How do I know if I’m feeding my cat good quality dry cat food?

High quality dry cat food results in a cat pooping ‘normally’ in the cat litter box whereas low quality dry food can lead to poor quality, smelly poop and frequent pooping (see below for more details). This diagnostic method requires the use of a litter tray which is not always available to owners of indoor/outdoor cats.

In America, the Pet Food Industry website tells me that the majority of cat owners feed both wet and dry cat food and that 93% of cat owners use dry cat food and 59% of cat owners also use wet cat food. The conclusion is that dry cat food is more popular than wet cat food because of its convenience. And it’s convenient because it goes off much more slowly than wet cat food as it contains far less water. Most dry products on the market today have a best use by date between 6-12 months after the date of manufacture. And we know you can leave dry cat food in a bowl for free-feeding (ad libitum-free choice) without it going off. Highly convenient. This leads to less waste and therefore financial savings. Budgeting is important for cat owners.

Cat in dry cat food
Cat in dry cat food. Photo: The Spruce.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Variation in quality

Dry cat food varies in quality. Perhaps the simplest gauge of the quality of dry cat food is its price! Buying cheap may be counterproductive. And price isn’t an absolute test. Linda P Case in her book THE CAT Its Behaviour, Nutrition & Health tells me that “Harsh or improper dry or extruding of ingredients can cause a reduction in nutrient availability, a loss of nutrients, and changes to proteins that make them less digestible.”

The digestibility of dry cat food affects a cat’s stool quality. Poor quality dry cat foods are harder to digest and contain less nutrients.

Here is a possible test which you can apply. And I will quote Linda P Case again if I may (with some words added):

“From the cat caretaker’s point of view, the most obvious effects of this are:

  • large stool volumes
  • poor stool quality
  • high frequency of defecation and
  • ‘odiferous faeces’ a.k.a. smelly poo!”

Just a quick note: Bengal cats are infamously associated with smelly poo because they have sensitive stomachs. So smelly poo might be the result of a sensitive stomach which may in turn be a consequence of less than adequate selective breeding but that is another story.

The negative effect on the poop and pooping of a domestic cat as a consequence of eating poor quality dry cat food has the obvious knock-on effect of cat litter usage and cat litter maintenance.

It will mean more work is required to maintain litter box cleanliness. If the owner is perhaps less than committed already this may result in a litter box which becomes unacceptable to the cat which may lead to them ‘eliminating inappropriately’ as it is euphemistically called. This means going to the toilet outside of the litter box. This in turn may result in a conflict between the cat and the owner which would be highly unfortunate because the root cause of the problem might be the fault of the owner in buying poor quality dry cat food.

A cat consuming a dry cat food that is difficult to digest will produce soft stools and they will defecate frequently.

A dry cat food that is both poorly digested and which contains low nutrient availability will affect their appearance and health such as:

  • Poor coat condition (the coat should feel silky soft ideally). I think you can gauge the condition of a cat’s coat by the way it feels and of course its appearance.
  • Overall vitality. Poor quality cat food, Linda P Case suggests, will reduce the vitality of the cat i.e. make them less active and engaging.
  • Overall health.

Signs of health and vitality

  • The skin should be pliable, clean and free from lesions. The coat should show a normal shine, growth and shedding pattern. The cat should engage in normal grooming behaviours.
  • The cat should have unpigmented mucous membranes which are light pink. All membranes show normal capillary refill time of about one second. This means that when you press on the mucous membranes they go light and then within one second, they turned to pink again.
  • The cat’s appetite is normal as is the body weight and consistent with food intake. The cat maintains optimal (lean) body weight and condition.
  • The cat’s body temperature is 100.5° Fahrenheit to 102.5°F with an average of 101.5°F
  • The cat’s pulse rate varies between 145-200 bpm (resting, undisturbed healthy adult cats have a pulse as low as 80).
  • The cat’s respiration rate is at approximately 20-40 inhalations per minute. This information comes from Linda P Case in her book on cat behaviour, nutrition and health.

Nutrient content of commercially prepared dry cat food

The nutrient content of commercially prepared dry cat food is as follows in percentages:

  • moisture 9-12
  • protein 24-32
  • fat 12-22
  • carbohydrate 45-65 (it’s high because starch is required in the manufacturing process)
  • fibre 3-6
  • ash 6-9

The metalizable energy (kilocalories/kilogram) is 2500-5000.

The nutrient content of commercially prepared dry cat food on a dry matter basis, which is calculated as percentage of nutrient [as is] over percentage of dry matter in diet times 100 is as follows:

  • protein 26-36
  • fat 14-24
  • carbohydrate 50-72
  • fibre 3-7
  • Ash 6.5-10

The metalizable energy 3800-5500 kcal/kg

Dry cat food has a calorie density ranging between 3,000-5,500 kcal per kilogram or between 1,600-2,200 kcal per pound. A cup of dry cat food contains between 400-460 kcal.

RELATED: How much cat food by weight should I feed my adult cat daily?

The high heat and high-pressure process of creating dry cat food “can cause the loss of some vitamins”. As a result, good pet food manufacturers account for these losses when the food is formulated. They presumably add them back.

Dry cat food vomit
Small pelleted dry cat food caused my cat to vomit because the pellets are too small and swallowed whole. This was years ago. Image: PoC.

RELATED: Are dry cat food pellets too small?

Production

Dry cat food is produced through an extrusion process. The raw mix is cooked under high heat and pressure. It kills bacteria and improves the digestibility of the product.

The soft material produced is forced through a dye to shape it. When it’s cooled “a coating of fat or digest is usually sprayed onto the outside of the expanded pellets”.

Digest is what makes it taste nice. It is highly palatable to cats. It is what makes dry cat food addictive to some cats. It is sprayed onto the food which is called ‘enrobing’ or it is integrated into the food. The enrobing is followed by hot air drying which reduces the total moisture content of the product to about 10-12%.

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