The Cat Food Conundrum -- Canned or Dry?

Questions. We face them every day, all day.  There is "the big question," of course-- what is the meaning of life? -- but there are others of far less consequence. Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks? Bagel or McMuffin?  For us cat owners, one of our less-than-life-changing-but-nevertheless-significant questions has to do with what we feed our feline friends. Do we go with canned or kibble? Wet or dry? Pate or pellets? We may not lose sleep over these questions, but an easy answer may elude us all the same. We would like to help.

While our choice of cat food may not be life-changing for us, it certainly can be for our cat! To help shed some light on this subject, we must first look at Three Facts About Felines, as they will play an important role in our food choice.

Feline Fact #1: You can lead a cat to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Like all living things, cats need water simply to survive. Beyond simple survival, though, cats need water to prevent urethral obstruction, or UO, a far too common and extremely painful condition that can end in death in a matter of days.A 2012 studydetermined that cats fed only dry food were significantly more prone to UO’s than those who ate a combination of wet and dry – 83% more. How about the cats who ate only wet food? How many of them got UO’s? Exactly none.

While cats clearly need water, may be fascinated by it and even love to play with it, they do not like to drink it. We would say they have “a low thirst drive.”

Why is that?

As animals in the wild, feline hunters stalked, killed and then ate their prey. And prey is mostly water, about 70 to 75% in fact. They simply didn’t need to drink a lot of additional water. It makes sense, then, that the food we give them should also have a high moisture content.

How do dry and canned measure up?

Dry food, or kibble, goes through a process called extrusion which subjects the ingredients to high heat for a long period of time, ultimately producing those familiar little nuggets. The process is an efficient way of producing large quantities of pet food with a long shelf life – good news for the manufacturer but not necessarily for your cat: the final product has had most of its moisture removed, putting its water content at about 10%.  So while it is generally cheaper than canned,  more convenient (no cans to pry open) and may be left out all day so your cat can "graze" (not a healthy practice!), dry cat food is just that -- dry.

Canned food, on the other hand, generally contains about 78% water, virtually the same as that yummy, freshly-killed dinner in the wild. It’s true that a cat fed dry food may drink more water; but, all told, she still gets only about half the amount of water as one who eats canned food. If you want your cat to get enough water, the choice is clear.

Feline Fact #2: Where’s the beef?

Cats are obligate, or strict, carnivores, which means that their bodies are designed to get their nutrition from large amounts of animal-based protein (meat and organs). Grains and vegetables simply don’t cut it. Thus the food we choose for them should derive its protein primarily from good quality meat. Plant-based proteins (peas and carrots, for example) are okay in small amounts; but you don’t want to see them at the top of the ingredient list on your cat food, whether canned or dry. People can survive on a vegetarian diet. Cats cannot.

How do dry and canned measure up?

Dry kibble in general is far too high in plant-based proteins. Lack of meat-based proteins means a lack of taurine, a nutrient essential to feline health. Without it, cats can develop heart problems and even go blind. While canned cat food generally has more meat-based protein, manufacturers of low-end brands (the ones you are most apt to find on your supermarket shelves) are prone to add things like wheat, corn and soy as cheap fillers. For some simple tips on what to look for on a pet food label -- and what to avoid -- check out our article.

Feline Fact #3: Introducing The CATkins Diet!

A low-carb diet for our cats? It’s a good idea. Those who support a low-carb diet say cats lack the enzymes that break down carbohydrates into a form their bodies can use. This can lead to obesity. There is also concern that excess carbs may force the pancreas, which produces insulin, into overtime. Once the pancreas becomes exhausted, the resulting lack of insulin can lead to diabetes. The ASPCA shares this concern and recommends feeding cats only canned food and only at mealtime. In other words, no kibble should be left out all day for “grazing.”

How do canned and dry measure up?

If we look again at felines’ wild forebears, we see a meat-based diet with a carb intake of no more than 5%. Compare that to most dry foods that contain anywhere from 30% to 70% carbs, and we have a problem. Canned foods can contain too many carbs, too, so it’s important to read the ingredients; in general, however, they contain fewer carbs than dry.  Kibble, on the other hand, simply couldn’t be kibble without a lot of carbs.

To be fair, there arestudies that indicate that carbs may not be the only culprits. Environmental factors (e.g., indoor cats vs. outdoor cats) and genetics play a role in your cat’s tendency toward obesity and diabetes. However, it is universally accepted that cats do indeed require a diet high in animal-based protein. That leaves little room for carbs. So it seems fair, and wise, to say that we should limit our feline’s carb intake.

A word of caution: “grain-free” does not necessarily mean low-carb! High-carb ingredients like potatoes and peas are often used as grain substitutes.

And the winner is . . .

The simple answer, as you have probably guessed, is that canned food is the way to go. There are few experts and veterinarians who would recommend a strictly dry diet. Some say that a combination of dry and canned is fine; but others, particularly holistic ones, insist that cats should never eat dry food.

Of course, there’s more to healthy eating for your feline than the canned-or-dry question. There’s the issue of quality. If you want to spend many years with a happy, healthy pet, then finding the best quality pet food is essential.

But I must be honest. Feeding your cat (or dog) a healthy diet takes either time or money, and sometimes both. There’s no way around it.  Thankfully, there are dependable resources that will give you some simple advice.  Here are three you should check out:

1.  If you haven’t done so already,read our article to learn basic guidelines for choosing a quality canned pet food. And be sure to download our free eBook -- Holistic Pet Care Resource Guide -- with over 30 pages of healthy hints to ensure your cat lives a long and happy life!

2.  Whole Dog Journal (yes, that's “dog”) has published their recommendation for canned dog foods. Many of these manufacturers also sell top quality cat food. Here are just a few to check out:

3.  Finally, it’s worth hearing what Dr. Karen Becker has to say about diets for dogs and cats.  Dr. Becker is an integrative veterinarian, i.e. she believes in the value of certain conventional methods of treatment but also recommends alternative methods such as homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, and nutritional therapy. Check out her List of Best-to-Worst Foods for cats.

Let us know if this article was helpful! We don't want you to lose a lot of sleep over the "canned or dry" question.  It may not be one of life's bigger questions; but it sure is important for the health of our pet!

SOURCES for this article:

Becker, Dr. Karen. “Maybe NOW More Cat Parents Will make the Switch from Dry Food.” February 17, 2012.

Becker, Dr. Karen.  "13 Pet Foods Ranked From Great to Disastrous." July 21, 2010.

Buffington, C.A. Tony. “Dry foods and risk of disease in cats.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal. June 2008.

Pierson, Lisa A. “Feeding Your Cat Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition.” Updated May 2014.