Secret #2: Read the ingredient list
Cats are special. But very few people know exactly how special a cat’s nutritional requirements really are. We cannot feed cats like little dogs. In fact, cats have a number of unique metabolic idiosyncrasies that make them very different from their canine housemates. The biggest difference between cats and dogs is that cats are obligate carnivores. Obligate carnivores are required to get their nutrition from meat, whereas omnivorous species like dogs can get nutrition from both meat and vegetable matter. As a result, cats have a higher requirement for protein than dogs, as well as a requirement for a diet-supplied source of the amino acid taurine, without which they will form deficiencies. This means that cats cannot get all of their nutrient requirements from a food created for dogs, so it’s important to choose an appropriate cat-species-specific diet.
Knowing exactly what is in your cat’s food can have a huge impact on her health. Look for a diet that contains a high quality animal protein source and has taurine included in the list of ingredients. Keep in mind that taurine will be lower on the list of ingredients because cats don’t require a lot of it in their diet (ingredients are listed in order by weight, from greatest to least).
If your cat doesn’t have allergies, these are the top four things to look for:
1. A single meat (protein) source as the first ingredient. You should be able to tell what type of meat was used; chicken meal is a much better ingredient than meat meal.
2. Whole meat or meat meal. Meat by-products are made from the meat parts of the animal such as the organs, and are generally lower-quality ingredients handled less carefully than whole meats so avoid by-products. Whole meat contains a lot of water, while meat meal is whole meat that has been cooked and dried. When whole fresh meat is followed by a grain in an ingredient list, it means that, once the water has been removed, there are actually more grains than meat in the food. If that is the case, look for a meat meal in the list of ingredients as well to ensure that there is enough meat protein in the food. The type (venison, rabbit, beef…) of whole meat/meat meal should be identified; avoid mystery meats! Many canned foods will contain meat by-products as these are often organ meats and are highly palatable for cats. While you do want to look for whole meat as a primary ingredient, organ meats can be a nutritious component of a canned food.
3. Whole grains or whole-grain meals. Kibble, by necessity, is comprised of at least 50 percent grain for processing purposes. Without it, the kibble would be too crumbly and wouldn’t hold together. Even though cats are carnivores, a diet of 50 percent carbohydrates (grains are a source of carbohydrates) is adequate, so long as the carbohydrate sources are good. When reading an ingredient list, look for whole ground rice, barley, pea, etc. and avoid a high content of processing products like corn gluten meal. Gluten meals (i.e. corn, wheat, rice etc.) are usually added as an alternate source of protein and are some times used to round out amino acid profiles, so it is okay for them to be present in small quantities, but they should definitely not be at the top of the ingredient list. Since cats have a very low requirement for carbohydrates, choose a food with a higher protein and fat level. Do keep an eye on portion size though, since protein and high fat diets tend to be higher in calories.
4. Vitamins and minerals. Some of those ingredients with hard-to-pronounce names like riboflavin are actually added vitamins and minerals important for a properly balanced diet. The presence of whole fruits and vegetables in a food does not usually add significant vitamins or minerals, however, they can be a source of some phytonutrients and fiber. Cats cannot convert provitamin A (betacarotene) into vitamin A like dogs and humans can, so they must have vitamin A added to their diet.
In the guaranteed analysis on a label, minerals may be guaranteed individually, but the total will show up in the ash guarantee. A high ash level (anything over 8 percent) means that there are excess levels of minerals, often calcium or phosphorus, which can contribute to the formation of urinary crystals. Cat foods are much better now than they were a few decades ago, and ash is a lesser concern than it used to be but if you are buying a lower quality food, you may notice that the ash levels are higher.
The top four things to avoid:
1. Splitting. Grains can be processed into many different forms. By listing each of these separately, the manufacturer can push desirable meat ingredients higher on the ingredient list, when, in fact, if you were to add up all the different parts of the grain included on the list, the grain would actually come out on top. Be wary of foods that list one grain split into many variations such as wheat flour, wheat bran, wheat middlings, wheat shorts, and wheat germ.
2. Preservatives. Preservatives are necessary to ensure an adequate shelf life for dry foods, but some people worry about the use of artificial preservatives such as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin. While these have been tested and approved as safe for use, if you are concerned over the use of artificial preservatives, you can look for a food that is preserved with mixed tocopherols (forms of vitamin E). These foods will typically have a shorter shelf life, so make sure you check that before buying as well. The food should have an expiry date that’s at least six months away.
3 Generic terms. A higher quality cat food will clearly identify the source of the meat (e.g., chicken, lamb, duck, etc) or the source of the fat (e.g., poultry fat, soybean oil, etc) as opposed to just listing “meat” or “fat.”
4. Additives. Some foods contain sugars like glucose, fructose, cane molasses, or corn syrup. These are unnecessary in a cat food. Also, check the list of ingredients for other additives such as artificial colours and flavours; a small amount may make the food more appealing to your cat, but you definitely want to avoid a food that contains a lot of added colours and flavours. Extra unnecessary chemicals are generally present to make the food more appealing to you, the cat-food-purchaser. Other additives like glucosamine, yucca, and probiotics are generally harmless, but they are not usually added to the food at a high enough level to have any effect. If you want to add these to your cat’s diet, it is better for you to add a supplement yourself instead of relying on the food.
Check out Modern Cat’s favourite whole foods for felines here