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When it comes to your cat’s diet, you want to provide them with the best possible nutrition for a healthy, long life. However, choosing the right food for your beloved feline friend can be surprisingly difficult, due to the overwhelming amount of options available on the market today, confusing food labels, and cat fad diets that can add further uncertainty into the mix. The best cat food for your pet will be one your finicky feline not only likes, but one that’s properly balanced with appropriate ingredients.
How to Choose Cat Food
Just as you would while shopping for your own groceries, you’ll want to read the food label on your cat’s food packaging. “I think it’s … important [for] a pet owner to be able to read a pet food label — which can be really confusing! But you want a brand [that] went through rigorous testing, feed trials, and can guarantee their food analysis on the label … is consistent with each flavor and life stage they provide.” Ellen Carozza, a feline-only Licensed Veterinary Technician, in Arlington, Virginia, tells FIRST for Women.
Luckily, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has a label — usually found on the back or side of pet food packaging — that indicates whether food meets or exceeds the standards set forth for all life stages and condition advertised by a brand.
Two key terms to look for? “Complete” and “balanced.” The former means that the product contains all the nutrients required, while the latter indicates that the nutrients are present in the correct ratios, as stated on the AAFCO website.
It’s also important to be mindful of ingredients that are not needed in cats’ diets. “Cats are obligate carnivores, so that means they do not need to eat things like grains and veggies like their canine friends,” Dr. Eric Dougherty, DVM and Medical Director at The Cat Practice in New York City, explains. “Corn, soy, grains, spinach, potatoes, etc. are really not needed in a cat’s diet.”
Meat-byproducts, meanwhile, “are not usually a concern for cats to consume, because those are parts of the whole animal that a cat would be eating in nature. So while it isn’t appetizing for most of us to think about eating chicken with a mush of kidney mixed with intestine, it is part of the carnivore way,” Dougherty shares.
Wet vs Dry Cat Food
While there are plenty of choices available in both the wet and dry cat food categories, Dr. Dougherty recommends wet cat food as the primary food source for your cat. “The best … diet for cats should ideally be based on canned wet food,” he says. “Canned food is important for cats for several reasons, primarily because cats are designed to get much of their hydration through their food.”
To ensure you’re choosing one with enough water, look for the phrase “high moisture content” printed on the can. Foods in gravy also have high moisture content.
Dr. Dougherty points our that the added water content from canned food can benefit the overall health of your cat: “It also can help avoid certain health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, renal failure, urine crystals, and so on,” he says.
Wet food do tend to be pricier, so if you’re struggling to keep up with expenses, Dr. Dougherty says to “save the expensive food options for later in your kitty’s life, when it might be more critical for her to have a prescription or specialized diet to meet her health needs.”
According to Dr. Dougherty, it’s also OK to skip the fancy designer cat food and go with the cheapest wet food in a poultry flavor that delivers proper nutrients — i.e., meets the AAFCO standard for a complete and balanced diet.
While wet food is the cat food of choice, there are benefits to dry food, too. Says Dr. Dougherty: “…Cats often love dry food and it is good for their teeth.” He suggests using AAFCO-compliant dry food as treats for your cat rather than as a meal: “That way, their teeth get the benefit, but they are still getting their main nutrients from a canned diet.”
What is the best cat food?
The best cat food for your pet will align with his or her life stage. “Feeding for the appropriate life stage ensures the pet is being fed the correct ratio of proteins, fats, and other nutrients,” says Carozza. This can mean choosing food for kittens, pregnancy, senior cats, and more.
While you might be tempted to turn to generic food brands or grocery store brands that market toward specific life stages, Carozza warns against this, because “they tend to be all-purpose foods, even though many times you can see them marketed for ‘life stages.’”
Luckily, we’ve rounded up plenty of options that will work for your pet in any life stage.
Whether you’re looking for a budget-friendly cat food or one that will treat specific health issues, however, it’s important to be mindful of how much or how little food your cat is consuming. “Make sure you are feeding your cat enough of the diet to begin with. Some diets might come in a big can, but are oddly low in calories, so your cat would have to eat much more than they are used to,” Dr. Dougherty explains.
Most food packaging has printed on it a feeding guideline that’s based on your cat’s weight, but according to Dougherty, “your cat’s body condition will also be an indicator if they are eating the right amount. Whether they are a bit too chubby or too thin, it might be a good time to speak with your vet and make sure that their diet is working for them (which is one of the many reasons you should bring your cat to the vet at least once a year).”
As with any diet changes, the transition to a new food should also be slow to avoid health issues. You should also consult your veterinarian before starting your pet on a new diet to ensure they get the correct balance of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
This story originally appeared on our sister site, Woman’s World.
If you’re ready to make the switch, keep reading for FIRST for Women’s top picks for the best cat food you can feed your feline friend!
We write about products we think our readers will like. If you buy them, we get a small share of the revenue from the supplier.
Tiki Cat Food
Best Cat Food for Older Cats — Tiki Cat Luau Succulent Chicken
Where to Buy: $18.25 for a 12-pack, Chewy
In addition to its high-moisture content, Tiki Cat offers several cat food options that are high in protein and low in carbs, which can also be particularly important for older cats that aren't as active. As Dr. Dougherty pointed out, cats are carnivores and do not need grains and veggies, like dogs do, and this Succulent Chicken flavor also lists real chicken as its first ingredient.
One 5-star review reads: “My cats really like this food. When you open the can you see that it is real shredded chicken. It doesn't remind me of cat food, that's for sure! I have one cat who is in the beginning stages of kidney failure and has to eat a special diet. He sometimes refuses to eat and I've used the liquid and a few shreds of this chicken in his daily meal to tempt him. It works. It's high-quality meat without unnecessary fillers; just real food the way it should be.”
Best Cat Food for Kittens — Royal Canin Mother and Baby Cat
Where to Buy: From $36.50 for a 24-pack, Amazon
If you’re buying food for a kitten, it’s important that the food is formulated for this particular growth stage. AAFCO's label indicating that a food is complete and balanced for growth will tell you if the food meets this requirement. Royal Canin’s Mother and Babycat wet food is an ultra-soft mousse in a sauce that's created with the specific needs of growing kittens and pregnant cats in mind. It also includes Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) “to build a strong foundation for brain development, starting in the womb and continuing throughout the mother cat’s pregnancy,” as stated on the Royal Canin website.
This kitten food recipe is also available as dry version.
Best Budget Cat Food — Purina Fancy Feast Roasted Turkey
Where to Buy: From $16.80 for a 24-pack, Amazon
Following Dr. Dougherty’s suggestion to find a poultry-based wet food when shopping on a budget, our search led us to Fancy Feast’s canned food. Its an affordable and 100 percent complete and balanced line of wet cat food that offers many poultry-based flavors, such as the pictured Roasted Turkey Feast or Chicken and Tuna Feast (both of which are nutritionally sound and packed with high-quality ingredients).
In fact, Fancy Feast has more than 20 canned food options, so even if your cat doesn’t like the first flavor you buy, you'll have plenty of other inexpensive choices available.
Weruva Cat Food
Best Cat Food for Constipation — Weruva Cats in the Kitchen Funk in the Trunk
Where to Buy: From $36 for a 24-pack, Amazon
Pumpkin is a common ingredient used to aid cats with constipation. Since it's a soluble fiber, pumpkin increases fecal water content as well as bulk, encouraging bowel movements in constipated cats. Weruva’s Funk in the Trunk is a chicken-based wet cat food that features pumpkin consommé. It's minimally processed and doesn’t include artificial colors or preservatives. Better yet, this food is grain-, gluten-, GMO-, msg-, carrageenan, corn-, and soy-free.
According to reviewers, it does the job nicely, with one buyer raving, "Super high quality food. My cats love it, and it actually smells like what it is. It is GREAT for elderly cats who need the extra fiber due to constipation."
Royal Canin Dry
Best Cat Food for Indoor Cats — Royal Canin Indoor Dry Cat Food
Where to Buy: From $15.24 (Originally $28.99), Chewy
Cats that live indoors lead a more leisurely lifestyle than ones that live outdoors; therefore, they require a lower calorie intake. Royal Canin’s Indoor dry cat food meets the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO and has a guaranteed analysis to help your cat maintain a healthy weight. With a 4.5 out of 5-star rating from more than 240 reviewers, this food has plenty of fans — including Carozza, who feeds it to her own pets.
Best Cat Food for Weight Loss — Nulo Freestyle Adult Trim
Where to Buy: From $22.99, Amazon
If you’re looking for food to help your kitty slim down, Nulo’s adult trim cat food is an ideal choice. AAFCO-compliant, its recipe is made up of 83 percent animal protein — the star of which is cat-favorite salmon — and also has L-carnitine, which promotes the metabolism of fats. The lentils found within also provide a healthy source of carbs for energy and natural fiber to keep your cat satisfied while maintaining a healthy weight.
Hill's Science Diet
Best Cat Food for Sensitive Stomachs — Hill's Science Diet Sensitive Stomach & Skin
Where to Buy: From $15.99 (Originally $17.99), Amazon
Hill’s Science Diet is a brand recommended by Carozza for its thorough testing data and guarantee of analysis. This food for adult cats with sensitive stomachs and skin is made with natural ingredients and uses prebiotic fiber to support healthy digestion. Additionally, its vitamin E and omega 6 fatty acids are nourishing for cats’ skin. There are three flavors available, including Salmon and Yellow Pea, which is a grain- and corn-free option.
"My ... male cat started to have stomach issues, howling in pain and defecating as he was running to the litter box," wrote one happy Amazon buyer. "Enter Science Diet Sensitive skin and stomach. The howling and accidents have stopped and with careful monitoring of wet and dry food amounts, [he is] doing well now."
Best Cat Food for Picky Eaters — Weruva B.F.F. Oh My Gravy! Original Tuna Recipe
Where to Buy: From $13.49, for a 12-pack, Amazon
Cats are notoriously picky eaters, but there's one cat food that stands out even for the toughest to please. Maybe it’s the tuna, maybe it’s the gravy, or maybe it’s the combination of tuna in gravy, but cats adore Weruva's B.F.F. Oh My Gravy! food. Another positive? It's made with sustainably-sourced ingredients and produced in human food facilities, following strict standards for food production.
“My cat has always been a picky eater, but when I tear open a new pouch of this stuff, he beelines from across the house," one happy cat owner told Woman's World. "He smells it a mile away!”
Best Cat Food for Allergies — Merrick Limited Ingredient Chicken Recipe
Where to Buy: From $38.66 for a 24-pack, Amazon
While most cats love fish and beef, Dr. Dougherty suggests poultry-based foods, especially for cats with allergies, since poultry tends to be less irritating. Limited-ingredient foods are also ideal for cats with allergies, since they use a single-source of animal protein that's easier to digest. Merrick’s limited-ingredient recipe is made with real deboned chicken, and this wet cat food is also free of grains, potatoes, and fish.
Best Cat Treats — Purina Friskies Party Mix
Where to Buy: $19.74 for a pack of six, Amazon
In addition to the daily meals you provide for your cat, the snacks you give them are also important. While there are lots of different types with standout features, like those that help clean your cat's teeth ($5.88, Amazon) or ones that have a high-percentage of organic ingredients ($3.49, Chewy), we love Purina Friskies' Party Mix cat treats. They come in 12 flavors, including a few indulgent options, such as Lobster Mac 'N' Cheese and Chicken & Waffles, and are under two calories per treat, so you won’t have to worry about adding too many extra calories to your cat’s diet.