As the owner of a 10-year-old cat, I’m constantly thinking about how to keep her happy and healthy. Choosing the right food is a major part of that equation, and wading through a sea of marketing claims can make it a surprisingly difficult task. If you’re like me — overwhelmed by the options out there from grain-free and raw to human-grade and freeze-dried — veterinarian Brennen McKenzie, who blogs about science-based pet care at the SkeptVet, may help put your mind at ease: “The reality is that there is no one ‘right’ food, and most cats can thrive on a broad variety of available diets,” he says. “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.
What we’re looking for
Life stage: “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.
Nutritional breakdown: Unlike with human food, you generally won’t find a nutrition label on your cat’s food breaking down the specific quantities of carbohydrates, fat, and protein it contains. For the most part, McKenzie says that’s okay since all food that meets AAFCO standards will provide a sufficient amount of all macronutrients. “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.”
However, some vets are more specific in their recommendations. 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 the online pet-supplies retailer Chewy, agrees that cats need more protein than many other species and stresses that the protein “should be sourced from animals.” And veterinarian Lisa Pierson has compiled a thorough, publicly available Google spreadsheet of the nutrient profile for hundreds of cat-food flavors if you’d like to see an individual formulas’ nutritional breakdown. But it’s best to ask your vet if they recommend a specific composition for your cat’s needs.
Wet food or dry food: The two main forms of cat food are wet and dry. Before choosing one form over the other, ask your vet what they recommend for your cat’s particular needs. Because cats naturally drink little water, some vets prefer wet food since its higher moisture content keeps cats hydrated, which may help prevent kidney disease. Other vets disagree, arguing that dry food encourages cats to drink more water and that there’s little scientific evidence to promote the link between wet food and healthier kidneys. Wet food is also lower in calories, so some vets may recommend it if your cat is struggling to maintain a healthy weight. Dry food, or kibble, has the advantage of staying fresh longer, which may make it a good option if your cat likes to graze at her meals over the course of the day.
Approximate cost per ounce: The cost of cat food varies depending on the brand and formula you choose, and more expensive food isn’t necessarily healthier. Since you’ll be buying a lot of food over the course of your cat’s lifetime, we’ve listed the approximate cost per ounce for each food based on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (which may be different than the retailer price as those can change because of different promotions). As for how much food to feed, cats generally require 200 to 250 calories per day, but this number varies based on their size, activity level, and whether they need to lose or gain weight.