There are some people who firmly believe that wet cat foods are better for cats than dry ones. But there are people who just as firmly believe that dry cat food is fine, not to mention that it’s cheaper and more convenient. So who’s right?
Is wet food best for cats? Yes, because it’s closer to what cats eat in the wild, provides a cat with water through its food, typically has higher quality ingredients, and is less processed. Cats also prefer it because it smells more obviously like meat. While dry cat food is cheaper, lasts longer and is more convenient, it can contribute to or cause kidney issues later in life in cats. It’s heavily processed and contains things that cats don’t naturally eat like grains and vegetables. All of the positives of wet food are for your cat, while the positives of dry food are for you (e.g. it’s cheaper and more convenient). You should therefore always feed wet cat food to your cat if you are able.
The guide below provides a dispassionate look at the advantages of both wet and dry cat food. Feeding your cat dry cat food doesn’t make you a bad person, but it’s definitely not the best choice for your cat, and it’s your job as a responsible owner to provide your cat with the best possible life.
Wet Cat Food vs. Dry Cat Food
This is an age-old debate among cat owners: which is better? Dry cat food or wet cat food?
While we firmly believe that wet cat food is the better choice, that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to consider dry food. Dry food has definite advantages, most of them for your wallet! Overall though, wet cat food is far better for your cat’s health, so should be the automatic choice.
The rest of this guide is divided into three: first the advantages of wet food, second the advantages of dry food, and third a summary that on balance sides with wet food.
Advantages of Wet Cat Food
It’s commonly thought that wet food is better for cats, but that feeding dry food is sometimes a necessary evil. While an ‘appeal to the masses’ can be a logical fallacy—just because lots of people believe something, that doesn’t make it true—in this case people are right! Wet food is broadly better for cats than dry food, but some people can only feed their cat dry food for reasons of convenience and expense. Let’s take a look at what makes wet cat food better…
Is Dry Cat Food More Processed Than Wet Cat Food?
If there’s one rule of thumb that will make you a better cat owner, it’s this: try to give your cat a life that’s as close to that it would experience in the wild. There are exceptions, of course; wild cats get covered in ticks and fleas, and that certainly isn’t good for them. But when it comes to diet and exercise, stimulation, and making your cat comfortable in your home, recognizing and accommodating your cat’s wild side is a good idea.
Giving your cat a diet like that it would eat in the wild is a good idea. Cats get lots of protein from their wild diets, and this helps them maintain a lithe muscle mass. They’re good at breaking down fat and using it for energy. The kind of meat used in wet food provides lots of both. While dry foods are formulated to contain everything a cat needs, they typically contain lots of grains and vegetables, which cats don’t naturally eat. That’s not to say that cats can’t digest grains and vegetables, but they certainly aren’t as good at doing so as they are at digesting meat.
If anything, feeding wet food uncomplicates your cat’s diet. You don’t need to do as much research on whether a particular brand is suitable, or about how well cats can digest grains, because you’re giving your cat something close to what it would eat in the wild.
To be clear, there are wet cat foods that do contain grains and vegetables, typically the cheaper ones. These ingredients are used to provide reasonably nutritious bulk to cat food. However, it’s not physically possible to make dry cat food without baking it like you would bake any other kind of biscuit. You can therefore find high quality wet cat foods that don’t contain these things, but there’s no equivalent high quality dry food.
Cats Prefer Getting Water from Food Over Drinking
All cats prefer eating foods with high water content. That’s because both wild cats and domestic cats prefer getting water from food.
There are good reasons for this. One is that water sources in the wild are often contaminated. Still water sources can develop algae and bacteria that make wild cats sick; even running water can contain dangerous bacteria if an animal died in the water source upstream, or parasites like giardia. It’s safer for the cat to rely on the water in meat instead. And there’s more than enough: most meats are around 60% water.
What makes dry food worse is that cats don’t know to replace the water they miss out on through drinking. Cats that eat dry food don’t drink significantly more than those that eat wet food, and they certainly don’t drink enough to completely replace lost water. This can lead to health issues later in life, particularly urinary tract issues, like kidney stones, and kidney failure. These conditions are all far more common in cats that eat dry food over wet.
Wet Food Is Nicer
There’s also the fact that wet food is more palatable and provides more variety.
When you open a can of cat food, you may not like the way it smells. But your cat does, which is why it comes running when it hears you opening one! Wet food gives off more ‘smell molecules’ than dry food, which makes it more appealing to your cat. Cats assess how much they like food based on its smell, its texture and its taste just like us. There’s also the fact discussed above that wet food is far closer to what cats eat in the wild than dry food.
Besides that, there’s also much more variety in wet food. All dry foods have the same texture, and largely taste the same (like meaty biscuits). Wet foods offer variety because they contain different meats like chicken, turkey, beef, rabbit and more, and they can come with gravy or without. While not all cats enjoy variety, some do, and wet food is much better at providing it.
There are also higher quality wet foods than dry foods. Expensive kibbles aren’t that different to cheap ones. But expensive wet foods are leagues apart from cheap ones: they can be made of unprocessed cuts of high quality meat, even raw meat. So, if you’re concerned about the quality of the food you’re offering your cat, then wet food gives you more room to manuever.
Does Dry Cat Food Have the Same Ingredients as Wet Cat Food?
Dry cat food and wet cat food have some of the same ingredients. But there are three key differences.
One is that wet cat food typically has more meat than dry cat food. It is possible to find low-quality wet cat food that has less meat than normal, and high-quality dry food that has more meat than normal, but as a general rule wet food has more meat. The second is that wet cat food contains lots more water than dry food, which you can tell straight away from their textures (and their names!) The third is that dry cat food typically contains more grains than wet food.
These are three ticks in favor of wet food.
Advantages of Dry Cat Food
All that being said, there are good reasons to consider offering your cat dry cat food. While on balance wet food is better than dry, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasons to at least consider dry food.
Carbs Aren’t Always Bad for Cats
Dry cat food undeniably contains more carbohydrates than wet cat food. It has long been thought that carbs are bad for cats, but that’s not necessarily the case. According to the Canadian Veterinary Journal,
A commonly raised issue with regard to cat foods is the suitability of carbohydrates in dry foods for cats. Cats are recognized to have evolved as obligate carnivores, consuming foods (small mammals, insects, birds) containing mostly water, protein, and relatively little carbohydrate or fat. Studies have shown that cats are less efficient than some other mammals are at metabolizing dietary carbohydrates under certain circumstances. This observation appears to have led to speculation that long term feeding of carbohydrates may have detrimental effects on the health of cats. …
Possibly because of their carnivorous heritage, cats seem to metabolize dietary carbohydrate somewhat differently from other species. As reviewed by Morris, cats have an “abridged pattern” of carbohydrate metabolizing enzymes compared with many omnivores, and their pattern of glucose transport enzymes in the liver more closely resembles that of ruminants than other simple-stomached mammals. Both the complexity and processing of dietary carbohydrates may influence its effects on cats; comparable amounts of carbohydrates may have different effects depending on whether they are delivered as simple sugars or starch, and among starches the form of processing may affect carbohydrate utilization. Although cats can efficiently digest cooked starch, they appear to be less tolerant of sucrose. Whether these and other nutritional peculiarities of domestic cats make dry diets unsuitable for them is far from obvious. …
In commercial dry cat diets, carbohydrate is not commonly present as simple sugars, but as more complex starches and fibers. … In addition to the epidemiologic data, experimental studies have also found that carbohydrates per se may not be a major disease risk factor for cats.
What all of this means is that the answer to the cats and carbs dilemma is far from black and white. It’s clearly not a case of ‘carbs are bad for cats, and that’s that’. As part of a complete food it’s possible that they have no negative effects at all. This is backed up by other papers, too, which state that depending on the way they’re prepared that cats can digest between 40-100% of starches in a given diet.
That’s not to say that dry food doesn’t have other problems, though: the kidney problems associated with dry food are not to do with an abundance of carbs, but a lack of water.
Dry Cat Food Doesn’t Go Off Quickly
One of the main reasons people feed dry cat food is that it doesn’t go bad, or at least doesn’t go bad before the cat gets a chance to eat it. This is a major drawback with wet food: you have to feed your cat three times a day so that its food doesn’t sit there and go bad. You shouldn’t leave meat, cooked or otherwise, out all day because bacteria will multiply in it, flies can lay their eggs in it, and it stinks up the place.
Dry food doesn’t have this problem. Flies aren’t attracted to it because it’s dry, bacteria doesn’t multiply in it because bacteria need moisture to do so, and it even gives off less odor. This means you can put out however much food your cat needs each morning and let your cat eat when it wants. So, not only does it not go off as quickly, but it means you don’t have to put as much time into feeding your cat each day.
You Can Add Water to Dry Cat Food
While the lack of water in dry cat food is a problem, it’s one that’s easily fixed. All you have to do is take a few spoonfuls of water and mix them into your cat’s dish. This will make the dry food softer, but will also mean that your cat gets some more water from its food. This does mean that the food goes off quicker, though, like wet food; so if you’re planning on doing this, don’t fill your cat’s bowl all the way to the top.
If you plan on feeding dry food and this solution doesn’t work for you, try getting your cat a running water bowl/cat water fountain. Cats prefer drinking from running water sources. That’s because in the wild, still water is often bad for an animal that drinks it: bacteria multiply in it, fungi grow in it, and dead animals decay in it. Running water by contrast will be much cleaner. This even applies in your home, because your cat could accidentally get food or cat litter in its water bowl, you could drop something in there, or at the very least it could get dusty. Cat water fountains are exactly what they sound like: little fountains that keep the water in them moving. This makes them much more appealing to cats.
Dry Food Is Cheaper
Another advantage is that dry food tends to be cheaper.
There are a few reasons why dry food ends up cheaper than wet food. One is that it can be made using offcuts, offal and meat by-products that wet food can’t. That’s because the meat content of dry cat food is highly processed, so it’s possible to use less appealing, but still nutritious, cuts of meat. Besides that, dry food contains lots of grains and other bulk additives that bring the overall cost down: rice and similar grains are cheap but still provide your cat with the energy it needs.
There’s also less chance of wasting dry food because it stays good for longer. That applies both before and after you serve it up for your cat. Dried food that’s left over at the end of the day can be left out and offered again the next day, while it’s not best practise to do that with wet food. Less waste means it’s cheaper to care for your cat in the long run, at least in this regard.
Is Dry Cat Food Good for a Cat’s Teeth?
Another purported advantage of dry food is that it helps clean your cat’s teeth. The idea is that when the cat chews on its kibble, it will scrape against its teeth, providing a rough surface that acts like a toothbrush and gets rid of tartar and plaque. It’s also thought that dry food is less likely to actively damage the teeth than wet food, since dry food won’t stick to the teeth and make them rot.
Unfortunately, this isn’t entirely accurate. When a cat eats dry cat food, it doesn’t chew on it enough for it to have much of a scraping effect on the teeth. Even if it did, a slight scrape isn’t strong enough to get rid of tartar, which is the main problem. This also ignores the way that a cat has to chew its kibble: it has to get it directly between the point of a top tooth and the point of a bottom tooth to do so. The piece of kibble doesn’t get a chance to rub all the way up a cat’s tooth when it’s chewed, and tartar starts at the gum line.
But is dry cat food at least better for a cat’s teeth than wet cat food? Again, no, and there are a few reasons why:
- The amount of grains that dry food contains is bad for your cat’s teeth. That’s because grains contain lots of simple sugars. These are so easily processed by the body that they dissolve in your cat’s saliva before they’re even swallowed. Unfortunately, these dissolved sugars will stick to the teeth and cause tooth decay.
- Wet food requires more chewing than dry food. It comes in bigger chunks that your cat has to chew before it can swallow. This means that wet food provides more mechanical cleaning (as it’s termed) than dry food.
- The water content of wet food does not cause tooth decay as you may have been led to believe. Water itself won’t damage your cat’s teeth. Water with sugars dissolved in can; but your cat experiences the same problem with dry food anyway. It’s best to find a food—dry or wet—that doesn’t contain lots of simple sugars instead.
- Dry cat food is difficult for an older cat to chew. If your cat already has loose and damaged teeth, trying to crack open kibble can make them worse.
If your cat’s dental health is the reason you found this guide, and you’re worried that it’s getting worse, don’t rely on your cat’s food to do your job for you. Instead, take action. There are two things you can do: manually brush your cat’s teeth in the same way you brush your own, or take your cat to the vet.
It might sound unusual to brush your cat’s teeth, but it can be done, and if you train your cat right, it won’t mind. Unfortunately, this is something it’s best to teach a cat when it’s younger; as such if your cat is an adult, you may not be able to teach it. All you have to do is brush them with a toothbrush and a little water, and special cat toothpaste (yes, they make special cat toothpaste). You have to teach your cat to let you hold its face, open its mouth and brush its teeth with a toothbrush. If you can’t get it to do this, you can have the vet do it for you. The vet can also descale the teeth using a tool like the ones that dentists use. Descaling is where tartar is removed, tartar being solidified plaque that conglomerates near the gum line.
Should You Give Your Cat Wet Cat Food or Dry Cat Food?
All in all, wet cat food is definitely the better choice. That’s because the benefits of wet food are for your cat, while the benefits of dry food are for you.
Let’s compare a few of the benefits to understand why. Dry food is good because you can dole out your cat’s daily food in one go, and because it’s cheap: both benefits for you. But wet food is good because it’s better for your cat’s health, cats prefer it because it’s more like their natural diet, and it’s higher in quality: all benefits for your cat.
This means that the argument centers around that age-old point: if it’s too inconvenient and expensive for you to own a cat, the answer isn’t to cut corners and compromise your cat’s health and wellbeing. It’s to not have a cat. This might not be the answer that you want to hear, but it’s true nonetheless. If you really love your cat, you should do everything you can to ensure that it’s healthy and happy, and that means feeding wet food—and, ideally, high quality wet food.
No matter what food you feed to your cat, talk to your vet regularly about your cat’s health. They can weigh your pet and perform a body condition test to tell whether your cat is gaining or losing weight. They can also check whether your cat is experiencing nutritional deficiencies, which can happen with both wet and dry foods. There is no replacement for good veterinary care.