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Is Your “Natural” Cat Food Truly Natural?

By Elizabeth Wasserman
The health food craze has caught up with kitty.

Over the years, people have become more concerned about
making sure the food they put on the table for their families is
"natural" or minimally processed. Now that concern is being
extended to what they put in their cat’s dish, according to Katy
J. Nelson, D.V.M., an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va.,
who also works on pet nutrition.

But just what is a "natural" cat food?
Regulation of Cat Food

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulates labeling of cat food in the United
States so that companies can't make claims about pet food products that are untrue. The FDA also
regulates pet food, although the administration doesn’t directly state what constitutes a “natural”
product.

The AAFCO defines the term "natural" as being “… derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources …
not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might
occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

Most commercial pet foods do contain some synthetic sources of essential vitamins and minerals in order
to comply with AAFCO's requirements that the food be "complete and balanced" to meet a pet's
nutritional needs, says Amy Dicke, D.V.M., a Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian who has worked with
teams of nutritionists and researchers.

While experts like Dr. Nelson and Dr. Dicke caution that there is no scientific agreement yet that
natural foods provide more safety or nutritional value than certified "complete and balanced" cat foods,
they add that natural ingredients certainly don't hurt. "I don't want people to expect health miracles
from feeding a natural food," says Dr. Dicke. "There is no evidence that supports that a natural product
is better or safer than, let's say, a traditional product. But I'm not saying that it's worse. It's a personal
choice … another feeding option."

Natural Ingredients to Look For

Protein Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that, due to their genetic makeup, cats need to eat
the tissue of other animals to survive. Meat must be the primary source of their nutrition, so one of the
first ingredients should identify the protein source: poultry, fish or some other meat.

Byproducts This term has gotten a bad rap. Meat- or plant-based byproducts fit the definition of
"natural" under the AAFCO regulations. "Good, high-quality pet food byproducts don't need to be a
four letter word," Dr. Nelson says. Think about a cat's diet in the wild. Feral felines eat mice, and not
only the white meat, but also the organs and tissue. These byproducts often give cats essential amino
acids, such as taurine.

Grains Natural sources of carbohydrates, such as corn meal, brewer's rice and whole grain barley, can
provide energy for your cat's activities during the day, Dr. Dicke says.

Fruits and vegetables Spinach, tomatoes and peas are rich in vitamin E and antioxidants that will
help your cat build its immunity. Beet pulp and apples are a great source of fiber to keep your cat
regular. Some added vitamins and minerals are needed in commercial pet foods to meet the AAFCO
standards, but if the food contains high-quality ingredients, there shouldn't be much supplementation.

No added artificial colors, flavors or preservatives "Natural" cat foods should not have synthetic
fillers, artificial colors or flavors or man-made preservatives. Natural flavors and colors are okay. Some
preservatives are naturally occurring, such as vitamin E and tocopherols (TCP), which are fine to help
preserve food.

In deciding on a food, talk to your veterinarian about your cat's individual needs. Some pet food
companies also list toll-free phone numbers on their packaging so that you can call and ask questions
about the nutritional contents of their foods.


Elizabeth Wasserman, a Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about pets, among
other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed down through the
generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book Lassie Come Home in the
1930s.