Cat Food, Demystified


Cats may be finicky eaters, but veterinarians are just as fussy when it comes to recommending foods for felines.

When a new cat owner asks Charles Lemme, DVM, for a food recommendation for a healthy pet, Dr. Lemme mentions only name brands. “I have a personal bias,” says Dr. Lemme, a veterinarian in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) clinical practitioner’s advisory committee.

Dr. Lemme, who owns two cats, has spent years observing first hand the effect of diet on pets. The major pet food manufacturers, he says, “are doing research and making sure to the best of their ability that they are putting out a quality product.”

Many owners of the estimated 81 million pet cats in the United States turn to veterinarians for recommendations about what to feed their furry friends. In response, pet food manufacturers have started to include information on pet food labels stating that veterinarians have endorsed the food.

The links between veterinarians and the pet food industry run deep. Dog and cat food sales in the United States reached a record of more than $14.3 billion in 2005 (the most recent year for which results are available), according to the Pet Food Institute, the pet food industry trade association. Major pet food manufacturers have a history of funding research into pet nutrition at major universities that have veterinarians on staff, and they seek the opinions of veterinarians in market research surveys to verify the effectiveness of their pet foods. As you read the cat food labels in the aisles of pet food or grocery stores, there are some basics that consumers and pet owners like you need to know.

Nutritional Criteria Veterinarians Use
Cats are not four-legged people. They are a different species and therefore have very different nutritional requirements than humans do. “How do you find out what that cat might need or what is the best way to meet those needs?” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, past president of the AVMA and a veterinary medicine professor at Texas A&M University. “You talk to people who are scientists, and veterinarians are scientists.”

Cats with allergies or diseases — such as diabetes — often require prescription food that their owners can obtain from veterinarians. For healthy cats, however, veterinarians look for some of the following criteria when recommending cat foods:

  • Protein content Cats have been called “the truest of the carnivores,” Dr. Beaver says. “If you look at the cat’s natural food, it’s mice.” Other animal or plant proteins don’t easily replace the essential ingredients in a mouse-based diet. Felines, Dr. Beaver says, “live on essentially an all-tissue diet because a mouse isn’t all muscle meat.”
  • Essential amino acids Cats require certain amino acids, including taurine, which is essential to ensure the normal function of the heart, eyes and reproductive system. While most other mammals can synthesize taurine from other amino acids, felines cannot, experts say. Animal food regulators now require cat foods to have adequate taurine to meet the level of taurine they would get in the wild from hunting.
  • Vitamins and minerals Domestic cats also need key vitamins and minerals in the diet. Many of these, such as vitamin A, are found in meat. Some others, such as vitamin E, are needed to support the immune system.
  • Fat and fiber Packaged foods also need to contain a good balance of fatty acids for skin and coat health, and fiber to help maintain your cat’s digestive health.

Look For Seals on Pet Foods
Another feature that veterinarians look for in cat food — and that they encourage consumers to look for, too — is a seal indicating that the pet food has met requirements from the Association of American Feed Control Officials, a voluntary group of state regulators who are charged with developing the guidelines and laws pertaining to animal foods. In 2007, the AAFCO and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration signed an agreement that allows the FDA, which has federal authority for regulating foods, including pet food, to work jointly with AAFCO in identifying safe feed ingredients.

Feline nutrition experts developed AAFCO standards for cat food in the 1990s. Pet foods may carry one of two different types of AAFCO certifications: either meeting AAFCO’s standards for “complete and balanced” contents or by being subject to feeding trials and tests. “Make sure the logo is somewhere on the bag,” Dr. Beaver advises.

Importance of Veterinarian Recommendations
Many pet food manufacturers have recognized the importance of veterinarian recommendations and now include references to research studies of veterinarian preferences on pet food packaging. In November, the market research firm, Ipsos, announced that it was forming a new Veterinary Advisory Panel in North America including more than 900 veterinarians from the U.S. and Canada to help with its survey-based market research for animal health customers, according to the company’s website. Dr. Lemme says that veterinarian recommendations can be helpful when selecting cat foods, but there are other criteria you need to look for if the food meets all of your pet’s nutritional requirements. “Part of it comes down to palatability,” Dr. Lemme says, “or what the pet likes.” So if there is a veterinary seal of approval, as well as a lick of approval from your cat, you’ve likely made a wise food choice.

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