Cats are unique animals, in more ways than one. In addition to their cuteness and their quirky personalities, they also have nutritional needs that differ from many other types of pets.
It’s important to understand exactly what your cat needs in his food in order to thrive, because not all dry cat foods offer it all, and some contain ingredients that could actually be harmful to your kitty’s health.
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What Ingredients to Look for in Your Cat’s Food
Unlike dogs, cats are obligate carnivores, which means they rely on nutrients that can only be found in animal tissue. They have evolved this way because of their eating habits in the wild – since they were consistently receiving these nutrients from their food, their bodies stopped making them on their own.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides a list of the minimum nutritional requirements for cats, which we urge you to review before you choose a brand of cat food. Keep in mind that AAFCO bases their guidelines on the needs of an average adult cat. You should consult with your vet before switching your cat’s food to make sure it will meet her specific requirements.
In addition, there are many common food ingredients that can actually be harmful to cats. For instance, did you know that cats are lactose intolerant? Or that they can’t process wheat or corn gluten? The next time you’re at the pet food store, check the ingredient list on a bag of low-end cat food, and see how many of them include these two ingredients.
Unfortunately, even though pet food is regulated by the FDA, their requirements for “animal feed” are much less stringent than for human food. That means it’s up to you to make sure the food you buy for your kitty is healthy.
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How to Choose a Brand
In 2007, there was a major pet food recall because a chemical compound called melamine that was found in a type of wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate being used by large pet food manufacturers. Investigators linked the melamine to kidney failure and death in several animals used in a routine taste test at the company.
Sadly, pet food recalls are fairly common. Though there are hundreds of cat food brands on the market, a lot of them use the same manufacturing plants. That means an issue at one facility can affect many different brands.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (or AVMA) provides a list of all pet foods recalled by the FDA or the manufacturer. Before you decide on a brand, you should review this list to make sure they haven’t had any recent, major problems.
What Else to Consider
There are a few key factors to examine when you’re shopping for a new cat food:
Your Cat’s Age, Weight, and Reproductive State
Young kittens are going to have vastly different nutritional needs than an adult, and a pregnant cat will need more nutrients than a spayed one. An overweight cat may need food that’s formulated with weight-loss in mind, though you’ll need to make sure it doesn’t skimp on the essential vitamins and minerals. You can find many premium cat foods that have been formulated specifically for each of these nutritional profiles.
Whether She’s an Indoor or an Outdoor Cat
Though you may not realize it, many outdoor cats supplement their cat food with wild prey. Indoor cats, on the other hand, rely entirely on you to feed them, so they can’t get their vitamins and minerals from other sources.
Indoor cats also have a higher risk of obesity, which can lead to diabetes, joint issues, and other medical problems, so you might want to choose a food formulated for weight-control.
Another common complaint of indoor cat owners is hairballs – if they’re an issue for you, you should look into formulas designed to prevent them.
Your Cat’s Other Dietary Factors
Is your cat only eating dry kibble? If so, their needs could be different than a cat who also eats wet or raw food. Cats don’t tend to drink a lot of water because they get most of their fluids from their prey in the wild. Most dry foods don’t contain much moisture, so that might be something to look out for.
If he has a health issue such as diabetes or urinary tract infections, you’ll need to seek out special food that won’t exacerbate those conditions. It’s best to work with your vet to determine exactly what your cat needs if any of these factors apply to him.
The Nutritional Content of the Food
As mentioned above, cats need a precise balance of nutrients in order to thrive. Here is a list of the most important minimum requirements for a healthy adult cat, as provided by the AAFCO:
- Protein – 26%
- Arginine – 1.04%
- Taurine – 0.15%
- Fat – 9%
- Arachidonic acid – 0.02%
- Vitamin A – 83.3 mcg/kg
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin) – 1.5 mcg/kg
- Choline – 2400 mg/kg
Keep in mind that some of these nutrients also have a strict maximum – meaning your cat could get sick if he eats too much of it. Since this is not an exhaustive list, it’s a good idea to check out the full list on the AAFCO website, and consult with your vet to make sure your kitty doesn’t have any vitamin deficiencies or special dietary restrictions.
We understand that not every cat owner has unlimited funds to spend on their cat’s food. While the bargain brand cat foods usually aren’t a healthy choice, there are some high-quality options that won’t break the bank.
Keep in mind that value doesn’t just refer to overall cost – you’ll also want to consider how much food you’re getting for the price, and how convenient it is to buy the food. It may be worthwhile for you to spend a little extra on food that’s available at your local pet store, rather than getting a great price on a brand that has to ship across state lines.
All of the foods on our list are considered “premium” brands, though some of the options are more affordable than others.
Our Choices for the Best Dry Cat Food
To get you started, we’ve compiled a list of 5 varieties of cat food that offer a good balance of healthy ingredients and great value. These foods are all grain-free and have been highly rated by consumer review organizations like Business Insider and Consumer Affairs. You can find and compare these foods online at Chewy.com and other large pet food retailers.
American Journey Salmon Recipe Grain-Free Dry Cat Food Check Price
American Journey is Chewy’s house brand of pet food, launched in 2017. They offer a wide range of grain-free and limited-ingredient cat foods, but one of the best is the Salmon Recipe Grain-Free variety. It’s manufactured in the US and contains no poultry by-product meal, gluten, or artificial preservatives.
Chewy, which is owned by Petco, is one of the biggest online pet food retailers in the US. American Journey is an exclusive brand that can you can only find on Chewy’s website.
The first three ingredients in American Journey’s Salmon Recipe Grain-Free cat food are deboned salmon, salmon meal, and tapioca starch. It contains 40% protein, 15% fat, and 0.15% taurine, so it falls within the AAFCO’s minimum nutritional guidelines. Its caloric count is 410 kcal per cup, which is about average for grain-free cat food.
The inclusion of tapioca starch as a primary ingredient is somewhat questionable. Pet food companies commonly use it as a gluten-free alternative filler, so while it eliminates the need for allergy-inducing grain, it doesn’t provide any necessary vitamins or minerals.
American Journey is the least expensive food on the list, probably because a pet food retailer owns it. Despite its low price, it is very competitive with other, more well-known cat food brands in terms of quality and nutritional content. It’s only available on Chewy’s website, so while they offer auto-ship and free shipping over $49, it’s still not as convenient as being able to pick it up at a local store.
American Journey makes a solid, wholesome food that contains everything most cats require to thrive. If you don’t mind the online-only aspect, this cat food is a great option to save money without compromising on nutrition. American Journey doesn’t show up on any cat food recall lists, though it’s the youngest brand on the list at only a year old. It’s consistently rated very highly by consumer review sites and by customers.
- High in protein, low in fat.
- Overall nutritional makeup meets AAFCO’s guidelines
- Contains a high amount of gluten-free filler
Instinct by Nature’s Variety Original Grain-Free Recipe with Real Chicken Dry Cat Food Check Price
Instinct is Nature’s Variety’s line of grain-free pet foods, made with raw ingredients. Their headquarters is in Lincoln, Nebraska, where they produce small batches of their raw food that are sold online and in pet stores. The Grain-Free Recipe with Real Chicken cat food is one of the original recipes crafted by Nature’s Variety.
Several of their dog food and treat varieties have shown up on recall lists in 2010, 2013, and 2015, but they’ve never recalled their cat products, and due to the small batch sizes they produce, all of the problems were easily contained and hadn’t been linked to any pet illnesses or deaths
The first three ingredients are chicken, chicken meal, and turkey meal. It contains 43% protein, 19% fat, and 0.2% taurine. Its protein and taurine content is the highest of all the foods on the list, so if your primary concern is nutrition, this is a great choice for you. At 488 kcal per cup though, Instinct is the most calorie-rich food on the list, which you’ll need to consider if you’re concerned about your cat’s weight.
Instinct by Nature’s Variety is among the most expensive foods we reviewed, but the price-point is still reasonable, especially considering the high quality of its ingredients. It’s available at most major pet food retailers, as well as online, so if you place a high value on convenience, this could be the food for you.
If you don’t mind paying a little extra, Instinct by Nature’s Variety is an excellent choice because of its high nutritional value and the convenience of being able to buy it in local stores. It’s a smaller, independent pet food company, which is appealing to folks who like to avoid mass-manufactured products. This is another reliable choice for premium cat food.
- High in protein and taurine
- Overall nutritional makeup meets AAFCO’s guidelines
- Widely available in local stores and online
- High price
- High in calories
- High fat
Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain Grain-Free Dry Cat Food Check Price
Taste of the Wild was formed in 1970 by Diamond Pet Foods as a premium line of dog food, though they have since expanded to producing cat food as well. They have five manufacturing facilities and offer a full range of grain-free foods. They market themselves as a premium brand, and can typically be purchased online or in small pet stores. The Rocky Mountain variety is venison and salmon flavored.
Taste of the Wild’s parent company, Diamond Pet Foods, has issued several recalls of small batches of Taste of the Wild due to a risk of salmonella, the most recent one being in 2012. However, it remains a very popular brand, especially for pets with food allergies or other dietary restrictions.
The first three ingredients of Taste of the Wild Rocky Mountain Grain-Free cat food are chicken meal, peas, and sweet potatoes. It has 42% protein, 16% fat, and 0.15% taurine, so it meets or exceeds AAFCO’s minimum nutritional requirements. Taste of the Wild has the lowest calorie content of all the foods we reviewed, 390 kcal per cup, making it an ideal choice for kitties who need to slim down a bit.
Though they market themselves as a premium brand, Taste of the Wild’s average price fell right in the middle of all the cat foods we reviewed. So, while they’re not a bargain brand, they are affordable enough for most people looking for high-quality cat food.
Taste of the Wild’s middle-of-the-road pricing makes it an attractive choice for those who are budget-conscious but don’t want to compromise on quality. Though it’s available online and many smaller pet food retailers, you can’t always find it on the shelves of the bigger stores, so you may need to research your local availability before making a decision.
- High in protein, low in fat
- Low-calorie count
- Available in some local stores and online
- Mid-range in price
- Not available in larger stores
- Diamond Pet Foods has issued several recalls
Wellness CORE Grain-Free Chicken, Turkey, & Chicken Meal Indoor Formula Dry Cat Food Check Price
Wellness pet food is owned by a company called WellPet, which was formed all the way back in 1926 under the name Old Mother Hubbard, and which also owns several other natural and holistic pet food brands. They work with a team of veterinarians and scientists to formulate their food, and they’re currently one of the leading premium pet foods on the market.
The WellPet company issued a recall in 2011 for several of its wet cat food varieties due to inadequate levels of thiamine; an essential vitamin cats need to survive. However, they’ve never recalled any of their dry cat food, and they still receive consistently high ratings from customers and consumer review sites.
As the name suggests, the first three ingredients of Wellness CORE Grain-Free Chicken, Turkey & Chicken Meal Indoor Formula Dry Cat food are deboned chicken, chicken meal, and turkey meal. It contains 38% protein, 12% fat, and 0.1% taurine. Though the taurine content is slightly lower than AAFCO’s recommended minimum, it meets the other nutritional guidelines. Its calorie count is 445 kcal per cup, which is a little lower than average.
Wellness came in at the high-end of the spectrum, tying with Nature’s Variety as the most expensive food on the list. It’s widely available at most big pet food stores, as well as online, making it a convenient choice.
Wellness CORE Grain-Free Indoor Formula cat food is a solid choice if you value accessibility and quality. The slightly higher price may put it out of reach for cat owners on a budget, but if you can afford it, the convenience of being able to purchase it at local stores may make it worthwhile.
- Lower than average calories per serving
- Widely available in local stores and online
- Low in taurine
- High price
Blue Buffalo Wilderness Chicken Recipe Grain-Free Dry Cat Food Check Price
Blue Buffalo is one of the most well-known premium pet food brands on the market. They have several lines of natural and limited-ingredient foods, including the Wilderness series. Bill Bishop founded Blue Buffalo in 2002 and named the company after his family’s Airedale Terrier, Blue. Blue’s battle with cancer is what inspired the Bishop family to produce a line of ultra-premium, all-natural pet food.
Despite their significant market share, Blue Buffalo remains a small, family-owned company that uses locally sourced ingredients as much as possible.
Blue Buffalo issued two recalls of their cat products – one in 2015 because trace amounts of propylene glycol were found in some of their cat treats, and one in 2007 when their manufacturing partner, American Nutrition Inc., was found to be using rice protein concentrate that contained melamine. However, Blue Buffalo immediately pulled all of their manufacturing from American Nutrition Inc. as soon as the FDA informed them of the problem.
Deboned chicken, chicken meal, and pea protein are the first three ingredients in Blue Buffalo Wilderness Chicken Recipe Grain-Free cat food. It has 40% protein, 18% fat, and 0.15% taurine and meets or exceeds every AAFCO recommended minimum. With a caloric content of 436 kcal per cup, you might find it easier to control your cat’s weight with this food.
Blue Buffalo Wilderness is another mid-priced food that is available at most major pet food retailers. You can also frequently find coupons and specials both in stores and online. Its high-quality ingredients and wide availability give it more bang for your buck than some of the other cat foods on the list.
Blue Buffalo became one of the biggest names in premium pet food for a reason – quality ingredients. This is a well-rounded cat food that is an excellent choice for cat parents who place equal value on cost, quality, and convenience. Their exceptional reputation is well-deserved.
- Mid-range price
- Widely available in local stores and online
- Low in calories
- High fat
- There have been recalls of their cat foods and treats
Though all the foods on this list have high-quality ingredients and strong nutritional profiles, it’s important to do your own research before deciding which food to buy, so you can make sure you’re getting everything your cat needs. Though AAFCO’s guidelines are a handy tool for estimating the nutritional needs of an average cat, you should consult with your vet to determine what your kitty’s specific requirements are.