As we all know, nutrition plays a vital role in maintaining health and longevity in people and our animal friends. I am often asked, “What is the best food for my cat?” The “best” food would be what they would eat naturally: small rodents, lizards, birds and insects. Realistically, this is just not an option for our indoor feline friends. The next best thing is a home prepared diet formulated by a veterinary nutritionist that meets your cat’s particular dietary needs at his or her current life stage, activity level, health status, etc. Like most people though, I love my cat but just do not have the time or motivation to cook for him on a regular basis. However, if this is an option for you, there are several websites available that can formulate a recipe for you (BalanceIT.com is the most popular, but there are others).
The most convenient form of feeding is a commercially prepared food, of which there are several varieties: canned, dry, semi-moist, and raw. Of these choices, most cats today are fed dry food, as it is the most convenient and has long been pushed as “ideal” for a cat’s health. My own cats ate dry food exclusively for years. However, as we learn more about feline nutrition and metabolism, there is more and more evidence that dry food is the last thing they need. Now, we all know of those cats that have lived a long, disease-free life on nothing other than dry food. I also know of a few people that lived into their 80’s and 90’s while smoking a pack a day for most of their life, but I still wouldn’t recommend it!
So, why the dry food push for so long? It is only relatively recently that cats have been living strictly indoor lives. Until this happened, there wasn’t a need for a commercially prepared food, so little real research was done. In the beginning, nutritionally speaking, cats were basically viewed as small dogs and fed similar based diets, and they seemed to do fine. The problem is diet-related diseases can take years to actually show themselves. For example, even into the late 1980’s, cats were dying from heart disease related to taurine deficiency. Taurine is an amino acid that comes from meat, and unlike other species, cats cannot produce this themselves. Since then, more and more research has been put into feline nutrition. Today, you are unlikely to find any commercial food for cats that does not contain added taurine.
Dry food has also long been touted as good for dental health. While this is somewhat true for dogs, it is not for cats. This is because cats just don’t chew enough, which is normal for cats. They are designed to catch and quickly eat a small meal (before another cat steals it or worse, they become a meal themselves), and to eat something quickly, you don’t waste a lot of time chewing it up first. That being said, there are specially formulated prescription dental diets and dental treats that can help with feline dental health. These typically are larger size kibble that encourage chewing and contain ingredients or a coating that helps clean and/or seal the teeth. Products proven to work contain a seal from the American Veterinary Dental Association on the label. (For more information on approved products see http://www.vohc.org/accepted_products.htm)
So, what do cats need? Metabolically, cats are designed to run on protein, specifically animal protein, lean fat, and water. I add water here, as cats obtain the majority of their water intake from food. The closest that we can come to this commercially is via a high-quality pate-style canned food or a raw diet, both with extra water added. The ideal cat food contains (on a per calorie basis) > 50% animal-based protein, 20-40% fat, 1-2% carbohydrates, and > 70% water. There is NO dry food that will meet these criteria, and unfortunately, this information is not available on pet food labels. However, there is a wonderful webpage that already has this information. If you would like to check if your cat’s diet meets these criteria, see: Protein/Fat/Carb/Phosphorus Chart