Myth Buster: Canned vs. Dry Food

Cornells veterinary chief of veterinary clinical nutrition explains what each food offers to help you decide whats best for you and for your cat

cat food

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We want the best for our cats, and nutrition plays a vital role in any animal’s health. But advertising and lay opinions can leave a cat owner wondering whether to feed canned food or dry foods.

With so many claims about whether to feed wet, dry, or both, we went to Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, Section Chief of Clinical Nutrition at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, for expert advice. Here’s what you need to know:

“Dry food is convenient, easy, less mess, may be better for teeth.Wet food is better for dieting cats sometimes, better for water intake—not great for teeth health,” says Dr. Wakshlag.

Unless your cat has a physical or medical reason for choosing one food or another, such as wet food for the cat with few teeth, you can feed either wet or dry, or both.

Dry Food: Convenient

Kibble wins for convenience. Scoop up the right amount for your cat (most cats only need about cup of the average dry food twice a day), pour it into the dish, and done. Roll or clip the top of the bag until next time. Canned food requires a spoon to scoop out the last bits of food from the can, plus leaves you with either an empty can to recycle or leftovers that need to be stored in the fridge.

Dry Food: Less Mess

If your cat doesn’t finish her meal in one sitting, dry food will still be there waiting the next time she circles around. Wet food, on the other hand, will start to dry out, which can be unappetizing. Plus, it leaves you, the owner, with a crusty mess to clean up. For barn cats, uneaten canned food can quickly attract bugs (this can also be an issue if your house is plagued by ants).

Whichever food type you feed, wash your cat’s bowl regularly even if she licks it clean. Saliva mixed with food particles is a haven for bacteria, which can potentially cause problems for your cat.

Dry Food: Dental Care

Chomping on kibble helps to scrape plaque off your cat’s teeth, slowing the development of periodontal disease. If your cat has a history of dental issues, your veterinarian may prescribe a dental diet. These diets consist of large, extra-crunchy kibbles designed to make your cat chew more.

Unfortunately, feeding a dental diet alone will not completely prevent plaque and tartar buildup, as any food leaves particles behind in your cat’s mouth that bacteria can feed on. The gold standard for dental care is daily brushing (see “Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth,” p 5), and the American Veterinary Dental College recommends annual dental cleanings by your veterinarian.

Canned Food: Dieting

Most canned foods are about 70 percent water, which means that canned food typically has fewer calories than the same volume of dry food. Because of this, your cat will feel fuller eating wet food, even though she is eating fewer calories. This can make weight loss easier if your cat is one who pesters you if she doesn’t feel like she has eaten enough.

Canned Food: Increased Water Intake

That 70 percent water is also beneficial for cats who don’t drink much. Felines in the wild get much of their water from the prey they consume. For our pet cats, kibble makes for some pretty dry prey. This is fine if your cat makes up for it by drinking enough water, but many cats are poor drinkers. Poor water intake can lead to or exacerbate constipation and/or kidney problems.

Other ways that you can increase your cat’s water intake are to add a little tuna juice to her water bowl or test drive a kitty drinking fountain. Some cats are attracted to a dripping faucet and will drink straight out of the sink.

Canned Food: More Palatable

Moist foods tend to have more flavor and a stronger scent, especially if there is some sauce or gravy. This makes canned foods more attractive for many picky cats. Canned food can also be warmed up to make it smell even better (careful not to make it too hot), which is beneficial to encourage a sick cat to eat.

overweight cat

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So, What Should I Feed?

Which form of cat food you choose to feed depends on which variety works best for you and, more importantly, which formula fits your cat’s needs and your own lifestyle.

Dr. Wakshlag assures us that there is no merit to the myth that dry food causes illnesses in cats: “Overfeeding causes risks of other diseases in cats—not the form of the food in general.”

When choosing which food to feed, ingredients are one of the most important things to consider. Dr. Wakshlag says, “Primarily animal sources for protein and overall protein are first things to look for—or to eyeball (the label) for. Meat ingredients like meals and byproduct meals actually work for me since they are good sources of protein that are typically lower in ash.”

Ash refers to the minerals and other inorganic materials present in any food. Animal sources of protein are important for cats because they are obligate carnivores and require meat to obtain essential amino acids such as taurine (see sidebar, p 1).

Cats do not require grain-free diets. Carbohydrates are a source of energy, just like proteins and fats, and will not harm your cat provided she also is getting sufficient amounts of protein (see our October 2017 article “Calories, Carbs, and Ingredients in Grain-Free Diets,” at

Look for foods that have the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement that the diet has been formulated to be complete and balanced, either for all life stages or for the life stage most appropriate for your cat (growing and reproduction or adult maintenance).

Cat foods may also have a statement that they have passed a feeding trial using AAFCO procedures, which means that the food has been tested on cats over time as opposed to simply being analyzed to meet the standards.

If you choose to make a homemade diet, we advise you to seek the help of a veterinary nutritionist. A nutritionist can help you to formulate a recipe that fits your cat’s needs and will make sure that the homemade diet contains the nutrients that she requires for a happy, healthy life. Go to the American College of Veterinary Nutrition site ( to find a nutritionist.

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Cat Food Storage

Just like our own food, cat food and treats can become contaminated with harmful bacteria if it isn’t stored properly.

-The FDA recommends storing dry cat food in a cool and dry place (less than 80 F). The food should be in a location your cat can’t get into. Store dry food in the original bag, clipped shut. This assures you have the UPC code, lot number, brand and manufacturer, and “best by” date easily available in case of a product defect or recall of that food.

-If you choose to use another container, be sure it’s clean, dry, and has a lid that fits snuggly and can’t be opened by your cat. Save the UPC code, lot number, brand, manufacturer, and “best by” date for that bag in case of a recall. (Tape it to the outside of the container but remember to change it when you open a new bag of kibble.) Wash and dry the storage container between bags of kibble to get residual fat and crumbs off the container’s surfaces, keeping the new food fresh.

-Refrigerate or toss leftover canned and pouched cat food.

-Wash bowls daily, including the water bowl.