Grain Free Cat Food, Does It Matter?

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.

cat eatingGRAIN 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!

SerenFlowers4

Seren loves rose petals. And leaves. And cat grass. So I’m extra-careful what sorts of greenery gets in my house within paw-reach. Image Copr. Amy Shojai, CABC

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. Before choosing to feed grain free food to your dog, please consult with your veterinarian.

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I love hearing from you, so please share comments and questions. Do you have an ASK AMY question you’d like answered? Do you have a new kitten and need answers? NOTE: Some links to books or other products may be to affiliates, from which I may earn a small percentage of sales, but I recommend nothing unless I feel it would benefit readers. Stay up to date on all the latest just subscribe the blog, “like” me on Facebook, and sign up for Pet Peeves newsletter. Stay up to date with the latest book giveaways and appearances related to my September Day pet-centric THRILLERS WITH BITE!

31 thoughts on “Grain Free Cat Food, Does It Matter?

  1. Hey Amy, any idea if there are foods out there meant to help a fuzzball GAIN weight? We’re still struggling with Mr. Man even after upping his chicken intake.

    Of course he has started snubbing his dry food quite a bit now which is driving us crazy – we tried getting him something else to put in yet another bowl to see if maybe it’s just an issue of variety, we’ll see – he may be trying to play for more chicken though, he’s a smart one and he knows how to manipulate the suckers (er, I mean momma and daddy). LOL

    • Hi Karyl …and YES, nearly every reputable pet food company offers diets for weight gain, including Hill’s. I always recommend you check with the vet for a good recommendation for your fur-kid. For otherwise healthy kitties, it may work to simply feed LESS at a time and break into several tiny meals throughout the day. Stroking the cat’s neck while he eats can prompt more food intake, or simply warming up the food (zap in microwave for 10 seconds) to unlock aroma after dribbling a bit of warm water on it. A kitten formula typically has more calories so they eat and get more bang for the food buck in terms of energy.

      And yes, he may be holding out for chicken. 🙂 they train us very well, don’t they?

      • Is there something else those formulas are marketed under? Even looking on Hills’ website I couldn’t find anything that specified. Most of them focus on obese kitties. LOL

        I did get him to eat about 3 handfuls of the new food this morning by putting them on the floor one handful at a time. He won’t eat it out of the bowl still, but if he eats it at all, GOOD.

          • It’s been since Simba died that it started. x.x He’s starting to gain back slowly, but he’s gotten fussier ever since then and we’ve been trying to find ways to build him back up.

          • I asked Lori Smith (representative from Hill’s) to take at look at our conversation about Anubis and offer further suggestions and here’s her reply, in part (the rest I’ll email to you…*s*

            Lorie writes:

            First and foremost, I’d feel better if we ruled out that there isn’t anything medical is going on that could be causing this reaction. It would good if a veterinarian could see Mr. Man just to be sure….

            If everything is fine and he is in good health, it may just take some time seeing that this little one is in mourning. My cat went through very sad mourning period when we lost our dog who was more like a mom to him.

            However, in the meantime, since he’s only eating small portions, it’s best if he can get more nutrition and calories in that small feeding. [Amy’s] recommendation of a kitten food will supply this need…Prescription Diet a/d is very tasty and is packed with nutrients. This food has to be recommended by a vet, though.

            Now for the cautions. Neither the kitten food or the a/d will be appropriate for Mr. Man indefinitely. [It’s important] to reassess his diet and put him back on an adult or mature adult food (based on his age).

            I hope this helps!

            Lori

  2. Amy, this is great information. I have a skinny cat, too, no matter what I do. The only time she’s ever gained a lot was prophetic since it was the coldest winter I think in Oklahoma. She’s an indoor cat who is in her upper teens now and cranky. But she loves brown rice. She’ll eat it right from the pan, or mixed with her canned food. Is brown rice good for her? Or am I making a skinny problem worse?

    Oh, and I’d love to be entered in the contest. Thanks for all the good advice.

    • Hi Joan, Seren also is now on the thin side (she’s always been tiny) and also now in her teens. It’s healthier for our pets (and us!) to stay lean compared to overweight. Our older kitties need lots of high quality, highly digestible protein so they don’t lose their own muscle…and brown rice is a better choice than the white rice my husband LOVES, lol! I wouldn’t feed it exclusively but some s a treat mixed with her canned food probably is fine if she doesn’t have other special nutritional needs. You just don’t want her to eat the rice INSTEAD of the balanced ration. Does that make sense? 🙂

      At Seren’s age (16) I tend to let her get away with a lot and taste pretty much anything she wants…but she’s still got a good appetite for her food, too. Oh…and you’re entered in the drawing! Thanks for commenting!

      • Yes, Amy, your answer really helps. I’ve been letting her have it once or twice a week with canned food. If only I could train myself that brown rice is my best reward instead of brownies 🙂

  3. I’m so glad you wrote this – it’s a subject I’ve been wondering about for some time. We switched our kitties over to a protein diet (grain-free) on the recommendation of our vet about a year ago. Since then we’ve seen improvement on disposition, energy, and the feel of coat. Overall we’ve been surprised that there is such a difference. I also noticed that the volume of food they were consuming dropped by half, so the increased cost of the new food didn’t really matter. But now, we have a new kitten, adopted from a shelter, and I think the grain-free food may not set too well. He came with a host of health issues, so it’s hard to know for sure. Since changing foods is a somewhat lengthy process, I’ve hesitated to start trying new foods and upset his tummy further. He scarfs down the wet food and it doesn’t seem to bother him.

    Thanks for clarifying the good and bad between marketing and nutritional needs. Your posts are always helpful, Amy. 🙂

    • Glad the post is helpful, Lesann. And you make a good point–how very different and individual are our pets! Wet food typically has a higher meat/protein content on a dry matter basis than kibbled foods anyway. I’m told that trying to add certain grains to canned food makes the food (once processed) come out like a rubber hockey puck, LOL!

  4. Hi Amy, I’m wondering what grain (or grain-free) ingredients have to do with nutritional requirements for felines. For instance, I know that cats require a high amount of protein in their food. But how do we (their sometimes-clueless owners) know what’s healthy or not, especially since the manufacturers do their very best to get us to buy everything they put on the shelves?

    Is there an easy way to filter out the marketing claims and uncover the real scoop on healthy food for my cat?

    • Hi Nancy. Well, as the blog post explains, “grain free” has more to do with marketing–although some cats DO have sensitivities and do better on grain free formulations. There’s no easy answer and when it comes to pet food, pretty much anything (great ingredients, innovative production/packaging, “new” fill-in-the-blank) can all be used by marketing to promote the product. The thing is, pet food companies are in the business of selling pet food–and it is NOT in their best interest to hiss off pet owners or make their customers sick, LOL! So they generally bend over backwards to provide great nutrition and good info and explanation of WHY they believe a given food is ideal for a specific cat (or dog) population.

      Something I learned while researching my books is that the real experts–veterinary nutritionists–almost without exception work for pet food companies. So finding an “outside” expert can be a challenge. What I do like, though, is that when faced with questions such as yours, the folks I’ve dealt with at several major pet food companies have been very forthcoming with answers.

      To answer your question–the veterinarian that has hands-on your pets is in the best position to give advice. But also, look on the pet food label and dial up the 800-# and ASK questions, go to the company facebook page and ask questions, and yes–ask friends with pets (just be aware pet owners have opinions but not necessarily expert answers). So…clear as mud? *s*

  5. My cats don’t normally require a special diet, but I would be interested to see if they would like this. I like to give them a variety and switch up their food often, so I think this food would be excellent for them. Thank you for the chance.

  6. I foster 2 dachshunds, have adopted 4 rescued weenies and every rescue and vet I encounter use and recommend Hills Science Diet dry kibble. I’ve only fed Hills for going on ten yrs. now and all my babies thrive on it! Being a dog person might not let me win the prize but I still have to put in my 2 cents regarding our Hills Science Diet.
    Sincerely,
    Polo, Muffin, Jessie, Katy, Precious, Guster, & Susan

    • Hey Susan, thanks for sharing your 2 cents! And dogs are people too…I mean, er, uh…you know what I mean. *s* I’m delighted you’ve had such good results with your chosen diet. When you find something that works, and is recommended by experts you trust, that’s a VERY good thing!

  7. I’m pretty sure that Leonardo doesn’t need this, but Mikey might (they are my two cats). Mikey’s skin and fur just doesn’t seem right. I would like to try it. Mikey came to us (adopted us) about 6 months ago after some horrible people abandoned him and he had to fend for himself and was even shot with a bb gun (!). So sometimes I’m not sure if it’s just his nerves, but he’s dandruffy.

    • Awww…poor Mikey. Bless your heart for rescuing him! Stress can impact kitty health, and a great diet always helps. You’re in the running! Thanks so much for adding your comments.

  8. I’ve been wanting to try this food so I’d love to entered. I have ordered some for my cats too. Can’t wait to see how they like it! Thanks for the information.

  9. Great, informative conversation about pet food diets. There are a lot of commercial pet diets available. It’s important to make sure that the diet you are buying has an AAFCO statement and even better if the food has been through food trials. As a veterinarian I totally agree with you. For those of you asking about what to feed a skinny or finicky cat, it’s important to visit your veterinarian at least once a year for a physical exam and if your cat is over 10 I would highly recommend geriatric blood work to detect health concerns early.

    • Hi Dr. Anna, I’m delighted you’ve visited and commented. Thanks so much! And I agree with you re: the AAFCO statement and food trials. Seren-kitty (age 16) has been to the vet twice this year so far.

      By the way, I heard back from Karyl and her reluctant eater Anubis (aka Lil’ Man) mentioned in earlier comments, and he seems to have an aversion to his food bowl, and not necessarily the food! Bravo to pet parents who become pet detectives to figure out what’s best for their pets.

  10. Yes, cats can digest carbs. But they have a limited ability to do so. As they evolved as meat eaters they lost all the enzyme pathways to digest carbs, except one. Why? They didn’t need them. Their natural diet contains virtually no carbs. Cats have no, repeat no, nutritional requirement for carbohydrates. Period. In nature they might eat a tiny amount from their prey’s stomach, but that’s only because they don’t gut their prey first. When they eat larger prey, they generally avoid eating the guts.

    “Carbohydrates provide energy” is misleading when it comes to cats. Cats derive their energy requirements from the breakdown of protein. Cats are so dependent on protein that if they don’t get adequate amounts they will breakdown their own body tissues to get it. Some plants do provide protein, but these proteins are inferior to meat proteins and must be supplemented to make up for their nutritional deficiencies.

    Remember that dry foods were not originally designed as an optimum food for cats (or dogs for that matter). They were designed as a way to make use of material leftover from human food production. They were designed to be convenient for people, not ideal for a meat-eating carnivore. They never started from what was the best food to feed a cat, they started from how could they make a food from what they had.

    Cats get most of their fluid intake from their food, or they should be. This is the reason that dry food, any dry food, no matter what the ingredients, is not an appropriate food for cats. Yes, cats should eat a grain-free diet, and vegetable-free, and fruit-free. I agree with your statement that cats “do best on diets with high-quality animal proteins.” Then why not recommend animal proteins, as in meat. Raw meat diets are what cats evolved to eat. It really doesn’t get more complicated than that.

    For more information on healthy, raw meat diets go to feline-nutrition.org. Find out what cats should really be eating.

    • Hi Margaret–nice to *virtually* meet you! I’m familiar with all of the folks associated with your site and interviewed most of them (Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins is one of my heroes!) so am delighted to have you share great information in this discussion, especially with such a respectful tone. I do wish, though, that the blog post would be read more for content. If y’all read the post, you might (gasp!) discover that I’m actually AGREEING with many your points. 🙂

      Cats are obligate carnivores, agreed. And agreed, they do use protein for energy (including PROPERLY formulated foods that contain SOME plant protein), just as you say. Deriving ALL their nutritional needs from non-meat protein isn’t healthy, but nobody (not even commercial pet food companies) advocate that. We agree!

      To play devil’s advocate here, too, the “original design” of cat foods hearkens back to the early 1960s. While true that using left-overs of human processing foods for pet owner convenience created the market–and mistakes were made along the way–it’s also true that veterinary food science has evolved over the past 5 decades. So IMO it’s misleading to suggest that pet foods are today formulated and sold the same as in those “bad-old days” and I have real issues with those who insist on citing “evidence” from 20+ years ago as reason to black-ball all modern commercial foods. Thank you for stating the history in such a succinct and appropriate manner. While I’m very familiar with the issues, not all of my readers know all of this.

      Bottom line, pet owners are responsible for filling the bowl. Not all have the ability, inclination, or time to cook for themselves, let alone their pets. It may not matter to them “what cats should really be eating” when they can’t or don’t care to do it themselves.

      Those who do make that effort, after researching and becoming feline/canine nutritional lay-experts such as yourself, can have great success with home prepared and/or raw formulations. When I wrote NEW CHOICES IN NATURAL HEALING FOR DOGS AND CATS and interviewed nearly 100 “holistic” veterinarians, I became convinced of the merits of raw feeding IN SPECIFIC CASES, and personally I consider it on the same level as a “therapeutic” food that should be recommended by a veterinary professional. Done badly, it can put pets at risk in probably more ways than any reputable commercial food.

      People love their pets so much, pressure has been put on regulatory bodies to increase risk assessment. Bravo! But that means guidelines for measuring food contamination define levels that likely would have passed muster even a year ago. For instance, multiple strains of salmonella (not just one or two, as in the past) now are being screened for and flagged–they likely have always been present in the environment, in our own kitchens, the back garden, and other places, but today they’re flagged “just in case.” Pet food companies take immediate action and announce “voluntary recalls” before they’re asked. Thank doG for that! I couldn’t believe the levels of safety, multiple inspections both internal and external, that Hill’s has implemented above and beyond what’s required by law. I’ve toured half a dozen pet food manufacturing facilities both in the US and in England, and they appear to be on the same level as any human food manufacturing facility. Just saying…

      Let’s agree that commercial foods are not perfect. Not every food-in-a-bag or can is ‘ideal’ for every cat or dog. But neither are the home-formulated raw diets the ideal solution for every pet or owners. (Incidentally there now are COMMERCIAL raw food diets available, too, fresh or frozen.)

      Let’s also agree that since 1960s when the first pet biscuits and canned meat trimmings hit assembly lines, cats and dogs also benefited. People who otherwise might never have fallen in love with pets became able to feed them, improve their health and longevity, and the SCIENCE of animal nutrition was born. And today, because of that, pet lovers have choices.

      And finally, let’s agree that there are many paths to properly care for our furry wonders. Even though everyone knows what cats should REALLY be eating is mouse.

      Thanks again for your great comment and adding to the discussion. My best to Dr. Elizabeth, too! (Seems I’ve written a whole other blog post now, LOL!)

  11. Amy THANK YOU for discussing this so important subject. This article could not have come at a better time for me as I have very recently put my 3 indoor cats on Hill’s Science Diet for bladder health. My vet made this recommendation because my 9 year old yellow tabby developed crystals. At first I didn’t take the vet’s suggestion due to the cost of the prescription diet but after seeing my precious Macy have another flare-up with the crystals, I decided I was going to change. I knew it would be difficult to feed her one type of food and the other 2 something else, I decided to change all 3 to the Hill’s. At first she didn’t like it but she came around. Luckily (fingers crossed) she hasn’t had another flare-up. I have had cats live to almost 20 and I fed them commercial food but there comes a time when that must change for the health of the cat. I’m a firm believer also that if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it! Amy I appreciate so much your honesty, integrity, intelligence, experience, opinions, etc. in sharing with all of us readers and thanks for the contest. I think my outside cats would love to try it.

    • Hi Patricia! I’m so glad Macy decided to give the new food a try. Changing diets can be tricky with cats once they get used to a certain diet. I usually recommend a slow transition of offering a 50/50 mix, and then gradually over a week or two, increasing the new and reducing the old.

      You’re entered in the contest! Thanks for joining the conversation!

  12. This IS a very confusing blog post! However, I do not agree with your assessment that cat nutrition is complicated. The marketing of commercial cat foods can certainly make a consumer feel quite overwhelmed; but as you point out, our cats are obligate carnivores. That information alone can easily help us narrow down commercial food choices, especially when combined with recent research.

    Research (March 2011) conducted by Waltham found that our domestic cats, when given the choice, target a diet that is 12% carbs. A study published Oct 2011 in the British Journal of Nutrition (Plantinga et al.) analyzed feral cat diets from around the world, and found that our wild domestic cats eat a diet that is just 2.8% carbs – almost none of which is starch.

    This information makes finding an appropriate food for our kitties quite simple: consumers should seek a food that:

    1) on a dry matter basis is 12% or less carbohydrates, and
    2) where the bulk of the protein is from animal-based sources.

    Not complicated at all!

    As you say, “grain free” has become a buzz word, and, sadly, grain free is not synonymous with low carbohydrate. This Hill’s food is an example. Yes, “chicken,” *with its water weight*, is the number one ingredient. But the subsequent ingredients, in order, are “Potatoes, Yellow Peas, Pea Protein Concentrate, Chicken Fat, Potato Starch, Dried Egg Product, Chicken Meal.” This food is full of starch, and the bulk of the protein comes from non-meat based sources (remember, the chicken at the top of the list contains the water weight). This “grain free” food is 35.3% carbohydrates!

    It is this type of marketing that misleads consumers. It is this type of marketing that has made “grain free” a buzz word, and not something consumers can rely on to mean “species-appropriate.”

    Given that 90% of of our pet cats are overweight or obese; incidence of diabetes have DOUBLED in the past five years (and feeding a low-carb diet often means kitty no longer needs to use insulin to manage the condition); 85% of cats over the age of 3 years have dental disease; and kidney disease is 7x more common in cats than dogs (Banfield State of Pet Health Report 2013), it seems the carb-laden commercial diets offered to our cats leave a lot to be desired.

    • I’m sorry you’re confused by the post. And I’m delighted that for you, cat nutrition is so simple. Thanks for clarifying your position and joining the conversation–and agreeing with much of my post! LOL!

  13. Pingback: People Foods for Cats? 10 Healthy People Foods Your Cat Will LoveAMY SHOJAI'S Bling, Bitches & Blood

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