When it comes to feeding your cat, it’s important to provide them with the right diet. The best cat food should be balanced, complete and nutritionally adequate to meet their needs. Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they must consume a diet that is made up predominantly of meat and animal by-products. Some experts recommend providing a wet food diet, which is often higher in protein, fat, and moisture than dry food.
Anyone who walks into a supermarket or pet shop with the responsibility of buying cat food for the first time can definitely be forgiven if they feel a little overwhelmed by all the choices. There are a seemingly endless array of brands, types and packages; all promising that they are the very best decision you can make for your pet.
Rest assured: it’s easier than it looks. Much of the noise is merely the result of different companies competing for your attention and in fact, cat food all falls into a small selection of easy-to-understand categories.
This guide will hopefully help to demystify the process and help you to make your purchases with more confidence.
Dry Cat Food
Dry cat food is typically any cat food that has no more than 15% water content. It is usually sold in boxes or bags and the food itself will either be extruded or baked biscuits or kibbles. Shape and colour varies but on the whole you will find an array of deep brown pellets or pebbles. They are hard, crunchy and highly concentrated.
The key benefit of this type of food is that it is already dried and therefore perfect for being left out for your cat to graze on during the day or at night. It is also ideal for being used in food dispensers or food dispensing toys. Many dry cat foods will also extol the benefits of their product for helping to improve your cat’s dental health: however, this is not particularly backed up by any definitive scientific research.
One factor that must be considered with dry cat food is that it is a concentrated food and as such excessive consumption can cause your cat problems with dehydration and with weight gain. Both of these problems are easily remedied, however, with care and attention.
The most crucial thing if you feed your cat a dry food diet is providing enough water for your pet to drink. Cats are notorious for getting kidney problems and this is largely a result of their heritage: domestic cats are all descended from ancestors who lived in the arid deserts of Africa and the Middle East, where water was scarce. Even today, cats can still be very nervous drinkers and many will choose to drink from puddles outside if it feels safer for them to do so.
Our recommendation is to provide your cat with a variety of drinking stations around your home in places where they are unlikely to be disturbed. Some cats prefer running water and you can find a variety of electrically-powered drinking fountains just for this purpose either in pet stores or online.
Wet Cat Food
Wet cat food is usually sold in tins, sachets or trays and typically contains over 60% water. It is a far more varied selection than dry food, encompassing patés, mousses or meaty chunks suspended in gravy or jelly.
Wet cat food is almost always sterilised during the manufacturing process and as a result will tend to have a much longer shelf life than dry food. However, as soon as it has been opened it quickly dries out and becomes completely unpalatable.
In our experience, cats prefer wet food to dry but are much more picky about the ones they like – or, to be more accurate – really don’t like. If you can match your pet up to their perfect brand, type and flavour they are very likely to happily devour every last morsel. Get it wrong and they will sidestep it in complete disgust. Happily, dry food rarely suffers from these wild swings in appetite.
One major benefit of wet food is that it contains a much higher water content than its dry counterpart, which can help to sneakily hydrate even the most reluctant-to-drink cat. It will also make them feel fuller, which can help to maintain your cat at the ideal weight. The downside of a wet food diet is the cost: wet food is significantly pricier per calorie than kibble or biscuits.
Organic Cat Food
There’s an organic equivalent for most foods you can find on supermarket shelves these days and cat food is no exception. These tend to be the more premium brands, rich in “real” ingredients and usually containing identifiable pieces of meat, fish and vegetables.
You will be able to find organic versions of almost all the foods we’ve spoken about so far – both wet and dry – the key distinction being that all the ingredients that go into their manufacture will meet the requirements of the relevant organic food authority. As you may well expect, this comes with a hefty mark-up in price.
Along with premium food brands – typically those that boast they use “real” ingredients, are grain-free or are in some other way beneficial to your pet’s gut biome – we generally recommend that you make the most of these choices as a treat for your pet, rather than as the norm.
If you can afford to feed your cat on nothing but premium selections, feel free to do so. However, if you can’t, don’t think that your pet’s health will be suffering too badly as a consequence. A well cared-for cat fed on supermarket’s own brand food should have just as long and happy a life as one fed an expensive diet.
Humans are very used to the idea of people of different ages having different dietary requirements. However, we’ve all been a little slow on the uptake in applying this very obvious idea to our cats. Fortunately, pet food manufacturers now provide specially-tailored diets for cats of all life stages.
Cats are considered to be kittens for the first 6 months of their lives. This is the phase of their life where they do the vast majority of their growth and as such they require a diet that is very rich in protein and calcium, to help build muscle and healthy bones. They also need plenty of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and iron, as well as extra helpings of vitamin C and E to help build healthy immune systems.
Like adult cat food, kitten food is available in both wet and dry varieties, and both are subject to the same benefits and disadvantages that we have already outlined. However, you will probably notice that the kitten-stage versions of cat food tend to be smaller and softer, to help with both easy consumption and digestion.
Senior Cat Food
With an average lifespan of 15 years, your cat is considered a senior once they hit the grand old age of eleven. At this stage of their life your cat is likely to require lower amounts of various supplements and minerals, such as phosphorus. They are also likely to start becoming less active, meaning they will also need fewer calories.
It may well prove to be the case that elderly cats will need to be fed on an exclusively wet diet. The softer food will be easier to eat for a cat with dental problems, whilst the additional water content will also prove beneficial for cats with kidney problems.
In fact, during their senior years, cats will usually begin to exhibit a variety of health problems which can be exacerbated by a poor diet or helped by a special one. This is, of course, best decided on in consultation with your cat’s vet.
Cat owners have never had it so good, when it comes to the availability of specifically-targeted foods to help care for their pet at every stage of their life. However, it is important to note that these foods should only ever really be given to your cat after having consulted with their vet. Even seemingly obvious diagnoses, such as your cat being overweight or very prone to hairballs, may stem from more serious underlying conditions.
Low Fat Cat Food
Some cats just love to eat. In extreme cases, your cat might even be sneaking dinners all round the neighbourhood before coming home to partake in another feed plus a load of treats. Coupled with their famously low levels of daily activity (particularly as they start to get a little older) cats can become overweight just as easily and quickly as their owners.
If your cat’s weight starts to become a serious problem, you may well find yourself having to give them low-fat cat food. Just as with their human equivalents, diet foods for cats are specially formulated to provide the nutrition they need with lower amounts of calories and fat. It is likely your cat will protest about this, but persevere and they will thank you later. Possibly.
Grain-Free Cat Food
Cats require relatively low amounts of carbohydrates in their diet: usually it will represent only about 3% of the total volume of their dinner. However, the sources of these carbohydrates can still have a large bearing on some cat’s overall health and well-being.
Where many premium cat foods will use rice or starchy vegetables to provide these carbohydrates, cheaper brands may use cheaper grains to help bulk out their product. While this is good for keeping prices low, some cats can prove to be very sensitive to this filler. Just as some humans are unable to properly digest wheat gluten, for example, your cat may suffer from skin problems or digestive issues if they ingest grains to which they have a sensitivity.
Grain-free cat foods eliminate this problem and can lead to remarkable turnarounds in your pet’s overall health: from glossier fur and brighter eyes to marked increases in energy and vitality. They can also help your cat maintain a healthy mass, since too many carbs can cause your cat to become overweight.
Domestic cats are prone to a number of common health conditions and nowadays there are likely to be a number of specially-formulated foods to help to address them.
The most typical health complaint you are likely to encounter with your cat over the course of its life are dental problems. While a lot of dry food and treats like to claim that chewing their product will help clean your cat’s teeth, unfortunately the only guaranteed way to do this is with a toothbrush and cat toothpaste. Ultimately, as your cat ages it is likely their diet will tend to become wetter and softer for ease of eating.
The other absolute gold standard cat health problem is kidney trouble. Cats are their own worst enemies in this and while special concoctions of food to help with kidney function are available, your best bet is to encourage your pet to drink water at every opportunity. Try to have multiple water bowls (or drinking fountains) throughout your house. Where possible, ensure that these are metal or ceramic – some cats don’t like the way plastic tastes.
Anti-Hairball Cat Food
Another notorious health issue that is likely to afflict your cat at some point during its life is hairballs. It is inevitable that an animal that spends as much time as your cat does licking a fur coat is going to end up swallowing some hair. However, in really bad cases these hairballs can fester in the digestive system, eventually calcifying into solid masses and requiring surgical intervention. If you’ve ever paid a vet’s bill, you will understand the importance of trying to avoid this!
Help is at hand: many of the major cat food brands produce an anti-hairball formula. These are rich in fish oils and in psyllium, a bulky fibre which will help open your cat’s digestive system and help them pass any nasties that are lurking in there without permission.
Large Breed Cat Food
Unlike their canine cousins, cats tend to fall within a very narrow range of sizes and weights: the vast majority tend to be between 4 and 6kg (9-13lbs). However, there are some breeds of cat which are much larger: Norwegian Forest Cats, for example, can often be up to 8-10kg (18-22lbs). Maine Coons, the largest of the domestic cat breeds, can even in extreme examples be as large as some of the smaller breeds of “big cats”, like the lynx.
As you can probably appreciate, these cats do require a slightly different diet from their standard-size companions. Our advice would be to seek out special formulations for these breeds rather than trying to scale up their diet from regular cat foods. This will ensure that they are receiving the exact amounts of additional animal protein and calories that they require.
You may not even be aware that the cat food you buy in the supermarket already contains a number of vital dietary supplements. In the wild, cats eat birds, lizards and small mammals to survive. This provides them with a variety of vital minerals and amino acids that would be otherwise absent from the food we buy them in stores.
In fact, these supplements are so vital to a cat’s health that even the most well-meaning owners can cause their cat real harm by attempting to feed them on a seemingly “proper” diet of raw meat, fish and vegetables. In such cases, unless your cat was also catching their own mice and eating them from head to tail, it would be unlikely they will be getting everything their body needs.
All of this said, there are a variety of other powders and potions available that you can add to your cat’s dinner to try and keep them in the best condition. However, it is always the best practice to only do this under the recommendation and supervision of your cat’s vet.
Just as with human treats, what makes cat treats so irresistible to your pet is that they are very much not part of a balanced diet. Sometimes they are extra-high in protein, or they might be full of carbohydrates, sugars or fats. In essence, they provide instant gratification to some very fundamental cravings that lurk deep within us.
Cat treats come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from biscuits to dried meat jerkies to yoghurt-like pastes. Most cats love one, many or all of these delicious nuggets. Of course, just as with our own diets, eating too many can cause all sorts of health problems.
If you’re not sure what is inside these mysterious, yet seemingly completely irresistible, products and are not comfortable feeding them to your beloved pet then there is a great alternative: a small piece of simply poached chicken or fish will almost always do the job just as well.