Hi everyone. We received this question as a comment to Bella’s first Sugar Kitty Wednesday post, and we think it’s important to answer this where everyone can see it.
Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have two loving and beautiful babies that fill my life with joy & peace. I feed them dry food and basically keep the bowl out 24/7. I’ve been told to feed once a day, but they only eat little bits at a time so I’m afraid if I take the food away that they will not get enough to eat.
So I have two questions: 1) Am I hurting my babies by keeping food available all day? Just FYI, I feed them Friskies seafood dry. They also get crunchy treats once a day. 2) Should I feed the low carb food to my babies now so we can avoid diabetes? I’m not sure if cats are prone to diabetes or if it’s simply a matter of diet.
Any help anyone could give me will be greatly appreciated. I love my babies and I want them to be super healthy so that I can love them for lots and lots of years.
Siouxsie: Thanks for asking this question, Amy. Prevention is always the best remedy, so we’re going to tell you what we know about diabetes and a good diet for kitties.
Thomas: In cats, diabetes usually is not genetic.
Bella: But there are some rare exceptions like me: I became diabetic as a kitten, and nobody knows for sure why.
Siouxsie: The tendency to get diabetes usually isn’t inherited, either. But there a number of lifestyle factors that can increase the chance that your cats will become diabetic.
Thomas: Obesity is the first and foremost of these.
Bella: Because diabetes is all about insulin, let me tell you what insulin is: it’s a hormone secreted by the pancreas that helps the body turn sugar into energy.
Siouxsie: According to the fine folks at WebMD, there are three types of diabetes that affect cats, and if you know humans with diabetes, these are going to sound very familiar.
Thomas: Type I diabetic cats are insulin dependent. That means they have to get daily insulin shots because their pancreases don’t make enough insulin.
Bella: Type II diabetes is the most common in cats. In this case, the cat’s pancreas makes plenty of insulin but the body doesn’t know how to use it. This is what happens in severely overweight cats.
Siouxsie: And then there’s transient diabetes. If a cat is a type II diabetic and needs insulin at first, but then when fed a proper high-protein, low-carb diet, his system re-regulates itself and he can stop taking shots.
Thomas: At HART of Maine, the shelter where Mama volunteers — and where she found Bella — about half of the diabetic cats no longer need insulin because they’ve been switched to a species-appropriate “catkins” diet. Those who are still on insulin are on a very low dose.
Bella: So, how can you keep your cats from getting diabetes? First of all, keep their weight under control. Make sure they get exercise every day and that they only eat as much as they need.
Siouxsie: Unfortunately, free feeding can lend itself to weight gain because some cats eat when they’re bored.
Thomas: We typically don’t recommend free feeding. Even when Mama fed us dry food, she fed us twice a day, and that was just fine. Your cats aren’t going to starve to death if you put out food twice a day — we promise!
Bella: Here’s something else about diet — and I’ll say right at the outset that there are plenty of vets who don’t agree with this — but we cats are obligate carnivores. Like any carnivorous animals, we have sharp teeth for cutting and shearing meat off bones. Our teeth don’t have chewing surfaces like humans and herbivores; we’re designed to shear meat and swallow pieces whole.
Siouxsie: Humans, whose digestive process begins with chewing and saliva that breaks down starches, and then proceeds through a long intestinal tract that allows you to draw nutrients out of starchy foods, do fine when eating bread and grains.
Thomas: But cats’ bodies are not designed to digest starch: the cat’s short intestinal tract doesn’t give his body time to get the nutrition out of starch. Not only that, but cats lack some of the enzymes needed to convert grains into energy.
Bella: With this in mind, we recommend feeding even healthy cats a low-carb, grain-free diet whenever possible.
Siouxsie: These foods come at all price points, so you don’t have to buy some super-premium canned food and you don’t have to feed raw (unless you want to). The cats at HART eat Friskies Classic Paté or flaked tuna in sauce and Fancy Feast Classic, which you can find right at the grocery store!
Thomas: Dr. Lisa Pierson, DVM, compiled a huge list of canned, dry and raw cat foods with information about their protein, fat and carbohydrate percentages. (Full disclosure: there are a few people who take issue with this list, but anecdotal evidence proves that feeding any diet with less than 10% carbohydrates definitely regulates diabetics and keeps non-diabetics healthier in the long run.
Bella: Mama feeds us Nature’s Variety Instinct frozen raw medallions and a variety of premium canned cat foods (primarily Evo, Nature’s Variety Instinct, and BFF). But you can see that if you want to go low-carb, grain-free, there are plenty of options to do it in a way that works with your budget.
Siouxsie: Well, Amy, this may be more than you wanted to know, but we hope we’ve been able to help and not confuse. Keep in mind that we’re not veterinarians and this advice comes from our experience as lay kitties (and lay people) and comes from things we’ve learned from people who are much more experienced at caring for diabetic cats.
Thomas: If you want to read more about species-appropriate diets for cats, we recommend two websites: the Feline Nutrition Education Society and CatInfo.org. These sites are very pro-raw, and we know that, but we also feel they have a lot of good information about how to keep your cat healthy through diet and nutrition, whether or not you want to feed your cat a raw diet.
Bella: These sites also have advice about how to transition your cats from a dry food diet to a wet-food diet, in case your cats turn out to be less than enthused about the idea. Good luck, Amy!