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How to Spot Food Intolerance in your Cat

By Dr. Jeremy Campbell BVSc, MANZCVS (Feline Med) RCVS Advanced Practitioner (Feline Medicine) MRCVS

The Pets At Home AVA brand food recall over the Thiamine problems is the stuff of every cat owner’s nightmare. The cat is eating, everything seems to be fine but suddenly it begins to deteriorate. So how should we feed our cats and what are the signs to look out for if something is amiss?

Let’s start with a bit of background. Cats have non-negotiable requirements for certain essential nutrients that they would normally obtain from their natural diet of animal protein.

Thiamine or Vitamin B1 is a member of the B-complex group of water-soluble vitamins which are essential for the proper functioning of an almost infinite number of different molecular systems in your cat’s body.  Cats have increased requirement for these compared to other species and absence or reduced levels of these can result in significant wide-ranging health problems as seen with the Thiamine (B1) issue.

It is not just vitamins that are important; there are also 11 essential amino acids (building blocks of protein) that cats must obtain from their diet, the two important ones being taurine and arginine. Taurine is very important for normal reproduction, neonatal health, vision and heart-muscle function. Your cat can make small amounts of this themselves but the vast majority of it is obtained from the protein in their diet.

Arginine is another essential amino acid and deficiency results in toxic levels of ammonia in the blood causing severe gastrointestinal and neurological signs. Arginine is only obtained from animal protein.

Being smaller mammals, cats don’t have large reserves of these key nutrients so it was no surprise that after less than two months on the thiamine deficient food they were seriously unwell and exhibiting alarming symptoms. Once the problem was identified all three affected pets made full and swift recoveries but how do we avoid the problem happening in the first place?

The fact is as yet we do not know what the optimal combination of protein, fat and carbohydrates (macronutrients) for the perfect feline diet is. We do know the minimal requirements and these are required to be supplemented or present in all manufactured complete cat foods. It is very rare when manufactured foods get the balance wrong and there is a lot of control measures usually in place to prevent this.

Some commercial foods will have higher quality ingredients than others and in order to choose a suitable diet for your cat research the company, the ingredient list and the nutrient profile of the foods you are feeding – Read the back of the pack!

However, as we have seen, mistakes can still occur and by having a degree of variety in your cat’s diet it is not only interesting for them it but it may also have the unexpected benefit of reducing the chance of a deficiency occurring. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Remember, food prepared for humans is not balanced for your cat’s requirements, cooked chicken for example can have a lot less taurine than cats need depending on the processing method. If this is fed alone as the sole source of food it can result in taurine deficiency causing eye and heart problems. Similarly, thiamine deficiency can occur when the vitamin is destroyed during food processing, it can also occur in meat products where sulphur dioxide is used as a preservative and interestingly by an enzyme present in certain types of fish. A 100% raw fish diet – not a good idea.

Remember, food prepared for humans is not balanced for your cat’s requirements

Any food labelled as complementary means that is has not been assessed for nutrient content and balance and should only be fed alongside a complete diet.

We generally recommend mixed 2/3 wet and 1/3 dry diet appropriate to your cat’s life stage and body condition. This enables them to experience a range of tastes and textures. When choosing a food choose the best quality you can comfortably afford. For canned or wet food go with the one that has the highest percentage of high quality protein (think mouse in a can!).  If your cat prefers dry food over wet, you will need to get creative to get a balance in there but this can be fun as well as challenging!

Signs that your cat may not be getting a complete diet:

A dull coat with flaky skin or a change in the colour of your cat’s coat to a lighter ‘dilute’ shade can be due to lack of quality protein and the essential amino acids they require.

  1. What goes in must come out…..if your cat uses a litter tray you should see their poo as a well-formed log that is moist. If it is runny or poorly formed or very hard and crumbly, diet may be a contributing factor
  2. Changes in your cat’s muscle condition and weight. If you cat is losing muscle (we look along their back and hind quarters) which you might have noticed when you stroke them, insufficient protein in the diet could be a cause.
  3. Bone problems -Your cat needs calcium to form strong bones and teeth. Often homemade diets are not adequately supplemented with calcium and phosphorus in the right proportions resulting in damage to bones.
  4. Your cat’s eyes and heart, if you have noticed your cat struggling to see where they are going, missing some easy jumps or they seem to be breathing more rapidly and you have been feeding what you now know might be an unbalanced diet, taurine deficiency could be to blame
  5. Changes in your cat’s behaviour, seizures, weakness and stumbling, unusual head position could all be attributed to a vitamin and amino acid deficient diet

If you are feeding your cat a 100% raw fish, cooked chicken, vegan, vegetarian or complementary manufactured diet, it is not balanced.

Dr. Jeremy Campbell is founder of The London Cat Clinic, a feline only veterinary practice opening in May 2017. In 2015 he became a Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Advanced Practitioner in Feline Medicine, 1 of only 15 people to currently hold that qualification in the United Kingdom.


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