Cat Diet: Wet Food vs. Dry Food
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley February 04, 2019
As pet parents, we strive to provide our pets the best care that we can which includes the kind of food we feed them. Recently there has been a change in the pet food market to focus on premium and natural products (Deng & Swanson 2015), making visits to the pet store even more confusing as you sort through the many options available to you and your cat. It can be hard to figure out which options will be the best for your cat. But when you go to the pet store to buy cat food, the major choice you have to make is between buying wet or dry cat food. There are advantages and disadvantages to either option. Mostly it will come down to your individual cat’s preference and what works best for you both. Cats can be very picky about their food and their tastes. Their needs can change over time. Ultimately, if you are providing your cat a species-appropriate food in the amount appropriate for their age and health status, then you are doing a great job at meeting their nutritional needs.
About The Cat Diet
Our domestic cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need to eat animal protein in order to get all the nutrients they need to survive (Platinga et al., 2011). Arginine, taurine, and vitamin A are nutrients that cats need to obtain from their diet because they cannot produce them naturally. If cats are fed an inappropriate diet, such as food formulated for dogs or a homemade diet that is not properly balanced, they will not obtain enough of the nutrients they need to survive. Plant-based diets also do not contain sufficient levels of these nutrients to provide cats a balanced diet so cats need to be fed a meat-based diet formulated specifically for cats (NRC, 2006).
Wild and feral cats primarily consume small mammals such as rats and rabbits, and are also known to consume reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. Only about 16% of wild cats diet is made up of birds, and they rarely consume fish. Fish-only diets can be lacking in the essential nutrients that cats need if not properly supplemented. Under natural conditions, a cat's diet contains 52% protein, 46% fat, and 2% carbohydrates (Platinga et al., 2011).
To ensure you are feeding a high-quality diet to your cat, it is recommended to look at the list of ingredients in the food. The first ingredient on the label should be a specified animal protein. Any food you feed should be formulated for the life stage and health status of your cat and should meet AAFCO regulations. Special diets should be provided to kittens, senior cats, and pregnant or lactating females as these animals require different nutrients in order to maintain good health. Wellness and prescription diets are also available for cats to improve conditions related to cognition, weight loss, and joint health, and to address ailments such as kidney and urinary issues (Deng & Swanson, 2015; CFHC, 2017). Prescription diets are only available through veterinarians but many wellness foods are readily available in any pet store.
Wet Food For Cats
Cats are designed to obtain most of their water from the food they eat, so they do not have a strong thirst drive. Wet cat food closely mimics a cat’s natural diet because it tends to be higher in protein and moisture and lower in carbohydrates compared to dry food. Feeding wet food to your cat helps ensure they are obtaining the water they need to promote good health and prevent urinary tract issues, leading some veterinarians to suggest that any wet food is better than any dry food regardless of quality (NRC, 2006; Pierson, 2013). There is some evidence that feeding wet food can help cats lose weight when compared to dry or freeze-dried foods. Cats also showed a preference for wet food over other types (Wei et al., 2011).
Differences in weights between cats that eat wet and dry food may have something to do with differences in activity levels. Some studies have shown that cats that eat wet food are more active than cats that eat dry food and that diet may cause differences in activity at certain times of day (Thomas et al., 2017). Wet cat food can be easy to store and serve. Many cats love to eat wet food, making it a great option for your cat.
Wet food comes in a variety of flavors and textures meaning that even the pickiest cats can usually find a variety they are willing to eat. However, because some cats are very picky, it can be hard for cat owners to find a wet food that cats will consistently eat. Some cats may only like certain flavors or prefer gravy-based wet foods to pate-based wet foods. Some cats are less likely to eat leftover wet food that has been stored in the fridge, meaning owners may have to buy individual-sized cans of food to feed out.
Wet food does tend to cost more money than dry food and can be less convenient for pet owners. Wet food should be fed in meals to prevent it from spoiling, with any remaining wet food being stored in the fridge. This means that cat parents cannot leave wet food out throughout the day or over short day trips like they can with dry food. So if you are going away for a day or two, you will need to have someone come feed your cat throughout the day. This is in contrast with leaving bowls of dry food out and allowing the cat to eat as they wish. Wet food can be harder to use to provide enrichment to your cat because it is messier, but there are still plenty of ways you can use wet food to stimulate your cat. Many food brands offer a variety of flavors and textures. Providing variety in your cat’s diet is a great form of enrichment. Wet food can also be heated in the winter or frozen in the summer. You can add some chunks of meat or cat-friendly broth to your cat’s food to add new textures and flavors as well.
Dry Food for Cats
There is no doubt that dry food is a highly convenient and cost-effective way of feeding our pets. Dry food can be bought in large quantities and stored. Many cat parents opt to free-feed their cat dry food using automatic feeders. This allows cats to eat when they are hungry and gives owners the freedom to only fill feeders every couple of days or so. This option is great for owners who travel a lot or who have busy schedules.
Dry food also makes food enrichment convenient as well. There are a wide variety of puzzle feeders on the market that encourage your cat to work for their food, thus stimulating them both physically and mentally.
The major concern with feeding a dry-only diet is the lack of moisture. Dry cat food typically contains less than 10% water, compared to at least 75% water content in wet food. Dry food also contains high amounts of carbohydrates, which is unnatural in a cat’s diet. There are concerns from veterinarians that feeding a dry-only diet can lead to chronic dehydration and health issues, especially obesity (Bermingham et al., 2011; Pierson, 2013). A study by Bermingam and colleagues (2011) demonstrated that feeding dry cat food could impact gut bacteria as well. Dry food can be difficult to store and can have issues with bacterial contamination if not stored properly. If you are buying large quantities of dry food, it is important to store the food in the bag it was sold in. Moreover, store the bag in an airtight container. Pay attention to expiration dates on the bag and be sure the food is stored in a location free from moisture and temperature fluctuations (CFHC, 2017).
Combine Dry and Wet Food for Cats
If, as a pet parent, you find that the benefits of both dry and wet food appeal to you there is nothing wrong with providing both in your cat’s diet! You could give your cat dry food in a puzzle feeder or scatter it around the house before you go to work. This way you provide your cat enrichment during the day. When you get home, you can provide wet food to ensure your cat is obtaining proper amounts of moisture. It is generally recommended that cats be fed at least 2-3 meals a day and fed a portion that is appropriate for your cat at each meal.
Free-feeding can lead cats to overeat and become overweight (CFHC). By feeding your cat meals, you encourage them to be more willing to work for their food. You can also use your cat’s meal times for training or other games. If you have a cat that is pushy and vocal around meal times, you can train them to sit and wait quietly on a mat before getting food. Some cats really enjoy “catching” their kibble if you roll it across the floor for them. While 2-3 meals a day is recommended, some cats may prefer to eat smaller meals more frequently. If your cat is a grazer and not prone to overeating, you can leave dry food out for them to nibble on as they wish throughout the day, then introduce wet food for morning and evening meal times to add variety and moisture.
It is important to remember that no matter how much money and effort you put into providing your cat the best possible diet you can, cats can be very picky and stubborn about the food they eat. So the decision might come down to simply supplying what your cat will eat. Pay attention to what food your cat enjoys while also monitoring your cat for any signs of allergy or discomfort. Some cats do not respond well to certain proteins, such as beef and fish, and may show a strong preference for particular flavors or textures. Others may only eat lower quality food or may show a strong preference for wet or dry and refuse to eat the other. As cat parents, you may worry about the quality of the diet you are providing. However, the most important aspect of your cat’s diet is that it is balanced and formulated for your cat at their current stage of life.
Bermingham, E.N., Kittelmann, S., Henderson, G., Young, W., Roy, N.C., and D.G. Thomas. 2011. Five-week dietary exposure to dry diets alters the faecal bacterial population in the domestic cat (Felis catus). The British Journal of Nutrition 106(S1):S49-52.
Cornell Feline Health Center (CFHC). 2017. Feeding Your Cat. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
Cornell Feline Health Center (CFHC). How Often Should You Feed Your Cat? Retrieved February 2, 2019.
Deng, P., and K.S. Swanson. 2015. Companion animals symposium: Future aspects and perceptions of companion animal nutrition and sustainability. Journal of Animal Science 93(3):823-834.
National Research Council (NRC). 2006. Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs: A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
Pierson, L.A. 2013. Feeding your cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
Plantinga, E.A., Bosch, G., and W.H. Hendriks. 2011. Estimation of the dietary nutrient profile of free-roaming feral cats: possible implications for nutrition of domestic cats. The British Journal of Nutrition 106(S1):S35-48.
Thomas, D.G., Post, M., and G. Bosch. 2017. The effect of changing the moisture levels of dry extruded and wet canned diets on physical activity in cats. Journal of Nutritional Science 6.
Wei, A., Fascetti, A.J., Villaverde, C., Wong, R.K., and J.J. Ramsey. 2011. Effect of water content in a canned food on voluntary food intake and body weight in cats. American Journal of Veterinary Research 72(7):918-923.