The Best Cat Food
The best cat food keeps cats healthy and happy — and it comes in a flavor they love. Any high-quality food needs to feature protein front-and-center, and won’t include any low-quality fillers, artificial additives, or ingredients that are toxic to cats over time. To find the most high-quality options available, we scoured the formulas of over 2,400 dry and wet cat foods on the market, read through research and regulations, and talked to veterinarians about what cats need to thrive.
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The Best Cat Food Brands and Lines
After we made all of our cuts, the overall quality of our 70 remaining brands was still extremely uneven. A handful, like Orijen and Tiki Cat, led the pack: Every single one of their formulas and flavors hit our benchmarks. Others only offer one or two flavors that match our standards, while the rest of the product line-up is a miss.
Our finalists for best cat food had to fall into one of two camps: an entire brand’s worth of products we could confidently recommend, or a line of formulas within a brand for which we could do the same.
We found eight all-star options — companies whose every formula met our requirements and passed our cuts across the board.
Formulas in this second category require a little more effort to keep track of, but offer additional flavors and price points to choose from.
Cat Food Delivery Service
Like meal delivery services for humans, pet food delivery services prepare wholesome meals for your cat or dog and deliver them to your doorstep. This is extremely handy if you’re a busy pet parent who can’t spend time at the store researching the best pet foods. While most pet food delivery services cater to dogs, few offer healthy, real-ingredient meals for cats.
Since we know NomNomNow’s dog food delivery to be of such high quality, we decided to test its cat food, too. We were impressed with its user-friendly website and thorough quiz that asked us our cat’s age, weight, and medical history. When our tester marked her cat as having kidney disease, she received a follow-up email from NomNomNow’s customer service agent asking for more information about his illness so a vet could evaluate if its pet food would work as well or better than his current diet.
One of our cats took quickly to the food, while the other did need some time to adjust. NomNomNow included flavor mix-ins — a powder and broth — with our order that both cats really enjoyed.
At this time, there are two flavor options for cats (Chicken Chow-Meow and Flavor Fish Feast) and it can be more expensive than most traditional canned and dry cat food. That said, NomNomNow guarantees healthy, high-quality meals that you’d only be able to replicate if you made your cats’ meals yourselves. It’s definitely worth considering if you’re budget allows.
The Best Cat Food: Summed Up
How We Chose the Best Cat Food
We started by gathering every non-prescription cat food on the market with a “complete and balanced” certification from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This certification means the formula has the nutrient profile to function as a cat’s sole nutrition source. (By contrast, nutritional extras like cat treats are tasty, but the feline equivalent of junk food.) When our gathering was said and done, we had a list of 2,443 wet and dry foods.
No mystery meat
Because cats are obligate carnivores, their food needs to be meat-based. Four categories of meat ingredients typically show up in cat foods, according to AAFCO:
- Meat: The muscle tissue of an animal, like the chicken or steak that humans eat.
- Byproducts: The internal parts of an animal that aren’t meat — think organs and bones.
- Meat meal: Muscle tissues that have been “rendered” (heat-treated) to destroy bad bacteria and separate out solids from moisture and fat, leaving a nutritionally dense, dry “meat concentrate.”
- Byproduct meal: Byproducts that have gone through the same type of rendering.
While meat meal and byproducts might sound gross, all four options are great protein sources for cats — so long as you know where the protein is coming from. The best cat food companies will tell you from exactly which animal(s) their meat ingredients are sourced, whether “chicken”, “chicken meal”, or “chicken byproducts”. We cut any formula that included unspecified meat, meat byproduct, or meat meal on its ingredients list (including “broth,” “animal fat,” and “liver”).
The FDA specifies that “meat” and “meat byproduct” may be sourced from cattle, pigs, sheep, and/or goats. There’s nothing inherently bad about this, but it’s a roadblock if your cat is a picky eater or has allergies, since you essentially won’t know where your cat food is coming from. But when it comes to “meat meal,” “bone meal,” or “byproduct meal”, the FDA allows sourcing from “mammals other than cattle, pigs, sheep or goats without further description.”
A little digging turns up articles suggesting roadkill and expired groceries make their way into pet food. A statement from the EPA says some meat rendering plants obtain animal byproducts from animal shelters. The FDA found no trace of dog or cat DNA in pet food in a 2000 test — but a 2018 dog food recall for kibble containing trace amounts of the euthanasia drug pentobarbital isn’t reassuring.
No ingredients that can do harm over time
Everything in a cat food formula must be “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) by the FDA, but that’s a pretty low bar. “Safe” doesn’t necessarily mean “ideal for your cat’s health.” After speaking with experts, we combed through our list of contenders and cut any with colors, flavorings, or ingredients toxic at high doses.
All cat foods contain preservatives — that’s why unopened packages can last for months without spoiling. Some get their staying power through natural ingredients like tocopherols (vitamin E), citric/ascorbic acid (vitamin C), rosemary, sage, and clove. These ingredients are great! We loved seeing them on ingredient lists. Others use synthetic preservatives like BHA, BHT, TBHQ, and ethoxyquin, which aren’t as cat-friendly.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends to avoid BHA (which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists as “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen”) and TBHQ, and to avoid BHT whenever possible. These recommendations are for humans — but the recommendations are based on animal studies. BHA, BHT, TBHQ, and ethoxyquin have all, at some point, proven harmful to animals.
Our experts warned that artificial flavor is often added to compensate for a lack of quality ingredients and can lead to allergic reactions in pets. Artificial colors have been linked to issues like hyperactivity, allergic reactions, and behavior issues in humans, and carry zero nutritional value for your cat. Importantly, the same holds true for “natural flavoring.”
The same holds true for “natural” flavoring. “‘Natural flavor’ can have just as much processing as an artificial flavor; if extra flavor has to be added, there is a good chance the protein ingredients weren’t of very high quality to begin with,” Dr. Robert Trimble, Head of Veterinary Services at Fuzzy Pet Health, told us. AAFCO guidelines admit it’s “a liberal term that includes more ingredients than it excludes.”
Several cat food formulas use garlic as a flavoring. It’s part of the Allium species (which also includes chives, leeks, scallions, and shallots), and over time, steady intake of plants in this species can damage red blood cells and cause anemia in both cats and dogs. (One vet notes that “Cats are more susceptible to garlic-induced anemia than are dogs.”)
Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in order of weight, which means the most prominent ingredients show up first. The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine recommends looking for cat foods for which “meat, meat by-products, or seafood are listed among the first few ingredients, as this indicates the food probably contains enough animal-source ingredients to supply essential amino acids and fatty acids.” We made sure all of our top picks list meat as their primary two ingredients.
“It does not need to be 100 percent meat, but it should be majority meat-based and without question, the protein sources should be meat-based. Thus, any plant-based ingredients should come after the meat.”
Dr. Gary Richter
Medical Director, Montclair Veterinary Hospital and Holistic Veterinary Care
How to Find the Right Cat Food for Your Pet
Consider your budget
Among our finalists, you can spend anywhere from $0.20-$2.60 per ounce. Every single option is great: heavy on the high-quality protein, limited filler ingredients, and with nothing known to harm your cat’s health. Spend what you can comfortably afford.
Decide between wet or dry
Most of the experts we spoke to recommended wet food over dry food for the average cat. That’s because it has more moisture, and cats have a tendency not to drink enough water.
“Cats naturally have a very low thirst drive, so if their food is largely devoid of moisture, as in dry food, they are often taking in very little water. The resulting dehydration puts a strain on the kidneys and, in the long term, can contribute to the development of chronic kidney disease (CKD).”
Dr. Aubrey Tauer
DVM MPH and Head Veterinarian at AnimalBiome
Manufacturers also have to meet slightly higher standards for canned food. As FDA regulations stand right now, only canned wet pet food is held to the same GMPs (good manufacturing standards) as its human counterpart. (In the future, the FDA has promised more regulation.) Still, most of the veterinarians we spoke with pointed to dry food as a convenient, affordable, and nutritionally adequate option.
The Best Wet Cat Food
|Number of Formulas||Main Protein Sources||Price per Ounce|
|Best Feline Friend: Oh My Gravy||12||Beef, chicken, duck, lamb||$0.40|
|Canada Fresh||6||Beef, chicken, duck, lamb, salmon||$0.36-0.54|
|Evanger’s: Signature Series||3||Beef, chicken, turkey||$0.34|
|Feline Natural||4||Beef, chicken, hoki, lamb||$0.70|
|Holistic Health Extension||10||Beef, chicken, tilapia, tuna, turkey||$0.23-0.33|
|Lotus: Just Juicy||5||Chicken, pollock, pork, salmon, turkey||$0.60-0.76|
|Nutrisca: Truly Flaked||7||Sardine, salmon, mackerel, tuna||$0.44-0.55|
|Nutrisca: Truly Shredded||3||Beef, chicken, turkey, turkey liver||$0.44-0.55|
|Petitie Cuisine||6||Chicken, tuna||$0.43-0.45|
|Tiki Cat||32||Beef, chicken, duck, herring, mackerel, pork, sardines, salmon, seabass, tilapia tuna||$0.30-0.58|
|Wholehearted: Grain-Free Flaked in Gravy||5||Chicken, tuna||$0.23-4.24|
|Wholehearted: Grain-Free Flaked in Broth||5||Chicken, tuna||$0.23-4.24|
|Ziwi Peak||5||Beef, lamb, mackerel, rabbit, venison||$.076-1.17|
The Best Dry Cat Food
|Number of Formulas||Main Protein Sources||Price per Ounce|
|Acana Regionals||4||Beef, chicken, lamb, mackerel||$0.33-0.48|
|Farmina N&D: Ancestral Grain||3||Chicken, cod, lamb||$0.25-0.34|
|Farmina N&D: Grain-Free||5||Boar, chicken, herring, lamb||$0.25-0.34|
|Holistic Health Extension||2||Chicken, salmon, turkey||$0.20-0.23|
|Merrick: Before Grain||2||Chicken, salmon||$0.15|
|Orijen||5||Bison, chicken, herring, lamb, mackerel, hake, pilchard, turkey, boar||$0.44-0.74|
|Tiki Cat||3||Chicken, herring||$0.32|
Match the food to your cat’s life stage
On every label, there should be a simple “nutritional adequacy statement” that explains what type of pet and stage of life it will nutritionally satisfy. There are four categories recognized by AAFCO:
- Growth (think “kitten food”)
- All life stages
Foods for kittens and nursing/pregnant cats have higher requirements for almost every nutrient, versus a “maintenance”-certified food for adult cats. They’re also subject to some additional requirements that don’t apply to adult cats at all. “All life stage” foods, meanwhile, have to satisfy the nutritional needs of a cat at any stage of her life, even when she’s nutritionally neediest (kittens, nursing, and pregnant cats). Interestingly, “seniors” isn’t a designated category — that’s just marketing.
“An active adult cat will be fine on an All Life Stage food. He’ll burn off the extra calories and eliminate whatever protein he doesn’t need. Unless he has or is at risk for kidney problems, he can handle the extra minerals.”
Certified Pet Advisor
Read into the name
While “Chicken for Cats” and “Chicken Dinner for Cats” sound like they’re similar products, they can actually contain vastly different ingredients. If a label calls out two ingredients in one name, the two combined have to meet the required percentage, and there has to be more of whatever ingredient is listed first. But a cat food manufacturer isn’t required to name a product according to the protein that shows up first in its formula. It might choose to put a name like “Salmon Dinner” on a product that actually has more chicken than salmon, if it thinks that’s more likely to catch a shopper’s eye.
Bring a cheat sheet with you to the store
All the brands and foods we feature are easily purchased online and nationwide, but if you prefer to shop in person, bring in our printable cheat sheet of our favorite brands as a buying guide. We included a summary of ingredients to look for and avoid so that you can decode anything new you might encounter.
Cat Food FAQ
There’s science behind your cat’s picky eating. After studying cats’ behavior, WALTHAM found that cats seem to have inherited their ancestors’ drive to vary their diet depending on their needs and stage of life. What’s tasty one month might be totally off the menu the next.
While cats can be picky about the proteins they’ll deign to eat, experts like veterinarian Dr. Sabrina Meldrum of Vetted Petcare confirm that there’s currently “no evidence to suggest that any particular meat-based protein source is ‘superior’, or preferable for cats in terms of bioavailability of nutrients over another.”
These ingredients don’t show up in cat food, but if your pet is prone to begging for table scraps, avoid the following:
- Anything containing caffeine
- Macadamia nuts
- Raw yeast dough
If you’re choosing between two dry foods or two wet foods, the one with a smaller serving size is more nutritionally dense. If they both come in the same sized package, this means that the one with the smaller serving size will last you longer.
One caveat: There are foods meant specifically for weight management that have larger serving sizes on purpose. It’s like a sleight of hand with good intentions. An overweight cat can fill up on the amount of food he’s used to, but get the right amount of nutrients to help him shed some pounds. Food for “all life stages” should have different feeding directions for each AAFCO-recognized life stage (gestation/lactation, growth, and maintenance).
More Pet Reviews
We’ve sought out the best products to keep your cats and dogs happy and healthy — it’s what we do, plus we are doting pet parents ourselves. Check out our top picks in some of these related reviews.