Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: June 22, 2023 by Crystal Uys

siamese cat eating food from bowl at home

Written by Fern Slack, DVM

In veterinary school, I was taught to feed cats breakfast cereal.

This is not a joke. It is hard to imagine anything further removed from a cat’s evolutionary diet (small animals of the feathered and furred varieties) than a diet consisting of corn, wheat, rice, squash, peas, tapioca, carrots, apples, sage, oregano…. The list goes on. Many trendy cat foods today have ingredient lists that look just like this. Sounds like the makings of a wonderful Thanksgiving feast – but not for a cat.

Cats are obligate carnivores

Cats need animal protein. They are obligate carnivores. Cats are healthiest when consuming a diet that mimics a whole small prey animal as closely as possible. Possibly you have noticed that wheat, potatoes, and cranberries are not animals. I mention this because many pet food companies would have you believe that these cheap fillers are just as good as proteins, if not better, for our cats. In fact, cats have neither the digestive enzymes nor the proper metabolism to process carbohydrates. Cats are hunters, and they do not hunt plants.

cat eating raw chicken from metal bowl
Image Credit: ophiecat, Shutterstock

Cats are not designed to eat breakfast cereal

And yet so many of us, vets included, continue feeding them dry food – essentially breakfast cereal with meat flavor sprayed on the outside. Why do we do this?

Three reasons: First, dry food is generally cheaper to buy than canned food. It is certainly much less costly to produce. Rice costs less than chicken. A cat food full of rice costs less to produce than one primarily composed of chicken. Usually, the price to the consumer is lower too, but this is not always the case.

Second, it’s convenient. As a society, we tend to leave dry food out all the time – just in case we get home late or if we have to leave for a day. Dry food doesn’t smell bad or leave a messy bowl behind. Dry food doesn’t generate piles of cans that have to be recycled.

Third, and probably most importantly: we’ve been assured over and over that it’s good for them. (Plus there’s that pesky marketing that makes your average pet food look more appetizing than a $75 steak at Morton’s.) We have been indoctrinated so thoroughly that it took me years to notice the bag of bricks that was repeatedly hitting me over the head. Entirely avoidable health problems such as diabetes, obesity, and urinary tract disease, to name only a few, afflict numerous cats as a result of feeding pet foods full of carbohydrates.

What constitutes a bad cat food?

Now that we’ve established that in principle, let’s specify what constitutes a bad cat food. It’s pretty simple really. Anything with grains, vegetables, fruits, herbs, or any mutated form thereof (such as rice powder), with the caveat that a food containing less than 5% veggies may be okay if the veggies are used as a natural source of vitamins and minerals. ALL dry foods, and most if not all of the “prescription diets.” This list also includes, to the surprise of many, the majority of canned foods.

Don’t believe me? Walk the pet food aisle at your local grocery store, pick up a few cat food cans at random, and read the labels. Many of the ones with some form of meat listed first will be packed full of yummy-sounding veggies and fruits. The pictures are right on the label to prove it. A cat, surrounded by broccoli and carrots – which in itself provides a good general rule of thumb: if there are pictures of veggies on the label, put it down and move on.

Man shopping in supermarket reading product information
Image Credit: LADO, Shutterstock

Finding a good commercial food

This means the first challenge for cat parents committed to getting their cats off junk food is to find a good commercial food. Ideally, this would be a mouse, because mice are what cats are supposed to eat. Unfortunately, pet food companies seem to have been unsuccessful at marketing a mouse- or rat-based cat food, so we look to the next best options: canned or raw diets that have the correct nutrients, low to no carbs, low fat, and a whole pile of protein. You are unlikely to find these at the grocery store, and only in small numbers at the big chain pet stores, because they are not as profitable to stock as the more cheaply-made foods. The good news is that these foods are readily available at many smaller stores and online, and so are accessible to pretty much everyone.

Coming next week
Ask a Cat Vet: How Do I Transition My Cat to a Healthy Diet?

Dr. Slack graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia, and has been working exclusively with cats since 1993. She is the owner of Uniquely Cats Veterinary Center in Boulder, CO.

Featured Image Credit: Pixel-Shot, Shutterstock

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