Is Your “Natural” Cat Food Truly Natural?

The health food craze has caught up with kitty.

Over the years, people have become more concerned about making sure the food they put on the table for their families is "natural" or minimally processed. Now that concern is being extended to what they put in their cat’s dish, according to Katy J. Nelson, D.V.M., an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who also works on pet nutrition.

But just what is a "natural" cat food?

Regulation of Cat Food
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulates labeling of cat food in the United States so that companies can't make claims about pet food products that are untrue. The FDA also regulates pet food, although the administration doesn’t directly state what constitutes a “natural” product.

The AAFCO defines the term "natural" as being “… derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources … not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

Most commercial pet foods do contain some synthetic sources of essential vitamins and minerals in order to comply with AAFCO's requirements that the food be "complete and balanced" to meet a pet's nutritional needs, says Amy Dicke, D.V.M., a Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian who has worked with teams of nutritionists and researchers.

While experts like Dr. Nelson and Dr. Dicke caution that there is no scientific agreement yet that natural foods provide more safety or nutritional value than certified "complete and balanced" cat foods, they add that natural ingredients certainly don't hurt. "I don't want people to expect health miracles from feeding a natural food," says Dr. Dicke. "There is no evidence that supports that a natural product is better or safer than, let's say, a traditional product. But I'm not saying that it's worse. It's a personal choice … another feeding option."

Natural Ingredients to Look For

  • Protein Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that, due to their genetic makeup, cats need to eat the tissue of other animals to survive. Meat must be the primary source of their nutrition, so one of the first ingredients should identify the protein source: poultry, fish or some other meat.

  • Byproducts This term has gotten a bad rap. Meat- or plant-based byproducts fit the definition of "natural" under the AAFCO regulations. "Good, high-quality pet food byproducts don't need to be a four letter word," Dr. Nelson says. Think about a cat's diet in the wild. Feral felines eat mice, and not only the white meat, but also the organs and tissue. These byproducts often give cats essential amino acids, such as taurine.

  • Grains Natural sources of carbohydrates, such as corn meal, brewer's rice and whole grain barley, can provide energy for your cat's activities during the day, Dr. Dicke says.

  • Fruits and vegetables Spinach, tomatoes and peas are rich in vitamin E and antioxidants that will help your cat build its immunity. Beet pulp and apples are a great source of fiber to keep your cat regular. Some added vitamins and minerals are needed in commercial pet foods to meet the AAFCO standards, but if the food contains high-quality ingredients, there shouldn't be much supplementation.

  • No added artificial colors, flavors or preservatives "Natural" cat foods should not have synthetic fillers, artificial colors or flavors or man-made preservatives. Natural flavors and colors are okay. Some preservatives are naturally occurring, such as vitamin E and tocopherols (TCP), which are fine to help preserve food.

In deciding on a food, talk to your veterinarian about your cat's individual needs. Some pet food companies also list toll-free phone numbers on their packaging so that you can call and ask questions about the nutritional contents of their foods.

The Best Protein Sources for Your Cat

Your kitty may not be as ferocious as the lions on TV nature shows, but these distant cousins share a common bond: “Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they must get nutrients from meat,” explains Maria J. McGeorge, DVM, who runs a felines-only practice in Portland, Ore. “Cats cannot remain healthy on a vegetarian diet.”

High-quality Protein Sources
At least three types of meat provide optimal nutrition for your cat: chicken, fish and lamb. These three meats serve as high-quality protein sources when they are blended into well-balanced commercial cat foods, and they can satisfy your kitty on several counts.

  • The taste test Although cats are notoriously finicky, most felines find the mild flavor of chicken appealing. Fish, on the other hand, may be a good choice for a cat that hasn’t been eating well, advises Tracy R. Dewhirst, DVM, who writes a pet advice column for the Knoxville News Sentinel. The stronger flavor and aroma of a fish-based cat food may tempt your cat to eat. Lamb isn’t a familiar taste for many cats, so introducing the flavor to your kitty may pique its interest. If you offer your cat a taste test involving one of the three proteins, make sure you dish up wet food at the right temperature. “Most cats prefer a freshly opened can at room temperature,” says Dr. Dewhirst.
  • Your cat’s health These protein sources, combined with the amino acid L-carnitine, can help your cat build lean muscle while burning fat to maintain a healthy weight. Fish, such as tuna and salmon, provide omega-3 fatty acids. “If your cat has dry, flaky skin, omega-3s can help,” says Dr. Dewhirst. Omega-3 oils offer a range of additional benefits for your cat, such as fighting inflammation, lessening the effects of arthritis and safeguarding heart health.
  • Answer for allergies For cats that develop food allergies, lamb can be a viable protein alternative. “For many cats, it’s a novel protein that the animal has likely never been exposed to,” explains Dr. Dewhirst. Introducing a new protein source, such as lamb, is therefore useful if other proteins trigger allergies.
  • Your cat’s appearance If your feline is in good health and consumes a cat food with high-quality chicken, fish or lamb, your kitty should have proper muscle tone, a trim physique, bright eyes, healthy gums and a plush, shiny coat. Practice portion control, as recommended by the food’s manufacturer, to keep your cat’s weight in check.

Table Scraps Won’t Do
Chicken, fish and lamb are great protein sources, but Dr. Dewhirst cautions that table scraps or meals you prepare specifically for your kitty don’t match your cat’s nutritional needs. “Feeding one of these [meats] exclusively is not a substitute for a well-balanced cat food,” she notes. Most notably, commercial cat foods contain taurine, an essential amino acid that prevents blindness and heart failure in cats.

“The reason we’re seeing cats living so much longer is due to diets being better,” says Dr. Dewhirst. A good commercial cat food includes high-quality proteins and provides a balance of the necessary nutrients and calories your cat requires, adds Dr. Dewhirst. “It really meets all their needs,” she concludes. “If we could eat like our cats, with all our nutritional requirements in one convenient serving, we’d all be a lot healthier.”

"Natural" Cat Food Explained

Did you know that the word “natural” on cat food labels is regulated? The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the major pet food regulatory body in the United States, has a very precise definition, which manufacturers using the term must follow. The definition is a technical mouthful, but understanding what it means can help you make more informed decisions about the cat food you buy.

In short, AAFCO defines “natural” as: “A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing ... not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

What Isn’t Natural?
A cynical approach to these technicalities is that all food is natural, so why label anything as such, especially if authorities permit the ingredients to be added to cat food? “Synthetic food preservatives, such as BHA and BHT, are approved for use in pet foods,” says Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian Amy Dicke, DVM, who has participated in teams of nutritionists, researchers and fellow veterinarians. “However, those pet owners looking for natural alternatives should look for products preserved with mixed tocopherols.”

Mixed tocopherols are fat-soluble antioxidants, sometimes referred to as vitamin E, since the compounds can derive from the vitamin. In cat food with a “natural” label, these compounds can take the place of chemicals like BHA and BHT, which some studies have linked to cancerous tumor formation. But preservatives are only one group of ingredients that the “natural” label controls.

A Natural Cat Food Recipe
Ingredients in natural cat foods can vary, depending on things like the food’s manufacturer and the product’s particular flavor. Dr. Dicke shares what’s found in one popular brand: “chicken and egg protein for maintenance of essential body function, five antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruit plus vitamin E and beta-carotene to help strengthen the immune system, a multigrain carbohydrate blend for balanced energy levels throughout the day, and omega-3 fatty acids -- found in flax and fish oil -- for healthy skin and coat condition.”

In short, natural pet food can provide your cat with a recipe for health success. Cats seem to gobble up the goodness too, as such recipes have been formulated with your feline’s palate in mind.

What’s in and What’s out
Given the AAFCO definition and current manufacturing processes, here’s what you can find in natural cat foods:

  • Natural proteins, vegetables, grains and fruits
  • Familiar ingredients, like Atlantic salmon, chicken, apple, carrots, peas, spinach, tomato, rosemary, rice, barley and egg
  • Natural preservatives, usually mixed tocopherols

What you won’t find? Added fillers and artificial colors, as well as artificial flavors and artificial preservatives.

Be an Informed Shopper
Dr. Dicke cautions that cat owners should temper their expectations when considering the benefits of natural pet food. “What owners shouldn’t necessarily expect from a natural product is better nutrition for their pet. There are no studies to substantiate that natural, organic or holistic foods are more nutritious than traditional diets,” she says.

You can, however, make better choices for your feline by knowing exactly what these terms mean. On the surface, “natural” may seem like a common and almost meaningless description for food, but the word actually holds a lot of power. A “natural” label on an AAFCO-approved cat food can offer you ample information about the product even before you flip the bag or can around to read the list of ingredients.

Cat Food Prebiotics Promote Good Health

A stroll down the pet food aisle of your favorite store these days might reveal products labeled with the word “prebiotics.” You may not be familiar with these prebiotics, but once you learn of their potential for promoting good health, they could soon be on your shopping list radar.  

Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian Amy Dicke, DVM, who has been a member of teams consisting of nutritionists, researchers and fellow veterinarians, explains what prebiotics are and how they can benefit your cat.

Prebiotics, Probiotics and Antioxidants
As medical- and food-science findings continue to emerge and evolve, so does our understanding of how food can affect us and our pets, particularly in terms of what goes on in our bodies at the microscopic level. For many years, studies have shown that fiber is essential to diets for mammals. Now, this research has become more specialized, putting the spotlight on different fiber types, such as prebiotics.

Prebiotics are specialized fibers that, when consumed, stimulate the growth and function of certain healthy, or “good,” bacteria in the gut. They can also work together with probiotics, which are actual live bacteria that are ingested. Prebiotics essentially feed probiotics, enhancing their positive health benefits. By acting as a food source for good bacteria, prebiotics selectively promote the growth of good bacteria, thereby increasing their population in the intestine.

Antioxidants, on the other hand, are substances or nutrients in food that help minimize damage to healthy cells by acting as “free-radical scavengers.” Free radicals are like microscopic garbage in the body. Antioxidants help to prevent the formation of the potentially dangerous garbage. Studies indicate this waste may be a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer and more.

Prebiotics, probiotics and antioxidants are like a near-invisible version of the three musketeers, fighting for good health: They all have influence on the immune system and can support better defenses.

Ingredients That Contain Prebiotics
Like vitamins and minerals, prebiotics are a natural part of certain common ingredients. They can be found in a variety of foods, like bananas, garlic, honey, rye and wheat. You wouldn’t necessarily want to feed your cat all these foods outright, since some contain other compounds that are toxic to felines. Researchers have therefore figured a way to isolate prebiotics so cats can more easily benefit from their dietary inclusion.

One common prebiotic is called Fructooligosaccharides, or FOS for short. It’s been a food supplement in Japan for decades and is now becoming increasingly popular in Western cultures. Studies suggest it’s good for cats, so you might see it on certain premium cat food labels.

Prebiotics and You
Information about prebiotics has mostly emerged from studies on human diseases. Doctors like Robert Martindale, a gastrointestinal surgeon and nutritionist at the Medical College of Georgia, noticed that salmonella, E. coli and other harmful bacterial invaders would often become more aggressive and infectious in some patients.

These people, as it turned out, had often experienced disruptions to their healthy colon bacteria. Taking necessary antibiotics for long periods of time, for example, can sometimes cause patients to become more susceptible to later disease invasion. “If you start looking at the data on what bacteria do for us, there truly is a mutualistic relationship between us and the bacteria that live in our colon,” says Dr. Martindale. Because prebiotics promote healthy gut flora, they’re beginning to become more prevalent in food.

Prebiotics and Your Cat
Antibiotics aren’t the only things that can throw off your cat’s digestive system. Certain conditions, including stress, diet changes, age and disease, can cause the digestive balance to be disrupted. These can occur at various stages of life and on any given day. Regularly feeding your cat a food containing prebiotics can help maintain a balanced digestive system.

No one can avoid potentially harmful bacteria -- they are always around. “In the digestive tract of the healthy dog and cat there will always be beneficial bacteria, as well as bacteria that can potentially cause disease,” Dr. Dicke explains. “The key to good intestinal health is to keep them in balance.”

Cat and Dog Food Differences Explained

The differences between cat and dog eating habits are perhaps best illustrated by this rather inelegant experiment. Drop a piece of meat on your kitchen floor in front of your cat and a friendly dog. “The cat will likely sniff and paw at the meat before ultimately rejecting it,” says pet nutritionist Hilary Watson. “The dog probably won’t even give the cat this chance, as it will have gulped down the food in no time.”

Watson, who has over 20 years of experience in pet food formulation and quality assurance, explains that all felines suffer from neophobia, or a fear of new things. “As self-reliant predators in the wild, eating something foreign could mean unexpected illness or worse,” she says, adding that “cats are also carnivores, while dogs are omnivores.” Here are more reasons not to feed dog food to your cat.

Cats have higher protein requirements than dogs do According to Dr. Allan Paul, small animal extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at Urbana, cats use ample protein as a direct energy source. Watson agrees: “Cat food contains greater than 30 percent protein, while dog food contains around 20 to 25 percent protein.” The difference might seem minimal, but your cat needs that extra protein to satisfy its energy requirements.

Cats need taurine An essential amino acid, taurine is found only in animal tissues, such as fish, beef and poultry. Cats cannot synthesize this compound, so they must get it from a meat source. If they don’t consume enough taurine, a multitude of health problems can result, including hair loss, tooth decay, heart troubles and retina degeneration that may lead to blindness. In fact, Dr. Paul says scientists first noticed the cat eye-taurine link after felines that were exclusively fed dog chow became blind. The Association of American Feed Control Officials now requires that taurine be included in all wet and dry cat foods. The amount should be no less than 0.1 percent in dry foods.

Vitamin A is critical for cats Yet another essential component of cat food is vitamin A. “Dogs can convert beta carotene into vitamin A,” says Watson. Beta-carotene, a precursor to the vitamin, is visible as the red-orange pigment abundant in certain plants and fruits. Canines and people can therefore eat a carrot and receive a good daily dose of vitamin A, but cats must consume the vitamin from meat sources.

Felines require arachidonic acid and more niacin Dogs have two choices in getting their needed amount of arachidonic acid, which is a necessary fatty acid. They can receive it directly through meat, or they can synthesize it using linoleic acid, which is abundant in many vegetable oils, such as sunflower and safflower oils. Cats again have just the one choice, Dr. Paul says, and that’s meat. Watson adds that cats need more niacin than dogs do, too.

Taste and texture Have you noticed that many cat food commercials show beautiful cats delicately licking their food? This is in contrast to images of frisky dogs gobbling down chow with glee. As it turns out, there is some truth to the stereotypes, Watson suggests. “So long as it’s formulated correctly, dog food can look like slop and a canine will wolf it down,” she says. “Cats are much more tuned into texture.”

Felines also prefer meaty, salty tastes, as opposed to sweets. Cats additionally seem to go for a somewhat mysterious basic taste known as “umami.” It refers to savory foods with a lot of body. Japanese chefs even sometimes describe umami as “the deliciousness factor.”

Higher up on the food chain Your kitty’s choosiness stems from its position on the food chain, Watson believes. She explains that herbivores – plant-eating animals -- are at the base of the food heap. Next up are omnivores, including dogs and humans, which can eat the herbivores and some carnivores, as well as plants.

As true carnivores, cats exist at the top of the food chain. “Carnivores eat some omnivores,” Watson says. That’s one reason why large, wild cats, such as lions and tigers, take a swipe at humans from time to time.

Thankfully, domesticated house cats prefer smaller prey, as in the tasty canned and packaged vittles you can provide. While sweet and loveable, kitty is a very sophisticated predator for which only the best cat consumables will do.