Your Cat’s Diet: Nutritional Needs, the Truth About By-Products, and the Wet Food vs. Dry Food Debate
The battle of wet vs. dry food is not unlike the battles that go on around the human diet (exactly what are we supposed to eat anymore?). To help you decide what’s best for your cat, we’ll take a look at what cats need in their diets, define by-products and review the pros and cons for wet, semi-moist and dry cat food.
As always, please consult your vet before making changes, and do a little of your own research. There are a lot of views and opinions, and it’s most important that you do what you feel is best for your cat. The sources for this article are listed at the end, and they’re awesome resources if you want to learn more.
Nutrition Cats Need in Their Diets
Cats are obligate carnivores. This means they need the nutrients found in animals to survive, and they don’t have the necessary makeup to digest vegetables. Animal protein contains amino and fatty acids that are crucial to your cat’s health.
As skillful hunters, it makes sense that cats would thrive on an animal diet. Their basic needs are:
- High amounts of animal protein
- Moderate fat and fatty acids
- Low carbs
- Vitamins: Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Vitamin B1 (Thiamin), Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Folic Acid
- Minerals: Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Sodium, Potassium, Chlorine, Iron, Copper, Zinc, Manganese, Selenium, Iodine2
- Lots of water
Most of your cat’s diet should be crude protein and total fat. The average adult cat (weighing 9 lbs. and consuming 250 calories/day) should have 12.5 grams of crude protein and 5.5 grams of total fat daily. Kittens need less and nursing cats need much more. The easiest way to determine an exact amount for your cat and her specific needs, Google “cat feeding schedule” with her age and weight or check the food packaging for feeding instructions.
Meat By-Products and Meat By-Product Meal Explained
Before we look at wet and dry food, let’s tackle the whole by-products situation. This topic is a little gross, but it’s important in how it relates to your cat.
First, meat by-products are not necessarily bad and are just non-meat animal parts (like organs). If your cat was living outside and hunting, she’d likely be eating the by-products. Grain by-products and grain by-product meal aren’t good because your cat wouldn’t eat those things in the wild.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines meat by-products as “non-rendered, clean” parts of a mammal, including “lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue, stomachs” and empty intestines (so, no poop). Meat by-product meal is the dry version of the parts I just listed.
Meat by-products and by-product meals do not include “hair, horns, teeth, and hoofs” … thank goodness for that!
So why is it called meat by-product on the label instead of listing what it actually is? Marketing. Food manufacturers don’t think you would enjoy reading ingredients like chicken intestines and livers.
Meat by-products and meat by-product meal are good for your cat if the meat source is high-quality and healthy. Since you aren’t turning into Elmer Fudd to hunt animals for your cats and won’t know the quality of the ingredients, the best way to ensure good quality is to go with a reputable cat food manufacturer.
Because it’s highly palatable and contains at least 75% water, wet food is really great for picky eaters or cats that don’t drink enough water on their own (like senior cats or cats with kidney issues). It’s also ideal for cats with GI issues because it’s easier to digest. Plus, it has a long shelf life when unopened.
So, what’s the downside? It’s the most expensive type of food, and any uneaten food will dry out and need to be tossed, meaning you can’t leave it out for your cat to graze throughout the day. It’s composition also makes it hard to portion control.
Semi-moist checks in at 15-30% water, is mid-range in price and is often more appealing and tasty than dry food. But that’s where the pros end.
Semi-moist food often contains more sugar and salt than wet or dry food, meaning it’s not a good fit for every cat. It’s also full of grain by-products and grain by-product meal, and your cat doesn’t need grain.
In addition to being very affordable, dry food never dries out, meaning it’s ideal for cats that are grazers, and it’s also the easiest to portion manage. Dry food is typically coated with animal fat to enhance flavor, which could draw some picky eaters who don’t like wet food.
On the flip side, dry food contains only 6-10% water, which means your cat will have to drink more water if you’re feeding him dry food. It’s also harder to digest, and often contains grain and grain by-products, unnecessary nutrients for your cat.
As with most things, it’s really a personal decision and choice. Cats are super sensitive to temperature, odor, texture, and taste, and if your cat has health issues (kidney, GI, etc.), you’ll have a list of other factors to consider when picking a food.
Choose cat food that works best for you and your cat and discuss it with your veterinarian. Many cat parents find a mix of wet and dry food is a great way to give cats added hydration, but also provide nutrition when they’re away from home at work or overnight.
Sources and helpful resources on cat diets
Cornell Feline Health Center - Feeding Your Cat
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and National Research Council - Your Cat's Nutritional Needs
PetMD - What Kind of Meat By-Products Are in Your Cat's Food?
VCA - Dry, Canned, or Semi-Moist: Food Choices for Cats
Article by Elizabeth Ann 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist