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The Great Cat Food Debate


Wet food. Dry food. Semi-moist diets. Options available for feeding your cat are many. And many pet owners have very firm beliefs about what type of food is best for us. The same is true of veterinarians; many believe one type of food is better than the other.

Let’s take a look at the most basic of questions about cat food. Dry food or canned food? Is one better than the other? Let’s take a look at the arguments on both sides. I’m just going to present the facts here. You’ll have to decide for yourself which is best. From my perspective as a cat, I haven’t turned down a meal yet. I like both types.

We’ll talk about dry food first. It’s easy for you humans to feed. Just pour the food in a bowl, put the bowl on the floor and you’re done. What’s easier than that. It seems that lots of you don’t really like handling wet food. It’s smelly and it takes more effort to feed. But then, in my view, the smellier the better.

Dry foods can be more effective in keeping our teeth and gums healthy too, according to some cat owners and veterinarians. In fact, some dry foods are even marketed as dental diets to reduce plaque, tartar and gingivitis.

On the other hand, most dry foods are higher in carbohydrates than some wet foods. There are plenty of pet owners and veterinarians that advocate a high protein, low carbohydrate diet for cats. It’s tough to get that combination in a dry food. Carbohydrates are used in the manufacturing process to help the kibble keep its shape.

One of the arguments offered by the proponents of a high protein, low carbohydrate diet is the fact that this type of diet is often recommended for cats that are diabetic. In fact, some (but certainly not all) diabetic cats fed a high protein, low carbohydrate diet actually improve to the point that their blood glucose stabilizes and insulin injections become unnecessary.

Those who believe that it’s okay to feed a dry diet point out though that there is no evidence that feeding these high protein, low carbohydrate wet diets to cats that are not diabetic actually prevents diabetes. They believe that the number one predisposing factor for developing diabetes for a cat is being overweight, not the diet the cat is eating.

But there’s another side to that coin also. (You knew it was coming, didn’t you?) Many cats that are fed free choice have a tendency to overeat and gain weight as a result. This is particularly true of altered (i.e. spayed/neutered) cats. Proponents of feeding wet food point out that it is easier to overfeed using dry food because it is so easy to just pour the food into the bowl without measuring. Of course, dry food can be measured and cats can be put on a regular feeding schedule even with dry food. It just takes a little more effort to stay away from the “pour it in the bowl when the bowl is empty” trap.

Then there’s the issue of moisture content. (You didn’t really think we were finished talking about the great cat food debate, did you?) Getting cats to drink enough water can sometimes be problematic, depending on the cat. There are conditions in which you might want to increase your cat’s water intake also. For instance, cats with chronic kidney failure can benefit from increased water consumption as can cats with lower urinary tract disease.

There’s no doubt that wet food contains far more moisture than dry food. For many cat owners and veterinarians, that alone tips the scale toward feeding wet food.

Opinions on this topic vary widely and many of you humans have passionate beliefs about which is best. I’ll end by mentioning that the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) have stated in their 2010 Life Stage Guidelines that healthy cats do just as well on dry food as wet. In fact, here is a direct quote from the Guidelines:

“Satisfactory diets for cats contain all the required nutrients in proper balance, are palatable and digestible, and are free of spoilage and contaminants. The specific source of nutrients in feline diets is irrelevant when these criteria are satisfied. Both canned and dry food have been found to support health during all life stages. The presence of a label guarantee that the food was tested using feeding trials provides the current best initial evidence that a diet is satisfactory.

The panel examined published peer-reviewed evidence-based studies in healthy, client-owned cats for any significant health effect of: feeding canned versus dry food (including contribution to dental health); providing a variety of foods versus a consistent diet; feeding high protein, low carbohydrate versus lower calorie and high fiber diets; feeding raw diets; providing dietary supplements, or access to grass or plants. Based on the available data, specific recommendations in favor of any of these practices cannot be made.

Despite the concern surrounding the effects of carbohydrate in dry foods, current evidence suggests that housing and activity (which may be a marker of welfare) are more significant predictors of health. Evidence does not support the carbohydrate content of foods as being harmful or an independent risk factor for diseases such as obesity or diabetes.”

So, what have you decided? It’s a complicated choice, isn’t it? And we’ve just scratched the surface of the cat food debate. For instance, we haven’t even talked about raw food diets and home cooked diets.

Luckily, you don’t have to make the choice alone. Your veterinarian can help you sort through all the differing opinions and choose the diet that’s right for your individual cat. Remember, your veterinarian is the best source of information about all things cat. Diet is something you might want to talk about with your veterinarian the next time you take your cat in for one of those important regular examinations.

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Gayle Charambura January 9, 2013, 12:51 pm

    I stopped reading when I reached the point where the article stated that dry food was better for the teeth. Really? That statement is so very wrong?!
    Please go to catinfo.org site owned and maintained by Dr. Lisa Pierson.
    Feeding your cat dry food is like feeding your child potato chips… nice and hard and crunchy – should do a good job of cleaning teeth, right?
    I think your ‘panel’ neglected to consider all of the DIET CONTROLLED diabetic cats who did not need insulin, or needed less insulin, just by switching from dry food or high carb wet food to a healthier low carb wet food.
    Overall health of the cat will improve from a wet diet as cats do not drink as much as they should, resulting in UTIs for many poor cats.
    Dr. Pierson spent hundreds of hours compiling an updated list of cat foods with the carb, fat, and protein contents for each one. The list can be found on her site, but here’s the link
    http://www.catinfo.org/docs/Food%20Chart%20Public%209-22-12.pdf

    Reply
    • CAT Stanley January 9, 2013, 7:02 pm

      Thank you for your comments, Gayle. You obviously have very strong feelings about this subject, like so many other cat owners and veterinarians alike.

      To clarify, I’m not here to make a judgement about which type of food is best for anyone’s cat. That decision is best left to the cat owner and their veterinarian, considering the needs of the individual cat in question. I simply tried to present both sides of the subject in a fair and objective manner.

      I certainly don’t want to downplay Dr. Pierson’s contributions either. Her time and expertise are recognized and appreciated. And there are many people (veterinarians and cat owners alike) who agree with her conclusions. However, those conclusions are far from being universally accepted. This is a complex topic and there are many different opinions. The Feline Life Stages Guidelines were formulated based on the recommendations of a panel of leaders in the area of cat health. You can the panel members listed here: http://catvets.com/professionals/guidelines/publications/?Id=425. I’m not saying that the members are more or less credible than Dr. Pierson but, at the same time, their conclusions should not be dismissed out of hand without at least considering their reasons for reaching those conclusions.

      At any rate, I think that, whichever side of the discussion you fall on, being aware of all facets of the subject can be useful to a cat owner in opening a discussion with their veterinarian and finding a diet that is right for their particular cat.

      Reply
      • Gayle Charambura January 9, 2013, 8:16 pm

        I have another link to a blog for Dr. Mark E. Peterson, world renowned veterinary endocrinologist about the feeding of cats with diabetes mellitus.
        http://endocrinevet.blogspot.ca/2013/01/feeding-cat-with-diabetes-mellitus.html

        yes, it’s true that many cats are perfectly healthy on a dry food diet, but it’s important to be well informed. One day, you may have your vet tell you that your cat’s blood glucose is very high, and the very first thing you can do is to look to changing the diet.

        Reply
        • CAT Stanley January 9, 2013, 8:40 pm

          Agreed, Gayle. I think being informed is the best thing a cat owner can do for their cat! :)

          Reply
  • Arlene Zivitz January 10, 2013, 2:21 pm

    Our cat gets 2 meals a day. One is dry food & the other is wet food . If he doesn`t finish the dry food , we leave it.

    Reply
  • Connie January 16, 2013, 2:30 pm

    I too have ‘strong feelings’ on food.. but then again I did more than listen to my vet, who listened to the pet food manufactures. Most vets have a very short course on “animal nutrition’ and do not study the nutritional requirements for obligate carnivores (from what I am told the animal nutrition class centers around farm animals – none of which are obligate carnivores) (I am not saying everyone’s vet is not well versed in nutrition, but if they can explain why a carnivore should not be eating cellulose powder, corn, wheat, blueberries, spinach, etc then I would listen to them) (just as your own doctor will not talk nutrition to you more than the absolute basics. They will send you to a nutritionist. Sadly too many vets do not do this)

    People who do spend time studying the nutritional needs of obligate carnivores and then put that into practice somewhere other than a pet food company say that cats need meat. It is why you never see large cats (lions, tigers, etc) being fed kibble in zoos. the nutritional need is very similar, just on a much larger scale. or a slightly larger scale with the smaller wild cats..

    There is a lot of evidence that shows the dry food cleaning teeth thing is a myth. One that will not die no matter how much science is behind it because it is profitable. http://www.littlebigcat.com/health/does-dry-food-clean-the-teeth/

    I took a tour of a pet food company (Hills) and listened to how they come up with “optimal nutrition” From what I understand, and they weren’t horribly specific due to trade secrets, is that they found out at once point too much was toxic, and at what point too little was harmful and decided optimal was right in the middle. is this the right level? *shrug* we don’t know. No one will actually do the studies to find out. There is no money in it.

    They also said there is no difference between a dried meat product (meal) and a fresh meat product but water. they were aghast that people wanted them to pay to ship water, which was expensive and something they had on hand. They simply could not see that there is a difference between a highly processed dried and ground product shipped long distances and a piece of fresh meat.

    Back when I listened to my vet on this subject, he told me there was no difference nutritionally between wet and dry and I should feed what ever I found convenient and my cats would like. Over the years I had two cats who had urinary crystals and one develop diabetes. You are absolutely right in that we have NO IDEA which cats are going to develop these issues and which ones will not. George Burns lived to 100 smoking and drinking, does that mean we should all smoke and drink? no. Nor does it mean that we should feed our obligate carnivores highly processed dehydrated product that is full of plant based ingredients simply because some of them do just fine on it. (and yes, I will fully admit that some cats do just fine on a dry food diet)

    but since we don’t know which ones will develop these issues, why not treat them all like they will and feed them the diet they were designed to eat. We know full well that cats with diabetes or urinary crystals do very well on a diet high in animal based protein and very few plant based ingredients..

    I appreciate your taking on this topic and trying to remain neutral on the subject, but I think if you had done a bit more reading than one guideline article written by vets where the main goal was a well rounded and short article of general health would have led you to a few different conclusions. Most of what they recommend for food is because of VERY short and small studies done. A food is deemed complete and balanced if the participants – all eight of them – eat the food for the length of the food trial – all 26 weeks – and at least six don’t die or have one of only a few nutritional deficiencies that they test for.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pet_food#Labeling_and_regulation
    http://leda.law.harvard.edu/leda/data/784/Patrick06.html
    http://www.wildgoldbengals.com/whatsinthatcatfood.htm

    yes. that wonderfully complete and balanced food the pet food makers tout as awesome didn’t kill eight pets in 26 weeks. (yes, I am being a little sarcastic here, I’m sorry. but this one just bugs the living daylights out of me)

    The word is slowly getting out that plants are not acceptable to obligate carnivores. It is why Iams is now advertising it isn’t using glutens in their foods. it is why there is advertisements about how pets are carnivores.. and mighty hunters.. the science of what a cat (or dog) should eat is stripping away the science of what a pet COULD eat. Just because you could eat cookies or McDonald’s food for your entire life, doesn’t mean you should.

    I am sorry to come off sounding like a zealot. But it is quite eye opening once you realize what is going on. I can not turn a blind eye to it any more.

    Reply
  • Ronnie November 7, 2013, 11:02 am

    Connie is correct. After having our vet confirm my diagnosis of diabetes for our eight-year-old Calico cat, the vet proceeded to give me a vial of insulin, needles and suggested that I take my cat off of the dry food and put her on a diet consisting mostly of Fancy Feast (and then proceeded to hand me a $400 bill). I then went home and started doing my research. I then totally changed my cat’s diet to a no/low carb diet consisting of wet food (after reading each label carefully to make sure there were no carbs contained therein), raw chicken with bits of fat, raw ground beef and tuna fish (packed in water). I have been slowly weaning Willow (my $400 diabetic cat) off of the insulin and the results are amazing! She is more energetic, her coat is shiny and her purring can be heard a room away.

    What amazes me is that the vet never informed me that I could probably have gotten the same results without paying the $150 for the insulin and needles just by starting her on wet food. I agree with Connie that vets are not well informed regarding nutrition for our feline friends and it is costing us bundles in testing, testing strips, insulin and needles instead of just using common sense and changing up their diets. Thanks for letting me rant as well!!!

    Reply

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