What should I feed my cat?
January 13, 2017 5:31 PM   Subscribe

What should I be feeding my cat in a reasonable balance of healthy and easy--dry food, canned wet food, raw food? Is portion-controlled free feeding so terrible? Is there peer-reviewed scientific research to back up any claims for or against a particular diet?

I've read the various online articles extolling the virtues of grain-free wet food. What makes me suspicious is that the same sources also extol the virtues of organic, non-GMO, not-sourced-from-China... I'm a skeptic about that sort of thing for my own diet--I'm happy to eat GMO foods and use MSG as a seasoning, for example--so I see no reason to worry about it for my pets.

So is there any unbiased scientific research backing up these claims? If you think both that 1) GMO = good and 2) dry cat food = bad, please convince me.

A customary photo of the cat in question.
posted by serelliya to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: ETA--I'm currently feeding Royal Canin Intense Hairball dry food in a paced-eating free-feeder. I've noticed a *decrease* in hairballs and dandruff, compared to the previous food (Taste of the Wild) which was grain-free.
posted by serelliya at 5:35 PM on January 13, 2017

Best answer: I love this cat's face.

Why I feed my cat grain free canned wet food (currently, Wellness Core poultry flavors):

The idea behind grain-free is that cats are kinda special in that they need protein-- protein, protein, and that's pretty much it. They also notoriously don't digest so well so anything filled with fillers is further reducing the chances the cat will get all they need.

The idea behind wet food is that cats need hydration and many of them aren't good drinkers, or become bad drinkers as they age which can lead to urinary problems.

I think the idea behind raw--other than people who are afraid of "chemicals" and have too much money-- is that it mimics what a cat would be eating in the wild (fresh birds, meece, eggies, etc.) I can't afford it and I don't feel guilty.

I also feed her a grain free kibble about 1/3 of the time, because wet is not always convenient or affordable and I like to offer a variety of textures, plus she freakin loves it. I like being able to leave some in the feeder and leave for an overnight.

You may have noticed a reduction in hairballs because a food with grains probably also has the fiber that helps kitty pass rather than barf.

All that said, I think there is way too much judgement and marketing and not enough facts. You are keeping a cat fed and off the streets so I won't blame you if you feed her whatever works for you.
posted by kapers at 5:44 PM on January 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

It's worth noting that even if there were really outstanding peer-reviewed scientific research about the appropriate diet for the average cat, it might not be right for your cat, because your cat might have allergies or sensitivities that are not normal. For what it's worth, one of my own cats experiences severe gastrointestinal distress when given food with too much protein in it, whether it's the fancy grain-free variety or the cheap stuff with lots of mysterious chicken parts.
posted by yarntheory at 6:05 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: not-sourced-from-China... I'm a skeptic about that sort of thing for my own diet--I'm happy to eat GMO foods and use MSG as a seasoning, for example--so I see no reason to worry about it for my pets

I'm sure there are plenty of ignorant idiots and/or xenophobes in the cat community -- I am sorry I said "cat community," I just didn't know what to write -- but in case you were not a pet owner until recent years, not-from-China stuff is almost definitely about the melamine scandal. and I think this is a completely reasonable concern even though it's been a while. It's nothing to do with making sure your cat only eats organic homeopathic unvaccinated live rabbits. not that they wouldn't love to I am sure.

additionally, plenty of supermarket-brand pet food uses slave labor in its supply chain -- I can never remember if it's Fancy Feast or Meow Mix or another one or all of them, the corporation ownership tree is complicated enough that all the supermarket brands may be ultimately owned by the same conglomerate now -- but that's real too. The smaller and weirder and more local the food company, the more likely they do nothing worse to their workers than pay them lousily.

finally, feeding my cat exclusively grain-free wet food makes her soft as a baby bunny. doesn't keep her thin, though.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:06 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've had cats that needed timed, portion-controlled feedings twice a day, and I've had cats who were perfectly fine self-regulating with a bowl of dry food that was full at all times, supplemented with a dish of wet food in the evening as they got older.

There have been studies done on all kinds of topics relating to nutrition, however I think it's largely up to what your cat will thrive on, what they will actually eat, and how they engage with food.

Also if you decide to make your own raw food, please make sure you're including all the correct proportions of nutrients, bone meal, and especially taurine. Here's a recipe.
posted by ananci at 6:09 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

After living in China (well, Hong Kong), I can tell you that I give "sourced from China" a wide berth. We have food scandal here at least once a month.

I can tell you that after lots of my own research, I ended up on wet food in in the morning and then a high quality low-grain dry food at night. Any other combination made them fat, but without the wet food the male would get crystals (not enough water).
posted by frumiousb at 6:14 PM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Grain free is the main thing. Cats are obligate carnivores, and they need mostly animal protein. Whether raw, canned, or kibble depends on the cat and your own tolerance for mess and effort.

Myself, I can't stand the can mess, so mine get 1/3 cup of grain free kibble and fresh clean water twice a day.

If you're really gung ho and the cat will go for it, raw food is the best. I credit it with bringing my old cat back from the lip of the grave and giving him two more good years. You can buy it frozen at health food stores, and it's really not that much more of a hassle than canned.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:18 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

One argument for not getting too fancy with the alternative protein sources is that if your cat develops food allergies or something like pancreatitis, your vet may recommend a novel protein diet. That means finding a never-before eaten protein and the most common ones they try are rabbit, duck and venison.
posted by carmicha at 6:29 PM on January 13, 2017

We feed our cat raw wet food. It's the only free range cat food (wet or dry) we were able to find at the local grocery store. If our cat is going to live off chicken and turkey, I figure we owe a little bit of frolicking and sunshine to those birds before they get killed and packaged for my cat's breakfasts.
posted by aniola at 6:31 PM on January 13, 2017

Best answer: The Cornell feline health center is informative without being dogmatic or judgemental.
posted by janell at 6:47 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

There's a lot of evidence that cats should be eating wet food, mainly because they are carnivores and a lot of dry food is cheap filler carbs, which among other things leads the cats to eating more and getting chubby. (Source: I've looked at a lot of cat food labels. I own/run CatFoodDB.) That said... some dry food is definitely better than others, and full disclosure that even after seeing 2000+ cat food labels and countless hours googling and reading I still free-feed my 3 (healthy, happy) cats a good quality, grain free dry cat food because of the human convenience factor -- I'm often gone for 12+ hours, and leaving wet food out that long (or not feeding my cats at all) would not end well. They do get wet every day however; I'd say it's probably 50/50 at this point. If I were the perfect cat owner I'd probably feed them raw, but to your point - I eat stuff I probably shouldn't just to stay sane, and hence my cats will too, within reason of course.
posted by cgg at 7:08 PM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'll echo the sentiment that cats are obligate carnivores and generally do best with diets that are mostly protein. That generally necessitates wet food since you just can't get a terribly high percentage of protein in dry.

Speaking from experience, I used to give my kitty dry food because it was easier, but after a nasty bout of FLUTD, I switched to a prescription wet food diet and got a water fountain and he's been healthier since. I do still give some dry food since it can be more easily automated, so I don't think it's got to be 100% wet. I think of dry food as like candy for cats: they love it and it's OK in moderation.
posted by Cogito at 7:50 PM on January 13, 2017

I, uh, just feed these two goofballs a can of Friskies wet food each in the morning, and a can of the same each at night. (We used to keep dry food out all the time, so they could graze, but Finn -- the orange beastie -- seemed to be having some skin irritation that may have been an allergic reaction, and Molly -- the calico sassypants -- was getting to pudgy, so we switched to the wet food on our vet's advice.)
posted by sarcasticah at 8:02 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Cat Info got me convinced on wet food. The ridiculous waste of individual wet-food containers (plus a recommendation from the owner of my local pet store) got me into prepared frozen raw food. The desire not to have to spend lots of money at my vet keeps me spending money weekly on the food, plus the cats' ridiculous energy levels and shiny coats.
posted by lazuli at 8:36 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, my cats when they are eating raw food have almost-smell-less poops. The difference when I leave for a few days and have catsitters who give them kibble is astounding. I'm willing to pay for raw food just for my own quality of life as someone with an indoor litter box.
posted by lazuli at 8:40 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

One of my cats gets terrible diarrhea with anything but two particular brands of raw food, so the choice was kinda made for me! FYI, the cost of the frozen raw food worked out for us to be less than a twenty cents a serving more than decent quality packaged wet food, so it wasn't really much more expensive.
posted by smoke at 8:45 PM on January 13, 2017

Going to exclusively wet / grain-free resolved some long-standing digestive issues for our pair (particularly the older one) that had persisted even with high-quality grain-free dry food. We stick with Wellness Complete Health poultry varieties, which isn't cheap, but not super-expensive, especially compared to vet bills. We have a reserve supply of dry food for when we're away for brief periods, and they go nuts for it, but their reaction reminds us sufficiently of kids wanting junk food not to want to make it anything other than a rare treat.
posted by holgate at 9:17 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

To be pertinent to the specific question, unless you're doing raw "people food" (where even then you're putting your faith in suppliers) you're beholden to the pet food supply chain, whether it's the ever-consolidating world of well-known pet food brands, or, as jamaro notes, the independent companies who source their own ingredients but have tended to outsource the process to contract manufacturing facilities. That's not something that comes under the umbrella of scientific research, and is more about business research and limiting exposure to the dodgier bits of the supply chain. The rule of thumb there is that at most price points, wet food (with the usual caveats about carb fillers and crappy additions) is better than the comparable dry food. If we had to budget down, then Friskies shredded chicken would probably do, though in truth we'd probably just get used to ramen and keep the cats happy.

(You have a beautiful cat.)
posted by holgate at 11:21 PM on January 13, 2017

When I first met my boyfriend, his cats Alpha and Sugar had a lot of dandruff and were overweight. He was feeding them Iams Hairball Care, I think. When he moved in with me, we free fed them Acana kibble instead (what my cats were on, given the timing I think it was because the company making that feed was one of the few not involved in the melamine scandal). Their dandruff issue improved, but they remained overweight, and in fact Alpha's weight even increased some. We needed to clean Alpha's teeth, but the vet didn't want to put him under while he weighed nearly 20 pounds (anesthesia + overweight = more strain on the heart apparently?) They gave us a diet prescription food to try and put him on, trouble was there were also MY cats to consider. We tried a fancy automated feeder that would let Alpha in and keep my cats out, but instead my cats beat the only way Alpha could have it work and scarfed up all his expensive diet kibble like it was the most exciting delicacy, so that wasn't going to work. Coordinating regular limited feedings of different food or even the same food with our four cats was too tricky.

The thing that DID work was switching Alpha over entirely to canned Wellness wet food. Once this was done, he slowly but surely lost his extra weight until he was able to have his teeth cleaned. It's also been much easier on his old joints to carry around fewer pounds--he's a good three and a half pounds lighter. The best part is Alpha LOVES wet food and gets to eat as much as he wants still; it's just that what he's eating and how he eats it no longer makes him gain excessive weight.

My are very annoying when they don't have access to kibble, though, so I haven't made them solely move over to wet food, though they enjoy eating it as well. We repurposed the automatic feeder to keep Alpha out and let my cats in and supplement my cat's eating with Orijen (same company as Acana, but an even higher percentage protein food). I don't know why my cats can free feed kibble and not have the same problems as Alpha; it might be that they are much much more active, as they're not dealing with arthritis. Or maybe Alpha just...eats by volume or length of time and the wet food doesn't have as many calories by volume.

One thing I've noted is that the feeding recommendations on the can don't match the volume of what my cats eat at ALL. We get flats of 12.5 oz cans of Turkey&Salmon. Their feeding recommendations are "about 1/2 can per 6-8 lbs of body weight per day". For Alpha alone, that would be an entire can every single day. However, most days the FOUR cats only get through one, sometimes two, of wet food. It's not too egregious a difference, because my two cats are also eating kibble, and the third manages to snag some kibble too, but it's something to note.

Treat wise, we order human food grade bonito fish flakes from Amazon in bulk (far far cheaper than buying the cat treat kind at the pet store: $26/lb instead of $10/oz.) and every night is fish flake o'clock where they get a couple fist fulls; a pound lasts about a month.

The other diet thing I can think of that ended up useful to us is I had one cat with an easily upset stomach who would have frequent diarrhea. My friend recommended that I put him on a pre/probiotic powder, and I was skeptical about it because ~*~*~*~PROBIOTIIIICS~*~*~*~*~, but dang if it didn't make it so I only have to deal with a huge splattery blowout on occasion instead of multiple times a week. I have another cat who has herpes so we also add lysine powder. Both powders get dumped into the wet food.

If one needs to auto feed wet food somehow, this ice pack compatible feeder works pretty well for that.
posted by foxfirefey at 12:02 AM on January 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you're interested in raw, these may be of interest:


Some cats do well on whole prey
Free feeding of whole prey works best at cool temperatures.
It's also an excellent filter early in the human mating process.

Your cat is lovely!
posted by captivepredator at 12:04 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

My cat gets canned wet food (Natural Balance) and occasionally dry kibble (Whole Earth Farms Grain-free chicken) when I'm going to be away or when I am out of canned food and can't quickly get to the store. I tried a 50/50 split of dry/wet for awhile (maybe a month?) but I found he began to shed a lot more, and his coat wasn't as soft. He's still a growing kitten so I free-feed as much as possible, and my vet is happy with his current state of health.
I checked with the cat in question, as he is snuggling into my arm as I type this. He approves this message.
posted by janepanic at 2:27 AM on January 14, 2017

I free-feed my cat with Orijen dry food, most of the time. Either the regular Cat & Kitten, or occasionally one of their regional blends to give her some variety. I'm pretty sure that came from an older AskMe thread, as when I got her a few years ago I hadn't had a cat since high school.

She's also OK with Call of the Wild, too, which I buy instead a few times a year to keep her from getting too picky, but does seem to prefer the Orijen.

With either she stays slim and super soft.

I tried giving her Natural Balance wet food along with her dry food when she was a kitten but she never showed much interest in it and she does drink water on her own so I don't worry about it too much. Hopefully I won't regret that when she gets older.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:26 AM on January 14, 2017

After doing a bunch of research online I, like many above, also concluded that the two most important factors for cat nutrition are to get enough liquids (avoiding common kidney issues) and to get enough proteins (avoiding overeating). Since that's much harder to do on even a high-quality kibble diet, that narrowed it down for me to wet food vs. raw food.

I found that even grain-free wet food has a lot of nonsense in it (peas? what's my cat's digestive system going to do with peas?), and a lot of it has fish -- likely the body parts of fish that have the most metal build-up. It was also convincing to me that it is harder for a cat to get maximum nutrition from cooked food; cooked protein is easier for humans to process, but isn't what a cat's digestive system is for. So, I concluded that raw food is better than wet food. (Even before I knew the melanin canned food horror stories! Yikes!)

Raw food seemed like a mad hassle, though, so I did feed wet food for a while -- until I found Darwin's! They mail it frozen to you at your chosen intervals and amounts, which a friendly staff person will help you figure out based on your cat's size and activity level. It comes packaged in convenient servings -- it takes a day or two for my cat to go through one pack, while the other one is defrosting next to it. I also found that it's just a handful more cents per serving than the wet food I was feeding, partially because it seems like my cat doesn't need to eat as much of the raw food as he did the wet. Darwin's staff is really eager to consult you through your cat's transition to raw food, but my cat went for it immediately, preferring it over any of his other food. If you're considering raw food, I really recommend it!
posted by Pwoink at 10:11 AM on January 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Veterinarian, not your veterinarian.

Raw diets are not recommended due to potential for food-borne illness. Feeding raw exposes your cat (or dog, and you, your children, your mom) to fun bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter and so on. Would you lick a cutting board you just used for raw chicken? No? Raw diets: same thing.

Digestibility of a raw food diet has nothing to do with it being raw and all to do with its ingredients. If you insist on feeding a raw diet, cook it. Your cat's digestive system will not know the difference. And if you want to make a home cooked diet, have it analyzed by a veterinary nutritionist to ensure it has everything in it your pet needs.

As far as organic, holistic, non-GMO foods go... did you know that pet food companies are allowed to sell food that has never been fed to a dog or cat before it goes on the shelf? Did you know that the "organic" label on dog and cat food is worth less than the ink required to print it on the label?

Most pet food is formulated and labeled and marketed to appeal to the people who buy it. Because of the gluten-free trend for humans, there are many grain or gluten free pet foods available on the market. Not because research has shown that dogs and cats have gluten intolerance, but because humans respond to those words.

As mentioned above, "grain free" diets often substitute carbohydrates sourced from grain (wheat, corn, etc.) with carbohydrates sourced from peas, soy, lentils, etc. When pets have dietary allergies, they are overwhelmingly due to a response to the main animal protein source in the diet (chicken, beef, etc.) and not to grain. Many grain free diets are too rich in protein and caloric content. In my clinic, I see lots of overweight dogs and cats with diarrhea who eat Blue Buffalo.

If you're interested in the professional opinion of a dog and cat doctor, here it is. Avoid raw food. For cats, who are obligate carnivores, a high protein diet is best. Unless, of course, the cat has kidney disease, in which case the opposite is true.* Canned food is best for cats, who obtain much of their hydration from their diet. A lot of chemical manipulation must be performed on protein to make it stable as a room temperature piece of dry food kibble. I recommend established companies that employ veterinary nutritionists and test their foods before marketing and perform extensive research. Purina, Hill's, Royal Canin. I also like Wellness, and feed it to two of my cats who do not have chronic kidney disease. If your vet prescribes your pet a food, feed it.

* Research indicates that feeding a low protein, low phosphorus, low sodium diet formulated for renal disease extends the life of cats with renal disease considerably.
posted by Seppaku at 1:11 PM on January 14, 2017 [11 favorites]

Also, consider avoiding fish-food varieties. They tend to be higher in phosphorus, which contributes to renal failure over time. Every cat I've ever had was diagnosed with kidney problems, so I feel my new cats with wet food chicken/beef/pork foods that are grain free and lower in phosphorus. I avoid dry foods because they also contribute to kidney problems, particularly in dry climates.
posted by answergrape at 9:12 AM on January 16, 2017

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