When you buy canned cat food – any brand of canned cat food – you will see a statement on the label that says that the food is “complete and balanced” according to AAFCO standards. This would lead you to assume that the food has all the nutrients your cat needs, right? This is not necessarily true.

What does “complete and balanced” really mean?

AAFCO, the American Association of Feed Control Officials, is the organization which is charged with establishing and enforcing animal feed requirements across all fifty state governments.  Its primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of feed for human food producing livestock.  The AAFCO statement on most pet food labels indicates that the food has been tested and approved as “complete and balanced for the life of a pet.”   This is sadly misleading.  The tests are conducted on very small groups of animals and for very short periods of time.  The only real long-term tests of pet food happen when pet owners feed these diets to their own pets.

Study showed thiamine deficiency in 12 out of 9o foods

Thiamine (vitamin B) is an essential nutrient necessary for carbohydrate metabolism, muscle concentration, and never conduction. Thiamine is only stored in the body in very small quantities, and cats depend on their diet to provide a steady source of this vitamin. Thiamine is naturally found in meat, especially  muscle and organ meats, as well as nuts, legumes, and brewer’s yeast. After two to four weeks of a thiamine deficient diet, cats may exhibit signs of thiamine deficiency, which can include increased salivation, loss of appetite and sometimes vomiting. Advanced signs of thiamine deficiency include dilated pupils, a slow heart rate, aggression, and neurological symptoms such as a rigid neck or head.

A recent study by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University highlights how little the AAFCO statement really means when it comes to choosing pet food. The Winn Feline Foundation reports that researchers analyzed 90 canned cat foods from 45 different brands. The study was prompted by five recalls of cat food during the last five years.Thiamine levels were below the minimum requirement set by AAFCO in 12 of 90 foods and below the minimum recommended allowance of the National Research Council in 14 of 90 foods. Paté style foods had significantly lower thiamine levels than non-paté style foods, and smaller companies (less than $1,000,000 in retail sales) had significantly lower thiamine levels than larger companies (more than $2,000,000 in retail sales.) Neither fish or non-fish flavor or country of manufacture had a significant effect on thiamine levels. Researchers did not reveal the brands included in the study.

What does this mean for cat guardians?

The researchers in the study concluded that “pet food companies should strive to measure and limit thiamine loss during processing and implement strict quality control practices.” While I absolutely agree with this statement, I also think that this study shows that cat guardians shouldn’t rely on any one single food to be “complete and balanced.”

I recommend feeding a variety of brands and flavors, also known as a rotation diet. Human nutritionists tell us that food variety is an important part of maintaining a healthy diet, and yet, we don’t think twice about feeding our cats the same food, day after day. A rotation diet will not only ensure that your cat gets a variety of nutrients from different sources, it can also decrease the risk of developing food allergies and prevent your cat from becoming finicky.

If you suspect that your cat may be showing signs of thiamine deficiency, contact your veterinarian immediately.

For more details about the study, please visit the Winn Feline Foundation blog.

Photo: istockphoto

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22 Comments on Canned Cat Food May Not Contain Enough Thiamine

  1. Any recommendations for rotating foods without the diarrhea that usually happens with a food switch? Do you just mix several foods together and feed them that way? Or do you really feed them one type one week, another type another week, or something similar?

    • There usually isn’t an issue with diarrhea when you rotate grain-free foods. Additionally, adding a good probiotic also helps. I don’t mix several foods together, I feed a different brand/protein at each meal.

      • Ok, thanks. I’ll head off to read your post about rotation diets. I’m learning a lot from your site, thanks for all this information!

  2. Lisa, I am not able to reply back to you, apparently I am blocked from doing so. All I can say is I spoke with my daughter, who is a vet tech, regarding all of this and she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The vet she worked for in New Hampshire was up to date on food, etc. She went to classes, seminars, etc. all the time. My daughter also went. You guys are generalizing because a few vets have stated what you believe to be true. Not all vets agree and it doesn’t mean they are not up to date on what is going on. My vets are up to date!!!!! Just because a couple of vets say something doesn’t make it true. Why doesn’t someone take a survey and do a table of all the vets in the all the states and then that will be accurate. My daughter laughed when I told her about vets learning about foods from the dog food brand companies because they support them. She said that is baloney. People need the truth, not just what some people believe. And yes, all food has bacteria. Talking from a professional dental point of view, canned food sticks on the teeth more than dry food. I had given my one cat canned before when I was mixing it due to health problems (not related to urinary) and he ended up with more problems because of the canned food. Like I noted before too, dry food does not cause tarter either!!!! When you do studies and get information from all the vets around the states and not just from a couple than you can debate me and my daughter. Like I had said, I have over 47 years of experience with vets and cats and dogs and my background in dentistry. Urinary problems can be caused by other things beside not drinking enough too, just like with people. Show me 100% accurate data!!!!!!!

  3. I have 6 cats and 2 of them have to be on a strictly canned food diet because they don’t drink enough water. These are 2 of the males, I also got a fresh flow deluxe water fountain for them to encourage them to drink more. I don’t think anyone is saying that cats don’t drink water, it’s that some cats don’t drink enough water. Either I feed 2 of my cats canned food or they will have urinary tract infections and I’ve got about $4000 in receipt’s from my vet to prove it. More and more vets taking an active roll in researching pet foods and nutrition lately. Although some just aren’t interested.

    This comment has been modified by the site owner.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Luann. Sadly, what little education vets receive in veterinary school is sponsored by the large pet food companies, and it’s certainly easier and less time-consuming for vets to just go with those recommendations. Thankfully, there are more and more vets today who are taking the time to learn about real-food nutrition. I truly respect the ones who do – between their busy schedules, and staying on top of medical advances, it is challenging to add nutrition to the list of topics they need to stay current on.

  4. Thank you for the information. I don’t give my cats canned food. None of the cats I have had since I was a teenager were given canned. Our vets always told us dry was better for their teeth. My daughter is a vet tech and the vet she worked for before she moved always recommended dry also. My daughter said that people give their cats canned because they are told they don’t drink enough. She said that is a fallacy. I have owned cats for about 47 years and they have all drank water and I never had a problem with any of them as a result of not getting sufficient liquid.

    • With all due respect to your daughter and the vet she worked for, it’s simply not true that dry food is better for cats’ teeth. This is a myth that just won’t die. Most cats don’t chew their kibble long enough for any of the scraping action that is the theory behind this myth to kick in. What little they do chew shatters into small pieces. Some pet food manufacturers offer a “dental diet” that is made up of larger than normal sized kibble to encourage chewing, but in my years at veterinary practices, I’ve seen many cats swallow even those larger size pieces whole. Additionally, dry food leaves a carbohydrate residue in the cat’s mouth that actually encourages growth of tartar and plaque.

      As for the issue of moisture in their diets, most cats don’t drink enough water to make up for the lack of moisture in dry food. Several studies have shown that cats who eat dry food are more prone to urinary tract issues.

      • My daughter went to a good vet college and also by working in the vets office and going to seminars regarding cat food, etc. I think I will stick with what I have learned from her. Studies based on tables of information being surveyed, etc. are not usually accurate based on what I learned in college. I have four cats right now and they all drink a lot of water and so have all the cats I have owned, which is a lot over the years. So I have a tendency to believe that like my daughter said, cats do drink a sufficient amount of water. I have never had a vet tell me any differently and I have dealt with several over the years and if the were giving people bad advice they wouldn’t be in business for very long I wouldn’t believe. They are very prominent vets in the area who have been in practice for years and are recommended by everyone. I would like to know what studies certain vets have done to determine that cats don’t drink enough. My daughter would be able to prove them wrong. I have never heard by my daughter or the vets I have dealt with that dry food is bad and causes all these problems. If it was highly proven that they were bad for cats then I would think there would be something done to take them off the market. The vet I go to now even recommends dry over canned. I have one cat that has several issues with food and my vet has always tried different dry foods, not canned. I don’t understand how all the vets around my area in NY STATE and the ones where my daughter lived in New Hampshire could be wrong.

        • Also, just for informational purposes, tarter is not formed from food. It is in the saliva. Carbohydrates break down into sugar which can cause cavities but has nothing to do with tarter. Just like people, some animals get more tarter than others. It has to do with the make up and composition of their saliva. I went to school for dental and I am certified and worked for a dentist when I was younger. Dodd in people or animals has nothing to do with the tarter that is formed in their mouth.

          • Two holistic vets of interest who specialize in feline nutrition that you may be interested in reading:, Dr. Lisa Pierson and Dr. Jean Hofve, (key word search: dry food). Most vets, when they are in veterinary school, receive very little training in pet nutrition and when they do, more often than not it’s from a Science Diet Hills rep, rather than a Ph.d who specializes in animal biology and species appropriate diets.

            What you feed is your choice and I’m glad your cats are well, however, there is no cereal in the wild and a canned food diet, in the long run, is far better for a cat than kibble. There will always be exceptions to the rule, just as there are people who can smoke, drink and eat junk food and live to be 100, however, they are exceptions though and not the norm.

            As far as the myth that kibble keeps the teeth clean, as Dr. Pierson states, “bacteria is bacteria, whether it comes from dry or canned food”. And the origins of cats, they are desert animals, accustomed to getting their moisture and water content through the meat and organs of their prey. Cats that lap up boatloads of water from their water bowl, this is actually against their nature as cats don’t have a strong thirst drive. There is one theory that cats that eat dehydrating foods will drink more water which can actually stress their kidneys more than had they acquired that moisture from food.

  5. Ingrid,

    I also believe that for optimal nutrition a rotation diet is best. My three cats (one being 19 years old) receive different high quality canned and dry foods (Wellness, Science Diet, Holistic Select) and they seem to thrive on this diet. Thanks for the informative article.

  6. I started supplementing my boys with Thorne Research B ComplexVET. For each cat, I mix 1/4 capsule with a dab of Felovite II, and they eat it.

  7. Interesting article…… what about dried food, does the same apply there – and including
    the Science Diet in this query?

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