What is the best food for your cat? Every cat needs something different depending on age, activity level, health issues, and other factors. To make matters even trickier, cats have unique nutritional requirements, which means you’ll need to learn what’s essential, what to avoid, and how to read nutrition labels to choose the right products.
We’ve created this guide featuring some of the top tips you’ll need to know to choose the right food, from wet, to dehydrated, to dry cat foods
Understanding Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs
Like people, cats have a set of nutritional needs that must be met to lead a happy, healthy life — though cats have differing requirements from people. For instance, people need to consume some carbohydrates, while cats don’t. That said, you’ll find carbs in most cat foods (and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
Cats are carnivores by nature, which means their nutritional needs revolve around animal protein. They need healthy proteins from meat, fish, or poultry, plus nutrients like taurine, an amino acid found in fish, meat, and eggs. They’ll also need a balance of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and enzymes.
How To Spot High-Quality Foods
High-quality food is crucial to keeping cats happy and healthy. Not only does it help them maintain the proper weight and sport a lush coat, but it also helps protect against malnutrition and digestive issues — especially among cats with sensitive stomachs. Below, you’ll learn how to spot healthy foods by looking at the nutrient and ingredients list.
We mentioned it above, but it’s worth reiterating: Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they require meat. These days, there is a proliferation of vegetarian or vegan cat food products out there. However, as a cat owner, it’s best to either avoid these products entirely or research them thoroughly before using them.
This is because cats need certain nutrients that come primarily from meat — and some, like taurine, can only be found in meat. Other nutrients commonly found in meat include arginine, arachidonic acid, and vitamins A and D.
Some of these nutrients can be synthesized and supplemented in cat foods, but it’s tough to balance a cat food correctly. If the food isn’t balanced, something goes wrong with the synthesis process, or the amounts of included supplements are incorrect, it’s extremely dangerous for the cat. Not getting enough taurine, for example, will lead to blindness.
As far as protein content goes, it doesn’t have to be raw meat, but it should definitely come from quality sources — meat, poultry, or fish — and it should always be first on the ingredient list.
Amino Acids and Fatty Acids
Amino acids and fatty acids help cats build and maintain bones, muscles, blood, organs, skin, and a healthy coat.
When feeding a meat-based diet, these amino acids should automatically be present in the food to varying degrees, but it never hurts to check the nutrition facts just to be sure.
Be on the lookout for these 11 amino acids:
Also, look for these three fatty acids:
- Arachidonic acid (AA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
You can find all of The Honest Kitchen’s cat food nutrient profiles here.
Vitamins and Minerals
Like people, your cat also needs a blend of vitamins and minerals. While a good balance promotes health in general, vitamins and minerals help promote healthy bones, joints, and teeth.
Include these vitamins in your cat's diet:
- Vitamins A, B12, D, E, and K
- Folic acid
- Pantothenic acid
Incorporate the following minerals:
You might be trying to cut carbs from your own diet, but there’s no need to cut them from your cat’s diet. Of course, you can — with cats being meat-eaters and carbs mostly coming from plants, cats have evolved such that they don’t need carbohydrates but they can have them.
In fact, carbs can be beneficial from a health standpoint. Cats can metabolize carbs better than people can, which means that instead of burning protein, they’ll use energy from burning carbs to power through playtime.
Most grain free foods for cats use potatoes, lentils, pumpkin, and tapioca to provide carbohydrates, which have good essential nutrients like fiber, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Grain free foods are also a great option if you know or suspect your cat has a sensitivity or allergy to commonly used grains like wheat, oats, rice, or corn.
Wet Cat Food vs. Dehydrated Cat Food vs. Dry Cat Food
When choosing between types of cat food, you’ll face three major categories: wet food, dehydrated food, and dry food (kibble). Wet cat food gives you several options, like chunks in sauce versus pate-style foods. Dehydrated cat food usually comes in dried chunks or strips which turns into a hearty pate or gravy depending on how much water you add, while kibble often comes in crunchy, bite-size pieces.
There’s quite a lot of debate about which to feed, but the real answer is that each option has pros and cons. Many cats enjoy some variety, and switching up foods can widen the range of nutrients they get while warding off food allergies that may emerge due to lack of exposure.
When To Feed Your Cat Wet Food
Wet food is meaty, flavor-forward, and has a high-moisture content. That means it’s also great for felines who are finicky about the water dish. Since they were originally desert dwellers, cats don’t drink a lot of water. In fact, they evolved to get most of their moisture from their prey. When cats drink less than they should, canned food has a high moisture content (at least 70%) that can make up the difference.
Wet canned foods are also good when a cat has difficulty chewing hard kibble (e.g., elderly cats who have lost teeth or a cat recovering from a recent trip to the vet for a tooth problem).
You can feed it all the time, or even pair it with dry cat food. In fact, some people use wet cat food as a topper for dry cat food. Just keep portions in control, so your cat isn’t overeating and gaining too much weight.
When To Feed Your Cat Dehydrated Food
Dehydrated cat food is flavorful, nutrient-dense, and easily adjustable to your cat's texture preferences (whether chunky and chewy or soft and smooth).
The dehydration process is slower and gentler than the high-heat kibble production process, so ingredients retain more nutrients and flavor. Dehydrated food also packs a lot of added moisture once you rehydrate it — especially important if your cat avoids the water bowl.
Another reason pet owners prefer dehydrated food is the long shelf life and ability to buy and store large amounts without taking up much space. For example, a 2-pound box of our dehydrated Grain Free Chicken recipe makes 8 pounds of fresh food.
To prepare dehydrated food, all you need to do is add water (or another liquid, like bone broth or goat’s milk) and your cat is ready to eat. This flexibility makes it a great option for cats in all life stages. Some products (including The Honest Kitchen’s dehydrated cat foods) are even boosted with probiotics.
When To Feed Your Cat Dry Food
Dry cat food, also known as kibble, is really great for convenience. It's ready to serve on demand — you just scoop it out at meal time or snack time. It doesn’t spoil as soon as wet food and typically lasts longer than dehydrated foods due to the lower moisture content.
If you mostly feed your cat dry food, we always recommend making sure they have plenty of water on hand and they’re drinking it consistently. Kibble doesn’t boast the same water content as wet or dehydrated food (when rehydrated).
Lastly, be careful about what kind of kibble you feed. Look for products that have protein as the first ingredient (not just protein flavor), are free of meat meals, and are made with high-quality ingredients. We’ll cover more tips on deciphering cat food labels in the next section.
What To Know About Reading Cat Food Labels
When checking labels, you’ll discover a lot of information — but to make an informed decision, you need to know how to read all of that information. We’ve got you covered. Here’s what to look for:
- Net quantity statement: This tells you how much food comes in the package. If it’s food that needs to be mixed with water, it should also tell you how much it will make once properly prepared.
- Manufacturer name and contact info: This should be here to inform you who is the responsible party for the food. A website and contact information should be accessible if you ever need to reach out with questions or concerns.
- Ingredient list: Pet food makers must list ingredients by order of weight, which means that the ingredients in the largest quantities appear first on the list. So, here are some questions to ask when you’re assessing the food’s quality: Is the first ingredient protein? Is that protein a meat meal or whole meat/fish? Can you pronounce more of the ingredients than those you can't? Do you recognize them? Also, be on the lookout for trigger ingredients if your cat has sensitivities or allergies.
- Human grade vs. feed grade: Over 1,000 pet food brands are “feed grade,” which means they’re approved for livestock and can use by-products and low-quality meats. We created the “human grade” standard, which means our pet food meets the same strict requirements as people food, so your feline friend gets only the best.
- Guaranteed analysis: Sort of like the nutrition facts on human food, this lists percentages of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and moisture content.
- Calorie statement: Here, you’ll learn how many calories are in each serving. This can be especially important to be mindful of when switching foods: you’ll want to adjust the serving size of your new food to meet your cat’s needs.
- Nutritional adequacy statement: Always check this section. It should tell you if the food is complete or balanced (meaning it has the proper nutrition for a cat at a particular life stage), and it should also tell you what life stage the food is intended for — kittens, adults, and so on. This guarantees that the food meets AAFCO guidelines for nutritional adequacy (more on AAFCO later).
- Feeding instructions: This section informs you how much to feed per bodyweight, which is crucial so that you don’t overfeed your cat.
Before selecting a food, check everything above and ensure that everything meets your standards. In particular, pay attention to the life stage that the food is designed for. Kitten food is balanced differently from food for adult or senior cats.
Ingredients To Watch Out For
When you’re checking the ingredient list, a few ingredients should be on your radar as things not to purchase. These include:
- BHT and BHA: These stand for butylated hydroxytoluene and butylated hydroxyanisole, respectively. Both are preservatives often added to fats and oils, but they’re suspected of causing cancer and known to cause liver and kidney damage in rats.
- Ethoxyquin: This ingredient is illegal in human food and can even be harmful to the touch. It was once a preservative, but you may still spot this one on the rare ingredient list even though manufacturers are moving toward alternatives.
- Meat byproducts: Meat byproducts aren’t necessarily bad for cats, but they’re not great, either. The problem with byproducts is that “meat byproduct” on the label tells you nothing about the type of meat, animal sources, or anything else. The same goes for “meat meal” and “concentrate meal,” which you may also see on ingredient lists. These are often meat leftovers that are rendered down so much that it destroys the natural enzymes and proteins.
How AAFCO Affects Your Cat’s Food
AAFCO stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials, and you’ll need to know what the AAFCO label represents when reading pet food labels.
First of all, keep in mind that the FDA is the government organization responsible for regulating pet foods. AAFCO is not a government organization and does not issue regulations. They’re a private volunteer organization staffed mainly by regulatory officials who enforce state animal feed laws.
Even though they’re not a governing or lawmaking body, it's always best to choose foods that carry the AAFCO label. This is because AAFCO creates its own pet food labeling guidelines based on nutrient requirements established by the National Research Council Committee on Animal Nutrition. One of their primary functions is to put pet foods through feeding trials to ensure that the food meets an animal’s nutrient profile requirements.
Look for a statement that indicates the cat food was formulated to meet the nutritional guidelines set forth by AAFCO to provide nutritional adequacy to cats.
The Honest Kitchen Makes it Simple To Choose the Best Cat Food
Shopping for new food for your cat is no easy feat. There’s a lot to know about nutrition, labeling, guidelines, and more. Fortunately, The Honest Kitchen makes it easy for you to find vet-crafted foods that meet human grade standards and exceed your feline friend’s taste expectations. Shop our selection of healthy, delicious foods. Your cat will thank you!