Things to Consider
A well-balanced, tasty diet is critical to any cat’s overall health and well-being. Cat owners today have two fundamental choices to make about feeding their pets: they can either make a homemade diet, or they can feed a commercial cat food. The vast majority of cat owners in North America feed a commercially prepared diet. There are 3 main types of commercial pet food: dry, canned and semi-moist. Each of these types can be found in generic, popular and premium forms. Frozen and refrigerated diets are increasingly becoming available. Nutritional comparisons between the types should be made on a “dry matter basis,” which factors out the water content of the semi-moist and canned products. The value of any diet depends on the quality and balance of the ingredients used to make it. With so many different foods on the market today, it can be challenging for owners to figure out which diet is “best” for their cats. The following are some general guidelines about diet selection. A veterinarian is the best person to consult with about specific dietary concerns.
Guidelines for Selecting Your Cat's Diet
Cats are true carnivores that need to eat a specialized diet. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) ensures that nationally marketed pet foods are nutritionally adequate and uniformly labeled. AAFCO has published Nutrient Profiles for both cats and dogs. These provide the recommended maximum and minimum levels of key nutrients that should be included in a commercial diet for: 1) growth and reproduction, and 2) adult maintenance. Other organizations, including the National Research Council, Food and Drug Administration, United States Department of Agriculture, Pet Food Institute and Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, are also involved in the production, marketing and/or sale of pet food.
Dry Cat Food
Most dry cat food contains some form of carbohydrate product that helps to bind the kibble pieces. Usually, this is a grain, such as rice, corn or wheat. However, with the boom in the pet food industry, there are some grain-free alternatives that contain a different carbohydrate source, often potatoes or sweet potatoes. Carbohydrates are broken down during the high-heat processing of kibble, increasing their digestibility. However, because cats are carnivores, most carbohydrates in dry cat food are non-essential ”fillers.” Kibble is less expensive than canned food and can be left out all day so that the cat can eat whenever it wants to. Dry food also helps keep a cat’s teeth clean. However, low-quality dry cat food may not contain enough protein from meat sources. Some cats become dehydrated when only fed kibble, and many don’t find dry food very appetizing.
Canned Cat Food
Like other types of food, canned food comes in good and bad quality. Poor-quality canned food is packed with non-meat products and may not be complete and balanced. High-quality canned food usually has few (or no) carbohydrates and lots of fat and meat protein. Canned food tends to be the tastiest to cats. It contains a high percentage of water, which can be important because cats are prone to becoming dehydrated. Unlike kibble, canned cat food does not promote dental health and cannot be left out for long periods of time. Most cats turn their noses up at refrigerated canned food; it should be warmed to room temperature before being offered. Interestingly, cats fed from pop-top cans have a significantly greater risk of developing hyperthyroidism, probably due to some component of the can lid.
Semi-Moist Cat Food
Semi-moist food has lots of eye appeal to pet owners and often comes in shapes and colors to resemble fish, poultry or meat. However, there’s a price to all that cuteness. Semi-moist cat food usually is packed with preservatives, sugar and artificial colors. It also is more expensive than kibble, but may be a bit cheaper than canned food.
Generic/Private Label Cat Food
These are the cheapest diets, but you get what you pay for. Many generic and “store brand” cat foods are not well-balanced. They also tend to contain inexpensive, low-quality protein sources and are loaded with indigestible carbohydrates.
Popular Cat Food
The most popular cat foods are those that are advertised heavily and found in grocery stores, feed-and-farm stores and large pet supply chains. Most of these diets are well researched and nutritionally balanced. However, they usually contain a high level of grain and lower than optimal amounts of top quality meat protein.
Premium Cat Food
Premium cat foods contain high-quality protein sources and typically are extremely palatable. Because the ingredients in premium foods are packed with nutrition and highly digestible, cats tend to eat less, and spend less time in the litter box, which actually brings the cost of premium diets down to a fairly reasonable level. Premium cat food can be purchased at specialty pet supply stores, some feed stores, veterinary clinics and online.
A cat’s dietary needs change throughout its life. It is important to feed the right diet during the different stages of life: growth/kittenhood, adulthood and the geriatric golden years. Highly active cats, pregnant queens and lactating females have additional nutritional requirements. Cats with specific medical conditions, such as bladder stones, kidney disease, allergies, skin and coat problems, diabetes or gastrointestinal disorders, may benefit from specialized prescription diets that are available through a veterinarian.