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Dry, Canned, or Semi-Moist: Food Choices for Cats

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP

Nutrition, Pet Services

There are so many food type choices: dry, canned, and semi-moist. How do I decide which is best for my cat?

While feeding cats does not need to be a mysterious process, it is easy to be overwhelmed with choices. It is logical to wonder which approach is best. Your veterinarian is the best source for a specific recommendation for a nutrient profile that best fits your cat's needs. Beyond that, however, it is good to think about the advantages and disadvantages of the various formulations that are available.

What are the pros and cons of semi-moist cat food?

Semi-moist cat food contains about 60 - 65% water by weight, making it more expensive per energy calorie than dry food. Unfortunately, semi-moist cat food generally contains more sugar and salt than either dry or canned cat food. The extra sugar and salt mean semi-moist food is not appropriate for every cat.

"The extra sugar and salt mean semi-moist food is not appropriate for every cat."

Be aware that many semi-moist foods are loaded with artificial color, chemical preservatives, and chemical flavor enhancers. Perhaps semi-moist foods are best reserved for the occasional treat - the cat version of the hot fudge sundae!

Semi-moist cat food is very convenient because feeding involves opening the pouch and pouring it into the bowl. If you choose this option, work with your veterinarian to determine the calorie content of the semi-moist food and an appropriate daily portion.

What are the pros and cons of dry cat food?

Dry cat food - generally referred to as ‘kibble’ - remains the foundation for the cat food industry, and has a number of advantages:

  • Kibble is by far the easiest to feed and to portion-manage.
  • It is an excellent choice for cats that prefer to 'graze' because the total daily portion can be measured into the bowl in the morning, and then offered at specific meal times throughout the day.
  • It comes in many sizes and shapes, so you can choose one that your cat prefers. Work with your veterinarian to determine the calorie content of the kibble you have chosen in order to determine an appropriate daily portion.
  • Kibble also lends itself well to food toys or interactive feeders that either move about and dispense kibbles intermittently or are stationary and make the cat work for its food. Food toys can be just as entertaining for the humans as they are for the cats!

One common mistake cat owners make, however, is buying too big a bag of kibble, thinking they are getting a bargain. Until the bag of kibble is opened, the nutrient profile is stable. But once the bag is opened, the food is subjected to oxidative stress - meaning that exposure to the air degrades some of the nutrients and contributes to the food becoming stale. It is best to purchase just enough kibble to last 4 to 6 weeks - 8 weeks maximum. Once you and your veterinarian have determined the correct daily portion to feed, it should be easy to calculate how many pounds of kibble you need for that time period.

"It is a myth that cats need variety in their food choices."

It is a myth that cats need variety in their food choices. In fact, cats are notorious for their resistance to change. Consistency is generally best. Once you find a nutrient profile that agrees with your cat, or one that has been prescribed by your veterinarian, stick with it. Your veterinarian will recommend food changes based on changing nutritional needs as your cat ages and her body changes.

What are the pros and cons of canned cat food?

Canned cat food has some advantages as well:

  • It has a very high water content, which means the cat can enjoy a larger portion per meal to provide the same number of energy calories as an equivalent portion of kibble.

  • Some cats prefer the palatability of canned food over kibble.

  • When cats have to spend time away from home, it may help them to eat more normally if they have a little encouragement from some delicious canned food along with their kibble.

  • Therapeutic canned diets can be very effective at managing diseases such as diabetes and kidney failure. Cats who are already used to the texture of canned food can easily be switched to therapeutic canned food.

Canned food is more expensive per energy calorie than kibble due to the high water content and the packaging. Another disadvantage to canned cat food is that for some cats, canned food may contribute to periodontal disease.

Once the can is opened, it is best to transfer the remainder into a small food container for refrigeration. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian to determine the appropriate daily portion.

"Be sure to consult with your veterinarian to determine the appropriate daily portion."

One option for feeding cats is to use a combination of dry and canned food each day. Remember to stick to the total daily portion that has been calculated for your cat. The only way to prevent your cat from becoming overweight and obese cats is to measure each day's intake carefully. Mealtime is bonding time, so meals should be fun for you and your cat!

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