Choosing a Good Cat Food

Dr. Ellen Marcinkiewicz BVSc. MRCVS

Nutrition is important for the health and wellbeing of your cat. With countless options available, choosing high-quality cat food can be overwhelming. Find out how to look past the marketing techniques and get the information you need to select the right diet for your cat.

How to choose a cat food 

Work out what your cat needs.

There are many factors to take into account when considering your cat’s nutritional requirements. Your veterinarian can help and provide excellent resources and advice.

Factors to consider 

  • Lifestage – Is your cat a kitten or an adult? Growing animals require more energy, calcium, and other essential nutrients for healthy development. Senior and geriatric diets are also available; however, there are no standardized guidelines for their formulation, so it’s best to discuss feeding an older cat with your veterinarian.
  • Spay/neuter status and lifestyle: Indoor spayed or neutered cats tend to be more sedentary and prone to becoming overweight. Diets for spayed or neutered cats tend to be lower in calories to maintain a healthy body weight and may have the added benefit of urinary tract support, as these cats are also more likely to develop cystitis and lower urinary tract disease. 
  • Health conditions: Many medical conditions or diseases will benefit from a specially formulated diet, such as chronic kidney disease, which is common in older cats. Diets for specific health conditions should always be recommended and discussed with your veterinarian. 

Find a brand backed by science using the AAFCO statement. 

High-quality cat food should be labeled ‘complete and balanced’ and contain an Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutritional adequacy statement. AAFCO set the standards for pet nutrition in the US based on current scientific research. Make sure to check the label, as not all companies measure up. 

Diets can either be analyzed to check the formulation meets the calculated AAFCO nutritional standards on paper or undergo a feeding trial. Though feeding trials do not precisely replicate years of daily feeding, they are still considered the gold standard in pet food testing.

Find a brand that meets WSAVA standards.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) global nutrition committee is a team of qualified veterinary nutritionists committed to providing educational resources to ensure cats and dogs worldwide receive optimal nutrition. When choosing a brand or company, they recommend making sure you have the answers to the following questions:

  • Does the company employ a qualified veterinary nutritionist? Either with a Ph.D. in Animal Nutrition or qualified as a board-certified specialist from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) or the European College of Veterinary Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN)
  • What is the name and credentials of the person formulating the food?
  • Where is the food produced and manufactured?
  • What quality control measures does the company have in place?
  • Can the company provide a complete nutritional analysis including caloric value per gram, can, or a cup of food?
  • What scientific research has been conducted? Are there peer-reviewed studies published in scientific journals?

Many larger companies will have this information available on their website or provide it when requested. Your vet can also help you find out more.

For more info on the WSAVA guidelines, read their full recommendations on selecting a pet food and a guide to being info savvy about pet food brands in the digital era. 

Should I feed my cat dry or wet food? Is dry food bad for cats?

Either dry or wet cat food is okay. As long as the food is complete and balanced to meet your cat’s nutritional requirements, you can feed either or a combination of both! Though both have pros and cons, cats are known for having strong food preferences, ultimately swaying the decision! 

Wet food or canned food has a much higher water content, which is useful for cats with kidney or urinary tract disease as it may help with hydration. It can be attractive to picky eaters because it comes in lots of different textures and varieties. Soft foods are also ideal for cats with dental issues or mouth pain. 

Dry kibble tends to be more cost-effective and is more convenient to store. Unlike a wet food formulation, it can be left out during the day without the risk of bacterial contamination. Some dry kibbles have also been designed to help improve dental health. 

It is vital that your cat always has access to fresh drinking water, no matter their diet. To encourage cats to drink water, especially if they are on a dry food diet, consider a cat fountain as many cats enjoy running water. Make sure they have water separate from their food and experiment with bowls made of different materials to see what they prefer.

Is home-made cat food better for cats? 

Using fresh ingredients to create a healthy diet makes home cooking seem like a great option to devoted pet owners. Though home-cooked diets can be formulated to meet your cat’s nutritional requirements, consultation with a veterinary nutritionist is essential to ensure they are balanced correctly. 

A recent study of over 100 recipes for home-prepared diets for dogs and cats revealed that every diet tested was deficient in at least one essential nutrient, and over 48% contained vague measurements or instructions. Iron, vitamin E, zinc, and calcium were amongst the most common nutrients that did not meet the recommended levels. If it is your preference to feed a home-cooked diet, Balance IT, which is run by board-certified veterinary nutritionists, is an excellent resource. 

What foods should cats avoid?

Small amounts of home-prepared food as a treat or occasional addition to a meal can be perfectly safe and enjoyable for your cat; however, it’s essential to know which ingredients can be dangerous. 

Remember that these foods should be considered a treat and should only make up 10% of your cat’s daily calorie intake to prevent them from becoming overweight. Always discuss adding a new food into your cat’s diet with your vet beforehand, as certain foods may be problematic for cats with underlying health conditions.

Toxic foods

Foods that are toxic to cats include onions, garlic, chocolate, caffeinated foods/beverages, grapes, and alcohol. However, this is not an exhaustive list, and it’s best to follow the rule that if you don’t know it’s safe, don’t feed it.

Milk and dairy products are also best avoided as many cats struggle to digest lactose, resulting in an upset tummy and diarrhea.  

Raw foods

Raw eggs, raw meat, and bones are easily contaminated with bacteria, including Salmonella, which can result in serious illness. Raw bones can also damage teeth and risk causing a blockage in the gut — also known as an intestinal obstruction — or constipation. 

Immunosuppressed individuals (including pregnant women and the elderly) and families with young children should also consider the risks to their health and avoid handling and feeding raw meat to pets. The current WSAVA consensus is that cats and dogs should not be fed a raw diet as there are several well-documented health risks for both pets and humans and no known benefits.

Cooked bones

It might be tempting to give your cat a chicken wing but don’t. Cooked bones are even more dangerous than raw bones for cats as they tend to splinter and can cause penetrating injuries to the mouth and gut.

Dog foods

Finally, your cat cannot eat the dog’s food. Cats have many unique nutritional requirements, including the need for the amino acids taurine and arginine, which they cannot make themselves (unlike dogs and other animals). Taurine should be present in every cat food as a deficiency can cause retinal degeneration and blindness, and the heart condition dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in cats. Cats also require more protein than dogs and require different levels of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A and D. 

Ingredients to avoid in cat foods

The ingredients list of any cat food can be tricky to navigate. As pet parents, we tend to be swayed by ingredients that sound appealing to us and by creative marketing claims on the label. You may have heard that pet foods containing ‘meat by-products’ or ‘chicken meal’ are ‘bad.’ But, on the contrary, these ingredients are commonly used in pet food as they provide an excellent source of nutrition, reduce waste, and the FDA strictly controls their quality.

Though the ingredients list doesn’t tell us the nutritional value of particular pet food, here are some red flags to avoid:

  • No AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement for a complete and balanced diet
  • Very few ingredients, especially a lack of additional vitamins and minerals
  • Emphasis on ‘healthy’ trend-focused ingredients like blueberries or kale, which have not been studied for their health benefits in cats. If these are located towards the end of the ingredients list, it’s often a good indication that the quantity present is unlikely to have any nutritional significance (and is part of a clever marketing campaign)!
  • Missing taurine on the ingredients list. Taurine is an essential amino acid required by cats. Without it, your cat can develop severe diseases. It would be incredibly rare to find a diet on the market that doesn’t contain taurine given its well-documented role in feline health and nutrition; however, it doesn’t hurt to check!
  • Watch out for ‘exotic’ ingredients such as rabbit, venison, bison, and lentils. These ingredients are not necessarily bad for cats, but they haven’t been extensively studied. They may be appropriate for animals with allergic skin disease or dietary sensitivity as a novel protein or carbohydrate source. 

Find out more about what goes onto the label, read these articles from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and WSAVA

Is fish in cat food bad for cats?

Raw fish should never be fed to cats due to the risk of bacterial or parasitic contamination. However, fish as an ingredient in complete and balanced cat food provides perfectly safe nutrition, as long as the food is stored and fed as directed. 

Though food allergies are rare, some cats may be allergic to fish. If you’re concerned your cat is showing signs of a food allergy or intolerance, seek veterinary attention. 

Discuss feeding your cat canned tuna and sardines with your vet first before adding. If tolerated by your cat, they should only be fed in small amounts and shouldn’t contain any added flavoring. Tuna in oil should be avoided as it’s highly fatty and can result in an upset tummy- spring water is preferable. 

Can cats be vegetarian?

No. Cats are obligate carnivores meaning they require meat in their diet to meet their unique nutritional demands. This means cats cannot be fed a vegan or vegetarian diet. This doesn’t mean that they need to be provided an entirely meat-based diet, as they also require carbohydrates and other essential nutrients from plant sources as part of a complete and balanced diet. 

What’s the best diet for cats with special dietary needs?

A complete and balanced diet from a WSAVA-compliant brand is all they need for most adult cats. However, there are some special dietary needs that your cat might have.

Kittens 

Kittens are weaned from 7-8 weeks of age and require specially formulated diets to support healthy growth and development. Choose a high-quality commercial food for a kitten’s life-stage containing increased amounts of protein, fat, and calcium. Complete and balanced kitten food is all that your growing kitten requires, so don’t add in any milk or supplements – these are unnecessary and can even cause health issues!

Seniors 

The ‘senior’ or ‘geriatric’ life-stage does not have AAFCO standardized diet requirements, though many commercial diets labeled for this life stage can be beneficial for older cats. If you have a senior cat, it’s always best to discuss their diet with your veterinarian. Many older cats have underlying health issues such as chronic kidney disease. It’s essential to ensure they have regular examinations and bloodwork from as early as seven years of age to detect any problems as early as possible.

Sensitive stomachs

Many cat foods advertise that they are for sensitive stomachs; however, they can vary in their effectiveness and formulation. Since many different conditions can cause similar symptoms, it’s best to talk to your vet before trying a sensitive stomach food. Highly-digestible gastrointestinal diets are a good choice for many cats. However, cats with dietary allergies may require a hydrolyzed diet (see below).

Food allergies

Food allergies in cats tend to present as a skin reaction (known as a cutaneous adverse food reaction or CARF), gastrointestinal signs (sometimes called a food sensitivity or intolerance), or a combination of both. Beef and fish are the ingredients most commonly associated with food allergies in cats. 

Signs of a food allergy include itchy, inflamed skin, hair loss, self-trauma, vomiting, and diarrhea. These signs are present all year round and do not alter with the seasons. Food allergies are commonly diagnosed with a food trial, and your vet will give you strict instructions on how to perform one correctly if it is appropriate to do so. 

The two types of elimination diets typically used for a food trial are:

  1. Hydrolyzed diets – these contain proteins that have been chemically broken down to prevent the immune system from mounting an allergic response
  2. Novel protein/carbohydrate diets – these are made from ingredients that your cat has never been exposed to before, like venison, ostrich, or rabbit

Conclusion: What is the healthiest cat food?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question. Each cat is a unique individual and will have slightly different needs and responses to food, just like us! However, there are some important factors to consider when it comes to healthy, high-quality cat food:

  • Is the cat food complete and balanced, and does it meet AAFCO standards? 
  • Is it appropriate for my cat? Consider their life stage and lifestyle, as well as any underlying health conditions.
  • What is the brand’s commitment to nutritional research and quality control? 
  • How does it affect my cat’s health? 
  • Do they like the food, and will they eat it consistently? Cats can be picky eaters, so even the world’s most perfectly balanced diet is useless if your cat won’t eat it! 

As you can see, several boxes need to be checked to ensure your cat’s food is both healthy and high-quality. Beware of simply looking at the ingredients list, which is often used as a marketing tool and gives no details regarding the food’s actual nutritional value. A good pet food company should provide a detailed nutritional analysis and feeding guide, usually found on their website.