We may be living in a golden age for cat owners looking for fancy litter boxes or designer perches, but choosing the right food for them can still be surprisingly difficult; there is a wide range of choices out there and the sea of marketing claims to sort through. “The reality is that there is no one ‘right’ food, and most cats can thrive on a broad variety of available diets,” says veterinarian Brennen McKenzie, who blogs about science-based pet care at The SkeptVet. “Compared to the haphazard diet of whatever prey and scavenged dead things that feral cats can find, our pets have an excellent source of nutrition in conventional commercial cat foods.”
As for what specific food to choose, there are a few resources you can consult. “Probably the most important part when you’re buying [food] for your pet is looking for the nutritional-adequacy statement and making sure it’s for the appropriate life stage for your pet,” says Martha G. Cline, a certified veterinary nutritionist at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in New Jersey. All pet food should have a nutritional-advocacy statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) noting whether they meet the standards for growth (good for kittens), adult maintenance (for maintaining a healthy weight), or all life stages (any age).
Several vets we spoke with also pointed us to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA)’s tool kit with questions pet owners should ask when they’re shopping for cat food, including whether the brand employs a full-time veterinary nutritionist and if the manufacturer will supply information about the percentages of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in a particular food (this data isn’t required on labels). After asking many of these questions herself, veterinarian Lisa Pierson compiled a thorough chart of the nutrient profile for hundreds of cat-food flavors. As for what to look for on that chart, Jennifer Berg, founder of Tribeca Veterinary Wellness, says “more protein than fat, and then very little of any kind of carbohydrate is what we feel is probably ideal.” Jennifer Coates, a veterinary expert at Chewy, agrees that cats need more protein than many other species and stresses that the protein “should be sourced from animals.” Although some sources (including a previous version of this article) suggest looking for a particular macronutrient breakdown, McKenzie says there’s currently no scientific evidence to support such specific recommendations. “There is a range within which cats can thrive and individual cats all have slightly different needs,” he says, adding that “nearly all commercial diets fall within these ranges.”
With obesity and related conditions like diabetes on the rise among cats, you’ll also want to make sure your kitty isn’t eating too much and is staying active. You can even use things like puzzle feeders to make your cat “work” for their food or treats, which activates its natural hunting instincts. “Getting your cat to be more active when you are at home helps to maintain or reduce weight,” says pet-nutrition consultant Susan Lauten. “This results in a more active cat that is both physically and mentally stimulated to find and obtain their daily food.” Veterinarian Liz Bales explains that, in the wild, cats spend 80 percent of their waking hours hunting. “It is really their only driver to move,” says Bales, who created the Doc & Phoebe’s Cat Co. hunting feeder that three other vets recommended when we asked about their favorite puzzle feeders.
Another strategy for helping your cat maintain a healthy weight is to feed them mostly canned, wet food, which is lower in calories and higher in moisture content than dry food. With that in mind, below are the best canned foods you can feed your cat, based on our seven experts’ recommendations. If you also own a dog, be sure to check out our picks for the best vet-recommended dog foods too.
Best food for adult cats
Cats generally require 200 to 250 calories per day, but this varies based on frame size, activity level, and whether your cat needs to lose or gain weight. Megan Shepherd, a veterinary nutritionist at the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, advises checking with your veterinarian for more specific guidance and consulting this body-condition score chart to see if your cat is under- or overweight. Because Purina employs full-time veterinary nutritionists and invests heavily in research and development, it’s a favorite brand of veterinarians like Cori Blair of Feline Health (a cats-only practice in New York City) and Valerie Parker, an associate professor of small-animal internal medicine and nutrition at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Berg likes this chicken-in-gravy flavor from Weruva because of its high-protein and low-carbohydrate content. Weruva is also one of Lauten’s favorite brands. Although this cat food is labeled as “grain-free” (like the Purina food above) vets are wary of this marketing term as it doesn’t tell you much about food’s actual nutrition. “Grain-free foods can be nutritionally excellent or terrible, and the presence or absence of grains themselves says nothing about the health impact of the diet,” says McKenzie. “Anxieties about grains, and carbohydrates generally, in cat foods are not based on real science and should not be the basis for selection of a cat food.”
If you browse Pierson’s list, you’ll see that Tiki Cat offers many healthy foods that are high in protein and low in carbs, and Lauten likes both the brand’s wet and dry food. Lots of Tiki Cat food is fish-flavored, which is extremely attractive to cats because of its salty taste, but vets like Berg actually discourage feeding cats fish because of its high iodine content, which could lead to hyperthyroidism.
Best (less expensive) food for adult cats
There’s nothing wrong with saving money on cat food as long as you’re picking a food that’s nutritionally sound. “A lot of people will say Fancy Feast is kind of the ‘McDonald’s for cats,’ but it’s actually not the case,” says Berg. “Plenty of the Fancy Feast [formulas] are actually quite high in protein and very low in carbohydrates.” This protein-rich turkey flavor checks all her boxes.
Best human-grade cat food
Like “grain-free,” some vets say “human-grade” is more of a buzzy phrase than a statement of quality. (As McKenzie points out, “All the ingredients in potato chips and corn dogs are, by definition, ‘human grade.’”) But if you’re looking to switch up your cat’s food, these two direct-to-consumer brands offer high-quality options that are nutritionally appropriate for cats. Lauten likes that both brands’ foods are high in moisture and meet AAFCO formulation standards, and Nom Nom’s food is formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. These are certainly good options — I’ve given my cat a sample of Nom Nom, and she was a big fan — but vets like McKenzie and Bales stress that small brands aren’t necessarily any better than the big names you’re used to seeing on the shelves of pet stores. “In many cases, the testing of the ingredients, or the end product is not as thorough. You might see one of the big brand names of cat food have a recall, but they have a recall because they got tested. You can’t have a recall for a product you didn’t test,” Bales says. Prices vary, as both companies offer customized portion sizes based on your cat’s age and weight.
Best food for senior cats
If you look at Pierson’s chart, you’ll see that the fourth column tracks how much phosphorus is in each food. This might not be the first thing you look for when shopping for your own food, but this mineral is actually very important in cat health. Berg says limiting phosphorus is crucial for senior cats, as too much of it can cause or worsen kidney disease, a common problem among older cats. Previously, vets would advise reducing protein in senior cats’ diets, but Berg contends that protein — and moisture — levels should stay high while reducing phosphorus. “It’s just that the phosphorus tends to go up as the protein goes up,” she says. “But there are some proteins that are higher in phosphorus than others.” So while there’s no AAFCO standard for senior cats, a low-phosphorus food (Berg says to try to stay under 200 milligrams per 100 calories) could benefit your cat that is ten years old or older. This nutritionally balanced Weruva food contains only 163 milligrams of phosphorus per 100 calories.
Best food for kittens
If you’re buying food for a kitten, make sure to look for the AAFCO nutritional-adequacy statement for growth. “Because kittens are growing and developing, they require more calories than adult cats do on a per-pound basis,” says Coates. “Kitten foods are generally higher in fat than foods designed for adults to provide them with these extra calories.” Blair and Parker are both fans of Royal Canin, and the brand’s just-for-kittens food is packed with protein and fortified with all the vitamins and minerals the littlest kitties need to thrive. It’s the same food that Hannah Shaw (better known as the Kitty Lady on Instagram) feeds her rescue kittens. “The pâté is the perfect soft texture for weaning kittens and provides them with high-quality nutrition that helps them thrive,” she says.
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