Choosing the Best Cat Food: What to Look For
Providing your cat with a happy lifestyle is what being a pet parent is all about, and it starts with her food. Along with plenty of fresh cool water, she needs the best cat food for her stage in life--one that includes protein, carbohydrates, certain types of fats, and essential vitamins and minerals to keep her active.
There are plenty of healthy cat food options on the market. But with so many products to choose from, where do you begin?
Meats vs. Meat Flavors
The first step to identifying the best cat food is to familiarize yourself with the products' ingredients. Keep in mind items are organized according to weight, PetMD points out, with the heaviest appearing first. You typically see the main meat product listed first or second because it has the highest weight (which includes water content).
If a pet food product in the US is labeled as having a single ingredient ("tuna," for instance), according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), it must contain at least 95 percent of that food product. For products advertised as "with tuna", AAFCO requires that it only has to include 3 percent of that product. Tuna "flavored" on the other hand, means that there has to be enough so that a cat can discern the difference.
Once you start reading labels this closely, you'll notice common ingredients that appear in cat food, particularly the following items:
- Chicken, tuna, beef, corn, barley or wheat. Protein is important because it provides the necessary building blocks for muscle and contributes to energy your cat needs from her food.
- Wheat, corn, soy, barley, and oats. In addition to protein, animals use carbohydrates for energy.
Just like with our own foods, as you can see, it's important to know where the advertised food items appear on the ingredients list and why. Keep in mind, though, that a key ingredient may appear lower in the list because of its density, not for a lack of nutrition.
Along with proteins and carbohydrates, the best cat food has the vitamins that are essential to keeping a cat healthy.
- Vitamin A: typically in the form of beta-carotene, for healthy skin, vision, and immune system.
- B vitamins: including biotin (B7), riboflavin (B2), or pyridoxine (B6), niacin (B3), and thiamin (B1) for maintaining a strong nervous system and most vital organs. Thiamin is especially important in cats who are often predisposed to deficiency here.
- Folic Acid, or B9: a water-soluble vitamin that aids in digestion and promotes healthy cell growth, which is especially important for kittens and pregnant cats.
- Vitamin B12 supplement: also helpful for proper cell growth (both blood and nerve).
- Vitamins C and E, antioxidants that are crucial to the resilience of your cat's immune system.
Minerals present in the best cat food aren't that dissimilar to those in your own nutritional needs. They include:
- Calcium, which keeps your cat's bones, joints, and teeth healthy.
- Phosphorous, obtained from the meat that cats ingest to build healthy teeth and bones alongside calcium.
- Iron, an element in mammal cells, used as a component of the hemoglobin in red blood cells. These are the cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
- Magnesium, important for all sorts of body processes, such as building strong bones, producing energy, and regulating blood pressure.
- Sodium, which maintains normal blood pressure as well.
- Zinc, needed to make the body's proteins as well as its DNA.
A healthy cat food will include these essential elements to provide your pet with a nutritious, well-balanced meal. Don't forget pet food ingredients are usually regulated by the product's home country's food and drug governing body, which should be of some additional comfort to pet parents.
Age and Weight
Your cat's nutritional needs change depending on circumstances such as age and weight, so speak with your veterinarian to determine which cat food is best. If you have a kitten, you know just how much energy she has. And because a kitten's body changes a lot during her first year; body weight will double or even triple in the first few weeks alone. She needs an abundance of nutrients for healthy living. These can be found in a food that's formulated especially for kittens: those that include nutrients such as DHA (found in fish oil) to aid brain and eye development, and folic acid to promote healthy cell growth.
Adult cats (ages one through six) and mature cats (ages seven through ten) should be fed according to their weight and level of activity. Cats who are eleven or older are considered senior pets, and their nutritional requirements reflect the changes that come with age. Key ingredients may include calcium to aid aging bones and joints, vitamins E and C to boost her immune system, or vegetable oil that contains omega fatty acids to keep her coat and skin soft and smooth. Work closely with your vet to determine which type of food will benefit your furry friend, and keep in mind that older cats tend to gain weight as their activity level decreases.
If she's overweight, she's not alone. In the US, 50% of cats are considered overweight or obese. The Telegraph reports one in four cats are considered obese in the UK, and it's not always due to old age. Cats become overweight when they consume more food than they work off with exercise. But before switching your cat's food to one specifically for weight loss, check with your vet to see if there is an underlying cause for the weight gain such as an illness or related health issue.
One of the first things you should do to revamp your feline's food is stop feeding her treats. Cats aren't too keen to "dieting," as you can imagine, but luckily there are foods to work with their metabolisms to make the transition easier.
Where to Buy
It's easy to get your cat a product that fills her bowl, but to be sure you're getting the best cat food for your furry friend, shop with your veterinarian or retailers that offer a wide variety to choose from. Whatever your preference, a good rule is to always buy your pet food products from your veterinarian, or a store and company you trust.
Whether you're a new or a seasoned cat parent, you and your furry friend will thrive from choosing the best cat food for her, one that will keep her healthy and active throughout her life.
Christine O'Brien is a writer and longtime cat owner whose house is run by two Russian Blue mixed-breeds.