Types of Cat Food
Canned Cat Food
Also called wet cat food, 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. Wet foods -- at least the best ones -- also usually pack in more meat and less starch than dry food.
Dry Cat Food
Though it is more convenient then wet, dry cat food is fairly controversial. Some experts say dry-fed cats don't get enough moisture, and that can jeopardize health as cats don't have a strong thirst drive. Others say that as long as you also provide plenty of fresh water, dry food works fine. If you decide that dry foods are right for your situation, meat-rich dry cat foods with little or no grain are the critics' choice for carnivorous cats.
Raw Cat Food
This type of 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.
What makes a good cat food?
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.
How to read cat food labels
obligate carnivores, and experts say meat should be their primary source of
protein for proper health. But not all meat is created equal. It is better, say
experts, to look for specific origins when it comes to ingredients. "Chicken
meal," for example, consists of chicken flesh and skin, without bone,
feathers, organs, etc. A label that says "meat meal," however,
doesn't indicate a source and can come from just about any animal. Experts say
beef meal is a lesser-quality protein source for cats than chicken meal.
In dry foods, seeing meat at the top of an ingredient list can be a
little misleading, as meat has a high water content that's removed when it is
processed into dry cat food. Meal, on the other hand, is meat with the water
removed, and finding it high up in the ingredient list is a good indication of
a high-protein dry food. As with wet varieties, better dry cat foods will
identify the source of the meal.
Just as for
human food, there are regulations regarding the labeling of cat food that can
help consumers assess the amount of meat in the food. If a product is labeled
"beef cat food," for example, 95 percent of its ingredients must be
beef. If it says "chicken dinner" or "lamb formula," the
named meat only needs to be 25 percent of the ingredients. If the packaging
simply states "chicken flavor," the food merely needs to taste like
chicken to the cat (though how that's ascertained is a bit of a head-scratcher);
it does not need to actually have any chicken in it.
many cat foods, especially -- though not exclusively -- less expensive
formulas, use meat byproducts. There are two schools of thought regarding the
use of byproducts in pet food. One point of view says that in the wild, a cat
will eat every part of its prey -- bones, fur, internal organs and all --
therefore byproducts are a part of a cat's natural diet, so a small amount of
byproduct might not be too bad. Among those with that point of view are veterinarian
Lisa A. Pierson, whose CatInfo.org website says, "The whole issue
of byproducts or no byproducts is a personal one." Pierson goes on to say
that byproducts at least are of animal origin and don't add carbohydrates to
the food. She adds that it is more sensible to include small amounts of animal-derived
byproducts in a carnivore's diet than it does to add grains like corn, wheat,
rice or soy, which add carbs to the diet and could trigger an allergic reaction
in some cats.
as Franny Syufy, who writes about cats and cat nutrition at The Spruce, aren't
so sure. While Syufy allows that byproducts of named meats, such as chicken
by-product meal, may be acceptable, she would prefer it be listed far down on
the label, and certainly not as the first item in the ingredient list. Premium
cat foods recommended by most experts contain few, if any, byproducts.
You also might see an ingredient called "animal digest," which
is the dry or liquid byproduct of the meat-rendering process. Experts say that
while there is meat content in animal digest, it's of little nutritional value
as it is not very digestible. Animal digest is almost never found in
top-quality cat foot brands.
preservatives also give cat owners pause. There have been no studies done to
determine the effects of long-term buildup of preservatives. Even so, the use
of preservatives in human food has become a concern, and that has extended to
pet food. Based on customer concerns, the best cat foods have switched to vitamins
C or E as preservatives rather than chemical preservatives. If you decide to
avoid artificial preservatives, check the label. Some common names of these
chemicals include BHA/BHT, ethoxyquin and propyl gallate. Adding to the
complexity of finding the best cat food, Susan Thixton explains in her blog, Truth About Pet Food, that pet food can include preservatives not listed on the
label -- as long as they're added to an ingredient before it reaches the
is a thickening agent that's obtained from red seaweed. It's a common
ingredient in lots of human food, ranging from infant formula to ice cream, and
is found in the majority of canned cat foods, including some premium brands.
Susan Thixton is among those who say that it's not an ingredient we'd want to
see in pet food because of research done on human tissue. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) has labeled carrageenan as an
ingredient that should be used with caution. The Center notes that the amounts
in food are typically too low to be of a concern, though there are indications
that eliminating it from their diet has helped minimize discomfort in some with
intestinal disease. CSPI also notes that large amounts of carrageenan has
harmed the colons of test animals. The bottom line is that if your cat is prone
to digestive issues, choosing a food that does not include carrageenan might be
well worth considering.
Even what is
used to line cans comes in for some concern. Most food cans -- including those
for human food -- have a lining that contains BPA (bisphenol A) so that the
food doesn't come in contact with the metal. The amount of BPA in these linings
is judged to be low enough by the FDA to be considered safe, but some advocates
remain unconvinced as high levels of the chemical have been linked to cancer,
reproductive problems and other diseases in humans. In cat foods, it's possible
to find smaller cans (6-ounces or less) without BPA linings, but not larger
say cats need meat much more than carbohydrates, and many say cats don't need
carbohydrates at all. In general, foods that contain primarily high-quality
protein -- meat, rather than meat byproducts or grain fillers -- rank much
higher in reviews. Some premium foods do include some vegetables or berries.
Most experts say cats don't need any grains at all, but that if a grain is
included, rice is much less apt to cause an allergic reaction than cheaper
grains, such as corn or wheat.
supermarket brands use comparatively more carbohydrate filler. This means your
cat needs to eat more food in order to get the protein he or she needs. That,
in turn, can impact your food costs in the long run, as well as your cat's
Finding The Best Cat Food
"Truth about Pet Food"
"Recalls & Withdrawals"
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
Petsumer Report, CatInfo.org, Reviews.com and others, scrutinize cat food
labels and closely follow cat food recall news.
However, even the best
balanced, meat-rich cat food won't be a hit if your favorite feline refuses to
eat it. That's where user reviews come in -- to a point. Cat owners posting at
sites like Amazon, Chewy and elsewhere help us separate foods that many cats
truly enjoy from those that are routinely rejected. It's worth noting, however,
that on most sites, cheaper, supermarket-grade foods routinely out-perform foods
that experts say are far healthier choices. Whether that's because of lowered
expectations that sometimes go hand-in-hand with lower price, or whether some
of the food makers have placed a priority on flavor rather than nutrition, is
an open question. But either way, for this report at least, we've given higher
weight to expert feedback, turning to users to break the ties between choices
of similar quality. The result of that research and analysis are our picks as
the Best Reviewed wet, dry and raw cat foods.