Finding great cat foods for every budget
In the wild your cat would get perfectly balanced, ideal nutrition, neatly wrapped into one small package: a mouse. The best commercial cat foods essentially try to replicate that delicate balance of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. Some do a surprisingly accurate job, critics say. However, caring cat owners need to be wary as lots of cat foods fall woefully short. That said, we found good, species appropriate cat foods at nearly every price point -- from 70-cent canned supermarket cat food to $40 bags of frozen gourmet duck for your cat.
Among cat foods, there are three main choices:
Canned cat food is the top choice of many experts. Among other things, it packs plenty of moisture. That's important for a cat's health as their lack of a natural thirst drive can lead some to become dangerously dehydrated. Canned foods -- at least the best ones -- also usually pack more meat and less starch than dry food.
Dry cat food is more convenient then canned, but some experts say dry-fed cats don't get enough moisture. Others say dry food works fine. Meat-rich dry cat foods with little or no grain are the critics' choice for carnivorous cats.
Raw cat food does the best job of impersonating prey. Raw meat and organs are ground up in exact proportions to give cats all the nutrients they need. Many raw cat foods are sold frozen, but some raw or near-raw dehydrated varieties are also available.
Vegetarian food for cats?
Some cat owners want to feed their cats vegetarian or vegan diets -- and some cat food companies manufacture them -- but this is controversial. Cats evolved as obligate carnivores that eat other animals, and almost nothing else. Vegetarian cat food advocates, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), agree that cats do need certain nutrients that plants don't have, but they say supplements can be added to vegetarian food to cover that. Some cat owners say they've fed vegetarian or even vegan food for years, and their cats are healthy.
But plenty of veterinarians aren't convinced. "For cats, it's really inappropriate. It goes against their physiology and isn't something I would recommend at all," Cailin Heinze, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, tells WebMD.com. Without proper supplements, vegan and vegetarian cats can't get enough of certain amino and fatty acids, and it can be hard for them to get enough protein, all of which can lead to growth problems, eye problems, reproductive failure and life-threatening heart disorders.
"For me, it boils down to this question: 'Why?'" veterinarian Jennifer Coates -- herself a vegetarian -- writes in her nutrition blog for PetMD.com. "Why have an obligate carnivore as a pet if you are not willing to feed him or her meat?"
We agree. For best health and nutrition, the best guidance we found was to feed a diet that's species-appropriate -- and for a cat, that means meat, and lots of it. That's a characteristics of all the foods we name as the Best Reviewed or that are worth considering.
Finding the best cat food
Finding the best cat foods in every category comes down to evaluating each one based on the quality of its ingredients, safety (history of recalls, etc.) and value. Critics aren't shy about pointing out the foods that fall short. Our expert sources, including PetsumerReport.com, CatInfo.org, About.com and others, scrutinize cat food labels and closely follow cat food recall news. Cat owners posting at sites like Amazon.com, Chewy.com and elsewhere fill in the final pieces of the puzzle -- whether cats seem healthy while eating a certain food they enjoy, for instance, or whether they turn up their finicky noses at it. The result of that research and feedback are our picks as the Best Reviewed canned dry and raw cat foods.
Elsewhere in this report:
Cat Food Ingredients: While reviews help, reading the label can help an educated cat-food shopper find the best choices. Here's what to look for.
Best Canned Cat Food: Canned cat foods provide nutrition and hydration. These are the ones that experts and cat owners say are tops.
Best Dry Cat Food: Dry cat kibble is more convenient, and often lower in cost, than feeding canned or raw foods. These are the ones that provide the meat that your cats need.
Best Raw Cat Food: These foods can come closest to matching what your cat would eat in the wild. Both frozen and dehydrated raw products are highlighted.
Buying Guide: Not sure where to start to find the best cat food for your pet and your budget? Our editors explain the top considerations.
Our Sources: These are the reviews and other sources we consulted to find the best-rated cat foods of all types. They are ranked in the order of their expertise and helpfulness.