The most perfectly balanced meal you can feed your cat is a mouse. That's a whole mouse, complete with bones and innards.
Gourmet cat food that sounds like something served in a restaurant is cooked up to provide precisely the same nutrients as fresh mouse. However, a label that reads, "Grilled Trout with Garden Greens" appeals much more to your cat's personal shopper. Honestly, how would you feel about opening a can marked "Rat?"
Cats are carnivores. Their ancestors came from the desert, where they lived exclusively on small prey such as rodents and lizards. A fresh-caught meal provided both muscle meat and organ meat. There was plenty of calcium in the bones. The remains of the prey's last meal, bits of grain and greens left in the digestive tract, were all that the cat required from those food groups. There was enough moisture in fresh-caught food to meet the cats' needs without a trek to the watering hole.
In our homes, most cats eat commercially canned or dry cat food. Either type alone can keep your cat happy and healthy. So can some of each.
Canned food is more appealing to most cats and is a little easier for them to digest. Dry cat food is less expensive, stays fresh longer in the bowl and helps keep teeth clean and gums healthy.
Our little carnivores need twice as much protein as we do. Dietary guidelines for adult cats call for at least 28 percent protein and 9 percent fat.
Protein comes from meat, poultry, fish and most of their by-products. It also comes from dairy products such as yogurt and cheese. Look for cat food with one of those protein sources leading the list of ingredients.
Then check the fine print for the "Guaranteed Analysis." A bag of dry food I just bought shows it contains 35 percent protein and 10 percent moisture. (Discounting the moisture, the protein makes up about 38 percent of the dry matter.) That's good.
A can of food from my pantry says the content is about 10 percent protein and 75 percent moisture. (The protein is 40 percent of the dry matter.) That's even better.
The cat eating out of a can gets more moisture in his food, so the one eating dry food needs more water on the side. A dry-food eater who doesn't drink at least 7 ounces of water a day is at risk of developing urinary tract problems.
Expensive food tends to be more nutritious. It also is nutritionally more dense. Cats eating it are well-fed and satisfied with a small amount. That helps offset the higher price.
You can save money by mixing pricey dry stuff with a brand that costs less. You can feed a combination such as less costly canned food with higher priced kibble. You can supplement the cat food with protein-rich kitty snacks and "people food" It's the total daily percentage of protein that counts.
Cats can have people food - cooked fish, poultry, meat, liver, wild game or eggs - in place of cat food once or twice a week. Canned tuna counts as people food. So do sardines, which are loaded with the vitamins and minerals on which cats thrive.
You can't give them people food all the time because it does not provide enough of the specific nutrients essential to cats, notably taurine.
Full-grown cats do not need milk, and it can give them diarrhea. However, a once-a-week treat of two tablespoons of milk or cream is fine.
My cats look forward to "kitty treats." I buy those that are high in protein. At dinner time, if I'm fixing something that smells good to the kitties, I give them each a bite. They also love thin slivers of cheese. A friend's cat begs for yogurt.
My older cat, Clementine, developed her tastes in the company of a teen-aged boy. Together, they would scarf down buffalo wings, pepperoni pizza, Cheese-Its and angel food cake. She still loves all of the above. She also is a remarkably healthy 18-year-old.
And right now she is snoozing on the floor with only back legs and tail showing. The rest of her is inside the cat food bag I was studying.
Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.