Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Savings challenge, week 4: Kitty cuisine

This week's topic in the Bankrate 52-Week Savings Challenge is about how to save on dog food by making it yourself. Since we don't have a dog, this challenge isn't really relevant for us; dogs and cats have different nutritional needs, and the recipes they recommend for dogs wouldn't necessarily be healthful for cats. But I figured I might as well use the topic as an opportunity to talk about what we feed our cats, and how much it costs us.

When we got our first cat, Amélie, about eleven years ago, we initially tried feeding her a combination of canned food and dry food, since that's what they'd been giving her at the shelter. However, we quickly discovered that she wasn't all that interested in the canned food; she'd eat a couple of bites of it, then walk away and leave the rest. This seemed awfully wasteful, so we asked our vet about it, and he said there should be no problem with feeding her just dry food. (It's worth noting that not all vets agree with this view. When I researched cat food on ConsumerSearch, I found that some of the experts cited in the report say cats have a low "thirst drive" because they've evolved to get most of the moisture they need from their food. Thus, on a diet of dry food, they won't get enough water and will be prey to kidney and bladder problems. However, the report adds that "most vets" see no problem with dry food, and I was more inclined to take the advice of our vet, who had actually seen and examined Amélie, than one who had never met her.)

The dry food we gave Amélie was the Authority brand from PetSmart, since it's what she was used to. An 18-pound bag of the stuff cost $27 and lasted us about four months, so altogether it cost us about $81 a year to feed her. Now, admittedly, this is not a grain-free "premium" brand, which is what many vets consider ideal for cats. However, once again, vets are divided on this issue; the cat food FAQ at PetMD.com, for instance, says that grain-free foods are "not necessarily" preferable to formulas with some grain. The main point on which all sources seem to agree is that the chief ingredient in any cat food should be meat, since cats are true carnivores and can't get all the nutrients they need from plants. The Authority food met this standard, and once again, our vet said it was fine, and we knew she'd eat it happily, so we decided not to mess with success.

Of course, I can't honestly claim that Amélie never ailed a day in her life on this diet, since she developed hyperthyroidism at age 11 and eventually died at 13 from a rare brain disorder, but neither of these problems is likely to have had anything to do with her diet. (Vet Lisa Pierson at CatInfo.org notes that there may be some link between thyroid problems and a diet high in fish or soy, but Authority doesn't contain either of these.) We can say for a fact that she never developed urinary tract infections, diabetes, or any of the other problems that Pierson insists will result from feeding your cat dry food.

You might think that if this worked fine for Amélie, we'd just stick with the same regimen for our new kittens. But we decided, since so many vets seem to recommend canned food over dry, to try them on a mixture of the two and see how they liked it. We found that they would eat canned food readily enough, as long as they weren't given too much at once—maybe a third of a small can or a sixth of a large one. (We also found, to our amusement, that when we give each one her own dish of food, she will eat part of it and then switch bowls with her sister, as if she's wondering whether the other bowl has something better than what she ordered.) So we give them a dollop of canned food every evening, and for the rest of the day, we leave out a big dish full of the dry stuff for them to nosh on at will. Our medium-sized tart pan, which we've never actually used for baking, turns out to be just the right size for the two of them to share with minimal spillage.

We've been getting our canned cat food from Trader Joe's. A 5.5-ounce can of their food costs only 79 cents, making it actually cheaper than most of the brands sold in little cans at the supermarket—and the quality, according to ConsumerSearch, is far better. It's not grain-free, but neither are many "premium" cat foods, and our cats eat it up quite happily. So, if we figure they go through a can of this stuff every 6 days, that works out to around $48 per year. That's on top of the dry food, which, if they were going through it at the same rate as Amélie, would be another $162 per year. However, it's a bit early to say whether they're actually eating the same amount she did; they might go through it faster because they're younger and more active, or slower because they're getting canned food as well. We should have a better idea in a couple of weeks, but this estimate is good enough for now.

There's one additional component in our new cats' diet that we didn't give to Amélie. When we took them to the vet for their first check-up, he said they were both suffering from upper respiratory infections, and he said it was likely they would always be prone to them after spending most of their first year in a shelter. He said a lysine supplement might help, so we looked for the stuff at several pet stores. However, all we could find was one bag of extremely expensive cat treats at our local pet boutique; the big stores didn't have even that. Our cats love the treats, but at $6 a bag, they would add about $150 a year to the cost of feeding them, so I went online looking for other alternatives. After a bit of research to compare prices and reviews, I ordered a small jar of powdered lysine from PetFoodDirect.com. (It would have cost less per ounce to buy a bigger jar of a different brand, but I wanted to make sure they would eat it first.)

It's too early to tell at this point whether the lysine is actually doing them any good, but I figure it's worth keeping them on it if it's not too expensive. The little jar cost $18 with shipping and should last about 50 days. That's only a bit cheaper than the treats—about $130 per year. However, now that I know they'll eat lysine in powdered form, I can try them on the pure stuff, with no added flavor, which is a lot cheaper. Pet owners on this forum say they give their cats 500 mg per day of the pure lysine, so at 500 mg per cat per day, a 250-gram jar should last 250 days. At $17 for the jar (including shipping), that comes out to 6.8 cents per day, or about $25 per year. That's a lot better than either the treats or the flavored stuff. Of course, that's assuming they'll eat it at all, which remains to be seen. But for a possible savings of over $100 a year, it's certainly worth risking $17 to find out.

So, assuming this lysine maneuver works out, then the total cost of feeding our new cats works out to about $235 per year—64 cents per day. Compared to the $5 per day the Bankrate reporter says he spends on his three dogs, that ain't bad at all.
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