[How to Feed Your Cat] Choosing the Right Diet for Your Cat
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
"How do I feed my cat?" It might sound like a weirdly obvious question at first, but is it really? These days there are so many options on the market, stratight forward ones, niche ones, weird ones, really weird ones... with all the options there is on the market, what is the best complete and balanced cat food per se? How do we know which one to choose? Unfortunately there isn't a direct, simple answer to this questions. However, by breaking down the pros and cons of each type of cat food, we could probably make it a little easier for you to make an informed decision.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a vet, and this article meant to help cat owners to understand the most common cat food options on the market. This is merely my personal opinion on this topic based on the knowledge I have. In any given cases pet owners should discuss with the vet when it comes to making dietary decisions for their pets. This article is not sponsored.
When it comes to choosing the right cat food to feed our feline friends, there are some major parameters to consider:
(1) monetary cost
(3) the breed of your cat
(4) health conditions
Generally speaking, there are 4 major types of mainstream cat food: dry food, wet food, a homecooked diet, and raw diet; each with their advantages and short comings.
1. Dry Food
Dry pet food is probably one of the century's greatest inventions. They're just so convenient! Running late in the morning? No problem - one scoop of dry food into the cat bowl, breakfast is served. They are compact, comparatively lightweight, easy to store, and so CHEAP! It is probably the easiest option for those who lives a busy lifestyle or work very long hours. As kibbles are highly stable, meaning we could leave them out in room temperature for a very long period of time - days - before they go bad. So for those who work really long hours, kibbles could be placed into a timed feeder to ensure our cats won't starve.
The problem with dry food, however, is its low water content. The reason why dry food has such a long shelf life is because it has a water content <20% , so it doesn't go bad as quickly as those with high water content such as tinned food or pouches. After all a moist and nutrient dense environment is what bacterial and mold love best. The problem is, most cats simply don't drink enough water. In fact, they do not even like drinking water, probably due to their ancestry as dessert animals. Because of their genetics and biology, most cats prefer to get their water intake from their food. After all it is quite unlikely to find a lake in the dessert. Just like humans, when cats do not take in enough water, in the long run eventually this will cause kidney damage. In fact, chronic kidney disease is the number one cause of death in cats >5 years old . The most efficient and simplest way to prevent this, is by making sure our kitties drink enough water daily. And if a cat is on a completely dry diet, it is almost guaranteed that they it doesn't drink enough water on the side to make up for their daily needs.
Another issue with dry cat food is that because they are so low in water content, it made them very calorie dense. Let's have a look at the recommended daily amount an average 4kg adult cat according to one of the leading cat food brands on the market :
Usually the standard net weight of each wet food pouch is around 85g. So an average 4kg adult cat is allowed either 2.5x85=212.5g of food if on wet food only; or s/he could have 54g of dry food. That is three times more food by weight! This probably explains why cats that are free fed on dry food are more likely to be overweight - because they will need to eat a lot more biscuits by volume in order to feel the same level of 'fullness'.
That's why although dry food are so handy and cost efficient, it probably isn't the best for our cat's health in the long run. Another problem with kibbles is that in order to make what's once animal protein (a.k.a. meat) into their final biscuit form, the raw materials has to undergo a number of processing, including high temperature and pressure treatment. The result? Most of the naturally containing nutrients are gone. Although most manufacturers will try to add supplements back into the kibbles, the truth is, a lot of nutrients such as antioxidants are heat sensitive and simply would not withstand that level of processing. On top of that, just like human food, when it's so highly processed, manufacturers have to put in a lot of additives in order to make it 'food like' again. And for the most part that's probably not the best thing in a nutritional stand point.
In a nutshell
Pros: Affordable. Long shelf-life. Easy to store. Suitable for people with long working hours
Cons: Low water content. Highly processed. Calorie dense
2. Wet Food
In contrast to kibbles, wet food (pouches or tinned) usually contains around 70% of moisture, which is better for cats in terms of increasing their water intake, making it 'better' for our feline friends in terms of preventing constipation and urinary system related diseases. The high moisture content also means a cat can eat a lot more in volume in order to get the same amount of calories a smaller amount of dry food could provide, making it a better choice for weight management. Most commercial wet food also comes in tins or pouches which has been processed/ sterilised at high temperature, meaning they could be stored safely at room temperature.
The downside to wet food is, however, mainly the fact that it cannot be left out in the food bowl for more than 4 hours in ambient temperature. Because of its high water content, wet food goes bad really easily if not stored properly once it's opened. So if (1) your cat is a very slow eater or likes to graze, or (2) you live a very busy lifestyle and you literally only have time to put down a scoop of food before running out the door in the morning, then a all-wet diet is probably not the best for your lifestyle. Another thing is that not all commercial wet food are made equal, while there are more affordable options, they usually also are more processed, made with lower quality ingredients such as meat meal, and they are more likely to contain unbeneficial ingredients such as sugars and gelling agents. Depending on which part of the world you're from, pet food production might be very loosely regulated. Although in both Europe (FEDIAF) and the United States (AAFCO) there are nutritional guidelines for pet food manufacturing, for the most part these are merely guidelines. For example, the the addition of calcium in a complete and balanced cat diet is very important for maintain healthy kidney function. A good cat food should have calcium to phosphorus ratio of 1.0-1.2 : 1. However, in most places pet food manufacturers are not even obliged to show the calcium and phosphorus content in their products. Although high quality cat food do exist, they usually are also more expensive, and this could be a problem to some of us.
In a nutshell
Pros: High water content. Long shelf life. Convenient.
Cons: Expensive. Not as convenient as dry food. Quality varies across different brands. May contain undesired additives.
3. Cooked Diet
A step up from commercial wet food is a cooked diet. A cooked diet is when meat and meat products (such as organ meats) are gently cooked in order to preserve the maximum level of nutriments in the ingredients. Because they are only minimally processed, they need to be stored in the fridge/freezer; same with homemade cat food - they cannot be stored at room temperature and they have very short shelf life, which is a major downside for a lot of us. Also, a plate of cooked meat is not a complete and balanced diet for cats. Supplements must be added to it before it's being fed to our cats. In a way a cooked diet is just like a niche kind of wet food. This is no doubt a growing market in today's society.There are unique brands such as KatKin which lies somewhere between a commercial and homemade diet in the sense that it's a commercially available complete and balanced cat food, but it's closer to homemade food in the sense that it is small batch production and minimally processed.
Some people like myself prefers to make cat food in house. Despite being rather inconvenient and time consuming, the advantages of homemade cat food is that it's very flexible. By making your own cat food you have complete control over the quality of the ingredients as well as what goes into it. As owners we get to decide what goes into our cat's diet, and this could be very helpful. For example, a lot of commercial cat food contains grains, maze, root vegetables etc. A lot of these ingredients are allergen to cats. Let's say your cat is allergic to all of them, it makes it very difficult to find a commercial food that your cat could eat. Another example is when your cat is experiencing some health conditions, especially if you have a pure breed - which often comes with predisposition to certain diseases - being on homemade food means you could tailor his/her diet completely to his/her needs. For example if you have a Scottish fold, they are more prone to joint problems than some other breeds due to their genetics - and some believe that dietary supplementation of glucosamine/chondroitin is beneficial in the management of osteochondrodysplasia. Another reason why I personally like doing a homemade diet for my cats is because of food safety. as of the time of writing, the Royal Veterinary College has just urged a recall on certain cat food brands on the market, suspecting a possible link between them and recent surge in feline pancytopenia cases . While a lot of cat food brands do carry out batch testing, not all of them do. Even for those that do batch testing, food can still go bad while they sit in a tin on the supermarket shelf although this is fairly rare. Whereas I personally find that with homemade cat food, because everything is prepared in small batches it makes it very difficult to have a large scale contamination with a lasting effect.
In a nutshell
Pros: Cheaper than premium store bought wet food. Flexible. Tailored diet/ nutrition design possible. Complete quality control.
Cons: Processed (denatured). Time consuming. Fridge space required for storage. Expensive if store bought.
4. Raw Diet
A raw diet is probably one of the best diet that is currently available out there for cats. They are minimally processed, high in moisture, and is probably one of the diet closest to what cats would get themselves when they're out in the wild. So some would say a raw diet is in fact the most 'natural' diet pet owners can give their cats. After all, it's not like cats would start a fire and start roasting a rat they just caught in the wild would they?
The main disadvantage of a raw diet is hygienic concern. Raw meat needs to be handled very carefully and has a relatively short shelf life. Because it has not been heat treated, it is extremely prone to contamination by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungus. If you choose to provide your cats with a raw diet, make sure to get them only from creditable source and store them properly in the deep freezer. Never buy raw meat in your local supermarket and feed those to your cats! Raw meats in the grocery store were always meant to be consumed cooked for humans, and are not necessarily save to be consumed raw for human, let alone cats. Just like a cook diet, raw meat on its own is not a balanced and complete diet. Supplements must be added to them, although these days most suppliers should have already done this for you if you bought your raw cat food in store.
Because of the high hygienic and storage requirement (usually comes frozen), commercially available raw food are super expensive; probably the most expensive one out of the 4 diets we've discussed today. But if you could afford buying a raw diet for your cats, it really is a great option, as long as you are aware of the risks and has the knowledge to properly handle it. In any case of doubt, make sure to consult your vet.
In a nutshell
Pros: High water content, the most 'natural' feline diet. Unprocessed. No unwanted additives
Cons: Very expensive. Prone to contamination and food poisoning. Needs to be stored in deep freezer.
There isn't really a right or wrong way to feed your cat. It all depends on you and your cats' lifestyle and circumstances. Although in this article I have mentioned that there are 4 main types of diet, I do find a lot of people tends to mix and match them according to their lifestyle. Ultimately what's most important for us cat owners is to find a way to provide the best life possible within our ability. This article is meant to be a starting point for you to understand your options, so you can start researching on your own and come up with your own conclusion. I have said this before, and I will say it again - it's most crucial that you speak to the vet to discuss what's best for your cat. Everyone's circumstances is different and no two cats are alike. It's most important that you find a way that's best for you and your cats.
Conroy M, Brodbelt DC, O'Neill D, Chang YM, Elliott J. Chronic kidney disease in cats attending primary care practice in the UK: a VetCompassTM study. Vet Rec. 2019 Apr 27;184(17):526. doi: 10.1136/vr.105100. Epub 2019 Apr 25. PMID: 31023949.