Cat eating dry cat food

Our four-legged friends keep us company, make us smile and provide much-needed stress relief. In return, they don’t ask for much: a few scratches behind the ears and regular, healthy and delicious meals. If you’re a pet parent looking to serve up the best cat food for your pet’s needs, our buying guide can help. Here’s how to ensure your pet is eating the healthy cat food they need to thrive.

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1How do you choose between types of cat food: wet or dry?

Wet and dry types of cat food

Cat food generally falls into two categories: wet (in a can or pouch) and dry (a.k.a. kibble in a bag). While both types of cat food tend to have similar nutritional benefits, the biggest difference is the moisture content: wet food offers more hydration than dry food—which is an important distinction because many cats don’t drink enough water. “Male cats especially are prone to urinary tract disorders,” says Dr. Maggie Brown-Bury, a veterinarian at the Veterinary Specialty Centre of Newfoundland and Labrador. “The more fluid they intake, the more they urinate and the healthier the urinary tract is.” If you can make up part of your cat’s diet with wet food, Brown-Bury recommends doing so.

Why choose wet cat food:

It’s good for hydration and some cats prefer the soft texture and taste of wet food or find it easier to chew and swallow. You can also hide medication in the food if necessary.

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Why choose dry cat food:

It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to store and can also be left out longer than wet cat food, which means it won’t spoil if your cat prefers to graze throughout the day.

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2What are your cat’s main nutritional needs?

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need meat protein in their diet. In fact, cats get most of their essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals from animal protein. A healthy diet will also require a moderate amount of fat and a minimal amount of carbohydrates. Carbs (including grains) aren’t the enemy; cats just don’t need a whole lot of them. “They do better getting their energy from protein,” says Brown-Bury.

Here are the most important nutritional requirements:[1][2]

  • Protein: This protein must come from an animal source—whether chicken, turkey, tuna or other.
  • Essential amino acids like taurine and arginine: Found in meat protein, amino acids have a wide range of benefits. Arginine is critical for removing ammonia from the body and taurine is integral to a cat’s heart health, eyesight and immune response.
  • Vitamins: Cats require many of the same vitamins we do, including niacin and vitamins A, B and D.
  • Minerals: Calcium and phosphorus are crucial for strong bones and teeth. Other minerals such as magnesium, potassium and sodium support muscle and nerve function.
  • Hydration: Wet food will provide some moisture, but cats should still have access to fresh, clean water. Some felines prefer running water, so a water fountain might appeal to your four-legged pal.

In terms of calories per day, Brown-Bury says that a healthy cat typically needs about 50 calories per kilogram of weight. You can more specifically calculate your pet’s optimal calorie intake using a calorie calculator or ask your vet.

3How do you read the label to make sure it has healthy ingredients?

Cat food bag and ingredients

Most importantly, you want to make sure some type of meat protein (chicken, tuna, etc.) appears first, since ingredients are listed in order of weight. You may see the protein source listed as “chicken,” or it could be called “chicken-meal” or “chicken by-product.” That’s totally fine! These terms are used to specify animal parts that we might not typically consume as humans but are nutritious for animals.[3] You’ll also want to look at two additional things:

  • Number of ingredients: “If there are a lot of ingredients, [the manufacturer] could be doing ingredient splitting,” says Brown-Bury. That means that the meat product is technically the most prominent ingredient in the food, but there are a lot of fillers like rice, barley and corn that have low weights individually but add up to make a food that has far more grain than meat.
  • AAFCO statement: There should also be a statement on the package confirming that the pet food has been formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Cat Food Nutrient Profiles. Cat food cannot claim it is “complete and balanced” without meeting these requirements.[4]

4Do you need to buy brand-name food that can cost more?

You don’t have to buy the most expensive food to meet your cat’s nutritional needs. Many affordable brands follow AAFCO guidelines just like premium products. That means you can feel comfortable buying a cat food if it has an AAFCO statement on its label.

To save money, feed your cat dry food (it costs less than wet food) at least some of the time if they like it. Add a bit of water to the dry food if you’re concerned that they’re not drinking enough water.

You can also buy in bulk to save money per portion and subscribe to save five per cent at Walmart with recurring orders.

5How does your cat’s age affect the type of food you should buy?

A kitten and an adult cat

Your cat’s nutritional and caloric needs will vary based on their life stage and activity level:

  • Kitten: “A kitten is growing so they need more protein and certain nutrients like calcium and phosphorus to help grow their bones,” says Brown-Bury.

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  • Adult: Once your kitten reaches adulthood (around eight to 10 months), you can transition them to a standard adult diet.[5] “As cats get older, their protein requirements get a little bit less,” says Brown-Bury, while kitten food has more digestible energy to help them with growth. “If you’re giving kitten food to a lazy adult cat, that adult cat is probably going to get fat.”

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  • Senior: Brown-Bury says she considers cats over 10 years old to be seniors. Of course, it also depends on how active they are. A senior diet is lower in calories, but your mature cat can still overindulge if they eat more than the recommended amount.

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6What if your cat has dietary restrictions or health concerns?

Cats are infamous for being picky and growing bored of food they once liked. However, there may also be health reasons to try new food:

  • Diabetes and urinary tract issues: If your cat’s disinterest in eating is accompanied by symptoms like excessive scratching, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea or trouble urinating, see your veterinarian to rule out a condition like diabetes[6] or Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD).[7]
  • Hairballs: Since they lick their fur while grooming, some cats deal with swallowed clumps of hair. Diets that help with hairballs are usually higher in fibre and encourage the hair to move through the colon.
  • Allergies: Signs of a cat food allergy may include a very itchy face, diarrhea and gas. “Often it’s the protein source,” says Brown-Bury. “If your cat is eating a chicken-based diet, try a fish-based diet. If they’re on a fish-based diet, maybe they’ll do better with chicken,” she says.

If you need to swap your cat’s diet, do so slowly by combining the old food with the new diet for the first little while. An abrupt change can cause an upset stomach.

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7How often should you feed your cat?

It depends on the type of cat food you choose. Cats can be fed in two ways:

  • Free feeding: Where dry food is left out for your cat to graze throughout the day.
  • Meal feeding: A method of portion control where you put the meal out, then remove it after a short period of time (say, 30 minutes).[8] Wet cat food must be offered at set mealtimes since it can’t sit out all day.

“I always prefer that pets be meal-fed because there are a lot of medications that should be given with food at specific times,” says Brown-Bury. “If your pet is already used to eating meals, it makes it that much easier [if they need to take medication at some point].”

You can also do a combination of wet and dry feeding, as Brown-Bury does: “In my household, there’s always a little bit of kibble out and then they get a morning and evening meal where they get canned food.”

8What are some good cat food dispensers?

Cats are intelligent and enjoy the hunt. “They’re naturally inclined to work for their food,” says Brown-Bury. Puzzle feeders, where your cat must solve a problem or use their paws to get at the food, enrich their life. You can also use automatic feeders to encourage portion control. However, some cats are too clever and will figure out how to access all of the food at once.

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Get Everything You Need

Article Sources

  1. The National Academies. Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs.
  2. Cummings Veterinary Medical Centre. Cats Are Not Small Dogs: Unique Traditional Needs of Cats.
  3. Association of American Feed Control Officials. What’s in the Ingredients List?
  4. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Complete and Balanced” Pet Food.
  5. VCA Hospitals. General Feeding Guidelines for Cats.
  6. Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. Diabetes Mellitus in Cats.
  7. Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. Lower Urinary Tract Conditions in Cats.
  8. ASPCA. Cat Nutrition Tips.