The biggest trend in the cat food world is grain-free foods. It seems like every cat food manufacturer is jumping on the band wagon these days. Specialty brands have offered grain-free options for awhile, but the question is, does it make a difference to your cat’s health, vitality and longevity?
Why Is There Grain In Commercial Cat Food?
According to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, cats are obligate carnivores, which means that they are strict carnivores and are able to get all their nutrient needs met by meat. Meat contains an amino acid that is vital to cats, called taurine, and without it they can lose their eyesight. Wild cats and house cats alike will nibble on grass and other vegetation, but they do not naturally eat grains, fruits or other vegetables.
Grain is added to pet food as a cheaper protein alternative to meat. It is a great business decision for any maker of cat food, and also it allows us to pay less to feed our furry friends.
Besides being a filler, grain adds texture and binding to cat food. Corn gluten meal is used most often, and wheat & soy gluten are used to create shapes and as a thickener for gravy. Dry foods typically contain more grains than wet foods. ( What’s Really in Pet Food )
An interesting note: companies that advertise grain-free food often still skimp on the animal protein; instead of using grains as a filler, they add peas, potatoes or other vegetables, which are also cheap and not a natural part of a cat’s diet.
Is Grain Protein Equal to Meat Protein?
This question is a very different when you are talking about cats, as opposed to dogs or humans. Plant based proteins do not have all of the critical amino acids needed by obligate carnivores, and cats do not have the means to make up for those missing pieces. Meat has the complete amino acid profile that cats require.
All proteins are given a protein quality rating, the higher the number the better the protein. Fish is 92, Beef is 78, soybean meal is 67, “Meat and bone meal” are 50, wheat is 50 and corn is 45. As you can see, they are not all equal, and grains rate significantly less than meat.
Is Grain Detrimental to a Cat’s Health?
In the past, the addition of grain as a filler, without making up for the nutritional loss of the meat, caused many deficiencies and problems for cats. One direct effect of the reduction in animal protein in cat food was a lack of taurine. Not only can this cause blindness but also heart disease if not corrected. Fortunately, this was realized and now most manufacturers add a taurine supplement. The down side; taurine is so environmentally harsh to produce that all of it comes from China.
Cats eating a mostly dry food diet, and therefore ingesting more high-carb/high-calorie grains, are at a greater risk for obesity. Obese cats are more prone to other diseases like arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes. Switching to a lower carb, higher protein diet can help treat these issues.
Digestive issues & allergies can also be a problem, in the form of chronic vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, over-grooming, itching, and sinus issues, resulting from consumption of commercial cat food. Sometimes this can linked to grain in particular, and vets often recommend moving the cat to a corn-free or wheat-free diet, but cats can also develop issues with these foods because of other ingredients that are in the cat food. It can be hard to nail down exactly what is causing the problem.
It seems that grains, in and of themselves, are not horrible for cats in small amounts. It is not the best source of protein, and if there is too much of it, it can cause health issues and that wouldn’t necessarily happen on a heavier meat-based diet. Probably the most important thing you can do to ensure your cat is getting all its nutritional needs met, is to read the cat food labels. Check to see what the proteins are, and be conscious that dry foods contain a lot more grains than wet, so a dry-only diet can induce more health issues.