What to feed your cat is a confusing topic. A search on the web showed a wide range of opinions. Talk to one vet and you get one opinion. Talk to another and you get a different opinion, each with some sound reasons behind them. What is a cat owner to do? Here’s what we have learned navigating this question.
The experts we most trust say:
Cats are obligate carnivores (depend solely on the nutrients found in animal flesh) so should eat protein, mainly wet, preferably raw, from a variety of sources. Vegetables and grains are not part of cat diet.
Here is what we understand this to mean.
Grains have no food value for cats. Some, particularly corn, are often a source of food allergies. These are present because they are cheaper than meat products and their only function is to lower the cost of the product. Grain free food is preferred.
Vegetables are also added to cat food. I understand these are also fillers and provide little to no additional food value.
Lots of other things are added or used. All The Best Pet Care has a description of some of the least desirable.
Consumption of fish should be limited. Seafood does not have the right protein balance for cats so feeding mainly fish is a problem over the long term. Cats are more likely to be allergic to seafood.
Luna was over grooming, possibly due to food allergy. One common wisdom was to switch her away from the common proteins such as chicken and turkey to things like duck and venison. Our natural vet, however, thought protein would be the least likely cause of food allergy and that other things like grains and vegetables should be completely eliminated first.
Wet vs Dry
Wet food is better for cats. Period. If you can afford to feed your cat wet only, and are going to be home every ten hours to feed your cat, then there is no reason to include dry kibble into their diets at all. The ingredients are generally closer to a proper diet and it provides the moisture cat’s need. Cat’s don’t have a strong thirst drive and should derive much of their moisture from the food they eat. A cat’s body is designed to absorb moisture through food. Dry food does not provide this and they may not drink enough water to compensate, leading to dehydration. The only advantage of dry food is to the owner in lower cost and convenience.
There is no health benefit to feeding your cat a dry kibble. The age-old claim that it ‘cleans’ or ‘brushes teeth’ is largely a myth, fabricated by kibble manufacturers.
Pet kibble is meat cereal. The bulk of the food is usually a protein meal and a plant starch (sugar) of some sort, accompanied by all kinds of buyer-friendly (but ultimately unnecessary) ingredients like fruits and vegetables. Common starches include Corn Gluten Meal, Wheat Gluten, Potato Starch and Tapioca. The starches (which are the binding agents) are sugars (Polysaccharides). Because the food is largely composed of these sugars, dry food leads to tooth decay, diabetes and a multitude of long-term health problems.
Free Feeding vs Fixed Feeding Times
We feed two meals a day at fixed times. I believe most of our cats were previously used to free feeding or more frequent meals and this showed in an unwillingness to finish the whole meal at once and begging between meals. After several months they have all adjusted to the regular feeding times. With fixed feeding times it is easier to serve the correct quantity.
Cooked vs Raw
We have started feeding our cats raw food. This is slightly less convenient than cooked canned food and slightly more expensive than the high quality canned food we feed them. It is unquestionably closer to their natural food source and our cats unquestionably prefer raw over cooked food. Tom does not like the smell of cooked cat foods and finds that raw foods, by contrast, have very little oder. There are lots of claims as to the health benefit of raw foods. We believe many of them, but don’t think the decision is as clear cut as the pro-raw food sites state.
There are a couple reasons to not feed raw food. One study showed commercial raw foods had more bacteria in them than commercial canned. Additionally, raw food may contain Toxoplasmosis, a parasite that lives in cats. Cats mainly get it through eating raw foods, including rodents they may hunt outside. This parasite also affects humans, causing birth defects amount other things. Not feeding raw foods eliminates one pathway for Toxoplasmosis. Humans get Toxoplasmosis through handling cat litter.
The counter to those arguments is that cat’s digestion can handle additional bacteria – it is not a problem. We do, however, have to take more care in handling raw foods to limit bacterial growth. And, one should always take care when cleaning the litter box. Pregnant women should let some other family member tend the litter box. There are other pathways for toxoplasmosis, such as gardening with bare hands.
Variety vs Single Food
Variety is better. This helps cats get nutrients from a variety of sources, keeps food interesting, and prevents them from becoming fixated on one taste.
We have been told that switching food upsets a cat’s digestion and the usual recommendation is to switch slowly over 7 days. Mostly we have not found this to be necessary – particularly when switching between same category such as canned food to canned food. Now that they are used to raw foods we switch and mix in raw and canned with no adverse effect (well, occasional adverse effect). It seems that only when introducing a significantly different type of food, such as raw foods, is a gradual transition necessary.
Simple vs Complex
Some foods are very complex – long ingredient list. Our trusted experts recommend simpler foods – fewer ingredients. Such complex foods may make sense if that was the one food you were going to feed your cat. We think that getting complete nutrition from a variety of simple sources over several meals is better. Since cats are obligate carnivores they should not need much variety.
See my later post about quantity.
Here’s a table of the daily cost of some food options. I assumed a cat eats 5oz per day. I took the price from stores in my neighbor hood for a reasonably bulk purchase (e.g. a case). I did not add sales tax or subtract any discounts. Your actual cost will be slightly different but the relative costs are about right.
|Wellness (case of 12)
|Before Grain (case of 24)
|Filaday (Case of 12)
|Darwin’s (Standard mix of chicken and turkey)
|Nature’s Balance 3lb bag of medallions
|Nature’s Balance 2lb tube
|Primal chicken 2lb tube
|Primal turkey 2lb tube
|Rad Cat Chicken (24oz tub)
|Friskies 12oz can
My conclusion is that raw foods are not much more expensive than equivalent quality canned foods, especially if you are willing to use the more bulk packaging.
For now we are feeding our cat’s mostly Darwin’s, a Northwest company that delivers free in Seattle and Portland and ships to other places. We mix it up with some Natural Pet Pantry, Primal, and Before Grain when we don’t happen to have thawed raw food.
We were feeding Natural Balance as well but our cat’s no longer like it.
All the Best pet stores has an informative web site, including nutrition information in PDF form.