For most cats, if you compare wet food vs dry food, wet food is the better choice. Here’s why:
In order to determine what is best for cats, it is worth taking a look into their past.
According to the book “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats” by the National Research Council, when cats rely on hunting, they need to eat at least eight meals every day. This is because cats hunt small animals. In order to meet their caloric needs, they have to catch eight to twelve mice, rats, birds, lizards, etc per day.
Cats come from a very dry climate and have many adaptations to conserve water. Wild cats get most of their water from their prey. They will consume any organ meat and blood to keep hydrated.
Only rarely will a wild cat drink water. If it does, it will likely be flowing water. It makes sense since standing water can be full of bacteria and diseases.
So we can learn two things from observing wild cats: they rarely drink water and they eat many small meals of meat. How can we translate this into what we feed our pets today? Is wet food better than dry cat food?
Water is a Nutritional Requirement
As you probably know, staying hydrated is extremely important. The same is true for cats. What you probably haven’t considered is how much water can come from food.
Meat is about 70% water. Whole prey animals that wild cats would eat range from 70% to 80% water. Dry cat food is under 15% water while canned cat food is around 72% water.
Cats have a difficult time adapting to diets that don’t contain water. They don’t have the same strong urge to drink like a human or a dog does. Chronic dehydration can lead to urinary tract infections, kidney failure, and urinary crystals.
Studies were conducted where cats were fed the same amount of the same food; one rehydrated and one dry. The cats on the rehydrated food were more active and playful than the cats eating the dry food.
But My Cat Drinks Plenty of Water!
No, it probably doesn’t.
For example, a dehydrated dog will drink enough water to recover within one hour. A dehydrated cat takes 24 hours to recover.
Have you ever seen a cat lap up nearly as much water from a bowl as a dog does? How about chug as much water as a kid playing outside?
If you see your cat drinking, it is likely already very dehydrated. Increased thirst can also be a sign of diabetes and should be discussed with your veterinarian.
You can encourage your cat to drink more with a pet drinking fountain but this will only make a small dent in its total water intake. The best way to keep a cat hydrated is through feeding wet food.
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. It 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.
Isn’t Wet Food More Fattening?
It is a common belief, even among some veterinary professionals, that canned food is more fattening than dry food. This is simply not true. Take a look at the chart below:
Any way you look at it, canned wet food has fewer calories than even diet dry kibble. Cats, unlike dogs, limit their food intake by volume. A meal of wet food will have fewer calories than a meal of dry food.
The reason that canned food is commonly called “fattening” is due to its higher fat content. Dry food needs a high carbohydrate content and low fat content in order to hold shape and keep fresh.
Canned food does not have these requirements. It is often higher in fat and lower in carbohydrates than dry food.
As anyone who has been on a low-carb diet can tell you, eating fat does not cause weight gain. Weight gain is ONLY caused by eating more calories than needed. Cats are highly adapted to eating fat and require fat in their diet.
Additionally, studies have shown that eating dry food is a risk factor for feline obesity. Cats will eat more calories to feel full on dry food than they will on wet.
Are Carbohydrates Bad?
The grain-free food movement has brought a lot of attention to carbohydrates in pet food. Carbohydrates are only present in plants. Cats being carnivores don’t need carbohydrates in their diet.
Diets high in carbohydrates have been linked to diabetes in cats, but carbohydrates are not the primary cause of obesity. Avoiding carbohydrates can help prevent the development of diabetes and even treat diabetes (talk to your veterinarian first).
The problem is that, as mentioned, every dry food needs carbohydrates in order to hold its shape. Even a grain-free food has peas, potatoes, beans, tapioca or squash to provide carbohydrates. Just like a muffin or bread, starch is what gives the kibbles structure.
Non-grain sources of carbohydrates are not any healthier than grains. In 2019, the FDA released a report linking legumes (peas and beans) to heart issues in dogs and cats. If you look at the report carefully you will notice that over 90% of the cases were exclusively eating a dry diet.
What About the Teeth?
Average dry cat food does not significantly help oral health. However, dry prescription diets formulated for dental health do help. These diets have been extensively tested and designed to help keep a cat’s teeth clean.
However, food can only do so much to break off tartar and clear plaque. Brushing teeth and regular veterinary dental cleanings are more important.
In fact, dry food may actually promote tooth decay.
Human dentists worry about soda and sweets. The bacteria that live in the mouth love sugar. If they can’t get sugar, they will settle for starch.
Sugar and starch are carbohydrates. And again what is full of carbohydrates? Dry cat food.
Saliva is the body’s primary defense against tooth decay. It washes away excess food and bacteria.
Dry mouth is known to cause tooth decay in humans and it is safe to assume the same is true in cats. If your cat is chronically dehydrated from low water intake, tooth decay will follow. Again, wet food increases total water intake.
Drawbacks of Wet Food
Did you remember that cats prefer to eat twelve to twenty small meals per day? Feeding this many meals of wet food would make for a very ambitious schedule.
Many cats are perfectly happy on two to three meals of wet food per day. Other cats may have difficulty.
Cats are very picky and may not want to eat wet food after they have been sitting out. Even with three meals, they may not eat enough. Growing kittens may have even more difficulty.
It may be preferable to feed both wet and dry food to your cat. Most cats prefer wet food and will eat meals even if they have dry available. The dry food will give them the ability to snack between meals.
My Cat Won’t Even Eat Wet Food
Cats can be extremely picky. If they aren’t exposed to flavors and textures as a kitten, they can be very reluctant to try them as an adult. If your cat has spent most of their life on dry kibble, they may refuse wet food.
Whatever you do, DO NOT take the attitude “if it’s hungry it will eat”.
Cats will starve themselves in the presence of food they don’t like. This is especially dangerous because fatty liver (hepatic lipidosis) will quickly set in.
This is a deadly condition in cats. Successful treatment often requires hospitalization.
However, there are many things you can do to encourage your cat to switch foods.
- Try a Variety of Textures and Flavors
Playing with texture and flavor can help make canned food more appealing to your cat. Canned food is available in three main textures: pate, cubes or flakes. Trying each texture may help.
Pate is the most common canned cat food and has a gelatinous texture throughout the can. It is also the least appetizing to most cats, although some cats prefer it.
Cubes or chunks are also available. This texture is also known as stew. It features ingredients in a broth.
Flakes are similar to canned tuna. Most cats prefer this texture, but every cat is different.
- Don’t Forget about Smell
Smells can trigger a cat’s appetite. Warming up food can increase the smell. Choosing an extra smelly food flavor, such as tuna, can also help. (No advice on what the humans might think!)
- Feed Dry Food in Meals
If your cat currently has dry food available at all times, switch to meals. Making your cat a little hungry will increase its chances of eating a new food type.
But never completely take away cats’ old food as they are notorious for starving themselves rather than switching foods.
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.
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.
Alternatives to Canned Food and Dry Food
The pet food market is ever-growing. Cat owners are no longer limited to just wet or dry food. There are many options to consider.
- Frozen Raw Diets and Refrigerated Diets
Most pet stores carry frozen raw diets and refrigerated diets for cats. These foods have high meat content and high water content and can be great alternatives to canned foods.
Many raw foods will claim that there are benefits to the minimal processing, but this is highly debated.
Again, they each have their own texture and flavor and cats can be very picky. It will be much easier to start a kitten on a raw or refrigerated diet than an adult cat. Most do offer a return policy if your cat won’t eat them.
- Homemade Diets
Homemade diet is becoming increasingly popular to home cook for cats and dogs. This can be much easier for dogs as they have much less discerning tastes. However, it can be difficult to home-make a complete diet with all of the vitamins and minerals required that a cat will actually eat.
Find a recipe from a reputable source to make sure it is nutritionally complete. Most homemade diets will need to contain a variety of organ meats and supplements to make them complete.
Supplements are NOT optional when in a recipe. They are needed for a balanced diet.