That’s right, cats are carnivores. They are not supposed to be eating corn. So why do many of our commercially made cat food products including treats have corn in them? It’s the same reason why high fructose corn syrup is in many processed human foods: corn is cheap. And as we all know by now, in order to make a dry kibble affordable and stick together in the processing cycle, carbohydrates in the form of corn or grain are added to the food. Cats on average should be eating 8-12% carbohydrates in their daily diet so following this rule of thumb, it is pretty simple to see why our domestic cats are severely obese and have diabetes. Just take a look at the ingredients in those treats you bought at the grocery store or that ‘holistic dry kibble’ you purchased at the health food store …. you may be shocked by what you are feeding your cat! That chicken treat likely contains meat by-product meal (you really don’t want to know what types of ‘food’ are considered a meat by-product meal) and corn! That dry kibble likely contains only 25-35% protein, significantly less protein than our cats should be eating every day.
Cats are not just carnivores like dogs, they are OBLIGATE carnivores. Their ancestral diets have made eating meat a requirement for survival and life. They have a shorter gastrointestinal tract compared to other mammals their size, they are unable to properly digest carbohydrates and metabolize some vitamins, and cats depend on protein for their energy source because their organs adapted throughout the life of a feline to eat small mammals via hunting. Cats used to live outdoors and be our “mousers”. They were our personal exterminators around the house and they would eat their kill.
Did you know that the heart of a mouse contains more taurine than any organ or meat from other animals? Taurine is an amino acid that is essential for life to our cats. So it makes sense that cats would feed on mice! We didn’t always know that cats needed taurine to live. In the 1980s, many cats started dying from heart disease due to lack of taurine in commercial diets. They also developed many other medical issues that could take months or years to develop from a taurine deficient diet. Therefore, commercial diets started adding this amino acid to their food. This is what makes home cooking food for your cat a little tricky. Heat destroys taurine so any meat that is cooked – whether it be in a processing center or in the crockpot in your kitchen – removes the taurine out of the food. What’s the solution? Feeding a balanced raw diet, freeze dried diet, or high quality canned food is the best way to give your cat a high protein diet with all the nutrients needed for a healthy life.
It is not just the lack of protein and addition of carbohydrates to kibble that makes it bad for cats. It is the also because it is DRY. Our domesticated cats are descendants of desert dwelling felids of Africa. Cats adapted to a dry environment by being able to highly concentrate their urine and ignore signs of mild dehydration. This becomes a huge concern when feeding cats a dry kibble because they just don’t drink enough water. I see feline patients on a very regular basis who have crystals in their urine, develop cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) or urinary tract infections, who have renal insufficiency or kidney failure, or are unable to urinate due to blockage of their lower urinary tract. Some of these issues are multi-factorial and stress or genetics can play a role, however, most commonly it is the food we are feeding our cats that make them sick. We force our cats into a constant state of dehydration by removing all the moisture out of their food. It’s just as concerning for me as a veterinarian when clients tell me their cat is always at the water bowl or drinks a lot of water. This means their cat either has a serious medical condition or is so dehydrated on a daily basis that he can not drink enough water to keep himself properly hydrated. I almost never see my cat drink water. He gets all of his water through his food and therefore, like his ancestors in Africa, does not need to drink often. On a side note, cats drink less water if the bowl is next to their food bowl. So separate their water and food bowls to entice your cat to drink more water.
This may sound dramatic, but I truly believe dry food is killing our cats! Not only are we giving our beloved cats a high carbohydrate diet that they are unable to digest properly, we are also causing strain on their kidneys and urinary tract by keeping them dehydrated. Simply switching out your dry kibble to a high quality, grain free, canned food can keep your cats healthier for longer. A raw diet is an ideal choice for your cat but many of us have inadvertently fed our cats such a poor diet for so long, that the transition to raw food can be difficult. So make the transition to strictly canned first then you can try adding in a raw diet once your cat gets used to eating protein again. I know, it sounds ridiculous to make a statement that your obligate carnivore needs to get used to eating meat but sadly this is a fact for many domesticated cats. Don’t even use dry food as a treat! And never buy those dry treats you see at the grocery store – I can promise you they will not help with hairballs or tartar control. You can use real meat such as tuna or chicken for treats or there are some great freeze dried raw meat meals or treats to give your kitty for a snack.
I have had some feline patients who seemingly are addicted to dry food. They refuse to eat any canned food or real meat and have trained their owners very well to give them dry treats on command and to keep those food bowls filled to the top with dry kibble. These cats are almost always obese and often have medical issues related to their obesity, whether it be a severe condition like diabetes or a mild skin infection around their perineum from their inability to properly groom themselves. It can be difficult to transition these cats onto a better food but there are always options such as a semi-moist, high protein food that comes in a kibble shape. We are here to help if you are struggling with a food change and it is so important to keep trying – your cat’s life depends on it.