Cat Basics


Table of Contents                                                                        
The Basics
Indoor or Outdoor?
What Does A Cat Cost?

The Basics

Cats are not simply small dogs. They have their own unique requirements for care. Before getting a cat, it is important to consider how you will care for it and what you will need. Cats can live very long lives compared to other pets. On average, you should be prepared for a 12-18 year commitment to your cat.

Most cats instinctively understand how to use a litter box and require little house-training. There are several varieties of litter, but the two main categories are clumping and non-clumping. Clumping litter will stick to a cat’s waste and form lumps that are easy to scoop out. Litter boxes using clumping litter must be cleaned regularly and should be topped off as needed to maintain a depth of 2-4 inches in the bottom of the box. Occasionally, it is recommended to entirely empty and clean the box. Non-clumping litters do not stick to waste. A litter box with non-clumping litter must be emptied entirely every time it is cleaned in order to maintain hygiene. Pregnant women should avoid cleaning litterboxes. Toxoplasmosis-causing bacteria is carried by some cats. While toxoplasmosis usually causes no symptoms in healthy adult humans, it can cause harm to a fetus or infant.

Cats require surfaces to scratch in order to mark their territory. When a cat scratches an object, the scent glands in its paws let other cats know that it has been there. This is why scratching posts are important, especially for cats that have all of their claws, so that they do not ruin your furniture or carpet. However, even cats that have been declawed will still stretch and rub their paws on whatever is available and they may appreciate something dedicated to them. A cat can be taught to use a scratching post by placing the post near whatever they are already scratching (your couch, for example) and gently redirecting the cat until it is using the post. Rubbing catnip on the scratching post can also encourage the cat to scratch it.

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Cats have different nutritional needs than dogs. They are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat a meat-based diet in order to get all of the nutrients they require. There are many kinds of commercial cat foods that will meet these needs. Making a custom diet at home is also an option, provided that you work with your vet or pet nutritionist to ensure it is complete and balanced to keep your cat happy and healthy. No matter what food you choose, keep an eye on your cat’s Body Condition Score to make sure it maintains a healthy weight. Changes in weight can indicate serious underlying health problems. Being too far over or under its ideal weight can cause or contribute to health problems, as well.

The three main types of commercial cat food are kibble, canned, and raw.

Kibble (or dry food) is what most people think of first when they picture pet food: small pellets of concentrated nutrition. It has many advantages. For instance, kibble is inexpensive compared to other kinds of food. It is also very convenient to serve because it can simply be put in a bowl. Kibble is also very nutrient-dense, meaning that there is a lot of nutrition packed into a small amount of kibble. However, these factors also mean it is very easy to accidentally feed too much kibble. This can cause an upset stomach, or simply result in a fat cat. Kibble also contains very little moisture, so it is important to make sure that your cat is drinking enough water. Cats naturally get most of their water from their food, so when they are fed a dry diet, it is easy for them to become dehydrated. Kibble is also generally higher in carbohydrates than other types of food. The carbs help the kibble maintain its shape. However, cats have no dietary need for carbohydrates. These ingredients are essentially just fillers.

Canned food (AKA wet food) is the other major variety of pet food: meat and gravy in a can. It contains more moisture than kibble, which helps to prevent dehydration. Cans are generally in between kibble and raw food, in terms of cost. Feeding canned food may be less convenient than kibble because it takes a little more time to serve and you may have to store a partial can in your refrigerator, but canned food requires less preparation than raw. Canned foods are often lower in carbohydrates than kibble, but this is not always the case. In particular, canned foods with lots of gravy tend to be higher in carbohydrates. Because of the different water contents, it is important to compare nutrient value on a dry matter basis. This shows the amount of a nutrient contained in a portion of food after all of the water is removed.

Raw diets are a newer development in commercial pet food. They are based on the belief that cats developed to hunt for their food and that the less processed a food is, the more natural it is for the cat. Raw foods retain more natural nutrients and enzymes, so they require fewer synthetic supplements than more heavily processed foods like kibble and cans. They may be frozen, freeze-dried, or dehydrated. Frozen raw foods require preparation because they must be thawed in advance. Heating the food (in a microwave, for example) can destroy the nutrients. The best ways to thaw are overnight in the refrigerator or shortly ahead of feeding time, submerged in a bowl of cool water. Freeze-dried foods are like astronaut food for cats. They can be fed “as-is” in pellet or nugget form or they can be re-hydrated by adding a little water and waiting a short amount of time. Dehydrated foods are generally lumped in with raw foods due to their minimal processing, but they are often steam cooked before dehydrating, so they are not truly raw. They come in a powder or flaky form and must be re-hydrated in water before serving. It is important to remember that raw foods are just that: raw. While most raw diets are tested for pathogens and contaminants multiple times before they ever reach a pet store shelf, proper food safety must still be taken into account to prevent contamination. Stainless steel dishes are ideal for feeding raw foods because it is a non-porous material, so bacteria cannot grow in it. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands and all surfaces the food touched in hot, soapy water after feeding.

One hot topic right now in pet foods is traditional versus grain-free foods. Traditional foods use grains such as corn, wheat, or rice as carbohydrate sources, to help the food hold its shape or to make the gravy in canned food. Grain-free foods use other ingredients such as potatoes, peas, or tapioca. Almost all pet foods (and absolutely all kibbles) will contain some amount of carbohydrates. The issue is the quantity and digestibility of the carbs in the food. Cats do not digest grains very effectively, but a grain-free cat food is not necessarily lower in carbohydrates. Regardless of whether you choose a traditional or grain-free food for your cat, it is important to read the label to see the ingredients and guaranteed analysis so you understand what your pet is actually eating.

Many cat owners are choosing rotational diets for their cats. A rotational diet is simply not feeding the same food for every meal forever. This can mean anything from switching flavors or brands of kibble when the previous bag runs out to feeding raw for one meal and cans for the next. The benefits of rotational feeding include a wider variety of nutrients in the diet, as well as having a ready-made backup plan in case one food in your rotation is out of stock or discontinued.

Choosing the Right Diet

Body Condition Score (BCS)

Home-made Diets

Dry Matter Basis Nutrient Calculator

  • Automatically converts the values on a food label to dry-matter values for easy comparison between foods

Carbohydrate Calculator

  • Pet food labels are not required to list carbohydrate content. This calculator determines the amount of carbs in a food, based on the amount of other nutrients.

Rotational Feeding

Transitioning Cat Foods


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Indoor or Outdoor?
There is much debate surrounding whether cats should be kept strictly indoors or allowed to roam outside. Most arguments boil down to whether indoor cats can express natural behaviors and whether outdoor cats are safe.

Indoor cats need environmental enrichment in order to stay active, both physically and mentally. This enrichment can come in many forms, including furniture to climb on, toys to play with (and someone to play with them), or feeding dishes designed for cats to “hunt” their kibble.

Outdoor cats face risks that indoor cats do not, such as predators or being hit by cars. If your cat goes outside, be sure it has identification so that everyone knows it belongs to you. Microchips are tiny metal implants placed between a cat’s shoulder blades. These can be connected to your information, but they must be scanned (usually at a shelter or vet’s office) in order for the information to be accessible. A collar with an ID tag is a more visible way for your neighbors to know the cat has an owner. However, cat collars are designed to break apart if they are snagged on something. This feature makes sure that your cat isn’t choked or injured if its collar gets caught and that its collar can’t trap it if it is being chased. The ideal way to identify your cat is with both a microchip and a collar. Indoor cats are often microchipped as well, as a precautionary measure in case they run away or get lost. Identification helps make sure that well-meaning neighbors won’t take your cat into their home thinking it’s a stray. It also means that someone can contact you if your cat is found injured.



Routine vet care

Routine vet care is what all cats should receive on a regular basis. This includes wellness check-ups and vaccines. Wellness check-ups are typically done once a year (or more often in older cats), to make sure your cat is healthy. These check-ups also help you and your vet know what is normal for your cat, in order to make accurate comparisons if something seems abnormal.



Many vaccines are available for cats. Different cats have have different vaccination needs. For example, outdoor cats are typically vaccinated against Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV), but indoor cats often are not. This is because outdoor cats are more likely to be exposed to strange cats that may or may not be infected. Kittens will need multiple rounds of booster shots to be sure the vaccine will be effective, just like human children. It is important to talk to your vet about what diseases your cat should be vaccinated against.

Most cats should receive FVRCP and rabies vaccines. FVRCP stands for Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, and Panleukopenia. It is one vaccine that covers several common and highly contagious diseases. Rabies cases are becoming less common with every passing year, but it is still important to vaccinate your cat against it. Prevention is the key because once symptoms appear, rabies is always fatal.

Basic First- Aid

Spay/ Neuter

Common diseases/Health Problems

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Scratching is a natural behavior for cats. Cats scratch to stretch their muscles, shed old cuticle, sharpen their claws, and leave scent marks. Scratching posts let cats scratch while saving your furniture and carpets! Learn how to choose the right scratching post and how to manage your cat’s scratching behaviors at


Trimming your cat’s nails

Nail trims are an easy and often overlooked, way to reduce damage from scratching. You can clip off the sharp tips of your cat’s claws about once a week. There are several types of nail trimmers designed especially for cats. These are better than your own nail clipper because they won’t crush the nail bed.


Before trimming your cat’s claws, accustom her to having her paws handled and squeezed. You can do this by gently petting her legs and paws while giving her a treat. This will help to make it a more pleasant experience.


Gradually increase the pressure so that petting becomes gentle squeezing, as you’ll need to do this to extend the claw. Continue with the treats until your cat tolerates having her feet handled. When she is ready, apply a small amount of pressure to the cat’s paw, with your thumb on top of her paw and your index finger underneath, until a claw is extended. Near the cat’s nail bed you should be able to see a pink area, called the “quick”, which is a small blood vessel.


Don’t cut into the pink portion of the nail because it will bleed and be painful for the cat. Cut off just the sharp tip of the claw to dull the claw. Go slowly with your cat or she may become fearful of having her nails trimmed. To begin with, trim just one foot each day. As your cat becomes accustomed to having her nails clipped you can trim all four feet at the same time.  There is a video here to show you how it is done.


If you prefer not to trim your cat’s nails, you can purchase soft plastic caps that fit over the nail. Nail caps are available under the brand name Soft Paws and are available in a variety of sizes and colors. For more information on nail caps please visit

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What Does A Cat Cost?

When considering whether cat ownership is right for you, be sure to think about your budget. Depending on your vet, vaccines usually cost $15-$30 apiece. Exam fees vary, as well. If you leave town, who will take care of your cat? Boarding facilities and in-home pet sitters charge different amounts for different services. You may choose to have your cat professionally groomed and this is also an expense to take into account.

Food costs may seem straightforward, but can be confusing. While price is not the most important factor to consider in choosing a food, it definitely plays a role. One of the best ways to compare food costs is to determine the cost per serving of the food. This requires a little bit of math. Here are a few examples.

Kibble A costs $9.99 for a 6-pound bag. An average ten-pound cat needs to eat about 2/3 cup per day. If we assume that one cup of kibble weighs about four ounces, then this bag will last approximately 36 days. This works out to about 38 cents per day to feed this food.

Kibble B costs $25.99 for a 6.6 pound bag. An average ten pound cat needs to eat about 1/2 cup per day of this kibble. If we assume that one cup of kibble weighs about four ounces, then this bag will last approximately 53 days. This works out to about 49 cents per day to feed this food. While this food is more expensive, it is not as costly as it initially appears. If you prefer its ingredients and guaranteed analysis, this may be the food for you.

Canned food A costs $2.19 for one 5.5 oz can. An average ten-pound cat would need to eat about 1 and 1/4 cans per day. This works out to about $2.74 per day. Of course, you can’t buy a partial can. In four days, you would use five cans and would spend $10.96.

Canned food B costs 67 cents for one 3 oz can. An average ten-pound cat would need to eat about 4 and a half cans daily. This works out to about $3.02 per day. In four days, you would use 18 cans and would spend $12.08. While canned food A looks more expensive at first glance, it ends up costing less in the long-run.


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