What Is the Best Cat Food – and How to Choose?

What is the best cat food?

I help out at the local no-kill animal shelter as a volunteer for pet adoptions. I am always pleased when responsible forever owners ask about the nutritional needs of the cat or dog they select.

We provide a list of food used at the shelter, but I encourage owners to take their new pets to the veterinarian for a full evaluation including nutritional advice. There are so many choices of pet food, and the animal’s specific needs should be considered before endorsing a feeding program. The following is a primer to help you get started.

Age-Appropriate Diets

Cats progress through three life stages:

  1. Kitten
  2. Adult/maintenance years
  3. Senior

Your cat’s place in the life stage is a big factor in determining the best diet plan. Food for your cat should be formulated to meet the nutritional requirements of the specific age, with consideration given to any other potential health issues.

  • Kittens need a diet that is high in protein and fat to develop strong bones, teeth and muscles. Kittens are more active than older cats and convert calories quickly into energy.
  • Adult cats should have a lower-calorie diet with considerations of weight control. Being overweight, just as with humans, can lead to diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes as cat ages. Unless an adult cat is pregnant or nursing, it will not require the calorie content and higher protein/fat diet consumed by a kitten.
  • Senior cats are typically more sedentary and need a low-fat diet with highly digestible proteins to ease the processing burden on their kidneys.

It’s All on the Label

A healthy diet is your cat’s best defense for a long life that is free of disease. A cat’s nutritional requirements are relatively simple. Read the labels on your food choice. These basic ingredients should be listed at the top:

  • Protein from an identified meat, fish or poultry source (look for “beef,” “lamb,” “turkey,” ”chicken,” “tuna” — not just “meat” or “meat product”)
  • Taurine, an essential amino acid
  • Vitamins, minerals, enzymes, fatty acids
  • Water

Preservatives are necessary to keep the food fresh. Fillers such as corn, wheat, rice, colorings, binders and flavors are added to both dry and canned cat food by the manufacturers to provide bulk and satisfy consumers. Better-quality brands will have fewer artificial preservatives and cheap fillers.

Always check the expiration date on the package, and look for a brand that meets or exceeds AAFCO standards.

Ingredients to avoid:

  • “Byproducts,” “meat and/or bone meal” and “animal digest”
  • Added sugars
  • Potentially dangerous chemical preservatives such as BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin and propyl gallate
  • Corn meal
  • Excessive carbohydrate fillers (dry cat food may contain as much as 50 percent grain)

Variety Is the Spice of Life

Many feline nutritionists recommend a mixture of canned and dry food for cats. Dry food is convenient and may be left out for “self-feeding.” Canned food provides variety and contains water. Since cats may not drink water regularly, canned food provides a convenient (and yummy, for them) source of additional hydration. Canned food should be consumed quickly, and it spoils within a day without refrigeration. Even when you do refrigerate an open can of cat food, throw it out after three days to avoid bacterial contamination.

Rotating food choices will keep your cat from becoming bored with the same daily meal routine. Since different formulations of cat food recipes contain a range of minerals and vitamins, alternating food choices may provide your cat with a more balanced diet.

Vegan Cats? Raw Foodist Felines?

Cats are obligate carnivores, and they must have protein derived from a meat, fish or poultry source to survive. In the wild, the primary grains cats ingest are from the contents of their prey’s stomach. A vegan, or even vegetarian, diet for your cat is not a healthy option.

Meanwhile, some pet owners ask about the health benefits of feeding raw diets. Because it is time-consuming and expensive, preparing raw pet food it is not a workable solution for many. Fear not: A number of companies manufacture balanced raw cat foods. Among them: Nature’s Variety Instinct, Raw Kitty and more. Always ensure the diet meets or exceeds AAFCO standards.

Is It OK If My Cat Eats Dog Food?

There may be the occasion when cats and dogs coexist that a food exchange will occur. In the event your cat nibbles your dog’s food, do not worry. It will not hurt your feline to feed from the dog bowl — assuming the dog is agreeable. On a regular basis however, it is not a recommended feeding plan.

A cat’s nutritional requirements are much different from a dog’s. Your cat needs more protein than dog food provides. Vitamin and mineral supplements in quality cat food are also essential to a balanced diet. For example, the amino acid taurine is not added to dog food, because a dog’s system produces an ample supply.

If your cat is eating dog food entirely, she will become deficient in many nutrients that are critical to her good health and may lead to serious, life-threatening illnesses. Stick to a cat food that is manufactured for the nutritional values of felines, and you and your pet will both benefit.

Avoid These Common Household Foods

A cat’s natural curiosity may lead her to food choices that are not in her best interest. Some foods may make a cat ill or even cause death. Common household foods your cat should avoid:

  • Canned tuna: Cats LOVE it, but a steady diet of canned tuna leads to malnutrition.
  • Onions, garlic, chives: In any form (dehydrated, power, raw) these can break down a cat’s red blood cells.
  • Milk: Kittens can tolerate milk but an adult cat’s digestive system cannot process dairy foods.
  • Alcohol: Even foods containing alcohol can harm a cat. Three teaspoons of whiskey can kill a 5-pound cat!
  • Grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure.
  • Coffee, tea, colas: Caffeine in any form in large enough quantities can be fatal for a cat.
  • Chocolate-contains the toxin theobromine and is lethal for cats.
  • Xylitol (in candy or gum) is dangerous for feline consumption.
  • Raw eggs contain the protein avidin and interfere with the absorption of Vitamin B.
  • Yeast dough continues to rise in the cat’s stomach causing pain, the fermentation creates alcohol and may lead to poisoning.

Post the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center’s telephone contact information in an accessible location in the event of an emergency:

ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center: 888-426-4435

Cost and convenience may inspire attempts to select less expensive and lesser-quality pet foods. The short change in nutrients most often leads to increased medical expenses and labor for the pet owner. A balanced, nutritionally sound diet will support a long life of health and well-being for your cat.

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  • Debra Davis

    Very good article!  I’ve seen kitties lap up that Nature’s Variety Instinct you mentioned like there was no tomorrow!  Before their owner tried that, she couldn’t find one that both her cats would eat.  Also, Evo is a good dry food brand that is very low on carbs and grain free.  You have to feed them less than what they say though if your kitties are like mine, a little too sedentary!

    • PetsAdviser

      Thanks Debra. You’re right, sometimes cats can be finicky, that’s for sure.

  • Dr. Deb

    May I add that the overwhelming veterinary opinion today among traditional vets, holistic vets, naturopathic vets, you name it: wet food is the best option for cats.  Cats don’t need carbs and, as you said, high quality protein is the key. Wet (canned) and raw diets (I still like to braise them in the micro for 10 seconds each side)  contain the moisture content cats need to avoid the most common feline diseases we see in practice: urinary issues, diabetes, obesity, to name a few.  

  • Lisa Scott

    I keep hearing that corn is very bad for cats but I don’t see it on your list of ingredients to avoid. Is it bad or not? Unfortunately I see it most foods for cats, including foods from veterinarian’s offices