Is It OK To Give A Cat Only Dry Food?

Updated April 13, 2021

Listen to this rubbish.

If your cat only eats dry food, she is likely to be getting less nutrition than a cat eating wet food. Many low-quality dry foods contain a lot of fillers.

Throwaway lines like these are typical of the overly simplistic advice you find online about feline nutrition. The truth takes a deeper look. To know whether wet, dry or both are best for your cat, we need to talk about:

  • nutritional adequacy & completeness
  • fillers in wet & dry cat food
  • the risk of obesity
  • diseases associated with wet & dry foods
  • other alternative cat diets

Let’s dive in!

Complete vs Unbalanced Cat Foods

The main reason why the opening statement misses the point is that more than half of available wet foods are severely lacking in essential ingredients. I’ve listed Aussie examples here and shown you how to tell from the packaging. Therefore, while plenty of good, balanced wet foods exist, if you feed the others, your cat risks suffering a nutritional deficiency.

Dry diets, on the other hand, are almost always balanced for all essential nutrients. If you then feed an unbalanced wet food with these, it generally doesn’t matter so much. And yes, for nutritional completeness you can just feed a dry diet. But that still isn’t the whole story.

Fillers In Cat Food

Now let’s clear up some myths about fillers. By this, most people mean carbohydrates from grain sources. Here, three things are clearly true:

  1. High levels of carbohydrate in cat foods are not natural
  2. Despite this, most cats tolerate high levels of carbohydrate
  3. Many wet foods are as bad as dry foods

I have written before about the problematic levels of carbohydrate in cat foods, and I’m not going to make any excuses for the companies. However, despite being a vet who regularly trials sick cats on low carbohydrate diets, it’s actually rare that I get a positive response.

Similarly, there’s no evidence that high carb levels are by themselves dangerous to cats. And before going on, I want you to notice that most dry diets sold as grain-free have just swapped the carbs out for another source, such as sweet potato. This is marketing, not nutrition.

So let’s relax a bit about carbs. While not great, they’re mostly a minor evil. If you still want to feed a low carb diet, and why wouldn’t you, I’ve made a list of carbohydrate levels in Australian wet cat foods. There’s an online calculator you can use if your food isn’t listed.

Do Dry Foods Cause Obesity?

If you research the risk factors for feline obesity, you’ll find that dry foods don’t get a mention. So the answer is ‘no’. Instead, it’s much more important how you feed.

The reason dry foods get such a bad name is that they are so often left out for a cat to ‘graze’ on. This whole concept of free feeding is severely frowned upon by vets, because very few cats can be trusted to regulate their food intake.

Click here for advice on converting a free feeder to accepting timed regular meals. Once you do it, you’re at least three-quarters of the way to fixing feline obesity.

Disease Risks With Wet vs Dry Foods

There are only two evidence-based risks based on the food type.

Firstly, lower urinary tract disease in cats is more common on dry diets. These are the cats that get cystitis regularly, or have urinary obstructions. If a cat starts showing symptoms, I will always recommend a wet-only diet. However, as less than 5% of cats experience this problem, my opinion is that this advice doesn’t need to apply to all cats.

Dental disease, on the other hand, is more common on wet foods. However, the difference, while real, is small. Where it gets significant is when you choose the dry dental foods made by Hills or Royal Canin. These can be extremely effective in preventing tooth and gum disease.

Any other diseases you might read about are only in the author’s overly fertile imagination. That includes diabetes, liver, gastrointestinal and skin diseases. And in all the years of performing wellness blood testing, I have yet to find a healthy cat that’s dehydrated just from eating dry foods.

Alternatives To Commercial Cat Foods

What about following some of the advice that says you can make a raw diet for your cat instead?

When I read this I get very, very cross. Cats aren’t little dogs. There’s almost no way a normal person without specialised training and equipment can make a reliably balanced cat food.

You can either have a cat literally eating wild foods, or you have to accept the safety of manufactured cat foods. The only in-between might be found on my recipe for a wild-type cat diet which takes a bit from each. However, like all compromises, it won’t satisfy everyone.

So Are Wet Or Dry Diets Better?

cat chewing food

The reality that for most cats, a 100% dry diet will be perfectly adequate, and no reason to feel guilty. I recommend spending as much as you can, as it’s clear that urinary problems go down as quality goes up. I also need you to understand feline water needs.

Dry foods are incredibly convenient, which is why I rely on one for my kitty (that’s him here). However he also gets cat grass, a raw chicken neck a day, and as you can see I keep his weight under control. All these factors increase my sense of security.

You may feel guilty and want to add a tasty wet food, and in theory that’s OK. My complaint is that when people who already choose a high quality dry get a wet food, it’s often a low quality one. That’s because wet foods need to be bought frequently, and so most people get them with their supermarket shop.

In the end, if the quality of your wet and dry cat foods are similar, it makes very little difference which one you choose.

Related: Supermarket vs Pet Store: What’s The Difference?

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

17 Replies to “Is It OK To Give A Cat Only Dry Food?”

  1. I have the opposite question to many commenters: is it okay to feed a cat only wets? We have an 8-year-old who’s always had sensitive digestion, but had a bout of gastritis so bad that we’ve switched him to a prescription food for sensitive cats and we expect to be feeding it going forward, since he’s doing very well. However, the wet food is significantly cheaper than the dry — it works out to about 75 cents a meal, vs nearly $2 for the mixed wet and dry. He also sometimes throws up dry food, but never wets. I have to assume a prescription diet is well-balanced nutritionally, but will he suffer from not having dry food? Thank you!

  2. I have 7 kittens and two adult cats, all fixed. Before the 7 came along. I used to feed the adults snacks of cheese, raw hamburger or whatever I’ve got on hand. They would stand by the refrigerator waiting for their snacks. I don’t dare to give them anything besides their usual dry food. I don’t want any “beggars” so I don’t give them snacks. I am in a dilemma because the adults are begging me. Ugh.

    What can I do? Thank you if you can help me.

    1. Hi Shirley. As you can tell from the article, I’m very keen on feeding good quality dry food to my cat, but you might be pleased to know that I still give him a treat every day too. The trick is to make the treat timing so predictable that he only begs me just before it and not all the day. In my case, I get it ready while I’m making a coffee and he knows that the sound of the coffee machine means a treat is coming. I then make sure not to do it at any other time.

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Another great article! I’m feeding my 9 month year old kitten 85g of Pro Plan wet food and half a cup of Black Hawk dry food a day. I’m wondering if I can cut back on or eliminate the wet food and if so, how?

    However, she does love the wet food so it feels cruel to do so. But it would be cheaper to just feed her dry & give her treats. Appreciate your time!

  4. This was definitely a good read. I’ve been in my cats life since she was 8weeks old. At the beginning she was eating a mixture of wet and dry foods (all Purina) with treats in the morning and evening (dentalife for teeth and gum health & temptations) being sure that she had less than the daily recommended amounts.
    She turned 2 in January though I noticed between 1.5 to now, she’s eating less wet food and mostly just her biscuits. I every now and then will give her chicken meat (poached/plain) which she loves.
    Would you recommend cutting the wet food and replacing it with some poached chicken or a chicken neck?
    Also would you recommend cutting the treats? (I tend to place them around the house as a trail that she follows)
    Thank you so much and I look forward to hearing from you soon

    1. Hi Clinton. There’s no real need to give the poached chicken but you certainly can for treat purposes. And while on the subject, treats are okay as long as they stick to under 5% of the total diet. There’s nothing wrong with having Hansel and Gretel style trails around the house to keep your cat amused. Just make sure it doesn’t interfere with the better part of the diet.
      As you know from the article, I’m agnostic about whether you continue the wet food or not. It doesn’t sound like it’s worth bothering with in your case. The big exception is cats prone to cystitis.
      As you know, I would be feeding a chicken neck a day rather than plain chicken meat so you also get the dental benefits but this can be hard to start if not already done from a kitten. Read more about this here.

  5. Aloha from Hawaii! Thank you for your most helpful information. I read, above, where you give your cat a raw chicken neck daily. How do they handle the bones? I’ve been told fish & chicken bones can kill cats, though it doesn’t really make sense.
    Also, just curious, I’ve got a loving old stray. Is there a way to detect his age? Mahalo nui loa, Michèle PS I had a friend from Adelaid, Brian Gray. He’s in Heaven now!

    1. Hi Michèle. In case I haven’t put it in the article, here is a link to a guide to feeding raw chicken necks to cats. The bones should be no more problematic than the bones of their usual prey items would be, and I have never seen a problem, though I cannot completely rule it out.
      Age determination in adult cats is just an approximation I’m afraid.

    2. Why is it OK to give a cat a raw chicken neck when there are so many bones inside of a chicken neck? That seems dangerous to give the cat a chicken neck because of all the bones.

      1. Hi Harvey. It’s a good question. The first thing to say is that there’s certainly no guarantee of safety, and choking or bone lodgement could definitely occur, even though I have never seen it in a cat. The reality is that cats are very close to their wild ancestors, and generally consume their prey bones and all in a very methodical and careful manner. They generally do the same with a chicken neck, but if you had a very greedy cat, you would possibly need to be careful.

  6. This was such a helpful article, thanks so much for clearing this up. We recently adopted a kitten and when we got him (4 months) he had been eating a mix of wet and dry. Now (at 6 months) when I give him wet food (Hills Science Diet) he licks the gravy a bit and leaves the rest. He’s very enthusiastic about his dry food (Advance), and grazes all day (he’s small for his age, and our vet says this is fine for now?) and drinks heaps of water. Should I bother shopping around for a wet food he’ll eat?

  7. Great article, thanks. We recently adopted two cats, neither cats will eat wet food very much. One of the cats is obese, about 8.5 kg and I was worried its dry food only diet was causing it. We are only feeding them twice a day so grazing is not the issue, about a cup and a half a day. When she is fed she will never eat it at one time and comes back and forth over about an hour or more and finishes it off. I have no idea what the previous owners fed her to allow her weight to get to this point, she is about 3 years old. Reading your article the only thing we could do better is get higher quality dry food.

    1. Hi Austin. I assume you mean a cup and a half between the two cats, which still sounds a little high. For example, my cat eats 1/4 of a cup of biscuits twice a day. Don’t forget that food packets overestimate the amount needed for the vast majority of cats. The true amount can only be determined from feedback by watching the change in weight over time.

      1. My cats will only eat Farmina dry Boar and apple food. The thing I worry about is in the last ingredient it says it has a pinch of green tea extract. My cats won’t eat wet but graze on this all day. Do you think it is okay for them…the ingredients are super good except for the green tea.

      2. Hi Denisse. I’m not familiar with the food, but if it’s marketed as complete and balanced in your country then that’s the best information you have to go on. I’m not aware of green tea being toxic to cats at these doses.

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