By Lorie Huston, DVM
As cat owners, we all want to keep our pets as healthy as we can for as long as possible. Most of us realize that feeding a high quality diet is one of the best ways to do that. However, finding the best food for your cat can be confusing. The choices seem endless and there is no shortage of controversy and disagreement when it comes to debating how best to feed cats.
Learning what to look out for can help you choose the best food for your cat.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established some guidelines for regulator to govern what must be included in a pet food label and what a pet food company can legitimately claim and what they cannot.
Start by looking at the name of the pet food. AAFCO requires that if the food is advertised to contain a single ingredient, it must contain at least 95% of that ingredient, not including added water. Likewise, if a combination of ingredients is advertised, that combination must comprise at least 95% of the food. For instance, if the food claims to be made solely of beef, beef must make up 95% of the food. If the claim is turkey and beef, then the food must be 95% turkey and beef combined.
Foods with descriptive phrases (such as dinner, platter, entrée, etc.) in their names must contain at least 25% of the named ingredient. Products that carry a name that states “with” a specific ingredient (such as “with cheese”) need only contain 3% of the named ingredient. Products that advertise specific “flavors” (such as “chicken flavor” or “beef flavor”) need to contain only a detectable amount of that ingredient.
Next, look at the list of ingredients. Keep in mind that ingredients are listed by weight. Ingredients that contain large amounts of moisture (such as beef, poultry, chicken, or fish) are likely to be at the top of the list because of the moisture content. Ingredients further down the list may offer even more key nutrients such as protein but may weigh less because the water has already been removed for a dry pet food.
All cat foods should have some source of animal protein and fat. Cats are obligate carnivores and require nutrients such as taurine and arachidonic acid to be supplied in their diet. These nutrients are only present in animal sources. They are not found in plant-based sources. The animal source may be in the form of beef, poultry, chicken, turkey, fish or other meats. Or it may be in the form of by-products or by-product meals.
Some of the controversies that surround pet foods include the use of grains and glutens. Grains are used in many pet foods and provide an excellent source of carbohydrates. Cats can easily metabolize these carbohydrates and use them as an energy source. However, some people prefer to avoid grains in their cat’s food. In fact, some cat experts believe that a diet that is high in protein and low in carbohydrates is healthier for cats, though this is a controversial subject and not all agree.
It is important for cat owners to remember that grain-free diets are not necessarily low carbohydrate diets. In many cases, the grains have simply been replaced with another carbohydrate source such as potatoes. If you are seeking to feed a low carbohydrate food, you’ll want to make sure this is not the case.
By-products have been maligned by many different sources. In actuality, by-products include highly digestible and nutritious organs, such as the liver and lungs and pet food ingredients labeled as by-products do NOT include things like hair, horns or hooves, as advertising gimmicks would have you believe. It is a misconception that by-products are “unfit” for human consumption, though it is true that they are less popular ingredients for human food in the U.S. Most of the meat that we eat is derived from skeletal muscle rather than organ meats and other by-products.
That being said, by-products are not all created equally. Some by-products are highly nutritious; some are next to worthless. Reputable cat food companies choose quality by-products to include in their foods. Choosing a pet food company you can trust is an important consideration when it comes to pet foods that contain by-products.
Canned food versus dry is another controversial topic when it comes to feeding cats. Some cat experts believe that canned food is healthier than dry food. Others argue that cats do well on both types of food and a pet owner should be able to choose what is most convenient.
Canned foods do offer the advantage of having a higher moisture content, which can be important for cats who aren’t attracted to drink water readily. However, water fountains, dripping faucets and other devices that encourage cats to drink can often overcome this advantage.
You’ll also want to check the pet food label for a nutritional adequacy statement. This statement will read something like “This food is complete and balanced for all life stages,” “This food is complete and balanced for adult maintenance,” or “This food is complete and balanced for growth and reproduction.”
Choosing a food that is balanced to fit the life stage of your cat is important. Kittens have different nutrient needs than adult cats. So choose your cat’s food accordingly.
A guaranteed analysis is included on the packaging of most pet foods also and will usually list the minimum amount of protein and fat by percentage and the maximum amount of fiber and moisture, also by percentage. When comparing the guaranteed analysis of two different pet foods, a more accurate analysis is possible when the analysis is converted to a dry matter basis. Otherwise, the moisture content can significantly skew the comparison. Comparing the guaranteed analysis of a dry food to a canned food without taking account the moisture content is a bit like comparing apples to oranges.
It is important to remember that, although the guaranteed analysis provides a measure of the various nutrient categories, it does not provide any information relating to the quality of the ingredients in the food, its digestibility or the overall quality of the food.
All pet foods are required to contain feeding guidelines. However, different cats will require different amounts of food.
Ask your veterinarian to perform a body condition analysis for your cat each time your cat goes in for an examination. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to perform this analysis as well. Determining your cat’s body condition is the best way to determine whether your cat is overweight, underweight or at his ideal weight. You should be able to feel your cat’s ribs. If you cannot, your cat is likely overweight.
Feeding your cat to keep him lean and at an ideal body weight will keep him healthy longer. Adjust your cat’s feeding protocol accordingly. For some cats, the guidelines provided on the food label may be accurate. For others, they may need to be adjusted.
If you find yourself straying too far from the label guidelines, check with your veterinarian. It’s possible that the food you’ve chosen is not appropriate for your cat’s individual situation. Some cats may require special foods to help them lose weight. Ask your veterinarian for a specific dietary recommendation.
Sourcing and quality control in manufacturing are other important considerations in choosing a pet food. Unfortunately, pet food labels are not required to provide this information. You may be able to find the information on the company’s website. Alternatively, a call to the company’s consumer relations department should provide you the answers you need. Any reputable company with a quality product will be happy to engage with its consumers.