Feeding your cat right is not necessarily the easiest part of being a cat parent. The fact is, it can be hard to satisfy the nutritional needs and finicky palate of a carnivorous animal. By nature, your cats want to eat mice. By necessity, they usually have a choice of dehydrated kibble or moistened meat and meat byproducts in a can. Of course, cats can get the nutrition they need and be content with pre-packaged food, and the best way to keep your cat healthy may be to avoid choosing just one type of cat food.
Dry vs. Wet Cat Food
Commercially prepared cat food is divided into two basic categories: dry kibble, containing about 7-10% moisture, and wet canned food, consisting of 75-85% moisture. The moisture content of food is important because cats should get considerable amounts of water for urinary tract health. Canned food will provide this, so if you’re serving only kibble, you’ll have need to watch your cat’s intake of water.
Beyond the moisture content, there are other considerations regarding dry and wet food:
Price: Canned cat food is, generally, more expensive than dry because it usually has more protein -- but check labels to be sure.
Freshness: Kibble can be left out all day for your cat to graze on. Canned foods spoil within a couple of hours after opening. So unless you have an automatic feeder that keeps wet food fresh, you’ll have to rely on dry food when you’re gone for the day.
Oral health: Dry food is believed to be better for cats’ teeth. However, if you adhere to good dental care routines, wet cat food shouldn’t cause problems.
Cat appeal: Pet owners often say that cats prefer canned food, but many felines also enjoy the crunchy texture of dry food.
Semi Moist Cat Food
At one time your local grocer offered a third type of cat food, known as semi moist cat food. Sold in convenient pouches, semi moist cat food looked like kibble, but contained more water. It was more affordable than canned, and cats seemed to like it more than dry food. Cats, literally, ate it up. Unfortunately, the leading semi-moist brands of cat food were pulled from the shelves when it was found that the preservatives used caused some health problems for cats, namely anemia. The high caloric density and added sugars were also criticized. Today, commercially prepared semi-moist cat foods are limited to treats, which can’t be used as daily food. Veterinarians recommend giving these treats, and all treats, sparingly.
While semi moist cat foods were discontinued, the idea of a middle-of-the-road alternative to dry and wet food is something many cat parents still yearn for. There are two ways to mimic the texture of semi-moist food. You can add water to dry cat food or you can make your own cat food using recipes for a semi moist dish. Both options have their plusses and minuses. You can change the consistency of the dry food, but it doesn’t improve the nutritional value. Homemade cat meals should meet dietary recommendations from your veterinarian or a board certified veterinary nutritionist, and making sure the food matches those standards can be time consuming and expensive.
Mixed Food Options
Of course, there’s no reason to limit your pet to a solely dry food or wet food diet. In fact, according to the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, offering both wet and dry food may be most beneficial for your cat.
Among the findings of pet nutritionists is the discovery that, when given a selection of dry and wet foods, cats will instinctively select the right amount of food and the right balance of nutrients to meet their dietary needs. Cats also seem to prefer a mix of dry and wet food (as long as you have the flavor and brand your cats love).
Before serving up large quantities of food for your cat to freely feed on, discuss your cat’s diet with your veterinarian to be sure you’re paying attention to any special needs. For instance, if urinary tract health is a concern, your vet may insist on mostly canned food or moistened dry food to ensure your pet’s food contains between 53.2% and 73.3% moisture.
Since cats can be notoriously finicky about food, it’s best to start introducing a mix of wet and dry food when your pet is a kitten. This will help acclimate your cat to the different textures and tastes and offer you more options when planning a nutritionally rich diet.
More on Cat Nutrition
Human Food That's Safe for Cats
Trying Cat Food Recipes at Home? Start Here
Tips to Avoid Your Cat's Stomach Upsets
References and Resources
"A Game Of Cat And Mouse: Cats Found To Favour Food Similar To Their Natural Prey,” MARS. Feb. 2011
Hewson-Hughes, Adrian K. et. al. (2013) “Consistent proportional macronutrient intake selected by adult domestic cats (Felis catus) despite variations in macronutrient and moisture content of foods offered,” Journal of Comparative Physiology (183.4) 525-536
“Scientists discover dietary moisture window that boosts urinary tract health in cats,” MARS. Oct 2011
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.