Anyone who owns a cat is surely familiar with the long-standing wet cat food versus dry cat food conundrum. Some vets recommend wet food only, citing benefits such as higher moisture content and protein levels, a formula that most closely resembles the natural diet for cats. Also, since sufficient hydration is necessary for urinary tract and renal health, high-moisture canned cat food can lessen the need for water intake. (Still, experts recommend at least one-third cup of water a day for each 10 pounds of weight for cats who dine exclusively on wet pet food.)
For many cat owners, however, dry cat food boasts significant advantages. It's cheaper than canned, mess free (no slop on the counter or floor, no cans to recycle), won't spoil when left all day in the feeding bowl, and generally gives off a less pungent odor. Dry cat food also may help keep teeth sharp and healthy. On the other hand, not only does dry cat food contain less protein and more filler than wet cat food, but lack of moisture content can present issues. Because cats are "programmed" to get most of the fluid they need from the meat they eat, they don't instinctively drink lots of water — which may make for difficulties getting your pet to ingest the expert-recommended minimum of at least 1 cup of water a day for each 10 pounds of weight if the animal’s diet consists entirely of kibble. Some pet owners resolve this wet versus dry cat food dilemma by serving canned food in the morning and dry food at night, or a mix of wet cat food and dry cat food.
Regardless of personal preferences, what really matters when choosing between types of cat food is the quality. The experts at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center say there’s no evidence to suggest wet cat food or dry cat food is better for a cat’s overall health and either wet or dry food is acceptable as long as it contains sufficient nutrients and your cat is staying sufficiently hydrated.
No matter which brand of wet or dry cat food your pet prefers, there are some nutritional basics that you should look for when shopping. Cats need a healthy diet that's rich in protein from muscle meat. Vets say the least processed natural protein sources are better than by-products (scraps left over after processing) or meals (concentrated protein sources with all the water removed). In other words, chicken, whitefish, tuna, lamb, and egg are the gold standard; non-meat sources such as corn, wheat, lentils, and peas contain protein but can be difficult for cats to digest. The veterinarian who runs the site CatInfo.org, would further suggest that fish be approached with some caution as a protein source, due to concerns regarding allergies, toxins, and its addictive qualities.
All of the dry cat foods recommended in this report contain at least 30% or more protein, which exceeds AAFCO’s minimum standards for adult cat maintenance and which meets levels considered healthy by many experts. Still, some pros, such as the vet at CatInfo.org, say that the best cat food is approximately 50% protein and 40% fat or less. To boost protein levels when feeding kibble, some cat owners mix wet food into dry or add a bit of raw food as a high-protein topper.
Also keep in mind that comparing protein content of dry cat food to wet cat food is like comparing apples to oranges. The percentage stated in the wet cat food guaranteed analysis always will be lower than for dry cat food because of the high proportion of moisture in the canned product — labels on wet foods usually list about 10 percent protein (although nearly all varieties of our recommended cat foods exceed this standard). Calculating the protein content of wet food on a “dry matter basis" — which gives a sense of actual ingredient percentages once the product’s moisture content is subtracted from the equation — will yield a much more accurate picture of the food’s true protein value. So, for example, a can of food like Tiki Cat’s Aloha Friends Tuna with Pumpkin, which has 12 percent protein and 84 percent moisture, would have a dry matter protein value of approximately 75 percent. (This number is only an estimate, however, since the percentage of protein and moisture in guaranteed analyses are listed as minimum and maximum amounts, respectively, as opposed to exact measurements.)
Grains and Carbs
Veterinarians often place cats on a diet free of grain, or at least one that’s low in carbohydrates. Some cats develop diabetes, and prevention or cure generally calls for a diet with less than 10 percent carbs, and possibly even lower. Grain free does not mean low carb, though. Rice, peas, potatoes, and corn gluten are common high-carb ingredients used frequently in these kibble mixes. Many also contain fruits, like blueberries and raspberries, which are carb-rich and, some reviewers argue, provide cats with no nutritional advantages. (It’s worth pointing out that wet cat food typically contains fewer carbs than dry food.)
Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids play an essential role in cat health, according to the experts, and are particularly beneficial to skin and fur. These acids are found in fish oils and oil from seeds, such as sunflower, and you’ll usually find that quality cat foods often tout their formulas as omega-rich. Pay attention, however, to the ratios of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids in foods, which many experts say should fall between 10:1 and 5:1 in favor of Omega-6 for the best nutritional balance. Of course, all commercial cat food should also include taurine, an amino acid that cats need for healthy hearts, eyes, and reproductive functions.
Kidney problems are common in cats, particularly as they age. To help counteract these disorders, and stave off loss of muscle mass, vets suggest that older cats require high-quality protein from animal rather than vegetable sources. Older cats, as well as younger, may also require special diets directed at a wide spectrum of other health issues, too, such as urinary tract infections, hairballs, dry skin, sensitive stomachs, and excess weight (and diabetes). The good news is that in addition to the pricier specialized brands and prescription foods that you’ll find in vet’s offices, there are plenty of widely-available cheap cat foods with recipes designed to aid in digestion and address other common health concerns.