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 per can 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. Raw and near-raw (minimally processed) cat foods are sold frozen or in dehydrated form.
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 very controversial. Cats evolved as obligate carnivores that eat other animals, and almost nothing else. Vegetarian cat food advocates 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. However, this evidence is entirely anecdotal and you may not have the same successful result if you try this on your own cat.
And the majority of veterinarians aren't sold on the idea. "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 | Best Canned Cat Food | Best Dry Cat Food | Best Raw Cat Food | Buying Guide | Our Sources