Good quality cat food is the one thing your cat can’t live without. Literally. But with a bewildering array of brands and breed-specific foods out there, it can be difficult to know where to start. Not to mention that each different kind of cat food has dozens of different ingredients, some of which you recognize and most of which you don’t.
Which is the best cat food? Both wet and dry cat food can be high quality, but quality can be expensive. If you do feed your cat dry food, make sure they drink water too. Pick foods that contain real meats or fish, as these are usually higher quality. The best food for kittens and the best food for older cats is usually specially formulated.
This page is for picking out the very best wet and dry cat foods for your cat to enjoy. Contrary to what you might think, each kind has its place (although you need to feed them wet food if your cat won’t drink water).
So, the guide below starts off by looking at the pros and cons of wet and dry cat food. Afterwards, we’ll take a look at some of the best of each, with some condensed cat food reviews.
Ready? Thought so. Let’s go!
Wet Cat Food vs Dry Cat Food
Ah, the old wet cat food vs dry cat food debate. The first thing we’re going to say is that there’s no right or wrong answer as to what you feed your cat. The only problem is if you don’t feed them a balanced diet, and that can happen with either wet or dry food. Contrary to popular belief, cats who solely eat dry cat food aren’t necessarily going to develop kidney disease, so long as they eat a quality food and balance it by drinking plenty of water. This might go against your personal experience, but research by both the Journal of Feline Medical Surgery and by the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine suggests that a balanced dry food diet can actually help prevent kidney disease. One cause that they found wasn’t actually their diet, but their dental health.
Either way, what we’re trying to say is that there’s nothing wrong with kibble, per se. The only thing you have to watch out for is that you buy high quality cat food. That’s because a surprising number of brands don’t exactly match their listed ingredients. That doesn’t mean that they contain chicken when it says they’re made of turkey. Rather, it means that their mineral content is a little out of balance. But just like it does for humans, this unbalance can lead to poor health. So, whether you pick wet cat food or dry cat food, the important thing is to go for higher quality. Just like you would with your human family!
Best Cat Food Ingredients
That leads us to the question of which ingredients in cat food are good, and which are bad. A study in the Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research sought to answer just that question. Their researchers wanted to take a look at three common cat food ingredients, and how well a cat can digest them. If you go to your kitchen right now, it’s almost guaranteed that your cat food will contain at least one of these three! They were:
- Generic meat meal
- Chicken meal
- Corn gluten meal
These three ingredients are the main protein sources that manufacturers use in their cat food. Cats require high protein cat food more than they require any other ingredient. Contrary to what you might have heard, pure gluten is actually an excellent protein source!
Either way, the researchers assessed how well 12 cats could digest these ingredients (which is, admittedly, a small sample size). They fed the cats the three kinds of food for three weeks, and analyzed how well they digested them based on the ‘waste products’ the cats produced… Which doesn’t sound like much fun, but somebody has to do it.
The researchers found that cats found meat meal the easiest to digest, followed by chicken meal and corn gluten meal in last place. They found that cats eating meat meal absorbed the nitrogen in their food far easier.
Mineral absorption was similar among each of the foods, although chicken meal generally contains more. The study suggested that because of the high waste mineral content after digestion of chicken meal, cats on a dry chicken meal diet need more water to prevent kidney damage. Another study on fish meal found that that was preferable to corn gluten meal, too. And another comparing just meat meal and corn gluten meal came to the same conclusion.
You also have to consider ‘functional foods’. In short, these are foods that are modified slightly to make them more varied and more beneficial to health. Common ‘human’ examples include things like whole grains, fruit and vegetables, anything that provides fiber or ‘roughage’, botanicals and added vitamins and minerals. A study in Research in Veterinary Science found that functional food ingredients in cat food have an amazing effect on digestion. Oats and barley, as well as fruit and vegetable additions like vegetable pomace, aided digestion. However, they also absorbed some mineral content that was then passed as waste: so functional foods are a little bit of a double edged sword.
In short? Stick with meat, and avoid corn gluten meal. And,where possible, try and find foods with as many extra varied ingredients as possible. But that’s not all you have to think of: the food you should feed your cat also depends on their age.
Best Food for Kittens
So, walk down any aisle in any store and you’ll see cat food divided by age. There’s some for every stage of life: from when your cat’s a kitten, all the way up until your kitten becomes an older cat!
But why exactly do manufacturers make cat food for kittens? You might be tempted to think it’s a marketing ploy, but it’s actually not. There are very good reasons why kittens need ‘special’ food, and it’s all down to development.
In short, the first few weeks of your kitten’s life are incredibly important. They eat far more than their size would normally allow, so that they can take in extra energy and grow as quickly as possible. Bear in mind that cats grow to full size in a matter of months, rather than decades like humans!
That means that they need a number of things: extra protein, extra carbohydrates and extra minerals. Each of these ingredients contributes to their growth to full size. Check out our Catmart guide to kitten food for more information, as well as reviews of different brands of food.
Best Food for Older Cats
The exact same applies to food for older cats. Older cats need particular vitamins and minerals to take care of their joints as they age. Without them, they can suffer a loss of movement and may even age prematurely! If you have a senior cat, you’ll want to feed it the highest quality cat food to keep it feeling younger for longer. To find out more, and to find out which brands are best, check out our guide to the best food for older cats here.
Best Cat Food: a Raw Diet?
Cats are natural carnivores. It stands to reason that they would benefit most from a raw diet… Right? Yes and no. According to the Canadian Veterinary Journal, several public health organizations actually advise against it. That’s because of a number of risks associated with feeding cats raw food. These include two key problems:
- The major risk of bacterial and parasitic infections that result from eating raw meat, salmonella and E-coli especially.
- An imbalance in nutrients. Cats can’t get everything they need from one source, like chicken.
The paper above places the blame squarely on advertisements, marketing and unscrupulous online blogs that promote the diet without doing the real, necessary research. Unfortunately, only 9% of respondents to this survey took advice from their vet before switching their cat to a raw food diet. By contrast, 20% switched after reading about it online.
That’s a shame, because many vets encourage raw diets. The CVMA and PHAC, for example, state that there may be benefits to raw food diets; they hold that the problem of infection in both cats and humans outweighs the benefits, but that if these problems could be overcome, that the diet has merit.
Now, there’s nothing wrong about a raw food diet on paper. After all, it’s what cats would eat in the wild. The biggest problem with the switch is not ensuring that your cat continues to get a balance of minerals and nutrients. If you do choose a raw diet for your cat, make sure you do the research on what nutrients they need beforehand. Otherwise you could be hurting them more than you’re helping.
Vegetarian Cat Diets?
The idea of a vegetarian cat diet might sound strange at first, but it’s actually a sound idea. So long as a diet meets all of a cat’s nutritional needs, there’s no problem if it doesn’t contain meat. Believe it or not, but the debate about the issue has raged for decades in various scientific journals. A paper in the journal Animals is an excellent example. Titled Vegetarian versus Meat-Based Diets for Companion Animals, researchers Andrew Knight and Madeleine Leitsberger reviewed a slew of past papers on the topic. They concluded:
“Both cats and dogs may thrive on vegetarian diets, but these must be nutritionally complete and reasonably balanced. Owners should also regularly monitor urinary acidity, and should correct urinary alkalinisation through appropriate dietary additives, if necessary.”
There are a number of arguments in favor of vegetarian and vegan diets, too. The farming of animals is one of the biggest contributors to global climate change, and you may view eating animals as unethical. If neither of these points concerns you, there’s little purpose in switching your cat’s diet to a vegetarian one. But not only is it possible—it’s possible for your cat to thrive on one.
Homemade Cat Food?
Just as popular are homemade cat food diets. Again, this is driven by a desire to control what your pets eat. It’s understandable, especially because cheaper kibble can contain all sorts of strange meats. And again, the issue that most vets and experts have with homemade diets is that they’re typically deficient in one or more nutrients. Homemade cat food, unless made by an expert, doesn’t tend to be the healthiest cat food.
A paper by Portuguese researchers is an excellent example. Published in the Journal of Nutritional Science, they found that the vast majority of recipes were short of at least one nutrient, if not more. They found that:
- 100% of recipes they studied provided less than the recommended amount of iron for cats
- 84.6% were short of vitamin E
- 88.4% were short of zinc
- 73% were short of calcium
- 69.2% were short of copper
- 69.2% were short of choline
- 11.5% were short of riboflavin
- 80.7% were short of thiamine
- 34.6% were short of vitamin B12
Each of these minerals and elements are vital to health. Without them, you risk all sorts of cat health problems. That’s why it’s absolutely vital that you craft a homemade diet based on the actual nutritional needs of a cat—not just on raw foods and what you think they need. If your quest to make ethical cat food, you might end up with a poorly kitty. If you’re capable of creating good quality cat food in your own home, then by all means, try. Alternatively, if you’re not, we’d suggest you stick to store-bought products.
What Should My Cat Eat?
High quality cat food. Beyond that, whatever you choose to feed your cat is your own business. But your choice should be informed by the fact that any diet should be complete. It should provide every single nutrient that your cat needs. Fortunately, the best cat food brands on the market at least try and meet this requirement. If you’re worried about your cat not getting everything they need from their food, you should either switch to a different brand, come up with your own recipe, or help your cat out with some supplements. As far as your pet is concerned, it probably just wants tasty cat food. It doesn’t always know what’s good for it. You do, so help them out!