Have you heard about grain-free cat food? A few years ago, the word “natural” got attached to both people and cat food products, even though there was no legal definition of the term or specific benefit—folks just like the idea of a “natural” product. Today the latest buzz-word is “grain-free” and a wide variety of grain-free cat foods are now available.
I’ve updated this post to include Karma, and some more recent research. I’m lucky that neither Seren-kitty or Karma-Kat have ever been a picky eater or had any food allergies or sensitivities. Seren lived to (almost) 22 years and thrived on commercial dry cat foods. Some of my colleagues, who I greatly respect, might be shocked at that—but for me, if it ain’t broke, no reason to fix it.
Seren maintained her healthy 6-pound svelte figure and c’attitude with no sick days whatsoever (until a sneezy attack when I switched to a new cat litter, I have to give credit to good care, good food, and good kitty genes. Karma-Kat gets a mix of commercial dry and canned foods, along with healthy treats from the table now and then.
GRAIN FREE CAT FOOD FOR MARKETING OR HEALTH—OR BOTH?
What does grain-free mean? And does it matter to your cat, or is it just another marketing term designed to sell cat food? Are there grain free wet cat foods or only dry?
I got to tell you that both the “natural” and the “grain-free” terms have more to do with marketing than meeting the cat’s nutritional requirements—of course, that’s my opinion, only, and your mileage may vary. It’s not that foods labeled “grain-free” are bad—not at all, and in fact for a specific population of cats, they may be the best cat food.
I’m just saying that cat foods that contain grains are not inherently evil. And I’m also applauding pet food companies that don’t just jump on the bandwagon but do respond to the human “cat parent” concerns with new food options to address those concerns–and also use that opportunity to EDUCATE about the issues involved. Bravo!
SHOULD CATS EAT GRAIN FREE FOODS?
So let’s examine the question. What’s the objection to feeding grain to cats? Well, most cats don’t graze out with the cows, or guzzle down gallons of grain. Given their choice, cats munch small furry critters–and if you’re Karma-Kat, the occasional cricket.
Savvy cat folks understand that felines are obligate carnivores, which means they are animal eaters and do best on diets with high quality animal proteins. (Hey, I’m preaching to the kitty choir here, but in case there are lurkers, let’s cover the basics, shall we?)
Here’s the deal, though. Cats CAN digest carbs (especially when properly processed in commercial diets). They may gobble up the teeny grain-filled tummies of their prey. No, it’s not the main meal, but it is an important part of the total nutrition picture.
CATS CAN EAT CARBOHYDRATES
Carbohydrates provide energy and are obtained from starches and grains. And many folks forget that grains also contain proteins. Your cat’s body doesn’t care if that amino acid comes from mouse or corn, so proteins provided from meat and grain combos properly designed can be terrific kitty fuel. That’s why kitties for years have survived and even thrived eating well-designed commercial dry cat foods that include ingredients like corn, wheat, or rice.
The operative words there, of course, are well-designed. Poorly designed, out of balanced nutrients can hurt the cat, whether the ingredients are paw-some or awful.
Even good diets may pose problems if the balance gets out of wack, or your cat’s needs are unique. When Kitty eats too much and exercises too little, the resulting Tubby Tabby may become predispose to other health issues like diabetes–and special formulations may be necessary for these cats. There also are cats sensitive to specific kinds of ingredients in cat foods that develop allergic reactions to protein sources (like corn or fish). For cats with skin issues or upset tummies the vet says are food allergies or sensitivities, a grain-free diet may be the purr-fect option.
READ PET FOOD LABELS FOR CLUES
It doesn’t matter if the food says “grain-free” or “natural” on the label (hey, poison mushrooms are natural, too! Just saying…). What matters is the correct balance of the various nutrients in the food, and the higher the quality of those ingredients, the more easily your cat’s body can utilize the nutrients.
Maybe you simply believe grain-free cat food is healthier and prefer foods without grain. Good for you! Depending on the formulation, it could be a great choice for your cat. However, if you’re choosing a grain-free food to avoid carbs, think again—the carbs may still be in the food but in another form. Potato starch might be even higher in calories than a grain ingredient. Hey, that doesn’t mean it’s bad but do your research to be sure you’re getting what you think. Some of the unusual ingredients in pet foods might surprise you–and how much they benefit the cat, even though Kitty might not be “naturally” inclined to nosh beet pulp. Heck, I don’t think Seren would ever have snagged her own salmon, either!
DO YOUR RESEARCH!
Every cat is an individual. Isn’t that why we love them? A one-size-fits-all diet no longer is necessary and you can find the right formula that fits your feline. Talk to your veterinarian about what’s the most appropriate food for your heart-kitty. Age, health status, and more goes into match-making foods to individual cats.
Bottom line, “natural” and/or grain-free cat food isn’t necessary for good cat nutrition—with very few exceptions having to do with ingredient sensitivities. Although the majority of cats don’t need a grain free food, they can do very well on properly balanced formulations when that’s your preference. Heck, because cats are such individual, your cat may do better, who knows?
For more information about grain free cat food, refer to this excellent article from PetMD.com.
Grain free dog foods have been implicated in certain cases of dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart condition. See this article about the FDA investigation into the problem. Also, for even more on the subject, read this fascinating roundup of studies documenting the differences in dog breeds’ ability to utilize grain (or not!0. Before choosing to feed grain free food to your dog, please consult with your veterinarian.
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!