By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
We are what we eat… As a doctor, I’ve said it countless times, and for good reason. The quality of food we eat on a daily basis plays a huge role in our health. Why should it be any different for our beloved pets? Choosing the healthiest cat food you can afford will not only keep your feline friend in the best possible shape, it could also delay or fully eliminate some serious (and potentially expensive) medical issues down the line.
The Basics of Cat Nutrition
Proper nutrition for all pets is vital, but it’s especially important for cats because they have very different nutritional needs than other domesticated animals. They are obligate carnivores, which means their bodies have adapted over time to a carnivorous (all meat) diet.
Although vegetables and carbohydrates can be added to a cat’s regular diet, they can only tolerate carbs in small amounts. The health of your cat really depends on obtaining specific nutrients found mainly in meat. These include:
- The amino acids arginine and taurine
- Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, like arachidonic acid
- Certain other minerals and vitamins like A (retinyl palmitate)
Dry vs Wet Cat Food
A lot of cat owners wonder which is better — canned wet food or dry kibble. As is the case with human nutrition, experts have differing opinions about wet and dry cat foods. Some experts believe that dry cat food is akin to junk food for cats and should be avoided. Others believe there are good reasons for offering your cat both dry and wet food.
The two usual arguments for dry food are that it is convenient, and it cleans the teeth. Unlike dogs, which gobble up any and all food in front of them with no end in sight, cats only eat when they feel the need to. For this reason, a lot of cat owners like leaving dry cat food out at all times for “free feeding.” This makes dry food especially attractive for owners who like to leave town for a day or few on occasion.
Convenience aside, dry kibble has its downsides. First, dry food is about 50 percent carbohydrates –way too many carbs for cats, whose natural meat diets are virtually carbohydrate-free. As tends to be the case with humans who eat high-carb diets, cats who live on dry kibble are also much more likely to be overweight.
Also, contrary to popular belief, dry food does not keep the teeth clean. The carbohydrates in the food actually feed mouth bacteria, which causes plaque to form on the teeth then calcify into tartar.
Additionally, cats who eat dry food only also are less likely to ingest enough water. Since cats are descended from desert animals, they’ve evolved to get most of the water they need through food. And even though cats can drink from water bowls or bathtub taps, rapidly dipping their tongues into water really isn’t an efficient way to hydrate. Hence, dry-fed cats are at greater risk of dehydration, and thus kidney and bladder problems: their urine tends to be more concentrated, which can lead to crystal formation, infections, and in males, blocked urethras – a life threatening condition. Wet food is better in that it helps cats get the water they need to stay healthy.
That cats are also notorious for being finicky and becoming bored with the same food every day is another reason to include wet food in their diet. The variety keeps them interested in their food and eating regularly. Generally, wet food also has more of the animal protein that cats thrive on, and is overall a healthier option than dry food.
Ultimately, though, the choice of whether to go with dry kibble and/or wet food, or something else (like raw or freeze-dried food, which I discuss below) is up to you…and your cat.
Healthy Cat Food: What to Look For
Just as you read nutrition labels on food you buy for yourself, you should read the labels on your cat’s food too.
Some of the healthiest cat foods meet requirements set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). I say “some” because even though the AAFCO requirements aren’t ideal or even enforced nationwide, they are the best guidelines pet food manufacturers have right now.
The AAFCO is an advisory group that oversees regulations for the production and labeling of animal feed. Its members include volunteers from government agencies, animal-interest groups, and veterinary schools. AAFCO’s model standards have been adopted, and are enforced, by the majority of U.S. states. The standards specify terms for labeling, recommend the amounts of various ingredients depending on age and activity level of the animal, and set the criteria for the term “complete and balanced” to be used on the label.
A product can be considered a nutritionally-sound cat food if it is labeled “complete and balanced.” This means it is supposed to supply your cat with all the nutrients in the correct ratios that he needs for his stage of life.
Ideally, a “complete and balanced diet” should mimic what cats would eat in the wild – the whole prey animal, including not just the meat, but the organs, head, brain, bones and skin. But, as feeding whole, freshly caught animals to our kitties is not a viable option for most cat owners (and certainly not one I recommend), we do the best we can with commercially-produced cat foods, some of which are better than others.
What is “complete and balanced,” nutritionally speaking, varies depending on life stage (even though, paradoxically, cats in the wild would not hunt for different prey for their kittens – they all eat the same thing). Active and growing kittens are thought to need different amounts of nutrients compared to a middle-aged or mature cats. So feeding a full-grown cat dry kitten food could lead to obesity, while feeding a kitten a “senior cat” formula could arguably result in malnourishment.
The first word on an ingredient list—both canned and dry—should be a named protein source such as lamb, beef, chicken, tuna, etc. According to the AAFCO, the listing of a specific protein source in the product’s name means that the total weight of the product (including water) contains at least 95% of that particular meat; the other 5% can be “ those required for additional nutritional purposes, such as vitamins and minerals, and small amounts of other ingredients necessary for the formulation of the product.” Considering a feline’s carnivorous nature, this one of the healthiest cat food options after raw food (more on a raw diet below).
Look for food that’s labeled “natural.” By the AAFCO’s definition, “natural” pet foods and the ingredients in them have been “derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources.” That is, synthetic chemicals aren’t involved in the production of these foods “except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.” Alas, nothing is failsafe, but “natural” has you on the right track. And “100% natural” or “all-natural” tells you that every ingredient in the product is compliant – even better.
Healthy cat foods may also contain fiber and antioxidants from vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and apples, and natural sources of fat (fish oils, for example) to maintain smooth skin and coat. In small amounts, these can provide added health benefits.
Natural preservatives such as vitamin E or mixed tocopherols may be used as well to prevent spoilage.
What to Avoid on a Cat Food Label
Steer clear of cat foods that include the words dinner, entrée, formula, or platter in the nutrition label. AAFCO regulations state that these products contain 25–95 percent of that particular protein source. Not the best option since these foods usually contain a lot of fillers. Instead choose a brand with a whole, specific meat source as the first ingredient, as mentioned above.
In addition, healthy cat food should not contain the following ingredients:
- Chemical preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin;
- An excess of carbohydrate fillers such as corn meal or wheat gluten. In fact, the healthiest cat foods contain minimal or no grains since these are biologically inappropriate and can lead to weight issues, among other health concerns.
Should You Go with Organic Cat Food?
It’s up to you (and your budget) if you choose to go organic with your cat’s diet. Organic cat food contains 100% certified organic ingredients and all the things used to process it must be organic too. If you’re concerned about kitty eating GMOs (I know I don’t want them in my body!) then organic is your best option.
What About Raw/Freeze-Dried Pet Food?
Raw and freeze-dried pet food has started to hit the mainstream in the past few years, and it’s a smart option for many reasons.
Historically, all cats have survived on raw meat. It’s only been the past century or so that processed pet food has become the norm. But raw and freeze-dried meat contain levels of nutrients that far surpass typical cat food. It’s really the healthiest food you can feed your cat.
The biggest drawback is that a raw food diet is far more expensive than even the priciest processed cat food on the market. If the cost is out of your budget, consider freeze dried treats or food toppers. They allow you to explore the benefits of raw food for your feline without breaking the bank.
Other Things to Consider
There are a few other things to keep in mind when choosing the healthiest cat food options for your furry friend.
Is he overweight? Does he have a medical concerns such as allergies, digestive or urinary tract problems, or diabetes? There are formulas that address these and other conditions. If you have any questions, be sure to discuss them with your vet.
Cats are unique creatures, with their own distinctive tastes, opinions, and quirks. Finding a high-quality, healthy cat food that works in your budget and appeals to your feline may take some time and commitment. But it’s worth the effort so that you and your companion can share many healthy years together.
This blog has been reviewed and approved by Holistic Veterinarian Stephen Tobin, D.V.M.
- Wortinger, A. Cats: Obligate Carnivores (Proceedings). DVM360.com, Aug. 1, 2010.
- King, I. The Best and Worst Cat Foods. Consciouscat.net. Oct. 24, 2016.
- Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). https://talkspetfood.aafco.org/. Last accessed Feb. 16, 2019.
- PetMD. The Science of Pet Food Labels. Last accessed Jan. 31, 2019.
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