If you’ve ever struggled to lose weight, you’ve probably considered a low carb diet. If you do some research, however, you’ll realize that nutritious carbohydrates are part of a healthy diet for humans. The same isn’t necessarily true for your cat.
- Rich in real animal protein
- Blend of omega-3
You may not think of your cat as a wild animal, but the truth is he’s descended from wild ancestors who evolved to follow a carnivorous diet. Your cat’s body is literally made to eat meat. High carb foods may not cause your cat to get fat (as is the fear with many people), but it will compromise his nutrition. Poor diet contributes to a variety of health problems in cats and could very well shorten his lifespan as well.
In this article, we’ll talk about carbohydrates in cat food including the problems with high carb foods and the concerns surrounding grain free diets. You’ll also learn what how to identify low carb content in cat foods and see our top picks for the best low carb cat food.
What Is The Best Low Carb Cat Food?
- NomNomNow Fresh Food Delivery
- Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain
- American Journey Pate Poultry Variety
- Instinct Kitten Grain-Free Pate
- Blue Buffalo Wilderness Mature
- Ziwi Peak Venison Canned Cat Food
- Nature’s Logic Feline Rabbit Feast Grain-Free
- FirstMate Chicken Meal with Blueberries
- Farmina Natural & Delicious Chicken
- Nulo Freestyle Chicken & Cod Recipe
The Truth About Carbohydrates in Cat Food
The most important thing you can learn about your cat’s nutrition is that he is an obligate or true carnivore. This means that his body is biologically adapted to eating meat. Your cat’s body won’t outright reject plant material, but he won’t be able to digest it properly and a plant-based diet simply won’t provide the essential amino acids your cat needs in a usable form.
As carnivores, cats have short digestive systems. Their guts don’t contain the same bacteria herbivores have which helps them break down fibrous plant material. What’s more important to realize, however, is that a cat’s body isn’t designed to utilize carbohydrates as energy – they need protein. If your cat’s diet doesn’t contain enough protein, his body will start breaking down his own muscles and tissues.
Carbohydrates are simply not a biologically valuable source of nutrition for cats. This isn’t to say that they don’t impart any nutrition, but their limited digestibility makes animal ingredients more important.
Is Grain Free Cat Food Low in Carbs?
For optimal health, your cat’s diet should be as low in carbohydrates as possible. You still need to find the right balance of protein and fat, but both should come primarily from animal sources.
When shopping for cat food, you’ll probably come across grain free recipes. To the average cat owner, this term often implies that the recipe is also low in carbohydrates. After all, grains are high in carbs, right? Yes, but grains aren’t the only high-carb foods out there. Starchy veggies, beans, and legumes are also high in carbohydrates but aren’t grains.
The thing to remember about grains in cat food is that they aren’t always bad. They certainly shouldn’t make up a majority of the diet, but nutritious options like whole grain oatmeal and whole brown rice provide key nutrients and are a healthier choice than other grains like wheat, corn, and soy.
Grains aren’t inherently bad for cats, aside from the fact that they’re more difficult to digest than animal ingredients. The only reason you need to avoid grains completely is if your cat has an allergy, though grain allergies in cats are much less common than allergies to common proteins like chicken and beef.
The lesson here is that you shouldn’t assume a grain free cat food is low in carbohydrates. On the opposite side of the coin, not all cat foods that contain grains are high in carbohydrates.
Special Considerations with Low Carb Cat Food
Most pet food manufacturers use some level of carbohydrate in their products. They’re often used as fillers in low-quality cat foods, but healthy carbohydrates like whole grains and fresh vegetables can be nutritious additions to higher quality products. Balance is the key.
You definitely want to avoid any cat food that contains more carbohydrate than protein, but how do you do that? Most cat foods don’t mention the carb content on the label and very few say they’re low carb.
It’s very difficult to determine the exact carbohydrate content of cat food because it isn’t one of the nutrients AAFCO requires to be listed on the guaranteed analysis. There is, however, a quick calculation you can do to get a rough estimate. Simply add up the percentages for crude protein, fat, fiber, moisture, and ash. Ash is simply the content of inorganic materials (minerals) in the food – you can estimate 7% for dry food and 3% for wet food if it isn’t listed.
Once you’ve added up these percentages, subtract from 100 to find the estimated carb content. Ideally, you’re looking for a percentage under 10%.
If you do a couple of test calculations yourself, you’ll find that even the best dry cat food options are well above this 10% recommendation. Canned foods are typically much lower in carbohydrate and higher in protein. That isn’t always the case, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind if you want to feed your cat a low carb cat food.
What Should You Look for in a Good Cat Food?
Your cat’s nutritional needs are the priority when it comes to shopping for cat food. You can’t always take the claims made on the label at face value, so there are a few things you should know how to identify. The guaranteed analysis tells you the crude percentages for key nutrients, but remember you’ll need to factor in the moisture content to get the true dry matter calculation. The ingredients list is important as well, because it gives you context to understand where the nutrients listed in the guaranteed analysis come from as well as their quality.
Aside from low carbohydrate content, are some general things to look for in a good cat food:
- Rich in high-quality protein. Protein is the foundation of a healthy diet for cats, so make sure animal protein like meat, poultry, or fish is the first ingredient in your cat’s food. Ideally, protein should be two of the top three ingredients on the list.
- Animal-based proteins and fats. Carbohydrate ingredients are less biologically valuable for cats than animal products. The majority of the protein and fat content in your cat’s diet should come from animal sources for this reason.
- Digestible carbohydrates and low-starch veggies. The content of your cat’s food should be as low in carbohydrates as possible. When there are carbs, they should come from digestible sources like whole grains and low-starch veggies.
- No artificial additives or low-quality fillers. Artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives have no nutritional value and no benefit for your cat. You should also avoid fillers like refined carbohydrates and plant proteins because they provide limited nutrition.
How Do We Make Cat Food Recommendations?
We’ve given you the information you need to understand what low carb cat food is and why you want it for your cat. At the same time, we know that cat food labels can be misleading and difficult to understand, so we get if you still need a little help. You’ll be glad to know that we’ve done a great deal of research to gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject and have gathered some recommended products. Know that we wouldn’t recommend anything we don’t fully back or that we wouldn’t be happy to feed our own cats.
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)
Every cat is unique in terms of dietary preferences and some cats have different needs due to health problems. That being said, carbohydrates are not a biological necessity for any cat and should not make up a significant part of your cat’s diet. We’ve done our best to assemble a list of good quality cat foods low in carbohydrates to give you some options to choose from.
The 10 Best Low Carb Cat Foods
Most cat foods don’t list the carbohydrate content on the label and very few are even marketed as low carb. Don’t assume that grain free means low carb because there are other high-carb ingredients aside from grains. The best dry cat food or canned food for your cat will be packed with premium animal protein and balanced with healthy fats while being low in carbohydrates. Here are some options:
|Our 2020 Picks: Overall Best Low Carb Cat Foods|
|NomNomNow Fresh Cat Food
|Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain
|American Journey Pate Poultry Variety Pack
|Instinct Kitten Grain-Free Pate
|Blue Buffalo Wilderness Mature Chicken
|Ziwi Peak Venison Canned Cat Food Recipe
|Nature’s Logic Feline Rabbit Feast
|FirstMate Chicken Meal with Blueberries
|Farmina Natural & Delicious Chicken
|Nulo Freestyle Chicken & Cod Recipe
Our Top Overall Pick: Many pet nutrition experts agree that fresh food is the best option for pets because it offers higher nutritional value, improved digestion, and better palatability. Not all fresh food companies are created equal, but most use high-quality ingredients with an emphasis on animal protein. NomNomNow is our favorite fresh food company and they offer two recipes for cats: chicken or fish. Both recipes feature a real animal protein as the main ingredient with other healthy inclusions. Neither recipe includes grains which helps keep the carbohydrate content low and all carbs come from digestible sources like carrots and spinach. After doing a rough calculation to estimate carb content in both recipes, it appears that the fish recipe may be lower in carbohydrates than the chicken.
Most Popular Low Carb Cat Food: Because there are so many cat food brands out there, you may have no idea where to start. A popular choice is Taste of the Wild, known for the quality of their products as well as their high protein inclusions. They offer two wet food options including this Rocky Mountain grain-free recipe featuring fresh salmon, smoked salmon, and roasted venison. This recipe contains some potato starch and pea flour, but no concentrated plant proteins. It also contains some fresh fruits and vegetables which provide natural sources for key vitamins and minerals. The estimated maximum carbohydrate content of this recipe is about 2.5%.
Most Affordable Low Carb Cat Food: Good cat food usually isn’t cheap, but you don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune. Chewy’s American Journey brand offers a wide variety of options made with high-quality animal proteins and their canned foods are low in carbohydrates. This poultry variety pack includes a chicken and turkey recipe, both pates which are typically lower in carbs than recipes with gravy. Both recipes start with fresh chicken or turkey as the main ingredient with chicken or turkey liver as a supplemental source of protein, nutrients, and natural flavor. Flaxseed is the primary source of carbohydrate but also provides essential fatty acids. There are some thickeners as well, but also fresh berries for key nutrients. The estimated maximum carbohydrate content of both recipes is about 2%.
Best Low Carb Kitten Food: Formulated to meet the high protein and calorie needs of growing kittens, this Original Kitten recipe from Instinct by Nature’s Variety is extremely low in carbohydrates. It features a flavorful blend of chicken, salmon, and beef liver with chelated minerals and some vitamin supplements to ensure nutritional balance. Because this recipe contains no added carbohydrate in any significant amount, the total carb estimation is negligible. You’ll find fresh fruits and veggies at the end of the ingredients list, but any ingredient after salt likely makes up less than 1% of the total product weight.
Best Low Carb Senior Cat Food: As your cat gets older, his calorie requirements may decrease but his protein needs remain high. Many cats develop sensitive stomachs and digestive issues as they age as well, so the digestibility of your cat’s diet becomes even more important. Remember, animal ingredients are much more digestible than plant ingredients for cats, which is what makes this Blue Buffalo Wilderness Mature Chicken Recipe a great option. Packed with healthy protein from fresh chicken and chicken liver, this recipe is also moisture-rich and highly palatable. The estimated maximum carbohydrate content of this recipe is about 3.5%.
Best Low Carb Cat Food for Sensitive Stomach: If your cat has a sensitive stomach or food allergies, reducing the number of ingredients in his diet will limit he risk for triggering a reaction. If you’re not sure what he’s allergic to, switching to a new protein source (ideally a single source of protein) is recommended as well. This Ziwi Peak Venison Recipe Canned food is a good option because venison is the only source of protein and a novel one for many cats. This formula contains just nine main ingredients aside from water, most of which are lamb organs which are rich in essential nutrients. With chickpeas as the only carbohydrate ingredient, the estimated maximum carbohydrate content of this recipe is about 3%.
4 More Top-Rated Low Carb Cat Foods
When it comes to low carb cat food, canned food is usually the best option. This Feline Rabbit Feast from Nature’s Variety is a nutritious choice because it doesn’t contain any synthetic vitamins and minerals. This means that the natural ingredients are enough to provide the nutrients your cat needs. Fresh rabbit is the main ingredient, a novel source of protein for many cats, and dried fruits and vegetables are the only carbohydrate inclusions. The estimated maximum carbohydrate content of this recipe is about 3.5%.
Though canned food is generally the lowest carbohydrate option, we wanted to give you a few dry food recipes. This FirstMate Chicken Meal with Blueberries LID Dry Food is a decent option because is protein-rich and only contains two carbohydrate ingredients: potato and whole blueberries. This recipe contains a limited list of ingredients as well which can be a benefit for cats with sensitive stomach or food allergies. The estimated maximum carbohydrate content of this recipe is about 26% which, though significant, is still fairly low for a commercial dry food.
Though not one of the most well-known brands on the market, Farmina is one that often markets their products as low carb. This Farmina Natural & Delicious Chicken Grain-Free Adult Dry Food is a good example because the estimated maximum carbohydrate content of this recipe is only about 18%. This recipe features boneless chicken and dehydrated chicken as the top two ingredients with sweet potatoes third. The next carbohydrate ingredient is carrots, but it doesn’t appear until ninth on the list.
As you may remember, the higher the protein content of a cat food, generally speaking, the lower the carbohydrate content. This Nulo Freestyle Chicken & Cod Recipe contains four animal proteins within the first five ingredients for a crude protein minimum of 40%. Whole peas and lentils come next, both digestible sources of grain-free carbohydrates, with some dried sweet potato and cranberries a little further down the list. The estimated maximum carbohydrate content of this recipe is about 19%.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is a grain free diet in low carbs? There’s a common misconception that grain free cat food is synonymous with low carb cat food. Grains like wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal are certainly high in carbohydrates, but removing them from your cat’s diet doesn’t necessarily guarantee reduced carb content. High-starch veggies like peas and potatoes are high in carbohydrates as well and many grain-free diets contain a high concentration of these ingredients. It’s more important to look for a recipe packed with real animal protein with limited plant protein then check the plant ingredients to get a feel for the carb content.
- Is wet cat food better than dry food? Generally speaking, canned cat food is a better option for cats. It all depends on the quality of the ingredients and their composition, but wet food tends to be higher in protein than dry food and is also lower in carbohydrate in most cases. When it comes to low carb cat foods, canned food isn’t a guarantee, but it usually contains fewer carbohydrate ingredients and fillers. Wet food has the added bonus of being high in moisture which makes it more digestible and helps compensate for the fact that many cats don’t drink a lot of water on their own.
- How do I know a cat food is low in carbs? Unfortunately, most pet foods don’t list the carbohydrate content on the label. You may not be able to determine the exact percentage, but you can get a rough calculation of the maximum value. Add up the protein, fat, fiber, and moisture percentages as well as an estimated ash content (7% for dry food, 3% for wet food) and subtract from 100. That gives you an estimate for the maximum carb content of the recipe since the other ingredients are listed as minimums.
- Why is low carb cat food important? The simple fact is that cats can’t properly digest carbohydrates. Their bodies are adapted to deriving nutrition from animal sources, so a high-carb diet won’t provide the nutrients they need. In fact, without adequate protein content in his diet, your cat’s body will start to break down its own muscle and tissues. Cats simply don’t have the ability to derive energy and nutrition from carbohydrates, so they’re more or less just wasted calories.
- Is low carb cat food good for diabetic cats? Cats with diabetes either don’t produce enough insulin or their bodies don’t utilize it properly. This results in high blood sugar levels, particularly after a meal, and it can become dangerous. Because carbohydrates tend to cause more significant spikes in blood sugar than proteins, a low carb diet is a good option for diabetic cats. Keep in mind, however, that a low carb diet is recommended for all cats anyway. For diabetic cats, fat intake should also be monitored to prevent obesity.
The low carb diet has become an obsession in the health and fitness community but it’s also a big deal in the pet world. What you need to remember is that low carb diets for cats are not a suggestion – they’re a biological necessity. Your cat simply isn’t designed to efficiently process carbohydrates, so he needs a diet high in animal protein.
Shopping for a low carb cat food can be tough because it won’t always say it on the label and, even if it did, you might not be able to trust it implicitly. We’ve done our best to give you the information and tools you need to evaluate cat foods on your own to find low carb options but, if you still need a boost, try one of our recommendations above.