How to Choose Healthy Cat Food Brands

You Want the Best for Your Cat, Right?

Cat food falling into a cat bowl
Jeffrey Coolidge/The Image Bank/Getty Images

You are what you eat, and this is equally true for a cat that depends on you for its food. Cat food can be one of the most important expenses of feline guardianship, next to veterinary care. A proper diet may eliminate or delay veterinary expenses for medical conditions. Learning how to read the ingredients on cat food labels can make your decision process easier so you can choose the best foods for your pet.

Basic Nutritional Needs for Cats

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they rely on animal protein to thrive. Felines do not need carbohydrates, although corn, wheat, and rice are used as fillers for many canned and dry cat foods. Other ingredients, such as binders, flavoring, and coloring, are added by cat food manufacturers to satisfy the aesthetic wants of the consumer. Here are essential ingredients you should look for on the cat food label that meet your cat's basic nutritional needs:

  • Protein from a named meat, fish, or poultry source (if the first ingredient is simply "meat," look for a label that first lists chicken, turkey, lamb, or salmon)
  • Taurine, an essential amino acid
  • Certain other vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and fatty acids
  • Water

Tip

In addition to the ingredients, look for an expiration date that indicates the freshness of the cat food.

Canned Food or Kibble?

Many nutritionists agree that cats should get a variety of food, both dry and canned, for several reasons:

  • While dry food is convenient and can be left out for "free feeding," canned food is important because it contains mostly water, and many cats do not drink water regularly. Cats that eat only dry food may be more at risk for developing urinary tract diseases.
  • A variety of foods ensure that your cat gets a balance of nutrients. That favorite food you've selected might be adding too little (or too much) of certain minerals and vitamins.
  • Cats may become bored with the same food day in and day out, and simply quit eating. Or, a lack of options can create a very finicky cat that becomes addicted to one type of food. It's even possible for a finicky cat to become addicted to a particular flavor and brand of cat food. This kind of addiction can be difficult to break but can be easily avoided by feeding your cat a variety of foods from the start.
  • Though rare, cats can develop allergies over time. Offering your pet a variety of foods can head off possible allergies to certain ingredients.
Two bowls of cat food, dry biscuits in yellow bowl, moist meaty food in a red bowl, above view.
Paul Bricknell / Getty Images

Cheaper Brands May Equal False Savings

You may be trying to hold down expenses by buying inexpensive cat food but sometimes you get what you pay for. Cats may overeat less expensive food packed with tasty fillers, but may only eat a smaller amount of premium food with less palatable ingredients and more nutrients. Feeding your cat substandard foods for long periods has also been implicated in contributing to medical conditions that could then require expensive veterinarian care.

Other Items on Cat Food Labels

Cat food labels are full of other terms and ingredients that may be of interest to you. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • Terms, such as by-products or meat, chicken, or bone meal, may offer acceptable sources of protein and taurine for your cat, but the FDA recommends they not be first on the list or the predominant ingredients in the food.
  • Animal digest is partially digested (hydrolyzed) animal protein sources (poultry or meat) from un-decomposed animal tissue and must exclude hair, horns, teeth, hooves, and feathers. This is a common additive used to enhance the flavor of the food.
  • Chemical preservatives and additives, including but not limited to BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, and propyl gallate, may have potential health risks to cats.
  • Gums, most of which are potentially problematic gelling agents, have been somewhat restricted for use in cat food over the years.
  • Carbohydrate fillers, such as cornmeal, in excess of 50 percent, such as in dry food, could potentially become problematic for older cats and cats with diabetes. However, many commercial pet foods include less than 50 percent, and carbohydrates may also be used to make sure the food holds its shape.

Tip

The term "complete and balanced" on a cat food label is a nutritional adequacy statement. Pet food manufacturers cannot print "complete and balanced" on their labels unless one of the following criteria is met:

Is Cat Food Regulated?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating pet food and ensuring the ingredients are safe. However, pet food products do not need to have pre-market approval by the FDA.

AAFCO is an advisory body that proposes regulations for the production and labeling of animal feeds, including pet food. Its membership consists of regulatory officials from many states' feed control bodies, the FDA, and like agencies in Canada and Costa Rica, as well as members of other interested groups, such as Born Free USA, and various veterinarian colleges. AAFCO is responsible for the following:

  • Defining terms for labeling terms such as meat by-products
  • Defining quantity determinations for label titles, such as "Chicken Cat Food," "Chicken Dinner for Cats," and "Chicken-flavored Cat Food"
  • Setting criteria for the usage of "complete and balanced" on pet food labels
  • Recommending percentage or minimum/maximum amounts of various ingredients in pet foods, depending on the age and activity level of a cat
  • Indirectly suggesting standards for labeling food for aid in specific conditions such as hairball or dental care
  • Indirectly suggesting ingredients for food intended for adult cats, kittens, or lactating queens

AAFCO does not have regulatory powers, but it can recommend regulations and testing protocols used by independent laboratories. The association also does not make determinations on what is considered "human grade" protein quality, which you may see on pet food labels though they do advise consumers on how they can determine this themselves.

Article Sources
The Spruce Pets uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease. American Veterinary Medical Association.

  2. Food Allergies. Feline Health Center, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

  3. Feeding Your Cat Well, An Overview. VCA Animal Hospitals.

  4. Pet Food Labels - General. United States Food and Drug Administration.

  5. Craig JM. Additives in Pet Food: Are They Safe? Journal of Small Animal Practice, vol. 62, no. 8, pp. 624-635, 2021. doi:10.1111/jsap.13375

  6. Verbrugghe A, Hesta M. Cats and Carbohydrates: The Carnivore FantasyVet Sci., vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 55, 2017. doi:10.3390/vetsci4040055

  7. Pet Food. United States Food and Drug Administration.

  8. The Business of Pet Food. Association of American Feed Control Officials.