There’s a lot of competition for the cat food dollar out there, with advertising featuring everything from pampered Persians eating a pâtélike food from crystal dishes to dancing cats. How do you know what’s best? Here are some criteria for judging pet food, as well as some notes on healthy nutrition for cats:
1. Short ingredient list. Whether you buy your food in a pet store, in a grocery store or at a farm co-op, a good rule of thumb is to look for a short ingredient list. More ingredients don’t always mean better nutrition. The longer the list, the more likely it is that a greater number of ingredients are chemical additives or preservatives. If you can’t pronounce what’s in the food, the chances are that your cat is better off without it.
2. Meat from a named animal as the first ingredient. While dogs are omnivores (“everything eaters”), cats are obligate carnivores, a fancy phrase that means that they need to eat meat. On a pet food label, “meat,” unfortunately, can also mean things like road kill or euthanized pets, so look for a specific animal, like lamb, chicken, or fish. If you see the phrase “meat by-product,” put the bag back. This means the leftovers after the meat has been removed. Protein in cat food should be in the 30 percent range or higher. Check for soy products and avoid them. The addition of soy raises the protein reading on a food and may make it look like it’s providing enough protein to the animal. While a very carefully balanced vegetarian diet might give a cat what it needs, soy protein all by itself is not assimilable by cats.
3. No grain and, most especially, no corn. Corn is sweet and fatty, and even carnivores like cats will eat it. However, it provides little to no assimilable nutrient for the cat. Why is it included? Because as a commodity, it’s usually inexpensive and will keep production costs down while increasing palatability.
4. Where possible, buy food made from domestic ingredients. A few years ago, dozens of pet foods—even some sold by veterinarians—were affected by the melamine scandal. Melamine, a plastic, was added to grain produced in China for pet food made in North America. It artificially raised the protein reading on the food, adding perceived value, but it didn’t actually increase accessible protein. Worse, it was highly toxic and ultimately killed hundreds of pets. While it’s difficult to be certain of the safety of everything, the regulations in North America around pet food production are much more stringent than in some other parts of the world.
The one additive you can get behind is taurine, which is essential for the health of the cat’s eyes, heart, and nervous system and is found in meat and seafood. Unfortunately, cooking destroys it. In nature, a cat eats the whole raw animal—except for the green, wobbly bit, which exists to be left on the floor for people to step on—so it gets its taurine without a supplement. As we cook cat food, however, taurine needs to be added back in.
Low ash content in a cat food will help to prevent bladder stones and urinary blockages. Eight percent or below is ideal, and the lower, the better, all other things being equal.
5. Be skeptical of the necessity of the many, many different foods that are produced. Years ago, there was a focus group about cat breakfast foods, in which many people were enthusiastic about buying their cat different foods for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Some swore by Special Sealpoint Siamese Dental Health Blend, or whatever their specialty food of choice was. Not necessary.
Whether you have longhaired or shorthaired cats, indoor or outdoor cats, purebred or barn cats, all of them can be fed by the same rules and do equally well. You’ll find few hairballs. Good food, good grooming, regular shots, and the occasional homegrown mouse seem to be all that they need.
6. A good dry cat food will give your cat good nutrition. Wet or moist foods may also do so, but there are drawbacks to them. They cost much more per pound, and more of that weight is water. Soft food also sticks to teeth and is more likely to produce tartar buildup. You can use wet cat food for weaning kittens that are just learning to eat or for older cats that are having trouble getting enough dry cat food to keep on enough weight. If you choose to feed your cat wet foods, keep the principles in #1–#4 in mind when checking for quality.
It’s not crystal dishes or dancing cats that determine the quality of your cat’s food. It’s not even price; one well-known and quite expensive brand of cat food has corn as its first—and therefore largest-volume—ingredient.
Read labels. Spend a few minutes online checking into your favorite brand and asking questions. Maybe you’ll spend a few more dollars—or maybe you’ll save a few. Either way, your cat will be happier and healthier for it.
Elizabeth Creith has fifteen years of experience keeping chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys on her farm in Northern Ontario. She currently dreams of a new flock of fancy chickens. Elizabeth and her husband also have six and a half years experience running a pet store. On top of that, she's kept more animals than you can imagine from cats to cockatoos!