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Dariana recently adopted a cat. She's heard all kinds of conflicting advice about what and what not to feed her kitty. Today, we answer that age-old question, what should you feed your cat?

What should you feed your cat? It’s an age-old question, and we have some answers. Photo by Marko Blažević on Unsplash

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

We just got a new young cat, Annie, who’s about 6 months old. I started off feeding her canned and dry cat food along with cat treats like Pounce and the like. I really want to know what to feed her so she is healthy and enjoys her food. Some people say dry food only. But then I hear that there is gluten and corn meal and stuff in dry food that are not good for cats. Annie doesn’t usually get too excited when I offer her dry food. But when I open a can of any wet food, she just goes nuts and gobbles it down like a pig. I’ve heard from other people that say wet cat food is so bad for kitties. Then I’ve recently heard about raw food, with raw meat and even guts and little bones in it. And then I’ve always known cats like tuna which  I hear makes crystals in their kidneys or something like that. And how about white chicken or turkey meat? Please inform me if you would on any wisdom you know on this subject.

~ Dariana

Thomas: Well, Dariana, “what should you feed your cat” is one of the oldest and most contentious questions in the cat world. We’re going to try and take the emotion out of the debate and tell you what vets are saying these days. Before we start answering this question, we want to state for the record that we are not veterinarians or veterinary nutritionists, and nothing we say here is meant to be prescriptive. We’re writing from our own personal experience, and we recommend that you talk to your vet about what the best diet is for your cat.

Bella: You’re already starting to see a pattern in what you’re currently feeding her–she likes wet food much better than dry. This is because cats are obligate carnivores. That is, they must eat meat in order to survive. They can only get certain vitamins and minerals through animal meat.

Tara: It wasn’t too long ago that people were recommending that cats eat dry food because it was supposedly better for their teeth. But, as veterinarian Dr. Steve Barchas pointed out in this Catster post, cats typically swallow kibble whole, which means it doesn’t do anything to get tartar off their teeth.

Thomas: And cats’ teeth are made for shearing meat off bones, not for chewing crunchy things.

Bella: The other thing about cats which is important to know when considering what you should feed your cat is that cats naturally have a very low “thirst drive.” That is, unlike humans and cattle, cats don’t drink very much water.

Tara: Why is that? It’s because we’re designed to get most of the water we need from the prey we eat.

Thomas: Canned cat food has a moisture content of at least 75 percent, which means a cat is much more likely to get all the water they need from eating wet food.

Bella: Raw food has a similar percentage of water. Full disclosure: We eat raw food, with our veterinarian’s blessing, and we know a lot of other people who feed raw as well. But we know some people aren’t able to go all the way there, so we’re not going to fault anyone for that!

What should you feed your cat? That's an age-old and very contentious question. We've got some tips, both from veterinarians and from our own experience, in this week's post.

Tara: You are right that kibble has a lot of grain in it. It’s also typically been coated with an ingredient to make it more palatable for cats. And most “grain-free” dry foods have substitute carbohydrates like potato, sweet peas, or soybeans. Some vets say that dry food, with all its grain and carbohydrates, can contribute to obesity and even diabetes.

Thomas: You see, cats’ digestive systems don’t have the enzymes needed to break down carbohydrates into usable nutrition. Not only that, but carbohydrates can cause a cat’s blood sugar to “spike” and then drop rapidly, which is definitely something you want to avoid–especially if your cat already has diabetes. (We know your Annie doesn’t, but some readers’ cats do.)

Bella: If you really want to take the leap and go with raw food, there are several pre-made forms of it that you can use. First, there’s frozen raw. This is typically made up from whole prey and ground into a paste that has bone and other vital cat nutrients added. If you feed this variety, thaw it in the refrigerator and then float a portion in hot water, in a plastic bag, to warm it up.

Tara: Then there’s freeze-dried raw. Freeze-dried is easier to deal with, although it’s probably the most expensive type of raw food. With this product, you simply take a portion of the food, moisten it with warm water, and serve it to your cat.

Thomas: You can even make your own raw food, but if you go that route, we strongly suggest you visit raw-feeding websites or read raw-feeding books to get veterinarian-approved recipes that will have all the nutrients your cat needs.

Bella: So, Dariana, what should you feed your cat? We highly recommend going with a canned food to start, because it’ll give your cat better nutrition and help to ensure that she gets enough water in her diet.

Tara: You also mentioned you’d heard that tuna and seafood-based foods can be a problem because they can contribute to the development of urinary crystals. Well, Mama’s heard that, too–straight from a veterinarian, no less!

Thomas: For that reason, we recommend avoiding canned or raw food with seafood in it. A little bit once in a while isn’t going to cause huge harm, but don’t make it a mainstay of your cat’s diet.

Bella: Given that dry food doesn’t help a cat’s teeth, and canned food won’t get the tartar off, how should you take care of Annie’s teeth? We recommend either learning how to brush her teeth or giving her chewy toys or treats like freeze-dried chicken necks. You can probably find them at pet stores, but you may have to look in the *gasp* dog section!

Tara: For treats, we recommend products like freeze-dried chicken bits. Again, these are going to be healthier for Annie in the long run. But make sure treats don’t comprise more than 10 to 15 percent of her caloric intake.

Thomas: So, at the end of the day, what should you feed your cat? We recommend canned food as a good start because it satisfies a cat’s natural need for meat protein and water.

Bella: If you want to go all the way to raw, there are some really good resources for information. We recommend the Feline Nutrition Foundation, CatCentric, and CatInfo. CatCentric also has a very active Facebook page and Facebook group for people who want support in transitioning their cats to a more species-appropriate diet.

Tara: But remember, it’s totally okay to not want to go all the way there! If you decide that canned food is the best option, you can find high-protein, low-carbohydrate versions at any price point, from super-premium to stuff you can find at the grocery store.

Thomas: CatInfo has a great chart of the protein, fat, and carbohydrate contents of pretty much every brand of canned and raw cat food available in the U.S. If you choose to use this chart as a guide, you want to make sure that whatever you’re feeding Annie gets less than 10 percent of its caloric content from carbohydrates.

Bella: So, what do you other readers think? What should you feed your cat? What do you feed your cat and why? Do you have any links that can help Dariana find some great foods to feed her Annie?

Tara: Let us know in the comments!