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How to Shop Smart for Healthy Cat Food

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on December 2, 2019, by Dr. Elizabeth Bales, DVM

Providing your cat with quality nutrition is one of the most important things you can do. But how do you make sure you are choosing the best and healthiest cat food?

The cat food market is teeming with cans and bags of food that make all sorts of health claims—some are substantiated by scientific research, and some are not. 

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer for what you should feed your cat, knowing the basics of a cat’s dietary needs can help you navigate the options. The best way to start is by looking at mealtime through your cat’s eyes.

What Do Cats Eat?

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that their diet is primarily made up of animal proteins.

Cats in the wild would eat small rodents, which are estimated to contain 55% protein, 45% fat and very few carbohydrates. The typical small rodent has approximately 35 calories.

An average 10-pound house cat needs about 250 calories per day—so that’s about 7-8 mice per day.

When cats hunt prey, they typically consume most or all of the animal. It is common for a cat to eat the nutrient-rich organs—like the liver—first, followed by muscle, bone and skin.

Why Mealtime for Cats Is More Than Just Eating

Cats are hunters—they would naturally hunt for and eat many small meals throughout the day and night. Feeding domesticated cats from bowls has led to cats being bored, fat and in some cases, even sick. 

Mealtime for a cat is more than just obtaining calories—it is the critical time to express their predatory instinct to “capture” their meal.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners recommends recreating the hunt for cats in their indoor environment. In terms of their behavioral and physical health, this is far superior to feeding them from a bowl.

Put small portions of dry food and treats in hunting feeders and hide them around the house, or put wet food in puzzle feeders to simulate the hunt.

Healthy Cat Food Is All About Balance

To create lifelong nutritional health for cats, we need to provide them with adequate protein and fat and minimal carbohydrates.

Cats require amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. You want to provide enough of these nutrients without overdoing it. Too much of certain vitamins and minerals can be toxic.

Here’s a nutritional breakdown of what goes into a balanced, healthy cat food.

Why Cats Need Animal Protein

Protein is composed of building blocks called amino acids. There are two kinds of amino acids—nonessential and essential.

Nonessential amino acids can be made in a cat’s body. Essential amino acids cannot be made in a cat’s body and must be consumed through their diet.

Uniquely for cats, taurine is a critical essential amino acid that’s contained in protein. Cats must consume an adequate amount of taurine in their diet.

If a cat’s diet is consistently deficient in taurine, in just five months, the cat can develop retinal disease and/or a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy

How Much Protein Do Cats Need?

The minimum amount of protein that cats need changes with each life stage. Growing kittens require a recommended minimum of 240 grams of protein/kilograms a day, while an adult cat requires a minimum of 140 grams of protein/kilogram.

The meat proteins listed in the ingredients on the back of the bag are not as simple as they may seem. Beware that marketing does not play the dominant role in your cat food selection.

Kittens and cats can get the animal protein they need from a variety of different sources, including meat and meat by-products. You might think by-products are bad, but that’s not necessarily true.

Meat Matters, But Not in the Way We Think

On some bags, a beautiful deboned chicken breast may be pictured, suggesting that deboned chicken breast is the meat you can be expecting your cat to consume.

But that isn’t necessarily the case. “Meat” as defined by the American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) paints a different picture:

Meat is the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that part which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and portions of the skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels, which normally accompany the flesh. It shall be suitable for animal food. If it bears a name descriptive of its kind, it must correspond thereto.”

The consumption of animal tissue other than deboned meat is a turn-off to many humans. But, when you look at “meat” from your cat’s perspective, it’s natural to consume the entire carcass of their prey. These alternate protein sources are part of their normal diet.

Meat by-products are the non-muscle, edible parts of animals, including their blood and organs, like the liver and kidneys. Remember, in nature, it’s common for a cat to choose to eat the nutrient-rich organ meat before consuming the muscle tissue of their prey.

So despite many pet parents’ long-held belief that meat by-product is a lesser meat, it’s still a source of good protein for cats. So seeing that listed in a cat food ingredient list should not be a disqualifying factor.

Moisture Content Is Important for Your Cat’s Hydration

Cats need adequate hydration to maintain their overall health. One of the most important feline body systems affected by hydration is the urinary system, and without consuming enough water, a cat’s urine becomes more concentrated. 

Concentrated urine is more likely to form crystals and stones that can irritate the bladder wall, increase the likelihood of chronic infection, and most critically, block the flow of urine from the bladder and prevent a cat from being able to urinate. If left untreated, this can be a life-threatening condition.

In nature, cats get much of their daily water needs met by the moisture content in the prey that they eat. They supplement this by drinking whatever fresh water they can find.

Canned food most closely mimics the moisture content found in a cat’s natural prey. Cats that eat canned cat food require less moisture from other sources. 

Obviously, dry cat food has a very low moisture content. Cats that eat dry food need significantly more moisture from other sources.

However, all cats need access to ample amounts of clean, fresh water every day. Some cats prefer running water to still water.

Many cats prefer to have their water source in a different location than their food source. I recommend providing multiple water bowls or fountains around the house that are cleaned and refilled daily.

Fat Content Plays an Important Role

Fats and fatty acids are important parts of a healthy diet for cats.

Fat is made up of building blocks called essential fatty acids. Just like protein’s essential amino acids, essential fatty acids must be consumed in the diet.

Essential fatty acids for cats include the omega-6 fatty acids, linoleic acid and arachidonic acid.  Linoleic acid is found in the fat of poultry, beef and pork, as well as in corn, soybean and safflower oil. Arachidonic acid is found in animal fat and fish oil.

There is a wide range of fat content in a cat’s diet depending on their life stage and medical needs. Studies show that as little as 9% and as much as 50% or more of the energy in cat food can safely come from fat (on a dry matter basis).

The Need Carbohydrates Depends On Your Cat

Carbohydrates are a source of great controversy for cat lovers. The obligate carnivore diet is very low in carbohydrates, with as little as 1-2% of the calories in prey coming from carbohydrates, on a dry matter basis. Out of wet and dry food, wet food most closely approximates this.

Adult cats do not require carbohydrates for a healthy life. But, while cats do not require carbohydrates, they can healthfully and efficiently use carbohydrates for energy from their food.

Dry food containing 40% or more dietary carbohydrates is generally well-tolerated by the average healthy cat.

There is concern that the carbohydrate content in dry cat food may cause diabetes in cats. Ample research has been done, and continues to be done, to assess the risk. But current published research does not support a direct correlation between increased carbohydrate consumption and diabetes in cats. 

Risk factors for diabetes do include obesity and an indoor lifestyle.

How Do You Choose the Healthiest Cat Food for Your Cat?

The healthiest food for your cat will be unique to their lifestyle and health.

Your veterinarian is the best resource for discussing your cat’s nutritional needs. You can even bring a list of potential cat food options to your next appointment to discuss which one would be the best fit.

To help you start a list of options to discuss, here are some best-practice tips for finding a healthy cat food.

Choose the Right Life Stage for Your Cat

As a cat grows from a kitten to an adult and then ultimately into a senior, their nutritional requirements continually evolve.

Calories, protein, fat and other nutrients will need to be adjusted to meet your cat’s life stage needs. That’s why you should always choose a cat food that is made for your cat’s specific life stage, or talk to your veterinarian about the all-life-stages cat food you are considering.

Look for Lifetime Studies and Brands That Test Their Food

Studies that follow groups of cats being fed a particular food over the course of an entire lifetime are the most valuable. 

Medical conditions caused by diet can take years to develop. These lifetime studies give a cat parent the most information about how a particular diet will affect your cat in the long run.

It’s impossible to find a deficiency/excess of an important ingredient, or a dangerous contaminant, if you do not test for it.

Choose a brand of cat food that routinely test their products for safety and balanced nutrition. You can find more information about how to find this information and other important questions to ask on the World Small Animal Veterinary Association website.

Consult Your Veterinarian

Choosing the best and safest diet for your cat is more complicated than it seems. There are thousands of cat foods on the market and just as many opinions about what is “the best.” 

The pictures on the bag and even the ingredient list should not be relied upon for your cat food selection. These sources do not adequately provide the source or quality of the ingredients or how the individual ingredient affects the nutrient balance of the complete diet for your cat, given your cat’s life stage and medical needs.

The best diet for you to feed your cat may be different than what someone else’s cat needs, even if your cats are the same age. The best way to find the healthiest food is to discuss your options with your veterinarian. Veterinarians are trained in animal nutrition and are most familiar with your cat’s health conditions.

Veterinarians do not get kickbacks from recommending healthy food. A veterinarian’s professional and moral obligation is to provide the healthiest food recommendation for your cat based on the available science.

Additionally, there are board-certified veterinary nutritionists available for more detailed and expert information. You can consult the directory of veterinarians on the American College of Veterinary Nutrition website.

By: Dr. Elizabeth Bales, DVM

Featured Image: iStock.com/michellegibson