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Do cats need a varied diet? Isn't dry kibble or generic wet food good enough? We'll answer these questions and give you the truth about feeding cats.

What’s the truth about feeding cats? Get the facts in this post! Photo by Konstantinos Feggoulis on Unsplash

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I have a brother who has four cats. He’s always complaining about how his cats won’t eat this or that, or he has to coax them to eat or go out and buy all kinds of expensive canned foods for them. I told him just put out some food and eventually they’ll get hungry enough to eat it. He counters with “if cats don’t eat every day, they will die” or “cats change their minds so often that the food offered has to change as often, too.” I really don’t think any of this is true. We had cats when we were young, bought generic cat food in a can, and they lived long lives without any major problems. What’s the truth about feeding cats? Thanks.

~ Mike

Thomas: Well, Mike, it’s a good thing you asked. There are a lot of misconceptions about how and what you should feed cats, and we’ll be happy to tell you the truth about feeding cats.

Bella: First of all, things were a lot different back in the old days. Back then, you could get away with feeding your cat generic kibble or canned food, usually because cats also went outdoors and supplemented their indoor diet with an assortment of small rodents and slow, dumb, or injured birds, so they ended up staying reasonably healthy.

Tara: But these days, at least in the United States, cats are mostly indoor-only and they rely on us as the sole providers of the food they eat.

Thomas: Your brother is right that if cats don’t eat every day they will die. Cats that refuse to eat for more than a day or two can develop a potentially fatal condition called hepatic lipidosis. Basically what happens is that cats in “starvation mode” start moving fat to the liver to create energy in the form of “lipoproteins.” This can lead to jaundice (a yellowing of the skin) and ultimately to liver failure.

Bella: Your brother is also right that cats need variety in their diets. As we mentioned above, cats that were fed kibble or canned food alone often supplemented their diets through hunting in order to get the nutrients they need.

Tara: The other thing that canned food provides is water. Being evolved from desert animals, cats have a very low thirst drive and have been designed by evolution to get the water they need through eating their prey. So if you see a cat actually drinking water out of a bowl, that means they’re very thirsty indeed!

Thomas: Why do cats need variety in their food? Well, let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose that the only thing you had to eat was Doritos, and maybe a multivitamin to provide the minimal standards of nutrition you need in order to survive (but not to thrive). You have no money and no way of leaving your house to buy any different kinds of food; all you’re provided by your benevolent master is an endless supply of Doritos and water.

Bella: You might enjoy eating the Doritos at first, but you’ll probably find yourself getting pretty thirsty due to the high salt and MSG content of the chips, so you’ll drink water because you have no other way to sate your thirst.

Tara: After a few days, you’ll probably find yourself getting bored with the flavor of the Doritos. You might find yourself getting constipated because the chips aren’t providing the dietary fiber you need in order to have regular bowel movements.

Thomas: And after a few weeks, a strange thing would start happening: your body would respond to the inadequate nutrition it’s getting by being hungry. All the time. For anything. And the only thing you have to fill your stomach is Doritos, so you just eat more and more of them until you find yourself starting to gain weight.

Bella: And you get more and more bored with your food, but the more bored you get, the hungrier you get, so you find yourself eating more and more Doritos. And before you know it, you’re really obese, you’re chronically constipated, your hair gets greasy and flaky even if you wash it regularly, and you feel terrible because your body isn’t getting what it needs in order to thrive.

Tara: That’s what happens to cats that only eat a diet of dry food. And people wonder why indoor-only cats tend to be obese and develop health issues.

Thomas: Canned food is better because it provides the moisture cats need along with the nutrition they need. And let’s say you could say the same for pizza. Pizza provides grains, some vegetables, some meat, and some fat. But even with pizza, you’d get bored with eating pies with the same toppings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.

Bella: So the truth about feeding cats is that they do need variety in their diet. If you feed different flavors and brands of cat food, you’re not only increasing your cat’s enjoyment of the food they do get, you’re providing them with different sorts of proteins, which means they have a better chance of getting optimal nutrition.

Tara: We actually eat a raw food diet here at Paws and Effect HQ. Mama gives us a variety of meat proteins in both freeze-dried and frozen/reheated form. That means we get to enjoy our food more. Trust me, I was a few years old when Mama rescued me, and didn’t know how good food could be until I started eating the stuff she gives us!

Thomas: We should say here that we eat raw food with the blessing of our veterinarian. We are not veterinarians or veterinary nutritionists, so nothing we say here is meant to be prescriptive. Always ask your vet about the best diet to feed your cat!

Bella: We believe that a raw diet is optimal for cats. It’s not adulterated with artificial flavors and not filled with grains or “substitute starches,” as some “grain-free” kibble and canned food is.

Tara: Mama says she remembers watching an episode of the TV series Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, where he visited an animal rendering plant. They’d pick up dead animals from farms, the gunk from restaurant grease traps, rotten meat, used meat scraps, offal (that’s the guts and stuff) and everything, and throw it all into a huge vat, where it would be boiled until the fat came to the top. That fat was used for synthetic motor oils and sometimes for oils used in cosmetics (eeewww!). But the worst part is that whatever overcooked, denatured meat and goo that was left was used to make pet food!

Thomas: If you really want to be grossed out, you can see excerpts from that episode here. If you start at about 4:45, you’ll get to the animal rendering part.

Bella: So, Mike, the truth about feeding cats is that your brother is right about the need for variety in his cats’ diet, and he’s also right that cats won’t “just eat if they get hungry enough”–they’ll get very sick or even die if they don’t eat for more than a day or so.

Tara: There are so many more options for canned foods on the market these days that it’s easy to make sure your cat gets lots of different flavors and textures, so you can find some that will work best for your cats.

Thomas: Mama says that independently operated pet stores are a good source of high-quality canned foods in a variety of flavors. Sometimes the pet store employees will give you some guidance about what to feed your cat. However, although they’re well-intentioned, they’re not veterinarians, so it’s always best to ask your vet about what diet will help your cat stay healthy.

Bella: We wrote a whole post about what we think you should feed your cat, so that might be a good place to start when talking with your vet.

Tara: How about you other readers? What do you feed your cats? Do you use a variety of proteins? Have you seen any health changes in your cat if you switched from one form of food to another? Tell us about it in the comments!