The best diet for our feline friends is a long debated issue. As cat parents, we understandably want the best for our fur babies. But with so many choices on the market, how to you choose what to feed to your cats? Read on to find out more about the pros and cons of the types of cat food that are commonly available.
Cost: $ – $$$
Availability: Available Everywhere
Shelf Life: Long
Nutrition: Varies by Brand
Dry Cat food are normally made in a process called extrusion, which is also the process used to make pasta and cereal for human foods. In this process, the Ingredients are mixed, cooked at high temperatures to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, cut into the typical kibble size, and then dried to remove excess moisture. The dried kibble are often coated with additional natural flavours then cooled before it is bagged and sent off for sale.
Pros: Dry food is the most common type of cat food and can be easily found every where. The wide variety to be found on the market also means there is a type for every budget. It is also the most economical as the number of calories it contain is denser than other food, so cats would not need to eat a lot of them to feel full. Dry kibbles could be kept for a long time, so it is easier to buy in bulk, which saves cost and time. Most dry food on the market are what we call "complete and balanced" in nutritional content, which means it contains all the required vitamins and minerals for the growth and development of cats. Eating the hard dry kibbles could also help keep your cat's teeth clean, so they are at less risk of developing tooth and gum disease as they age. Many dry formulas exist for cats with specific health and dietary needs as well, so they are a good choice for kitties with special requirements.
Cons: The wide variety of dry food available at different price points means the ingredients which different brands use varies widely in quality as well. Commercial dry food generally contains a high percentage of starchy fillers such as maize, corn, rice, and other grains. Dry food marketed as "grain free" contains fillers too, in the form of green peas, potato starch or sweet potato. These fillers can't be avoided as the kibble simply won't hold its shape without them. As cats are obligate carnivores, their bodies are poorly equipped to digest and utilise calories from food other than meat, and fillers are added calories which cats can't easily make use of. These fillers are not inherently bad, but eating food with a high levels of fillers could lead to obesity for your precious kitty. Additionally, most dry food only contain 10 - 12 percent moisture content, so cats would need to drink more water to make up for proper hydration. As cats do not have the same thirst drive as dogs, many cats do not get enough water to meet their needs. This could lead to health issues like urinary tract issues, as well as constipation, both of which could be fatal if left untreated.
Cost: $$ – $$$
Availability: Available as Treats
Shelf Life: Medium Long
Nutrition: Not the Healthiest
Semi-moist cat food was once widely available as a third kind of complete diet between dry and wet for fussy kitties, but is becoming less popular due to the high sugar and salt content which could lead to many health issues. Today, Semi-moist food are more often found as 'meal toppers' or treats, and should not fed exclusively as a meal. Semi-moist food generally come in pouches, have a kibble like shape, and contain 60 – 65% moisture content.
Pros: Most cats find them more palatable than dry food, so if you have a fussy eater, semi-moist food could be added to meal times to encourage your kitty to eat. They are also very convenient as they are individually packaged with just enough food for one meal. The high moisture level means its better for your cat's urinary health than dry food alone. They are also generally less expensive than wet food, and could be a good stand in if cost is one of your concerns.
Cons: As mentioned, semi-moist food often contain high levels of sugar and salt, and sometimes preservatives. Kitties who eat too much of these could develop kidney, urinary, and heart disease as they age. When feeding semi-moist cat food, always follow the recommended feeding guideline for the specific product, and feed in moderation.
Cost: $$ – $$$
Availability: Available Everywhere
Shelf Life: Medium Long
Nutrition: Varies by Brand
Wet food are produced by mixing the ingredients which are then canned and vacuum sealed. The cans are then sterilised in a heat and steam chamber, to kill any harmful bacteria which might be present. As the ingredients are not dried, wet food generally have a moisture content between 70 – 80%.
Pros: Most, if not all pet food brand carries a wet food line, so there are many choices on the market. The high moisture content in wet food means cats could eat more per meal as compared to dry food and still remain at a healthy weight. They also contain much less filler and more protein content than dry food, which means cats could digest wet good much more easily than dry food, which gives the added benefit of higher energy levels. The added moisture also increases the cats hydration level, so kitties who don't like to drink are less likely to become dehydrated if wet food is added to their diet. Wet food also comes in pre-portioned cans, so its less likely to overfeed cats during meal times.
Cons: Wet food are generally more expensive than dry food, so if cost is a concern you might not be able to feed them every day. Their shelf life is relatively long if unopened, but once the cans are opened, unfinished food need to be refrigerated or thrown away after 40 minutes top (less if the room temperature is high). It may seem wasteful but better safe than sorry considering how stressful vet visits are, not to mention the bill after. Also, it should be noted that some wet food are 'complementary food' rather than 'complete and balanced', meaning whilst healthier than treats, they do not contain all the necessary nutrient for kitty's development. A notable popular brand with complementary only wet food line is Applaws, which is marketed as a high quality but mid-range in budget. Eating wet food only could also led to higher chances of dental disease, but this claim is debated.
Availability: Available at Speciality Stores and Online
Shelf Life: Medium Long – Long
Nutrition: Generally High
Dehydrated food generally come in two variety, air dried or freeze dried. With air dried food, the process is similar to when you make jerky, where the mixed ingredients are dried in gently heated air chambers. With freeze drying, the food is flash frozen under pressure, then heated just enough the water content turns straight to water vapour, causing the food to dry up.
Pros: Dehydrated food are generally have very high protein content and is most similar in nutrition profile to what cats eat in the wild. the dehydration process (especially for freeze drying) does not leach as much nutrient from the food as compared to both dry or wet so you would often find cats having higher energy levels and shiner coats when feeding dehydrated. Dehydrated food contain very little fillers such as grains or starch, as the removal of water is enough to keep the shape of the food. Most dehydrated food have a complete nutrition profile that meets the cat's need for growth. They generally have the same stable shelf lives as dry food, but air dried brands could be shorter. Dehydrated food should never be refrigerated as the moisture in fridges actually could cause the food to go bad more quickly.
Cons: Cost is definitely the biggest con as dehydrated food generally sells for around $30+ for 300g to 400g packs (10 to 14oz). The high cost is due to the high protein content, as meat shrinks a lot during the dehydration process. Machines used for drying also need a lot of energy to operate, so price is unlikely to go down. Some dehydrated food can be fed as is, but freeze dried variety need to be re-hydrated before feeding by adding water to the food, so it takes sometime to learn how much to feed during meal time. Re-hydrated food should be treated the same as wet food, and leftovers should not be left out for long. Dehydrated food is gaining popularity, but choices are still limited as it is relatively new on the pet food market; it might be hard to find outside of speciality stores if you want to shop for them physically.
Cost: $ – $$$
Availability: Depends on Recipe and Location
Shelf Life: Short
Nutrition: Generally High
Raw feeding is another recent trend in pet food and is arguably the most debated. Raw food generally takes cuts of raw meats, by-products such as animal offal, added minerals and vitamins, bone or other calcium source, which are mixed and ran through a commercial grinder. Raw food could be bought frozen commercially , or it could be prepared at home. Cost for self prepared raw depends on the chosen ingredient and local market prices whereas commercial raw food are generally on-par with high quality wet food.
Pros: With raw food, cats are eating a diet that mimics what they would eat in the wild, with no added fillers and artificial preservatives. Raw feeders often report higher energy level, better looking coat, and less digestive problems. If smelly poop is something you cannot stand, you could consider raw food as the lack of additives means cats could digest around 90% of what they eat, hence they both poop less, and their poop will only have minimal smell. Raw meat naturally have a high moisture content, meaning cats are less likely to develop urinary issues. The cost of feeding raw could also be controlled if you use less expensive meat and bulk sourced vitamins and minerals. Homemade raw food gives you total control over what goes in your cat's meals, but commercial raw food are generally healthier than wet food too.
Cons: Cost and effort are two key negatives in feeding raw. Due to the high moisture content, cats would need to eat more per meal as compared to dry. Buying commercial raw food could thus get expensive quickly especially if you have a larger cat. With home made, cost could be controlled, but it still will be more expensive than most dry food options. Additionally making your own raw makes could take 1 to 2 hours a week, as even when frozen they do not keep long. You will likely have to invest in a grinder that could grind bone too, as calcium is needed both for bone development and to bulk up stool. Without bone or ash in their food, cats could become constipated due to their stool being too small to pass. Commercial raw food often are conveniently packaged, and are regulated in terms of nutrition and food safety, however they meat used are generally pet food grade meaning they are mostly odds and ends leftover from processing meat for human consumption. With homemade, you can ensure the freshness of the ingredients, but food could still be contaminated with harmful bacteria. Some recipes online could be unsuitable for cats with special dietary needs, or could be incomplete in nutrition profile. As it is impossible to regulate homemade pet food, you should always consult with a pet dietitian and your vet before proceeding with any recipe. Raw food have a shorter shelf life than packaged cat food, and should not be left out for more than 30 minutes at a time (less when the room temperature is high).
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Ivy Gao (author) from Singapore on June 13, 2019:
Thank you for your insightful reply! How very interesting to read! One of my kitties loves liver, so much so she gets the zoomies when I ever buy them. I used to feed them small bits raw, but I was always concerned with the safety of doing so. Now I make something like 'liver jerky' in the oven, which is safer than raw, and which my cats still love.
The low protein diet for obesity is surprising to me, as most of my research recommends high protein, low carbohydrate for obese cats. However there is the debate about types of protein in weight loss diets, as many brands supplement their weight loss formula with fairly large amounts of plant protein (wheat gluten, corn protein etc) which some research shows is detrimental. Maybe that is what your vet meant? There are still much unknowns to animal diets, and there are many conflicting findings, but hopefully we will learn more in the future.
Finally, thank you for reading this article! I will likely write more articles on cat nutrition so stay tuned!
Larry Slawson from North Carolina on June 12, 2019:
Never really thought about this before. Thank you for sharing :) Very informative!
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on June 11, 2019:
Interesting article here. As a cat person for years, I've fed all of the above to my cats at one time or another. I had one cat that would go on appetite-loss "hunger strikes". I finally discovered that he would eat raw liver when he lost his appetite. We kept small squares of raw liver frozen for him and would feed it to him still frozen. He would lick these "livercycles" until they thawed and then eat them. Today I would never trust most raw meats to my kitties.
I have an obese cat who wants to nibble every couple of hours. The vet has put her on a diet and recommended that I feed her a low-protein diet, 30% or less protein, but I can't find any dry food with less than 32% protein, and she doesn't like wet food. I was surprised when he said that high protein would add to a cat's obesity.