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How To Choose The Right Food For Your Cat

Nov 4, 2011 · Updated Oct 3, 2016 · ·
  1. Anne
    You've probably been there before - standing in front of shelves loaded with dozens of cat foods. Dry or canned? “Fresh” refrigerated or frozen raw? Senior, Growth or Maintenance? Urinary Health or Indoor Pet Health? Natural, Holistic, Premium or Super-Premium? And if you manage to get past all of these mind boggling questions - what about selecting a flavor for your gourmet of a cat?

    A Short History of Commercial Cat Food

    If cats were in charge of the pet food industry, cat food instructions would read, “remove mouse or rabbit from freezer: thaw and serve.” But feeding cats what they were meant to eat is not how the industry developed. The first commercial cat food was offered for sale about 70 years ago; it began as an offhand utilization of what was basically considered "meat junk." Pet food was (and continues to be) made from leftovers of human food production. With the advent of commercially available food, caring for our pets was simplified. As more and more people brought pets into their lives, the new field of pet food science emerged.

    Today, many cat food companies have a global reach and invest a great deal of money and time in research and development to "build" cat food from nutrient components. Niche producers, responding to growing consumer awareness, seek to provide high quality locally sourced foods, perhaps using organic ingredients or targeting ingredients that may be regarded as more appropriate for the little hunters sharing our lives. This spectrum results in the great variety of cat foods available – all of which are marketed as optimal nutrition. For bewildered pet parents, it can be very difficult to sort out which claims provide real information and those that are just marketing hype.

    So Just What IS Healthy for My Cat?

    To understand what our cats need, it helps to know that our cats are true obligate carnivores. That purring bundle of fur on your lap may not seem like it, but our domestic cats are predators. They have evolved unique anatomic, physiologic, metabolic and behavioral adaptations consistent with eating a strictly carnivorous diet. An “obligate carnivore” is a predator that by its genetic makeup must eat the tissue of other animals in order to thrive.

    With this in mind, as cat owners, we must take the time to consider which products are best suited for our particular cat given our lifestyle. Please remember: Diet is the brick-and-mortar of health. Our lifestyle choices in selecting cat food may compromise the long term health of our cats.

    What Are the Food Choices?

    There are four basic types of food we can feed our cats:

    Commercial dry

    Commercial canned/pouches

    Commercial frozen or freeze-dried raw

    Homemade (raw or home-cooked)

    Within these cat food categories, there are four main considerations to choosing the right food for your cat and you:
    • Which is the best type of food for my cat – kibble, wet, raw, or homemade?
    • If I choose commercial dry or wet, which specific type is better for my cat - standard grocery brands, premium, or super-premium?
    • Which age group does my cat belong to - growth, maintenance, or senior?
    • Any special needs I should consider?
    Does Cat Food Provide All the Nutrition My Cat Needs?

    Foods that are labeled “Complete,” “Complete and Balanced,” “Complete feedingstuff,” “Complete petfood,” or similar will provide your cat the nutrition needed with no supplementation necessary. Foods identified as meant for “intermittent feeding” or “supplemental feeding” are not meant to provide all of your cat's needs.

    Is Food that is "Complete & Balanced" Always a Healthy Choice?

    The Waltham Book of Cat and Dog Nutrition warns that the AAFCO protocols are "the minimum necessary to substantiate particular product nutritional claims and more complex testing is frequently undertaken by some manufacturers in order to ensure life-long health". Even though a food is labeled “complete and balanced” (or equivalent) and will sustain your cat nutritionally, that does not mean it is “healthy” for your cat. This is an important distinction. That frozen dinner with meat, starch, a vegetable and a stewed fruit may provide your family balanced nutrition, but it is not as healthy for you as a home cooked dinner made with grass-fed beef, organic potatoes, green beans, and an apple for desert.

    Which Type of Food IS Best for My Cat?

    With the wide array of choices, the answer doesn’t seem obvious. But it’s really quite simple: we just need to learn how to identify a food that best mimics cats' natural prey in its composition. A minimally processed food already containing the moisture your cat needs, made with species-appropriate ingredients in the right mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates is healthiest for your cat. This means a canned or raw food that
    • is high in animal-based protein
    • contains few (or no) plant-based ingredients
    • doesn't contain grain
    • contains few starches (is low in carbohydrates).
    For some, the choice is a homemade food. Ultimately, the answer largely depends on your lifestyle and budget.

    Continue to Choosing The Right Food for Your Cat - Part 2

    Written by Laurie Goldstein

    Laurie Goldstein is a CFA Charterholder. In addition to her work as an equity analyst, she applies her research skill to all things cat, focusing on nutrition and advocacy for feral cat management via trap-neuter-return (TNR) and educational research on cat predation. Learn more about feral cats on her website http://www.StrayPetAdvocacy.org.

    Comments? Leave them using the form below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!

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  1. Lokey
    Hi to all you cat mom's and Dad's! I'm new here, but I need some help....It's only been a week and over $700.00 later and the only issue was my cat has diabetes, everything else was great! He lost 2lbs in four days and his count went from over 600 to 300, so they did a curve yesterday and increased his insulin and want him to have another curve next week. My problem is this, I live on a fixed income and they prescribed hills diet/weight management wet and dry (Extremely expensive) he will not eat the dry whatsoever and it took him a day and half to eat the wet and prior to his diagnosis he was a leisure eater on dry food. My vet said, he has to eat two cans of it twice a day every 12 hours I have to sit with him an entire hour as he is literally working on eating a half can and I have to fluff it with a fork every couple of minutes so he eats it and as soon as he is done eating that half can I have to give him his insulin. I've mentioned it to my vet and she said, I could put him on a over the counter cat food with low carbs and high protein diet any suggestions because his brother will not eat either as well.
      Furballsmom purraised this.
    1. Furballsmom
      Hi Lokey!
      As the article suggests, please post your question in the forum Cat Nutrition, here Cat Nutrition. This is where the forum members hang out and they will be able to provide you with advice and support. Thanks!
  2. Keedaboo69
    Hi my first time here. I give my cats blend a cheap brand of cat food. They seem to like it no more than a handful for each. Is this the best kind of food to give them.
  3. zelskid
    Tonight Honey and Lola shared a can of Fancy Feast
  4. novathekittycat
    Very helpful. Thank you. :)
  5. peaches123
    OK, I'm going crazy... As some of you know my 16 year old cat Peaches is on Hills canned prescription J/D formula because the vet said her teeth are good and thyroid and kidney functions were normal.  I don't have much money as Mommy is on disability herself, so the vet diagnosed her with arthritis in her jaw,and all over I suppose.  The problem is my other cat Zoe can still eat dry food and is quite large, not fat but tall with gigantic 6 toes each on her rear paws. Anyway, no matter how quiet I am she smells the wet foo, (which I always warm up a bit in the microwave) and feed Peaches on a plate next to me on the couch and Zoe tries to angle her way in to eat it, and there's a small dog in the house too.  I can't afford to feed both of them the J/D wet food, it's almost
    $2.00 a can.  But Peaches gets nervous with the other 2 just waiting for scraps and isn't as much as she should,  Any ideas?
  6. buffy2011
    Not sure if this is where I should be posting but it pertains to cat feeding so here goes. I have a feral cat which I am taming, coming along OK. When I got the kitten it was 7 months old and I started feeding it Purina kitten food and I would give it some soft fancy feast. Never had a problem. Well it is around 16 months old now and I started it on Natural Balance Original. It is for kittens up to adults. I started mixing the food together with the kitten food at first to make the transition. Now it is on regular Natural Balance. I noticed it started to spit up a little bit on the floor. It wasn't eating the soft food so I thought it didn't like that flavor so I switched it. Now today it spit up the dry food. Is this food to rich for its stomach or should I switch back to the kitten food? Did I take her off it too soon?  I'm trying to get all my cats on the same food. But also have another cat that spits up this Natural Balance. Is there something in it I don't know about? I did feed them Taste of the Wild but my one cat always had a swollen lip so I took her off of it because it had fish it in and put her on Natural Balance. Now she is ok that I know of. But I tried to put them all on Natural Balance and this isn't working.Need some help out there. Thansk
      Zorkon purraised this.
  7. satsumasryummy
    Warming up food is also great because many nutrients (in food) are more bioavailable when they are heated up, at least for humans. If the cat prefers it and there is also a chance of it being more effective nutritionally for them, then warm cat food is the way to go. 
  8. Anne
    @stewball and others, please take any questions you may have to the nutrition forums. Comments are very welcome here, but questions are more likely to be answered in the forums.
  9. stewball
    Has anybody heard or bought dry - I free feed - food called 'GO'?
    I'm very interested to know.
    Thank you.
  10. debbien627
    Poor kitty. Glad I found this site. No more cold food
  11. ldg
    Well, warming up the food is just a tip. *Some* cats don't like cold food. When I first started feeding raw, my cats did not like the food right out of the fridge. Now they don't mind. When feeding canned food, a number of people find their cats are fussy about eating leftovers. One way to manage this is to freeze (in a container other than the can) the leftover food in meal-sized portions, thaw and serve.
      Green_Tea58 purraised this.
  12. kookoo4kitties
    I had no idea you weren't supposed to give them cold from the fridge food! So glad I read this!
  13. Anne
     As carnivores, cats prefer to eat their food warm. I think it's a great topic for our forums, so please do go ahead and start a thread about this in the Health and Nutrition forum - thank you!
  14. gravekandi
     Why shouldn't you feed your cat cold food?
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