It’s no secret to cat owners that when it comes to feeding them, the variety of foods available is almost endless. So many brands, so many flavors, all with their glitzy ads trying to convince you that their food and theirs alone is the best. It can make it pretty hard to choose, right?
You may be surprised to know there is something many brands and flavors of cat food have in common, and that’s grains. All traditional cat foods have one kind or another, either wheat, corn, rice, oats or barley.
There are many pet owners and self-proclaimed experts that swear a grain free diet is superior and that grains are bad for cats but according to clinical veterinary nutritionists at Tufts University, that’s not at all true Despite what you may have heard, grain-free is more a marketing trend than a nutritional breakthrough.
Quick Look : Best Grain Free Cat Food in 2019
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Cats can get nutrition from grains just fine, say, veterinarians. So why the big push? Well, just like low carbs and gluten-free have turned into dietary buzzwords for humans, the term grain free is used to make pet owners think that type of food is better for your pet because grains are evil.
The truth is they’re not. Grains aren’t harmful to your cat, and most cats have no trouble digesting them. There are some exceptions, which we’ll get to later. While overall grain-free food does tend to offer higher quality ingredients, such as chicken and beef instead of grains and fillers, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lower in fat and calories or healthier.
However, unlike traditional foods, where grain or fillers may be the first ingredients, with grain free foods, the primary ingredients are almost always beef, poultry, game, or fish, which is better for your cat.
First, let’s take a closer look at the basics of cat nutrition:
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Cat Diet Basics
Unlike us, cats are obligate carnivores. That means their bodies cannot get nutrition from anything but meat. If you tried to turn your cat into a vegetarian or vegan, they would become very sick, because despite veggies, fruits, and legumes being very healthy, their bodies cannot access the nutrients in them. They need the protein meats provide. They can and often do enjoy fruits and veggies though. Some cats find them quite delicious!
However, cats NEED meat beef and chicken are the most common ones used in cat food, but many brands also use fish, duck, turkey, venison, rabbit and even quail. So why do cat foods have grains at all? Good question!
The simple answer is that cat food companies are required to ensure their food meets mandated nutritional requirements, just like our foods must. One of those requirements is carbs, and they use grain, (usually wheat, corn or rice) to meet those requirements. Grain is cost effective and makes a good filler, both of which let them make the food cheaper and sell it for cheaper.
Most cats don’t have a problem with grains, although like with us, too many carbs can lead to obesity. Some cats do develop a gluten intolerance although it’s not yet known why. For them, grain free is a must.
That said, grain free food is not necessarily lower in carbs or calories than regular cat food because most manufacturers replace the grains with other types of carbs, including things like tapioca, various veggies, and even fruits such as cranberries, none of which are of much use to a cat. (Despite what you may have heard, cranberries have close to zero benefits for their urinary tract systems. We’ll talk more about that later.).
One quick note: Although you’ll often see fish as an ingredient in cat food, and that’s fine, it is not advisable to give your cat human tuna except as a very occasional treat. Regular consumption of tuna can cause liver problems in cats, and for reasons not yet understood, cats can become somewhat addicted to it!
So now that you’ve got the basics of a cat’s nutritional needs down let’s take a closer look at grain-free foods and what you can expect from them.
Grain free foods tend to be a bit pricier than regular cat food because manufacturers don’t have the savings advantage of using grains. They may also use exotic meats like rabbit, venison or bison, which also drives up the price, but can be worth it, as foods with meat as the first ingredient rather than by-products are better for your cat. It’s important to remember though that cost is not necessarily an indicator of quality when looking at grain-free foods. In a study in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, for example, the researchers found that one high-end food touted as grain-free had barley in it-a grain!
Read labels carefully if you’re looking for a grain free food and remember that although things like vegetables and fruits might look good on the label, they aren’t anything your cat needs and often just drive up the price. That’s not to say they’re bad for your cat! They just shouldn’t be the focus of the food.
Instead, look for quality ingredients like chicken, beef, eggs, turkey, and fish, which are all good sources of the protein your cat needs. Ideally, the first ingredient should be chicken, beef, or fish. If it is one of those things but ends in –meal, that’s okay. It’s just dried and ground meat. Least desirable is a first ingredient that ends in “by-product.” While it’s still meat, it’s the cheapest version and let’s just say you don’t want to know what’s in it!
Grain free foods are advertised as being easier to digest, healthier and lower in calories than regular food, but this isn’t always the case. It depends on what the manufacturer uses in place of the grains to fulfill the carbohydrate requirement.
Some replacements, like tapioca, are just as high in calories, while others, like apples and peas, are less so. If the grain free food you choose has a higher fat or carbohydrate count than the food you were previously giving your cat, adjust her portion sizes appropriately.
If your cat has a sensitive stomach, grain free foods may be an excellent option because they tend to be free of artificial colors, preservatives, by-products, and flavors, which are all things that can trigger food sensitivities. While corn, a popular grain found in traditional cat foods is not known as an allergen in cats, rice and wheat can be. So can fish and eggs, so if your cat is sensitive, try to avoid foods with those ingredients.
Another benefit many cat owners will appreciate is that since they don’t contain fillers or artificial ingredients, cats who eat grain free foods tend to have less smelly litter box deposits. Hurray! It is true-the better the food that goes into your cat; the more pleasant litter box duty will be.
That’s because a lot of the fillers cheaper foods use are not easily digested by cats and are eliminated in the litterbox, while higher quality foods are more digestible and leave less behind. The more fillers, the more output, and odor!
Cats with Food Allergies/Sensitivities
If your cat has food allergies, your vet may recommend grain free food for the reasons above. Since it has fewer fillers and more animal-based protein, it may be less likely to trigger them.
Are you uncertain if your cat has food allergies? Here are the symptoms to look out for:
- Excessive grooming
- Hair loss
- Bald patches
- Hot spots
- Digestive issues
- Inflamed skin
If your cat is showing any of these symptoms and you suspect a food allergy, contact your vet before changing her diet. Your vet will probably have you do an elimination diet first to try and pinpoint which food is causing the issue and will want to run tests to rule out any other causes. Since the symptoms can also be caused by several serious disorders, don’t skip this step.
Grain free foods tend to have ingredients that even humans would find appetizing: apples, potatoes, avocado, peas, carrots, chicken, beef, salmon, arugula and many more fruits and vegetables. You are also likely to find more exotic meats like rabbit, duck, bison and venison, all quite tasty to cats! If your cat is a finicky eater, the increased variety of flavors in grain-free food may be just what they need!
If you are concerned about things like artificial preservatives, MSG, and GMOs, you’ll be happy to know that grain-free foods tend to contain none of these things. They are also more likely to be made in the United States, rather than imported from overseas. Read the labels carefully to see exactly what you’re getting.
Dry or Wet?
Like regular cat foods, grain free foods come in both wet and dry varieties. Which is best is largely up to your cat’s preferences, but providing wet food is an easy way to ensure your cat is properly hydrated.
Many grain free foods have rich broths or gravies to help even more. If you have a cat that doesn’t seem fond of water, wet food is a definite must. If your cat has a primarily dry food diet, add some wet food to her kibble every so often for a treat and to offer additional hydration.
What About All Those Vegetables?
You probably noticed that most grain free food is packed with fruits and vegetables. While it may make you feel good to be giving such a healthy food, remember that cats are obligate carnivores, and in the wild, the only fruits and veggies they’d eat would be what was in the stomach of their prey.
That said, many cats enjoy fresh produce, and it won’t harm them at all. In fact, fruits and veggies can make a great alternative to traditional treats. Just be sure to stay away from onions, raisins, grapes, fresh garlic, mushrooms and persimmons which are toxic to cats.
Before You Make the Switch
If you’ve decided to try grain free food with your cat, be sure to do so gradually. Sudden changes in diet can upset cat tummies and lead to vomiting and diarrhea. Start by adding a little of the new food to your cat’s current food and over the next few weeks add more and more of the new food until that’s all they are eating.
Keep an eye on your cat during the transition for any signs that the new food may not be agreeing with them, and once you’ve made a successful switch, stick with it. Constantly switching brands can play havoc with your cat’s digestive system, so find one they love and stay loyal!
What to Watch Out For
While grain free foods are just fine for cats and can even be better quality than regular foods, there are some things to watch out for. For example, some grain free foods make a big deal out of the fact they contain cranberries, saying it is good for urinary health. While cranberries are commonly recommended for women who have urinary tract infections, the same benefits have not been shown in cats. Food containing cranberries won’t hurt them at all though. If your cat is showing signs of a urinary tract issue, see your vet, don’t try and treat it yourself.
Urinary tract infections are not particularly common in cats, but when they happen, vet treatment is a must. Cats, especially males, tend to form crystals in their urine, and due to the narrow urethras male cats have, it’s not uncommon for them to suffer a complete blockage. This blockage makes it physically impossible for them to pee and is a life-threatening emergency.
Another thing to watch out for is fat content. Due to their tendency to have more animal-based proteins, grain free food can be higher in fat than regular food. The same is true of carbohydrate content.
While cats do need some carbs, too many can lead to obesity and even diabetes. To avoid unwanted weight gain, make sure you are feeding your cat appropriate portion sizes and ensure that she’s getting plenty of exercise! If you’re feeding dry food, plenty of water is important too.
Despite these few issues, grain free food can be beneficial to your cat if you read the labels, know what you’re getting and look past the hype. Grain free food tends to have higher quality protein sources and fewer additives and fillers. This can make it a smart choice for older cats, cats with sensitive stomachs and cats with food sensitivities.
Reviewed: The Best Grain-Free Cat Foods
Now that you’re an expert on cat nutrition and have the scoop on grain-free food let’s take a look at the top six brands. It’s important to remember that each product comes with its share of benefits and drawbacks, so we advise taking this into account before checking out your shopping cart.
Fortunately, we’ve done your homework for you and have included the pros and cons of each brand for your convenience. Remember to check with your vet first if your cat is showing signs of food allergies or digestive issues, and take a look at the user reviews before heading to the checkout.
Instinct by Nature’s Variety Original Kitten Grain-Free Recipe with Real Chicken Dry Cat Food Check Price
Specially formulated for kittens and nursing mom cats, Instinct by Nature’s Variety Original Kitten Grain-Free Recipe with Real Chicken offers 81% real animal ingredients and nutritious oils. It provides a high animal protein diet that promotes healthy skin and coat, immune health and is gentle on little tummies. It’s also made right here in the USA.
Cage-free chicken is the first ingredient, and the kibble is designed to make it easy for kittens to eat with their baby teeth. It offers natural DHA to promote healthy eye and brain development and a balanced mix of meat, fish, and poultry.
- Provides high animal protein content
- Made in the USA
- Low in fillers
- Designed for kittens and nursing moms
- At $20 for a 4.5lb bag, some may find it a little pricey.
Dr. Gary’s Best Breed Holistic Grain-Free All Life Stages Dry Cat Food Check Price
Dr. Gary’s Best Breed Holistic Grain-Free All Life Stages Dry Cat Food is a good option for cats with grain allergies or sensitivities, and for older cats who tend to have more sensitive stomachs. It combines readily digestible protein from chicken, whitefish, and eggs and offers low-ash ingredients which are essential for urinary health, especially in older male cats. It also provides natural fiber for hairball control.
This food is made right here in the USA and is enriched with taurine which promotes vision and heart health.
- High quality protein sources
- Made in the USA
- Taurine enriched
- Helps manage hairballs
- Good for cats with food allergies
- Designed for cats of all ages.
- Promotes cranberries for urinary health, which is not accurate.
Nutro Wild Frontier Adult Open Valley Recipe Chicken Flavor High-Protein Grain-Free Dry Cat Food Check Price
Nutro Wild Frontier Adult Open Valley Recipe Chicken Flavor High-Protein Grain-Free Dry Cat Food is made with high quality, nutrient dense protein, and essential antioxidants. It’s formulated to provide healthy digestion and promote skin and coat health.
Nutro Wild Frontier also provides essential antioxidants and fiber for hairball control. It’s GMO-free and is made with only healthy carbohydrates.
- Made in the USA
- 100% chicken is the first ingredient
- They only use natural ingredients that they directly buy and can trace back to their suppliers.
- Reduces litterbox output and odor
Wellness Complete Health Pate Chicken Entree Grain-Free Canned Cat Food Check Price
Wellness Complete Health Pate Chicken Entrée Grain-Free Canned Cat Food offers a nutrient-dense formulation with 100% chicken as the first ingredient. It also includes vitamins, minerals, omegas and flaxseed for what they call “nose-to-tail wellbeing.” This food contains zero fillers, preservatives and artificial flavors and colors.
It supports the five signs of cat health: healthy skin and coat, bright eyes, strong teeth and gums, a healthy immune system, energy and healthy tummy, and is made with real broth in every can.
- Chicken is the first ingredient
- Contains no fillers, preservatives or artificial colors and flavors
- Made in the USA
- Available in 3 oz., 5.5 oz. and 12.5 oz. cans
- Cans are BPA free
- Expensive at $40 for 24 5.5 oz. cans
Blue Buffalo Freedom Indoor Adult Chicken Recipe Grain-Free Canned Cat Food Check Price
Blue Buffalo Freedom Indoor Adult Chicken Recipe Grain-Free Canned Cat Food is designed to be a low-allergen food for pet owners worried about grain and gluten sensitivities. It’s formulated especially for the needs of cats who live indoors.
It contains no poultry by-products, just chicken, and chicken liver and is carefully balanced to help cats maintain ideal body weight. Natural fibers help with hairball control and work to minimize litter box odor.
- Contains 100% real chicken and chicken liver
- Minimizes litterbox odor
- Helps maintain an ideal body weight
- Made in the USA
- Promotes the inclusion of cranberries for urinary health, which has been proven inaccurate.
- Some finicky cats may not like the texture.
BFF Tuna & Salmon Sweet Cheeks Recipe in Gravy Grain-Free Cat Food Pouches Check Price
BFF Tuna & Salmon Sweet Cheeks Recipe in Gravy Grain-Free Cat Food Pouches are made with wild-caught tuna as the top ingredient, along with fresh salmon and all the vital amino acids, taurine, omegas and essential vitamins your cat needs. It’s designed to be carnivore based and adds extra hydration through the rich broth its packed in.
All of its ingredients are sustainably sourced and have no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.
- High in animal-sourced protein to support healthy muscles.
- No artificial flavors, colors or preservatives
- Can be served alone or on top of dry kibble
- Free of MSG and starches
- Made in the USA in safe food facilities
- Can be a little messy
- Some people may find the smell very strong
- May not be the best choice for very finicky cats