On a recent episode of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, we discussed some research that (unsurprisingly) found that adding a whiff of “science” to your advertisement may result in better sales. I joked about how I used to feed my cats Science Diet because “science” was right there in the name, until I did some research and realized that it was overpriced crap.
This encouraged one listener named Keith to send the following email:
I’m a huge fan. Been listening to the show for about 5-6 years, plus the back episodes.
I was quite taken aback at the blatant, non-skeptical product defamation that Rebecca decided to go with on the show. Typical of her Skepchick stuff, but not on SGU.
I have dogs, cats, horses. I’ve had chickens and geese. My wife and I take a very researched approach to what to feed them. Although the information is hard to navigate as most everything out there is based on some subjective opinion, the only dog and cat food out there, that I could find with any actual science behind it was Science Diet. And this I found after years of believing Science Diet was just hype. I fed the Wellness product to the cats and dogs, and The Call of the Wild stuff. As well as other things with feel good names and claims about ingredients. The problem is that their claims don’t necessarily have to be true, or can be misleading. Not unlike “organic” or “all natural”.
Again, the legitimate information out there is sparse, but just because a product, as we all know as skeptics, isn’t some “all natural” labeled product doesn’t make it crap.
I do sincerely love the show, and have a fondness for you guys. I’m just not comfortable with slandering a product without presenting actual skeptical research into the product. I’m interested to see if there is any evidence to show that I shouldn’t feed my animals Science Diet, other than some dubious claim to better ingredients.
Now, considering that Keith immediately insulted this website, offered zero facts to support his assertion, AND coined the hilarious phrase “non-skeptical product defamation” to describe my comment, he’s clearly not actually interested in a response. But I did think it would be a fun topic for others who, like me, stress out about making the healthiest decisions in regards to our furry little babies.
I used to feed my cats nothing but dry food, because it was cheap and easy, especially for someone like me who travels a lot.
The problem is that dry food is, well, dry. It doesn’t contain the water that cats need to thrive. You can supplement that with a water dish, but it can still lead to urinary problems.
In fact, I had a male cat who died of a urinary tract blockage, and at the time I was told it may have been due to his litter (as well as due to his sex and age). So, I switched to a different kind for future cats and swore I’d never have another male cat. Years later, a female cat around the same age also developed urinary problems. I’ve finally realized that it was most likely due to the dry food I was feeding them.
Wet food, by comparison, gives cats approximately the same amount of moisture that they’d get from their natural diet of mouse brains and bird entrails. Dry food gives them about 1/10 the water they need, and because they evolved to get their water from prey, they don’t tend to drink up the amount of extra water they need to make up for dry food.
So, I started feeding my cats primarily wet food. I chose Science Diet because it was recommended by one of my vets as well as a shelter where I picked up my previous two cats. And seriously, the other reasons were pure marketing: it has the word “science” in it, and it costs more than the stuff at the supermarket. It must be good, right?
Well, honestly, it’s probably good enough. I don’t think feeding a cat Science Diet is an awful thing, especially if it’s the wet food. But it’s not the smartest thing, by a long shot.
There are two basic things to look for when choosing a wet food: fat/carb/protein composition and by-products. Okay, three things: those two, plus price. I’m not made of money.
The by-product thing is, in my opinion, not really the biggest of deals, but it is something to consider. “By-products” can include lots of things, some of which are actually quite good for your cat, like liver. But it can also include things like ground up bones, which aren’t terrible for a cat (after all, those are also part of their natural diet) but you don’t want that to be the majority of their food for them to get the nutrition they need.
The bigger concern, in my opinion, is the breakdown of fats vs proteins vs carbohydrates. Cats are pure carnivores, so ideally their diet would consist of a lot of protein, a bit of fat, and very little carbs – like, less than 2% carbs.
You can’t figure out how your wet food breaks down in that respect just by reading the label. You can get an idea: for instance, if the label boasts that it’s “chicken and rice,” you would probably want to avoid that since rice is an otherwise pointless carb filler that your cat doesn’t need. But if you want the exact breakdown, you have to actually call the company and ask them.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? Luckily, the Internet exists, and other people have done this legwork to varying degrees. The best chart I’ve found thus far comes from the amazingly informative and science-based vet who posts at CatInfo.org. It’s a little out of date and by no means exhaustive, but it’s certainly a great start. This is the chart that made me realize what a waste of money Science Diet is. I was feeding my cats the Indoor Cat Chicken Entree (Brendon (pictured) is particular about his meat…it’s chicken or nothing), which is made up of 30% protein, 48% fat, and 21% carbs. And if you look at the ingredients, meat by-products rank awfully high (and they list liver separately, so those by-products are more likely to be filler).
Compare that to Authority Chicken, which is what I switched to when I found it at PetSmart for nearly half the price of Science Diet: 36% protein, 61% fat, and 3% carbs. There are no “by-products” listed under the catch-all word.
Now knowing that, why would you ever choose Science Diet over Authority?
Well, for one, Science Diet is easier to find. I’ve only found Authority at PetSmart, and it’s not available online at all. I’ve just moved to a PetSmart-free area, and so I’ve had to (at least temporarily) switch to Wellness, which costs a bit more (though it’s cheaper than Science Diet if you get the big cans). It contains 30% protein, 66% fat, and 4% carbs. Like Authority, the ingredients don’t list “by-products” as a catch-all.
One other thing to watch out for: because cats are strict carnivores, their protein should come from animals, not plants. Cats don’t have the enzymes necessary to get the same kind of nutrition from plant protein. Be wary of companies getting all braggy about ingredients like pumpkin. I noticed that “sweet potatoes,” “squash,” and “zucchini” are ingredients in Wellness, which just boggles my mind. If I give my cats a squash, they might bat it around for a bit of fun but they sure as hell won’t eat it. Those are not cat foods. Get your shit together, Wellness. (EDIT: Check out Quincy’s comment below for another view on squash!)
Anyway, if you want to go further down this research rabbit hole, start at CatInfo.org and go from there. If you want to keep buying Science Diet or Purina or Fancy Feast or whatever, go for it. Just switching from dry food to wet food will, in my unprofessional opinion, do a world of good and absolve you of any guilt you may feel for not spending several weeks researching meat glop like I did.
I’ll end with some disclaimers: I haven’t been paid by any company I’ve mentioned. I’m not in the pocket of Big Cat Food. I’m not a veterinarian. Unlike Keith, I have never owned a horse OR a goose. I helped my friend Larry get some chickens once but I don’t think he fed them canned cat food. And finally, “defaming” a product in a recorded audio piece is technically libel, not slander. Lawyers for Science Diet and/or Keith can contact me here for more information.