Grain-free cat food gets the highest marks from experts, but some say Natural Balance Original Ultra is a good alternative. It does substitute grain for some of the meat -- which some experts aren't crazy about -- but it's still high-quality and free of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives.
Six different sources of animal proteins. "Natural Balance is one of the few good choices a pet owner can make when they walk into a store like Petsmart or Petco," says Christopher Eng at PetFoodRatings.net. Eng, like the veterinarians and nutritionists at 1800PetMeds.com, likes that Natural Balance Original Ultra contains a bunch of different sources of animal protein: chicken meal, chicken, duck meal, lamb meal, salmon meal, duck. (Natural Balance tells one reviewer that the poultry meals are made from muscle meat only -- no byproducts -- and the fish meal has no artificial preservatives.)
Natural Balance does contain some grain, however. Brown rice, barley and oatmeal are the third, fourth and fifth ingredients. This cuts costs -- but some veterinarians, like Lisa Pierson, say it also cuts nutrition, as cats are strict carnivores that didn't evolve to eat grain. The expert panel at 1800PetMeds.com says the barley and oatmeal "may be hard for some cats to digest," but several cat owners who switched from lower-quality foods say Natural Balance Original Ultra has actually improved their cats' digestion and stopped them from vomiting. Some pet food critics do prefer brown rice, barley and oatmeal to other grains and fillers -- especially wheat, corn and soy, which they say can cause allergies and other health problems in cats.
Some vets, including Pierson, say all dry food falls short in one essential nutrient: water. They say cats need to get moisture from their food, because their low thirst drive keeps them from drinking enough, putting them at risk for painful, potentially lethal urinary problems.
Other experts have no problem with dry food. One gives Natural Balance Original Ultra a perfect score of 5. This reviewer likes the high-quality, natural ingredients and proteinated minerals that are easy for cats to absorb. However, the reviewer notes that it lacks probiotics (friendly bacteria that aid digestion and immunity) and includes canola oil, which this expert says hasn't been tested for safety in pet foods.
About.com's guide to cats, Franny Syufy, lists Natural Balance Original Ultra as one of the best dry cat foods you can buy. However, she switched her own cats to canned food to avoid any dry-food-related health problems. Canned Natural Balance Indoor Cat Formula (*Est. $1.20 for a 6-oz. can) is now her cats' favorite food.
After its 2007 recall, Natural Balance began testing each lot of its pet food. Natural Balance cat and dog foods were both recalled in 2007, along with hundreds of other pet foods contaminated with tainted Chinese ingredients that poisoned and killed many pets.
Now, Natural Balance tests every lot of every food itself, before shipping it to stores. It tests for contaminants such as E. coli, salmonella and several mold toxins that can infect grain (aflatoxin, vomitoxin, fumonisin, ochratoxin and zearalenone).
In May 2012, Natural Balance recalled several varieties of its dry dog food that is made by Diamond Pet Foods. Diamond manufactures several brands of pet food, some of which tested positive for salmonella. Natural Balance did not test positive, but the company still recalled the food as a precaution. No dry cat food was recalled.
Costs less than other premium cat foods. Pound for pound, Natural Balance Original Ultra costs less than California Natural Chicken and Brown Rice Formula (*Est. $15 for a 5-lb. bag), another premium dry cat food with grain that gets similar reviews.
Natural Balance costs more than supermarket dry cat food, but several cat owners who write reviews at Amazon.com say their cats have eaten less since they switched to the more nutrient-dense Natural Balance.
Although some top experts say grain-free or canned cat food is better for cats' health, Natural Balance Original Ultra gets good reviews and costs less, making it a top value among premium dry cat foods.
Excellent Susan Thixton rates many cat food brands, including Natural Balance, and their individual flavors of cat food. She gives a lot of weight to ingredient quality, and she also takes product safety into account.
Review: Natural Balance Cat Food, Susan Thixton, Updated March 2011
Very Good Franny Syufy, About.com's guide to cats, names her top picks for dry cat food, including Natural Balance Original Ultra. However, elsewhere on the site, Syufy says she has switched her cats to canned food to avoid dry-food-related health problems. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
Review: Premium Dry Cat Foods for Adult Cats, Franny Syufy, Not Dated
Very Good Veterinarian Lisa Pierson doesn't recommend dry food for cats at all. She says it usually has too much grain -- which carnivorous cats haven't evolved to digest -- and always has too little moisture, which she says cats need to get from their food.
Review: Commercial Foods, Lisa A. Pierson, DVM, Not Dated
Very Good This reviewer gives Natural Balance Original Ultra dry cat food 4 out of 5 stars. He likes that it includes four different meat meals, plus "high quality grains," but he deducts a star because it contains brewers yeast.
Review: Cat Food Listings & Reviews, Christopher Eng, Not Dated
Good Natural Balance Original Ultra earns 4 out of 5 stars from the veterinarians, nutritionists and "knowledgeable staff" who rate pet foods for this pet supply website. They give it points for including several sources of animal protein, but they say the barley and oatmeal "may be hard for some cats to digest."
Review: Comparison Center: Compare Your Pet's Food, Editors of 1800PetMeds.com, Not Dated
Fair More than two dozen cat owners review Natural Balance Original Ultra dry cat food here, and it earns a score of 4.5 out of 5 stars. Several say their cats' health and coats have improved since switching to Natural Balance. One said their cats didn't like it, and one said theirs vomited the food (usually, owners say Natural Balance helped their cats stop vomiting).
Review: Natural Balance Original Ultra Premium Formula Cat Food, 6-Pound Bag, Contributors to Amazon.com, As of October 2012