Welcome curious cats! Skye Blake here, following the kibble trail to find what your cat wants you to know about dry cat food.
Before we venture into the world of kibble, let’s discover who to consult when making decisions about your cat’s food.
- Who Should You Believe About Nutrition?
- What is Dry Kibble?
- How Is Kibble Made?
- Buying the Right Amount
- What Are the Claims About Dry Cat Food?
- 1 – Dry Food is Bad for Cats
- 2 – Certain Ingredients Like Grain Are Bad
- 3 – Highly Processed Food Is Unhealthy
- 4 – Kibble Causes Obesity
- 5 – Kibble Causes Diabetes Mellitus
- 6 – Cats Don’t Get Enough Moisture from Dry Food
- 7 – Dry Food Causes Feline Lower Urinary Tract Diseases
- 8 – Dry Food Cleans Feline Teeth
- 9 – Kibble Isn’t a “Species-Appropriate” Diet
- 10 – Dry Food Has More Recalls Than Other Foods
- 11 – Dry Food Can Be Contaminated
- Deciding if Dry Cat Food is Best for Your Cat
- Related Pages of Interest
- List of Sources
Who Should You Believe About Nutrition?
The first question you need to answer is “Who can I believe about nutrition and cat food?”
That’s a good question considering how many “experts” are out there on the internet.
Anyone can call themselves a pet nutritionist and even become certified.
But how do we know if their knowledge is complete and there aren’t dangerous gaps that can lead to nutritional deficiencies?
After snooping around a long time, I finally discovered that the most reliable starting point is with veterinarians, especially board-certified veterinary nutritionists.
Board-certified veterinary nutritionists are specialists who are the most educated, qualified nutrition experts available.
They have the most complete, well-rounded understanding of nutrition.
You can find them at American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
There are also qualified vet nutritionists who haven’t taken the board tests but have the knowledge to help with your cat’s dietary needs.
Your veterinarian can recommend nutritionists for specific medical situations or if you want more help with your cat’s diet.
Discover more at “What’s a Veterinary Nutritionist?“
What is Dry Kibble?
Dry food (a.k.a., “kibble”) is popular because it’s economical, easy to measure and feed, and can sit out all day.
But there are claims that dry food causes health problems and is generally bad for cats.
So, what’s true?
Let’s start with what dry cat food is…
Dry cat food, a.k.a. “kibble”, started in the 1960’s as cereal-based food mixed with meat or dairy.
It consists of grains rather than meat since they’re a cheaper protein source.
Meats also don’t have the texture or structure to make into dry food.
Soy, rice, corn, wheat, and barley are some of the grains you’ll find in these foods.
Some dry food is “grain-free” and includes vegetables instead like carrots, peas, and potatoes for the starch.
How Is Kibble Made?
Kibble goes through a heating process to create hard pellets coated with fat that appeals to dogs and cats.
Manufacturers formulate their dry food to replace any nutrients destroyed during processing with either natural or synthetic vitamins and minerals.
Reputable companies make sure their kibble products are nutritionally complete and balanced, so your cat gets what he needs.
Words like “grain-free” and “organic” appeal to people but don’t necessarily mean anything helpful about the nutrition in the food.
Some people question using synthetics like taurine because they come from China and other places outside the U.S. where purity and quality are sometimes a problem.
See “How Is Cat Food Made?” to learn details about the process.
How to Evaluate Ingredients
Pet food companies, like others, use marketing words that are trendy and sound healthy, but have no scientific backing.
Learn how to interpret what’s on the label of dry cat food bags… it’ll save you some grey hairs!
The nutrients in the ingredients are more important than the ingredients themselves.
Discover more at “What Nutrients Do Cats Need?“
Buying the Right Amount
Dry cat food has a stable shelf life of about 10-12 months.
Manufacturers use preservatives to accomplish this, often using natural preservatives like vitamins E and C.
“One common mistake cat owners make…is buying too big a bag of kibble, thinking they are getting a bargain.
Until the bag of kibble is opened, the nutrient profile is stable.” 1 dry-canned-or-semi-moist-food-choices-for-cats, VCA Animal Hospital
“But once the bag is opened, the food is subjected to oxidative stress – meaning that exposure to the air degrades some of the nutrients and contributes to the food becoming stale.
It is best to purchase just enough kibble to last 4 to 6 weeks – 8 weeks maximum.
Once you and your veterinarian have determined the correct daily portion to feed, it should be easy to calculate how many pounds of kibble you need for that time period.” 2 dry-canned-or-semi-moist-food-choices-for-cats, VCA Animal Hospital (vcahospitals.com)
Most people know to wash their hands, dishes, and disinfect counters when making their own food.
Yet people don’t typically think to use the same care when dealing with kibble.
It’s dry, not messy, and can easily be poured into a bowl… set it and forget it.
Often the bowls aren’t cleaned much, if at all, especially when used outside.
The lack of good cleaning habits when using kibble contributes to illnesses that are sometimes blamed on the food.
Good hygiene is always the best way to prevent the spread of contamination, no matter what kind of food you feed your cat.
What Are the Claims About Dry Cat Food?
There are various claims about dry cat food that are confusing… some are true, but others are flat out wrong.
Many of these claims are about the ingredients in kibble and whether they cause disease in cats.
The facts greatly affect how you view these products and whether they help or harm your cat.
This excellent video explains more…
1 – Dry Food is Bad for Cats
This claim is very broad and general (a.k.a. “sweeping generalization”) which should make you suspicious.
Sweeping generalizations like this are typically wrong because they’re too broad and don’t account for individual situations… or facts!
The basis for this claim is a misunderstanding about cats being “obligate carnivores”.
Many people believe “obligate carnivore” means cats can only eat meat, when it actually means they need nutrients found only in meat as part of their diet.
Food at its most basic is a vehicle for the body to get nutrients it can absorb and convert to energy.
The ingredients themselves aren’t as important as the nutrients in them.
Dry food doesn’t contain meat but does have meat nutrients added (like taurine) so it’s complete and balanced.
The ingredients that make nutrients available most easily (“bioavailability”) are best no matter what form they take.
Some components, like fiber, pass through the digestive system without being absorbed.
They’re still “bioavailable” because they do a necessary job.
The look and taste of it must appeal to your cat but are secondary to the nutritional value.
2 – Certain Ingredients Like Grain Are Bad
There are various claims about kibble ingredients being unhealthy, particularly grains and carbohydrates.
This comes from the belief that a cat’s digestive system can’t digest carbohydrates or plant matter, but is this belief accurate?
The simple answer is no, it’s not accurate… studies show that cats can digest carbohydrates, just not too many.
High carb meals can cause digestive upsets like diarrhea, bloating and gas, just like when humans eat too much!
The Scientific Answer
Here’s the scientific explanation about cats and carbs…
“Cats can utilize carbohydrates as an energy source, and they can adapt metabolically to different macronutrient ratios in the diet, so the simplistic notion of carbohydrates as “toxic” to cats isn’t supported.”3 “Canned or Dry Food: Which is Better for Cats?”, skeptvet.com
“Early studies by Morris et al. observed that adult cats could efficiently digest all carbohydrates added to a meat-based diet, despite the described evolutionary adaptations along the feline gastrointestinal tract…
The total apparent digestibility of starch is reported to be 40–100%, depending on source and treatment… which proves that cats can digest and absorb carbohydrates.”4 Cats and Carbohydrates: The Carnivore Fantasy? – PMC (nih.gov)
“As in other mammals, proper processing and cooking is necessary.
Carbohydrate sources are not provided to cats as raw ingredients.
Typically, carbohydrate sources are ground and cooked during the extrusion or canning process, which improves digestibility.”5 Cats and Carbohydrates: The Carnivore Fantasy? – PMC (nih.gov)
“Poorly digestible carbohydrates or excessive amounts of highly digestible carbohydrates that are not digested in the small intestine provide substrate for microbial fermentation in the colon.
High carbohydrate intake in cats therefore increases colonic and [fecal] organic acid concentrations and reduces [fecal] pH…
Also, adverse digestive effects, such as [diarrhea], flatulence and bloating, may be induced…”6 Cats and Carbohydrates: The Carnivore Fantasy? – PMC (nih.gov)
Discover more at “What Nutrients Do Cats Need?“.
3 – Highly Processed Food Is Unhealthy
This claim is an extension of the idea that highly processed food is bad for people.
Whether or not food processing is bad for people is a topic for human nutritionists to determine.
In the feline world there are no studies yet that prove any issues with processing.
Cooking with high heat can destroy some nutrients but they’re added back in later in the process.
4 – Kibble Causes Obesity
Obesity is when too much fat builds up in the body, affecting both the appearance and health of your cat.
It happens when the owner feeds their cat too many calories per day, not because the food is dry or contains grains.
Obesity is linked to a number of diseases and chronic conditions, including diabetes mellitus and arthritis, so it’s important not to overfeed.
Discuss your cat’s specific dietary needs with your vet to be sure you’re giving the correct number of calories and nutrients for her stage of life, activity level, and medical condition.
Whatever diet you use, measure the amount for each day and spread it out among many small meals.
Food puzzles are a good way to satisfy your cat’s need to hunt, slow down a gulper, and get her exercising.
5 – Kibble Causes Diabetes Mellitus
The claim that kibble causes diabetes mellitus (“DM”) in cats is based on two beliefs…
- kibble contains high amounts of carbohydrates
- carbohydrates cause diabetes
The problem with this claim is that carbohydrates don’t cause diabetes.
When claiming that food causes diseases, it’s important to understand the disease under discussion.
This video gives a good explanation of Diabetes Mellitus, symptoms, and the fact that food does not cause it in cats.
The real issue is feeding too many calories which causes obesity, contributing to the development of diabetes.
Genetics play a part in the development of diabetes as well, so even though you keep your cat at a healthy weight, diabetes can still occur.
Whether the food is wet or dry has nothing to do with what causes disease.
Dry Food & Managing Diabetes
Neither carbohydrates nor dry food are causes of diabetes, but they can be helpful when managing this disease.
Discuss your cat’s needs with your vet and/or consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.
“[T]he amount of carbohydrates does NOT cause DM.
However, it should be noted that we can use the amounts/ratios of carbs (especially when thinking about soluble/insoluble fiber) to help treat diabetes and maintain a more stable blood sugar level.” 7 Dr. Em, Vet Med Corner
“Though there is some inconsistency among studies, most research has failed to find that dietary carbohydrates [are] a significant risk factor for DM in cats.
One study even found cats who developed diabetes were less likely to be fed dry foods than cats without DM.
There is evidence that reduced-carbohydrate diets may be useful in management of feline DM, though such diets can be counterproductive and promote obesity if they are very high in fat.” 8 “Canned or Dry Food: Which is Better for Cats?”, skeptvet.com
Discover more at “Feeding the Diabetic Cat“.
High Protein, Low Carb Diets
Feeding a high protein, low carb diet does NOT prevent diabetes.
This is a myth that won’t go away and can actually be harmful.
Some high protein, low carb diets are not complete and balanced which can lead to dangerous nutritional deficiencies.
They can also be higher in fat, which has more calories than carbohydrates, making your cat gain weight quickly.
High protein, low carb diets can be helpful when managing diabetes, but only under the direction of your vet or vet nutritionist.
You can find board-certified vet nutritionists at American College of Veterinary Nutrition | ACVN.
6 – Cats Don’t Get Enough Moisture from Dry Food
This is a legitimate claim because dry food has the water removed.
Kibble has about 10-15% water and wet canned foods have about 70-80% water.
Domestic cats descend from “desert dwellers” and don’t instinctively search out water sources as other animals do.
Instead, they get moisture from prey like mice (about 70% water).
If your cat eats kibble this problem is easily fixed by having sources of water available in bowls and fountains.
The important thing is to keep it fresh by cleaning bowls and replacing with fresh water daily.
Follow manufacturer instructions for cleaning fountains.
“There are many factors that affect water intake in cats other than the form of the food, including the protein and mineral content and the energy density, so simply feeding a canned diet is not guaranteed to increase water intake or reduce urine specific gravity.” 9 “Canned or Dry Food: Which is Better for Cats?”, skeptvet.com
7 – Dry Food Causes Feline Lower Urinary Tract Diseases
We’ve established that dry food doesn’t provide all the water cats need to flush the urinary system properly.
As with Diabetes Mellitus, it’s important to understand urinary and kidney diseases to be able to answer this question.
There are a number of different kidney and urinary tract diseases.
If you’d like more information about them, start here… Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
Our question is “Does dry food cause urinary tract diseases?”
Some scientific studies have been done with mixed results.
Scientists have found that the concentration of cat urine is about the same for both dry and wet canned food.
Water is the important factor in kidney and urinary health and that’s easily provided in bowls or fountains.
Food is important for general health as a complete and balanced diet but there are no confirmed links to urinary diseases.
“Some studies have identified consumption of dry diets as a risk factor for FIC and urolithiasis while others have not confirmed this link.
Other research has even found that cats who develop FIC are more likely to be fed canned food than control cats, suggesting canned foods could increase FIC risk in some cases.
Similarly, while dry diets are often cited as a risk factor for the development of CKD, research has consistently failed to support this purported association.” [emphasis added]10 “Canned or Dry Food: Which is Better for Cats?”, skeptvet.com
Managing Urinary Diseases
Even though diet doesn’t cause the problems, certain foods are helpful in managing them.
Prescription diets are specially formulated for these conditions with low mineral content, etc.
Some urinary foods are available in both dry and wet formulas so you can choose which your cat will eat.
“…while canned diets certainly have a role in the management of CKD and urolithiasis, moisture content is not the only relevant variable, and dry diets can have benefits in patients with these conditions as well.” 11 “Canned or Dry Food: Which is Better for Cats?”, skeptvet.com
If you suspect a problem with your cat, have him examined by a vet right away and discuss what maintenance diet is appropriate for your cat.
You might also work with a veterinary nutritionist to determine the best diet, since it’s a complicated situation.
You can find board-certified vet nutritionists at American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
8 – Dry Food Cleans Feline Teeth
This claim has been around a long time and many vets believe it, but there’s no evidence that dry food is any better at cleaning teeth than any other type of food.
Discover more at “Dental Care for Cats“.
9 – Kibble Isn’t a “Species-Appropriate” Diet
What is “species-appropriate”?
It means a diet consisting of the type of food an animal would eat in the wild.
In other words, a horse eats grains and grass, and a wolf eats meat.
Feral cats eat birds, rodents and bugs, so the claim is that housecats should eat these as well (or something similar) to be at their healthiest.
This claim certainly seems logical but there’s no evidence that it makes any difference as long as the diet is nutritionally complete and balanced.
Humans like to romanticize nature, including us fabulous felines!
This is part of why this claim appeals to people and some use it when arguing that raw food is better than dry.
Again, there’s no scientific evidence to back this claim.
10 – Dry Food Has More Recalls Than Other Foods
There are claims that dry food is bad because it has more recalls than other foods.
When a recall happens in any industry it makes people worried that a company’s products are dangerous.
But what do recalls really mean? Are you unable to trust a company that has recalls?
Let’s discover more at “Cat Food Recalls – What Do They Mean?“
11 – Dry Food Can Be Contaminated
This claim is true… dry food can be contaminated and go bad.
This is one reason why inspections happen at each stage of the production process.
There’s a long road between the farms where the ingredients begin and your cat’s food bowl.
Kibble is cooked at high temperatures that kill bacteria, but packaging and storage are important too.
Kibble doesn’t need refrigeration and can last a while when unopened but also attracts bugs and rodents if not properly stored.
It contains fats, though, that can turn rancid in warm places like warehouses, store shelves, and your pantry.
Heat and humidity create environments where molds, bacteria and fungi thrive.
One concern with mold is aflatoxin, a poison given off by mold as a defense mechanism.
People, pets and livestock can get very sick by eating or inhaling it.
Aflatoxin grows in moist, warm conditions.
Agricultural inspectors test crops at various stages of growth, storage and production, but it’s impossible to completely prevent it.
Corn, peanuts and cottonseed are the most susceptible crops.12“AFLATOXINS : Occurrence and Health Risks”, Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Department of Animal Science – Plants Poisonous to Livestock, 2018, Updated February 28, 2019
Deciding if Dry Cat Food is Best for Your Cat
When deciding what type of food is best for both you and your cat consider your lifestyle and expenses.
For many people dry food works best because it’s convenient and easy to use.
Look for any product that say it’s complete and balanced nutrition.
Kibble is typically cheaper than other types of food, but higher quality costs more, as with any food.
Prescription dry food is probably the most expensive, simply because it’s specialty food.
Check out these related pages for info about other types of cat food…
Related Pages of Interest
Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.
Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.
Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.
Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own. Sometimes they refer to primary sources.
When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.
List of Sources
“AFLATOXINS : Occurrence and Health Risks“, Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Department of Animal Science – Plants Poisonous to Livestock, 2018, Updated February 28, 2019
“Canned or Dry Food: Which is Better for Cats?” by Dr. Brennen McKenzie, skeptvet.com
“Carb Confusion Part 1: The Role of Carbohydrate in Pet Foods” – Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School (tufts.edu)
“Carb Confusion: Part 2 – Measuring and Comparing Carbohydrate in Pet Foods” – Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School (tufts.edu)
“Cats and Carbohydrates: The Carnivore Fantasy?” – PMC (nih.gov)
“Cat Food Recalls (Updated on Daily Basis)” – All About Cats
“The Chronic Kidney Disease” – Catwatch Newsletter
“Commercial vs Homemade Cat Diets: What you need to know” – PubMed (nih.gov)
“Dry-canned-or-semi-moist-food-choices-for-cats“, VCA Animal Hospital (vcahospitals.com)
“Feeding the Diabetic Cat” – Catwatch Newsletter
“How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute
“Is Dry Food Bad for Cats?“, noahsarkvet.com
“Latest Pet Food Recall Information:” PetfoodIndustry.com
“Mycotoxins in Pet Food: A Review on Worldwide Prevalence and Preventative Strategies” by Maxwell C. K. Leung, Gabriel Díaz-Llano, Trevor K. Smith, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (acs.org), December 5, 2006
“Recalls & Withdrawals“, FDA
“Urinary Tract Disorders in Cats” – Veterinary Medicine at Illinois
“What’s a carnivore?” – nutrition rvn
Updated January 13, 2023