What the best cat food has
- More meat, less grain in the top five ingredients. Grain-free is best for your resident carnivore, say cat food critics. Experts suggest looking for meat as the number-one ingredient.
- No corn, wheat or soy as carbohydrate sources. If you do choose a cat food with grain, steer clear of corn, wheat and soy, all of which can trigger allergies in some cats, experts say.
- No artificial preservatives. None of the cat foods discussed in this report add chemical preservatives like BHT, BHA and ethoxyquin.
- A good safety record. There's much concern about the quality of what goes into pet foods since the massive, deadly melamine recalls of 2007. Subsequent, smaller recalls for salmonella and other issues have done little to quell fears. Look for cat food from a company that maintains good control over the sources of its ingredients. Some companies go the extra mile by doing their own independent tests. Companies that have acted responsibly in the past -- such as being forthright with their customers when something has gone wrong -- are more likely to do so in the future.
Know before you go
Dry versus canned. Most veterinarians see no problem with dry cat food. Others say cats really need wet food, because they evolved to get moisture from their prey. Veterinarian Lisa Pierson at CatInfo.org says cats have such a low thirst drive that they'll never drink enough from the water dish, and dry-fed cats run the risk of painful, potentially life-threatening urinary problems. On the other hand, dry cat food often costs less than canned, and it can be convenient for cat owners who want to leave food out for the cat while they're gone. Some cats will only eat dry food -- though that's often a case of a cat's will versus a cat-owner's will. Still, cats, as cat owners know, have very strong wills, and certainly it's better to feed dry if the animal's general health, or even its life, would be put in peril by drawing a line in the sand over dry versus wet food. Still, in certain situations, such as a cat with a history of urinary issues, a wet cat food could be essential to prevent future issues. If in doubt, talk to a trusted vet to see what is the best choice for your pet and your situation.
What about raw? Some cat owners and experts say it's best to feed cats what they would eat in the wild: raw meat, bone and organs. If you are interested in making your own raw cat food, veterinarian Lisa Pierson has information at her CatInfo.org site. You can also buy frozen raw cat food designed to closely mimic a cat's natural prey. Dehydrated near-raw foods (steamed to kill pathogens) are another alternative.
Are byproducts a concern? Some say that byproducts are perfectly acceptable, as a cat in the wild will eat its entire prey -- bones, fur, internal organs and the rest. However, others are concerned about just what's in those byproducts and the quality of their sources, noting that a lack of standards allows the inclusion of animal products that would otherwise not be deemed fit for consumption by humans -- or their pets.
What's your budget? The very best cat foods -- with plenty of high-quality meat, no grains or fillers, nothing artificial -- are usually the priciest. But you don't have to spend a fortune to feed your cat well. We recommend high quality choices at a variety of price points in this report.
Watch for vague-sounding ingredients. For example, "chicken meal" is a decent cat food ingredient; experts say: High-quality versions include chicken meat and sometimes bone rendered to remove moisture (useful for making dry food). On the other hand, "meat and bone meal" can come from any mammal at all. "Animal digest" means soft animal tissue that has been "digested" into liquid form using enzymes. Although these are all legal pet food ingredients, top-rated foods don't use them.
Watch out for hype. Some terms on a cat food label have legal meaning, while others, such as "natural" and "premium" do not. "Human-grade" is often used by makers to describe their food in advertising and on their web site, but only a few companies can legally use the term on its product labelling.