You go inside a pet supply store or along the aisle of pet foods… and thousands of choices cloud your brain. What flavor do I get? What brand of cat food is the best? The most asked question is probably Should I get wet or dry food for my cats?
As a cat owner, you always want the best for your babies, but it can be a bit complicated, seeing so many variations for every cat owner.
Some owners are dry food purists, while others may argue that wet food is better for felines. There are many influencing factors surrounding cat food, including your feline’s preferences.
A high-quality or premium labeled brand is not necessarily the best for your cats. The main things to know is what is inside their food, and if it can supply your pet with all of its nutritional needs. In order to make a decision, you have to know the essentials concerning cat nutrition.
What are Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs
Cats have a different nutritional requirement than dogs. The fact that cats are strictly carnivores means that they need meat in their systems, and they need to have a high protein diet, given their carnivorous nature. Their bodies generally do not have the ability to easily digest plant-based matter.
It is also important to note that cats have a low thirst drive, which may have come from their ancestors who thrived in the desert. The evolution of cats revolved around getting their water requirement through the consumption of food.
There are several nutrients that cats need to survive:
As mentioned above, a diet of animal protein is best suited for a cat’s digestive system. They get their energy through the process of gluconeogenesis. Aside from energy, the amino acids present in proteins are important to a feline’s health. They contribute to the maintenance of muscles, ligaments, and enzymes in the body, much like in humans and dogs.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are amino acids that are biologically important and can be synthesized inside a cat’s body. However, some acids need to be provided from the outside, which are essential amino acids.
Cats are unable to synthesize 11 of the 20 amino acids that they need in their body. If your cat is deficient in any of the essential amino acids, it may cause serious health problems.
Let’s use arginine and taurine as examples.
Arginine is an essential amino acid that is directly involved in removing ammonia from the body. Arginine deficiency may cause hyperammonemia, or ammonia toxicity in the body. Symptoms of hyperammonemia include vomiting, muscular spasms, and drooling. This may lead to severe brain diseases, resulting in death.
Taurine was discovered in the 1980s as an essential amino acid that played a critical role in the growth of cats. Since then, it has been added as a supplement to all manufactured cat food. Taurine deficiency can cause vision impairment, heart weakening, low immune response, poor neonatal growth, and other metabolic problems.
Essential amino acids can be found naturally in high-quality proteins. This is a good enough reminder that cats are not meant to follow vegetarian diets.
- Fats and Fatty Acids
Another source of energy, fats provide the most concentrated form of energy for cats. They have twice the energy provided by protein and carbohydrates. Fats are usually ingested in the form of animal fats or seed oils from different plants, such as sunflower oil. Added fats are able to supply the essential fatty acids that cats are not able to synthesize in their systems.
Fatty acids are responsible for cellular functions in the body. A cat found to be fat deficient will exhibit the following symptoms: dandruff, stunted growth, listlessness, infection susceptibility, and impaired learning ability. The proper amount of fat in the diet will also contribute to a cat’s healthy coat and skin.
The minimum required fat for cats is 9% of dry matter, based on the National Research Council from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. There is no required maximum fat amount to be ingested by a cat. Studies have also shown that there are no harmful effects, even if they eat more than what one cat food contains. Some examples of essential fatty acids are Omega-3 and Omega-6, which are primarily involved in the physiological system of a cat’s body. These two fats usually come from fish oil, chicken oil, and even canola oil. What’s more, fats give cat food texture and make it tastier.
Just like in humans, vitamins are essential to regulate organ development and foster immunity. There are two types: fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins.
The fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, and K) can be stored in fat cells, and may cause slight toxicity in high doses whereas the water-soluble vitamins are released through urine., and must be supplemented frequently.
You’ll be able to see a complete list of the recommended daily allowances for vitamins, along with their corresponding functions in the released guide about Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs.
Minerals are inorganic substances that should be consumed by animals to regulate enzymes and tissue structure. There are 12 minerals that are known to be important to cats.
A cat’s body has similar reactions whether there is a deficiency or an excess of these minerals. For example, an excess of iodine in their body may cause nasal discharge, dandruff, or even worse, enlargement of the thyroid gland.
Water is very important for all of a cat’s bodily functions. As mentioned earlier, cats consume their water requirement through the ingestion of their food. The food described here usually contains 65% – 80% water. It is important that this level should be included in a cat’s diet to avoid dehydration.
There are many common health problems related to a cat’s diet, heavily involving either an excess or deficiency of the above nutritional needs. Typical diseases include diabetes, cystitis or kidney disease, obesity, hepatic lipidosis, urinary tract infection, dental diseases, as well as many others. A general knowledge of your cat’s nutrition can be a good guide to maintain your pet’s health.
What is in a Wet Cat Food?
Wet cat food, as you may know, is mainly composed of protein from meat, water, and several thickening agents to hold it together. Some brands add vitamin and mineral supplements as well, in order to label the food “complete and balanced.” Wet cat food usually comes in cans or pouches. The use of preservatives is usually limited or even nonexistent in wet food, because canning preserves the food.
One serving of wet cat food contains about 75% water, which is similar to what ancestral cats consumed in the wild. The meat is typically submerged in a gravy solution that may contain different flavorings. Wet cat food is soft, and is a good choice for cats that have difficulty chewing
Wet food undergoes the addition of meat or forming of meat chunks. The meat chunks are usually composed of meat and meat by-products, ground finely, and emulsified with binders to make it look like a whole piece of meat.
The addition of the gravy solution is next, where thickening agents and flavorings are added to provide both taste and texture. The meat is added into the gravy and cooked slowly under low heat. Once it reaches the right temperature, it is then packed into either pouches or cans.
The last step is sterilization, which kills any and all possible bacteria that may spoil the food. Wet food is more prone to spoilage due to its high moisture content. The difference with dry food is that wet food is sterilized after packing, so the use of preservatives is not needed. Most canned wet foods have a shelf life of 2 years, unopened.
Wet cat food is more expensive compared to dry food. It may range from $0.55 to $1.40 each for a 3-ounce can. The prices are dictated by the amount and type of meat used in each brand. It’s usually brands that use whole meat in their line that are the priciest in the market.
Wet cat food is nutritionally sound in terms of its high water content and protein, which ensures cats get the nutrition they need. Another bonus is that it comes in small sizes so your cat can have more variety, and portion control is easily managed.
What Goes Into a Dry Cat Food?
Dry cat food usually comes in kibble form in different shapes, and typically has 8% – 10% moisture content. It is usually packed in re-sealable bags since it is more resistant to deterioration and mold. You’ll see many dry food brands that come in different sizes and with labels such as organic, natural, or premium.
The meat and other ingredients go through an extrusion process to produce the kibbles. An initial dough-like mixture is formed, then put into a high-pressure machine and shaped into various sizes. It is then cooked and passed through a dryer to remove the water. The last process would be spraying fats, oils, and vitamin supplements onto the kibble before packing and sealing.
The dough is a combination of wet and dry ingredients, such as grains, cereals, and antioxidants. Synthetic taurine and other vitamins are typically sprayed together at the end, due to their vulnerability to heat and pressure.
Oils are added as fat enhancers that require the use of antioxidants. The antioxidants typically used are BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene). The use of these antioxidants is regulated by certifying bodies, such as the FDA and AAFCO. Some manufacturers prefer to use natural herbal extracts, such as rosemary, as a substitute to synthetic ones. These products will be labeled preserved with “mixed tocopherols.”
Dry food is packed with carbohydrates due to the use of cereals and grains required for the extrusion process, and consequently has a lower protein content than wet cat food. Please take into consideration that a cat’s recommended intake of carbohydrates should be lower than 10% on a dry matter basis. Any more than this, and your cat will be prone to obesity, therefore increasing the risk of diabetes.
Given the low moisture content, if your cat is eating dry food, meals should be always accompanied by fresh water. You could try using water fountains to lure the cats to drink more.
It is said that eating dry cat food will lessen the risk for dental diseases. However, cats don’t typically chew their food, and dry cat foods lower the incidence of dental disease by no more than about 10%. You will be able to find dry food specially formulated to improve oral health, which is formulated to work more specifically to prevent dental disease.
Dry cat food is shelf-stable and cheaper compared to wet food. It is also more convenient for pet owners who are usually not home and follow free feeding. You can leave dry food out in the open for hours, compared to wet food that should be left out no longer than 30 – 60 minutes to prevent microbial growth.
The price range for dry cat food can be anywhere from $12 to $20 for a 14-lb bag. It may go higher depending on the added supplements or dietary functions it may offer. Just like wet food- if it uses whole meat as a base, then you should expect the price to be high.
Which is Better – Wet Cat Food or Dry Cat Food
A good balance between the two types of food would be the perfect solution to provide your cat’s complete nutritional needs. It is good to take advantage of the pros that we can take from both types of food. The best food choice for your cat is dependent on weighing the pros and cons.
You may want to start a routine where you give your cat dry food in the morning and wet food at night, especially for busy people. At the very least, you’ll be able to monitor the wet food portions. All cat owners will agree that cats are quite picky eaters, so it would be good to observe what their preferences are and adjust accordingly.
Veterinarians will also sometimes prescribe a specific diet to your cat, especially if there are health problems. A sudden shift in a cat’s diet will be tricky, and would require a gradual introduction to the new food. This is also applicable to diet transitions from dry to wet, or vice-versa.
The balancing of a cat’s diet includes control of food intake, or portion control. You need to consider the energy requirement of cats as well, as some are more active than others. It is also important to select a food specifically for a cat’s life stage and condition. Pet food manufacturers specifically formulate certain foods according to a cat’s needs.
The recognized life stages of a cat are lactation/gestation (pregnancy and nursing), growth, maintenance, and all life stages.
You may learn more about what is inside pet food, and how it is safeguarded by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. It is advised to check if a cat food brand has the AAFCO seal to ensure that ingredients and other additives in the food are within cat health standards. Even more important, look for the declaration that the food has been successfully fed to a particularly lifestage according to AAFCO guidelines. Otherwise, the food may have been analyzed by a chemical process, but not proven that cats will actually like, eat, and thrive on the food.
The most important is knowing what your cat gets from the food. Always remember to check the nutrient labels included on every package. It is important that cats get the right nutrients rather than being influenced by marketing labels.
Tips on Reading Pet Food Labels
- A standard pet food label consists of the product name, net weight, ingredient list, nutritional content or guaranteed analysis, feeding directions, manufacturer’s name, and production or expiry date.
- As mentioned, you should select the right food according to a cat’s life stages. The label should clearly state on the front whether a particular brand is designed for kittens, adults, seniors, or for those that have allergies.
- Another important thing to check is the ingredient list. It is stated by law that ingredients should be written in decreasing order of weight in the product. This includes the water content of the ingredient. If you check the first three ingredients and meat is the first on the list, then you know that it is high in protein compared to others.
- Protein sources may come in different forms on the list like meat, meat meal, meat by-products, and others. Meat by definition is the actual flesh or muscle tissue of the animal, such as beef or lamb. It may also include the heart and lungs, as they are considered muscle tissue. The source is a raw product. Meat meal, on the other hand, is a processed meat product that is cooked with high pressure, preserving the protein and minerals, making it is a high protein product. The use of this ingredient, however, gives the manufacturers a choice to either state its origin or not, though some brands list their sources as “beef meal” or “lamb meal”. The meat by-product term includes muscle tissues, other internal organs, and bones.
- There’s a 95% rule that states that if a label says, for example, “Tuna Cat Food”, the product should have at least 95% tuna in the ingredients, excluding water. If it is a combination of “Chicken and Liver Cat Food”, then the two main ingredients should add up to 95% of the total ingredients, with the first name having a higher quantity than the second ingredient.
- There are also cat foods that are labeled as dinner, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a complete dinner for your cat. This food follows the 25% rule- that the main ingredient should be at least 25% of the mixture. The terms “platter, entrée, nuggets, and formula” will probably contain only a quarter of the meat present in the whole product.
- If you see a label that states “Cat Food with Chicken,” it is most likely to have only at least 3% chicken in its ingredients. You may have it confused with “Chicken Cat Food”, so be sure to read the labels.
- Another important thing to check is the Guaranteed Analysis. This is where you will find the total amount of protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals a pet food contains. It is declared as either on a per recommended portion size or “as is,” which means the total amount present in the pack.
- Do not directly compare the protein content of dry food versus wet food, since the latter naturally has a high moisture content. This is also applicable if you’re comparing one wet food brand to another. Convert them both on a dry matter basis first before comparison. To convert to dry matter, divide the percent guaranteed by the percentage of dry matter, then multiply by 100.
- The term crude only refers to the test method used in evaluating a specific nutrient.
- If you see a brand that’s labeled “Grain-free,” it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any other carbohydrates in it. A source of carbohydrates may also come from potatoes or other vegetables. Check the ingredient list and guaranteed analysis.
- The terms organic and natural are not interchangeable. A pet food labeled “organic” means at least 95% of it is made up of organic ingredients, while “natural” may only mean that the product did not use any artificial colorings or flavors.
These are just some common guidelines that you may notice while shopping for your cat food. You can read more details about labeling in the pet food section of the US Food and Drug Administration.
Your Cat’s Other Best Friend
You should always consult a veterinarian if you have a specific health or diet concern for your cat. Your veterinarian should be able to help you with details and create a well-balanced diet for your pet in terms of its age, lifestyle, and overall condition.