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Corn, Brewers Rice, By-Products and Gluten: What Exactly Is In Your Cat Food?

Updated on October 14, 2013

Cats are one of the world's most popular pets, and it's not hard to see why. Cats are beautiful, playful and charming. Even when a haughty cat walks into the room, gazing nonchalantly at its human subjects, we can't help but coo and pat our laps in hopes that His Majesty might give us the honor of being his throne, until he gets bored or bites us. And how many can resist the mewling of a cat? Cat owners love their cats, and we often do whatever we can to completely spoil them.

We want to do well by our cats. But unfortunately, most people don't do well with one of the most important staples to a cat's well-being: the food.

What is wrong with cat food? Both dry kibble and wet canned food must be examined with scrutiny, because the fact of the matter is that most big name pet food companies don't actually care about your pets, regardless of the multitude of cute animal pictures plastered across the packaging.

What kind of diet does a cat need?

First, let's review a cat's basic physiology. Unlike us human omnivores, cats are obligate carnivores, which means they require a diet of meat and have difficulty digesting plant matter. About 20% of their diet must be protein, and they additionally required several other vitamins and minerals that are naturally found in their "wild" diet, such as the amino acids arginine and taurine - without which they can die or go blind respectively. When cats hunt, they tend to eat their entire catch, bones included, so they also rely on calcium.

On the other hand, cats need far fewer carbohydrates than a human. They do not have certain metabolic pathways, length of "gut" the enzymes to help them break down carbs, which is fine for them because their diet doesn't naturally consist of many grains and vegetables in the first place. The domestic dog can find more use for carbohydrates and plant material, but cats have not evolved alongside humans in a similar fashion. Grains not only cause obesity in cats, but many cats are actually allergic to them. Considering that cats require nutrients only found in animal tissues, a cat would probably go blind and die on a vegetarian diet.

This seems easy enough, after all. Anyone who has had the pleasure of being bit by a cat can tell those teeth aren't meant for gnashing veggies, grains and potatoes. Then why do we feed our cats just that?

The scam of popular brands

Unfortunately, most big-name cat food companies are not particularly interested in the evolutionary diet and biology of cats - they are more interested in stuffing their kibble with cheap "fillers". Popular brands are full of grains and other plant matter - and what's worse, they advertise it. Even worse than that, many customers seem to forget what kind of animal their feline prince or princess is, and are enchanted by human health foods slapped on the package, like whole grains, corn, rice and vegetables.

"Natural" pet foods?
"Natural" pet foods?

Cat Food Ingredient Chart

Here compiled are several examples of big name cat food brands, each listed with its top ten ingredients. Notice how much things like corn, rice and other grains as well as vegetables are used as "filler" - all taken straight from the company's official websites and official sellers.

Cat Food
Top Ten Ingredients
Purina Cat Chow Complete
Poultry by-product meal, corn meal, corn gluten meal, ground whole wheat, brewers rice, soy flour, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), fish meal, meat and bone meal
Meow Mix Tender Centers Salmon and White Meat Chicken Flavors
Whole ground corn, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, whole wheat, animal fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols), animal digest, corn syrup, glycerin, phosphoric acid
Meow Mix Original
Ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, chicken by-product meal, soybean meal, beef tallow (preserved with mixed tocopherols), animal digest, calcium carbonate, turkey by-product meal, salmon meal, ocean fish meal
Friskies Grillers' Tender & Cruncy
Ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, ground wheat, chicken by-product meal, soybean meal, beef tallow preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), meat and bone meal, glycerin, turkey by-product meal, animal liver flavor
Kit & Kaboodle
Ground yellow corn, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, meat and bone meal, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), chicken by-product meal, animal liver flavor, phosphoric acid, calcium carbonate, salt
Science Diet
Chicken, whole grain wheat, corn gluten meal, pork fat, powdered cellulose, pea bran meal, dried egg product, wheat gluten, dried beet pulp, chicken liver flavor
Science Diet (Grain Free)
Chicken, potatoes, yellow peas, pea protein concentrate, chicken fat, potato starch, dried egg product, chicken meal, dried beet Pulp, flaxseed
Iams Healthy Naturals Adult with Wholesome Chicken
Chicken by-product meal, corn grits, corn meal, lamb, brewers rice, chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols, a source of Vitamin E), dried beet pulp, dried egg product, natural flavor, brewers dried yeast
Whiskas Indoor Cat
Poultry by-product meal, ground yellow corn, brewers rice, corn gluten meal, dried plain beet pulp, natural chicken flavor, animal fat (preserved with BHA and citric acid, source of meaty flavor), wheat flour, powdered cellulose, potassium chloride
Royal Canin Indoor Adult Cat
Chicken meal, brown rice, rice, corn, corn gluten meal, chicken fat, chicken, natural chicken flavor, pea fiber, rice flour

These are only some examples. Take the cat food challenge the next time you go shopping - check the ingredients that are in your favorite brands. Are the top ingredients real meat? Or are they grains and vegetables? If you do see meat in the top ingredients, where is the corn (a favorite filler as it's cheap)? Have corn products been deceivingly split into separate categories to avoid listing it as one of the product's top ingredients?

What about meat by-products? This is a little harder to answer. By-products are not the animal flesh, they are "other" parts leftover that are usually much cheaper for companies to stuff into kibble, such as liver, brain, bone and other offals. But conversely, cats in the wild do eat almost every part of their prey, so this doesn't necessarily have an adverse effect. Still, by-products are usually the mark of a cheaply made pet food, and any brand that uses them probably also uses corn in excess, so it's best to avoid.

Veterinarians: Can We Trust Them About Food?

Veterinarians are an important part of any pet's health, and it is crucial to bring your cat in for annual checkups, shots, de-worming and neutering, as well as general health consultation. However, many clinics sell unhealthy cat foods and vets will even recommend them. This is because, of course, these particular brands pay a lot of money. It isn't to say that these veterinarians intentionally want to harm your cat, but often they are not well-informed about healthy cat foods, and some cat food companies sponsor and pay money for advertisements.

In my experience, one particular vet "favorite" is Science Diet. This brand loves to advertise itself as veterinarian recommended and give the implication with the name that they have actually taken science into consideration. Don't be fooled, this one is as full of corn and rice as any cheap 40-pound bag from Walmart.

What kind of foods are okay?

Even in the local supermarket or Target, you can usually find at least one or two brands that are less bad than the others. The key thing is to look at the ingredients list. The first ingredient listed should always be a protein source, like chicken or some other meat or fish. Just checking the first ingredient for meat will eliminate up to half of the cat food aisle. But don't stop there - now move to the second ingredient. This one should also be a protein source. If you see corn or rice, put the bag down. Checking to see if the first two ingredients are meat is a great rule of thumb.

However, there are several brands that are actually made with cats in mind. Unfortunately, these will rarely be found at grocery or department stores, and you might have to check at smaller pet health food stores or resort to buying them online. Here are a couple brands to keep your eyes open for (with their top ten ingredients listed).

Orijen Cat Food: (Cat and Kitten formula) Boneless chicken, chicken meal, chicken liver, whole herring, boneless turkey, turkey meal, turkey liver, whole eggs, boneless walleye, whole salmon

Evo: (Turkey and Chicken Adult formula) Turkey, chicken meal, chicken, herring meal, chicken fat, peas, eggs, turkey meal, pea fiber, natural flavors

Wellness Core Grain Free: (Original formula) Deboned turkey, deboned chicken, chicken meal, whitefish meal, herring meal, peas, turkey meal, potatoes, chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols), tomato pomace

But an Exclusively Dry Diet Isn't Great, Either

Another thing to be careful about with dry foods is that they are, well, dry. Cats normally get a lot of their water intake from meat, and because dry food doesn't have water, in many cases wet canned food is actually better. Still, not all canned foods are automatically great because they are wet. In addition to things like grain, soy and other unhealthy fillers, avoid "carrageenan", which is used as a thickener in many canned foods. It isn't a bad idea to combine wet and dry foods, as dry foods are more economic and long lasting, and consider looking into giving your cat real meat (without sauces, sugars or seasonings).

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