BEING A CAT PARENT: HOW I LEARNED TO FEED MY CAT
Welcome to the first part of an ongoing series of Calvin & Susie Blogs on “Being a Cat Parent” or “Being a Dog Parent”. In this series we’ll share how we, the Calvin & Susie team, learned how to care for our pets. We made some missteps along the way, and we’re still learning, but as people who make pet care our profession, we want to share with you the good stuff we’ve learned so far.
The first time I tried to feed my cat some actual healthy, wholesome cat food, I thought she’d never speak to me again.
I was a young, broke graduate student in Los Angeles, and my cat Brandy was a cranky middle-aged tortoise shell girl who loved her cheap, “fish medley” kibble. I mean she LOVED it. My boyfriend and I called it her “Dorito Cat Food” because, well, deep down we knew that it was about as healthy for her as Doritos were for us.
But we fed it to her anyway because candidly, we didn’t know better. I’d always fed my cats that way. We didn’t really understand the far-reaching ramifications of a pet’s diet.
We didn’t know how much better an animal’s life could be with high quality food. We trusted the advertising on the bags that distracted us with pictures of leaping fish, “smiling” cats, and the promise of “HEALTHY!”.
Our cat always had food, she always had water, she visited the vet regularly, and she was adored. What else could we do?
But one day a friend of mine, a newly minted pet nutrition specialist, gave me some straight talk. She said: “Louise, you can do better for Brandy. That food is garbage.”
So my friend, I’ll call her Laura, sent me a huge box of healthy cat food to try. She instructed me on how to transition Brandy onto a healthier food and also told me what to expect during the transition.
I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. Brandy was food-obsessed (like her mom), if she liked her Dorito Cat Food, she’d for sure like her new FANCY CAT FOOD, right?
I had started with Prowl from The Honest Kitchen. For those of you unfamiliar with The Honest Kitchen, they make dehydrated pet food from fresh, uncooked, human grade ingredients. It’s highly digestible and densely nutritious. Not a kibble, but a sort of “chunky powder” that you add water to, to turn into something resembling wet pet food. It couldn’t be further from Brandy’s Dorito Cat Food.
It appeared to me to be the “best” food Laura sent, so I figured why not start there?
Mixing a thumb-sized dollop of the rehydrated food into a small serving of her kibble, she scurried over to her bowl, sniffed the concoction, then looked at me accusingly. “Is this your idea of a joke?” her eyes asked me.
“Brandy-baby, it’s so good for you. Go on, try it? It’s real food!”
I picked up her bowl, mushed the food around, and put it down for her again.
She sniffed it and walked away. SHE WALKED AWAY FROM HER FOOD.
What had this healthy food done to my always-hungry cat?
As you can imagine, Brandy and I repeated this scenario multiple times in the coming week, until we finally found a food that she liked and most of all wasn’t too unfamiliar too her.
It was a kibble called Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food. It was not the “fanciest” of the healthy foods that Laura had sent me (she’d even included a coupon to try Primal Pet Food if I was brave enough try raw feeding), but it was a step forward. Compared to Brandy’s Dorito Cat Food it was a leap forward.
(NOTE: You may not be able to find Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food readily in Hawai‘i. But there are lots of great kibbles out there to transition your cat onto – Great Life, Taste of the Wild, Wysong, Acana – to name a few. If you need help don’t hesitate to ask the staff at our stores, that’s what we’re there for!)
The first ingredient was actual meat – chicken – and the following five or so ingredients were recognizable as food to me. I’d never much read a pet food ingredient label before, and sitting on the floor of my kitchen, poring over all those bags and samples of cat food, my eyes were opened. My carnivore cat needed MEAT and for the first time the food I was giving her made that a priority.
I started searching the Internet for things like, “best natural cat diet” or “what makes a healthy cat food?”
The more I learned, the guiltier I felt. Looking at my darling Brandy – the cat I once threatened to evict a roommate over when he accidentally locked her out on the balcony – I wondered how I could have been so naive?
But guilt is a useless emotion and there was no use in mentally flagellating myself.
Brandy was seven, and though she was chunky, she was healthy. A diet overhaul would do loads of good for her.
So I got to work.
Budgeting for Brandy
It was certainly more expensive to feed Brandy her healthy food than it was her Dorito Cat Food; but my boyfriend and I were determined. Brandy’s food became a priority in our bi-weekly budget. It wasn’t always easy, but her health became more important to me than buying my coffee everyday or a dinner out.
While I don’t think it’s necessary to sink all your expendable income into pet food – in fact, please don’t do that, it’s not sustainable for a person on a budget and your pet will bear the brunt of it when you are dead broke – I do think that doing some research into the market to see what the price balance is between what you can afford and the quality of pet food you feel good about, is an important step.
As much as I wanted to feed Brandy the top of the line, raw, frozen food, at the time it was just not possible. So I found the healthiest foods I could afford (Laura helped me find a second kibble, one with fish, to rotate in Brandy’s diet), and committed to them.
I think there is a misconception that healthy, wholesome pet food is only for the very wealthy; that healthy pet foods are prohibitively expensive across the board.
While yes, there are certainly some premium, healthy pet foods out there – typically in the raw, freeze-dried, or dehydrated category of foods – that are very expensive, there are an equal number of mid-range or budget friendly pet foods out there that are worlds better than the “food product” garbage found on most grocery store shelves.
All it takes is a little extra research. With the pet food industry expanding every single day, the options for pet parents on a budget are more numerous than ever.
With a nutritious, appropriate diet, your pet will be happier and healthier, and most likely have fewer vet bills – which can grow exponentially as your pet ages.
And more than anything, seeing my cat flourish was worth it alone. Her coat became softer, more lustrous. The little bit of dandruff she’d struggled with previously, disappeared. Suddenly she went from “starting to get old” to having energy I hadn’t seen in years. She wanted to play again; she fell in love with a catnip mouse. Her weight improved, and her vet commented on how great she was looking.
Giving Brandy a bigger chunk of my paycheck was the best decision I ever made.
Considering More Than Her Hunger
Once we got Brandy happily eating her new foods, I started to think beyond just what pleased her picky palate, but also what her body needed.
Seeing how a healthy food positively impacted her well-being, I started to think about other ways I could supplement her health. She wasn’t a senior cat yet, but she was starting to creep out of middle age. How might I preserve her new-found health for as long as possible?
I looked into fish oil as a boost to her immune system, as well as benefiting her nerves, joints, skin, and heart, among other organs. It was as simple as investing in a little bottle of pet appropriate fish oil at the pet shop and adding it to her food.
As I learned more about cat health needs and specifically Brandy’s health needs (her thyroid and kidneys needed extra care as she aged), I learned more and more about supplements that could protect or bolster specific systems and body parts.
As she aged, and medications became part of her daily life, probiotics became important in keeping her digestion on track. Probiotics helped her digest her food properly and really aided in combatting uncomfortable constipation. When her urinary tract health started to fail, Uva Ursi was the herbal supplement that improved her life dramatically.
The point being, a pet’s health begins with the food they are eating, but there are ways we can build upon the foundation that a pet’s food provides. Supplements are what worked for me – in close communication with my vet and after doing lots of research on my own. It was through considering my cat’s food and supplements that I really started to think critically about my cat’s health.
The more I learned about nutrition, the better I knew my cat.
Wet Food is More Than a Treat
Before I switched my cat to an exclusively wet food diet, I considered wet food a “treat” for special occasions.
I’d always subscribed to the thinking that kibble was what cats ate on a daily basis and wet food was unnecessary. I filled my cat’s bowl with kibble in the morning, and then again at night. Done.
But it soon came to light that feeding Brandy this way was not doing her any favors.
First of all, cats are notoriously dehydrated. They almost never get enough water on their own, which can negatively impact their urinary tract, bladder, and kidney health down the line. When people’s cats get bladder crystals or urinary tract infections, they often obsess over what medications or foods to put their cats on in order to thwart future issues.
But the best protection you can give your cat against such afflictions is to make sure they get enough liquid. This may not “fix” your cat, but it is one of the best preventative measures you can take.
“But my cat won’t drink more water,” you say. I was there too. But the answer was in front of my face: wet food.
Secondly, just pouring food in Brandy’s bowl and letting her eat all day, whenever she felt like it was not right for her cat physiology.
Cats are naturally hunters, not grazers. Left to survive on their own, they would hunt their prey, consume it, and then be satiated. It’s a cycle of expending energy, and then being satisfied. (Not to mention meat that a cat would catch and kill has lots of moisture in it!)
By just letting Brandy munch all day, I’d essentially broken her satiation button. If she didn’t have food immediately available to her, she panicked. Plus, her weight, though better on her new healthier food, could still be improved.
Essentially Brandy needed to learn how to eat like a cat again – not a cow.
She was not pleased. She MEOW-MEOW-MEOWED her dissatisfaction. But I stayed the course (and got headphones).
I started by slowly scaling back how much food I gave her in the morning. I did it over the course of two weeks; as I was going to school and working and I didn’t want her to freak out when I wasn’t around. Eventually, the amount of food I gave her in the morning was the size of one meal, and I’d give her another meal-sized portion at night.
During this time, I also started adding water to her kibble to make it more like a moist pâté. I did this because it added much needed moisture to her diet and also because I couldn’t afford to feed her exclusively canned food (we started with Chicken Soup for the Soul canned cat food and Tiki Cat).
Most days, I’d give her kibble with water in it in the morning and some canned food at night. Additionally I placed glasses of water (Brandy would only drink water from a human glass) all over the house so that water was always available to her.
This change not only improved Brandy’s weight, improved her energy, and helped keep urinary tract infections and bladder crystals at bay, but she also re-learned what it was to feel “full”. While she always wailed like we were torturing her in the morning (what cat doesn’t?), she was far more chill at night and didn’t yowl for food in the middle of the day anymore. Plus, feeding her meals instead of just filling her bowl everyday, saved me money, allowing me to eventually upgrade her diet.
Caring for Brandy, and my subsequent cats, was an evolving process. While one food was “best” for my cat for a while, her needs changed and I had to consider a new food. And of course, no two cats are the same. Brandy came to LOVE raw food more than she ever loved the Dorito Cat Food, but Mosa my next cat would only eat canned food topped with raw food.
The best advice I can give to a cat parent is to never be rigid and always be willing to learn more. The question I always asked myself, and will continue to ask myself with every cat I live with is: “Is it possible for me to do better for my cat?”
And while I will never claim that I cracked the code on the BEST CARE for a cat, I believe that any cat parent (or pet parent for that matter) who is committed to their cat’s health and well-being is the best parent their cat could ask for.
Keep on Purring Calvin & Susie Community!
~ Your Loyal Calvin & Susie Blogger
For further reading on the specifics of your cat’s diet check out these previous Calvin & Susie Blog posts:
Note: Always check with your vet before making any changes to your pet’s diet. The Calvin & Susie Blogger always researches to the best of her ability, but she is not a vet. This blog is not in any way meant to replace veterinary advice or care. When in doubt, always ask a vet.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License