pregnant and growing kittens!

Sodium, chloride, magnesium and potassium, as well as zinc, copper and iron are also important minerals in cats’ diets. Good-quality, complete cat foods will provide the right balance of minerals. Balance is very important – too much of one mineral can lead to a deficiency in another.

Cat vitamins are needed, in small amounts, to promote your cat’s growth, normal vision, healthy skin and coat, wound healing and a healthy nervous system. They’re involved in the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Vitamins C and E are also important as antioxidants. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) are stored in your cat’s fatty tissues, but water-soluble vitamins (B complex and C) are not stored in the body, but passed out in your cat’s urine.

Do cats need milk?

Cat breeds icon Contrary to popular belief, cats no longer need milk once they’ve stopped weaning. In fact, many cats find milk difficult to digest, as they lack the enzyme needed to break down lactose (the sugar found in milk)! Because of this, cow’s milk and other dairy products can often cause diarrhoea and upset tummies for cats.

Special cat milk is produced to give cats a creamy treat without the lactose. As with all treats, cat milk contains calories so you should consider this alongside their usual food intake to keep their diet balanced. Also remember that cat milk is not a replacement for water, and they’ll still need plenty of fresh H2O to stay hydrated.

How do you serve moist or ‘wet’ food?

Moist or ‘wet’ food comes in cans, foil trays or pouches. This type of food should always be served at room temperature to allow your cat to get the most enjoyment from the textures and smells. Once opened, cover any remaining portions and store them in the fridge for no more than 24 hours – and remember, the food will need to reach room temperature again for the next meal. So take it out of the fridge plenty of time before serving. Wet food shouldn’t sit around uneaten for more than an hour as it will become unappetising and could attract bacteria, resulting in tummy upsets.

How do you serve complete dry foods?

Dry foods are a very popular alternative to wet foods. Their kibbles contain the right balance of nutrients and have a crunchy texture that can help keep your cat''s teeth healthy. They are also more concentrated with nutrients than moist foods, so you only need to serve small helpings.

Whether you’ve decided to feed wet or dry food, read the label to check that it is a ''complete'' food rather than ''complementary'', otherwise you might be buying a snack/treat instead of a balanced meal! Despite their appearance, dry cat food and dry dog food are not the same. The dietary needs of cats and dogs are quite different; so dog food is not suitable for cats and cat food is not suitable for dogs.

How do you change a cat’s food?

If you decide to change your cat''s food to a different type or brand, introduce the new food gradually over a period of seven to ten days. For cats, it is best to put out two bowls - one with the old food and one with the new one, so that your cat has the opportunity to gradually start trying the new food. Sudden switching can lead to tummy upsets, particularly if your cat is used to always eating the same food.

Our article on feeding your adult cat can give you more advice on how to change your cat''s food carefully.

Are home-prepared diets or homemade cat food OK?

The idea of preparing a special homemade meal for your cat can sound like a labour of love, but unfortunately, it isn’t recommended. It’s difficult to provide a balanced feline diet using home cooked or raw foods, as some ingredients have very high or low quantities of certain nutrients, which can lead to a serious imbalance. Even if you’re feeding your cat a complete food, be very careful about adding significant quantities of any extra ingredients. If you’re serious about a homemade diet, speak to a companion animal nutritionist to design a diet that gives your cat the right quantity and balance of nutrients.

Raw meat can also contain parasites and bacteria, such as Salmonella, which can make your cat ill. So, as a cat owner, you need to pay particular attention to hygiene if you decide to feed your cat a raw diet. Be very careful about bones also, as these can splinter and lodge in your cat’s intestine.

Do cats need food supplements?

Cat's weight icon

Healthy cats that are fed a complete, balanced diet don’t need any supplements. In fact, the addition of supplements could unbalance their nutrition and cause problems.

That said, some cats have special nutritional needs (e.g. for growth, certain medical conditions or during pregnancy) and some cat food diets that are formulated for those specific needs. If in doubt, have a chat with your vet.

How much to feed your cat

How much you feed your cat depends on their breed, activity level and lifestyle. A good place to start is by following the feeding guidelines on the pack, but bear in mind that these are approximate guidelines. The actual amount needed will vary from cat to cat depending on things such as their size or activity level. Monitor your cat’s body condition score regularly with our tool and use this as a basis to adjust the amount of food you feed your cat.

Related Articles

Cat eating from yellow bowl
Once your cat has reached their first birthday, it’s time to think about a regular cat-feeding routine. As they change from a playful kitten to a...
Close-up of cat’s face
As a cat-lover, you’ll know how tempting it can be to give your furry friend treats and titbits to eat alongside their main meals.