Kibble is bad for cats. Even the cheapest canned food is healthier than any dry food. The reasons why, though, aren’t always intuitive because cats have evolved a very different digestive system than humans and dogs. Cat health symptoms can help us understand what they’re going through, since they get the same diet-related diseases we do, but the many things that can contribute to those diseases in cats specifically may be surprising.
Read on to learn how to choose the best nutritional cat food for your feline friend, including how to understand a cat food ingredients list to figure out for yourself if it’s really giving your pet what they need.
Feline Health – The Basics
Cats are obligate carnivores. While today humans may debate whether pure plant diets or pure meat diets are best for our own health, the truth about the feline digestive system is incontrovertible: cats need to eat animal parts and nothing else. The dangers of fruits or vegetables in their diets are two-fold.
- Plant-based proteins are different from animal-based proteins. Proteins are made up of compounds called amino acids. Meat protein, no matter what kind of meat, always has a full amino acid profile that does not need to be pieced together. Plants, however, only ever contain partial amino acid profiles, which omnivorous digestive systems must isolate and combine to get full proteins, like putting together a puzzle. Carnivores aren’t designed to do that. Cats simply aren’t getting all the essential proteins they need when fruits and veggies are added to their food.
- Plants have nutrients in them, yes, but cats can’t break down plant material enough to unlock those nutrients. They don’t have the plant-loving gut bacteria that helps omnivorous species, like us. As such, introducing lots of plant-based ingredients into their food wreaks havoc on their intestines.
Low Thirst Drive
Cats have a low instinctive thirst drive compared to humans and dogs. They have evolved to receive most of their fluid intake from the bodies of their prey, which are mainly small rodents. This means that natural, fresh food for a cat contains ~70-75% water, the normal amount that animal bodies consist of. They have therefore not evolved to regularly seek out water to drink separate from their food.
This is the primary danger of kibble, since dry pellets will absorb moisture from their bodies, but most cats will still not “feel” an appropriate sense of thirst after eating them. This is why any fluid-rich canned food is more appropriate for a cat diet than kibble. Even a cheap canned food diet can save you from ever having to see your cat on IVs, catheters, and pain medication for a UTI, as I’ll explain more thoroughly in the next section.
Cat Malnutrition – The Painful Results
From Lack of Water
One of the most common health conditions that cats develop, especially older cats who have eaten dry kibble diets their whole lives, is chronic kidney failure. Cystitis (inflammation of the bladder), kidney stones, and urinary tract infections are also unfortunately extremely common.
The purpose of the kidneys is to filter waste from the body and remove extra fluid. These organs are meant to function in a water-rich environment, and dehydration places them under severe stress. Chronic dehydration will damage them and form waste blockages. Combine this with a naturally low thirst drive and an all dry food diet, and this is why cats suffer more from these conditions than any other.
From Lack of Meat
There was an epidemic in the 1980’s of cats going blind and dying from heart conditions. Why? It turned out that cats are severely sensitive to taurine deficiency and were severely taurine-deficient.
Taurine is a compound present in high quantities in meat, but not at all in plants. Commercial cat foods of the time, of course, were rich in cheap grains, legumes, and vegetables as filler ingredients. This is still true of many commercial brands, except that they now supplement their recipes with synthetic taurine.
All synthetic taurine is made in China, where production practices are notoriously unclean and too often have results that carry dangerous chemicals. Beyond that concern, traditional cat food companies have not taken into account whether there’s anything else in meat that cats continue to miss out on, like the proteins they need.
Animals who don’t receive sufficient protein in their diets will burn their own muscle mass for fuel, resulting in muscle waste and weight loss. Although, while cats lose muscle weight, they likely gain a great deal of fat weight from excess carbohydrates.
From Too Many Carbs
I’ve mentioned already that cat food companies like to pad their recipes with cheap grains and legumes, all of which are very high in carbohydrates. What comes next should be easy to guess, since cats react to excess carbs the same way humans do: obesity, blood glucose imbalances, poor hormone regulation, inflammation, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease.
This is true of all kibble products, which as I discuss in my article about kibble usually contain upwards of 50% carbs! This usually isn’t true of canned food unless it comes in a “gravy” or “sauce,” which are unhealthy and should be avoided.
What Do I Do?!
All of these conditions result from poor diets, and they can be treated and improved with a proper diet. Read on to learn what cats really need and how to recognize which companies can give it to them.
Cat Nutrients – Everything Their Food Needs
“Chicken,” “chicken by-product,” “chicken meal.” How do you recognize if an ingredient with an animal name in it is actual muscle meat, and not something else? After all, most of what carnivores eat is muscle tissue, so you have to be sure you can recognize it.
According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the term “meat” refers to “the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that part which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh.”
That’s a lot of info, but if you can sift through it, the idea is that muscle tissue and certain internal organs can be labeled on pet food products as the type of animal it comes from, like “beef,” “lamb,” etc. The term “meat” specifically refers to mammals, but for each animal such as poultry and fish, the general guidelines are the same with only differing terms. Good so far.
The general public feeling about meat by-products these days is that someone gave something that isn’t meat a fancy label to make it sound more palatable than it is. In a way, that’s true, but it’s not as scary or sinister as it sounds and may in fact be beneficial in small amounts. At the end of the day, a diet of wet cat food that has no “meat” but plenty of “meat by-product” is still better than a dry kibble diet with plant material.
But I want you to understand the core of the matter, so you can make informed decisions for yourself. To that end, let’s make sure we know what we’re even talking about.
Meat by-products, as defined by AAFCO (same page), are defined as “the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially de-fatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs.”
Of the specific items listed, which a cat would naturally consume from its prey in the wild, there are three things you should pay close attention to: bone, fatty tissue, and internal organs. Why? Because these are also things your cat needs.
- Meat, while important as a primary ingredient, does not contain calcium. Cats need calcium just like we do, and in the wild they get it from the small bones of their rodent and bird prey. It’s no bad thing to include in a recipe.
- If you cut out carbohydrates from your cat’s diet, you need to replace it with fat as an energy source. If the diet you choose is heavy in meats like poultry or rabbit, which are naturally low-fat, then you need to supplement.
- Internal organs are just as important in a cat’s diet as meat, because they contain a lot of nutrients that muscle tissue alone doesn’t.
That’s the good side of meat by-products. The bad side? There’s no control over which specific combination of parts get tossed into the cooker, or in which ratios. Since all by-products fall under one big regulatory umbrella, they tend to just get tossed into the cooker together without much in the way of measuring. Some pet food companies are sure to include specific internal organs in their recipes, often chicken liver, which are labeled in their ingredients lists as such.
As I’ll discuss in the next section, there’s also a lot of sneaky labeling for meat by-products to try to get them under the radar.
Specific Ingredients to Avoid
Fish. More cats are allergic to fish and seafood than to any other food allergen. In addition, fish are high in phosphorous, which in large amounts can damage a cat’s kidneys. Remember what I mentioned earlier about kidney diseases in cats? Fish can also be very addictive, and if cats begin fish diets they may start to refuse to eat anything else.
Soy. Soy contains compounds called phytoestrogens which affect the thyroid gland. Cats are very sensitive to thyroid imbalances and prone to hyperthyroidism, where the gland starts overproducing hormones out of control. Soy is also very cheap, which is why many pet food brands will use it.
Other Allergens. Some ingredients produce fewer average instances of allergic reactions than fish, but there is still a significant chance. They include beef, lamb, corn, wheat, and yes – soy. You’ll notice the potential allergens in general include a lot of meat sources, which is why poultry is the best commercial source of animal proteins for cats. This makes sense as domestic cats have evolved for primarily preying upon birds and rodents.
How To Read Cat Food Labels
Now that you understand the foundations of cat nutrition, let’s go over how to read the information on cat food bags, cans, and pouches so that you can find a diet that fits your needs and budget without having to rely on guesswork.
First, About Price and Quality
It’s okay if you’re on a budget for pet food. Remember, any canned wet food will still be better than dry kibble, no matter how cheap. Even the cheapest brands tend to have the main concerns covered: high water content, animal protein instead of plant protein, and usually low in carbohydrates. That’s already a step up from what most cats commonly eat.
Ignore The Front Label
Whatever the titles and subtitles say on the front of a cat food bag, can, or pouch, ignore them. For the sake of transparent communication, they are meaningless.
- Exhibit A: If you see words like “dinner,” “platter,” “entrée,” “formula,” etc. anywhere on the container, that means the recipe contains anywhere between 25-95% meat or fish. That is the regulated legal requirement.
- Exhibit B: If you see the word “with” anywhere in the title, the recipe is only legally required to contain 3% of the named ingredient. For example, “cat food with chicken” may include as little as 3% chicken.
The bottom line is that front labels are very misleading. You should always rely on the nutrients label and ingredients list to know what’s in the food.
This is the ideal basic composition of healthy cat food, in percentage of daily calories:
- > 50% animal-based protein (poultry is best)
- 20-40% fat
- 1 – 2% carbohydrates (maximum 10%)
- The ideal moisture content ratio is 30% dry to ~70% water. Avoid “gravies” and “sauces” as they are often made of high-carbohydrate thickeners.
Note: Dry kibble labels measure nutrients on a dry matter basis, which mean they consider food content without water content. This can inflate figures for things like protein, which are actually significantly lower in quantity in kibble than in wet food sources.
What do they mean? Ingredients for any food item, human or pet, are always written by order of quantity from most to least. The first ingredient listed will be the one used the most in the recipe. The last ingredient will be the one used the least, sometimes in just trace amounts.
The first ingredient should always be some sort of muscle meat, ideally chicken or turkey. These will be labeled simply as “chicken,” “turkey,” “beef,” etc.
- If you see the word “meal” in the ingredient, like “chicken meal,” it is still muscle meat but not as high quality. “Meal” foods are cooked for long times at high temperatures, a treatment they usually get during kibble production.
Meat Organs. It is ideal if you can find an ingredient high up on the list, within the first three or four, that specifies some type of animal organ. The most common ones are “chicken liver” and “chicken fat,” which are the best ones. However, even if such ingredients are not listed, that’s alright as long as you find the below ingredient:
Meat by-products. As I mentioned earlier, these are perfectly alright to find in an ingredients list and can offer a lot of nutrients. Their quality is more variable than the controls on muscle meat and specified organs, but they are still full of edible animal proteins, calcium-rich bones, energy-rich fats, and important internal organs.
Fruits, veggies, and grains should be measured in accordance with the nutrient label. It would be ideal not to have any at all, of course, but if the nutrient label lists the carbohydrate count as below 10%, that means these ingredients are only present in small amounts. Just make sure soy isn’t anywhere on the label – that’s the one ingredient that should be avoided at all costs.
Take it easy. Don’t lock yourself into a rigid purity standard for commercial food if you’re on a budget, or your cat has health restrictions or is a picky eater. I would say the ingredients that should absolutely be avoided are soy and, if possible, fish. Beyond that, if you find a diet that fits the basic nutrient profile, your cat will already be much better off.
I will be coming up with lists of the best canned cat foods I can find, including a budget option, soon. I’ll follow that up with raw diet information, raw food brands, and DIY diets. Until then, I hope this article has helped give you a better understanding of what your cat needs and how to find it for them. If you find a wet food that works for you, you can check out my article (linked below) about transitioning your cats off kibble. Bone apetit, everyone!