What is the Healthiest Diet for Cats? The Basics of Feline Nutrition

We all want what is best for our beloved animal companions, with good health and a long and happy life taking the top two spots. But how do we ensure our pets live long, healthy and happy lives? Unsurprisingly, it all starts with proper nutrition. Feeding your kitty a quality cat food  – one that is well-balanced, natural and wholesome – is absolutely essential for their well-being and health. The only problem? There seem to be hundreds, if not thousands of different cat diets and foods available, making the whole selection process quite difficult. It doesn’t help that veterinarians and experts don’t seem to agree on what makes the best cat diet – some claim raw is the way, others advise feeding only commercial foods, and then we have people arguing if cats should eat carbs at all or stick to protein and fat only. Really, what is the healthiest diet for cats?!

If you, like many other pet parents, feel confused about feline nutrition, this article is for you. Here, we try to simplify the very complex subject of cat diet by dividing it into its most important sections. This includes chapters like the general nutritional guidelines, differences between homemade raw diet and commercial food, how to find the healthiest diet for your cat and so on. So, grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea, get your kitty onto your lap, and read on.

Healthiest Diet for Cats: General Guidelines and Recommendations

Let’s start with a basic and most important fact: cats are obligate (or true) carnivores. What does this mean, exactly? Wikipedia tells us that obligate carnivores are animals whose diet requires nutrients found only in meat. Britannica adds that cats lack the enzyme needed to digest plant matter, or more specifically, to split carotene found in plants into vitamin A. Instead, cats get their fill of vitamin A by eating liver from their prey – indeed, nothing goes to waste in the wilderness (remember this as we’ll discuss it later)! However, carnivores can and often do ingest small amounts of plant matter for digestive health (more on that later).

The fact that cats are true carnivores speaks volumes about feline nature, and by extension, what makes a cat diet healthy. To put it simply and bluntly, to be healthy, our feline companions need first and foremost animal protein in their diet. Of course, that’s just one macronutrient our pets require – what about fat and carbohydrates?

According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, since cats evolved as hunters, they need:

  • High amounts of (animal) protein
  • Moderate amounts of fat
  • Minimal amount of carbohydrates
  • And more than a dozen of other nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, amino acids and fatty acids.

Commercial Cat Food vs Homemade Raw Diet

To satisfy all four of those criteria, it’s best to feed your cat a quality commercial food. But what about raw diet for cats?! We know, we know – there is a growing number of pet parents who choose to feed their kitties a raw diet and they want to know if this is the best way to ensure the wellbeing of their cats. While this type of diet can have its benefits (you know exactly what you’re feeding your cat for one), we believe it’s simply not optimal for most cats. The number one reason? It doesn’t satisfy all four of those aforementioned criteria. Sure, it’s high in protein and may contain enough of healthy fats, but what about the all essential vitamins and minerals, as well as carbs? Yes, cats lack the enzyme for breaking down plant matter but nevertheless need some of it (!) in their diet in order to have healthy digestion.

Not convinced? Consider this: cats in the wilderness ( or, you know, feral city cats) who hunt for their meals consume not only meat protein and whatever fats they can get, but also small amounts of fur, hair and feathers, depending on their prey. These act similarly to how plant matter reacts in a cat’s stomach – it helps felines digest food better and vomit whatever cannot be digested. Also, cats do eat grass in the wild (owners of the outdoor cats can testify to this!). In fact, estimates on the composition of small animals that cats eat, such as mice, birds and insects, tell us that around 10% of calories consumed by a wild cat come from carbohydrates. Yep, you read that right!

Now that we’ve covered the topic of carbohydrates in raw diets, let’s quickly talk about another huge minus of the raw diet for cats: contamination with pathogens. Every year, you can read about not only poisoned cats but humans too, as a result of (improper) raw feeding. Salmonella, E. Coli and other pathogens found in raw meats can bear a huge risk for both the pet and the owner, even if the cat appears to be clinically normal. How is this possible? It’s pretty simple actually – cats shed the bacteria through feces and because people share the environment with their pets, they become exposed to the pathogens too.

Finally, there is a question of nutritional imbalances in raw diets. More often than not, homemade raw cat food recipes lack various minerals, vitamins and trace elements necessary for feline health and wellbeing. If a cat is fed such a lacking diet exclusively and long-term, they can easily become sick and lethargic.

Now, these are just some of the disadvantages of raw food diets for cats, however, they’re most important ones in our book. There are more things to consider, including the cost, time it takes to prepare most raw meals, as well as the effect this diet has on our very limited resources. Prefer things short, sweet and bullet-pointed? No problem.

Major cons of raw diets for cats are:

  • Nutritional imbalances
  • Potential contamination with disease-causing pathogens
  • Feeding only raw meat is expensive
  • Feeding raw diet has a huge environmental impact
  • Preparation is time-consuming.

So, is commercial cat food the way to go? We believe so due to several important reasons. Here are a few of them:

  • Commercial foods are balanced in terms of macronutrients
  • They also contain all the necessary micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, trace elements, etc.)
  • Quality commercial foods are 100% safe, free from pathogens and bacteria
  • They’re much easier and more affordable to feed
  • They’re better for the environment.

That being said, the ideal eating situation for your cat would be eating high-quality commercial cat food most of the time, plus having some nice, nutritious homemade cooked cat food from time to time. Also, keep in mind that there are plenty of low-quality commercial cat foods that don’t come with most of the aforementioned benefits. To get a healthy, quality cat food –whether dry or wet – it’s crucial to inform yourself and not fall for the gimmicks.

What to Look for in Commercial Cat Foods

As mentioned, not all commercial cat foods are actually healthy for your pet nor are all worth your money. Thankfully, most of the popular cat food brands are pretty good, plus many are reasonably priced. However, the sheer amount of pet foods available on the market today can make the selection process really difficult for cat owners. Here are a few pointers to remember when buying cat food:

  • Look for complete and balanced formulas, or foods with the AAFCO statement on their packaging
  • Meat, meat meal, meat byproduct or seafood as the first ingredient
  • Healthy fats should be present
  • Wholesome carbohydrate sources are welcome in small amounts.

Protein

Protein is vital for feline health and well-being – it helps maintain many body functions, including metabolism, muscle mass, immune and reproductive system, healing, etc. But not just any ol’ protein will do. Cats, being obligate carnivores, require plenty of animal protein in their diet, as only this type contains essential amino acids that cats need (they cannot produce them all on their own). That doesn’t mean that protein from vegetables is bad for cats – it just means it’s not complete. In other words, plant protein is welcome in a well-balanced formula, but it shouldn’t be the primary protein source for your pet.

So how do you ensure your cat has enough protein in their diet? It’s not that difficult, actually. The AAFCO recommends a minimum of 26% of protein in dry food for adult cats, but many veterinarians recommend much higher levels, between 30-45%. Our advice? Absolutely never go below 26% for healthy adult cats, and go higher whenever possible. That said, there’s no need to go for uber-high protein formulas, unless your vet specifically recommends such diet.

What about protein sources? You’ve seen us mention not only muscle meats, but meat meals and meat byproducts as well, which may come as a surprise to some people. Many pet parents nowadays look for not only quality muscle meats, but human-grade muscle meats. In our honest opinion, this is detrimental – both for feline health and our environment. Here is why.

  • Argument No. 1 FOR By-products: While muscle meats are healthy and can be a great addition to a feline diet, they are not as nutritious as meat byproducts. Yes, you read that right – animal byproducts and meals are not fillers, they’re chock full of otherwise hard-to-come-by nutrients. They’re also excellent sources of protein. Remember how we said that nothing goes to waste in the wilderness? When cats hunt for their prey, do you think they only eat muscle meats and just leave everything else as is? Absolutely not! Not only do they eat muscle meats, they also eat organs, skin, cartilage, often certain parts of bones, feathers and fur as well. This is how cats get all the nutrients they need for their health. And how are animal byproducts defined? According to AAFCO, these are “secondary products produced in addition to the principal product.” In other words, byproducts are leftovers from animal carcasses once the muscle meats are removed, i.e. hearts, livers, spleen, kidneys, etc. (you know, what some countries enjoy as delicacies!).
  • Argument No.2 FOR By-products: Another argument for meat meals and byproducts is that feeding your pet human-grade meat only is, quite frankly, environmentally and socially irresponsible. Pets already have a large ecological footprint, with their food being the number one offender. Producing meat requires more land, water and energy than producing plant-based food, plus the animals used as food create a huge amount of greenhouse gases (especially beef!). Of course, this doesn’t mean we should just stop feeding animal protein to our cats – that would have many negative effects on their health. But it does mean we shouldn’t throw away nutritious parts of killed animals – our very own feline pets wouldn’t do it in the wilderness, so why should we?

TLDR? There’s literally no reason to avoid cat foods containing meat meals and by-products; they’re healthy and actually more nutritious than muscle meats. Using them in pet foods is also environmentally and socially more responsible than throwing them away.

Fat

Fat is essential for feline health. It provides energy, insulation and protection for internal organs, and aids in breakdown and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Fat is also important for cell integrity, proper nerve signal transmission, formation of some hormones, it even helps control inflammation. Finally, fat enhances the taste and texture of cat food.

What are some good sources of fat in cat food? Before we can answer that question, we first need to address the subject of essential fatty acids, or, fatty acids that our cats can’t synthesize by themselves and need to get from their diet. Omega-6 fatty acids, specifically linoleic and arachidonic acids, are crucial for feline health, and so are omega-3 fatty acids, or DHA and EPA, although the latter is not technically “essential” fatty acid. Nevertheless, both omega-6 and omega-3 are supplemented in pet foods as they have numerous health benefits. So, good fat sources would be those that contain these essential fatty acids:

  • animal fat, including poultry, pork and beef fat are good sources of linoleic acid.
  • Corn oil, safflower oil and soybean oil are also excellent (even better than animal fat) sources of linoleic acid
  • Fish oil, krill oil, salmon oil and flaxseed are good sources of arachidonic acid.

That all being said, you don’t want to go overboard with fat. A well-balanced diet is crucial for feline health, so look for foods that contain a minimum of 9% and maximum of 24% of fat on dry matter. Around 20% or slightly more is ideal for most healthy and active adult cats though, but felines with certain diseases (such as pancreatitis) will need much less. The best way to determine the perfect fat content in cat food is to look at the meals cats have on a daily basis in the wild. A mouse, for instance, has around 45-55% of protein, 20-30% of fat and around 5% of carbohydrates. Bear in mind that cats eat around 7-10 mice per day in the wild – that’s quite a lot of protein and fat! Of course, these cats are hunters, highly active animals that require lots of macro- and micro-nutrients in their daily diet to keep their stamina and health. Since most folks have indoor cats nowadays, there’s no need to feed huge amounts of fat (or protein for that matter) – a nicely balanced dry cat food with around 18-23% of fat, or wet cat food with 2-5% of fat is perfect for most healthy adult cats.

Carbohydrates

Finally, we’re down to the most controversial subject of them all – do cats need carbs?

No, cat’s don’t need carbs to survive. However, they may be healthier –both physically and mentally – consuming small amounts of carbs in their daily diet. Now, we know that nowadays, many pet parents choose to reflect the trends of human diets onto their pets’ diets. Low-carb, zero-carb, raw food, grain-free and so on, are just some of the names of foods you can find both online and in brick and mortar pet shops. But no matter how good such diets may be for some humans, there is literally no proof they work better than “regular” foods for our pets. In fact, there are now studies showing that both dogs and cats have evolved to be very efficient at digesting and metabolizing large amounts of carbs, including vegetables and grains. There are also studies showing that, when offered the choice between different diets (balanced, high protein, high carb, high fat), cats surprisingly gravitate towards carbs. In other words, carb-inclusive formulas (including those containing grains) tend to taste better to our finicky eaters.

Then, there’s the question of sustainability and cost. Naturally, any carbohydrate source is cheaper than meat, it’s also better for the environment. In our honest opinion, these two factors are not trivial and shouldn’t be discounted, especially not in the current economy and climate situation (or should we call it a crisis?). Of course, since our kitties are natural carnivores, we shouldn’t feed them grains and veggies only – but we shouldn’t avoid them either in balanced, healthy cat foods.

So, what are some healthy carbohydrate choices for cats? Basically, most complex carbs that are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. This includes foods like spinach, peas, sweet potatoes, whole grains like brown rice, oats, barley, etc.

Worried about food intolerances? Believe it or not, it’s rare to have a cat allergic to grains or gluten. In fact, according to available research, grain allergies are the least likely allergies in cats – beef, dairy and fish allergies are much more common than, say, corn allergy is. What about obesity? There is currently no evidence supporting the “high-carbohydrate consumption equals obesity” claims. This is because healthy cats efficiently digest and metabolize both complex carbs and processed starches. Unsurprisingly, what leads to feline obesity are excess calories, regardless of their source.

Dry Cat Food vs Wet Cat Food

Finally, let’s talk about the main differences between dry cat food and wet cat food, including the pros and cons of each diet.

Dry Cat Food

Kibble or dry food is made by extrusion cooking under pressure and heat. It typically contains 8-10% of moisture, which is what makes it so long-lasting, but also less palatable than wet food and some would also say not as healthful. On the plus side, kibble is much cheaper than moist foods, so it’s a great choice if your finances are tight. Also, dry food is super-easy to store and clean after, which is not something you could say about wet cat foods. Another big plus is that dry kibble is better for feline oral health as it helps clean the teeth and stimulate the gums.

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Long-lasting and easy to store
  • Convenient packaging
  • Good for oral health
  • Easy to clean after

Cons

  • Not as palatable as wet formulas
  • Due to lack of moisture, not as beneficial as canned food

Wet Cat Food

Moist pet foods are made by combining recipe ingredients and cooking them. They usually come in steel or aluminum cans, but are also sold in foil pouch forms. Wet cat food comes with several advantages, but two most important ones are its high nutrient content (both protein and moisture, but low carbs) and palatability. No healthy cat will turn down an opportunity to eat moist food! On the flip side, this type of pet food is much more expensive than kibble. It’s also harder to store and keep fresh once opened, and it can be a pain to clean after, especially if your kitty is a messy eater.

Pros

  • Highly palatable
  • High in protein and moisture, low in carbs
  • Help keep cats hydrated
  • Beneficial for cats with urinary and kidney issues

Cons

  • More expensive than kibble
  • Difficult to store and keep fresh
  • It can be messy.

If you can afford to buy both dry and wet cat food (quality food, of course!), definitely do it. The best way to keep your pet both healthy and happy is to provide them with a variety of food tastes, textures and smells.

Final Thoughts

After all is said and done, what is the healthiest diet for cats? Yup, you guessed, it’s the annoying “it depends” answer. But really, it does depend – on your cat’s age, lifestyle, health problems, preferences and your budget. But when it comes down to it, a healthy cat diet will be:

  • Moderately high to very high in animal protein,
  • Moderately rich in fat
  • And moderately low to very low in carbohydrates.
  • Ideally, this type of food will also be environmentally sustainable, palatable, and of course, easy on your wallet.

Still having a hard time finding healthy cat food? Last piece of advice: focus on nutrients, not ingredients. There’s no need to wreck your brain about each and every single ingredient on the ingredient list; instead, focus on the nutritional value (“Guaranteed Analysis) of the food and how well it fits your pet’s specific needs.

References:

Feeding Your Cat, Vet.Cornell.Edu

The cat as a carnivore: proteins, carbohydrates and beyond…, Veterinary-Practice.com

What is a ‘Balanced’ Cat Food?, PetMD.com

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