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.

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