How to Choose the Best Cat Food For Your Pet

Cats may not be able to talk, but they sure know how to show their opinions when it comes to their food. As many cat owners have found out the hard way, if their cats don’t approve of a particular flavor, they could go on a hunger strike. So choosing the right food—food that’s nutritious for your cats and tastes good to them too—is of the utmost importance. Of course, what’s right for your neighbor’s cat isn’t necessarily right for yours. Cats have different dietary requirements and appetites and tastes.

So how do you choose? First, you should know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all pet food to ensure that it is safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled. But with so many different products on the market, it’s helpful to start narrowing down your options. There are several factors to consider when shopping for your cats: Are they kittens or adults? Do they have any health issues that would require a special diet?

Here are a few general guidelines to help you with your decision-making.

Age & Activity Level: Experts say cats need to have multiple small feedings a day. Kittens, with their fast metabolisms, require more frequent feedings. Furthermore, the food for kittens needs to be higher in calories to fuel their growth as well as all their playful activity. They also tend to contain a higher amount of the essential fatty acid DHA, which ensures that a kitten’s brain and nervous system develop properly. Adult cats that are less active will need fewer calories. Whether your cat is mostly indoor or outdoor, or spayed or neutered, will also affect dietary needs.

Health & Weight Concerns: These two things go hand in hand; cats that are overweight are more likely to develop diseases like arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Discuss with your veterinarian what your cat’s ideal weight and calorie count should be, and continue to monitor both to make sure that your cat is getting the nutrition needed to keep on track. If your cat does develop health issues, diet will be an important part of treatment, and there are cat food products on the market that target specific health concerns.

Ingredients: Whereas most humans are omnivores and dogs consume a mix of carbohydrates and protein, cats need to get the majority of their nutrition from meat. And they need a lot of it. Meat provides them with the protein and fat they need to stay healthy. Carbohydrates, meanwhile, aren’t processed by cats very well, and an excess of carbs can make cats obese, leading to other health issues. As a result, many owners look for grain-free products so that they can be sure the food is packed with protein and not fillers. Also, look for the Complete and Balanced certification on the label. That means that it meets the Association of American Feed Control Officials' (AAFCO's) standard of nutritional integrity.

Because cats’ bodies are different from ours, there are certain foods that, while delicious to us, may be harmful or fatal to them. According to the ASPCA, these include (but are not limited to) onions, garlic, chives, grapes/raisins, candy, gum, chocolate, raw eggs and yeast dough; as well as alcoholic drinks, dairy, coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages. If you think your cat has ingested something dangerous, immediately call your vet, local animal hospital, or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435.

How to Read Those Labels: To make sure that the food you choose for your cat meets the nutritional needs discussed above, you have to pay close attention to the pet food labels. Product branding can sometimes be confusing. So in order to zero in on the important nutritional facts, keep these labeling rules in mind.

  1. When a label advertises two main ingredients (for example, “Chicken and Duck for Cats”), then the recipe must contain 95% of those two ingredients, with more of the first ingredient named than the second one on the label. When added water is not taken into account, the ingredients must comprise 70% of the product.
  2. When a product is called a “dinner,” “platter,” “entrée,” “nugget,” or “formula” (for example, “Duck Platter for Cats”), 25% of the food must be made of that ingredient.
  3. If a label says the food is made “with” a particular ingredient (for example, “Cat Food with Halibut”), that recipe could contain as little as 3% of the ingredient.
  4. When a label describes a “flavor” (for example, “Cat Food with Salmon Flavor”), the recipe doesn’t necessarily contain that actual kind of meat. The flavor could come from by-products.
  5. Every label must guarantee the minimum percentages of protein and fat, as well as the maximum amount of fiber and moisture.

When in doubt, refer to the AAFCO's guidelines. More guidance can also be found on the FDA’s page on pet food labeling.

Now that we know the basics of cat food and how to read the labels, let’s take a look at the main categories of cat food available on the market today.

  1. A closer look at wet cat food.
  2. A closer look at dry cat food.
  3. A closer look at natural & organic cat food.