It wasn’t that many years ago when most cat parents bought their feline friend’s food at the grocery story, right along with their own cans of peas and boxes of Hamburger Helper. Since then, though, many humans have learned more about nutrition. There’s more quinoa, legumes and kale in some of today’s grocery carts than there are boxes filled with sauce packets and dried noodles.
But that doesn't mean people aren't still picking up giant bags of dried kibble for their cats (and dogs) on regular grocery runs. Their newfound focus on nutrition hasn’t yet carried over to include their furry friends.
While there are some comparatively good quality dry foods on the market today, chances are you’re not going to find them at your local grocery or warehouse retailer. And a lot of veterinarians will tell you that, if you want to provide optimal quality and nutrition to your favorite furball, you’re going to want to feed them a canned food made of high-quality meat proteins.
To get a better understanding of just what you should look for when buying your cat's food, we spoke with Dr. Lisa A. Pierson, DVM, a veterinarian based in Lomita, California, who has written extensively on feline nutrition. She’s a big proponent of canned food, even if it’s the less expensive food that can be bought at the grocery store.
“The least expensive canned food is far better than the most expensive dry food ... Nutrition is a ‘pay me now or pay your vet later’ situation,” Dr. Pierson explained. “For example, feeding dry food significantly increases the risk of a urethral obstruction – a condition that is tremendously painful and life-threatening.”
Urethral obstruction — when urine can’t flow (either partially or completely) through a part or all of your cat’s urinary tract due to an obstruction — is a very common problem in cats and is linked to a lot of dry foods on the market today.
“The veterinary expense to treat a blocked cat is often well over $1,000 with many cases running up an invoice amount of $3,000 to $4,000,” Pierson explained. “That amount of money will buy a lot of canned food! Dry food is also linked to diabetes and diabetes is difficult and expensive to treat.” (Note: Having pet insurance may help you cut costs on vet bills like this.)
As Dr. Pierson wrote on catinfo.org, dry foods are often very heavily processed, can be contaminated with bacteria, mites and/or cockroaches (and their feces) and fungal mycotoxins.
"Most people who are concerned about their own nutrition have heard nutritionists say ‘shop the perimeter of the grocery store,’" Dr. Pierson wrote in the article "Feeding Your Cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition." "This statement refers to the push to get humans to focus on fresh food – not overly processed food found in boxes and cans.
“Where do you think kibble would reside in this scenario? Definitely not in the perimeter! There is nothing fresh about this source of food and it certainly does not come close to resembling a bird or a mouse.”
So just how bad is dry cat food for your cat and what percentage of early health issues arise from humans not feeding their cats a proper diet?
“I would not even dare to guess the percentage but what I will say is that we should all strive to do the very best that we can to practice preventative measures that will promote the health of our cats,” Dr. Pierson said. “Prevention is key for both humans and animals. The food that we put into our cat’s (or dog’s) bowl is within our control, whereas other factors that affect their health (e.g., genetics) are not.”
When buying canned foods, Dr. Pierson recommends steering clear of “sauce” or “gravy” as these tend to contain high-carbohydrate thickeners. She also recommends buying foods that have a high percentage of water, low carbohydrate levels and protein from animals, not plants.
To figure out what food may be best for your cat, it’s a good idea to talk to your veterinarian about your pet’s health, activity level and age. This information can help you choose a food that can keep your cat happy and healthy for years to come.