As a pet parent, you only want what's best for your cat. At the same time, there are dozens of foods to choose from, and making that choice can be overwhelming.
The labels on the packaging are full of different promises of better health, while there is an ongoing debate on which type of food is best for cats. It's no wonder it's tough to make the right choice.
Remember that there is no universal, one-type-fits-all kind of cat food
- Dr. Ivana Crnec, DVM
Don't worry. We'll explain everything you need to know before you buy cat food so that you can make an informed decision on what's best for your cat specifically.
Let's get started!
How To Choose Cat Food? – Cat Food Guide
All cats are different. Some prefer dry food, while others prefer canned food. Texture, flavor, and smell all play a part in what your cat likes and doesn't like. Your neighbor's cat may thrive on one food and your cat on another.
"Every cat has its own needs and taste preferences, and every cat parent has his or her lifestyle habits. The perfect cat food is a compromise between those factors.", says veterinarian Ivana Crnec. Therefore, we recommend you test different foods and find the ones that fit not only your cat's preferences but yours as well.
Budget, availability, and convenience all play a role, and you can certainly find good-quality foods that keep your cat healthy in all price categories.
If you want to spoil your cat with top-grade foods, that great! Your cat will love you for choosing the highest quality. Still, you don't have to feel bad if gourmet meals are not in your budget range. With a little research, you can find the most nutritious options at a reasonable price.
Let's learn more about how to pick the best cat food for your cat.
- Commercially produced cat foods have been specially formulated by feline nutritionists to meet the specific dietary requirements of cats. They will give your cat all the nutrients and calories they need to stay healthy and thrive.
The Feline Nutrition Expert (FNE) Subcommittee of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has determined the nutritional requirements for cats. Manufacturers use these standards when formulating cat foods to ensure they offer a complete diet.
- Sticking to a completely homemade diet can be challenging as cats have very specific dietary requirements. Providing a complete and balanced diet is complex, which is why we recommend feeding a high-quality commercial cat food supplemented with small amounts of meats and foods that are suitable for cats.
But how do you know which cat food you should choose?
11 Things You Should Pay Attention to When Choosing Cat Food
1. Read the label
AAFCO and the United States Food and Drug Administration have established labeling regulations, and cat food producers need to supply the essential nutritional information on the package.
By comparing the labels, you can find out the differences between brands. The food label is the manufacturer's primary means of communication with you as a cat parent.
Although cats need the majority of their energy from animal protein, they can also digest and benefit from many other foods. Pet nutritionists formulate cat foods with this in mind selecting ingredients that are easily digestible, tasty, and nutritious to cats.
The food needs to be AAFCO-approved for that nutritional guarantee of a complete diet. Also, pay attention to where the ingredients are sourced from, where the food is made, and the quality control in the supply chain.
2. Have a look at the ingredients
When choosing cat food, make sure you have a look at the list of ingredients on the package. They are listed according to decreasing proportional weight, so the first things on the list are what the food mostly consists of.
Animal proteins like meat, fish, organs, and by-products of such ingredients should be on the top to ensure your cat is getting vital amino acids and fatty acids.
3. Nutritional requirements change at different stages of life
Cats have different dietary needs at different stages of their life. Kittens, adult cats, pregnant or lactating females, and senior cats all need different types of food. Read the label to determine which stage of the life cycle the food is designed for to ensure it meets the AAFCO requirements and offers a complete and balanced diet for your feline.
Each developmental period of your cat's life requires a different nutritional approach.
- Kitten food is for kittens that are not fully developed,
- cat food is for adult cats, and
- senior cat food is for senior cats.
Kitten food is formulated to support the intense growth needs of young kittens, while adult cat food is formulated to support growth and maintenance or growth and reproduction.
Senior cat food is formulated to address and ease the physiologically occurring, age-related issues.
Other cat foods are formulated for stages of the life cycle, and choosing a food like this can be the most convenient choice if you have cats of different ages.
4. Pick foods low in carbohydrates
When choosing dry food, have a look at the carbohydrate content. Although cats can metabolize carbohydrates, their food should mainly comprise protein they can efficiently use as energy. The ideal carbohydrate content should be under 10% in dry cat food.
The ideal carbohydrate content should be under 10% in dry cat food.
Although the label may not be stating the share of carbs in the food, you may get an idea by looking at the ingredients. If there are many starchy ingredients like potatoes, wheat, or soy at the beginning of the list, then it's probably not the best choice for your cat.
5. Choose foods that are high in protein
Since cats get their energy mostly from animal protein, you need to ensure the food you pick is high in digestible protein. And we emphasize the word digestible.
The amount of crude protein stated on the label may not all be of the same biological value. Some of the protein may come from, say, feathers, which are virtually indigestible.
6. Be cautious about animal by-products
Animal by-products are often an ingredient of pet food. And although the AAFCO list of acceptable animal by-products may make you gag, there are many parts of animals your cat would love to eat. You see, in the wild, cats are no handed a nicely trimmed tenderloin on a fancy plate.
Still, although your cat may not find animal by-products disgusting at all, some of them can be of little nutritional value. Therefore, it's better if you can choose a cat food that doesn't list animal by-products as one of the main ingredients. If the primary protein source is a meat by-product of some kind, the food quality is likely to below.
7. Keep the plant protein to minimum
Since cats cannot efficiently metabolize plant material into energy, they simply can't survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Although many veggies like peas contain protein, cats still need the majority of their protein intake from animal sources.
There is nothing wrong with adding some healthy veggies into cat food but pick a product that doesn't contain too much plant protein.
8. Avoid unnecessary additives
Choose foods that don't have any artificial colors or flavors. If the food is made with suitable high-quality ingredients, there is no need for extra additives to enhance the taste or color.
Avoid all foods with artificial preservatives, such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), tert-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ), propyl gallate, and ethoxyquin in favor of products made with natural preservatives, such as tocopherols (vitamin E), citric acid (vitamin C), and rosemary extract.
All artificial preservatives have negative influences on the body. For example, ethoxyquin has a carcinogenic effect.
9. Combine dry and wet food in the daily diet
As we have explained above, both dry and wet cat foods have their benefits. To enjoy the benefits of both and to avoid the cons, the ideal solution is to feed both. Therefore, we recommend you choose a variety of both types of food to keep your cat's diet diverse, interesting, and stimulating.
10. Avoid cheap foods with fillers
Brands that are available in the supermarket usually provide a balanced diet for cats, but unfortunately, some of the cheaper products contain more fillers, such as corn. The excessive quantity of fillers decreases the nutritional value of the food.
Also, since the fillers don't provide as much energy, cats may eat more food, and in the end, your actually not saving any money.
11. Mix things up
Although cats often have their favorite meals, it may be a good idea to mix things up and offer a variety of foods.
Switching between different foods prevents your cat from becoming a picky eater.
Firstly, switching between different foods prevents your cat from becoming a picky eater. Having your pet used to just one specific food and brand may lead to problems if that particular food becomes unavailable or your cat becomes sick and needs to switch over to a prescription diet.
Secondly, although a lot of research goes into developing cat foods, we still don't know everything about cat nutrition, and one food might be lacking in a particular nutrient. Just like humans, cats should also eat a varied diet to ensure they're getting all the nutrients they need.
Terms You May Come Across
Read the labels carefully and look for specific phrases, like "human grade" (which means it is of the same quality as the meat for humans), "whole ingredients", "single-ingredient", "cooked at lower temperatures", and "cooked in their juices to retain nutrients".
Here are a couple of terms that need to be analyzed carefully:
The cat food must use human-quality ingredients and process the food in a USDA-inspected human food processing facility to earn this status. The ingredients may be the same, but it does ensure the food is made from high-quality ingredients in a safe facility.
"Organic" sounds healthy and wholesome. You know the ingredients haven't been produced using synthetic fertilizers, and amongst other things, there are fewer chemicals in them. Great.
However, organic cat food doesn't guarantee it is nutritionally balanced and species-appropriate, so you still need to keep an eye on the ingredients list.
Natural is more vague than organic. FDA defines that foods labeled "natural" must be manufactured without undergoing any chemical alterations. Again, it's a good thing to keep your pet food as natural as possible. Still, you need to check the ingredients, as natural doesn't guarantee its nutritionally balanced.
Different Types of Cat Food – Which One Should You Choose?
Firstly, for cat owners, there are two choices for feeding your pet. You can either choose homemade food, which consists of raw and cooked meat and organs. Or, you can opt for all commercial cat food.
Commercial cat foods can further be divided into
- Raw food
- Dry food
- Canned food
- Semi-moist food
- Prescription food
- Non-prescription special diets
The third option is something between the first two options: mainly a commercial cat food added with small portions of cooked meat, raw bones, fruits, veggies, and grains as treats.
Also, if your cat has health issues, your vet may prescribe a special diet for your cat to follow to manage the symptoms. These prescription diets include hypoallergenic cat food, weight management diet, diabetes diet, urinary health diet, and thyroid care diet.
Homemade cat food
Homemade food should not be the choice for your cat unless you have an excellent level of knowledge when it comes to cat nutrition, dietary needs, and food safety.
Making your own cat food is not recommended because it is challenging to ensure your pet is getting all the nutrients they need.
It's not only a difficult process but time-consuming too. Unless a vet who is certified in animal nutrition recommends a special homemade diet and gives you detailed instructions for carrying it out, we don't advise on choosing homemade cat diets.
The basis of your cat's everyday diet should be high-quality cat food that offers complete nutrition. In addition, you can offer other foods as treats.
Commercial Cat Food
There are hundreds of different cat foods available on the market, but basically, they can be divided into dry food, wet food (canned), and semi-moist food.
Let's have a look at each to see what pros and cons they offer nutrition-wise.
Dry cat food
Dry food, or kibble, contains about 6-10% of water. It provides a complete diet for your cat in small, bite-sized pellets. Ingredients may include
- Meat or meat by-products
- Poultry or poultry by-products
- Grain or grain by-products
- Fish meal
- Sources of fiber
- Dairy products
- Added vitamins and minerals
Dry foods can include extruded foods (shaped pellets or kibble), flake foods (flaked cereals), and biscuits/mixers.
Often the food is coated with animal fat, which makes them more palatable to cats.
Dry food is cheap, easy to find, and convenient. Kibble also supports dental health. However, your cat needs to drink enough water because the food lacks moisture.
Dry cat foods are easy to store, and since they don't dry out, they are the best choice for free feeding. However, dry food may not be as tasty, and sometimes ingredients make it harder to digest than wet foods.
Although dry cat food is easier to store, it may lose its flavor when not stored properly. Keep the food in an airtight container to preserve its aroma and taste.
Buying in bulk is not advised because if the food is not properly stored in a cool and dry place, the fats may have become rancid. Also, never feed dry food after the expiration date because many nutrients may have degraded, and the food may not provide your cat with all the essential vitamins anymore.
Instead, to guarantee your cat always has fresh food, you can opt for a practical and economic repeat order from an online store to have the food easily delivered to your door when it's time for a refill.
Canned food contains about 75% of moisture. Since many cats don't drink enough water, they can be a good source of hydration.
Canned food is the tastiest option.
This type of food is made with meats, organs, and meat by-products. Although most cats love this wet food, it does not always offer complete nutrition. If you're only feeding this type of food, check the label to ensure your cat is getting everything it needs.
Canned food is the tastiest option and, therefore, it is loved by even the pickiest eaters. There are many different flavors and varieties available, so you can offer your cat diversity and exciting flavors.
Canned food also has the longest shelf life when it's unopened, but once opened, any unused food needs to be refrigerated to prevent it from going bad.
Because wet cat food contains a lot of water, it may help with your feline's digestion. However, it doesn't support oral health like dry food does and is linked to hyperthyroidism.
Semi-moist cat food
Semi-moist food contains about 35% of moisture, and it's made of meat and meat by-products added with ingredients like cereal, grains, and soybean meal.
This type of food is usually a bit more expensive than dry food but not as expensive as wet food.
Picky eaters may prefer semi-moist cat food to dry cat food since it's tastier and has more of an aroma. Because the food contains more water, it is usually more digestible too.
Semi-moist can be free-fed, but do not store it for long periods as it may dry out or become rancid, which affects the taste and quality of the food.
Wet vs. Dry Cat Food
Choosing between different types of foods is a matter of your cat's (and your own) preference.
Mixing the two types of food is popular
Feeding only dry food is a popular choice for many cat owners. It is inexpensive and stays fresh for long periods. Free feeding dry food is ok as long as your cat is not overeating and becoming overweight. If the dry food is complete and balanced, there is no problem in not feeding canned food.
Just remember that when feeding a lot of dry food, your pet needs access to clean and fresh water throughout the day because cats are prone to developing blockages of the urinary tract. Also, even though dry food stays fresh for longer, it needs to be changed to a fresh serving every day.
Canned food is another option. It contains more water and is easier to digest. Also, canned food is often tastier, and while it can be a good thing, it can also make your cat overeat and put on weight. You can feed only canned food, too, although it is more expensive and does not promote oral health.
Mixing the two types of food is popular as long as you make sure your cat does not exceed the recommended daily calorie intake. Free feeding dry food and adding a little canned food to the everyday diet is a good way to reap the benefits of both food types.
Dietary Requirements at Different Life Stages
There are also cat foods that are formulated for life stages. These foods include:
- Kitten food
- Adult cat food
- Senior cat food
Although a cat's diet stays the same in many ways throughout its adult life, there are a few differences at different life stages. Choosing a cat food that has been formulated to match the age-appropriate nutritional requirements will help you keep your cat healthy.
Young kittens live on their mother's milk for the first three weeks. After that, they slowly start eating solid food, and at about 6-10 weeks, they are weaned off the milk.
Kittens need more calories, protein, calcium, and phosphorus.
Until one year of age, kittens have some special needs when it comes to their diet. They need more calories, protein, calcium, and phosphorus to support their growing muscles and bones. Cat food that is specially formulated for kittens will promote their musculoskeletal development.
Pregnant or lactating females
Pregnant or lactating females also have special nutritional needs. They require some extra energy, and your vet may recommend a similar diet that is recommended for kittens.
Adult cat food
For adult cats, their diet should be nutritionally sound to meet the dietary requirements and to keep a healthy weight. As cats mature, their activity levels decrease, and their metabolism slows down. They need less energy and calories, or they might start to gain weight.
Food for all ages, adult-specific, or all life stages are expressions that will help you find a cat food that is suitable for adult cats. Some adult cats may also need a special diet, but we'll get into that in a second.
Senior cat food
Senior cats around the age of 7-10 years also have special needs when it comes to their diet.
Their metabolism slows down, their activity levels drop, and they might not be able to absorb nutrients as easily. Cat foods for older cats are designed to provide all the essential nutrients with fewer calories that could lead to weight gain.
Breed-Specific Cat Foods
Different cat breeds have different metabolic rates and unique health concerns that are best addressed through adequate nutrition.
Investing in tailor-made diets for specific cat breeds may save you from repetitive, time and money consuming trips to the vet.
Usually, mixed cats and cats of unknown origin (unless diagnosed with certain health issues), do not require specific diets. However, pedigreed cats have breed-specific needs that go beyond the needs of other cats.
Here are a few examples:
The active, athletic, short-haired Siamese cats require a particular type of tube-shaped kibble that is easy for their narrow and long muzzles to grasp. It is also adapted for slowing down eating and maintaining the Siamese's long and muscular body shape.
The Maine Coon has strong jaws, so you need to feed them with specially designed king-size cube-shaped kibbles adapted for their large square jaws. The unique kibble shape encourages chewing to support proper cardiac function, bone and joint health, and skin and coat health.
The long-haired, flat-faced Persian cats need a special kibble shape adapted for flat and short jaws. The almond-shaped kibble has an optimal contact surface area and is easy for the Persian cat to pick up and chew. The cat food for Persians promotes healthy long-haired coats and limits hairball formation.
It may sound like a luxury at first, but investing in tailor-made diets for specific cat breeds may save you from repetitive, time and money consuming trips to the vet.
Special Diet Cat Food
In addition to foods for cats of different ages, many brands also offer special diet cat foods that cater to cats with health issues or specific dietary needs. These cat foods include:
- Indoor cat food
- Cat food for sensitive stomach
- Cat food for allergies
If you have a cat you think might benefit from special diet cat food, there is no harm in trying and seeing if a diet change helps. For example, cats with a sensitive stomach may feel much better when they are fed with cat food that lacks all those ingredients that cats are most commonly sensitive to.
In addition to these special diet foods, there are also prescription foods for cats with health issues such as chronic kidney disease, dermatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, urinary stones, high blood pressure, or obesity.
Talk to your vet about the need for prescription food if your cat has health problems.
How Often Should I Feed My Cat?
Cats are usually fed "ad libidum," which means their food bowl is always full and left at their disposal. However, when it comes to voracious eaters, this practice should be avoided.
Unfortunately, obesity is a growing issue among the feline population. More and more cats are obese, thus increasing their risk of developing obesity-related diseases like diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular problems, and certain types of cancer.
Most indoor cats get too little physical activity, and free feeding may lead to weight gain. It's important to monitor the daily food intake, as losing weight is much more difficult than preventing obesity in the first place.
The feeding guidelines depend on your pet's age, health, and type of food you are feeding.
Some owners have dry food available for their cats throughout the day, while others feed their pets once or twice a day. It doesn't matter when you feed your cat as long as you keep the feeding schedule consistent. Figure out which is the best time to fit in your daily schedules, and your cat will get used to the regime.
As cats can be very different in how they like to feed, we recommend you do what you think is best for your cat. Having dry food available at all times and serving wet food once or twice a day is something many cat owners have found to work with their cats.
However, if your cat is overweight, it may be a good idea to set specific feeding times and actively control the amount of food you're feeding.
Remember that kittens and pregnant or lactating females need to be fed more often. Kittens up to six months of age should be fed 3-4 times a day. From 6-12 months, the ideal feeding frequency is twice a day, and adult cats from about 12 months onwards should eat once or twice a day.
Also, remove any uneaten raw or wet food after about 30 minutes to make sure your cat doesn't eat food that has gone bad. If you find that there is food left over routinely, you may need to reduce the amount you're serving.
If you have more than one cat, you may be worried about whether all your pets get enough food. Sometimes leaving the food out throughout the day is an option, but it may lead to overeating with some cats. In such a case, you can feed your cats separately or in different areas of your home.
How Much Food Should I Feed My Cat?
Underfeeding your cat may lead to deficiencies of essential nutrients and unwanted weight loss, but overfeeding is a much more common problem with serious health issues.
How much food your cat needs daily depends on its life stage, size, weight, activity, and age.
According to surveys, about 60% of pet cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Being overweight puts your cat at risk of many health issues, including diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure, musculoskeletal problems, hepatic lipidosis (a fatal liver disease), and even some types of cancer.
How much food your cat needs daily depends on its life stage, size, weight, activity, and age, so there is no specific number to fit the needs of all cats.
Because obesity is a risk, make sure you're not overfeeding. Indoor cats that get very little exercise need less to eat than cats that spend outside; large cats need more energy than small cats, and so on.
Check the calorie content of the cat food you are feeding your feline and use the chart below to calculate the daily portions.
Average recommended daily calorie intake for cats
Maintaining a healthy weight is essential, as being overweight or obese may bring a whole lot of different health problems like arthritis and diabetes.
Indoor cats don't get much exercise, and depending on your cat's breed, size, activity, and age, the amount of food they need to consume daily may vary a lot.
Ask your vet to determine a healthy weight for your feline friend and weigh them periodically to make sure they are not over-or underweight.
FAQ on Feeding Your Cat
Where should I feed my cat?
Cats can be very picky not only with their food but there they want to eat. Place the food bowl in a quiet area where your cat can feel safe. High-traffic areas, the closeness of the litter box, or the presence of other animals may deter your cat from the food.
Can I feed just one type of cat food?
Many cats become selective eaters if they aren't offered a varied diet from a young age. Although eating just one food might be fine with many cats, it's better to offer a varied diet with different ingredients, flavors, and textures. A diverse diet will offer stimulation and keep your pet from developing into a picky eater.
Having a pet that is used to different foods is important if the food your feeding happens to become unavailable or the vet orders a prescription diet.
Can cats eat dog food?
Cats should not be left without food for more than 24-28 hours. It can be dangerous, as cats can go very quickly into liver failure.
In an emergency, you can feed your cat dog food for a day or two. In the long term, dog food does not have the nutritional structure your cat needs in its food.
A couple of days will not harm your kitty, but since cats require more protein and nutrients like taurine and arginine are vital to them, feeding dog food for longer periods will lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Feeding dog food may result in:
- Vitamin A deficiency which causes skin issues, dullness of the coat, night blindness, and degeneration of the muscles.
- Deficiency of arachidonic acid, which may cause liver and kidney problems
- Lack of taurine, leading to degrading vision, heart disease, skin problems, and lethargy.
When shopping for cat food, you are facing thousands of choices: food for kittens, dry food, semi-moist food, prescription diet, organic food, food with added nutrients, therapeutic diets, canned food, meals in pouches, cat food with catnip, kibble… the list goes on and on.
But what makes certain cat foods better options than the rest? More importantly, how do you choose the right products? With so many commercially available brands in a dizzying variety of flavors, cat food shopping is more challenging than ever.
Remember that there is no universal, one-type-fits-all kind of cat food. Every cat has its own needs and taste preferences, and every cat parent has his or her lifestyle habits.
The perfect cat food is a compromise between those factors. Feeding the right food can be one of the most significant factors in your cat's longevity. Therefore, if in doubt, do not hesitate to consult with your trusted vet or a cat nutritionist.
- Dr. Ivana Crnec, DVM
Ivana Crnec is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine specialized in domestic carnivores. She graduated from the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia. Ivana is a certified canine nutritionist and also certified in HAACP food safety system implementation. She currently works as a veterinarian while completing her postgraduate studies. Her research has been published in international journals.
NOTE: Advice provided within this article by FeedingMyPet.com is not a substitute for veterinary advice. Please discuss your cat's specific dietary needs (based on his breed, weight, age, and health status) with a veterinarian.