Cat eating out of bowl

Choosing the Right Diet for Your Cat: Wet, Dry, or Mixed?

The sheer amount of different brands and flavors of cat food can be overwhelming. Venture into any pet store, and the variety of kibble bags juxtaposed with cans of wet food can make your head spin. If diet is the foundation of your cat’s health, how can you be sure they have the best possible diet when there are so many different options?

There's always been a debate about whether dry or wet cat food is better. It doesn't help that the most important judge of what’s best—cats themselves—are both opinionated and fickle. Some cats can't get enough of those crunchy bits, while others are all about that juicy canned food (and that can change from day to day). Then you've got every cat lover, breeder, and vet throwing in their two cents to complicate the situation even more. No wonder picking the right food feels like such a puzzle!

Don't worry, though. With the right info and a bit of insight, figuring out cat nutrition isn't as scary as it seems. In this article, we'll dive into the nitty-gritty of cat food, looking at the pros and cons of both wet and dry options. By the end, you'll be all set to pick the best food for your furry friend!

Understanding Cats’ Dietary Needs

Cats, with their graceful agility and sharp predatory instincts, are born hunters. This natural behavior is deeply rooted in their history as a species, where their ancestors thrived as obligate carnivores. But what does being an "obligate carnivore" mean for our domesticated feline friends?

Obligate Carnivores Explained

The term "obligate carnivore" means that a species requires a diet of animal-based proteins to live. Cats can not be vegetarian. Their digestive system is designed to eat meat—the closer to natural and raw, the better. Furthermore, their digestive system is also designed to get most of their moisture from the meat they consume, not from drinking water. Their bodies are finely tuned machines designed for this purpose, from their sharp retractable claws for catching prey to their digestive systems optimized for metabolizing animal proteins.

Misconceptions About Store-bought Cat Food

Walking down a pet store aisle, your eyes are bombarded by colorful packages of cat food, each claiming to be the best for your beloved pet. But not all cat foods are created equal. A common misconception is that all store-bought foods are complete and balanced for a cat's diet. While that is likely true when it comes to hitting the minimum nutritional levels on paper, not all cat foods are made of equally nutritious ingredients.

Some commercial cat foods may contain fillers like grains and vegetables. These are not inherently harmful, but they don't align with a cat's natural dietary needs. If the volume of these “filler” ingredients becomes too high, your cat may not be able to get enough nutrition from the food to thrive. It's essential to understand that in comparison to meat, plant-based proteins do not provide the proper amino acid profile or digestibility cats need.

Moreover, some cat owners might be swayed by their cats' penchant for certain flavors or textures, mistaking a preference for what's best nutritionally. Just because a cat enjoys a particular type of food doesn't mean it's the healthiest option.

Wet vs. Dry Cat Food: Key Differences

Choosing the right type of food often boils down to two primary options: wet canned and dry kibble cat food. There are other alternatives to these options, of course, but most people will feed either wet canned food or dry kibble diets. While both forms promise nutrition and flavor, they have distinct characteristics that can influence your decision. Let's delve into the main differences between these two cat food types.

Moisture Content

One of the most obvious (and important) differences between wet and dry cat food is the moisture content. Dry cat food typically contains about 10% moisture, making it more shelf-stable and less prone to spoilage. On the other hand, wet cat food boasts a moisture content ranging from 60% to 85%, closely resembling the hydration level in a cat's natural prey-based diet. Unlike dogs or people, cat’s naturally get most of their daily moisture from what they eat. This makes the significant water content in wet food particularly beneficial for cats that don't drink sufficient water, ensuring they receive adequate hydration from their meals.

To put this into perspective, even cats who drink constantly get very little water by lapping at their water dish. Their lapping technique is uniquely inefficient, drinking only about 0.1 milliliter per lap. A full minute of constant lapping picks up only a teaspoon or so of water. The average cat needs about ½ of a cup of water for every 5 pounds of body weight per day to be at peak health. So cats rarely are able to drink sufficient water to meet their needs.

Energy Density

On the other hand, the low moisture content in dry food means it is more concentrated in terms of calories. This energy density implies that cats require smaller quantities of dry food to meet their caloric needs compared to wet food. For instance, a cat might need to consume twice the amount of wet food to get the same number of calories found in dry food.

Manufacturing Process

The way each food type is produced also differs. Wet cat food involves mixing ingredients and cooking them inside containers, like cans or pouches. This process ensures the food remains sterile until opened, preserving its freshness without the need for preservatives. Dry cat food, conversely, undergoes a baking or extrusion process. Ingredients are mixed into a dough, which is then processed to form kibble. The kibble is dried, cooled, and packaged, making it a long-lasting and convenient option for many cat owners.

While both wet and dry cat foods offer their unique advantages, understanding these key differences can help you make informed decisions about your pet's diet. No matter what you choose, the main goal is to give your cat balanced nutrition that's just right for them.

Benefits of Wet Cat Food

For a lot of cat parents, picking between wet and dry food is a real head-scratcher. Both have their perks, but wet cat food brings some unique benefits to the table that might just make it the top pick for your kitty.

1. Enhanced Taste and Preference:

It's no secret that many cats have a preference for wet food over dry kibble. The texture and richness of wet food often increase palatability, making it a favorite choice for especially finicky eaters.

2. Adequate Water Intake:

Cats have a naturally low thirst drive, which means they might not drink water as often as they should. Wet cat food, with its high moisture content, provides an excellent source of hydration. This is especially beneficial for cats who aren't frequent water drinkers, ensuring they remain well-hydrated.

3. Prevention of Urinary Health Issues:

The increased moisture content in wet food can help dilute urine, reducing the risk of urinary stone formation. A diluted urine can prevent the concentration of minerals that might lead to stone or crystal formation in the urinary tract.

4. Closeness to a Natural Diet:

In the wild, a cat's diet consists mainly of high-protein and lean animals, which also contain a significant amount of moisture. Wet cat food, with its meat-based ingredients and high water content, closely mirrors this natural diet. This can be especially beneficial for ensuring that cats receive the essential nutrients they need in a form that's easily digestible.

Benefits of Dry Cat Food

While wet cat food is praised for being similar to what cats would naturally eat and for keeping them hydrated, dry cat food (or kibble as most of us call it) also has its fans and benefits. Let's dive into why some cat parents swear by feeding their kitties kibble:

1. Convenience and Longevity: 

One of the primary advantages of dry cat food is its shelf life. Unlike wet food, which needs to be consumed or refrigerated shortly after opening, dry food can be left out in a cat's dish for extended periods without spoiling. This feature is especially beneficial for cat owners who might not be home for regular feeding times, allowing cats to graze throughout the day.

2. Cost-Effective: 

In general, dry cat food tends to be more economical than its wet counterpart. Especially for households with multiple cats, kibble can offer a more budget-friendly option. Plus, since it lasts longer on the shelf, you don't have to worry as much about wasted food going bad.

3. Storage Simplicity: 

Dry food is easy to store. It doesn't require refrigeration, and sealed bags can be kept in a cool, dry place. This ease of storage is particularly advantageous for cat owners with limited space or those who prefer to buy in bulk.

The Controversy: Is Dry Food Bad for Cats?

As cat parents, we're always aiming for the best for our furry friends, right? That means giving them food that's both tasty and good for them. Dry cat food is super convenient and has its perks, but we should also chat about some of the concerns tied to it.

Carbohydrates and Cats: One primary concern with dry cat food is the often higher carbohydrate content. Kibble can not be made without a starch as a binding element. This is a challenge because cats have no dietary needs for carbohydrates. The only form of carb that they even use comes in the form of fiber (primarily from hair—either of the animals they eat or their own). A diet high in carbohydrates, especially from non-meat sources, can lead to an increased risk of serious health problems like obesity and diabetes in cats.

Ease of Over-feeding: Dry cat food packs more calories in every bite because it's low on moisture. So, cats don't need as much of it compared to wet food. Sounds great, right? But it also means it's easy to overfeed them if we're not paying attention. Overfeeding can result in weight gain, which brings its own set of health problems.

Hydration Concerns: Cats, especially those that are exclusively indoor, are notorious for not drinking enough water. As we covered earlier, it’s nearly impossible for them to drink enough water anyway. Dry cat food, with its minimal moisture content, can compound this issue. Chronic dehydration can lead to urinary tract issues, including the formation of crystals or stones.

Dental Myths: A widespread belief is that dry food helps clean a cat's teeth. While the act of moving dry kibble around their teeth can have some minor benefits, dry cat food is not a replacement for proper dental care. In fact, cats don't even chew their kibble. They just work their mouth to move the food closer to their throat before swallowing. Meaning that even the little benefit to dental health that comes from eating dry food isn’t necessarily true.

Dry cat food isn't necessarily a no-go for cats, but picking the right kibble is key. Check those ingredient labels for high-quality, meat-based protein sources, always have fresh water available, and sometimes mix in some wet food. This way, your cat's diet stays well-rounded.

Feeding Kittens vs. Adult Cats

Each stage in a cat's life has its own nutritional requirements. As kittens grow into adult cats, what they need from their meals changes. As cat parents we need to do our best to ensure that we’re giving our pets the food they need to be as healthy as possible no matter the stage of life they’re in.

Rapid Growth in Kittens: In their early months, kittens are like little energy balls, growing super fast. They need more fuel than adult cats. During this time, they really benefit from a diet packed extra full with animal proteins, fats, and specific nutrients to help their bones, muscles, and brains develop.

Kitten Feeding Quantity and Frequency: Given their growth spurts, kittens need to eat more often. Think about feeding them three times a day until they're about six months old. Once they start growing into adults, twice daily meals usually do the trick. But no matter their age, always make sure they're getting good-quality food in the right amounts to get all the nutrients they need.

Note: it can be helpful to find the AAFCO statement on a potential food’s packaging. This will tell you what type of cat the food is suitable for—kitten, adult maintenance, or all life stages.

Transitioning to Adult Food: By the time kittens hit their first birthday, it's usually time to start introducing them to adult cat food. It’s best to transition them gradually, easing into the new diet over a week or so to keep their tummies happy. Grown-up cats have a steadier metabolism, so their calorie needs are a bit different. This would be a benefit of starting your kitten on an all life stage food—there’s no need to transition from a kitten food to an adult formula.

Health and Age: After the kitten days are over, and as our cats settle into any potential health challenges of their adult life, their food needs can shift. For example, our older feline buddies might benefit from food that supports the joints or kidneys. This is also where regular vet visits become extremely important. These visits can help us tweak our cat’s diet based on their evolving needs.

Mixed Feeding: Combining Wet and Dry Food

For a lot of us cat parents, picking between wet and dry food feels like a puzzle. But guess what? There's a sweet spot that blends the best of both worlds: mixed feeding. By serving up both wet and dry food, you're giving your kitty a balanced diet that suits their nutritional needs and tickles their taste buds.

Advantages of Mixed Feeding

Variety: Just like humans, cats appreciate a change in their meals. Mixed feeding introduces a variety of textures and flavors, making mealtime more exciting for your pet.

Balanced Nutrition: By combining both wet and dry foods, cats can benefit from the high moisture content of wet food and the calorie-dense nature of dry food.

Best Practices for Mixed Feeding

Separate Bowls: Instead of mixing wet and dry food in the same bowl, offer them in separate dishes. This ensures the dry food retains its crunch and the wet food maintains its moisture.

Monitor Portions: Remember that if you're offering both food types, you need to adjust the quantities to ensure you're not overfeeding. Consult the feeding guidelines on the food packaging and consider your cat's weight, age, and activity level.

Freshness is Key: Always ensure that the wet food is fresh. If your cat doesn't finish its portion, remove any uneaten wet food after a few hours to prevent spoilage.

How Much to Feed?

Getting the food type right is important, but so is the amount you serve up. Overfeeding or skimping on portions can mess with your cat's health. Let's dive into a guide to help you nail that perfect serving size for your kitty.

Factors Influencing Portion Size

Weight: The amount of food a cat requires is significantly influenced by its weight. A larger cat will naturally require more food than a smaller one. However, it's essential to differentiate between a cat that's large-framed and muscular and one that's overweight.

Age: Kittens have higher energy needs due to their rapid growth, needing more frequent meals. In contrast, adult cats typically need fewer calories, and their feeding frequency can be reduced.

Activity Level: Active cats, especially those that spend time outdoors, may burn more calories and thus require more food. Conversely, sedentary cats need less.

Specific Conditions: Pregnant cats or those with certain medical conditions might have unique dietary needs. Always consult with a veterinarian in such cases.

Wet Food vs. Dry Food

Dry Food: Given its energy density, cats need less dry food compared to wet food. On average, an adult cat might consume between 20-24 calories per pound of body weight per day (depending on your cat’s weight and age, and the calorie density of the food). It’s always best to look at the feeding guidelines on the packaging for specific recommendations on how much of a particular formula is needed per day. 

Wet Food: Cats typically need to eat more wet food to get the same number of calories they would from dry food. This is due to the high water content in wet food. Again, take a look at the feeding guidelines on the prospective formula’s packaging.

Mixed Feeding

If you're combining both wet and dry food, ensure the total caloric intake aligns with your cat's needs. For instance, if you're feeding half wet and half dry, adjust the portions of each to meet the calorie requirements.

Wrapping up

Feeding our cats isn't just about filling their bowls—it's about taking care of their whole health. The food choices we make, backed by good information, can really shape how healthy and happy our kitties are. The whole wet vs. dry food debate? Both have their plus points. The best call often comes down to what our individual cat needs and likes.

A well-rounded diet, tailored just for our kitty, is the way to go. This might mean mixing wet and dry food or sticking with just one, depending on their life stage or health. But it's not just about the food type. It's about quality, the right portions, and regular check-ins with the vet to make sure they're getting all the good stuff.

At the heart of it all? We just want our cats to be happy and healthy. It's on us to make the best choices for them. With a bit of knowledge about cat nutrition, we can keep our feline pals purring and healthy for years to come.