While cats can be particular about food, including the appearance, texture, and flavor, they have precise dietary requirements. As obligate carnivores, cats also need a high amount of meat protein in their diet. Many types of cat diets can give cats and their pet parents flexible meal options, but which are the best for cat nutrition? Here’s what pet parents should know about cat food, dietary requirements, and the different diet types.
Cat Dietary Needs
Cats are carnivores, and they eat a lot of meat. Unlike some animals, cats use proteins from meat as their energy source. More than that, though, they need to absorb the right nutrients from their food sources. These nutrients are found mainly in animal tissue proteins — especially essential amino acids like taurine, cysteine, arginine, and methionine.
Cats also need essential fatty acids, fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins D, E, and A, and other nutrients like calcium and niacin.
Commercial Cat Food Diets: An Overview
Commercial cat food comes in three basic types: dry, semi-moist, and wet.
The water content of dry food is roughly 10% or less. This food is energy-dense and often has a high amount of carbohydrates, something cats aren’t evolutionarily adapted to break down with ease. However, this food can also contain various ingredients, such as meat, poultry and byproducts, grains, fish meal, milk products, fiber, and nutrient supplements. The higher the meat content, the better the dry food is for cat nutrition.
The good news is that many high-quality dry foods are nutritionally balanced and formulated with proper ingredients. Dry food is also inexpensive and convenient and has a long shelf life, making it a go-to for many pet parents.
Semi-moist food contains anywhere from 15 to 59% water. These foods often come in resealable pouches and are mid-range in cost. This option is good for hydration, however, doesn't last as long as dry food and can contain more sugar and salt, making them less suitable as a steady food source and more appropriate as treats or short-term foods.
Wet/canned food has the highest water content — typically 80 to 85%, with a minimum of 60% water. It also tends to better follow the dietary needs of cats, with more meat protein, and fewer carbohydrates. However, one downside to wet food is that it has a very short shelf life. It can also stick to a cat’s teeth and cause plaque buildup, tooth decay, and gum disease.
For pet parents choosing between dry and wet food, the best cat health advice always recommends a mixture of both. Dry food diets still need careful consideration to avoid poor-quality ingredients or kibble too high in carbs. Whether dry or wet, cat food should always come from a trusted brand. Brands should also make these foods to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards.
Other Types of Diets
Beyond commercially prepared dry and wet cat foods, pet parents may see other cat food options, especially if seeking solutions for cat digestive issues. To ensure a cat’s diet is complete and balanced, it is recommended that pet parents consult with a cat nutritionist before pursuing these options.
A raw food diet is one in which cats eat uncooked meat. Like with commercial cat food, raw food can contain animal tissues, organs, ground bones, and other ingredients, with varying quality levels. Therefore, a raw diet isn’t always healthier than a commercial food diet, and the primary ingredients and protein/carb ratios truly matter. Raw diets can also increase the risk for parasites or contaminants like Salmonella, E. Coli, or Listeria, whether the cat food was prepared at home or purchased ready-made.
A freeze-dried diet is a raw diet, but the raw food has been freeze-dried to remove the moisture and extend the shelf life. Pet parents add moisture (water) and allow it to absorb before serving. A freeze-dried diet is often more convenient for pet parents and can be less messy than preparing raw meat.
A home-cooked diet is one that the pet parent makes at home. It could contain the same organ and muscle meats as a raw diet, but it is also cooked. Cooking helps kill any parasites or bacteria in the meat, reducing the contamination risk for a cat and any humans in the household.
A grain-free diet avoids grains like rice, wheat, barley, corn, and oats. Instead, it uses other carbohydrate-rich ingredients, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, lentils, cranberries, or peas. A grain-free diet can work for cats with grain allergies, but most cats with food allergies are allergic to animal proteins, not grains.
Fuzzy vets recommend consulting with a veterinary nutritionist for raw, freeze-dried, home-cooked, and grain-free diets. These diets are generally deficient in key essential nutrients and need vitamin and mineral supplements.
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