Dawn Armstrong
Special to the Tribune

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November 26, 2012
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Pet column: Understanding the carnivorous cat

The species called "cat" is a family of meat-eating animals including tigers, lions, leopards, and panthers. Domestic cats remain skillful predators. They use tactics similar to those of leopards and tigers. Stalking mice, a domestic cat scores a catch about one pounce in three. Hunting felines get a significant amount of the water they need second hand from their prey. The average cat food meal is the equivalent to about five mice. Most domestic cats prefer their food at "mouse warm" temperature - a good thing to remember before serving refrigerated cat food.

Cats have highly specialized teeth and a digestive system suitable for eating meat. The cat's tongue has sharp spines, papillae, small backward-facing hooks that contain keratin and assist in stripping a carcass as well as in their self grooming. Cats eat virtually no vegetable matter, but munch on grass, leaves, houseplants and shrubs as an irritant to cause regurgitation of whatever causes a stomach upset, including a build up of hairballs.

A relatively new line of cat products called indoor cat gardens, pet salads or pet grass includes cat grass, wheat grass, buck oats and catnip and is being promoted as nutrient-rich. The greens are claimed to offer vitamins, minerals, detoxifiers and some antibiotic benefits. However, the cat's digestive system is not designed to extract nutrients from fiber and too much fiber can prevent the digestion of what felines need from meat. As strict carnivores, cats are not designed to get protein from plants. They cannot be healthy vegetarians.

Cornell University Feline Health Center regularly publishes reports to promote feline health. They point out that the important thing to remember about nutrients, particularly vitamins and minerals, is that a cat needs the correct amount but no more. It is possible to have "too much of a good thing." The use of supplements is also potentially dangerous. Too much fiber in the diet can prevent the digestion of critical nutrients. Meals should have no more than 10 percent fiber. Although raw meat is an excellent source of many nutrients, it is not recommended as a food or a treat for cats because it is a potential vehicle for toxoplasmosis and other infectious diseases. Some cats that have consumed canned fish products for humans have developed deadly neurological disorders.

When a cat drinks, its tongue scoops the liquid up backwards so that the cat is exceptionally efficient. However, most felines have a weak thirst drive and do not drink enough to stay healthy. According to the National Academies of Science report issued by the National Research Council on the nutritional needs of cats this may be because of their evolution as desert animals. Some cats develop urinary tract stones due to failure to drink enough water. Canned cat foods contain much more water than dry cat food. Water can be added to dry food to help prevent stone formation. Fresh water should always be available. Clumping litter helps the pet caretaker to monitor regular urine habits.

Catnip is not effective on all cats. Cats rub and roll in it, lick, bite and chew it. However, a recessive gene can prevent the feline from finding any pleasure or "high" from it. Cats, including the great cats, have a genetic anomaly that prevents them from tasting sweetness. Scientists suspect this is somehow related to the cat's diet being naturally high in protein. It's also been suggested that cats can't taste sugary foods due to a faulty sweet receptor gene.

As with pet dogs, obesity has become epidemic in domestic cats, causing chronic health problems and shortened life spans. Learning how and what to feed a domestic cat results in a livelier, healthier companion well into his or her teens. The unique feline physiology and species specific nutritional needs simply add to the mystery and allure surrounding America's most popular pet, the house cat.

- Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help "Keep Tahoe Kind". Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Nov 26, 2012 06:21PM Published Nov 26, 2012 06:20PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.