The idea of preparing specialized food for cats came later than for dogs (see dog biscuits and dog food). This was likely due to the idea that cats could readily fend for themselves. In 1837, a French writer Mauny de Mornay critiqued this idea:
It is... thought wrongly that the cat, ill-fed, hunts better and takes more mice; this too is a grave error. The cat who is not given food is feeble and sickly; as soon as he has bitten into a mouse, he lies down to rest and sleep; while well fed, he is wide awake and satisfies his natural taste in chasing all that belongs to the rat family.
In 1844, another French writer expanded on this idea:
Normally in the country no care is taken of a cat's food, and he is left to live, it is said, from his hunting, but when he is hungry, he hunts the pantry's provisions far more than the mouse; because he does not pursue them and never watches them by need, but by instinct and attraction. And so, to neglect feeding a cat, is to render him at the same time useless and harmful, while with a few scraps regularly and properly given, the cat will never do any damage, and will render much service.
He goes on to say that it is all the more unreasonable to expect a cat to live from hunting in that cats take mice more for amusement than to eat: "A good cat takes many and eats few".
By 1876, Gordon Stables emphasized the need to give cats particular food:
If then, only for the sake of making (a cat) more valuable as a vermin-killer, she ought to have regular and sufficient food. A cat ought to be fed at least twice a day. Let her have a dish to herself, put down to her, and removed when the meal is finished. Experience is the best teacher as regards the quantity of a cat's food, and in quality let it be varied. Oatmeal porridge and milk, or white bread steeped in warm milk, to which a little sugar has been added, are both excellent breakfasts for puss; and for dinner she must have an allowance of flesh. Boiled lights are better for her than horse-meat, and occasionally let her have fish. Teach your cat to wait patiently till she is served—a spoiled cat is nearly as disagreeable as a spoiled child. If you want to have your cat nice and clean, treat her now and then to a square inch of fresh butter. It not only acts as a gentle laxative, but, the grease, combining in her mouth, with the alkalinity of her saliva, forms a kind of natural cat-soap, and you will see she will immediately commence washing herself, and become beautifully clean. (N.B.—If you wish to have a cat nicely done up for showing, touch her all over with a sponge dipped in fresh cream, when she licks herself the effect is wonderful.)
Remember that too much flesh-meat, especially liver,—which ought only to be given occasionally,—is very apt to induce a troublesome diarrhoea (looseness). Do not give your pet too many tit-bits at table; but whatever else you give her, never neglect to let her have her two regular meals.
In the same year, an advertisement for Spratt (better known for making dog food) said that their cat food entirely superseded "the unwholesome practice of feeding on boiled horse flesh; keeps the cat in perfect health." And, in another book on cats, Stables recommended the company's food:
Attend to the feeding, and, at a more than one-day show, cats ought to have water as well as milk. I think boiled lights, cut into small pieces, with a very small portion of bullock's liver and bread soaked, is the best food; but I have tried Spratt's Patent Cat Food with a great number of cats, both of my own and those of friends, and have nearly always found it agree; and at a cat show it would, I believe, be both handy and cleanly.
Spratt, which began by making dog biscuits, appears to also have been the first commercial producer of cat food.
During the 19th century and early 20th centuries, meat for cats and dogs in London, frequently horse meat, was sold from barrows (hand–carts) by itinerant traders known as Cats' Meat Men.
Cats are obligate carnivores, that is they are true carnivores and depend upon the nutrients present in animal flesh for their dietary needs. Even domesticated cats will relish freshly killed meat from rodents, rabbits, amphibians, birds, reptiles and fish, but cats are also opportunistic feeders and will readily take cooked food as well as dried cat food when offered, if that food is palatable. The natural diet of cats therefore does not include any vegetable matter, although cats have been known to eat certain plants and grasses occasionally, usually as an emetic.
Cats cannot synthesize some essential nutrients required for survival, including the amino acids taurine and arginine, so these nutrients must be sourced from fresh meat in the natural diet. Cats lack the specific physiology to extract nutrients efficiently from plant-based materials, and require a high protein diet, which is why high energy meats from freshly-killed prey are optimal foods.
Most store-bought cat food comes in either dry form, also known in the US as kibble, or wet canned form. Some manufacturers sell frozen raw diets and premix products to cater to owners who feed raw.
Dry food (8–10% moisture) is generally made by extrusion cooking under high heat and pressure. Fat may then be sprayed on the food to increase palatability, and other minor ingredients, such as heat-sensitive vitamins, which would be destroyed in the extrusion process, may be added. Dry food is most often packed in multi-wall paper bags, sometimes with a plastic film layer; similar bag styles with film laminates or coextrusions are also used.
In the United States, Canned or wet food (75–78% moisture) generally comes in aluminum or steel cans in 3 oz (85 g), 5.5 oz (156 g), and 13 oz (369 g) sizes. It is also sold in foil pouch form.
Even though cats are obligate carnivores, there are vegetarian and vegan cat foods available. Vegetarian cat food must be fortified with nutrients such as taurine and arachidonic acid that cats cannot synthesize from plant materials. Some vegetarian cat food brands in the USA are labeled by their manufacturers as meeting AAFCO's Cat Food Nutrient Profile.
In the United States, cat foods labeled as "complete and balanced" must meet standards established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) either by meeting a nutrient profile or by passing a feeding trial. Cat Food Nutrient Profiles were established in 1992 and updated in 1995 by the AAFCO's Feline Nutrition Expert Subcommittee. The updated profiles replaced the previous recommendations set by the National Research Council (NRC). Certain manufacturers label their products with terms such as premium, ultra premium, natural and holistic. Such terms currently have no legal definitions. However, "While most of the food supplied comes from within the US, the FDA ensures that standards are met within our borders even when components come from countries with less stringent levels of safety or label integrity."
Dry cat food (kibble) is most often packed in multi-wall paper bags, sometimes with a plastic film layer; similar bag styles with film laminates or coextrusions are also used. Wet cat food is often packed in aluminum cans or steel cans. Packaging regulations for cat food are often very similar to corresponding regulations for human foods.
The energy requirements for adult cats range from 60–70 kcal metabolizable energy/kg body weight per day for inactive cats to 80–90 kcal/kg BW for active cats. Kittens at five weeks of age require 250 kcal/kg BW. The requirement drops with age, to 100 kcal/kg BW at 30 weeks and to the adult requirement at about 50 weeks. Gestating cats require about 90–100 kcal/kg BW and lactating cats 90–270 kcal/kg BW depending on litter size.
Vitamin deficiencies can lead to wide-ranging clinical abnormalities that reflect the diversity of their metabolic roles. Twelve minerals are known to be essential nutrients for cats. Calcium and phosphorus are crucial to strong bones and teeth. Cats need other minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, and sodium, for nerve impulse transmission, muscle contraction, and cell signaling. Many minerals only present in minute amounts in the body, including selenium, copper, and molybdenum, act as helpers in a wide variety of enzymatic reactions.
The table below lists the AAFCO nutritional profiles for cat foods along with the roles of vitamins and minerals in cat nutrition according to the National Research Council.
Vegetarian or vegan cat food has been available for many years, and is targeted primarily at vegan and vegetarian pet owners. While a small percentage of owners choose such a diet based on its perceived health benefits, the majority do so due to ethical concerns. Despite this, most vegans who feed their cats a vegan diet believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier than a conventional diet. There is much controversy over feeding cats a vegetarian diet. While there is anecdotal evidence that cats do well on vegetarian food, studies on commercial and homemade vegetarian cat foods have found nutritional inadequacies.
As obligate carnivores, cats require nutrients (including arginine, taurine, arachidonic acid, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and niacin) found in meat sources that cannot be obtained in sufficient amount in plant sources. Vegetarian pet food companies attempt to correct these deficiencies by supplementing their products with synthetically produced nutrients. According to the United States National Research Council, "Cats require specific nutrients, not specific feedstuffs."
Cats on a vegan diet can develop abnormally alkaline (high pH) urine due to the more alkaline pH of plant-based proteins in comparison to the acidic pH of meat-based foods which cats have evolved to eat. When the urine pH becomes too alkaline, there is an increased risk of formation of struvite (also known as magnesium ammonium phosphate) bladder crystals and/or stones. Calcium oxalate stones can also occur, but these do not occur if the urine is too alkaline, but rather if it is too acidic. Such stones can create irritation and infection of the urinary tract and require veterinary treatment.
Organizations that advocate vegan or vegetarian diets for people have split opinions regarding vegetarian or vegan cat food. The International Vegetarian Union, the Vegan Society and PETA are some of the organizations that support a vegan or vegetarian diet for cats. On the other hand, the Vegetarian Society suggests people "consider carefully" and that many cats will not adjust to a vegetarian diet. They provide a list of necessary nutrients that will need to be supplemented with a recommendation to consult a veterinarian or animal nutritionist for those who want to try. The Animal Protection Institute also does not recommend a vegetarian diet for cats and cautions that dietary deficiencies may take months or years to develop and may be untreatable. They do not recommend relying on supplements because they may not contain necessary co-factors and enzymes and have not been studied for long term implications. The animal welfare organization American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, although suggesting a supplemented vegetarian diet for dogs, recommends against a vegetarian and vegan diets for cats. The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (now Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association) accepts that it is possible for a plant-based diet to be nutritionally adequate but stated in August 2006 that such diets "cannot at this time be reliably assured". This position was based on a 2004 study demonstrating that of two commercially available vegetarian cat diets tested against the AAFCO standard, both were nutritionally deficient. The formulation error in one of these diets was promptly identified and corrected. Nevertheless, it remains likely that formulation errors will result in nutritional deficiencies in a wide range of commercially available diets from time to time, whether meat-based, vegetarian or vegan. Hence, regular (at least, annual) veterinary checkups of all companion animals is recommended, and brands may be occasionally varied.
Even when adequately supplemented, vegetarian diets may present other risks, such as urine acidity problems. While there are anecdotal reports linking a vegetarian diet with urinary tract problems, no documented case report or study exist. One vegan cat food manufacturer has stated that "because of the relative acidity of meat to vegetable protein, some vegan cats suffer from [Urinary tract problems]." A quarter of cat owners who feed their cats a vegetarian diet perceive feline lower urinary tract disease as a health risk of such a diet.
In 2006, the first study of the health of a population of long-term vegetarian cats was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Most of the cats were fed a commercially available vegan diet, though 35% were allowed outdoors. The study consisted of telephone questionnaires of the caregivers of 32 cats, and analysis of blood samples from some of them. The blood samples were tested for taurine and cobalamin deficiencies. Cobalamin levels were normal in all cats. Taurine levels were low in 3 out of 17 cats tested, but not low enough to be considered clinically deficient. 97% of the caregivers perceived their cats to be healthy, including those with low taurine levels.
Many pet owners feed cats homemade diets. These diets generally consist of some form of cooked or raw meat, bone, vegetables, and supplements, such as taurine and multivitamins.
A 2004 study reported that food packaged in cans coated with bisphenol A is correlated with the development of hyperthyroidism in cats.
Food allergy is a non-seasonal disease with skin and/or gastrointestinal disorders. The main complaint is excessive scratching (pruritus) which is usually resistant to treatment by steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The exact prevalence of food allergy in cats remains unknown. In 20 to 30% of the cases, cats have concurrent allergic diseases (atopy/flea-allergic dermatitis). A reliable diagnosis can only be made with dietary elimination-challenge trials. Allergy testing is necessary for the identification of the causative food component(s). Therapy consists of avoiding the offending food component(s).
Malnutrition can be a problem for cats fed non-conventional diets. Cats fed exclusively on raw, freshwater fish can develop a thiamine deficiency. Those fed exclusively on liver may develop vitamin A toxicity. Also, exclusively meat-based diets may contain excessive protein and phosphorus whilst being deficient in calcium, vitamin E, and microminerals such as copper, zinc, and potassium. Energy density must also be maintained relative to the other nutrients. When vegetable oil is used to maintain the energy balance cats may not find the food as palatable.
The broad pet food recalls starting in March 2007 came in response to reports of renal failure in pets consuming mostly wet pet foods made with wheat gluten from a single Chinese company beginning in February 2007. Overall, several major companies recalled more than 100 brands of pet foods with most of the recalled product coming from Menu Foods. The most likely cause according to the FDA is the presence of melamine in the wheat gluten of the affected foods. Melamine is known to falsely inflate the protein content rating of substances in laboratory tests. The economic impact on the pet food market has been extensive, with Menu Foods alone losing roughly $30 million from the recall. Some companies were not affected and utilized the situation to generate sales for alternative pet foods.
In a study on the impacts of the pet food industry on world fish and seafood supplies, researchers estimate that 2.48 million metric tonnes of fish are used by the cat food industry each year. It was suggested that there needs to be "a more objective and pragmatic approach to the use of a limited and decreasing biological resource, for human benefit." Marine conservation activist Paul Watson argues that the reduction in forage fish such as those commonly used in cat food (sardines, herring, anchovy etc.) negatively affects fish higher up the food chain like cod, tuna and swordfish, not to mention marine mammals and birds.
Based on 2004 numbers, cats in the US consume the caloric equivalent of what 192,000 (0.0655187%) Americans consume. While pet food is made predominantly using byproducts from human food productions, the increase in popularity of human-grade and byproduct-free pet food means there is increasing pressure on the overall meat supply.Vegetarian Society UK on Vegetarian diet for cats
Scientifically Reviewed & Rated Cat Foods at GoodGuide.com
The Cat That Ate Tofu Alternet article on vegan cat food
Buffington CA (June 2008). "Dry foods and risk of disease in cats". Can. Vet. J. 49 (6): 561–3. PMC 2387258. PMID 18624064. – disputes the claim that dry food is harmful
Get The Facts - What's Really In Pet Food from Animal Protection Institute