Our Guide to Cat Food: Dry Food Emphasis
It’s easy to be overwhelmed walking into a pet food store or shopping online, confronted with so many choices, so many studies, and so many conflicting opinions.
Sadly, shopping for pet food is intended to be confusing. The general regulations regarding pet food continue to be heavily influenced by the manufacturers of cat and dog food. And while there are hundreds of brands on the shelves and online, most of it in the US is made by the same group of manufacturers. These companies mass-produce food that’s very similar, with variations in formulas, packaging, and marketing strategy.
You probably know what a friend or family member feeds their cat. Maybe they buy bags of cheap kibble right off the shelf at the grocery store shelf, or perhaps they cook human-grade meals for their cat all week long. What is right for your kitty and lifestyle?
Our team has done the hard work and hundreds of hours of research for you. Based on scientific studies, data, testing, and interviews with our own trusted vets, our guide will help you make informed choices on cat food. Learn what goes into cat food, how to read labels and the pet food industry’s role in defining standards. In this review and guide, we’re covering dry food.
Dry Cat Food: Overview
Dry food for cats is a relatively new product in the US. With the invention of extrusion in pet food processing in the 1950s, it became possible to mass-manufacture kibble with a much longer shelf life than a fresh or canned food diet. But like anything, the more it’s processed, the fewer naturally-occurring nutrients remain. And it has a lot of additives to keep it palatable to cats. It is true that a dry food diet is not biologically correct due to the low moisture content. Many pet owners supplement with canned wet food or use other means to get their kitties to drink more water.
There are many high-quality and premium brands of dry food on the market with high-quality protein, low carbohydrate content, and while they cost considerably more than cheaper kitty food, you don’t have to feed your cat as much of it.
Some cats prefer cheap dry cat food as it’s all they’ve known and like human junk food junkies, they like the taste of the carbohydrates, flavors, and other ingredients manufacturers add to make it appealing.
It can be challenging to find an affordable solution that gets your cat the high-quality protein content and the moisture she needs in her diet.
Forms of Commercial Dry Cat Food:
- Dehydrated or freeze-dried raw
- Usually comes in nuggets/patties that can be fed as is or reconstituted
- Without reconstitution, does not contain a biologically appropriate level of moisture for a cat’s diet
- Allow flexibility in feeding, you can add as little or as much water as you like, and put on your kitty’s food as a topper/additive, or feed her an exclusive diet
- Premium dry food that has been baked, not extruded
- Comes nuggets or “kibbles” in various sizes
- Baking results in a lower risk of carcinogens than the extrusion process
- Premium dry food made that has been extruded
- Comes nuggets or “kibbles” in various sizes
- The extrusion process may form carcinogenic compounds in food
- Prescription or breed-specific diets
- Typically contain low-quality proteins and excessive carbohydrates and fillers
- May be helpful in resolving short-term
- Not suitable for long-term use
- A revenue source for many veterinary practices
- Store-brand dry foods
- Frequently contain low-quality “mystery meat” proteins, toxic preservatives, and excessive carbohydrates and fillers
- Processed at such high temperatures that synthetic or non-naturally-occurring vitamins have to be added back in to meet nutritional requirements
The Real “Science” Diet:
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning their diet requires nutrients found in other animals. They can certainly ingest plant matter (found in digestive tracts of prey animals) but their bodies cannot properly metabolize nutrients from it.
Cats are not vegans and never have been. Excessive carbohydrates in their diets will put their bodies under stress. A diet based solely on plant-based protein will leave them without essential amino acids. Ever wonder why some cats get smaller as they age? Our felines require specific types of protein to maintain blood glucose requirements, and if they do not get enough of it, their body will break down its own muscles and organs to obtain it.
A biologically appropriate diet isn’t a fad. It’s how every other cat in the world eats.
- Your cat’s jaws open and close up and down with a lateral mandibular swing, meaning food is not chewed and ground down as a herbivore or omnivore creature like a cow might.
- Her eating style means tearing her food and gulping it down with little to no chewing.
- She has a short digestive tract for fast digestion and expelling with little to no fermentation
- Your cat has a low thirst drive as in the wild she’d get most of her water from prey, which is usually between 65%-75% water
The ideal diet for your cat contains:
- Low carbohydrates
- Moderate fats content
- High levels of moisture
- High level of quality protein
- Minimal preservatives and additives
Your little furbaby is a carnivore, and even though she is domesticated, her body is not designed to eat most commercial food. Even so, a cat will eat what they must or what they are accustomed to, even if it’s making them sick or slowly killing them. Most cats do not have the opportunity to go out and hunt their own food. They eat what you put in the bowl. After all, what choice do they have?
Food as Preventative Medicine:
The struggle used to be just finding food that your cat would regularly eat and hopefully not throw up as often. We now know that what you feed your kitty is one of the most important factors in her risk factor for disease.
Most veterinarians are not focused on nutrition for your cat until she becomes sick. They are not trained to do so. When your cat gets sick, many vets recommend a “prescription” food, which is usually extremely overpriced. Most “prescription” foods are the worst thing you could do for an animal who is very likely already sick from eating processed food her body wasn’t designed to digest in the first place.
The bulk of research on pet food is funded by the pet food industry. The pet food industry designs curriculum for the nutrition training veterinarians receive in school. When these vets recommend switching a pet to a fresh food diet, it is almost always a temporary approach initiated by a health problem rather than a recommendation for ongoing health and prevention of future disease.
When your cat’s body has to work twice as hard to try and gain nutrients from an inappropriate diet, it can cause serious problems for her long-term health.
Moisture in Your Cat’s Diet:
Remember, your cat’s diet should be as high in moisture as possible because her instincts to drink water aren’t very strong… unless she’s one of those kitties who loves a drip from a faucet somewhere in the house. We recommend if your cat is on a dry food diet that you have multiple sources of water for her to drink from, including a pet fountain, so she always has a source of fresh, clean water.
Most canned foods have 75%-78% moisture compared to dry foods, which average between 10% and 15%.
Guide to Ingredients & Labels:
Nutritional adequacy, digestibility, natural, premium, organic… what does it all mean?
As we said before, buying pet food is meant to be confusing and billion-dollar marketing campaigns play on our emotions and love for our animals. Understand that your beloved talk show host does not spend her days in a giant kitchen cutting up prime cuts of meat just for your kitty and “gourmet” and “premium” mean nothing in the regulatory world.
First of all, we’re going to discuss some of the common terms you see on packaging and in descriptions.
The FDA and AAFCO require foods with this verbiage to provide a complete level of nutrition, established by the AAFCO. If it does not state that “(Product Name) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles,” it’s not going to be good as the sole source of nutrition you feed your animal .
“All Life Stages, For Maintenance, For Growth, For Senior Cats”
The nutritional adequacy standards for various stages of life are different. Obviously kittens or reproducing mama kitties need different levels of nutrition than an adult cat of normal activity. There is no nutritional standard or guideline for a senior cat, other than it meet the needs of an adult maintenance diet.
“Premium, ultra premium, super premium”
These mean nothing and there is no standard they are required to meet.
This is one area that does have some (laughable) oversight. If this wasn’t something we were feeding our beloved felines, we’d be amused. According to AAFCO:
(1) In the AAFCO-defined feed term “natural,” the use of the term “natural” is only acceptable in reference to the product as a whole when all of the ingredients and components of ingredients meet the definition.
(2) In the definition, the use of the term “natural” is false and misleading if any chemically synthesized ingredients are present in the product; however, AAFCO recommends that exceptions be made in the cases when chemically synthesized vitamins, minerals, or other trace nutrients are present as ingredients in the product, provided that the product is not a dietary supplement and that a disclaimer is used to inform the consumer that the vitamins, minerals or other trace nutrients are not natural.
However—“Exceptions be made when the term “natural” is used only in reference to a specific ingredient (e.g. “natural cheese flavor”) even though the product as a whole may not meet the definition of the AAFCO-defined feed term “natural” and that the reference does not imply that the product as a whole is “natural.”
Next, let’s dive into the ingredients. We’ve picked some of the most common ingredients encountered in cat food, both good and bad, expensive and cheap.
Cats in the wild typically only consume carbohydrates contained in the digestive systems of their prey.
Even expensive cat foods often have high levels of carbohydrates in their foods because it is cheap to use. These products have a high glycemic index, causing them to raise your pet’s blood sugar levels, change hormone balances, cause obesity/digestive problems in a cat. Worse, they can aggravate allergies. It is best to try and keep the percentage of carbohydrates your cat eats in her food at 10% or lower.
Do you notice how manufacturers never list the carbohydrate content on packages? They don’t have to, and most won’t. That’s because most cat food is packed with it. And it’s the worst thing you can feed a feline whose body is not designed to metabolize it. A consumer cannot tell the carbohydrate content of a cat food based off their label alone.
If your cat’s food contains high-carb/high glycemic ingredients such as grains, potatoes, peas, etc. it has carbohydrates.
You eat grains, so it’s ok for your pet to, right? Chances are, your pet is not eating the same grade of grain that went into the bread you just used to make a sandwich.
Grain rejected for human consumption heads straight to the pet food factory- After all, it is not required to meet the same standard. Grains in pet food may include unacceptable levels of deadly substances:
- Herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides sprayed onto the crops (often occurring in grains sourced from the outside the US)
- Mycotoxins– substances produced by mold growing in grain that may not be completely destroyed by cooking/processing
Ingredients like guar gum, carrageenan, xanthan gum are added to commercial cat food, especially in pouch foods with “gravy” and sauces” as these likely have these emulsifiers in them to make them thick.
- Carrageenan is derived from seaweed and processed with alkali for use as a “natural” ingredient to thicken food. When processed with acid, or “degraded,” it is extremely inflammatory to the point where scientists use it to induce inflammation in lab animals. Carrageenan may change to a degraded and highly inflammatory form once it is exposed to the acids in the stomach.
No legal requirement currently exists in the US to label these. Some are not harmful to your cat in moderation but they are not clearly labeled. Some of these may not be in the ingredient list for your kitty’s food. However, it does not mean that the raw material used to make that food did not have it added before it went to the manufacturer.
Common offending preservatives to avoid:
- Sulfite/Potassium sulfite– leads to Vitamin B deficiencies
- BHA, BHT- Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene are antioxidants that prevent rancidity in the fatty contents of cat food
- Ethoxyquin– antioxidant preservative originally developed by Monsanto as a rubber stabilizer and pesticide- later refined for use in pet foods
- Ethoxyquin is added to fish meal before it reaches the manufacturer and may still be present in the food even if it’s not listed on the ingredient list
- Nitrate, Sodium Nitrate
- Preservatives that are better suited for your kitty include Vitamin C and E, and these may be referred to as tocopherols
- Rosemary Extract is commonly used as a preservative in higher-end foods
These are not ideal for cats due to inferior amino acid profiles. Your cat is not a vegetarian or vegan and without animal proteins, she will be malnourished. The research does not show that a cat can thrive on a vegan diet. You may choose it for yourself, but it’s not biologically appropriate for your cat. I once overheard my favorite vet telling somebody that “If you want an herbivore for a pet, you should get a rabbit. “
- Soy ingredients- Soybeans and derivative products can affect a cat’s thyroid and contain phytoestrogens. There is no reason for a soy product to be in a food other than that it’s cheap and helps a company’s bottom line.
- Soybean Protein Concentrate- a product made from soybeans that removes carbohydrate content from the soybean leaving behind protein. This process can reduce the quality of the included protein.
- Wheat Gluten- made from a wheat flour dough that is processed to remove starches, leaving behind only gluten, a substance used as a filler and to boost protein content.
- Legumes: These commonly used ingredients include lentils, peas, pea flour, pea protein, chickpeas, etc. that all contain a relatively high level of carbohydrates. These may boost the protein content of food and are certainly better than grains like corn or wheat, but they still contain carbohydrates.
- Pseudo grains- Pseudo grains that are growing in popularity in pet foods include amaranth and quinoa. They both contain high levels of naturally occurring protein, minerals, and fiber but may still break down into excess sugar in the wrong quantity.
Proteins: Animal Based:
The requirement for protein in a cat’s diet is critical. Animal-based proteins offer your cat a complete amino acid profile, something plant-based proteins lack. There are 23 specific amino acids a cat requires to be healthy, and 10 of them she cannot produce herself, meaning she must get them through her food. Even one missing from her diet can make her ill. As an example:
- Arginine helps your cat’s body flush ammonia from her body through urine, and without it, the buildup of ammonia in her bloodstream could become toxic
- Taurine deficiency can result in retinal degeneration/blindness, hearing loss, cardiomyopathy, heart failure, weakened immune system, and congenital defects passed on to any kittens she may have. Taurine is only found in animal proteins.
If these are missing or deficient in her diet, your cat will rapidly become malnourished. Her body will begin to break down and cannibalize itself.
The higher quality of animal protein in the food, the more nutrients will be in it, and the easier it will be for your kitty to digest and absorb. Not all protein is the same. There are foods that contain high-quality meat as the primary source of protein and there are foods with “mystery” meat that you don’t even want to know about.
Cheap protein that is derived from rendered meat by-products has very little nutritional value and can put stress on your cat’s digestive system. Over years this can lead to chronic conditions caused by your cat’s body struggling to glean nutrients from terrible food.
Characteristics of high-quality proteins:
- Fresh muscle, organ meat (muscles, liver, connective tissues)
- Retain higher level of moisture (or in freeze-dried, will absorb it back upon reconstitution)
- Contain high levels of nutrients
- Generate the least metabolic stress
Characteristics of low-quality proteins:
- Rendered mystery meat “meat by-products” (i.e. feathers, bits from the slaughterhouse floor)
- Require artificial flavors/fats to be sprayed on it for a pet to want to eat it
- High temperature for rendering process destroys much of the nutritional value
- Additives, preservatives, flavorings and fillers must then be added to meet basic nutrition standards
The Difference Between Meat, Named By-Products, “Meat” By-products, and Meat Meals:
Note that the AAFCO’s definitions of the following ingredients indicate that they do not include problematic and nutritionally deficient parts of animal carcasses “except in such amounts as might occur unavoidably in good processing practices.” This can include hooves, beaks, feathers, hair, hide, contents of digestive systems including intestines, entrails, blood, hide, etc.
“Good processing practices” are not defined, and if you have observed how rendering plants operate, there is often little done to avoid these problematic bits making it into the mix.
Meat– the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that part which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh. It shall be suitable for animal food.
- Primarily the muscle tissue of the animal, but may include the fat, gristle and other tissues normally accompanying the muscle
- May include the less appealing cuts of meat, including the heart muscle and the muscle that separates the heart and lungs from the rest of the internal organs, but it is still muscle tissue.
- Does not include bone. Meat for pet food often is “mechanically separated,” a process where the muscle is stripped from the bone by machines, resulting in a finely ground product with a paste-like consistency
Named By-Products– These are by-products that specifically name the species of animal that was used to make the by-product or meal.
AAFCO allows these ingredients to include issues from animals that were never USDA inspected or slaughtered, including animals that have died during transport, in the field and even euthanized animals.
For example, AAFCOs definition of poultry by-product “consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, viscera, and whole carcasses, exclusive of added feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidably in good processing practices.
- Listed on label as chicken chicken by-product meal, turkey by-product meal, poultry by-product meal, and beef by-product meal
- Usually includes remnants of carcasses that would otherwise be rejected, such as beaks, wattles, combs, intestines (including feces), undeveloped eggs, feet, necks, etc.
Meat By-Products– the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals.
- It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially de-fatted, low-temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs/intestines freed of their contents.
- This may consist of whole carcasses, but often includes byproducts in excess of what would normally be found in meat meal and meat and bone meal.
Meat Meal– is the rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices. It shall not contain extraneous materials not provided for by this definition.
- Unlike “meat” and “meat by-products,” this ingredient may be from mammals other than cattle, pigs, sheep or goats without further description.
- “Good processing practices” are not defined, and watching videos of rendering facilities processing animals shows that these elements find their way into rendered meat products (not recommended viewing)
Chicken/Beef/Turkey/By-product Meal is something much different than chicken meal- it’s dry, ground up by-product.
- As an example, poultry meal is the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.
Fish– High in protein, fish is a common ingredient in cat food, especially since cats love the taste and smell of it. Products from fish found in cat food include:
- Fish meal– includes residue from fish-processing plants, including fish cuttings, whole fish, heads, tails, guts, etc. Fish meal may have a higher level of protein but a diet relying heavily on it may put your cat at risk for elevated levels of selenium and mercury in her body.
- Fish Oil– oil from rendering whole fish or cannery waste (!)
Rendered Meat Products:
Rendering plants in the US are where biological waste goes when it doesn’t go to a landfill. Dead, diseased, dying and disabled animals of every sort (roadkill, zoo animals, euthanized and dead pets and shelter animals), waste from restaurants and grocery stores, and the waste from slaughterhouses are all sent to rendering plants. Recalled meat? It also goes to the rendering plant.
Animals that were euthanized contain pentobarbital. This is used for anesthesia. More sobering, in euthanasia, pentobarbital is what stops their hearts and brains. Euthanized animals from farms and animal shelters end up at rendering plants. While manufacturers claim their pet food does not contain cats or dogs, it is not possible to tell from a DNA test of materials where the animal protein came from after the animal tissues have been heated and processed. As recently as 2018, a recall for pet foods containing pentobarbital was issued by the FDA. Coincidence? In low doses, it may not kill/harm your cat outright, but she could build up considerable resistance to it.
Meat, carcasses, and other animal tissue from slaughterhouses are often treated with disinfectant to slow down the process of decomposition of animal tissues so they aren’t completely rotten by the time they reach the pet food factory. Carcasses that are rejected for human use or “condemned” are treated with a “denaturing” product that has to be in contact with all body parts, either by slashing and application and/or injection. Various substances are used for denaturing, to include carbolic acid, fuel oils, various coloring, charcoal, phenolic disinfectants, tannic acid, or proprietary substances.
Everything is crushed up into smaller pieces, then loaded into giant “cookers” where it’s processed at extremely high temperatures. Protein is separated from bone, run through cookers to evaporate moisture, and separate the fat. The remaining slurry is spun out forcing the fat to rise to the top. This greasy mix is the source of “animal fat” in many common pet foods. Products from rendering plants that don’t go into pet food are shipped to Asia as a product called “tankage” that is fed to seafood.
Vitamins, Minerals and other Supplements:
Because the base ingredients in most dry foods are so heavily processed and don’t contain a consistent amount of nutrients, it’s usually necessary to go in and add ingredients to make cat food meet certain nutritional requirements. To compensate for nutrients being destroyed in the manufacturing process or decreased potency while food is in storage, it’s a common practice to add higher amounts than your cat needs, which may result in some serious quality control issues and negative consequences.
Not all of the ingredients manufacturers add to meet nutritional requirements can be properly absorbed by your cat.
Vitamins added to cat food include:
- Vitamin A– retinyl palmitate, an animal source can be digested by your cat, and not the plant-based alternative (beta carotene)
- B-vitamins: riboflavin, thiamin mononitrate, choline chloride, calcium pantothenate, folic acid
- C-vitamins: ascorbic acid
- D-vitamins: cholecalciferol, methionine
- K-vitamins: menadione dimethylprimidinol bisulfite
- Menadione is a synthetic version of vitamin K meant for poultry food that is cheap to produce, can cause health problems in cats and dogs, and may not metabolize properly
Minerals added to pet food include:
- Iron proteinate, ferrous carbonate, and ferrous sulfate
- Some cat foods include ferrous sulfate as a preservative
- Copper oxide, copper sulfate, and copper proteinate
- Help the body convert iron into hemoglobin
- Too much copper can cause liver disease
- Copper sulfate is extremely corrosive and a fungicide, root killer, and antimicrobial. It does not biodegrade and is not water-soluble.
Taurine is an amino acid that both humans and dogs can synthesize within their bodies from other amino acids. Cats cannot do this and must get taurine from their diet to keep their eyes, digestive system, and immune system healthy. A biologically appropriate diet for a cat would include real meats that include good levels of Taurine.
After the manufacturing process, many pet foods have little remaining in the way of nutrients, and taurine is one of them. Unfortunately, most cat food manufacturers source taurine from China to add back into their cat foods.
Just as it has with humans, fat gets a bad rap. Moderate fat content in a cat’s food will not make her overweight, but carbohydrates will. Fats in your cat’s diet can provide essential fatty acids that her body cannot synthesize itself. These play a crucial role in helping her body absorb fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients, cell structure and healthy function.
- Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency can result in vision and nervous system problems
- Omega-6 fatty acid deficiency can affect your cat’s metabolism, kidney function, and muscular systems
- Flavoring– Palatability enhancers and additives designed to make food more attractive are usually derived from animal tissues, such as hydrolyzed livers. These are often sprayed onto dry food. Synthetic substances like smoke and bacon flavors are more commonly found in treats.
- Coloring– Many compounds for coloring are approved for use in cat foods. Coloring is to make the food look more palatable to the human dishing it up than the kitty. Iron oxide is a synthetic coloring used in pet foods to lend a reddish appearance reminiscent of fresh meat. Titanium dioxide is a color additive that brightens the colors of food.
- Fiber– Fiber is good for your cat’s digestive health and in appropriate quantities can help a kitty lose excess weight. Too much in a cat’s diet can dilute the effects of their food, so it should not amount to more than 10% .
Writing Their Own Rules: The Problem With The Cat Food Industry
Americans are discovering that the lack of adequate regulation has resulted in food that may be slowly killing their beloved pets, whether through chronic diseases, allergies, malnourishment, or dehydration.
We are not completely against commercial food, as there are many great products on the market. Many companies are finally meeting the demands of pet parents who want to feed their cats a healthier diet. Feeding your cat a more appropriate diet won’t have to break the bank either.
However, it hasn’t always been that way. Many of the “big guys” in the commercial pet food industry continue to show very little regard for the lives of animals who eat their products. Public opinion has been so heavily influenced by the pet food industry that most pet owners no longer consider feeding the kind of diet kitties in the past enjoyed and thrived on. Scraps, raw ingredients, and raw diets are seen with suspicion and maligned as harmful, risky, or “people food” and not suitable for animals.
Few other industries in the US have such obvious and detrimental conflicts of interest. Pet food regulation in the US is somewhat convoluted. The FDA advises but ultimately tasks the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) with issuing regulations. The AAFCO is a private corporation and you have to pay a significant amount of money to access the legal definitions they write. AAFCO is heavily influenced and controlled by the pet food industry and the results are clear. Don’t believe us? Just look at who’s attending the AAFCO meetings. Over half of the attendees at the most recent meeting as of this writing were employees of pet food manufacturers.
- The cat food industry heavily influences or outright subsidizes the US veterinary education system’s nutritional training.
- Regulations, government oversight and approval processes for cat food are pretty much written by the companies and entities who make it.
- The industry has a vested interest in continuing to push grain-based cat food vs. meeting the science-based nutritional needs of cats
The pet food industry is forever linked to and exploited by the human food manufacturing and agricultural industry. Corporations that produce human food produce incredible amounts of waste. As an example, nearly 50% of a cow is considered “waste” and not fit for human consumption. The pet food industry provides a market for that waste. Animals have long eaten leftovers from human food, and industrializing the process makes sense.
Unfortunately, the industry operates under little regulation with heavy influence over veterinary education. Billions of dollars sunk into marketing secure the public’s perception that what’s on the brightly colored bags is what’s going into their pets’ bowls. The ones who suffer are the cats and dogs being fed questionable food by pet parents who don’t know any better.
The Pet Food Industry’s Controlling Influence on Veterinary Nutritional Science & Prescription Diets
Unfortunately, for many veterinarians, a cat’s diet is not considered a fundamental part of an overall plan for the prevention of disease. Nutrition is not discussed at length by most vets with pet parents until the animal is ill, and by then, damage may already have been done. Think about it. When you’re in the vet’s office, it’s usually for something you’re concerned about or getting your cat caught up on her shots. Your vet might ask “And what is Fluffy eating?” and jot something down as they complete an exam. And that’s it.
The truth is that pet nutrition is a controversial and convoluted topic that won’t fit into most appointment time slots at the vet’s office. I personally found out the hard way that a nutritionist who charged a significant fee to see a beloved furbaby of mine had undergone training that was almost completely sponsored or designed by (you guessed it) a “scientific” pet food company. I walked away with their fliers and 10% off prescription diet coupons feeling like I still didn’t know what my cat needed. It is a sad truth that some veterinarians may not give you an unbiased opinion on it if their business plan includes the commission from selling “prescription” cat food. It works very much like the big pharma reps you see passing out swag, mugs, and bringing in catered lunches to doctor’s offices for humans. A company worth billions of dollars can easily afford to give away tons of free animal food to shelters, veterinarian students, and sponsor studies, universities, and anywhere else they can influence veterinarians and consumers to buy their products without hesitation. Brand recognition is everything.
“Scientific” food that is “prescribed” by a veterinarian has long been perceived by many Americans as a complete source of nutrition and the best possible way to care for their cats. Aggressive marketing makes a pet parent feel good about forking over exorbitant sums of money for food that a veterinarian or nutritionist gets a commission on selling. The truth is that most prescription diets are chock full of high-glycemic, cheap ingredients sold at a premium.
A History Of Bad, Unregulated Food
When we think of bad food, it might seem like it would affect our cats immediately in ways that are easy to see. But animals are tough, and cats have managed to make it work, living on substandard cat food for decades even though their bodies have not evolved to digest it. Unfortunately, there have been consequences. Modern pet food has contributed to a marked rise in degenerative disease, urinary problems, cancer, metabolic stress, and inflammation.
Profits have long driven what’s in cat food. Most cat food (yes, even the expensive stuff!) is unhealthy, including:
- Grain-based food, causing obesity and diabetes
- Grain-free, high glycemic diets
- Alternative protein (such as legume) sources for “vegetarian” pet diets
The commercial pet food industry is one of the newest in the US, believe it or not. Alongside advances in food preservation and processed food for humans came mass-produced pet food. Primarily sourced from whatever was left over after human food had been made, pet food evolved from biscuits and canned food to dry food. Most cats lived on scraps, and outside prey such as mice, birds, small mammals, and insects.
Towards the middle of the 20th century, pet food manufactured using the extrusion method became popular. This process involves cooking everything together, mushing it out through an extruder to shape it, baking, and eventually coating the “kibbles” in flavorings and nutrients that were lost during the baking process. Aggressive marketing and information campaigns by major pet food manufacturers soon led us to believe that dry food is best for our cats, and any “people food” is dangerous for them. This has been the mindset ever since. It was around this same time frame that American humans began consuming large quantities of processed, artificial foods, and have been suffering ever since from a litany of “epidemics” that resulted.
Special Dietary Needs
Diets for Gastrointestinal & Urinary Health
Kidney disease is sadly common in cats, especially older pets. A renal diet high in fat (including omega-3 fatty acids) and low in protein and phosphorus can extend the life of a geriatric cat, although there are currently no therapeutic standards for this kind of diet. While healthy cats require high amounts of quality protein, processing the resulting nitrogenous waste products stresses the kidneys of a cat with chronic kidney disease. Too much phosphorus can crystalize in body tissues, causing damage. The lower protein content must be balanced with higher fat to provide sufficient energy. Fat can also make a low-protein diet more appealing to a cat.
Cats with hepatic encephalopathy (a liver dysfunction) are especially vulnerable to malnutrition. A food composed of high quality protein with sufficient taurine and arginine can be essential for animals with this condition.
Cats with digestive health issues benefit from a diet that includes adequate fiber, antioxidants, fatty acids, and pre- and probiotics. Gastrointestinal issues can be mitigated by diets containing more easily digested compounds. Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) appear to result in a balance of more easily metabolized fatty acids in the digestive tract. Feeding smaller portions more frequently is also beneficial in addressing GI problems.
Urinary health foods are specially designed to have a reduced pH and low amounts of magnesium and phosphorus to eliminate or prevent kidney stones.
Some cat foods are specifically formulated to reduce the incidence of hairballs. These foods typically contain higher amounts of fiber to move ingested hair through the digestive system. They may also incorporate enzymes to reduce the accumulation of hair and the formation of hairballs in the stomach.
Diets for High Energy: Pregnancy, Lactation, and Weight Gain
Certain cats, including kittens, pregnant or lactating females, or cats who have been sick, benefit most from a high energy food. Such foods rely on a higher fat content (20% dry matter), as fat provides more energy than either carbohydrates or proteins. Pregnancy puts significant strain on a cat’s body. A pregnant female may lose as much as 38% of her body weight by the time her kittens are born. Providing a more energy dense food (high-fat and easily digestible) is preferable to simply providing extra food. Mature cats (typically over 12 or 13 years of age) may also require a higher-energy diet, possibly due to less efficient digestion of fats and proteins, if they are in danger of becoming underweight. Cats recovering from surgery or serious illness will require a high-energy (high in proteins and fat), palatable, and easily digestible diet. This reduces the amount of food the cat must consume to maintain adequate energy for healing, an important consideration where the cat’s desire to eat may be low.
Diets for Weight Loss
Maintaining a cat’s energy balance helps avoid excessive weight gain. Higher protein content and lower fat is important in maintaining a healthy metabolism and lean muscle mass. A weight control diet is lower energy (less calorie-dense) and higher in fiber.
- Increased soluble and fermentable fibers like fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and mannooligosaccharides (MOS) promote healthy eating rates.
- Insoluble fibers regulate appetite.
- Cellulose, psyllium, barley, and beets are all common fiber sources found in cat foods.
- L-carnitine, an amino acid derived from animal proteins, is another nutrient specifically added to a weight control diet to boost the breakdown of fatty acids and maintain a healthy metabolism.
Diets for Diabetic Cats
Foods for diabetic cats are created with fewer carbohydrates (which is a good idea for cats overall). Note that for a cat being treated with insulin, reducing carbohydrates in your cat’s diet may require an immediate adjustment to the insulin dosage to avoid a low blood sugar crisis.
What you choose to feed your cat is a personal choice. We know pet parents want to make the most informed choices- after all, they don’t question what we put in their bowls, so it’s up to us to arm ourselves with knowledge before we head to the pet store.
The good news is that there are more pet food options than ever to help us feed our beloved pets well and help them live their best lives.