To Feed or Not To Feed – Canned Food – That is the Question!

Apr 9, 2012 by     7 Comments    Posted under: Tips & Advice

Part 1: A Hefty Debate

Last year, a study including 450,000 cats was released called “State of Pet Health 2011 Report”. In that study, obesity ranked in the top three diagnoses for cats. The study also found that the incidence of diabetes in cats over the last five years has increased by 16% – not surprisingly, the two are related. They are both related to diet, as are several other medical issues we see in cats. This makes a cat’s diet one of the most important parts of good preventive health.

Over the past few decades, with increasing vigor, veterinarians and animal nutritionists have been debating the merits of dry foods (kibble) versus canned foods. One downside to feeding dry foods is that even though all commercially available diets are formulated to meet certain nutritional standards, dry food is quite the opposite of what cats naturally need. (Click here for more on feline obesity and diet from Dr. Lund.) The best way to encourage weight loss in a cat is to minimize the dry food and feed most calories as canned foods. Two recent studies were released this year demonstrated that the addition of water to similar diets resulted in weight reduction and increased activity1, 2

The bottom line: Canned food is more like a cat’s natural diet in consistency, nutritional content and caloric density. Canned food will help your cat lose weight and keep it off. And most cats just plain like canned foods better!

Part 2: The Tooth of the Matter

In the past, many veterinarians made the recommendation to switch from feeding canned diets to feeding dry kibble for the sake of cats’ dental health; a canned-food-only diet was the prime suspect for the poor dental hygiene seen in the majority of cats. In 2011, in the “State of Pet Health 2011 Report”, the number of cats with dental disease surpassed the number of healthy cats seen after age 3 (over 50% of cats!), making it the most common feline disease.

The reality of feline dental disease is that genetics has a large part to play in your cat’s oral health, just as it does in humans. While canned food really does not help eliminate plaque and tartar, neither do many of the commercially available dry foods, either! Most of the commercially available dry diets have kibbles that are small enough that cats will gulp them down whole. More recent research has shown that in order for a dry food to help with dental care, a larger-sized kibble, typical in special diets designed specifically for oral health, is required3. Larger kibbles allow for more tooth penetration and “scraping” of the tooth. Some of these special diets also have anti-plaque additives that help. Some diets advertise anti-calculus agents, too, but these do not seem to help. Once the plaque has hardened, it seems a professional dental cleaning is the best way to get the teeth clean again.

If you try out a dental diet, you will notice that your cats are significantly noisier when they eat – suddenly, you will be able to hear the crispy crunching sound of food being chewed, when before, the only dinnertime sound was the tink-tink-tink of kibbles being pushed around in the bowl.

The bottom line: Canned food is not your cat’s oral enemy, and not just any dry food will help keep their teeth healthy. A combination of special dental-focused diets and annual oral exams by your veterinarian are the best team for cats’ teeth.

Part 3: Litter-ally a Matter of Concentration

If you consider the cat’s natural diet, a rodent is about 70-78% water. Dry food contains about 10% water. Cats are descended from desert animals, so their instinct is to take in water from their prey versus looking for water sources. While a cat will noticeably drink more water when feeding a dry food versus a canned food, they never drink enough to compensate for the lack of moisture in their food, and will exist in a perpetual state of mild dehydration. In fact, their water intake is about ½ that of a cat that eats canned food, even if you have a cat fountain, give your kitty a “princess cup”, put ice in the water bowl, or let your cat drink from the faucet.

Mild dehydration, while not life threatening on its own, does mean that cats produce less urine than if they are well-hydrated, and that urine is more concentrated. Overly concentrated urine has been linked to urinary issues such as bladder stones or urinary crystals. Urine concentration is a measurement of how much “stuff” is in the bladder. The more “stuff” there is floating around in there, the more likely it is to stick together. The more it sticks together, the bigger it gets, until it starts to irritate the lining of the bladder as it sloshes around. Blood may or may not be visible in the urine. This irritation makes urinating an unpleasant event and may cause your cat to choose to eliminate somewhere other than the litterbox. (More information about litterbox issues from Dr. Colleran.) If the “stuff” gets too big, it may even cause a blockage in the urethra, which can become an emergency very quickly.

The bottom line: More water is better for your cat’s urinary health, and the best place to get it is from a canned diet.

1. Cameron KM, Morris PJ, Hackett RM, Speakman JR. The effects of increasing water content to reduce the energy density of the diet on body mass changes following caloric restriction in domestic cats. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl). Jun 2011;95(3):399-408.
2. Wei A, Fascetti AJ, Villaverde C, Wong RK, Ramsey JJ. Effect of water content in a canned food on voluntary food intake and body weight in cats. Am J Vet Res. Jul 2011;72(7):918-923.
3. Clarke, DE, et al. Effect of Kibble Size, Shape and Additives on Plaque in Cats. J. Vet. Dent. Summer 2010; 27(2): 84-89

Dr Steven Bailey

Dr. Steven J. Bailey founded Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital in 1992. He obtained his Bachelor of Science and Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Michigan State University in June of 1986. After graduation, Dr. Bailey practiced emergency medicine for 8 years prior to establishing Exclusively Cats. Dr. Bailey is one of two veterinarians in the state of Michigan and the only veterinarian in Southeastern Michigan that has been board certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners as a Feline Specialist (ABVP). His special interests include complicated medical/surgical cases as well as critical care, advanced dentistry, and behavioral medicine. Dr. Bailey is an active member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), he is a current council member of the Southeastern Michigan Veterinary Medical Association (SEMVMA). He is also an Associate Editor of the Feline Internal Medicine Board on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), invited member of VMG #18 (The only feline exclusive Veterinary Management Group) and MOM’s group (Macomb/Oakland Management Group). In his free time, Dr. Bailey is an avid kayaker (some may even call him “obsessed”) and an instructor in both canoe and kayaking sports. He also enjoys running and spending time with his family. Dr. Bailey and his wife Liz have 2 adult children, Christopher and Kayla, 3 cats, Tic Tic, Sapphire and Lacey, and one dog, Charlotte.

Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital

6650 Highland Road

Waterford, MI 48327

Phone: 248-666-5287

Fax ‎206-333-1135

ecvh@exclusivelycats.com

Website: http://www.exclusivelycats.com

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  • guest

    What about a raw food diet?

  • Dr Bailey is away so I will try to help.  Raw diet is not my area of expertise, and I have a few questions before we proceed.  First, are you going prepare the raw diet yourself?  Or are you going to buy a commercially prepared raw diet?  

  • Dr Steven Bailey

    If my cat caught a bird, a mouse, or a lizard I (might) let him finish his meal. However, that is different than deliberately feeding raw foods that have been raised in feedlots (beef, pork), or in caged-housing (chickens). Cats evolved eating a raw diet; however, there is always a chance of serious parasite and bacterial infections when feeding them. This risk is even greater when we feed raw foods from these captive sources.  Examples include: Salmonella, Trichinosis, Campylobacter, Toxoplasmosis, Listeria, and E. coli. Flash-frozen raw diets, and other quasi-raw diets aim to mitigate this risk of parasites, but none are perfect.  All meat diets (cooked or raw) can cause serious disease that we see in clinical practice; and balancing calcium and phosphorus, and other nutrients, is a serious challenge when feeding any homemade diet.

    • No offense Dr. but many of those same diseases can be found in dry food diets.  Just check any of the recent pet food recalls.  Indeed some of those same diseases make it through the human food chain as well, so the disease risk argument is a bit of a red herring. 

      When creating or purchasing food for a raw food diet one must be sure of the sources proper testing procedures.  There is only one manufacture I have found out there that does use a test and hold procedure on every lot produced.  

      Balancing the nutrition is the biggest challange to feeding a raw food diet.  There are a number of ‘recipes’ out on the web, but it is best to enroll the assistance of your vet to develop one to meet your pet’s specific needs.  If you are not going to do it right, then don’t do it all and look for a properly sourced and managed commercial raw food.  

      • Bailey

        Beth,

        I appreciate your comments, truly.  And no offense taken!

        I agree that some of these diseases/bacteria can be regularly found in dry foods as well. We are frequently updating our own clients on the food recalls (it has been a busy past 2 weeks).  And, I was just teasing my dietician wife about getting Listeria from the cantaloupe I ate last night.  To be clear, I do not claim to be a nutrition or diet expert.  I do appreciate your comments and frankly, I agree.

        I prefer that most people feed a commercially prepared diet for their cats as it is too easy for us to make mistakes (as evidenced by all the recalls!) in diet preparation.  It is difficult to produce a well-balanced diet for a pet; in reality most people can’t balance their OWN diet, as evidenced by the increasing trend of human obesity.

        I think if I was a cat I would be pleased with what you feed me.

      • Great discussion Dr Bailey and Beth.  I agree that it can be extremely challenging trying to prepare homemade diets for cats.  My technician, Ellen Carozza, LVT used to prepare raw food for her cats.  It seems to be quite an undertaking.  Just the clean up from preparation was overwhelming.  Beth, I liked your comment about do it right or do not do it all.  

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