9539 Liberty Road, Frederick, MD 21701
Phone: 301-898-4009 ~ Fax: 240-668-3664
Gentle, complete veterinary care for the felines in your family
Link map for Frederick Cat Vet for directions, hours, bio of the veterinarian and staff, veterinary services offered and a tour of the veterinary practice

What Should I Feed my Cat?

This is a very common question and the answer is not simple. Unfortunately, cat food labels are not the best place for answers. Cat food companies are good at marketing and creating conveniently packaged products. However, the nutritional analysis on the label is incomplete and unhelpful for comparing one diet to another. Aside from listing the ingredients and nutrient numbers in small print, these data do not provide enough information to make a meaningful decision.

At a visit at Frederick Cat Vet, we have likely discussed with you the benefits of canned food for the increased protein and water content over dry food, but will try to take that discussion a step further here. We have suggested Wellness, Taste of the Wild and Natura brands (EVO, Innova) as good examples, but there are many others that are just as good and in some cases better. We are beginning to rotate in some different brands to our shelves with these themes in mind:

-Canned food is better than dry food. To make a dry kibble, a carbohydrate (a starch) is needed. The only dry foods that do not have too much carbohydrate for it to be an exclusive diet are freeze-dried formulas, and one of the best choices in that group in Primal Freeze-Dried (Turkey or Chicken/Salmon). It is good for cats to use their teeth and chew something, but 1/8 cup of dry food per day is plenty. Another alternative to dry kibble is a finger-sized piece of chicken or a similar amount of freeze-dried meat treats.

-Cats should have 50% or more of their calories from protein, 20-45% from fat, and 1-5% from carbohydrates (the lower the percentage of carbohydrates, the better, but single digit values is OK for most cats; be much more strict for cats that are already diabetic). It may be challenging to find a palatable diet with quality ingredients that meets these targets, but the closer you get to these numbers, the healthier your cat will be.

-The average 10-lb cat needs about 200 calories per day (calorie and kcal are the same thing) and 25 grams of protein.

-Whether to feed fish to cats is a hotly debated topic, and this mirrors the controversy in our diets regarding sources of fish and how much to consume. Fish can be very healthy for cats but they don't need it, so sticking to all or mostly poultry (chicken/turkey/duck) is a good strategy. It can be challenging to discover the source of fish, which can give insight into potential toxicities like mercury and environmental considerations (such as being dolphin-friendly). Besides potential toxins, cats are more likely to exhibit allergies to seafood than poultry.

-Are by-products good or bad? The term "by-products" encompasses a wide range of ingredients, but in general, refers to any "meat" that is not skeletal muscle, such as organs. But also some bone, eggs and even a little bit of feather. Some companies, like Primal, specifically state that chicken gizzards (organ meat) as an ingredient and don't use the catch-all term "by-products". This is another case where the more specific information is given, the better chance this is a good diet.

-What about raw diets? A cat's natural diet is obviously raw (it killed it seconds ago), but commercial raw diets are not in the same ballpark. These diets come from large-scale processes with a significant time between procurement of ingredients and ingestion. That is very different from the freshly killed bird, rodent, lizard, insect for the hunting cat eats. The perfect diet would mirror what is naturally caught minus the parasites, the dangers of free-roaming to catch meals and the "ick" factor. By and large, most people will only buy cat food that contains ingredients that they would consider eating (vegetarians notwithstanding). We recognize that some cats do very well on commercial raw diets, but we are not recommending them currently.

With that in mind, these are excellent examples of canned commercial diets (in alphabetical order):

*Merrick's Purrfect Bistro Cowboy Cookout (beef)

*Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain Feline Formula

*Tiki Cat Koolina Luau (chicken)

*Weruva Paw Lickin' Chicken (chicken)

*Weruva On the Cat Wok (chicken, beef)

Cats should eat a "complete and balanced diet". Feeding plain meat, such as chicken, is not complete and balanced. Chicken is a healthy food for cats, but by itself, essential nutrients and minerals are missing. This phrase, "complete and balanced" is one way of defining what cats should eat and is put on cat food labels because of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requirements. However, AAFCO is a regulatory body with no regulatory authority. Huh? AAFCO establishes standards and the majority of states require pet food labelling to follow these standards. As it has no legal authority, AAFCO does not test diets or do any monitoring for compliance. AAFCO standards for cat food were last updated in 1992. Besides being outdated, they are very lax.

If the term "complete and balanced" is used, the company must have either conducted a feeding trial (in which 6 of 8 cats must survive for 26 weeks on only water and that particular diet) or formulated the diet according to AAFCO standards. Companies have a choice between these two options. Compounding this weak oversight problem is how little information is required in the Guaranteed Analysis: Maximum levels of moisture and fiber, and minimum levels of protein and fat.

That is an astonishing lack of precision compared to how food for people is labelled. Our food lists calories and nutrients in grams. With cat food, knowing the minimum amount of fat is not helpful when try to achieve weight loss. Maybe there's more -who knows? A calorie requirement by AAFCO is coming, but that is still a few years away. There is no mention of carbohydrates, a critical value since this is the primary cause of diabetes in cats. If you're looking for a low-fat diet, a minimum is of no value to you in comparing two diets. Maybe there is more, maybe not. In short, the numbers on package of food are not useful, even if you enjoy doing algebra.

Meaningful numbers can only be obtained by contacting the pet food companies (the website may have more than the label, but some deeper digging is still needed). Fortunately, a veterinarian in California, Dr. Lisa Pierson, has contacted these companies and compiled the data. She has spent many years independently researching cat foods and has a wonderful website: www.catinfo.org. Of particular interest on her site is this document: http://catinfo.org/docs/FoodChartPublic9-22-12.pdf. Alternatively, find it on the right side of the page, under Feline Nutrition, and click on the Protein/Fat/Carbs Chart link. This is a 35-page pdf that breaks out most commercial cat foods into more useful statistics. The cat food industry is constantly evolving and improving, so you should expect the names of the "best" brands to change in the coming years. We regularly review the rapidly changing cat food market to help you navigate this maze.

-Mike Karg, DVM and Lisa Wolkind, DVM