Cat Food Overview: Wet Food, Semi-Moist Food, Dry Food, and Raw Diets

tuxedo kittenCommercial cat foods are available in canned, semi-moist (often in pouches), and dry kibble. Canned foods usually have more protein than semi-moist and dry foods, whereas dry foods provide more calories than either.

Canned Wet Foods for Cats

A cheap canned food may have no more protein than dry food because nonmeat items are added as filler. Many cheaper foods don’t meet a cat’s nutritional requirements. In good-quality brands of wet food, meat is the first ingredient listed and there are few (if any) carbohydrates, which is closer to a cat’s natural diet in the wild.

A disadvantage of canned foods is that they may go off within about half a day once opened. Unused portions can be refrigerated to keep them for a full day or two, but they should be warmed to room temperature before serving because most cats don’t like cold foods (if using a microwave, check for dangerous overly hot spots within the food).

Semi-Moist Foods for Cats

Semi-moist foods are often filled with preservatives and artificial colours and flavours, as well as sugars, which are completely unnecessary as cats can’t taste sugar. With the exception of a few premium or specialty brands, semi-moist foods are not the best nutritional choice.

Dry Foods for Cats

The primary advantage of dry foods is that they can be left out for a long time so that cats can eat when they want to. Also, they are good for bulking up very skinny cats. However, in most cases they’re not the best nutritional choice, particularly for overweight cats because they tend to be high in carbohydrates (see High-Carb Diets for information about the health problems cheap kibble-based diets can trigger in cats).

Cats that are fed only dry food tend to be permanently dehydrated, putting them at risk for urinary tract problems, so unless cats can be encouraged to drink more water, owners should provide wet food as well. Simply adding water to the kibbles is not a good idea, as this encourages the growth of bacteria.

Dry foods lose their nutritional value by approximately 6 months, so food should be replaced if it reaches this stage.

Raw and Homemade Diets

Increasingly popular, raw diets comprise raw meat, bones (either ground with the meat or provided separately), a small amount of vegetables in some cases, and nutritional supplements. There are a number of risks associated with raw diets:

    • It’s difficult to ensure the right nutritional balance.
    • Raw meats can carry bacterial diseases such as salmonella that infect both cats and people.
    • Raw meats may contain parasites.
    • Cats can get splinters from bones if given whole bones to chew.

Feeding a raw diet requires a significant time and energy commitment on the part of an owner. If you want to explore this option, consult a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist to ensure that nutritional, health, and safety requirements are met.

If you don’t have the time or resources to research, prepare, and ensure the safety of a raw or homemade diet, feeding a good-quality canned food is a much better option.

Choose Premium Cat Food

With cat food, as with everything else, you get what you pay for. Most generic foods don’t fulfill all of a cat’s nutritional requirements. Ingredients are of a lower quality and often not as digestible. Many popular food brands are also nutritionally incomplete.

Premium foods are not only better for your cat, but better for you as well: Because the cat doesn’t need to eat as much of them due to their higher nutrient density, you won’t have to buy as much food. Also, less of it ends up in the litter box.

Read the Label

The first thing to look for on a cat food label is whether or not meat is the first ingredient. Many cheaper foods have some sort of grain as their first ingredient, which means that the bulk of the food is made up of carbohydrate filler.

Don’t trust the name on the front of the tin. A food can be called “Nuggets with Beef” but contain only 3% beef. Cat food should also have taurine and magnesium in the ingredients list (though cats with urinary tract problems may require a low-magnesium diet).

Also check the label for artificial colours, flavours, and sugar, particularly when purchasing semi-moist foods. Ideally, the food will have none of these. It’s also a good idea to avoid wheat, as this is a common food allergy trigger.

Other Food-Related Issues

There are a number of common nutritional and feeding mistakes that owners should avoid:

    • Never feed a cat dog food – it doesn’t meet all of a cat’s nutritional needs because dogs are omnivores, whereas cats are obligate carnivores.
    • Don’t give too many treats.
    • Avoid placing food dishes in noisy, high-traffic areas of the home or near the litter box, as this can put cats off their food.

For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.

Reference: Eldredge, D.M.,DVM, Carlson, D.G., DVM, Carlson,L.D., DVM & Giffin, J.M., MD. (2008). Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, Third Edition.Wiley Publishing, Inc.

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