how to choose cat food?

How to Choose Cat Food

The quality of pets’ nutrition is what defines their health, well-being, lifetime, and even mood. Food serves as the primary source of vitamins, minerals and useful organic compounds. A properly developed diet can supply your pet with all essential nutrients and exclude the need of buying supplements.

But what to buy for your feline friend?

What to look for in wet cat food and dry kibbles?

This ultimate guide is here to explain the basics.

We will discover the most useful cat food ingredients, find out which brands offer the most high-quality nutrition, and define the nutritional needs of felines. This information will help you improve your pet’s diet. 

What ingredients should I look for?

What are the best ingredients for cat food?

  1. First and foremost, wet and dry food should contain a lot of meat! The content of meat should be at least 35%. Beef, chicken, turkey, rabbit, or fish – all of those ingredients are equally good, and the choice should depend on your pet’s preferences.
  2. The next component to look for is protein. At least 20% of protein is pretty good, while the amount of crude protein should not exceed 5%. Why do we draw the difference between meat and protein? The last might come from different sources: eggs, milk, beans, soy, etc. Ideally, your cat should receive proteins from meat. Plant protein is the secondary source. Eggs and milk protein are not the best choice for felines.
  3. Offal is acceptable, but its contents shouldn’t exceed 10%. 
  4. The plant fiber contents should not exceed 25% of the composition. Oats, wheat, rice, corn can be useful for cats’ digestion only if the producer does not add them in order to save on meat.

Keep in mind that you should give the preference to foods with fewer ingredients. This will help you prevent digestion problems and smelly poop, or allergies as a result. You’re welcome to read these related guides:

Aside from the best cat food ingredients, cat food must contain the following vitamins and minerals:

  • vitamins H, K, B3, B5, B6, B2, B1;
  • Calcium phosphate, Calciumcarbonat (calcium);
  • Calcium pantothenat (Vitamin B5);
  • Chloride, Choline Chloride;
  • Cobalt, Copper, Copper Carbonate, Copper Sulfite, Sulfite Of Iron, Iron Oxide, Manganese, Zinc And Copper;
  • amino acids (for example, taurine); 
  • natural antioxidants (vitamins E and C).

So, what to look for in cat food? Watch the amount and source of fats. Since this is one of the primary sources of energy, there must be up to ~10-15% of fats. Pay attention to its sources. For predators, the animal fats are better since they are digested easier while vegetable fats (polyunsaturated fatty acids) are absorbed worse. Make sure there are Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids included – they are crucial for the health of skin and fur. Search for fish oil in dry food – this is the best source of Omega-3. 

There might be 20-30% of carbohydrates in cat food. The only question is which sources of carbohydrates are used. The worst option is cereals: they cannot be properly digested, they trigger fluctuations of blood sugar and cause an additional load on the pancreas. Choose cat food with carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (legumes, vegetables, and unsweetened fruits).

Actually, Jimmie collected the list of best low-carb cat foods. This list will be handy if your cat is inactive or overweight. Highly recommend to check out.

Wondering which brand is a good choice? I strongly recommend reading as many reviews on our site as possible, because all of them were written/edited by professional vets and experienced pet owners.

Also here’s a list of high quality brands you may want to start from:

Also we a list of the best 20 dry+wet cat foods – highly recommended.

Cat’s daily nutrition needs

You can find the full list of daily calories/nutrients/vitamins/minerals allowance in this guide from the National Research Council. 

Here’s a breakdown of daily intake norms for adult cats:

Type of nutrientDaily intake norm
Energy (kcal) 60-80 per 1 kg of weight
Protein (grams)6.3 per 1 kg of weight
Fats (grams)2.25 per 1 kg of weight
Carbohydrates and fiber (grams)3 per 1 kg of weight
Iron (mg)2.5
Potassium (mg)80
Calcium (mg)200
Phosphorous (mg)222
Zinc (mg)0,15
Vitamin E (mg)0,4
Vitamin B6 (mcg)200

Please, pay attention that cats that should be fattened up have different needs.

  What to look for in dry cat food?

Watch the contents of dry cat food. The components of meat/fish origin should be listed first: the food should contain animal protein. Note that the ingredients are enlisted maximum ad minima, so if you see grains enlisted first, do not buy such products.

What should be includedWhat should NOT be included
Meat and fish (at least 30%)Artificial colors
Dehydrated meatVague definitions like ‘Meat’ and ‘Fish’. What exactly they are? A decent manufacturer will not hide such information
Offal (look what exactly is used) and proteins of animal originPreservatives, ‘E’ chemical additions and compounds
Fish/chicken powder + fish/chicken oilSugar
Vitamins C and EGrains such as corn and wheat (especially at the beginning of the list)
Grains (except for corn)Flour
Dried vegetables and fruit, seeds
Vitamins and microelements (~6-7%)

There are two crucial factors to consider. First, watch the source of protein: avoid the food with the contents that do not state clearly which meat exactly was used. Trustworthy manufacturers state ‘Dehydrated chicken’, ‘Fresh rabbit meat’, etc. Do not buy cat food if you don’t know what it is made of.

Secondly, avoid products with high contents of grains, especially corn, wheat, and rice – they have a high glycemic index. 

What to look for in wet cat food?

Compared to kibbles, wet foods contain more water but a high-quality product will feature the same amount of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, etc. Wet food comes in the form of pouches or cans and has about 75% of moisture which makes it suitable for cats that don’t drink enough water.

The main aspect to look for is the quality of product. There are 4 main groups of wet food:

  • Low grade (economy)
  • Medium grade
  • Premium 
  • Super premium

Of course, not all cat owners can afford buying cat food of expensive brands. However, low grade wet food is digested only by 30-50% and might cause serious problems with health. Medium-class cat food has some amount of vitamins and minerals but should not be given to cats with a weak immune system. Premium and super premium cat food is digested by 80-90%. Even though it’s expensive, a cat needs to eat less – it eliminates the danger of being overweight.

One of possible solutions is making a homemade cat food with rice, chicken or beef.

Holistic cat food contains ingredients that can be given even to humans. However, since such product does not contain flavors, some cats do not like its taste. 

Did you know? Also there’s a small category of semi-moist (or wet) cat food and there are many delicious recipes there. Definitely worth checking out!

9 Tips on Buying Cat Food

 1. There’s no single best protein

Rule number one for any cat food is normal protein content (35% for dry food, 10-15% for wet food). However, it does not matter which meat exactly was used: veal, chicken, turkey, fish or even meat-by products which are trending now. How to choose cat food then? The chemical composition of animal protein is pretty much the same in all creatures, so you should buy what your cat likes.

If your feline friend has problems with digestion, try giving it pouches with fish flavors – they mostly consist of white fish. Healthy adult cats will be okay with veal, venison, or lamb meat. Chicken and turkey are versatile flavors that appeal to the vast majority of cats.  

2. Lower price doesn’t mean lower quality 

Although economy and premium cat foods are not equally healthy and nutritious, various brands in one category are not likely to be made of different things – it’s price that differs. Before you put expensive cat food in your cart, watch the contents!

Pay attention to the type and quantity of meat and offal used, vitamins and minerals, and grains. Make sure the formula is balanced and does not contain artificial flavors, preservatives and so on. 

3. Cats need carbs 

Although fats deliver a lot of energy, a  large content of animal fat is very harmful. This is why carbohydrates play a crucial role in supplying your pet with calories throughout the day.

Make sure the food contains 15-20% carbohydrates and includes fiber! This is a must for proper digestion. The best sources of carbohydrates are unsweetened fruit, vegetables, seeds, offal.  

4. Make scanning first 3 ingredients your habit

The products at the beginning of the Contents list are what comprises the largest part of your cat food box. Before you grab some can/pouch from the shelves, read what it is made of. The list should start with meat ingredients (fresh or dehydrated veal/poultry/rabbit/fish), protein, and dehydrated meat. If you see grains or soy at the beginning of the list, put this food back at the shelf.

Your cat is a carnivorous animal – feeding it a lot of grains, vegetables, and beans can be potentially harmful for it. 

5. Find nutrition adequacy statement 

Nutritional adequacy is the standard that has been established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to specify nutritional criteria for essential nutrients for dogs and cats. The organization published AAFCO nutrient profiles for cats and dogs in two life stages: adult and growth/reproduction. 

If you see the label saying ‘Balanced formula, ‘100% nutritious’ and phrases like that, search for the nutritional adequacy statement and define the life stage for which it is validated.

Sample brands approved by AAFCO are 4health and Pure Balance, you’re welcome to check out the top picks among these.

6. Grain free doesn’t mean carb-free 

Some cat owners are afraid that their feline friend will become overweight after eating foods with grains. However, the biggest problem is digestion problems caused by grains: bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. 

There is a large variety of grain-free cat foods but they might contain a lot of carbohydrates of animal origin, especially offal. Check the nutrition facts on the label: carbs level should not exceed 10-20%.

7. Test a couple of foods 

One of the most evident tips for cat owners is to try some brand before you buy the entire batch. Let your cat taste it: most of them are finicky eaters and prefer only certain formulas and types of meat. Besides, when you switch to a new diet, you should check your cat’s health and well-being. How it feels? Does it have problems with digestion and toilet? Has the food consumption habit changed somehow? Not all foods are created equally well – let your pet select what it likes best. 

8. Check for allergens

Many cats have sensitivity to cat food ingredients. Most often, allergic reactions are caused by:

  • wheat;
  • chicken eggs;
  • fish;
  • meat protein;
  • soy;
  • preservatives and artificial colors/flavors.

Some cats are allergic to veal and chicken, but in this case, the allergens can collect in cat’s body throughout a year and cause sudden reactions (itching, skin reddening, dandruff, diarrhea, etc). 

Besides, the bodies of adult cats cease producing ferments for lactose digestion, which is why you should not give milk to your pet. Most likely, it will cause problems with intestine. 

Soon we’ll prepare our own guide on choosing best cat food for allergies. Meanwhile, Claudine contributed to this useful guide on best dog foods for allergies on Pet Lovers Centre. Definitely worth checking out.

9. Ask the vet to evaluate your cat food choice 

Once you figure out what your cat’s diet should be, visit a veterinarian: a specialist will evaluate the daily nutrient norms and help you select a suitable type of cat food. If you see some negative changes in your cat’s healthy after trying different cat foods, visit the vet. Sometimes, owners are not aware of pet’s food allergies and digestion problems. 

10. You shouldn’t prefer dry or wet cat food.

Many pet owners ask me which cat food they should pick: canned or dry? In fact, there’s no single answer: both dry and wet cat food are good for a certain context.

About AAFCO approved cat food

As we have mentioned, AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) is a non-governmental association that provides the statement of nutritional norms for cats and dogs. However, it should be noted AAFCO does not certify or approve any particular feed brands. In many US states, a company should make the product complying with certain requirements for it to be called ‘pet food’ instead of supplemental feeding. 

Thus, you cannot find AAFCO approved cat food list , but it will not hurt to get acquainted with their recommendations and statements (read here). Note that there are no statements for senior cats, large breeds, etc – you can only find the information about nutrition for adult cats and growing kittens. 

It should also be noted that AAFCO established the quality standards for highly processed products like kibble, so it may not be applicable to high-quality and slightly processed cat foods. 

When you search for quality cat food, such label as ‘Food formula meets the nutrition levels established by the AAFCO Food Nutritional Profiles’ does not really mean that it’s certified and should be preferred to the foods without such label. 

Cat Food Brands to Avoid 

What makes bad cat food? There are multiple factors to take into account. First, the worst products are made of soy, wheat, and meat by-products of unknown origin. Secondly, many notorious brands are recalled due to bacterial contamination or low-quality ingredients used. Here are two cat food brands that you should pass by when searching for decent cat food.

1. Iams

The meat components in this food are chicken by-products, corn meal, corn grits and brewers rice. It contains 14% of fat and 33% of carbohydrates, which makes it very hard to digest. Most domestic cats do not need so many calories from such unhealthy sources.

Besides, the food has been recalled several times:

  • In March 2007, cat food of Iams brand was discovered to have melamine contamination (source: FDA website).
  • In June 2010, cat and kitten food was found to have low levels of vitamin B1 (Source: FDA report).In July of this year, their feline food was suspected to have salmonella potential.
  • In March 2013, there was a recall about salmonella potential published in an FDA report (source). 

2. Hills Science Diet

At first glance, the contents seem to be okay: there are no artificial preservatives and colors. However, it has high-protein ingredients which complicated digestion, and there are whole grain wheat, corn gluten meal, cellulose, and oat fiber used – all of them are not good for cats’ intestines. 

There have been several food recalls:

  1. In March 2007, cat food was suspected to be contaminated with melamine (source).
  2. In 2014, Science Diet dog food was recalled due to a potential salmonella contamination.
  3. In 2015, some of Science Diet foods were recalled due to labeling issues. 

Final Thoughts

When choosing cat food, you should pay attention to its contents: the first ingredients on the label are what define the quality of food. Make sure the primary components are meat or fish, not grains and soy. If you want your pet to stay healthy and live long, prefer all-natural foods with an optimal amount of vitamins and minerals.

Since the compliance with AAFCO standards is not the ultimate guarantee of food’s quality, check the contents yourself and don’t forget to visit a vet to develop an individual diet for your feline friend. 

After choosing the best food it’s time to consider an automatic feeder to supercharge your pet’s diet (especially when having multiple cats).

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