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The vast majority of us will be feeding our cats commercial cat foods. These foods come in four specific types: dry foods, soft-moist foods, balanced canned foods, and specialty or "gourmet" canned foods. As a simple rule of thumb, the nutritional content of 3 ounces (one level cup) of dry food is the same as that of 4 ounces of soft-moist food and the same as that of 7.5 ounces of canned food.
Specialty or gourmet foods are seldom a balanced diet by themselves, and must not be fed without supplements or another, balanced food. They are best used as treats or "Sunday dinner."
The scientifically-balanced foods available through pet and feed stores and from your veterinarian usually contain supplements and additives to guarantee the best nutritional balance possible. Most of these foods are further classed into pediatric/nursing, maintenance, and geriatric blends, assuring a proper protein-fats-carbohydrate mix for the specific cat. Specialized diets (weight loss, low sodium, etc.) are also available from these same sources and through your veterinarian for the problem cat.
Commercial supermarket-type cat foods vary little in nutritional content between brands. Assuming the food is complete in nutrition and the cat is a young-to-middle-aged healthy adult, almost any of these foods will suffice.
One should be wary of non-nutritional additives and fillers used in commercial foods. Most dry foods, for example, use corn meal as a bulk filler, while canned foods often use gelatin. Since these substances effectively pass right on through a cat, there is no harm in them, but you are paying for them, sometimes dearly. As with everything else, read those labels.
Several popular brands of catfood use excessive food coloring to enhance the appearance of the food. One extremely popular brand uses so much red dye that it will make your cat's stools orange. The claim is that the dye is FDA approved and does the cat no harm. Frankly, we feel that the color of the food is of no interest to the cat (texture, shape, taste, and smell are different matters). It is put there solely for the benefit of the cat owner (who is the purchaser, after all) to make the food appear more like meat. Who needs it! If the food is good and appeals to the cat, what else matters?
A common misconception about cat foods is that dry foods derive their protein from cereals and other vegetable sources while canned foods derive their protein from meat and other animal sources. In reality, all commercial cat foods derive their protein from both animal and vegetable sources, with animal sources dominating. Most vegetable products in commercial foods, however, may be considered as filler. Please remember that in the wild the cat does consume vegetable protein in the stomach and viscera of its prey, and can utilize this protein with the assistance of its prey's own digestive processes. These processes are in part duplicated during the manufacture of commercial cat food allowing digestion of some vegetable proteins.
Unfortunately, an understanding of the molecular structure of proteins and the digestive process itself is required to produce the "partially-digested" vegetable protein used in cat foods, thus making it virtually impossible for home-kitchen duplication. There are still no vegetarian cats!
Dry foods are the least expensive of the four types and, being dry, have the added advantage of an abrasive action which helps to keep the teeth and gums clean and healthy and minimize the buildup of dental tartar. They derive their protein and fat from meat, fish, poultry, and/or dairy products blended into a cereal base, usually corn meal. Careful balancing and the addition of vitamin and mineral supplements have made the modern dry food a good and well-balanced diet.
These foods are typically about 10% water (no matter how dry they appear), and thus have long shelf and bowl lives. This means the food may be left out at all times and the cat may help himself to many small meals rather than one or two large meals. This improves tone and digestion.
One theoretical disadvantage is a predisposition among male cats, especially neuters, to develop Feline Urological Syndrome (FUS). This predisposition has not been substantiated at this time (neither has it been disproved) and veterinarians are sharply divided on the issue. If such a predisposition exists, it would probably be due to the low water content of the dry foods. Providing an adequate source of good- tasting fresh water will often negate any such problem.
Dry foods tend to lose their nutrition slowly over time, especially upon exposure to air and light. Avoid using any dry food more than six months old. If dry food must be stored for long periods (as on board ship), store the food in air- and light-tight containers.
Soft-moist foods have more appeal than dry foods, also more cost. They are intentionally designed to make the cat think they are meat, both in texture and taste, and do a fairly good job of it.
Like dry foods, they derive their protein and fat from a variety of sources. Additionally, one particular source, meat, fish, whatever, is often emphasized to establish flavor. They run to about 30-35% water, as contrasted to dry food's 10% and canned food's 70%. Unlike dry foods, they do not inhibit dental tartar.
They also have the advantages of minimal odor and long shelf life. They are good for about a day in the bowl, and should not be left out longer than that. Shelf life is extremely long, as they are usually packaged in air-tight pouches.
Be aware that most soft-moist foods contain an abundance of preservatives to prevent spoilage, so labels should be read carefully.
Canned foods are the most expensive of the three types, but are still the most popular. Their biggest drawbacks being cost and odor.
Canned foods are primarily protein and fats from meat, fish, dairy and vegetable sources with added vitamins and minerals. Except for the specialty or gourmet varieties, most are nutritionally complete.
Many canned foods contain 70% water or more, often gelatin is used as a filler and literally to trap and hold more water (one brand is 78% water). The purchaser pays for this water and gelatin, naturally. Read those labels!
Unlike the dry foods but like the soft-moist foods, canned foods do nothing to inhibit dental tartar. However, the same argument that gives dry foods a predisposition towards the development of FUS implies a lack of predisposition in canned foods. Again, this has not yet been determined one way or the other.
If a cat has already suffered a bout with FUS, especially repeated bouts, a low magnesium canned-food diet is often prescribed as the preventative of choice. We wish to emphasize here that the low magnesium canned-food diet is for animals who already have an FUS history, and is not indicated in healthy animals.
Premium or gourmet foods are usually not balanced and must not be used as the basis of your cat's diet. Think of them as treat foods.
These foods have two distinguishing characteristics. First, they are terribly expensive, and second, the tend to be of the "100% beef" variety, all one substance.
The higher price does not necessarily mean better. Using 100% beef as an example, the food may contain lung and udder, which have no real nutritional value but are still beef, and most certainly will contain hoof, also still beef, in the form of gelatin, also of minimal nutritional value. What we're saying here is that if it's part of a cow it's "beef," but some "beef" is really bull.
With gourmet foods, if you don't mind the price and your cat likes them, use them as treats.
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