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Seven secrets to making an educated choice when choosing your cat’s food

Monday morning arrives and your normally less-than-sunny co-worker is all smiles in her enthusiasm to share her exciting news from the weekend: she’s adopted a kitten at a recue event, a scruffy pirate in baby-cat form who has quickly insinuated himself in her heart and household, as her zillions of iPhone photos attest. As she scrolls through one Hipstamatic-hued kitten snap after another, she poses one of the very most important questions anyone with a new pet can ask: what on earth to feed the little beggar?

Diet plays such an important role in health—to some extent, we are, in a matter of speaking, what we eat—that it’s paramount to choose the right cat food. But there is so much conflicting information concerning pet food that making a choice can be confusing. Companies vie for market share by highlighting what they consider to be unique features of their products, contradictory claims abound, and the Internet is full of websites about what foods are supposedly best. All of this information can leave you more baffled than enlightened. Friends and coworkers may tell you one thing while your vet has a completely different viewpoint. Where does one even begin? This isn’t a rhetorical question; the answer is—here!

Secret #1: Read the ingredient list
Cats are special. But very few people know exactly how special a cat’s nutritional requirements really are. We cannot feed cats like little dogs. In fact, cats have a number of unique metabolic idiosyncrasies that make them very different from their canine housemates. The biggest difference between cats and dogs is that cats are obligate carnivores. Obligate carnivores are required to get their nutrition from meat, whereas omnivorous species like dogs can get nutrition from both meat and vegetable matter. As a result, cats have a higher requirement for protein than dogs, as well as a requirement for a diet-supplied source of the amino acid taurine, without which they will form deficiencies. This means that cats cannot get all of their nutrient requirements from a food created for dogs, so it’s important to choose an appropriate cat-species-specific diet.

Knowing exactly what is in your cat’s food can have a huge impact on her health. Look for a diet that contains a high quality animal protein source and has taurine included in the list of ingredients. Keep in mind that taurine will be lower on the list of ingredients because cats don’t require a lot of it in their diet (ingredients are listed in order by weight, from greatest to least).

If your cat doesn’t have allergies, these are the top four things to look for:

1. A single meat (protein) source as the first ingredient. You should be able to tell what type of meat was used; chicken meal is a much better ingredient than meat meal.

2. Whole meat or meat meal. Meat by-products are made from the meat parts of the animal such as the organs, and are generally lower-quality ingredients handled less carefully than whole meats so avoid by-products. Whole meat contains a lot of water, while meat meal is whole meat that has been cooked and dried. When whole fresh meat is followed by a grain in an ingredient list, it means that, once the water has been removed, there are actually more grains than meat in the food. If that is the case, look for a meat meal in the list of ingredients as well to ensure that there is enough meat protein in the food. The type (venison, rabbit, beef…) of whole meat/meat meal should be identified; avoid mystery meats! Many canned foods will contain meat by-products as these are often organ meats and are highly palatable for cats. While you do want to look for whole meat as a primary ingredient, organ meats can be a nutritious component of a canned food.

3. Whole grains or whole-grain meals. Kibble, by necessity, is comprised of at least 50 percent grain for processing purposes. Without it, the kibble would be too crumbly and wouldn’t hold together. Even though cats are carnivores, a diet of 50 percent carbohydrates (grains are a source of carbohydrates) is adequate, so long as the carbohydrate sources are good. When reading an ingredient list, look for whole ground rice, barley, pea, etc. and avoid a high content of processing products like corn gluten meal. Gluten meals (i.e. corn, wheat, rice etc.) are usually added as an alternate source of protein and are some times used to round out amino acid profiles, so it is okay for them to be present in small quantities, but they should definitely not be at the top of the ingredient list. Since cats have a very low requirement for carbohydrates, choose a food with a higher protein and fat level. Do keep an eye on portion size though, since protein and high fat diets tend to be higher in calories.

4. Vitamins and minerals. Some of those ingredients with hard-to-pronounce names like riboflavin are actually added vitamins and minerals important for a properly balanced diet. The presence of whole fruits and vegetables in a food does not usually add significant vitamins or minerals, however, they can be a source of some phytonutrients and fiber. Cats cannot convert provitamin A (betacarotene) into vitamin A like dogs and humans can, so they must have vitamin A added to their diet.

In the guaranteed analysis on a label, minerals may be guaranteed individually, but the total will show up in the ash guarantee. A high ash level (anything over 8 percent) means that there are excess levels of minerals, often calcium or phosphorus, which can contribute to the formation of urinary crystals. Cat foods are much better now than they were a few decades ago, and ash is a lesser concern than it used to be but if you are buying a lower quality food, you may notice that the ash levels are higher.

The top four things to avoid:

1. Splitting. Grains can be processed into many different forms. By listing each of these separately, the manufacturer can push desirable meat ingredients higher on the ingredient list, when, in fact, if you were to add up all the different parts of the grain included on the list, the grain would actually come out on top. Be wary of foods that list one grain split into many variations such as wheat flour, wheat bran, wheat middlings, wheat shorts, and wheat germ.

2. Preservatives. Preservatives are necessary to ensure an adequate shelf life for dry foods, but some people worry about the use of artificial preservatives such as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin. While these have been tested and approved as safe for use, if you are concerned over the use of artificial preservatives, you can look for a food that is preserved with mixed tocopherols (forms of vitamin E). These foods will typically have a shorter shelf life, so make sure you check that before buying as well. The food should have an expiry date that’s at least six months away.

3 Generic terms. A higher quality cat food will clearly identify the source of the meat (e.g., chicken, lamb, duck, etc) or the source of the fat (e.g., poultry fat, soybean oil, etc) as opposed to just listing “meat” or “fat.”

4. Additives. Some foods contain sugars like glucose, fructose, cane molasses, or corn syrup. These are unnecessary in a cat food. Also, check the list of ingredients for other additives such as artificial colours and flavours; a small amount may make the food more appealing to your cat, but you definitely want to avoid a food that contains a lot of added colours and flavours. Extra unnecessary chemicals are generally present to make the food more appealing to you, the cat-food-purchaser. Other additives like glucosamine, yucca, and probiotics are generally harmless, but they are not usually added to the food at a high enough level to have any effect. If you want to add these to your cat’s diet, it is better for you to add a supplement yourself instead of relying on the food.

Secret #2: What’s the deal with grain?
Is it okay to have grain in a cat food? Can cats be allergic to grains? Ultimately, there is no reason why a healthy cat without a grain allergy or intolerance should not eat grain. Wheat, corn or barley is commonly used in cat food because it is readily available and provides a great source of energy and a good source of protein when blended with an animal protein such as chicken. That being said, it is better for your cat to eat a diet high in animal protein and lower in grain-based protein. Look for foods that contain minimal grain products as cats should be getting most of their calories from proteins and fats. The ideal diet for a cat is 40 to 50 percent protein, if not more.

Food allergies are caused by a reaction to a protein, and since grain contains protein, cats can develop an allergy to it. Because wheat is present in so many foods, cats that are prone to developing allergies are very likely to develop an allergy to a plant grain such as wheat, though a cat can just as easily develop an allergy to buffalo if they are on a buffalo-based diet when they start to develop the allergy. Bottom line: if your cat doesn’t already have an allergy to wheat, there is no need to worry about buying a wheat-free food.

Secret #3: Good fats vs. bad
Cats don’t get heart disease related to a high-fat diet the way that humans do, but there are some types of fat that are better for cats than others. Cats require both Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet in order to maintain proper skin and coat health. Cats specifically require an Omega 6 fatty acid called Arachidonic acid. The good news is that Omega-6 fatty acids including Arachidonic are found in meat products, so most cats don’t require Omega-6 supplements as they should get all they need from a meat-based diet. Omega-3 fats, however, are found in plant oils and fish oil such as salmon, flax, canola, and soybean oil, so it is recommended to add Omega-3s to your cat’s diet as they don’t get enough otherwise. The recommended daily dose of Omega-3 fat is 175 mg/kg body weight. For the average cat (4-6 kg) this would be about 700-1050 mg which is approximately 1-2 fish oil capsules per day.

You may read or hear that feeding too much fat is bad for cats, which, of course, is true for cats as it is for all animals. So what is too much? Typical cat diets should contain between 20 to 22 percent fat with a portion of that being Omega-3 fat, usually from flax oil or fish oil. Once cats mature in age they tend to have more of an issue with weight. It is important that we keep our cats a healthy weight and avoiding high fat diets can help keep our cats lean and healthy.

Secret #4: Tinned food vs. dry food
There is some controversy in cat food and whether tinned or “wet” food is better than dry. While any well balanced ration will meet your cat’s nutrient needs, there are a few points in favour of canned foods. Tinned cat food typically contains 70 to 80 percent moisture, while dry cat food typically contains five to 10 percent moisture. If you have a cat that needs to consume more water, such as a cat with bladder stones or crystals, feeding a wet food may be a good way of getting that water into her. Cats are notoriously poor drinkers, and allowing cats to get a portion (in some cases half) of their daily water requirement through their food can be very helpful.

Wet foods tend to have fewer grains or carbohydrates added to them and tend to be higher in protein than dry foods. Since cats are carnivores, it’s very important for them to have protein from animal sources. One argument in favour of a kibble-based diet is that it is better for a cat’s dental health; however, unless you’re purchasing a specific dental diet kibble, most dry foods do not provide enough abrasion to prevent tartar build up on teeth. If this is a concern for your cat, talk to your vet about options for oral hygiene.

Dry foods also tend to be left out and fed “free-choice” to cats, which can contribute to weight gain. Excess consumption, even just a few extra kibbles each day, combined with the higher proportion of carbohydrates present in dry food are not conducive to keeping your cat slim. It can sometimes be difficult to compare a wet food to a dry food because the high moisture level in wet foods makes them appear to be lower in the other nutrients. A little bit of math can allow you to make an accurate comparison of a wet vs a dry food by factoring out the water (see sidebar above). For example, a wet food that is 82 percent moisture and has a protein level of 11 percent, actually contains protein at 61 percent on a dry basis. A dry food with a protein level of 32 percent and a moisture guarantee of 10 percent, only contains 36 percent protein on a dry matter basis. Both wet and dry foods can provide a nutritionally balanced diet and each has advantages in certain situations, so it really comes down to individual choice. Dry foods are convenient and do allow for greater flexibility for busy owners, while wet foods have a preferable protein to carb ratio, as well as some other benefits, especially for cats with health issues, such as urinary crystals. If possible, at least part of your cat’s diet should come from a canned food.

Secret #5: Fiber vs. Filler
One of the issues highlighted in the media is the use of fillers in cat food. Fillers are defined as ingredients with no nutritional value that are added to some cat foods to lower the caloric content or to make the food cheap to produce. However, some “fillers” actually contribute necessary fiber and, as we all know, you need a little fiber in your diet to keep the tummy happy. Fiber ingredients you may see in the ingredient list include wheat bran, rice hulls, guar gum, yucca, cellulose, psyllium hulls, whole flax seed, whole canola seed, and soybean hulls. In general, as long as the fiber amount doesn’t exceed 5 percent, it hasn’t crossed the line from necessary roughage to filler. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule; higher amounts of fiber can be beneficial in weight loss or diabetic diets. Cheap food tends to have more fiber and lower quality protein sources. If you are paying $20 for a 40 pound bag of food you may want to ask yourself why it’s so cheap. Look to see if the food has a lower quality meat source and then a bunch of lower quality grains like middlings or bran to bulk it up and provide calories. If this is the case then this food is not the best choice for your cat. Also, excessive plant protein is added in low quality cat food to replace more expensive and better animal-based proteins. Remember if gluten (ie corn gluten) is higher on the ingredient list than meat meal (ie chicken meal) it is not the best choice for your cat.

So who should be eating diets with fiber in them? All cat foods should contain a little fiber since all cats need to eat a little fiber to help keep their gastrointestinal tract functioning properly. Typical dry foods contain between one and five percent fiber. If a food contains more than 5 percent fibre, take a closer look at the label or talk to your vet to see if there’s a good reason why, such as weight loss or hair ball issues.

Higher fiber levels are beneficial for cats that need to lose weight because it helps keep them feeling full longer. Weight-loss foods may have up to ten percent fiber. This fiber lowers the calorie content of the food so you can continue to feed the same amount while feeding fewer calories. Some foods that are formulated for cats prone to hairballs will also contain higher amounts of fibre, along with higher fats. Cats spend large portions of their day grooming, and much of this hair is swallowed. The increased fibre in the food, often in the form of psyllium fibre, helps to provide enough bulk in the diet to move the excess hair through your cat’s system without causing hairballs.

Secret #6: Add fresh foods
While not all cats are adventurous eaters, for those that are, adding fresh fruits, veggies or meat to their regular food can be a healthy way to introduce some variety. If you are supplementing commercial kibble, make sure that extra foods don’t make up more than 10 percent of your cat’s diet. Since cats don’t eat very much, that means added portions of fresh foods should be kept very small. Introduce new foods slowly to ensure they don’t cause gastrointestinal upset.

If you want to add meat to your cat’s diet, lean cooked meats without seasoning or sauces are the best choice. Cats and fish are an obvious combination, but steer clear of raw fish as it contains an enzyme that can cause a thiamine deficiency. Sharing a bit of tuna with your cat or adding some of the water from the tin to their food can be a great treat.

If you are adding fruits or veggies, start small and see if there is anything your cat is interested in. Cooked veggies may be of greater interest than raw, but avoid those with sauces. Avoid onions and garlic as they can be toxic for cats. Try sharing a piece of cooked carrot, or a small piece of apple. We’ve even known cats that enjoy broccoli!

Secret #7: Consider your cat’s life stage and activity level
A cat’s nutritional needs change throughout her life. A growing kitten needs a different food than a senior cat and a highly active outdoor cat needs a different diet than his couch potato cousin. When selecting a food, look for one that is geared towards your cat’s special needs. Healthy senior cats typically require a lower calorie food with slightly higher protein levels, and they may require more vitamins and minerals. Growing kittens require a different nutrient balance and a more energy dense food than a mature cat. While there may be some breed-based differences in needs, most kittens will do well on a regular kitten food.

Foods for adult cats should be chosen based on their lifestyle. Highly active cats or cats that have trouble keeping on weight will need a food that is more calorie dense. Quiet, inactive cats may need a light or reduced-calorie food to keep them from putting on too many extra pounds. If your cat goes outside, he may require a different diet depending on the season. If your outdoor cat is outside more often and roaming farther in the summer you may find that they need extra food or a more calorie dense food in the summer than he does when he spends more time inside during the winter. Keep an eye on your cat’s weight and body condition (Can you feel his ribs? Does he have a waist?) and use that to guide you in choosing the right type of food and how much you feed him. Overweight cats are at risk for more health problems than slim cats so keeping your cat active and at a healthy weight will go a long way to contributing to their overall good health.

Armed with these secrets to feline good health, you are ready to make an informed choice as to what to feed your cat. A healthy lifestyle—a cornerstone of which is good nutrition—is the very best thing we can do to for our cats.
By Elizabeth Pask and Laura Scott

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