Cat Food Around the World

Prejudiced Palates

Each country has its own "palate prejudices" which affects what gets fed to domestic pets. In Japan, fish features prominently in the human diet and this taste preference is transferred to Japanese cats which are often fed clam-flavor or squid-flavor food. Although popular belief has it that cats instinctively adore fish, fish is not a cat’s favorite flavor. A cat’s taste preference is largely based on what it is accustomed to eating – and Japanese cats are accustomed to eating a fish-based diet that parallels that of their owners. In the same way, laboratory kittens fed on an experimental diet of cheese-flavored mashed potato developed a taste for the stuff.

In European countries meats such as rabbit and duck feature on the menus of both cat and human. Spicy foods are frequently rejected by European cats, but cats in places such as Mexico, where human food is spicy, often accept spicy foods, having become accustomed to scavenging spicy leftovers. Some Spanish cat owners add chopped peppers to their cat’s food bowl to enliven bland canned cat food!

America, the home of the burger, is a beef-based culture. Lamb and mutton do not figure highly on the menu. Consequently lamb does not figure prominently in American cat food, except in "hypo-allergenic" feline diets. Because lamb is fed so infrequently to American cats, most have not had the opportunity to develop an allergic reaction to sheep protein. This would not hold true in Britain (for example) where sheep farming is an important part of the economy and where lamb-flavor pet foods are common.

So far, I have found that British cat food contains the most diverse flavors with ingredients including shrimp, prawn, lobster, crab, red mullet, pork, venison, pheasant and quail alongside the more standard varieties of tuna, trout, salmon (plain or smoked), pilchard, sardine, cod, chicken, turkey, rabbit, beef, lamb, liver, kidney and heart. Some cat food include cooked vegetable, rice, pasta, eggs, milk or cheese. Many accuse British people of being insular, but British cats have wide-ranging tastes and are willing to try anything.

In British cat food, pork and other pig products are uncommon. Horse, donkey, whale, dolphin, porpoise and kangaroo are not found in British cat foods. Whale, dolphin and porpoise is not permitted on ecological grounds. Equine is a cultural taboo. Kangaroo seems to be for environmental reasons, but mainly as a result of a scare story many years back. Floor sweepings containing sawdust are also not allowed and following the BSE outbreak, certain parts of animals must not be used in pet food. In some countries there are tales of euthanized cats and dogs being included in pet food, but this is not permitted in the UK.

My own cats’ favorite (unanimous vote among my tinned-food eaters) is Whiskas Ocean Fish Platter produced in Australia and brought here by a friend with a sense of humor. Interestingly British Whiskas got a firm thumbs down despite "eight out of ten owners saying their cats prefer it". Sorry chaps, but they’ll plough through endless bowls of supermarket own brands, but barely sniff at a plate of the purple-packaged stuff, a reaction normally only reserved for anything called "chunks in gravy" (any brand).

Whiskas in Australia comes in a number of intriguing flavors including Salmon and Chicken, Minced Beef, Beef with Rice, Lamb with Egg, Salmon with Cheese and the Ocean Fish Platter much loved by my cats. Aussie Whiskas is produced by Uncle Ben’s of Australia; Uncle Ben’s is best known in the UK for rice and sauces. Australian Whiskas can also be found in Malaysia, Singapore etc. Fancy Feast, a brand familiar to US cats, is also available in Malaysia – in the UK it is known as Friskies Gourmet.

While considering the ubiquitous Whiskas brand, Whiskas kitten food was available in multiple flavors (Beef, Rabbit, Chicken-and-Liver) in France long before it was in Britain. I also first found cat food (both dry and tinned) with "petits legumes" (vegetable pieces) in France. In Britain, Kit-e-kat "Turkey and Carrot" variety was discontinued although a number of small foil-tray cat foods incorporate have added vegetables and some dried foods have vegetable or dairy flavored pieces.

I have found Japanese brands rubbing shoulders with American and Australian brands in some Singapore stores. "Mimy" a fish cat food in plain fish, fish-and-egg or fish with carrot and baby sweet corn flavors. English slogans are currently much used in Japanese advertising hence "Aijou Monogatari Series for every occasion and scene, maintains good relationship with your companion animals". Hills Science Diet produce a can of "Canine and Feline Mixit" which I assume is dual purpose food and many other international varieties are found in Japan: Kal Kan (i.e. Whiskas and Brekkies), Sheba, Royal Canin, Iams, Purina Cat Chow, Natural Life Feline Formula, Friskies.

Cat Food Advertising

As you would expect cat foods are advertised and described in ways to appeal to particular countries. British varieties are relatively free of hype. Sainsbury appealed to hunter-gather in an island race by producing "Fisherman’s Choice" and "Gamekeeper’s Choice" lines. Hi-Life produced Breakfast Platter which contains egg and bacon – the components of a good early morning fry-up in the UK. In comparison, American cat foods are more often promoted as "Feast" or "Entree" (dried food is known as "kibble" in the US). British foods may be "Gourmet" or even "Purrfect" while French varieties are "Pate", "Bouchees", "Terrine legere" or "Delice de".

How are cat foods marketed in various countries? In the UK, Sainsbury’s cat and dog foods depicted a clever cat and dog outwitting a burglar and then tucking into a reward of ‘Scout’ (dog food) and ‘Paws’ (for cats). ‘Arthurs’ has a white shorthaired cat who dips his paw into the can and eats what he scoops out. ‘Sheba’ foil trays ‘show how much you love her’ (supposedly it’s a British Blue in the ads, but in actual fact the cat use is a Chartreux – a French breed not recognized in the UK).

‘Felix’ uses a mischievous cartoon cat whose long-suffering owner rewards his antics with ‘Felix’. The ads generally show cats bounding around outdoors to build up a healthy appetite before returning home for food and a snooze – it reflects the British cats’ indoor-outdoor lifestyle. In magazines, Whiskas may adopt a scientific tone. Most of the ads use mixed breed cats (moggies) though ‘Sheba’ uses a purebred. The overall message is no-nonsense cat pursues traditional lifestyle and eats nourishing nosh.

In American magazines, the ads reflect the fact that cats are kept mostly indoors and there are more purebreds than in the UK. The gourmet "Fancy Feast" is presented in a cut glass dish to a classy Shaded Silver Persian. Persians seem to have an association with feline gourmets – a Himalayan promoted "Max Cat" as food for finicky eaters. Some other American ads use hi-tech nutritional information, giving a scientific slant to the advert, to sell cat food. A few British cat food manufacturers are now promoting their brands ‘urine pH control’ properties or its scientific, vet-approved formulation, but we lag some way behind American manufacturers.

The internationally known Sheba brand is advertised on stylish black plate with a parsley garnish. This French-made advert is used all over the world with different voice-overs. Often claimed to be a British Blue, the elegant blue-gray feline is actually a Chartreux called "Top Gun" (source: "Atout Chat"). All in all, it’s a touch of French elegance on British screens.

I am at a disadvantage with Japanese adverts since I cannot read Japanese. Luckily adverts all over the world rely on images to sell products so one advert for "Mimy" cat food uses a photo of a succulent piece of cooked fish, guaranteed to make owner’s mouths water. "Carat" brand featured both a Shaded Silver Persian and a Spotted Silver Shorthair and "Kal Kan" (Whiskas/ Brekkies) combines pictures of healthy non-pedigree cats with graphs of supporting nutritional information. There is also a brand called "?" (the Greek letter Mu) which combines science and pun!

The Australian Whiskas cat is shown licking his chops, but the classy-looking cat breeds seem to reserve their services for wormer adverts, of which there are a great profusion! Cat food seems to be less heavily advertised in the Australian magazines compared to the great number of competing brands which advertise in British and American magazines.

Cat Food in Japan

Despite the horror stories of discarded or neglected animals, the keeping of cats as pets, rather than utilitarian animals, has boomed in Japan since the 1980s. The number of pets and the number of pet-owning households are increasing year by year with an 10 million pet dogs and 7 million pet cats. Approximately 30% of Japanese households (45.06 million) keep a cat or dog. This is due to several factors: an increase in incomes and leisure time, a growing number of older people and the breakdown of the extended family situation, the increasingly solitary nature of modern lifestyles and also falling birth-rate which has resulted in pets being considered family members rather than simply animals around the home. Animals provide a sense of companionship.

Japanese cats were traditionally fed on leftovers such as fish heads or mashed fish and leftover rice, plus of course any food they caught for themselves. The concept of commercial cat food appeared at first to be an extravagance in Japanese eyes. However, as imported pet foods arrived on the market, Japanese owners’ fondness for convenience and for their pets combined with the increase in living standards and rising incomes made the use of commercially prepared pet foods more realistic. What began at first as a status symbol (American or European pet food) soon became an established part of the cat owner’s life. Some cat foods still have an English-language slogan (sometimes rather mangled) on the label.

The world’s first pet food appears to have been a dry biscuit in Britain in around 1860. Canned and dried meat pet foods appeared in the 1930s. In the 1960s, the pet food market in Britain and America expanded greatly. By comparison, Japanese pet cats lagged behind, still eating their traditional fish-and-rice diet. It is unclear when pet food first appeared in Japan, but theory has it that pet food was brought to Japan by the US army serving there. However, in terms of calories, cat food still accounts for a smaller proportion of pets’ diets than in Europe or North America reflecting the fact that pet-keeping is a more recent phenomenon in Japan. However, traditional foods for cats are becoming more scarce. Fish heads, once a staple part of cat diets, are less common due to fish being sold filleted rather than being prepared at home from whole fish.

The earliest imports of cat food into Japan was canned cat food, used at first by just a few cat lovers, many of them Europeans or Americans who were living and working in Japan and who demanded home comforts not only for themselves, but for their pets. In the 1970s, domestically produced pet food went on sale in Japan and the use of pet food became more common and more widespread. The pet food market really took off in about 1985. Pet food imports have grown from 28.695 billion Yen in 1989 to a staggering 75.170 billion Yen in 1998 – more than doubling in under a decade. 96.1% (by volume) of the pet food distributed in Japan is cat or dog food, 30% of which is cat food.

Over 90% of imported pet food comes from three countries: the USA, Australia and Thailand. These three countries have plentiful supplies of livestock and seafood. The fourth major supplier is Argentina, accounting for 2.5% of imports. The USA and Australia export mainly dry dog foods to Japan, while Thailand exports mostly canned cat food.

The expanding pet food market has attracted foreign-affiliated firms and domestic/foreign joint ventures, mostly from countries where the pet food industry has reached saturation point. There are still many Japanese cat owners who have not (yet) made the transition from traditional cat food to commercial cat diets. Price competition and competition for outlets is fierce. Industries long associated with pet foods in the USA and Europe and diversifying into the pet food market in Japan e.g. fertilizer manufacturers, livestock feed makers, human food manufacturers and other companies which use a meat or fish rendering process. Japanese manufacturers operate in the USA, Australia and Thailand etc (i.e. close to the raw materials, thus cutting costs).

Since tastes in pet foods mirror people’s eating habits and utilize by-products and waste products from the human food industry, fish flavor cat food is most common in Japan compared to meat or poultry flavors in the USA and Europe. Japan is a fish oriented culture although many younger Japanese people are adopting an American-style meat-rich diet (and suffering American-style obesity and health problems). The increased meat trade in Japan means increased meat by-products which can be utilized by the pet food industry. Multinational or franchise manufacturers tailor their products to the country where it is sold – the same brand will taste quite different depending on whether it is intended for the Japanese market or the European or American markets.

The Japanese cat food industry is self-regulated. Like Britain and North America it requires feeding instructions and a list of ingredients to be displayed on the label or packaging. Japanese pet foods have moved away from the expensive gourmet ingredients as canned cat food is no longer a status symbol, but an everyday item. There is more and more emphasis on healthy diets with ingredients added to boost the immune system or prevent oral disease and on natural additives which reduce fecal and urine odor. Life-stage formula foods are also popular.

Where No Can Has Gone Before

What of cats in places where canned and packet foods are either unavailable or unaffordable? Those cats’ diets also mirror the human diet, partly because it is composed of "leftovers". Many cats in rural areas of Japan tuck into a mush of fish and rice while those in Italy tackle pasta as part of their diet. In farmland America a mix called "clabber" (partly composed of thickened milk I think) was fed to farm cats prior to convenience cat foods and of course, the "cat’s meat man" selling meat scraps was a common sight in London, England. Many British pet cats still eat pet mince and butchers’ scraps, though not usually as their staple diet. In Kenya meat scraps are standard fare for pet cats (though most are expected to be largely self-sufficient) since any cat food must be imported and is hence prohibitively expensive. In the Punjab, house cats are given the rind from meat (e.g. from mutton and goat).

Harbor cats learn to like fish while those in the countryside may come to prefer meat. Feral cats everywhere will tackle almost anything edible; they may have come to prefer certain flavors, but they cannot afford to ignore edible offerings from tourists. I’ve seen Cretan cats tackle grapes and sponge cake in addition to squid and swordfish, Tunisian cats eating plain omelet, Turkish strays scoffing smoked sausage and scrambled egg, Malaysian moggies eating noodles and egg-fried rice and Kenyan cats eating grain-and-meat "porridge". Their diets often come to mirror not cultural tastes, but tourist tastes.