If you wanted to feed your cat as cheaply as possible, you’d probably pick up a bag of drugstore-brand cat food and call it a day. Down the line, your bank account might be a little fuller, but it will only last so long. Low-quality cat food may meet minimum nutritional requirements, but not through the use of high-quality ingredients and not in a way your cat can easily digest. It’s only a matter of time before it catches up to him and causes serious issues like malnutrition.
- Rich in real animal protein
- Blend of omega-3
The most important lesson any cat owner can learn is that you can’t blindly trust what you read on a cat food label. Pet food manufacturers load up their labels with pretty pictures of healthy ingredients and throw around words like “real chicken,” but what does that really mean? The pet food industry isn’t as closely regulate as the human food industry, so it’s up to the individual pet owner to do some digging and find a high-quality product for their own pets.
In this article, we’ll explore the subject of fillers in cat food to help you understand what they are
and how to identify them on a pet food label. From there, we’ll show you what you SHOULD be looking for in your cat’s food and provide you with our top picks for the best cat food without fillers.
What Is The Best Cat Food Without Fillers?
- NomNomNow Fresh Food Delivery
- Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain Grain-Free
- American Journey Salmon Recipe Grain-Free
- Instinct by Nature’s Variety Original Kitten Recipe
- Wellness Complete Health Chicken & Deboned Chicken
- Canidae Grain-Free PURE Sea Limited Ingredient
- FirstMate Chicken Meal with Blueberries Formula
- Merrick Backcountry Raw Infused Game Bird
- Castor & Pollux Organix Chicken & Brown Rice
- Solid Gold Katz-n-Flocken Lamb & Brown Rice
What You Need to Know About Fillers in Cat Food
When it comes to the worst ingredients in cat food, it’s hard to choose just one – it’s better to break it down by category. Protein is the foundation of a healthy cat diet, but not all proteins are created equal. Fresh meat and poultry from named sources (like beef or chicken) is better than unnamed sources, as is fat from animal sources (how healthy does generic “animal fat” sound?). if you want to know what cat food ingredients to avoid most, however, we’re talking about fillers.
The thing to remember about pet nutrition is that your cat doesn’t have requirements for specific ingredients – he has requirements for specific nutrients. As long as his basic nutritional needs are met, they can come from a variety of sources. That isn’t to say, however, that all sources are created equal. Think about it in terms of your own diet: you already know that whole grains are better for you than refined carbohydrates, even though they may contain some of the same nutrients. If you want to get the best bang for your nutritional buck, you’d choose the whole grains. Right?
Now think about it from a different angle. Pet food manufacturers are big companies and their primary goal is to make money. The best way to do that is to produce their foods at the lowest possible cost while selling them for the highest possible cost. In human food, refined carbohydrates like white flour are much cheaper than whole-wheat flour, so which do you think a company only concerned about money is going to choose? The same goes for pet food companies.
The truth is that natural, whole-food ingredients are more expensive. Pet food manufacturers often try to front-load their ingredients lists with high-quality ingredients like chicken and brown rice, but if you keep reading you might see things like rice bran, poultry by-product meal, and corn gluten meal. These ingredients are referred to as “fillers” – they are anything added to the food that doesn’t add nutritional value. In other words, they add bulk to the product and to the pet food manufacturer’s bottom line.
What Are the Most Common Fillers in Cat Food?
By now it should be pretty obvious that fillers in cat food are bad, but what are they really? To remind you, a filler is any ingredient that is used to add bulk to the product (or in some cases, protein) without adding much nutritional value. They are generally cheap additives that don’t cost the pet food company much and can help them stretch their dollar as far as possible.
Here are some of the top cat food fillers you should avoid:
- Meat, poultry, and fish by-products – Named by-products like chicken by-products only contain the bones and organs of chicken, but unnamed by-products like meat, poultry, and fish by-products come from various sources and may include things like dead or diseased animals, euthanized animals, and even road kill.
- Cereal by-products – The remnants of breakfast cereal ingredients, these by-products come from unknown sources and may contain chemical residue, sweeteners, and other additives.
- Corn and rice bran – The bran is the outer coating of the kernel for grains like corn and rice that contain little to no nutritional value. They can be used to add bulk to pet food but don’t add much in the way of nutrition.
- Soybean and oat hulls – By-products of the milling process for soybeans and oats, hulls are little more than the “skins” of the grains and they contain little to no nutritional value for pets.
- Wheat middlings – Also known as wheat mill run, wheat middlings are the by products of human food processing for wheat products like wheat germ and wheat flour.
- Corn gluten meal – Corn is not the most nutritious ingredient for your cat anyway, but corn gluten meal in cat food is something to be particularly careful of. It is often used as a supplemental source of protein and, depending on the recipe, may outweigh fresh proteins.
What Should You Look for in a Healthy Cat Food?
Knowing what cat food ingredients to avoid is important, but you’ll have a hard time shopping that way. It’s better to start with what you DO want in your cat’s food and filter out the low-quality options. Your cat’s nutritional needs are always the top priority, so that’s your starting point.
Here’s what to look for in cat food:
- Natural, whole-food ingredients. Whether it’s a source of protein, fat, or carbohydrate it should come from a real, natural ingredient instead of a by-product or filler. Look for fresh chicken instead of poultry by-product meal and whole brown rice instead of rice bran.
- High-quality animal protein. Protein should always be the first ingredient in your cat’s food. You can even look for recipes with more than one source of protein as long as it’s mostly animal protein and not plant proteins like pea protein, potato protein, or alfalfa meal.
- Healthy animal-based fats. Fat provides a concentrated source of energy for your cat and a source of essential fatty acids like omega-3s. Animal sources like chicken fat and fish oil are best.
- Limited content of digestible carbohydrates. Cats have no biological requirement for carbohydrates in their diet and a limited ability to digest them. Any carbs in your cat’s food need to be highly digestible and nutritious like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, not fillers.
- Complete and balanced nutrition. Your cat’s diet needs to contain minimum amounts of certain nutrients for optimal health and wellness, so make sure the recipe you choose is labeled complete and balanced by AAFCO.
- No artificial additives. Artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives don’t belong in your cat’s food. Some experts include artificial additives in the list of fillers, but some don’t. It doesn’t really matter – you need to avoid them either way.
Now that you know what fillers to avoid and what to look for in a healthy cat food, you’re ready to start shopping! Before you do, however, we want to tell you how we make our cat food recommendations so you know whether you can trust the picks for filler-free cat food we list below.
How Do We Make Cat Food Recommendations?
You want what’s best for your cat and so do we. It’s really that simple! We’d never recommend a product to you that we wouldn’t be happy to feed our own cats. We hate fillers, so every cat food recipe we recommend is free from them anyway – we just want to reiterate that. What else does a cat food need to be recommended? First and foremost, it must adhere to AAFCO food nutrient profiles which ensure that the product meets your cat’s minimum nutritional requirements. From there, we look at the ingredients list to ensure that those nutrients come from high-quality, digestible natural sources.
Here are some general requirements for a cat food recipe to receive our stamp of approval:
- A source of high-quality animal protein as the first ingredient
- At least 30% crude protein for kittens and at least 26% for adults
- A minimum of 9% crude fat for kittens and adults
- A balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, primarily from animal sources
- A rich blend of nutrients from natural sources and supplements, as needed
- Limited carbohydrate content from digestible sources (like whole grains and veggies)
- No low-quality fillers, by-products, or artificial additives (preservatives, dyes, or flavors)
It’s important to remember that not all cat foods are created equal, and neither are cats. That’s not to say that some cats are better than others (though you probably think your cat is the best), but some cats have different dietary needs than others. The basic nutritional requirements are mostly the same across the board, but you need to make your own decision on the best food for your cat according to his needs and preferences. Your veterinarian can tell you whether your cat requires a special diet or if a healthy, balanced cat food is acceptable.
The 10 Best Cat Foods Without Fillers
Any cat food manufacturer worth its salt won’t use inexpensive fillers. If they do, it’s a sure sign that they’re more concerned about their bottom line than about the pets they’re feeding. Even the best pet food companies still need to make a buck, but they’re a little more honest and upfront with their customers about the fact that better ingredients cost more – they sell it as a benefit. If you’re willing to invest in your cat’s health, you should invest in a better quality (and more expensive) product.
There are hundreds of cat food brands out there that don’t use fillers and just as many that do. We couldn’t possibly list or review them all, so we’ve compiled short reviews of 10 brands you can trust:
|Our 2021 Picks: Best Cat Foods Without Fillers|
|NomNomNow Fresh Cat Food Delivery
|Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain
|American Journey Minced Chicken Recipe In Gravy
|Instinct by Nature’s Variety Original
|Wellness Complete Health
|Canidae Grain-Free PURE Sea
|FirstMate Chicken Meal
|Merrick Backcountry Raw Infused Game Bird
|Castor & Pollux Organix Chicken & Brown Rice
|Solid Gold Katz-n-Flocken Lamb & Brown Rice
Our Top Overall Pick: It is a common opinion in the pet industry that fresh food is best for pets and we agree. Low-quality commercial cat food – the type usually loaded with fillers – is cooked in high-heat processes like extrusion which end up destroying a significant amount of the nutrients in the raw ingredients. As a result, manufacturers have to add those nutrients back as supplements. NomNomNow is a fresh pet food company that cooks their recipes at lower temperatures and in smaller batches to ensure quality. They use only real, whole-food ingredients (no fillers) and formulate their recipes to exceed the minimum nutritional requirements of cats. You simply provide some basic information about your cat’s age, weight, and activity level as well as any known food allergies. NomNomNow calculates his calorie needs and sends you bags of pre-portioned cat food that you simply open and pour into your cat’s bowl.
Most Popular Cat Food without Fillers: Because there are so many cat food brands out there, it can be tough to choose one. If you have absolutely no idea where to start, try a popular brand like Taste of the Wild known for its quality. This Rocky Mountain grain-free dry food features premium animal proteins like chicken meal, roasted venison, and smoked salmon with digestible grain-free carbohydrates like peas and sweet potatoes. Chicken fat provides a rich source of essential fatty acids and fresh fruits and vegetables provide natural sources for key nutrients. No fillers or artificial additives in sight!
Most Affordable Cat Food without Fillers: You don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune to feed your cat well. The American Journey brand as a whole is very affordable and we like this salmon recipe in particular. It features fresh salmon as the main ingredient with several supplemental proteins including salmon meal and menhaden fish meal. Canola oil provides omega-6 fatty acids to balance out the omega-3s from the fish and probiotics support your cat’s healthy and regular digestion. You’ll also find fresh fruits and vegetables to provide natural and highly digestible sources for key vitamins and minerals.
Best Kitten Food without Fillers: Our favorite kitten food by far, this original kitten recipe from instinct by nature’s variety features three premium proteins as the top three ingredients: chicken, turkey meal, and menhaden fish meal. That’s not all, either! You’ll also find chicken meal, whitefish meal, and lamb meal. This recipe is packed with fresh fruits and vegetables for natural nutrient content as well as freeze-dried chicken ingredients to add a boost of flavor and nutrition. Overall, this recipe provides a full 42.5% crude protein and 22.5% crude fat which greatly exceeds your kitten’s minimum nutritional requirements.
Best Senior Cat Food without Fillers: Your cat will slow down a little in his old age, but his nutritional needs don’t significantly change – he still needs lots of protein and healthy, whole-food ingredients. This Wellness Complete Health chicken recipe is formulated for the changing needs of senior cats but is completely free from fillers and artificial additives. Fresh chicken is the first ingredient, supplemented with chicken meal and herring meal. It also contains healthy animal-based fats like chicken fat and salmon oil to provide the optimal blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. This recipe is supplemented as needed for optimal nutrition but doesn’t contain any fillers or artificial additives.
Cat Food without Fillers for Sensitive Stomach: If your cat has food sensitivities or allergies, the worst thing you can do is feed him a cat food loaded with fillers. A limited ingredient diet is a great option because it contains a shorter list of ingredients which means fewer things he can react to. Look for a novel source of protein (one he hasn’t had before) and other whole-food ingredients. We like this Canidae PURE Sea limited ingredient diet because it contains just 7 main ingredients including fresh salmon and salmon meal as the first two. Menhaden fish meal is the third ingredient, a supplemental source of protein, with potatoes, peas, and sweet potatoes for fiber, nutrients, and carbohydrate energy.
4 More Top-Rated Cat Foods without Fillers
The shorter the ingredients list the better and no recipe accomplishes that goal better than this FirstMate Chicken Meal with Blueberries Formula. A limited ingredient diet with just four main ingredients (aside from nutritional supplements), this recipe is highly digestible and packed with healthy nutrition. Chicken meal is the first ingredient followed by potatoes, chicken fat, and whole blueberries, making this a nutrient-rich and filler-free cat food your cat will love.
Raw food is extremely nutritious, but it simply isn’t practical for most pet owners. This Merrick Backcountry Raw Infused Game Bird Recipe offers a great compromise. It’s high-protein kibble infused with freeze-dried raw meat, making it protein-rich and packed with flavor. This recipe contains fresh chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal, salmon meal, deboned duck, deboned quail, and chicken liver – that’s a lot of protein! Overall it provides a minimum of 42% crude protein and unlimited flavor.
Many cat foods are filler-free, but not many are made with organic ingredients. This Castor & Pollux Organix Chicken & Brown Rice Dry Food features USDA organic ingredients like fresh chicken, chicken meal, peas, oatmeal, and brown rice. There’s not a filler in sight, but plenty of wholesome, natural ingredients like coconut oil and sunflower seeds. This recipe is complete and balanced, formulated to provide a minimum of 32% protein and 14% fat at just 411 calories per cup.
With a name like Solid Gold, you’d expect this brand to be pretty good and it is! We love this Solid Gold Katz-n-Flocken Lamb & Brown Rice Recipe because it is packed with premium protein from lamb, chicken meal, and ocean fish meal and contains whole grains like brown rice and pearled barley. This recipe contains canola oil and fish oil to provide the ideal blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for healthy skin and coat, plus probiotics for healhty digestion. And absolutely no fillers!
Frequently Asked Questions
- What are the worst cat food fillers? It’s difficult to say whether one cat food filler is worse than another. The truth is that none of them provide much in the way of nutritional value and many have the potential to trigger negative reactions in your cat. Simply put, if the ingredient doesn’t provide nutrition or support your cat’s health, it doesn’t belong in his cat food.
- What is corn gluten meal in cat food? Cheap cat foods often contain an ingredient called corn gluten meal. Corn gluten meal is the main protein found in corn and it is a byproduct of corn processing. Historically used in animal feed, it is also a common ingredient in lower quality cat foods. Corn gluten meal in cat food is typically used as a filler to add both bulk and protein to the recipe, though it is much less biologically valuable than animal protein.
- Is cat food without fillers more expensive? Generally speaking, filler-free cat foods cost more than the lowest quality brands, but that doesn’t mean all of them are expensive. The thing to remember is that your cat’s health and wellness is worth the extra few dollars you might spend each month to choose a better product. You should feed your cat the highest quality diet you can consistently afford, so decide how much you can afford to spend each month and buy the best food at that price point.
- How much should I feed my cat? How much you feed your cat depends largely on his age, weight, and activity level. Younger and more active cats require more calories to sustain their metabolism while, for older cats, it’s more important to control calories to maintain healthy body weight. The best thing you can do is choose a healthy cat food and follow the feeding instructions on the label according to his age and weight. You may want to err on the side of feeding less rather than more – you can always adjust your cat’s feeding if he loses weight.
- How often should I feed my cat? Most cats do well with two meals per day, but there are some exceptions. Growing kittens need a steady influx of energy and protein to fuel their growth and development, so you may need to feed your kitten three or even four meals a day. Many cat owners choose to simply keep their kitten’s food bowl full, allowing the kitten to eat as much as it needs. With adult cats (particularly senior cats and low-energy cats), you need to be careful of obesity so it’s best to stick with two meals.
Buying cheap cat food might save you a few bucks in the short run, but you’ll pay for it later with costly vet bills. A low-quality diet equates to poor health and malnourishment can contribute to serious health problems that might shorten your cat’s lifespan. If you really want what’s best for your cat, take the time to choose a decent cat food without fillers.
Don’t worry! There are plenty of options on the market. In fact, many of the manufacturers make claims like “no fillers” on their label! That doesn’t mean you don’t still have to evaluate the product for yourself, but it makes your job a little easier. If you’re looking to make things even easier than that, simply choose one of our recommendations for the without fillers above! Best of luck!