Over the last 15 years, idiopathic hypercalcemia has emerged to become the most common cause of hypercalcemia in cats (1-8). Although the underlying cause of this syndrome remains unclear, it is very likely that the cats' diet may be involved, especially the feeding of acidifying, magnesium-restricted diets designed to minimize struvite crystalluria and urolithiasis (9,10). For more information, see my last post on What's Causing Idiopathic Hypercalcemia in Cats?
Before the introduction of high-carbohydrate, magnesium-restricted acidifying diets by the pet food industry, cats did not develop idiopathic hypercalcemia — at least it was never reported until 1999, (1) and I certainly did not see a cat until the mid-1990s.
I generally start with diet modification as a first-line treatment. If an acidifying diet is being fed, it should be discontinued. However, it may not always be clear that the cat food being fed is an acidifying diet — one should always closely examine the ingredient list to look for the presence of an added urinary acidifier, such as dl-methionine, phosphoric acid, and ammonium chloride.
Although feline urine is normally mildly acidic, feeding cats commercial diets containing high amounts of carbohydrate (e.g., starch and fiber) will result in an alkaline urine pH (11,12). Therefore, many commercial cat food diets contain added acidifiers in order to “counteract” the alkalizing effects of the high carbohydrate diet, even when it is not promoted as a urinary tract diet.
No matter what type of diet is chosen, it is best to feed a wet-only diet to promote urinary dilution and lessen the chance for calcium oxalate stones (13). To this end, we have a variety of different types of cat food diets that have been proposed to help lower calcium in cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia (3-8).
Diets Recommended in the Literature
High fiber diets (e.g., Purina OM Overweight Management, Iams Intestinal Plus Low-Residue, Hill’s w/d) will restore normocalcemia in some cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia and calcium oxalate urolithiasis (1,5). The effects of fiber on intestinal absorption are complex and depend on the type and amount of fiber, as well as the interactions with other nutrients in the diet. However, these “high fiber diets” are usually supplemented with extra calcium; therefore, calcium content does not explain why these diets are occasionally helpful in treating idiopathic hypercalcemia. Again, changing from an acidifying diet to any diet that is less acidifying (such as high fiber) would be expected to be beneficial.
Another option, of course, would be to feed a lower calcium diet and add fiber to the diet (e.g., psyllium for a mixed-fiber source or guar gum for an all-soluble source) (8). However, because high-fiber diets tend to be lower in protein, cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia chronically fed these diets can loose lean muscle mass to become muscle wasted (14,15). This is especially true if the cat’s appetite is poor, a sign present in some cats with this syndrome (1-8).
Overall, I do not find high-fiber diets to be helpful in the vast majority of cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia and no longer recommend these diets.
Prescription kidney diets (e.g., Purina NF Kidney Function, Royal Canin Renal LP Modified, Iams Renal Plus, Hill’s k/d) also may result in normocalcemia in some cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia (5,6). Although these renal diets appear less acidifying than most maintenance or high-fiber diets, many renal diets still contain added dl-methionine. Most renal diets are low in calcium, so its decreased consumption should lead to a decrease in the amount of calcium absorbed (4).
Remember, however, that renal diets are also restricted in phosphorus, which may lead to increased calcitriol (active vitamin D) synthesis by the kidney; the action of this increased serum calcitriol could offset the advantage of the decreased calcium absorption in cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia (5,16).
Overall, because these diets are lower in protein, renal diets are not my first choice — with time, cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia can become muscle wasted on these diets (14,15).
Diets for calcium oxalate urolithiasis
Canned diets developed to prevent calcium oxalate urolithiasis (e.g., Royal Canin Urinary SO, Purina UR Urinary St/Ox, Iams Urinary-O Plus Moderate pH/O, Hill’s c/d) may be beneficial in the treatment of cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia (5,6). These diets are restricted in calcium and tend to be less acidifying, resulting in a neutral urine pH in most cats. However, some still contain dl-methionine, which should definitely be avoided. Some of these diets are also restricted in oxalic acid, which may help prevent the calcium oxalate stones that develop in 10-15% of cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia.
However, I do not find any of these “calcium oxalate” diets to be very helpful in normalizing the high ionized calcium concentrations found in cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia. Therefore, I cannot strongly recommend these diets, especially if no calcium oxalate stones are present.
Diets That I Recommend
Canned commercial diets with a "natural" macronutrient composition
Feeding commercial canned diets with a composition similar to what cats would eat in the wild—i.e., 40-60% protein, 30-50% fat, and <15% carbohydrates (17-20)— will also be beneficial in lowering serum calcium concentrations in some cats, particularly those with mild forms of idiopathic hypercalcemia.
One can use the online “Protein/Fat/Carbs Chart” found at www.catinfo.org to select a canned cat food that will provide a nutritional composition similar to what cats would ingest in small prey (e.g., small rodents, birds, and insects). Although this diet composition will result in an acidic urine pH (normal for cats), a high-protein diet is preferable over added acidifiers for prevention of struvite crystal formation in cats (12,21) and is not associated with the same degree of metabolic acidosis.
In addition to the macronutrient composition, one should ensure that the canned food selected does not have any added acidifiers (e.g., dl-methionine, phosphoric acid, or ammonium chloride) and is not a magnesium-restricted diet. A diet with a relatively low vitamin D content (< 5 μg [< 200 IU]/1000 kcal) is recommended. Although feeding a low-calcium diet may be ideal, none of the available commercial cat foods are calcium-restricted.
Home-prepared diet restricted in both calcium and vitamin D
For more control over the exact macronutrient, mineral, and vitamin D content of the cats’ diet, feeding a specially formulated, home-prepared diet is recommended. Some cats, especially those with mild ionized hypercalcemia, will show a good response to a diet restricted in both calcium and Vitamin D (22). Such diets must be specially formulated, since none of the commercial cat food diets could be low in either calcium or vitamin D content and still meet AAFCO guidelines to be a “complete and balanced” diet (23).
Again, I recommend formulating this diet to have a macronutritional composition similar to what cats would eat in the wild (i.e., 40-60% protein, 30-50% fat, and < 10% carbohydrates). Products containing high concentrations of vitamin D, such as organ meats and fish oil, should be avoided (22). Calcium content should be kept restricted to 600 mg per 1000 kcal of diet (in contrast, the minimal adult maintenance requirement set by AAFCO is 1500 mg per 1000 kcal) (23). Magnesium should not be restricted, and acidifiers should never be added.
Ideally, this home-prepared diet is formulated under the guidance of a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that it is nutritionally adequate for the cat. If no response is detected after a month or two on this restricted calcium diet, alternative medical therapies (e.g., glucocorticoids, alendronate) should be considered.
My Bottom Line
In cats with idiopathic hypercalcemia, clinical signs and the associated degree of ionized hypercalcemia are usually mild, at least at diagnosis. In general, the severity of hypercalcemia in these cats tends to be slowly progressive.
Therefore, as the first step in management of these cats, I recommend changing their diet to a canned food that has a macronutrient composition closer to a cat’s carnivorous diet in the wild — in other words, high protein, moderate fat, very low carbs, not magnesium-restricted, and no added acidifiers (17-20). Remember that, at least as far as we know, cats eating this way for many hundreds of years did not develop idiopathic hypercalcemia, so I'm hoping that Mother Nature knows best when it comes down to what these cats should be fed.
One should monitor ionized calcium concentrations at 4 and 8 weeks during this initial dietary change. If hypercalcemia persists, the diet can be switched to a home-prepared, formulated calcium- and vitamin D-restricted diet (22). Again, I would still maintain a macronutrient composition that mimics a cat’s natural diet.
If nutritional management fails to normalized ionized calcium concentrations or hypercalcemia is severe, drug therapy with glucocorticoids (e.g., daily oral prednisolone) or bisphosphonates (e.g., weekly oral alendronate) can be initiated (5-8,24). However, both of these drugs can produce adverse side effects (i.e., diabetes mellitus and esophagitis, respectively), so I prefer to withhold drug therapy until absolutely needed (8,25).
Once drug therapy has been instituted, I would still maintain the feeding a low-carb, high-protein canned diet to these cats. The higher protein intake will help maintain lean body mass, whereas the lower carbohydrates may help mitigate the diabetic effects of the high doses of prednisolone that may be needed to control hypercalcemia.
But in some cats, we'll be lucky, and the hypercalcemia will resolve after a change in the cat's diet to one with a nutrient composition closer to the food they were designed to eat. And in a few of those cats, the ionized calcium concentrations will remain normal for months to years, without the need for drug therapy.
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