Cat Food: On Land or At Sea

There's no scientific proof kibble is bad for healthy cats

November 18, 2013 (published)
By Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM

cat-food-cans-bowlsCat food. So many choices! So many “experts!” How the heck do I know what’s best for my feline friends?

Of course, the television ads by every pet food company known to mankind will tell me the truth, right? It’s not like they have any motivation other than my cat’s health . . . umm, okay, never mind. The pet store! Those sweet young kids will advise me properly because of their extensive background in pet nutrition . . . nope, scratch that. The groomer? The breeder?

In a world where it’s hard to trust anyone’s version of the truth, you’re going to find a lot of different opinions out there. The problem is that nobody really knows exactly who — if anyone — is right about feline nutrition! There is a lot that we DO know: cats are carnivores, meat-eaters of the order Carnivora, while dogs (and humans) are better classified as omnivores, who eat both plant and animal matter. However, translating that knowledge into a healthy product that can be mass-produced safely for household pets is quite a challenge.

You’ll hear extreme viewpoints, and those tend to be noisy. “Your cat needs an all-raw-meat diet! You’re killing him with that dry stuff! That’s not meat! Cats are designed to eat MICE!!!” Well, yeah, sometimes. There’s one out front right now that the Front Porch Cat brought in yesterday, apparently as a gift. Except for the fact that it’s not moving, you can’t even tell the little dude is dead. He’s actually kind of cute, and certainly looks far better than some of the other presents this cat has brought home.

Let’s talk about survival in the wild, though. While it’s kind of hard to figure out how long feral cats survive in the wild eating “all natural” diets, there have been studies that put the *maximum* age for a feral cat at the time of its death to be around 8 years. Many/most don’t live nearly that long. It’s a pretty hard life, too. Certainly there’s not much lounging on the windowsill in the sunshine going on out there—Mother Nature ain’t got time for that.

Right away, then, we see that there’s an obvious difference between the lifestyle of feral cats out there scrapping to stay alive day after day and the lives of our pet cats, for whom the biggest worry is hogging the best sunbeam. It’s hard to tell what indoor-outdoor cats choose to eat when they’re outside, but you bet your bootie they’re always happy to see a food dish with goodies waiting for them when they return home after a long hard day on neighborhood watch. So should we even be using feral cats as our model? We’re talking about wild animals versus domestic ones. At what point do we need to draw the comparison line?

Okay, enough of my inner conflict and back to the subject at hand.

Canned food is certainly indicated for cats with specific medical conditions. Cats with kidney disease definitely need canned diets. (Of course, they need to eat SOMETHING, so if you have a dry food addict, you do the best you can!) Cats with a tendency to form urinary crystals or stones really REALLY need to have dilute urine, so feeding canned food is an excellent way to get more water into those guys. Some cats have food intolerances that necessitate a very specific canned diet to prevent puking and pooping inappropriately. Diabetic cats are best served by eating a low-carbohydrate canned food to get optimal control of their blood sugar levels.

Another consideration influencing diet choice is how you feed your cat. If you’re dumping dry food into a bowl and topping it up every time your cat shouts at you because it’s not completely full, that’s likely a problem. Cats that are allowed to graze free-choice on dry food tend to become overweight or obese, and that will lead you straight to diabetes mellitus and twice-a-day insulin injections for the rest of their natural lives (lives which are likely to be significantly shorter with a nasty disease like diabetes in the mix). I will say that while I’ve fed kibble to my cats from the beginning, I measure it into specific amounts twice a day and each of them eats in a separate room. The Boulder would have been a diabetic ages ago if he was in charge of what he eats instead of me.

Wouldn’t it be better, then, if all cats were to eat a canned diet? At this point, the answer, for me, is . . . “I don’t know.” Research-wise, the jury is still out: while there are plenty of studies on cats with specific disease conditions that are diet responsive, no one has really taken a hard look at cats that live long, healthy lives on kibble alone (and it would appear that there are plenty of those cats out there). Overall, it appears that monitoring body condition (not allowing cats to become overweight/obese) and the cat’s general state of health are the most important factors in the decision to feed dry or canned.

Here are some of the reasons that people choose a dry food instead of canned for their healthy cats:

  • Cat preference. At our house, the Boulder and the Princess will eat anything that hits the ground. The Young Terrorist, however, won’t touch anything that’s not crunchy and made specifically for cats. If he ever develops a medical condition that necessitates a canned food, we’re going to have a problem.
  • Owner preference. For a lot of people, canned food is a messy, stinky proposition that involves frequent cleaning of bowls and emptying of trash. It’s hard to beat the convenience of kibble.
  • Price. It’s also hard to beat the cost of dry food; canned foods are, overall, more expensive than dry, which is definitely a consideration for the majority of the cat-owning population. If a cat doesn’t eat its kibble for breakfast, you can bring it back for dinner and nothing has changed. Not so with canned food, so if the cat decides it doesn’t want the whole serving for breakfast, into the trash it goes. Cha-ching, said the cash register.

So what’s the big deal? It’s cheaper, it’s easier, cats like it, and they’re definitely living longer than they ever did before. And yet there are alarmists out there howling that we’re killing our cats with kibble. Is it really that bad? Should I feel guilty for feeding my cats a dry food? I’ll confess—they’ve been getting kibble their whole lives, and The Boulder is nearly ten years old now . . .

Thousands and thousands and thousands of cats live long, healthy lives without seeing so much as a spoonful of canned food. No one disputes that owned cats live longer than feral cats, and having a ready supply of a balanced diet has gone a long way toward keeping our feline companions with us for many years beyond which they would survive on their own in the wild.

I believe that we need to arm ourselves with the most up-to-date information available, then simply do the best we can for our cats within our individual limitations. What feline buddy could ask for more?

1 Comment

April 5, 2014

Agreed that kibble is more convenient and cheaper. Maybe it is cheaper because the ingredients are cheaper? Since switching I deal with wayy less picking up of vomit, mostly undigested food, but more importantly my girl with urinary issues has been problem free now for several years. Sadly it was something I had to learn, research on my own, not from my vet. I sought out respected works of forward thinking integrative vets, not quacks. Kibble is well, dry, not enough moisture in it. Not to mention baked at high temps destroying what nutrients are in it. If mine don't eat I don't immediately toss it either, it goes back in the fridge for later…..One other issue here is no mention that most, not all, but still most of the recalls are kibble, dry food. Ours get a variety, dehydrated, canned, and freeze dried raw. I believe cats could ask for alot more than kibble, in my opinion, although I will agree it is better than starving.


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