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Ask the Doctor December 2018 Issue

Dear Doctor: A Debate over Feeding Cats

Is it best to feed my cat the same food every day, or should I rotate flavors for variety?

Q. I am hoping you can settle an ongoing difference of opinion between me and one of my friends. We are both long-time cat owners, and consider ourselves to be very good caretakers with healthy, happy cats over the past twenty or more years.

However, I believe in changing my cat’s food frequently — changing flavors and even brands — and I supply both wet and dry food for her on a daily basis, too. I know that I like a lot of variety in my diet, so I assume she would prefer that, too.

My friend, on the other hand, feeds her two cats the same food every day for years at a time (usually, a well-known brand of dry food). On special occasions, she will give them a can of wet food — but also from the same brand.

Does it make a difference in the health and longevity of our cats? Thanks for your advice.

Ellen Kanifsky

A. Hi Ellen: Actually, there is no evidence to suggest that either feeding method is healthier for cats. However, both methods have pros and cons.

The problem with providing a large variety is that you can inadvertently train your cat to be “picky” — which can become a real issue if she develops health problems where her diet options are limited. On the plus side, offering foods of different textures can improve acceptance of new foods compared to feeding an unvarying diet for many years.

Another issue with this feeding method is that it makes it very hard to quantify her nutrient and calorie intake, which could be important if she gets sick.

The advantage of feeding a very consistent diet is that it is much easier to quantify nutrient and calorie intake, and then relate those factors to the state of your cat’s health. The downside of this approach is that if a diet change is needed at some point, the cat may be reluctant to change, particularly if they have to change texture, ie. from mostly dry to all canned.

Another potential disadvantage is that if the food selected is not ideal — perhaps because you misread a label and are feeding a product meant to be a “treat” or “appetizer” and not a daily diet, or pick a product that is too high or low in calories for your cat — you are more likely to see nutritional issues if that diet is the main source of calories. Feeding some ingredients daily could also be of potential concern. For example, feeding tuna-based canned food every day could potentially be a concern because of mercury content (note: there is not much information on mercury in tuna fed to cats!).

My advice is to go somewhere in the middle. I think it’s good to feed cats both dry and canned, but I would be reasonably consistent in the products fed, at least on a day-to-day basis. Switching brands or flavors occasionally is certainly reasonable, but there’s no need to switch if your cat is a healthy weight and doing well.

If and when you do switch diets, make sure you are adjusting your feeding amounts to keep calories similar because foods can vary dramatically in calories from flavor to flavor and brand to brand.

Cailin Heinze, MS, VMD, DACVN

Veterinary Clinical Nutritionist Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University

Comments (7)

I strongly advise against feeding only dry kibble especially if you have a male cat, I made that mistake and it cost my kitty his life after a urinary blockage emergency. Male cats have a much narrower urethra and need more moisture in food to help prevent the buildup of crystals which can cause a life threatening blockage.

Posted by: paulgj | December 14, 2018 4:22 PM    Report this comment

Animals most certainly have an affinity to flavors, and it's not the % of protein that is most important but the KIND of protein. Cats digest meat protein best and their body's use it more effectively NOT grain protein. Cheaper the food more grain protein.
We recommend a variety of meat proteins so they don't get spoiled and only insist on one kind.

Posted by: CatRescurer-SCR | December 3, 2018 12:19 PM    Report this comment

Having rescued and placed over 1000 cats and kittens I stress the importance of high quality food with MEAT protein AND lots of canned food.
Based on observations and talking to vets, if I could afford it I would feed a RAW diet, a well balanced one. I have seen it eliminate skin conditions, IBD, diarrhea, obesity and other health issues. I would NOT adopt to anybody who only feeds dry. Cats need lots of moisture and it is cheap dry food that makes cats fat.
I wish more studies were done of cats nutrition needs and that vet schools taught more on preventive care, such as nutrition rather than treatment and diagnostics.

Posted by: CatRescurer-SCR | December 3, 2018 12:13 PM    Report this comment

I've been feeding my cats turkey for most of their lives. Cooked or raw they have no problem with it. The dry food, just about any dry food is pure crap. It caused urinary inflammation and blockage when they were fed dry. I started out many years ago on dry until i smarted up. In fact your hospital was the one to tell me about food. There is definitely not enough protein in dry food. But It keeps the vets in business though making the animals sick. Raw is the best.

Posted by: MISSIEBOO | December 3, 2018 11:40 AM    Report this comment

That's what I do. I give my cat half canned and half dry. He seems to prefer the dry, however he is on a special diet and I am trying to help him to lose weight, so his preferences are not the main point right now. The idea is to keep him healthy, and I think the way you described, down the middle, is quite good.

Posted by: ChuckfromMA | December 3, 2018 9:59 AM    Report this comment

I disagree with all of the above. I've been feeding my cats (and dogs) RAW food for 10+ years now. On the cat side, I have no problems with hairballs, diabetes, IBD, vomiting or other "usual" cat problems. Remember, cats are OBLIGATE CARNIVORES. Processed food contains a lot of plant matter which causes diabetes and IBD as cats do not have digestive systems to cope with the fiber and carbs in the plant matter. In addition, processing the food destroys nutrients, including proteins and enzymes--if you raise organic matter much above body temperature, bad things happen. And, cats have no thumbs, so they CAN NOT have evolved to eat cooked food. That's simple logic. Give your cats a good vitamin supplement, taurine, and RAW food. It's what they would eat on their own.

Posted by: SandyatAyrshire | December 3, 2018 9:19 AM    Report this comment

I have been told by breeders that animals do not have an affinity for brands or flavors of food. They respond more favorably to foods with higher protein levels. Some of the cheaper brands lack a high content of protein as opposed to balanced formulas. I want to believe this, but don't really know if this is fact or fiction. Does anyone care to comment?

Posted by: bottsje | December 3, 2018 9:13 AM    Report this comment

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