Our 2021 In-Depth Guide to Cat Food and Ingredients 

When you walk down the cat food aisle at your local pet food store, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available. What’s the difference between “chicken recipe” and “chicken entrée?” Do grains belong in the best cat food for your cat? Should you pay more for organic or non-GMO ingredients?

These are the questions pet owners find themselves asking and the answers aren’t always easy to find. Shopping for cat food is more difficult than you may have ever imagined, unless of course, you’re happy to just grab something off the sale rack and call it a day.

The truth is the quality of your cat’s diet matters greatly. It is his primary source of nutrition and if he doesn’t get the nutrients he needs in the right combination, his body won’t function at its optimal level. That could lead to a lifetime of chronic health issues and expensive vet appointments down the line.

Do yourself and your cat a favor by taking the time to learn the basics about cat nutrition and how to shop for high-quality cat food. Don’t worry – we’re here to guide you through it.

In this guide, we’ll cover the following subjects:

  • Your cat’s basic nutritional needs
  • The different types of cat food available
  • The pros and cons of different commercial diets
  • What to look for in a quality cat food
  • How to identify food allergies and sensitivities

We’ll also talk about adjustments you may need to make to your cat’s diet throughout his life to maintain balanced nutrition and optimal health. Your cat is your furry friend but, more than that, he’s also your responsibility. It’s your job to provide for his needs and making sure he has a healthy, high-quality daily diet is one of your most essential tasks.

Read on to start learning everything you need to know about cat food.

Understanding Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs


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When it comes to pet nutrition, some pet owners make the mistake of thinking cats are small dogs – at least, in terms of feeding. While it’s true a cat may only eat about as much as a small dog, their nutritional needs are actually very different. Feeding your cat dog food could have long-term consequences for his health and wellness, so it’s important to understand your cat’s nutritional needs so you can choose an appropriate cat food product to meet them.

Here are the 5 key nutrients cats need:

  1. Protein
  2. Fat
  3. Vitamins
  4. Minerals
  5. Water

These key nutrients provide the building blocks for a healthy body and provide what your cat’s body needs to produce and utilize energy.

Protein is the number-1 most important nutrient in your cat’s diet. After all, he is a carnivore. More than just a carnivore, however, he’s an obligate carnivore. While dogs are sometimes referred to as scavenging carnivores or even omnivores, cats have a biological requirement for meat in their diets. They literally can’t survive on plant foods. Without enough protein in your cat’s diet, his body will actually start breaking down his own muscle and tissue.

In addition to protein as the building blocks for healthy muscle and tissue, your cat requires fat as a concentrated source of energy. Fat is also important for absorbing and utilizing certain nutrients. Like protein, it is most biologically valuable when it comes from animal-based sources. That being said, many cat food recipes use a combination of animal and plant fats to ensure the optimal balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

After protein and fat, all that’s really left for your cat’s nutritional needs are vitamins and minerals. Some of the most important vitamins for cats including Vitamins A, D, B1, B2, B3, and B6. Essential minerals include iron, calcium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus, and chloride.

Water is essential for all life, but cats tend not to drink a lot of it on their own. This is one of the arguments in support of wet food for cats versus dry food – because it naturally increases your cat’s moisture intake. Fresh food and raw food have a higher moisture content than dry cat food as well.

Notice something missing from this list? 

Cats have no biological requirement for carbohydrates in their diet and, while they do need some fiber, it isn’t the kind of fiber that comes from plants. Cats have very short digestive tracts so they can’t break down plant fibers. Rather, they need animal fibers that com from the bones, tendons, cartilage, ligaments, and fur of prey animals. Certain plant fibers can be beneficial for improving your cat’s digestion, but generally speaking, cat food should not be high in fiber.

So, now you know what nutrients you cat needs but how much does he need?

AAFCO Nutrient Recommendations

All animals require specific amounts of key nutrients in their diet for balanced health. When it come to pet nutrition in the United States, most pet food companies refer to the levels established by the Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

Without digging too deep into the details here, just know that AAFCO has used feeding trials and research to establish the minimum nutritional levels to maintain cats and dogs in different life stages. Just because a commercial pet food product adheres to AAFCO recommendations doesn’t necessarily mean it is a high-quality product. Various veterinary organizations have made their own recommendations, and, in many cases, they are different.

This is why it’s so important to do your own research when shopping for cat food. In order to make a smart decision, however, you need to know what the options are and how to interpret the labels.

Here are the minimum recommendations for cats according to AAFCO:

Nutrient Growth & Reproduction
(minimum)
Adult Maintenance

(minimum)

Crude Protein 30.0% 26.0%
Crude Fat 9.0% 9.0%
Calcium 1.0% 0.6%
Phosphorus 0.8% 0.5%
Taurine (extruded) 0.10% 0.10%
Taurine (canned) 0.20% 0.20%

 

Looking at these numbers, you may think they seem pretty reasonable. If you check the guaranteed analysis for a couple of dry cat foods at the pet store, you’ll probably find most are in the 28% to 32% range for protein and often higher than the minimum 9% recommendation for fat. Again, however, you have to remember that these recommendations are the minimum.

If you take a look at the average diet of a feral cat, about 52% of their calories come from protein and 46% from fat. That leaves only about 2% from carbohydrates.

In the wild, cats have to work for their food and they generally eat the whole prey. The average housecat has several small meals a day which are all balanced in the same way in terms of nutrition. Because your cat’s dietary options are limited, it’s important to choose a product that meets his actual biological requirements, not just one that adheres to arbitrary standards set by AAFCO.

Now that you know a little more about what nutrients are in your cat’s food, you can see why it’s important to make an educated choice. Keep reading to learn about the options available and to receive some helpful tips for making the right choice for your cat.

What Kinds of Cat Food Are Out There?

If you’ve spent any time at the pet store, you know just how many different varieties of cat food there are. In fact, they all may look quite similar. Though it may seem like all cat food is created equal, there are actually quite a few different options to choose from.

Here’s a quick overview of the different types of cat food: 

In addition to these cat foods, you’ll also come across supplemental food items like cat food toppers or mix-ins. These products are often used to add moisture, protein, or flavor to the food. Many pet parents like to use freeze-dried, fresh, or raw mix-ins as an addition to their cat’s traditional diet to provide a boost of moisture and nutrition without making the expensive switch to fresh or raw food.

Our Recommendation: Every cat is different and the right diet for your cat may be influenced by his age, calorie needs, and concurrent health conditions. We recommend talking to your veterinarian about your cat’s current health to determine whether changing or improving your cat’s diet could be beneficial for his health. We always recommend feeding the highest quality diet you can consistently afford, even if it isn’t a 5-star product. Your cat deserves the best you can give him. It’s as simple as that. 

The Pros and Cons of Commercial Diets

Now that you have a little better understanding of what commercial diets are out there, you may be wondering how they stack up against each other. There are plenty of nuances in different cat food products, but the biggest argument comes down to this: dry food or wet food.

To help you narrow down your choices before we get into the details of shopping for cat food, let’s talk a bit about the pros and cons of wet cat food versus dry cat food.

Pros for Dry Cat Food

  • Generally the most cost-effective option for most pet parents
  • Long shelf-life, very easy to store and easy to feed
  • Can be used with food-dispensing toys for enrichment
  • Some dry foods provide additional dental benefits to fight plaque

Pros for Wet Cat Food

  • Cooked at high temperatures for sterilization which yields a longer shelf life
  • Several different textures and moisture levels available
  • Generally made with at least 60% moisture, often high in protein as well
  • High moisture content may be useful for weight management, constipation, and urinary health

Cons for Dry Cat Food

  • Higher energy density than wet food – can be an issue for cats who don’t self-regulate intake
  • Lower in moisture, may be an issue for cats with constipation or urinary problems
  • Often made with higher levels of carbohydrate ingredients

Cons for Wet Cat Food

  • Generally tends to be more expensive than dry food
  • Cannot be used with food-dispensing toys and games
  • Can’t be left out as long as dry food for grazers and free-feeders

As you can see, both options have their upsides as well as their downs. It really comes down to what your cat likes and what works best for your household. If you don’t have a strong preference for one type of cat food over another, however, the best way to shop is to look at individual products and make direct comparisons to choose one that offers quickly nutrition within your price range.

We can’t tell you there’s a definitive “best” cat food out there, as much as we’d love to. The best we can do is provide you with the information and guidance you need to make the right choice for your cat.

What to Look for When Shopping for Cat Food

When shopping for cat food, it helps to have some idea what you’re looking for. Now that you have a better understanding of how many different options are out there, you may be wondering how to narrow it down. Below you’ll find some helpful information regarding 5 different factors to consider when making your choice.

Life Stage

The first question you need to ask yourself when shopping for new cat food is what life stage your cat is in. Most cat foods are divided into kitten food and food for adult cats, though some brands offer options for senior cats. There are subtle difference between these two latter categories, but some important differences between food for kittens and food for adult cats.

While your kitten is growing, he needs higher levels of protein and calories to sustain his growth and development. The minimum protein requirements for kittens are 30%, but many animal nutrition experts recommend 40% or higher. High-quality, animal-based proteins are essential in any life stage and healthy fats (ideally from animal sources) provide a concentrated source of energy (9 kcal/gram).

When it comes to the differences between kitten food and adult cat food, kitten foods tend to be more highly concentrated in calories for both dry food and wet food formulas. They also typically have more fat and less fiber than adult formulas with more taurine (an essential amino acid) as well.

Unless you have a kitten under 12 months old, your best bet is probably an adult cat food. Mature or senior formulas don’t necessarily provide benefits specifically for older cats, so it may be best to choose a nutritionally balanced adult formula and talk to your veterinarian about specific nutrients your older cat may need in the form of supplements.

Ingredients

After making sure you’ve determined the product is for the right life stage, the next step is to look at the ingredients. The first ingredient should always be a high-quality, named source of real animal protein – meat, poultry, or fish. Either whole meat or meat meal works but avoid recipes that start with a carbohydrate ingredient. By-products from named sources (like chicken by-products) are generally okay as a supplemental source of protein but avoid generic by-products like “poultry by-product meal.”

When it comes to making comparisons between different cat food recipes, look at the first 5 to 10 ingredients. Ideally, you want to see two out of the first three ingredients as an animal-based sourced of protein. Avoid products that contain too many plant-based proteins and plant protein concentrates, or products that seem to contain more carbohydrate than protein ingredients.

Though the first 5 to 10 ingredients are what you want to focus on when making a direct comparison between products, you want to review the entire list to get a sense for the quality of an individual recipe. Check for low-quality grains and fillers like corn, wheat, and soy and look for artificial additives like colors, flavors, and preservatives at the end of the list.

Guaranteed Analysis

Once you’ve checked the list of ingredients, the next place to look is the guaranteed analysis. This is simply the portion of the label that shows how much crude protein, fat, and fiber is in the product along with other nutrients, depending on the recipe. It can be difficult to make a direct comparison between products using the guaranteed analysis because they are typically calculated “as fed”. The percentages may vary based on the moisture content of the recipe. To make a direct comparison, you’ll need to convert the values to dry matter basis.

The easiest way to do this is to find a dry matter calculator online. Simply plug in the percentage of moisture along with the percentage of the value you’re comparing.

When reviewing the guaranteed analysis for a cat food recipe, keep in mind those minimum recommendations from AAFCO and remember the dry matter calculations. It’s also important to remember the percentages will seem much lower for wet food than for dry because canned foods have a much higher moisture level. You’ll need to do the dry matter calculation to compare dry cat food to wet cat food products.

Estimated Carb Content

Something else you may find helpful when comparing cat food recipes is the estimated carbohydrate content. Remember, cats are obligate carnivores which means they have no biological need for carbohydrates in their diet. We generally prefer recipes that contain no more than 10% carbohydrates, though obviously the lower the better. Dry foods tend to be higher in carbs than wet foods.

You can’t calculate the exact carbohydrate content for most cat foods because you don’t have the exact percentages for everything you need to know. You can, however, get an estimate.

To estimate the total carb content of a cat food formula, simply add up the percentages for crude protein, fat, fiber, moisture, and ash. Ash is simply the mineral content that burns off when the food is cooked. Once you add up those numbers, subtract from 100 and you’ll have your estimate.

Many cat foods don’t list the ash content on the guaranteed analysis, so what do you do? If the goal is to estimate the maximum potential carbohydrate content, use 7.5% for dry food and 3.5% for wet food. These values are about average for low-to mid-quality formulas, so it will give you an idea. If the ash content is actually listed, of course you can use that.

Price vs. Quality

When shopping for cat food, it’s understandable to be concerned about the price but it’s just as important to consider the quality. After all, the two often go hand-in-hand. What you need to remember, however, is that good cat food isn’t cheap and cheap cat food often isn’t good.

Price alone is not enough to gauge the quality of a cat food, but it can sometimes give you a clue. If, for example, the cat food is commonly found at discount stores and grocery stores, it may not be the best brand. That being said, you don’t necessarily need to spend a small fortune to feed your cat.

Again, we recommend finding the highest quality cat food you can consistently afford.

Now that you have a little knowledge about the different things to look for in a commercial cat food, you may be starting to put the pieces together. If you’re still struggling, don’t worry – we’re here to help.

Here is our list of the top 10 things to look for when shopping for cat food: 

  1. A high-quality source of animal protein as the first ingredient (ideally two out of the first three ingredients).
  2. Whole meat proteins or quality meat meals, or a combination of both.
  3. Healthy source(s) of animal based fats like chicken fat or salmon oil (supplemental plant fats can be used to balance out the omega fatty acid content).
  4. Any carbohydrates should be limited and come only from high-quality, nutritious sources like whole grains or fresh fruits and veggies.
  5. Limited use of plant protein concentrates (like pea protein) and plant sources of protein (like beans and legumes).
  6. No generic, unnamed ingredients (like poultry fat vs chicken fat).
  7. No low-quality grains or fillers like corn, wheat, or soy.
  8. No artificial colors, sweeteners, or preservatives like BHA, BHT, or ethoxyquin
  9. Balanced with essential vitamins and minerals, ideally from natural sources (though most commercial foods use at least a few synthetic supplements).
  10. Avoid cat foods that seem very carbohydrate-heavy or have too much added fiber.

By keeping these 10 things in mind, you’ll be able to quickly weed out the products that aren’t worth your consideration. Start at the top of the list and work your way down. If a product doesn’t check off the first couple of boxes, move on to another option.

Understanding how to interpret the information on pet food labels is important, but you also need to know how the product affects your cat. Read on to learn about food allergies and sensitivities.

 Tips for Identifying Food Allergies and Sensitivities

Many pet owners are surprised to learn that their cats can be allergic to the same things they can. In addition to environmental allergies, cats can be allergic to certain foods. Contrary to popular belief, grains are not actually a common source of allergies in cats – it’s usually protein. The most common food allergens for cats are chicken, beef, fish, and dairy products.

Here are some of the most common signs of food allergies in cats:

  • Chronic itching and skin inflammation
  • Over-grooming and hair loss
  • Recurrent skin and ear infections
  • Chronic vomiting or diarrhea
  • Itching around the rectum
  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Straining during bowel movements

Food allergies can be tricky to diagnose because sometimes the symptoms mimic those of other conditions like bacterial infections, mites, or other allergies. In many cases, your veterinarian will want to rule out these causes to help narrow down the options.

If your cat has a food allergy, the only way to treat it is to switch to another food that doesn’t contain the offending ingredient. If you’re not sure what your cat is allergic to, you may need to do a food trial which involves switching to a limited ingredient recipe made with a single source of protein – one your cat hasn’t had before. After 8 to 12 weeks if all signs of the allergy disappear, you’ll have confirmed the diagnosis and potentially identified the allergen. From there, you can either stick with the limited ingredient diet (LID) or gradually reintroduce one allergen at a time to identify it.

Though dealing with cat food allergies can be tricky, more pet food manufacturers are offering limited ingredient and single-source protein diets. You simply need to practice reading pet food labels to figure out a recipe that might work for your cat.

A Word About Prescription and Veterinary Diets

The words prescription diet and veterinary diet are often used interchangeably and simply refer to diets formulated for pets with specific health problems. They are often very expensive, and you usually need to buy them at your vet’s office or have a prescription. What many pet owners don’t realize, however, is that these foods may not actually contain high-quality ingredients.

Here are some of the conditions that can be treated with veterinary diets:

  • Food allergies/sensitivities
  • Cardiac issues
  • Diabetes
  • Weight control
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Kidney problems
  • Liver issues
  • Urinary tract problems

Before switching to a prescription diet, ask your veterinarian whether other diet and lifestyle changes might be just as effective. In many cases, there aren’t actually any therapeutic ingredients in the prescription food – they simply have controlled levels of certain nutrients which have been implicated in various health problems. You may be better off switching your cat to a high-quality recipe that improves his nutrition and control symptoms in other ways.

Important Terms for Interpreting Cat Food Labels

If you’re going to start putting a little more time and effort into your cat food choice, you’re going to need to learn how to interpret the information on a cat food label. Though every cat food product may look unique, all commercial cat foods are required to have the same elements:

Product Name: This is used to identify the product. The product name usually highlights one of the main ingredients, but that isn’t a requirement. When it comes to product names, there are a few tricks you should be aware of that manufacturers often use. The wording of the name (especially the order of the words in it) matters more than you might realize.

For example, different rules apply for Beef Cat Food, Beef Recipe Cat Food, Cat Food with Beef, and Beef Flavor Cat Food. Confused? We don’t blame you!

If a product is called “Beef for Cats” it must contain at least 95% beef, less water for processing and added vitamins and minerals. For a product called Beef Dinner for Cats, however, it only needs to contain 25% of the named ingredient (beef). Cat Food with Beef only needs to contain 3% beef and Beef Flavor Cat Food doesn’t need to include a certain amount – it just needs to be detectable with testing.

Net Weight: This simply states how much food is in the container by weight and/or volume.

Statement of Purpose or Intent: It may seem silly, but somewhere on the label it must state that the product is for cats.

Ingredient List: The ingredients used in the product must be listed in decreasing order by weight. Keep in mind that moisture affects weight, so fresh and moisture-heavy ingredients like chicken and lamb tend to appear higher on the list than the dried form of the same ingredient would. What you may not realize is that pet food manufacturers can hide ingredients in the list or “split” ingredients to make them appear higher or lower on the list. For example, corn is often split into ingredients like ground corn and corn gluten meal.

Guaranteed Analysis: This portion of the label states the minimum and/or maximum amount of certain nutrients including protein, fat, fiber, and moisture. Some labels also provide levels for micronutrients. The thing to remember about the guaranteed analysis is that the values are calculated “as fed” or “as is.” This simply means it still contains the moisture. If the moisture were removed, the value would be different. When comparing two products directly, it’s best to calculate them as dry matter, taking the moisture content into account, so you have a direct comparison.

Here’s a quick example to show you what we mean:

Cat Food A (dry) Cat Food B (wet)
Crude Protein 28% 9%
Crude Fat 16% 3.5%
Crude Fiber 3% 1%
Moisture 12% 82%

Looking at this table, you might assume that the dry food (Cat Food A) is higher in protein simply because it contains 28% versus 9%. Consider, however, that this food only has 12% moisture while the canned food has 82%. You’ll need to calculate the dry matter values for each to compare them.

Here’s what you do: 

  1. Find the percentage of the nutrient (like protein) for Cat Food A (ex: 28%).
  2. Determine the total dry matter by subtracting the percentage moisture from 100 (100% – 12% moisture = 88% dry matter).
  3. Divide the percentage of the nutrient by the percentage of dry matter then multiply by 100 (26% / 88% x 100 = 29%).

As you can see, the dry matter protein content is a little higher since you’ve taken out the moisture – you get 29%. For the canned food, you end up with 44% protein. Now you can see why it’s important to convert these tables to dry matter before making direct comparisons.

Feeding Directions: These are general guidelines for how to feed the product to the cat. Recommendations are generally made by the cat’s age and weight according to the calorie content of the product. These recommendations may not be accurate, so talk to your vet for confirmation.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement: This statement tells you which age and lifestyle of cat the food is intended for (ex: growing kittens or mature adults). It usually looks something like this:

“Cat Food X is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for growth and maintenance.”

The tricky thing about these statements is that it simply means the product meets those AAFCO minimums we mentioned earlier. Keep in mind, as well, that a product can obtain this label in one of two ways. The product can be tested and found to contain the proper amount of each nutrient, or the company can conduct a feeding trial to see whether the food sustains an animal for up to 6 months. Surprisingly, however, these trials have low requirements for subject numbers – as low as 6 or 8.

It’s important to take the AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy with a grain of salt. All it tells you is that the product contains the minimum level of nutrients to sustain life, but it doesn’t say anything about the actual quality of the ingredients or the product itself.

Statement of Responsibility: This simply lists the name of the company that made the product and their contact information.

The Worst Cat Food Ingredients to Avoid

If you’re looking for a new cat food, it’s just as important to know what ingredients ARE in the food as to know what ingredients are NOT. There are a few definite red flag ingredients you want to avoid as well as some that are controversial but probably best avoided, just to be safe.

Here are some of the worst cat food ingredients you definitely want to avoid:

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) – This is a chemical added to fats as a preservative which has been identified as a carcinogen and a reproductive toxicant.
  • Butylated hydroxtuluene (BHT) – Similar to BHA, this chemical preservative is a known carcinogen and causes kidney and liver damage in rats.
  • Caramel coloring – This coloring contains 4-methylimidazole (4-MIE) which is a known animal carcinogen.
  • Carrageenan – Derived from red seaweed, carrageenan is a thickening agent used in pet food. It is controversial because it is a potential carcinogen.
  • Ethoxyquin – Together with BHA and BHT, ethoxyquin completes the trio of unsafe chemical preservatives used in low-quality pet foods. Ethoxyquin usually enters food through fish meal.
  • Food dyes – Artificial colors like Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 have been known to trigger allergic reactions and have been linked to behavioral problems and cancer in humans.
  • Glyceryl monostearate – A chemical additive typically used as an emulsifier in low-quality foods, this chemical has been known to cause toxicity in certain organs.
  • Propylene glycol – This syrupy liquid helps keep food from drying out, but large amounts can lead to toxicity. It has been restricted to non-food use in many European countries.

Generally speaking, we also recommend you avoid cat foods made with corn, wheat, and soy products. Corn is often used in various forms like corn gluten meal to increase the protein content of low-quality cat foods without actually adding more animal protein. Unfortunately, corn offers limited nutritional value to cats and can be fairly difficult to digest. The same is true for wheat products.

Soy has a good chance of being genetically modified which can be an issue because the long-term effects haven’t been studied in people or in pets. Another issue with soy is that it contains compounds called phytates which block the enzymes needed to digest protein – they may also inhibit mineral absorption. Soy protein may also play a role in hyperthyroidism in cats.

The best rule of thumb is to avoid any ingredient if you don’t know what it is or if you aren’t absolutely sure it’s safe for your cat. Higher quality cat foods typically use better ingredients with fewer additives which makes it easier to make this determination.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, it’s your choice what you feed your cat but it’s important to make an educated decision. Hopefully what you’ve learned here about the ingredients in cat food and how to interpret cat food labels has helped you understand what it takes to make a smart choice. Check out our reviews for popular cat food brands to put your skills to the test!

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