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Though cat owner Amy Morgan, 32, of Brooklyn, N.Y., follows a strictly vegan diet, her grocery list regularly includes foods that contain ingredients like Atlantic salmon and organic chicken. They’re not for her, of course, but for her beloved, eight-year-old calico cats, Mashy and Ruki. “I don’t eat animal protein,” Morgan says, “but I know my cats need it. I don’t want them to have all the hormones and chemicals that are injected into farm animals these days, so I’m really careful about the food I buy them.” To make sure her cats get the best food available, she reads ingredient labels closely and has been encouraged by what she’s seen lately. Morgan explains, “It seems easier to find healthier commercial foods these days.”
Marketplace trends support her observation. As pet owners become more conscious about what they put into their own bodies, they are likewise taking better care of their pets. This is evidenced, in part, by increases in spending on pet food: from $9 billion in 1996 to $16 billion in 2007. Says Duane Ekedahl, president of the Pet Food Institute based in Washington D.C., “Pets have become like every other member of the family, and this is increasingly reflected in how people feed their animals.”
“Pet foods are looking more like people food,” Ekedahl adds. “Consumers are into organic, natural foods now, and that’s what you’re seeing on pet food shelves. The industry has really come a long way in the past ten years in meeting this growing interest.”
Here’s what’s on the menu for today’s well-fed cats:
Protein The mainstay of your cat’s diet has always been, and always will be, animal protein. According to Dr. Sally Perea, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist in Davis, Calif., at least 25 percent of your kitty’s calories should come from it. Today’s cat food proteins are higher quality than ever, with some manufacturers even going so far as to incorporate free-range, organic chickens into their recipes. High-quality proteins contain the vitamin A that your furry friend needs to maintain healthy skin and hair, as well as the amino acid taurine that keeps feline heart and eyes functioning at an optimal level.
Healthy, Necessary Fats Chicken and other meats, including fish, not only provide your cat with protein, but they also give your feline the fat it requires. “Cats need arachidonic acid (an Omega-6 essential fatty acid), which is only found in animal fat,” says Dr. Perea. They also benefit from the Omega-3 and other Omega-6 fats that belong to the class of polyunsaturated fatty acids. These are found in coldwater fish, like salmon. They help to maintain healthy skin and coat and also play a role in cell repair. They may even stave off conditions like allergies, colitis and urinary tract infections in cats.
Fruits and Veggies Though your cat may not need a big bowlful of fruit salad from the green market, a balanced feline diet does include the nutrients found in fruit and vegetables. The vitamin E and antioxidants in vegetables like tomatoes, spinach and peas play a vital role in the formation and maintenance of cells, as well as in the metabolism of fats. The natural fiber found in fruits such as apples promotes healthy digestion.
Grains Want to help keep your cat’s digestive processes moving along? Give it fresh, clean water along with whole grains, which can now be found in commercial pet foods. “Fiber helps with the health of the large intestine,” says Dr. Perea. The carbohydrates in grains like rice and barley also provide your furry friend with the energy it uses to do things like leaping from the floor to your lap in a single bound.
The list is short but telling. Added fillers, as well as artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, have gone the way of trans fats in human food, which is to say they’re undesired and out. Today’s healthiest commercial cat foods contain little that is not nutritionally necessary, and no cat ever lived a longer, healthier life from consuming Red Dye No. 9. Look for labels that read “No added fillers,” or similar statements, to ensure your cat isn’t consuming calories and chemicals it doesn’t need.
As Pet Food Industry president Ekedahl emphasizes, “Consumer awareness about health is really driving the pet food industry today.” That awareness may help your favorite feline to live a longer, healthier life -- just what every cat owner is craving.
Darcy Lockman is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Daily Cat. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone.