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.

New Recipes Transform Canned Cat Food

Scan the names of canned cat foods on the shelf of a pet store and you might start getting hungry. Savory chicken in gravy, succulent salmon in sauce, pate with wholesome lamb and rice are just a few of the many options. They sound more like menu choices at a gourmet restaurant than kitty chow in a pop-top.

The names appeal to our human tastes, but the flavors and textures of today’s canned cat foods are aimed toward the kitty palate. Even the most finicky feline is bound to enjoy one or more favorites among the new choices. Canned food provides real health benefits, too. Here’s why you should consider it for your kitty’s daily diet:

It’s high in protein, low in carbohydrates Canned cat food tends to be high in protein and low in carbohydrates: a good balance that is similar to a cat’s natural birds-and-mice diet. “Cats who eat a diet that is exclusively canned, or with a strong focus on canned, tend to be much less inclined to develop obesity,” says Colleen Currigan, DVM, owner of Cat Hospital of Chicago.

Canned food keeps kitty hydrated The moisture in cat food makes it more palatable and helps to keep cats healthy. “It is very helpful in preventing dehydration, which can be a problem, especially in older cats suffering from kidney failure, where they lose a lot of water through their urinary tract,” says Dr. Currigan. It also helps cats with arthritis, whose painful joints make them less willing or able to get up and go to the water bowl as often as they might otherwise. Additionally, the water in canned food helps cats that tend to suffer from constipation.

It helps keep urinary track problems at bay Canned cat food is especially good for younger cats, too. “It is very beneficial in helping to prevent lower urinary tract problems,” says Dr. Currigan. Urinary tract blockage is more common in males, while cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) is common in cats of all ages but particularly in younger cats, both male and female. Canned cat food that is specially formulated to help avoid health problems such as obesity or urinary tract problems is also available at most pet stores.

It comes in soooo many flavors Many cats enjoy food that smells good, and most canned food has a strong smell. And because cat food is available in small portions, you can try a variety of flavors to find the one, or ones, your kitty prefers. Some canned foods combine flavors and come in several different textures: chunky bits of meat in sauce, a smooth mashed mix of meat or meat drenched in flavorful gravies.

Of course, some cats are so finicky that you’ll have to work hard to find the food that suits their changing tastes. “Our cat, Buzz, meows really loudly all over the house when he doesn’t like the food we put out for him,” says Kathe Nesson of Somerville, Mass.  Buzz, a rescue cat, is so picky about his food that Nesson and her husband keep a chart on their refrigerator noting the cat’s least and most favorites. Many cats, like Buzz, will turn up their noses at cold food and will only eat food that is at room temperature or warmed for them.

In their geriatric years, cats are inclined to become more finicky due to changes in their ability to taste and smell food, says Dr. Currigan. But she advocates exposing cats to a range of flavors from kittenhood. “I really feel that if cats are fed a variety from a young age, they are less inclined to become finicky,” she says. So the next time you’re at the pet store, pick up some succulent salmon or savory chicken for your deserving feline friend.

Six Health Problems Targeted by Cat Food

When Cleveland, Ohio cat owner Ingrid Danziger’s mom was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, Danziger became worried not only about her mother, but also about her cat. “Like my mom, Sam was really overweight. I couldn’t go back and rewrite my mother’s history, but I could try to do something about Sam’s size before it was too late,” said 38-year-old Danziger.

Sam’s veterinarian recommended cutting portion size and also feeding a commercial food containing L-carnitine, which is thought to alter metabolism. Studies suggest it reduces body fat while increasing muscle mass. “It’s an uphill battle,” acknowledges Danziger. “But my efforts are starting to make a difference.”

Below, Dr. Sally Perea, veterinary nutritionist and professor at the University of California, Davis, weighs in on other nutritional choices that can help prevent common kitty complaints.

The Issue: Immune System Function
Keeping your furry friend healthy starts by enhancing its ability to fight off illness in the first place. “Proper nutrition is important for proper immune function, so nearly all of the essential nutrients for cats are important for maintaining it,” says Dr. Perea. “That means protein, amino acids, essential fatty acids and essential vitamins and minerals. Copper, zinc and iron are three essential minerals in the diet that are known to be important for proper antibody and enzymatic defense mechanisms.”

To ensure your cat is getting all it needs, Dr. Perea recommends a commercial cat food that has “complete and balanced” somewhere on the packaging. A seal of approval from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the group that regulates the pet food industry, will verify the food’s claim.

The Issue: Skin and Coat Health
Just like you, your cat can have a bad hair and skin day, with flakiness, dryness and more. To combat the underlying problems, make sure your cat’s diet contains essential fatty acids. These are the omega-3 and omega-6 fats found in sources like chicken, fish oil and eggs. They work to maintain the water barrier function of the skin, similar to how moisturizer can create a protective barrier on human skin.

According to Dr. Perea, foods that are good for skin and hair are the ones that contain the mineral zinc, as well as A, E and B vitamins. “Zinc is integral to rapidly dividing cells, like skin cells, while vitamin E takes on an antioxidant role in the body’s cell membranes,” she explains. “Vitamin A and B prevent hair loss and scaling skin.”

The Issue: Joints and Mobility
To maintain its overall health, a cat needs exercise, and to maintain an active lifestyle, it needs to be pain-free. To prevent joint and mobility issues, Dr. Perea recommends a food containing glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and that seemingly magical elixir: fish oil.

“There hasn’t been a lot of research on any of these in cats, but chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, as well as long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as those found in fish oils, have been shown to help improve signs associated with osteoarthritis in dogs,” says Dr. Perea. “These have become popular and are possibly beneficial for cats as well.”

The Issue: Overall Body Condition
As with immune system maintenance, overall body maintenance relies upon a complete and balanced diet containing all of the animal’s essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. But make sure not to give your pet too much of a good thing. “Lean body condition is important to overall health, so make sure to feed appropriate portions,” says Dr. Perea. “Obesity is a growing problem in cats, and it can be very difficult to implement weight loss once they become obese. Prevention is very important.”

Measure your cat’s food on a daily basis using the guidelines on the packaging. Consider feeding a diet that contains L-carnitine, the ingredient recommended for Ingrid Danziger’s cat. Be especially careful about weight gain after your pet has been spayed or neutered. Studies have shown that fixed cats are more prone to weight gain due to a decrease in physical activity.

The Issue: Digestive Disorders
If your cat has an upset stomach, a relatively empty litter box may be your first clue. Cats often suffer constipation, which can be relieved by foods containing carbohydrates, like corn, as well as fiber. “Fiber helps with the health of the large intestine,” says Dr. Perea. She emphatically adds, “They also need enough water!” Make sure to fill your feline’s bowl with clean, fresh water. Change it at least twice, or even more often as needed.

The Issue: Oral Health
A dry food diet with a relatively larger kibble size forces your pet to really bite down on each individual piece. “This achieves a mechanical brushing action against the surface of the tooth,” explains Dr. Perea. “Other foods on the market may incorporate a calcium-chelating agent on the surface of the kibble. This binds calcium and helps prevent tartar formation.” In order to provide your cat with such a food, look for a diet that claims to promote oral health. The claims should again be verified by an AAFCO seal.

Protecting your cat’s well-being is as easy as a trip down the pet food aisle. Armed with a little bit of knowledge about your feline’s basic needs, you can stave off the most common cat conditions. Your cat will reward you with the pleasure of its company for years to come.

Cat Foods Go Natural

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.” 

What’s in
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.

What’s out
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.

Human Panel Judges Cat Food

Professor Gary Pickering lectures about the nuances of flavors in wine, but one of his more recent tastings didn’t involve descriptions like “floral bouquet” or “fruity overtones.” Instead, participants talked about the tuna and prawn characteristics of the tested samples. That’s because they weren’t drinking wine -- they were sampling cat foods.

Cat food tastings for humans might at first seem bizarre, but Dr. Pickering’s work is quite serious. The chair and professor of biological sciences and wine science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, discovered that human testers rated cat food successfully, ultimately benefitting cat food consumers. Such edibles are designed solely for your feline’s unique nutritional needs, so Dr. Pickering’s research falls under the “it’s cool, but don’t try this at home” category.

Why use two-legged testers?
In a new Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition paper, Dr. Pickering explains the potential value of having people rate cat foods. For example, he believes it might enable manufacturers to understand why your cat favors certain foods. While manufacturers conduct trials to see what felines prefer, it’s difficult to know exactly which flavors or textures the kitties are responding to, he explains.

“Cats aren’t very good at vocalizing what they like or don’t like about cat foods,” says Dr. Pickering, who conducted the study in Australia before coming to Brock University. “The idea was that humans can quite clearly verbalize what it is. Humans can also rate the intensity of different characteristics in a particular food or beverage.”

The idea of people chowing down on kitty fare was met by intrigue and disbelief, says Dr. Pickering. About 30 percent of the participants dropped out, less than Dr. Pickering expected. The remaining tasters actually enjoyed the cat food more than he’d anticipated. Using a standard nine-point scale, the average score for the panel was 4.97. That placed the samples between “neither like nor dislike” and “like slightly” on the scale.

Hints of chicken and caramel
Testers rated the foods on 18 flavor attributes, including tuna, prawn, chicken, caramel, cereal, soy, burnt flavors, bitter and offaly, which is a blend of boiled and finely diced beef kidney and liver. They also evaluated textures, such as grittiness and chewiness.

“Those panelists who stayed were really into it, turning up for multiple sessions,’’ he says. “They were becoming quite proficient connoisseurs.”

But what those human tasters couldn’t do was replicate the way your cat perceives flavors. Dr. Pickering doesn’t presume that his human testers experienced the food in the same way your furry pal does. For example, cats have no sweet taste receptor, so sugary sensations are likely out of the feline picture.

The value of four-legged testers
Dr. Timothy J. Bowser, co-director of the Oklahoma State University Center for Pet and Animal Food Palatability Studies, says that while humans can play an important role in cat food palatability development, kitties themselves are essential to the process.

“Human input is sought first to evaluate odor, appearance, value, feel, etc.,” says Dr. Bowser. “But we haven’t ever asked anyone to taste cat or any other pet food. The pets tell us everything we need to know through preference testing methods that are almost identical to the methods used on human foods.”

“Getting the opinion directly from the pet is much more accurate than working indirectly through humans, in my opinion,” he adds.

Using the results
Dr. Pickering says the value of his recent work could lie in taking the results of the human testing and comparing them to results of cat testing on the same products. It might offer a shortcut for researchers, he says.

But how do you know what your cat will enjoy? “Fact is, cats like meat,” says Dr. Bowser. “We know that dogs really like the taste of entrails, but more cats like the muscle meat.”

Based on the research, keep in mind these considerations when choosing a food for your feline:

  • Your cat’s nutritional requirements Cat foods these days are tailored to suit your cat’s particular needs, whether your pal is a kitty, a senior or a feline with a health issue, such as fur ball problems.
  • Texture Some cats prefer flaky cat foods, others a pâté style. You can conduct your own taste test by providing small samples of each to your cat, or you can adjust a cat food by adding a bit of warm water to create more moistness, if that’s the way your cat enjoys dinner. Don’t be surprised if your cat changes preferences over time, says Dr. Bowser. “Cats can change their mind one day to the next.”
  • The dining environment Be aware of where and how your cat likes to eat. For instance, says Dr. Bowser, some cats want to eat in front of their owners, while others prefer complete privacy.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a cat food-tasting event for humans at your local pet emporium. Thanks to those human testers willing to dish on cat food traits, though, your cat might someday have more intriguing combinations of flavors and textures.

“We’re not assuming that what we as humans taste is going to be the same as what cats taste,” says Dr. Pickering. “The idea is, we’ll find some relationships.”