Kibble. Crunchers. Crispies. Hard food. Call it what you will, dry food is a staple in the diets of most cats. From the smallest kitten to the senior kitty who has been known to gum his kibble, few cats fail to come running when the bag is rattled or the canister is opened. According to the American Pet Products Association, 91 percent of us purchased dry foods for our cats in 2000 and 46 percent of that was premium dry food. In addition, 77 percent consider dry food as the form used most often, up from 70 percent in 1998.
Because dry cat food is so convenient and our cats usually eat it without hesitation, we seldom think to question whether it is the best nutritional choice. Often the question is not whether we should feed dry food but which brand should we choose. Then we must decide which formula. That alone can be daunting, especially for us multiple cat owners with felines of different breeds, ages, and states of health.
However, Tony Buffington, DVM, professor of veterinary clinical sciences at The Ohio State University Veterinary Hospital, keeps things simple. He recommends feeding kittens a complete and balanced growth formula until the age of 18 months. These foods are less acidic than some adult formulas, he says, adding that adults can eat just about any food, and if the kitty is overweight, move to a food that is less energy dense. A trip to your veterinarian is a good place to start for help in food selection since he or she sees cats fed many different kinds of foods.
Store brand versus premium
Dry foods are found at several levels of quality and price ranges. Store brands are least expensive, but they usually have corn or meat by-products as the primary ingredients rather than meat or chicken meal. It often takes a larger quantity of that kind of food to satisfy your cats. Premium and super-premium foods often have chicken or turkey meal listed as primary ingredients and preservatives such as mixed tocopherols rather than BHA, BHT, or ethoxyquin. Natural cat foods are very popular and many have extra ingredients such as yucca schidigera, cranberry, and novel grains such as oats and amaranth as opposed to corn or wheat, along with a price tag that reflects the additions. Buffington, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, does not see large differences among the different cat foods on the market. He finds the variety, along with the attention to quality paid by manufacturers an embarrassment of riches, adding that most people dont eat as well as our cats.
Free feeding or timed meals
Buffington advises feeding canned food in addition to dry food since its texture is closer to a natural diet.
He adds that the texture of dry food is more like wood, rather than mice and crickets. As to whether cats should be allowed to free feed or be fed at specific times, he recommends you feed in a way that works for you and your cat. In the wild, cats eat 10 to 20 times a day – when they can catch and kill something, he says. Be sure to have plenty of fresh water available at all times since dry food has a lower moisture content than canned food.
The best reflection of any foods performance is seen in the condition of your cat. A glossy coat, bright eyes, good energy level, and overall health are the best indicators of how well your cat is doing on its diet.
How dry food is made
Dry food is made through a process known as extrusion. The ingredients are cooked at a high temperature, then moved through a cylindrical channel toward a die that determines the shape – star, pellet, triangular, flat, or round shapes have been determined by cats testing for mouth feel preferences.
The food is then coated with beef tallow, vegetable oil, dried milk, or flavor enhancers for palatability.
Grains required for the extrusion manufacturing process make up to 50 percent of dry food formulas. Indeed, these carbohydrates are a source of energy and fiber, although cats have no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates.
Its all in the marketing
The myriad special dry food lifestyle formulas can make for a tough decision, especially in the case of multi-cat families of various ages, physical conditions, or preferences. Hills Science Diet alone has 11 different formulas; Royal Canin has six. And just recently, Nutro Natural Choice came out with a formula that claims to do it all – hairballs, teeth, sensitive stomachs, and skin and coat.
But according to Buffington, marketing plays a big role here, a concept known as line extension, which increases the probability that the consumer will buy a particular brand of food. He says that while some dental formulas are shown to be beneficial, there is no data to support the claims of hairball formulas. And though manufacturers preach brand loyalty, rotating among foods ensures that your cat receives a full spectrum of nutritional requirements.