A Guide to Healthy Cat Food: What To Look for and What To Avoid

A Guide to Healthy Cat Food: What To Look for and What To Avoid

Whether you’ve brought home a new kitten for the first time or have an older cat struggling to maintain a healthy weight, cat food is usually at the top of your priority list as a cat owner. Unfortunately, many of the cat foods on the market today aren’t as healthy as the label may make them sound. If you are a vigilant cat owner, here is a guide to help you choose healthy cat food.

Understanding Healthy Cat Nutrition

In order to feed your cat the best possible diet, you need to know what cats need for nutrition to maintain a high level of wellness. Remember, what's healthy for humans isn’t always healthy for cats, so here’s a breakdown of what cats need in their food.


According to Cornell University’s Feline Health Center, cats are obligate carnivores. This term means they need to consume high amounts of protein and just a few carbohydrates.

Protein provides cats with essential amino acids, which they use to build organs and tissues. Cats can’t produce these nutrients, so they must get them in their diets, and a diet that contains a variety of proteins will benefit your cat’s overall health.

Arginine and Taurine

There are 11 essential amino acids cats need to get in their diets because they can’t produce them on their own. Of these, arginine and taurine are the most vital.

Arginine comes from animal protein. If your cat doesn’t get enough of this amino acid, they may get a buildup of ammonia in the blood, which can lead to neurological problems and gastrointestinal issues. 

Taurine affects reproduction and neonatal health. Even in spayed and neutered cats, lack of arginine can impact vision and heart health.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Cats also need fat in their diets. Fat is the second most important macro (after protein), but not all fats are equally beneficial. You want to look for healthy fats, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats provide energy for your cat and help them absorb vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin E. They also help cats maintain a healthy body temperature.

Water and Hydration

Cats often consume less water than they need, making dehydration a real risk for felines. Thus, adding water to your cat's food can be important. Wet pet food or dehydrated cat food that you rehydrate before serving can help. If you choose kibble-style food, consider adding some water, broth or goat’s milk to it before serving it to your cat.

Health Needs Across Different Life Stages

A cat’s health and dietary needs change as it grows. What a kitten needs for nutrition is far different than what a senior cat needs. Here’s a closer look at the nutritional needs of cats in various life stages.


Kittens use a lot of energy as they grow in the first year of life. They need meat-based protein, calcium to support bone health, and fatty acids, including DHA, to promote healthy neurologic development.

Kittens also benefit from soft food as they transition from milk to solid kitten food. Cat pates or watered-down canned food can both work very well — as long as they are nutrient-balanced for kittens.

Adult Cats

You can consider your cat a fully grown adult at around three years old. At this age, choose a food that has a good balance between fat and protein. You’ll also want to look for taurine.

This is the stage when cats are at risk of obesity, so be mindful of portion sizes. Remember that the portion size on the food package is generic, so adjust portions based on your cat’s activity level.

Senior Cats

As your cat nears age 11, you need to start thinking of your cat as a senior cat. Start changing the calorie content of the food based on your cat’s changing activity levels.

During this stage, pay close attention to hydration. Older cats are more likely to drink too little water, and you’ll need to compensate.

Wet Cat Food vs. Dry Cat Food: Which Is Healthier?

As you choose cat food for your pet, you need to decide between many different pet food types, but the most common tend to be wet cat food and dry cat food. The good news is that both are great options, and your cat can stay quite healthy on exclusively dry food or exclusively cat food. The balance of nutrients is more important than whether the food is wet or dry.

The key difference between the two is moisture content. Wet food has more moisture, which could help with hydration concerns. If you have an older cat showing signs of dehydration or dealing with kidney disease, consider wet food to ensure they’re getting enough hydration.

A Less Common Alternative: Dehydrated Food

Dehydrated cat food isn’t as widely used as traditional wet food and kibble, however, this alternative is loaded with health benefits. Dehydrated food is minimally processed, unlike kibble which is processed with very high heat. The gentle, low-heat dehydration process allows the food to retain more of its nutritional value and taste. As an added benefit, when you opt for high-quality dehydrated cat food (like those available from The Honest Kitchen), you avoid many of the artificial preservatives and fillers that can be hard on cats’ digestive systems. 

But the benefits of dehydrated food goes beyond nutrition. It’s highly shelf stable, and because you use a little at a time (mixing water or broth into each serving), one package can often stretch much further than standard dry and wet cat food. Dehydrated food is great for pet owners with limited storage space: It doesn’t require valuable fridge real estate, and due to its shelf stability, it can be stored just about anywhere in the house!   

How To Choose Healthy Cat Food

Choosing healthy cat food comes down to the ingredients, not the type of food. Here’s what you need to know.

Make Sure Protein Comes First

Because cats need so much protein in their diets, protein from a high-quality animal source should be the first ingredient listed in the food. If protein is first on the ingredient list, it’s the first indicator that  you've likely found a high-protein food.

Check That It Meets AAFCO Requirements

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) offers several recommendations about pet foods. AAFCO does not endorse any particular cat food brand, but the organization does recommend specific nutrient balances. For adult cats, AAFCO standards recommend the following minimums:

  • Protein: 26%
  • Arginine: 1.04%
  • Taurine: 0.10% to 0.20%
  • Fat: 9%

Consider the Percent of Protein From Animal Sources

While protein content is important, it’s also important to note how much of that protein comes from animal sources versus plant based sources like corn, peas, and lentils. 

Taurine and arginine, both essential amino acids for cats, only come from animal protein. If a cat lacks sufficient taurine, they may suffer from blindness, heart failure from dilated cardiomyopathy, nervous system abnormalities, and reproductive failure. Insufficient arginine can lead to high levels of ammonia in the blood, which can cause seizures.

Plant-based ingredients do provide protein, however, obligate carnivores like cats can’t digest them as easily as animal protein. When choosing a cat food, be sure to select one with adequate animal protein to ensure your cat gets the nutrients they need.

Consider Human Grade Cat Food for a Higher Standard

Human grade cat food takes high quality to another level. AAFCO defines human grade as food with all ingredients that are edible by humans throughout every stage of production — from farm to bowl. 

Human grade assures pet owners that the food is manufactured, packed, and held following the same FDA guidelines for safe food manufacturing as human food. In other words, human grade cat food is made to the same quality and safety as healthy human foods, but for cats! 

Look for Natural Ingredients

Finally, look for natural ingredients. For a food ingredient to be called “natural,” it must come from a plant, animal, or mined source, not a chemical process. Additionally, natural cat foods are less likely to contain artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.

Is Raw Food Healthy for Cats?

Cats are obligate carnivores, but this doesn’t mean they should eat a fully raw food diet. Yes, cats in the wild can hunt, kill and eat their prey, but an indoor cat can’t do this.

In addition, when a wild cat consumes prey, it eats all of the prey animal, including the bones, fur, and stomach contents. When you feed your cat raw meat, many of those nutrients aren’t part of the meal.

What To Avoid in Cat Food

There are many myths about what cat owners should avoid feeding their cats. For example, in recent years, many cat owners have fed their cats meat-only diets. While this seems like a wise choice, the reality is that cats need some carbohydrates in order to get the fiber they need to digest hairballs and avoid constipation. 

Healthy carbs, like brown rice or oats, can improve your cat’s digestion. Grain free is another popular concept with cat owners, but small amounts of grains can be very healthy for most cats. 

That said, there are some ingredients that you should avoid if you want your cat’s diet to be as healthy as possible.

Excessive Chemical Preservatives

Chemical preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin can be harmful to cats. These ingredients make cat food more shelf-stable, but recent research indicates that there is no amount of these ingredients that can be proven safe for cats and can be found on the ingredient label of some feed grade pet food options. 

Unnamed Meats

If you read a pet food label and see a word that suggests that there's meat in the product but doesn’t say what kind of meat, skip it. This is a red flag of a low-quality protein source. The terms you may see include:

  • Animal digest: This is the lowest quality protein source and is sometimes used as an artificial flavor in food. It's created with the chemical hydrolysis of animal tissue.
  • Animal by-products: This ingredient means any part of a meat animal not used for the primary food purpose. This might include bone, horns, teeth, fatty tissue, and blood.
  • Meat meal: Meat meal comes from low-quality organs and fat of the animal, and can also contain the non-edible elements listed above, like bones and teeth. If you see “chicken meal” or “beef meal,” know that these parts are dehydrated through heavy processing and ground into a mealy consistency. 

Synthetic Preservatives

Several artificial preservatives are well-known carcinogens, so it's best to avoid them whenever possible. Additional synthetic preservatives you might see in your cat’s food are:

  • Propylene glycol: This ingredient is also used in antifreeze and is sometimes put into semi-soft kibble foods.
  • Sodium metabisulphite: This is a bleaching agent.
  • Propyl gallate: This preservative can upset sensitive stomachs and cause skin irritation, urinary tract problems, and liver problems.

What Is the Best Way To Get Your Cat To Eat Its Food?

Feeding your cat a protein-rich, balanced diet only works if your cat actually eats the food. Some cats are particularly picky and will turn their noses up at many healthy foods. Sometimes pet owners have to get creative to entice cats to eat, but with these strategies, you can increase the amount of food your cat is eating:

  • Offer some privacy: Some cats will only eat when they're alone, so put your cat in a safe room with their food and see if they will eat.
  • Move the bowl: There may be something in the chosen feeding area that your cat doesn’t like. Try moving the bowl to an alternative location.
  • Change the bowl: It may be the bowl, not the food, turning your cat away, so try a new one. Several cats prefer wider bowls or flat surfaces because they don't like their whiskers to touch the bowl's side.
  • Make them wait: If your cat isn’t hungry because they can graze on food all day, they aren't going to eat. Pick up the food for about 12 hours, then set it down again, and they may be more inclined to eat. Try to feed your cat two to three meals a day, but pick it up after a set period of time.
  • Vary the food: If your cat’s turning up their nose to the best wet food you can afford, try dry food for a while. Alternate foods (after you have determined they aren’t allergic or sensitive to them) and see if that entices your cat to eat.
  • Offer tasty extras: this can be things like gently cooked meats, plain greek yogurt or a cat-friendly food topper that will entice them to give their new meal a try.

Feed Your Cat a Healthy (and Tasty) Diet With The Honest Kitchen

If you are looking for the best cat food for your cat — and one that will please even the pickiest eater — consider The Honest Kitchen. We have a range of cat foods, including dry food, dehydrated food, and wet food, with several recipes to appeal to a variety of tastes. These cat foods feature thoughtfully sourced protein as the first ingredient and are free of fillers. 

We carefully craft each recipe with the help of a veterinary nutritionist, so you can be confident they contain the right balance of essential nutrients for a healthy cat. Shop all of The Honest Kitchen's cat food today!

*Health Disclaimer: This post is educational in nature and doesn’t constitute health advice. Please consult your pet's veterinarian or other healthcare professional for specific guidance on this topic.
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