Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that unlike humans or dogs, cats can only survive on meat, and have lost the ability to process non-meat protein. In other words, there are no vegetarian or vegan cats.
This is the same for all members of the feline family, from tigers through tabbies. They don’t source vitamins from vegetables or fiber from good carbs. While they still need most of the nutrients and chemical compounds as we do, cats can’t make them from plants—they can only digest them in forms already found in other animal bodies. So, although your cat might occasionally enjoy a non-meat food product (my cat loves tangy chips), meat is the beginning and end of their diet.
Because of this, your cat shouldn’t be eating anything where meat isn’t the primary ingredient, dry food included.
Because they naturally look to hydrate from eating, as much or more than drinking, cats must have water in their food. Typical cat prey such as mice tend to work out to about 65 to 75 percent moisture when consumed. With the best dry cat foods coming in below 15 percent, it’s obvious that any cat on a pure dry food diet needs a continual source of extra hydration in their diet.
The simplest way to provide this is through a bowl of fresh water, cleaned and refilled at least once per day. But because many cats can be reluctant to drink from still-water sources, you might want to try adding water directly to their food, or investing in more cat-friendly water containers that use fountain elements.
A look at the moisture content of dry foods on the market right now reveals the difficulty of retaining moisture after extrusion or backing. It’s obvious, but dried food production and water just don’t mix, meaning that the best options out there struggle to get past 12 percent moisture content.
That doesn’t mean that some dry foods are more moisture-full (trying not to write ‘moist’ because it’s a gross word) than others, though. Here are the five of the best dry foods in terms of moisture retention.
|Purina (ONE, Pro Plan)
|I and Love and You
|Kit & Kaboodle
Why’s this a good option?
More moisture means cats can derive their hydration in the way that’s most natural to them—in their food.
Like us, cats have their own personal metabolisms, and what works well for one moggie might count as a weight-gaining diet for another. Often, correct portion size is tied to a cat’s weight and breed. Traditionally larger and more active breeds like Savannahs and Main Coons will need to eat far more than a Singapura and the Munchkin, despite what your cat might have to say.
When it comes to dried food, remember that it’s a concentrate product. This means that it’s hard to judge quantity and nutritional need by the size of pellets, which have a fraction of the moisture weight found in whole foods. Instead, use a kitchen scale to measure out an exact portion, then mark that amount on a cup of scooper for easy feeding.
Age in relation to cat food is often a proxy for lifestyle. Younger cats, who are more active and may still be growing, have a different set of dietary needs to older moggies who are likely to be more sedentary.
While all cats, regardless of age, should be eating the best food available, those nearer the kitten stage of life benefit more from products high in fatty and folic acids to help eye, brain and cell development, as well as more balanced fats and proteins to support growth.
As cats grow into adulthood they tend to require less fat, and less food in general. This makes it even more important that the products they do eat aren’t bulked out with non-nutritious ingredients. Older cats often benefit dry food with high calcium and vitamin E content, as well as increased fatty acids, to support bone and immune strength.
Food allergies are rare in cats, with sensitivities to pollen, dust, or fur being far more likely. Sensitivities to certain ingredients are far more likely, often manifesting in diarrhea, lethargy, and sometimes itching—particularly around the face and ears.
That hasn’t stopped many pet food brands from marketing themselves with the so-called benefits of restricted diets. Here are some of the most commonly advertised special dietary claims in dry food, and whether we consider them genuine dietary options, or just marketing talk:
- Grain free. This is marketing spiel, as cats shouldn’t really be eating grain in the first place. While it’s good to know that your brand of dry food doesn’t contain grains, this can’t be considered a dietary benefit. In fact, a study on grain versus grain-free cat diets by Tufts university found that a grain-free cat is unlikely to mean less carbohydrate content in the ingredients list.
- Gluten free. Marketing talk. This claim just means that a non-gluten binding agent other than grain is being used to hold the dry food together. There’s limited evidence that other agents are more beneficial for cats.
- Sensitive digestion / veterinary diet. Depending on the brand, food marked ‘sensitive digestion’ should genuinely differ from other dried products. Recipes are tailored to cats who have experienced frequent stomach upset, often due to issues in the lower digestional tract. These kibbles may be supplemented with prebiotics and are sometimes only sold through clinics.
- High protein. This one’s a little of both. Of course, all cats should be consuming a diet consisting mainly of protein, but older cats do generally require less fat in their food, making high-protein kibble a good choice. The best brands will go further with the claims, citing high or total amounts of animal-sourced proteins.
How and when you feed your cat likely has a lot to do with work schedules and daily commitments. But if you’re primarily using dry products, we’re willing to bet that you tend to leave out food for your cat to graze on.
There’s no firm veterinary opinion on whether it’s better to leave food out or keep your cat on a mealtime schedule. Again, a lot comes down to the personal characteristics of your cat, and whether they benefit from having a continually source of food.
However, we lean in the direction of scheduled meal times as the better feeding option for most cats, for a couple reasons:
- Mealtime feeding helps add a sense of structure to your cat’s day, which is helpful if they regularly spend any prolonged period alone.
- For younger or new cats, a mealtime also helps them more quickly associate you with food and (therefore) authority.
- Set meal times allow you to introduce treats into a cat’s diet, which is a great way to bond and boost playtimes. Try hiding treats in their favorite toys or making them chase after a nibble of something tasty.
Almost all cats are picky eaters in one way or another, which can make switching brands no easy task. A sudden transition to new food can result in a cold shoulder and moggie hunger strike until you eventually relent (because cats always win.)
Almost all sources on diet transition recommend an incremental change, beginning by mixing small amounts of the new food product with the old. Start by feeding your cat a 1:3 mixture of new and old food for three days, then increase the ratio to 1:1, and if everything’s going well, a majority new to old food.
Most cats should happily accept a bowl of solely new product by around day ten, but you might need to draw the process out even longer if you’re the servant, sorry, owner, of a particularly fussy cat.
For those battling to tempt their cat away from a favorite low nutrient, high meal junk dry food to something a little healthier, there are some tricks you might want to try:
- Turn Up The Stink: If you want your cat to notice that you are giving them something that they really don’t want to miss, make it stinky! If you only have dry food for your cat but you want to try to make it more appealing, mix the water from canned tuna fish (or anchovies) in with the food to make it soft and stinky.
- Make Sure the Bowl is Conducive to Eating: While this suggestion is more how you feed, rather than what you should feed a cat that won’t eat, it is a quick and easy fix. Some cats don’t like narrow, dirty, or big bowls. So, make sure the food is easy to get to and the dish is clean (especially if you give your cat wet food). On the bright side, this means that there is nothing wrong with your cat; they’re just picky!
There is a difference between stubbornness and food-avoidance behaviors. If your cat continues to disregard food for more than a day, even if there are no other symptoms, get your cat in to see a veterinarian.