Cats are divine creatures. Odd and crazy and prone to attacking their loved ones without provocation, but divine, nonetheless. Feeding them is one of the most important ways you can keep your feline royalty healthy, happy and active. But when you are faced with the hundreds of choices with food, it is easy to get overwhelmed by what cat food you should buy and just grab the cheapest, prettiest, outdoorsiest, reviewedest food you see. We've all done that.
However, just like you learn to pick the right foods for yourself, learning how to choose cat food is easier than you think. Don't worry... we've got you covered. Read on, you cat lover, you.
1. Know Their Nutritional Needs
Part of the work of choosing the best food for cats is to know what are the best cat food ingredients. Let's start with the basics; proteins, amino acids, vitamins & minerals and carbohydrates.
Cat are obligate carnivores. Translation... cats are meat eaters and MUST have meat to be healthy. Some of the vitamins and minerals outlined below, such as taurine and arachidonic acid, are only available in meat sources. Your little meowster is actually a predator in evolutionary history and had a diet that largely consisted of large amounts of protein, lesser amounts of fat and a few carbohydrates.
The protein in your chosen food should be listed first and by name. If it says "beef" or "chicken" or "salmon" or some other named meat, this is a good indicator of quality.
If it lists "meat by-products" or "poultry", chances are you are getting the less than desirable parts of an animal all mixed together in that bag of food.
PRO TIP: If you see food allergy symptoms in your cat, try switching the main protein source in their food as a first step to understand the allergy.
Amino Acids & Fatty Acids
Amino Acids are the building blocks of proteins. Two common ones are Leucine and Lysine, which help cats build and maintain muscles, bones, blood, organs, skin and coat. Younger cats can have double the energy needs of an adult cat, which requires higher protein levels.
Taurine, arginine and arachidonic acid are also essential in cat food. If your food has a high quality meat in it, then these two ingredients should be in the food, as these are a part of animal protein.
Vitamins & Minerals
Your food should have a balance of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Your cat's food should have:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B
- Vitamin C
- Folic acid
The vitamins and minerals listed about are the building blocks of healthy joints, bones & teeth. A balanced diet means you don't need to add supplements to your cat's diet. You should always consult with your vet before giving supplements to a cat because some of them can harm your feline pal.
Carbs get a bad name because if consumed in excess, they have a tendency to stick around as fat. However, carbs are just as important as proteins for active kitties as they can easily metabolize carbohydrates (unlike us humans) and use them up when they get the zoomies and race all around your house.
Good carbs in food include
It's worth noting that dry kibble tends to be higher in carbohydrates than wet or freeze dried or fresh food. Always check the label to see the amount of carbs per serving.
PRO TIP: Ensure the label indicates that the food meets the requirements outlined by the AAFCO, the governing body for balanced nutrition in animal food.
2. Feed Just So Much and No More
Does anyone remember the story of the boy who bought a fish and the pet store owner told him to feed the fish just so much and no more or something would happen? It's called A Fish Out of Water and is a great story about overfeeding an animal. The same is true with cats too. If you overfeed, your cat will get fat and be more prone to health issues like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, breathing difficulties and hypertension.
The food you buy will likely have feeding guidelines. Remember, they are GUIDELINES, not gospel. So... if you feed according to the instructions and your cat begins to look like a chonk, reduce the amount you feed them. You will likely get some pushback from your feline royalty, but they will adjust after loudly complaining for a while.
However, if they are really overweight, consider switching to a lower calorie or weight management formula so you give them less calories per serving, but they still get the required nutrients. Simply feeding them less of the fattier food could result in a malnourished cat.
So, how do you know if your cat is fat? You should be able to feel their ribs when you hold their trunk. There is actually a Body Condition Score (BCS) that uses a 5 or 9-point scale to determine the right amount of body fat for cats! The fine folks at Cornell University - Cornell Feline Health Center provided these excellent visuals to help us understand the ideal weight for our feline friends.
BCS 1: Too skinny - the ribs, spine and pelvis bones are visible, abdomen is severely tucked, and there is no visible fat.
3. Life Stage Is Important
Many foods state that they are "complete and balanced for all life stages." This sounds super convenient, but may not be the best for your kitten or your elder kitty. Just like humans, cats have different nutritional requirements at different life stages, so choose food that is designed for that stage. Here is what cats need at each stage:
- Kittens need food that supports their growth and should include single source protein like beef, lamb, turkey, chicken or tuna. It should be high in protein, fat and folic acid.
- Adults are less active than those rascal kittens and need less protein and fat. This is also the time when you should consider migrating to portion control feeding or timed feeding to keep them from turning into a chonk.
- Senior cats (The ASPCA indicates this is 7 years or older) do better with foods lower in protein and fat so they don't become overweight. Ensure they have good amounts of vitamins, minerals and nutrients to hep boost their older immune system. Senior foods are designed to reducing stress on the kidneys to help older cats avoid kidney disease.
Sometimes your cat will just not do well with the food you give them. It could either be a food allergy or mold in the food bag or just a bad tummy day. If your feline starts throwing up soon after eating or loses interest in their food or treats, it is time to get them new food and talk to your vet about any deeper concerns she may have. Clinical Nutrition Service (part of the Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University) has a great resource for what to look for in a food cat allergy.
PRO TIP: As you transition from kitten to adult or from adult to senior, it's important to introduce new age appropriate foods slowly, over a week or so, That way your cat is les likely to throw up all over your carpet.
4. Mix Wet With Dry Food
Canned food contain more moisture (at least 75%) and cats love it. Kibble is super convenient and cost effective and cats also love it. You have to balance price with nutrition, so what should you do? Mix them, of course. Find a good wet cat food your cats like and add it as a topper to their kibble. How much wet food should you give your cat? That will vary, but a teaspoon size dollop in the morning and at night is a good starting place.
The benefit of doing smaller amounts of wet food is that you have less waste with cats who are grazers. Wet food does not have a long shelf life once it is out in the open air. And remember - canned food must be covered and refrigerated after it is opened so it stays fresh and safe.
Another benefit of doing smaller amounts of wet food is that you ensure your kitties ingest the moisture they need. Cats, as historic desert dwellers, do not need a lot of water. However, if they don't get enough water, they can become dehydrated and feverish and begin throwing up. Extended lack of water leads to diabetes.
One of the concerns about feeding cats only wet food is the negative impact on their teeth. Feeding both wet and dry ensures they still get the hard crunch of kibble to help clean their teeth.
PRO TIP: The nutritional analysis of a dry food is different than the nutritional analysis of a wet food. Why? The water content in the wet food skews the analysis. Read the labels on each to get a solid understanding of the nutritional value of each.
5. Learn About Grains
Grains in cat food are a controversial topic. Originally touted as a way to keep fatty carbs out of cat foods, scientists and vets are now becoming more vocal about the harm created by making cat food grain free.
Grains are an excellent source of carbohydrates, which are the building blocks of energy for your cat. However, a grain free food does not mean a carbohydrate free food.
If your cat is lazy and you want a lower carb food, check the label for the amount of carbohydrates in the food. This will be a better indicator than just choosing grain free cat food.
Some people cite food allergies in cats. While cats do have allergies to food, they are uncommon. Allergies to grains are rare. Generally food allergies are more closely related to the protein source, like chicken, beef or dairy.
Whole grains actually contribute valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and fiber to a cat's diet. Some whole grains you should look for in a cat food include:
- Brown Rice
6. Know What to Avoid
It's tempting to want to share your human food with your cat, especially since they are staring at you so intently while you eat. Which begs the question of what human foods cats can eat.
Below we list some foods you NEVER want to give your feline friends. These include:
- Chocolate - Chocolate is bad for cats as it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, heart issues, muscle tremors and seizures
- Milk - that image of your kitty sweetly lapping milk from a bowl is wrong as milk can cause diarrhea, leading to dehydration
- Avocados - it can cause vomiting and diarrhea in cats
- Onions and garlic - can be lethal for cats, causing their red blood cells to rupture or stop carrying oxygen efficiently
- Raisins or grapes - can cause kidney failure
- Raw eggs - can cause salmonella, skin problems and food poisoning and here is an excellent article on the pros and cons of eggs
- Raw fish - contains an enzyme that is toxic to kitties and can lead to seizure and death
- Bread dough - the enzymes can create CO2 and ethyl alcohol, which gets absorbed into the blood stream and can cause seizures and respiratory failure
- Tomatoes - Solanine in tomatoes can cause gastro-intestinal upset, slower heart rate and lethargy
Check out our handy infographic below of some of the foods you should avoid giving to kitties:
7. Research your Brand
Where does your brand source their proteins? Where do they manufacture their food? How do they guarantee the quality of the ingredients?
Pet parents today ask a lot more questions about the ingredients in their pet's food than previous generations did. Any brand that you feed your cat should be up-front and transparent about how they source their ingredients and manufacture their food. You should be able to see these things on a product page, the company website, and reviews of the food. You might even consider calling the company and asking them directly.
Yeah, it seems overwhelming to do this kind of research... but have you ever tried to figure out why your cat is throwing up all over your new carpet? And when you take them to the vet, you spend a lot of time and money to to figure out what is wrong with them. You might be surprised to learn that their food is the culprit.
PRO TIP: Do some research on the food you give your kitties. If you can't find information about the food, switch to a brand that is more transparent.
8. Feed Well on Any Budget
You have so many options for food for kitties: dry kibble, canned wet food, freeze dried, and raw. As we previously noted, dry food is convenient and shelf stable. Wet food is more expensive and has to be refrigerated after opened. Freeze dried and raw are the most expensive types of food and come with some controversies. So... how can you feed well on a budget?
As we shared earlier, mixing dry with wet is a good way to increase quality of food, taste for finicky eaters and moisture to a cat's diet. What other ways can you balance nutrition and cost?
- Offer smaller fish, like sardines packed in water, as snacks or toppers to dry food.
- Spray pet safe fish oil on top of kibble to add omega-3s to their diet
- Pour salmon oil over their kibble to add omeag-3s to their diet
- Freeze pet safe bone broth in ice cube trays. Defrost before feeding time and pour over kibble to add flavor, moisture, and nutrients
- Add freeze dried meats to their regular kibble at every meal.
- Integrate raw foods part-time. Turns out that many raw food brands are comparably priced to canned wet foods.
- Make these delicious homemade cat foods - these recipes are from the SPCA West. Remember to keep an ensure your homemade cat food has enough vitamins and minerals to keep your royalty healthy.
- Add raw meats you buy from the grocery store to their diet - these include chicken gizzards, hearts and livers, venison chunks, and beef chunks.
- Make you kitty their own delicious catsicles for warm summer days. Yep... you heard right... here are recipes from PetsPlusUS and BrightStuffs.
PRO TIP: Read this really cool article by the Feline Nutrition Organization about raw foods and a cat's digestive system. Turns out they are generally built for raw meat consumption.
9. Find Expert Guidance
Basic nutritional requirements for cats have been established by the Feline Nutrition Expert (FNE) Subcommittee of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This is the group that created the guidelines to regulate what appears on a cat food label. The AAFCO also governs what food companies can legitimately claim and what they cannot claim.
According to PetMD.com, if a cat food claims to be a single ingredient, like beef or chicken, then that beef or chicken must comprise at least 95% of the food. If it is a combination, like beef AND chicken, then those two ingredients combined must make up at least 95% of the food.
Another example of label accuracy is how food is described and how much of the food ingredient must be included.
- Foods that claim to be "dinner" or "platter" or "entree" must contain at least 25% of the named ingredient
- Foods that state things like "with" a specific ingredient only need to contain 3% of that ingredient
- Foods that state they are "flavored" only need a trace amount of that ingredient
PRO TIP: Seek the most neutral and objective expert guidance you can find about foods you give your feline friends. Rely on scientific and academic research instead of the writings of the pet food companies.
10. Read the label
Did you know that ingredients on a cat food label are listed by weight? Your animal proteins, which contain a lot of water, are likely to be listed first because all that moisture makes them heavier. When the water is removed, as is the case with kibble, the more nutrient dense ingredients are further down on the label.
Here is the order of ingredients you should see on the cat food label:
- Protein - single source is ideal
- Organs - liver and lung... yummmmy
- Grains & vegetables - yep... grains...
The experts at the Pet Food Institute put together an excellent resource outlining the meaning of various aspects of a pet food label. Below are some phrases and what they really mean.
- Complete and Balanced - this means that the food has the proper amount of more than 40 nutrients essential to pet health as identified by AAFCO.
- Life Stage - this means that proteins, fats, carbs, and nutrients have been adjusted to meet the needs of either kittens, adults or senior cats.
- Guaranteed Analysis - product information provided to regulators to ensure compliance with nutrient requirements and voluntary label claims. The GA covers the levels of protein, fat, fiber and moisture.
- Ingredients - although this seems obvious, it is also meant to identify nutritional content, digestibility, tastiness (to your cat, of course) and other things like special vitamins and minerals using their fancy scientific names.
Freebie: Additional Resources
- Cornell University - Cornell Feline Health Center - Feeding your Cat
- Wikihow.com - How to Choose Cat Food
- Petfhelpful.com - How to Choose the Best Cat Food for Your Cat
- Pet Food Institute - A to Z of Pet Food: How to Read a Pet Food Label
- Pet Care Advisors - How to Choose or Select Best Cat Food - Guide
- The Purrington Post - How To Choose the Best Cat Food
- Vet Street - 9 Ways Being Overweight Can Hurt Your Cat
- Vet Nutrition at Tufts University - Grain Free Diets: Big on Marketing, Small on Truth
- PetMD - Is Grain-Free Cat Food Better?
- Chicago Black Cat - 10 Cheap Ways to Improve Your Cat's Diet
- Feline Living - 10 Homemade Cat Food Recipes That are Best and Healthy for your Kitty
- American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association - VetFinder
- Feline Nutrition Organization - Spooked by Salmonella: Raw Cat Food!