Cat nutrition

Cat food has come a long way, baby. The choices used to be limited to kibble or canned. Now cat owners can find foods that are labeled “natural,” “organic” or “human-grade.” They can feed commercial raw diets that have undergone AAFCO feeding trials and find recipes for homemade foods that are complete and balanced for cats. What’s best for your cat, and what should you look for in a food?

Obligate carnivores

The first thing to know is that cats are obligate carnivores. That means they must have meat in their diet to survive and thrive. Read the label on the bag or can of food. If at least the first two ingredients aren’t a named meat — say, chicken or beef, as opposed to the generic “meat” — keep looking. The words “meat by-products,” “by-product meal” and “meat and bone meal” indicate cheap meat substitutes that tend to be poorer quality protein sources for your cat.

Watch for labeling hype and marketing tricks. Take a label that says “Fresh beef is our number-one ingredient.” That turns out not to mean much if you know that fresh beef is 60 percent water. Take the water out and that knocks the beef down to the number five or number six ingredient on the label. If the first ingredient is beef or chicken followed by several by-products, you can bet that by-products make up the majority of the food.

Natural vs. organic vs. human grade

What about the natural, organic or human-grade foods? Those terms don’t necessarily mean what you think. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration does not have an official definition for “natural.” Typically, all it means is that a food does not contain any artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

The FDA also doesn’t have any rules about the use of the word “organic” on pet food labels. That means cat foods that are labeled organic may or may not actually contain ingredients that were organically grown or raised.

“Human grade” or “human quality” ingredients? Same deal. Those terms are not defined in either pet food or human food regulations. Technically, only foods that are produced in USDA-inspected plants for human foods qualify as “human grade” and only a few pet food companies can honestly make that claim.

When in doubt, call the company and ask what it means by those terms. Every pet food label must have contact information for the manufacturer. One who is truly proud of its food and ingredients will be happy to answer your questions.

AAFCO feeding trials

Beyond the ingredient list, check to make sure a food’s nutritional adequacy has been validated by feeding trials. Look for a statement that says something like “This diet is complete and balanced for adult cats based on AAFCO feeding trials.” This means the food was actually fed to cats for at least six months and that the majority of cats that ate it did well on it.

Canned or dry? A little of each is a good compromise. Canned food increases the amount of water your cat takes in and contains lots of the protein he needs in his diet. Dry food is convenient and less expensive, and putting it in a food puzzle is a great way to feed and exercise your cat at the same time.

The best test of a food is how your cat looks and acts. If he’s happy and healthy with a shiny coat, bright eyes and good breath, then the diet you’re feeding is doing its job.