When I got my cat, Cody, a few months ago, I was overwhelmed by the cat food choices at the pet store. All the brands have their marketing ploys designed to make you think theirs is the best or the healthiest for your cat. I know better than to believe marketing copy, but searching out a truly healthful cat food has been a daunting process. There is a lot of information on the internet, some of it excellent, some of it marketing-in-disguise, some of it just well-intentioned misinformation. So I have spent the last few months sifting through all this information, reading labels, and trying different types and brands of food all in the hope of coming up with a healthy eating regimen for Cody. I hope my research can help you too!
Canned, Dry or Both?
The bottom line on this debate, from what I’ve found, is that canned food wins – umm, paws down. It comes the closest to mimicking the composition of prey, like mice and birds, which cats have evolved to eat. Feeding your cat a diet that is wildly different from the wild will likely result in poor health conditions like urinary tract infections, kidney problems, obesity, and diabetes.
So even though canned food is more expensive than dry food, in the long run – especially in terms of veterinary bills – feeding your indoor cats canned food will probably save you money.
Why is Canned Food Better?
In a word, it’s the nutrients. Or more specifically, the balance of the nutrients. Canned food gets it right; dry food gets it terribly wrong. Let’s take a closer look.
- Water Content. Water is one of the most important nutrients for cats, but those on a dry food diet rarely get enough of it. That’s why they tend to have problems with their urinary tracts and kidneys, which in turn lead to litter box problems. Cats have what Dr. Lisa Pierson of catinfo.org calls a “low thirst drive.” She says that cats are designed to consume water with their food, not drink it separately. Canned food contains on average about 75% water, or roughly the same amount found in prey. Dry food contains only about 10% water at best so unless that cat regularly gulps from his water dish (which is highly unlikely), he’s probably not getting enough water.
- Protein. Cats are carnivores. That means they need to eat protein from meat sources in order to get all the amino acids they need. About 50% of their diet should come from meat protein. Dry food tends to contain a lot of protein from plant sources, but this is not adequate for cats. The quality of the protein in most canned foods is generally much better.
- Carbohydrates. Indoor cats do not need to eat many carbohydrates. If the energy from a carbohydrate is not used, the body converts it to fat. Cats, unlike dogs, typically don’t go for walks or runs to burn off carbs. It doesn’t take an animal behaviorist to know that cats spend most of their time sleeping! Since most dry cat food is full of filler carbohydrates, like corn, rice, and wheat, cats who eat this as a steady diet are at risk for becoming obese and/or developing diabetes. In fact, Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, has an 80% cure rate of diabetic cats by switching them to a low-carbohydrate diet. If your cat has diabetes, please visit her web site for detailed information.
Is Any Dry Food Okay?
So after all that, you may be wondering if you should feed your cat any dry food at all. This is where practical considerations come into play. In my own case, there are times when I need to be gone overnight, so I feed him small amounts of high quality, high protein dry food. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to ditch him overnight with food he’s not familiar with. So I use the dry food more as a snack and try to incorporate a little playtime after he eats it so he can burn off some of those carbs.
Dr. Pierson provides another option: simply freeze portions of your cat’s food that can be set out once daily by your cat sitter. This is a good option, depending on how reliable your cat sitter is. It’s dangerous for cats to go without food so I will still leave dry food available to him if I’m gone.
Water, Water, Water
You must make sure fresh water is available at all times for your cats. I bought Cody a Drinkwell water fountain from Drs. Foster and Smith. Cats tend to drink more water when it’s moving, and indeed, Cody’s water consumption level has increased. I often see him drinking from the spout of the fountain for a few minutes at a time. I never saw him spend this much time at his water dish. The stainless steel version of this fountain costs $99, but there are others on the market in the $40 range. Since water is so key to urinary and kidney health – which in turn is key to litter box use – I think this is a good investment.
What about a raw food diet?
A raw food diet can give your cat exactly the diet he has evolved to eat, and this method of feeding is gaining in popularity. There are raw foods available on the market, Feline’s Pride is highly recommended, or you can make it yourself. For more information on this type of diet, as well as recipes and how-to’s, please see catnutrition.org.
As with most things, when it comes to cat food and formulas, it’s best to remember the mantra, “everything in moderation.” Feed your pet a variety of foods and formulas, leaning toward more poultry and duck versus fish formulas.
Canned/Wet Cat Food
- PetSmart’s Simply Nourish*
- Wellness Chicken formula
- Nature’s Variety Instinct
- Freshpet Select
Dry Cat Food
- Wellness CORE
- Natural Balance Ultra Premium Dry
- Nature’s Variety Instinct
- Feline’s Pride
- Nature’s Variety Raw Medallions
Check your favorite pet stores for prices and availability.
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