We look at the options from the budget to the pricey and ask: what’s the difference?
Something of a revolution is under way in terms of what we eat, with growing numbers of people opting to go vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian. But what about the food we give to our pets? What’s in it, and is it worth spending more on premium brands?
My two cats are generally not fussy eaters, but last year, after one became ill, I started to look into the ingredients in their food.Oscar and Dennis are two-year-old moggies and, apart from killing sprees of the local wildlife in our London neighbourhood, they don’t tend to cause many problems.
Our vet recommended changing their diet, as he claimed that feeding them Whiskas every day was akin to me eating McDonald’s for every meal. However, the replacement from Hill’s was about three times the price. After two weeks, Oscar was back to full health. Since then, I’ve been trialling brands to find a diet that’s healthy but not too expensive.
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The options are endless, from grain-free to raw meat, but how much does what I’m giving them affect their health?
One in 20 of us buy the cheapest on offer, and 64% of cat owners have no idea what they should be looking for in the ingredients, according to a study from premium pet food brand Lily’s Kitchen. South London vet Dr Rory Cowlam told me that as cats are carnivores, it is important they get high meat content, and this should be the first thing I look for. He says dry food is generally cheaper, easier to keep and better for cats’ teeth.
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“It is a common misconception that cats need a mix of dry and wet. There are some out there that will need wet food, but if your cat is healthy, there is no need,” he adds.
Some dry food can work out at around 40p a portion – less than the premium brands – and while it can cost slightly more than budget options, the meat quantity is often higher.Clare Hamilton, a vet in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, says that when it comes to supermarket brands, “there are far too many own-brands of varying quality and price”.
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She adds: “The most important thing is to look at its contents and go for the highest quality you can afford, whether that is organic, supermarket or a scientific brand.”Henrietta Morrison, founder of Lily’s Kitchen, reckons most foods are made with fillers such as grains, bone meal, sugars and flavourings, so there is little actual meat. This is why she started the brand, and says customers report their cats behaving better on it, along with having better digestion and overall health.
The Lily’s range contains 65% meat, whereas many leading brands would appear to be a lot lower – though it can be hard to tell, as labelling is sometimes far from clear.
For example, on the ingredients panel of a standard sachet of Whiskas chicken in gravy, the first thing listed is “meat and animal derivatives (38%, of which 94% natural, including 4% chicken)”. Then it’s cereals, minerals (0.5%) and “various sugars”. A typical sachet of Felix chicken in jelly says the ingredients are “meat and animal derivatives (of which chicken 4%), fish and fish derivatives, minerals, various sugars”.
Four per cent seems to be a common figure when it comes to the meat or fish stated on the packet.
However, if you want to ensure your cat is “only getting the good stuff,” as Morrison puts it, you can expect to pay quite a bit more. With Whiskas or Felix wet food, for example, you might be looking at around 25p for 100g sachet in a box of 12, while a standard 85g individual serving from Lily’s Kitchen might set you back around 84p in a multipack.When it comes to raw food, the science is arguably dubious. In fact, Cats Protection (formerly the Cats Protection League) says there are no clinical studies to argue it is better than cooked. “Shop-bought raw food is not the same as a freshly killed rodent or bird, particularly as it is likely to have been refrigerated or frozen,” it says. “Cats in the wild eat the entire animal, so just feeding chicken breasts or similar will not meet all its nutritional needs.
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“There is also an increased risk of infections such as E coli, salmonella and campylobacter, which can cause disease in cats and serious illness in humans – and the potential link between raw food and TB is a further concern.”Cowlam told me a bad diet can lead to many problems including obesity, heart, liver or kidney disease, cystitis, or poor growth and development. The number one reason for cat owners claiming on insurer Direct Line’s policies last year was gastro-related illnesses. When my cats recently turned their noses up at Whiskas, I mentioned it on Twitter, and the company replied that this may be linked to the fact that it had made some changes to its recipe.
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It says: “We’ve made the gravy and jelly much thicker and enhanced the appearance, making each recipe more distinctive across the different varieties. We have also ensured that the balance of minerals support a healthy urinary tract.”
In a statement, it said cats naturally seek variety in their foods, “which is why we regularly change our recipes”.While Oscar and Dennis are undeniably spoilt, I’m not ready to pay almost £1 per meal. But to avoid more vet bills, they are going to have to settle for a dry food with a higher percentage of meat or fish – and less additional ingredients – and, of course, the occasional treat.