Ask A Vet: How Do I Find the Best Cat Food?

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You know what they say assuming does, right? Sadly, I think in some cases it is true. One might think that it was safe to assume that the labels on cat food are representative of what they contain. One may also think that the ingredients are listed in descending order from most important down.

I used to think that I could make decisions about my cats’ nutrition based on the food labels because I felt comfortable knowing that labeling is government regulated. I was always a careful label reader for my family, both human and animal, preferring whole foods and minimally processed ingredients. I was a wise consumer or so I thought.

I guess I didn’t account for the fact that some manufacturers can manipulate the laws to their own advantage. They may not be dishonest, but many can be misleading. Below are listed some of the features of a cat food label that may not mean exactly what you think.


Ingredient Order-The ingredients must by law be listed in order by their weight, starting with the one with the highest weight listed first. But what does it mean “weight”? Dry weight? What if the main ingredient is chicken weighed fresh compared with other equally important ingredients weighed dry? The chicken would weigh more because of the moisture content but actually contain less nutrients. So an item that naturally contains more moisture will appear higher on the list than a nutritionally dense food item that is dry. As it turns out, some of the items are weighed wet and some are dry and it may not be on the label which is which. The ingredient list is important, but it might not have as much information as we thought.
Ingredients– As cat lovers, we have been brainwashed to think that the diet must contain the things that we would prefer for our own diet, but cats are not little humans. My husband and I are amused as we watch cat food commercials with peas, carrots and grains raining down on happy cats. Cats are obligate carnivores, not omnivores like dogs and people. They must eat meat to survive. As cats have evolved, they have lost the ability to efficiently break down carbohydrates and they cannot synthesize certain amino acids only found in meat. Without these amino acids and adequate protein present in the diet, cats will start to digest their own muscles and organs with catastrophic effects.  Those added ingredients are for the taste of their human caregivers because cats would be unlikely to taste or even completely digest the extras. The consumer must be aware that the presence of such items can displace more critical nutrients.

Label Claims and Buzz Words-If you search the internet for cat food options or peruse the cat food aisles, you will surely see claims like “hypoallergenic” and “super premium”. These tag words are not legally defined. Anyone can claim their diet is “highly digestible with high quality ingredients”. There aren’t many ways to prove or dispute these claims. You just have to assume that they have done some testing or have facts to support their label claims. But no one is holding them accountable for these terms. There are terms that are legally defined and monitored by government agencies, but not every label claim can be. Companies can even legally use terms on their website that are not allowed on the actual printed label, so be aware.

Formulation– Who formulated the diet? A reputable cat food company should have a veterinary nutritionist on staff and this person should be available for consultation about the diet(s). If a diet was formulated by a lay person using only the legal guidelines, the diet may not be the best choice for your cat’s longest and best life.

Packaging- Selling cat food is a business, like any other. There are marketing teams to design label layout and advertising campaigns to make sure people think that their brand is the best. The brand you see on TV might be the best for your cat, but don’t just assume it is.  Ask questions.  Call the company. Find out where they source their ingredients. Don’t be drawn in by a pretty picture and fancy jargon.

I don’t shop for cat food by reading labels anymore and I don’t recommend it to my clients. I read research papers. I pick brands that have actual live people willing to talk to me about their products. I find veterinarians (like veterinary nutritionists) who have more knowledge on the subject than I do and I talk to them and attend their classes. Then I try to pass my education on.
You still get what you pay for (like in everything) but take the time to ask a professional so that you are aware what that is. Truly high quality diets will never be cheap, but a high price tag alone does not insure quality.
Research and development and laboratory testing all cost money. National ad campaigns do too. I am actually much less likely to suggest or purchase a pet food that I saw on national TV because I would prefer that they spend their money on Research and Development. Don’t be dazzled by fancy web sites and convincing advertisements alone.
Just because you have been told by actors that something is good, don’t forget to ask your veterinarian. He or she knows and cares about you and your cat personally and will be able to help you sort through the deluge of misinformation out there and although all cats have certain requirements, your cat is an individual with his/her own specific likes and needs.



vet thumbnailAbout The Vet: Dr. Kathryn Primm is a practicing small animal veterinarian. She has consulted on articles for national magazines, done numerous radio interviews and appeared on local television. She has contributed to an article for Woman’s Day in Feb 2014 and June 2015 and a piece for Prevention magazine on shelves now (April 2015).

She has a social media presence on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ and enjoys interaction with others about her passions, animals and communication. She is a regular contributor to Boomeon, the online community which can be found at . She has also written a book, Tennessee Tails:Pets and Their People. The book received recognition as Runner Up in the Memoirs category at a national book festival. You can read more about Dr. Primm and how to get the best value for your pet care dollar at her website,

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