Sometimes it feels like you need a degree in Animal Nutrition to pick the best cat food for your Bengal cat. The pet food recalls, lack of supplies, and raw debate make picking the best cat food a challenging choice. Not to worry, we are here to provide some inarguable facts to help you determine what cat food is best and why.
Cats are not created to eat plant-based foods.
When looking around for the best cat food, the biggest factor to consider is the ingredients. We hear over and over that cats are obligate carnivores. But what does this mean? It means a cat's body is designed to get its nutrients from meat, organs, and bone. It also means cats do not easily extract nutrients from plant-based ingredients. How do we know that cats struggle to get nutrients from plant-based foods? We know because they do not have the enzymes that break down plant matter.
There are four common types of enzymes in the digestive tract. Two break down animal matter, and two break down plant matter. Cellulase is an enzyme in the gut of many mammals that breaks down vegetables and fibers. Cats do not have cellulase. It can be given to cats in their food, but cats do not make their own cellulase. In addition, most mammals produce amylase in their saliva. Cats do not. Cats produce small amounts of amylase in their pancreas. The complete absence of cellulase and the absence of amylase in the saliva, where most mammals produce it, are clear indications that cats are not designed to eat plant-based ingredients.
Why do cats who eat plant-based proteins appear healthy?
If it is true that cats were not created to eat ingredients that come from plants, then one automatically should wonder why all of these cats who eat food filled with vegetables, grains, and starches appear healthy. They are healthy for the same reason that children who are fed McDonald's appear healthy. When we are young, our bodies compensate.
In 2019 The Journal of Evolution and Health published a study on fruit flies in an article titled “Evolutionary Biology of Diet, Aging, and Mismatch.” Fruit flies make a good case study because their lifespan is 40-50 days. In this study, some flies were fed an evolutionarily appropriate diet - the diet fruit flies evolved to eat in the wild. Others were fed on a different fruit. Ultimately, the study showed that young flies adapted to the new diet and were just as healthy as their counterparts on the evolutionarily appropriate diet. However, at older ages, the flies' health on the new diet failed more rapidly than the flies on the evolutionarily appropriate diet.
What does that study mean for cats? While young, a cat is likely to adapt to a diet with plant-based ingredients temporarily, but as it ages, its health will decline more rapidly than a cat being fed a diet of animal-based ingredients.
Are cats who eat plant-based ingredients getting sick?
If you consider that the overwhelming majority of cats are fed kibble, then most cats are fed food with plant-based ingredients. Nearly half of cats aged 6-9 years old demonstrate kidney deterioration. For indoor cats over the age of five, Kidney disease is the number one killer.
Cat's bodies cannot compensate for plant-based diets for too many years without it taking its toll.
It is important to remember that plant-based ingredients provide no nutritional benefit to a cat over animal-based ingredients. Plant-based ingredients are fillers. They are used because they are cheaper than meat-based ingredients.
Why is water a factor?
Kidney disease is so prevalent in cats because cats on a kibble diet live in a state of constant low-grade dehydration. Today's housecat cat was domesticated from an African wildcat. The African wildcat does not have access to a reliable water source, so its body is designed to get much of its hydration through food. Cats do not have a natural thirst drive. When you feed a cat a dry diet with plant-based ingredients, you are doubling the damage to the cat's body.
Did domestication make cats more tolerant of plant-based ingredients?
Cats are obligate carnivores, and dogs are simply carnivores. How did that happen? Domestication. The domestication of dogs started over 30,000 years ago. In contrast, the first cats are thought to have been domesticated 3,600 years ago. Give cats a break. They need another 24,000 years to catch up. In addition, cats did not move inside people's homes until after the invention of cat litter in the 1940s. Furthermore, people domesticated cats so they could eat the rodents that were stealing their food. Domestication did not change the cat's diet until we started keeping them exclusively indoors.
Why does this matter? The longer a carnivore has been eating human-created foods, the longer its digestive tract has evolved to be. Because humans have not fed cats for very long - evolutionarily speaking - their digestive systems have not had time to evolve to handle the plant-based ingredients that humans tend to put in commercial cat foods. Some cats will do better than average because their ancestors' digestive systems adapted to withstand more plant-based ingredients. But when you compare 3,600 years of evolution to 30,000 years of evolution, you can see there is a long way to go before cats make the switch from obligate carnivores to carnivores.
What is the best cat food?
The best cat foods are filled with water and animal-based ingredients - meat, organs, and bone. The best cat foods have minimal to no plant-based ingredients. The best cat foods have less than 5% carbohydrates - ideally, it is 0% carbohydrates.
Because carbohydrates are not necessary for a cat's diet, pet food companies do not list what percentage of the food is carbohydrates. You'll have to do a little math to figure it out. Add up the crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, moisture, and ash. Then deduct that total from 100%. What you are left with is the percentage of carbohydrates.
Furthermore, the best cat foods have minimal to no processing. In short, this means the best cat foods are not cooked. Cooking changes the bioavailability of nutrients, meaning cats cannot utilize the nutrients from cooked food as easily as they can from uncooked food. Again, this goes back to the short length of time cats have been eating manmade diets.
Go cat food shopping.
Head down to your locally-owned, Mom and Pop, brick-and-mortar pet food store with this article pulled up on your phone. We have found the people working in these stores to be much more knowledgeable about cat foods. Share what you learned in this article, and ask if they have any recommended foods with low to no carbohydrate contents. First and foremost consider a pre-made, balanced raw diet.
For the reasons explained in this article, a raw diet is best for all cats. Many vets do not approve of raw diets because they see all the sick cats from people who pick up chicken drumsticks at the grocery store and think that is a balanced raw diet. It is not. Feeding an unbalanced raw diet is the worst way to feed a cat, but feeding a balanced raw diet is the best way to feed a cat. For a balanced raw diet, we recommend Viva Raw along with the NuVet supplement for reasons explained here.
If you are not willing to feed raw, then you will have to feed a food that is cooked. Canned foods with minimal to no plant-based ingredients are the second-best food choice. While this is not our recommendation, feeding canned foods that have less than 5% carbohydrates is better than feeding a kibble diet. You can find an updated page of canned foods that we've deemed less harmful than the majority in the Quality Products section of our website.
You are not recommended to feed your cat dry food unless you are using it as a treat.