I've been a cat owner for most of my life and have learned many tips and tricks for keeping cats happy and healthy.
What to Consider When Selecting Food for Your Cat
Choosing a cat food is one of the most important decisions you’ll make when it comes to your cat.
The right food can help keep your cat healthy, full of energy, and at a good weight throughout its life. It should also be a food that your cat looks forward to eating and that you feel good about feeding to him or her.
When you walk down the cat food aisle at the store, it can be very difficult to know which is the best food for your cat. There are so many brands, varieties, flavors, and formulas that it can be overwhelming to know which one is best for your cat.
To simplify things, here are the five most important things to consider when choosing a food for your cat.
1. Your Cat’s Age
- Kittens: If your cat is under one year old, it should be eating a kitten formula unless your vet tells you to switch to an adult formula.
- Adult cats: Cats between one and seven years old should eat an adult cat formula.
- Senior cats: According to the ASPCA, cats should start eating a senior formula at seven years of age.
2. Your Cat’s Activity Level
When choosing a food, it’s important to consider how active your cat is to make sure he or she is getting enough (and not too many) calories.
If you have an active, healthy cat that doesn’t tend to put on weight, a regular adult formula would be the best choice.
For less active, indoor-only or cats that tend to put on too much weight with regular adult cat food, look for an indoor formula. Indoor formulas have a lower fat content and can help prevent weight gain.
3. Your Cat's Health
More and more cat food companies are making special formulas catering to a variety of health issues affecting cats.
When it comes to problems like food allergies, sensitive stomachs, urinary tract problems, hairballs, or obesity, it’s best to discuss any potential diet changes with your vet.
It’s also important to be sure you know exactly what’s causing the health issue before you try to solve the problem by buying new food. It’s easy to mistake a cat’s vomiting after every meal for a food allergy or sensitive stomach when it’s actually something unrelated. When in doubt, ask your vet.
Here are some common special formulas. They’re made by many different brands and can be found in pet food stores and in some grocery stores.
- Weight-loss formula: Cat foods for overweight cats have even less fat content than indoor formulas. Some have higher protein and more fiber to help the cat feel full while still losing weight. Overweight cats need to lose weight slowly to avoid serious health problems, so be sure to check with your vet for the proper amount to feed your cat and to find out how much weight he or she should be losing each week.
- Sensitive stomach/digestive formula: Just like some people, some cats have sensitive stomachs and can benefit from a food that won’t upset their system.
- Limited-ingredient formulas for cats with food allergies: If you have a cat with food allergies or sensitivities to common ingredients found in regular cat food, limited ingredient formulas can help eliminate those problems. Not only do they have fewer ingredients overall, but some have alternative protein and grain sources like duck, venison, green peas, and sweet potatoes.
- Urinary tract health formulas: This type of food is a great option for cats with reoccurring urinary health problems. It may contain cranberries and other ingredients that can help prevent urinary tract infections.
- Hairball formulas: If your cat is always coughing up hairballs, it’s worth looking into a food that can help with this problem.
If you’re not already a label reader when it comes to cat food, start familiarizing yourself with the most common ingredients found in dry or wet cat foods so you’ll easily be able to tell a good cat food from a bad one when you’re at the store.
When reading a label, keep in mind the first three to five ingredients listed are the most important because they make up the largest percentage of what’s in the food.
Because cats are carnivores, there should be real meat or meat meal (ex: turkey meal, chicken meal, lamb meal) listed as the first or second ingredient.
Here are some basics to keep in mind when reading a cat food label. Remember, these are just general guidelines. Cat foods don’t have to have everything on the "good" list to be good quality food.
Ingredients "Good" for Your Cat
- Real meats or "meat meals" as the first or second ingredient
- Foods that don’t contain "by-products"
- Foods without added artificial flavors, colors, or artificial preservatives
- Natural fat sources, like sunflower or fish oils
- Fiber from plant sources
- Added vitamins and minerals like taurine, vitamin A, linoleic acid
- Foods with meats and other ingredients made in your own country
- Yucca—helps reduce litter box odor
- Fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, cranberries, carrots, and apples
- It’s a plus if the ingredients are "human grade"
- Tocopherols—this is vitamin E used as a natural preservative
Things to Avoid
- Foods that don’t have real meat or meat meal in the first three ingredients
- Corn or corn gluten meal (it’s an inexpensive filler that many cats don’t do well on)
- Wheat (for the same reason as corn)
- By-products (this could be beaks, feet, and even feathers . . . you wouldn’t eat those, and I doubt you’d want your cat to either)
- Artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives like BHT, BHA, or ethoxyquin
- Beef tallow
5. Your Budget
Typically, better quality foods tend to cost more.
Why? Higher quality meats, natural ingredients, and natural preservatives (like vitamin E) are more expensive.
Better quality foods also have fewer fillers and other "junk," so each can or bag of food gives your cat more nutrition than the same size can or bag that’s loaded with corn, wheat, by-products, and all kinds of artificial colors and flavors that are worthless or even harmful to your cat.
What to Do?
Always read the ingredient labels and buy the best quality food you can afford. I’ve found that paying a little more for a better quality food means my cats are healthy, and I’m not wasting money on trips to the vet for problems that could be caused by cheap, poor quality food (like allergies, digestive problems, vomiting, loose stool, dull coat, or low energy).
More expensive doesn’t always mean higher quality, so read the labels and nutrition content carefully before you buy, no matter what price the food is.
Read about the food and brand online. See what other people who are feeding it to their cat have to say about it. If you have friends or family members who are knowledgeable about cats, ask what they feed their cats. Some veterinarians are a good source of information about cat food, but others may try to sell you a certain brand they offer. Always do some checking on your own to make sure you’re feeding your cat something healthy and with good quality ingredients.
More Cat Food Tips
- When switching to a new cat food, do it slowly by adding small amounts of the new food in with the cat’s current food. A slow transition can help prevent stomach upset or diarrhea.
- Some cat food companies will mail you samples of their foods. Before you buy a huge bag or a large tray of cans, find the company’s customer service number on their website and ask if they have samples. You’ll get to see if your cat likes the food before you buy it.
- Monitor how your cat is doing on the new food and re-assess his needs from time as his age, weight, activity level, or health change.
- It’s a personal choice whether you get wet or dry food. Dry foods are convenient because they can be left out all day without the risk of spoiling. Wet food (canned) can help give cats additional hydration, which can be beneficial to their health.
- Sometimes it takes a little trial and error to find the best food for your cat. Give your cat enough time to adjust to a new food and see how he/she is doing on it, but if it’s not working for whatever reason, be willing to switch foods.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2013 carolynkaye
carolynkaye (author) from USA on July 18, 2019:
Bes1014, It could be a food allergy, or it could be some other type of condition. I would ask your vet what he or she suggests. They should be able to figure out the specific cause of the scratching and advise you what to do. Thanks for your question.
Bes1014 on July 17, 2019:
My cat is scratching and biting himself all the time. He has kicked off all his hair on his tummy. I’m worried that he’ll start licking sores since he’s becoming obsessed with constantly licking. I think he has food allergies. The scratching started after we had to switch him to adult food. He’s only 2. Which is the best food for him.
Doug C. on July 04, 2015:
I had no idea what was in the Iams cat food I'd been feeding my cats until I actually read the ingredients. After doing some more research I decided to try Wellness Grain-free Indoor Formula (for dry) and a few cans of Wellness grain-free wet food.
However, I have discovered a lot of articles concerning the Wellness dry cat food and urinary crystals. In light of these articles I may just switch my kidlets over to the Wellness canned food only.
Mary Reed on January 08, 2015:
Thanks for promoting healthy cat food in your article and not junk like meow mix & others on the market.
Vladimir from Australia on October 04, 2014:
Rice? fruit and vegetables? Oh, save me! I have a couple of small cans of cat food every week but from now on I will insist that the-woman-who-feeds-me reads the labels.
carolynkaye (author) from USA on November 10, 2013:
@ Jools Rixon - Glad to hear she's doing better :-)
Julian Rixon from Cork, Ireland on November 10, 2013:
Hi there @carolynkaye! She's doing a bit better now. Still under observation and the vet wants to do more tests but I'm reluctant to put her through it. Have been investigating the alternatives and, yes, you're not the first to suggest the cranberry route! So thanks. She's on dry food now and special diets that regulate the protein. She seems happy enough in herself but time will tell, I guess... :)
carolynkaye (author) from USA on November 09, 2013:
@Jools Rixon - Thanks for your comments! How is your cat doing now? Have you tried a food for urinary tract health? Some natural foods also contain cranberries which can help with this problem or at least help prevent urinary tract issues.
Julian Rixon from Cork, Ireland on November 03, 2013:
That's a very useful and well put together hub. I'm just in the throes of navigating the recurring urinary tract problems with my 8 year old tortoiseshell. It's certainly a minefield and this has helped me work some of the complications out. The vet is helpful but my pockets don't run to the depths they would like. I also want my cat sorted out as soon as possible so I'm actively seeking alternative diets. Lots of food (pardon the pun) for thought here! Thanks...
carolynkaye (author) from USA on August 16, 2013:
Thank you, ptcgod. Your cat food recipes look good. My cats love those ingredients, especially egg, cheese and tuna. Will have to try them :)
ptcgod on August 16, 2013:
Very nice hub and informative. I have a few Homemade Cat Food Recipes Hubs if you want to check them out.
carolynkaye (author) from USA on May 07, 2013:
Riviera Rose, that's so sad about your cats. There are pet food recalls here from time to time. There was one a few years ago where many animals died. It's scary...
Riviera Rose from South of France on May 07, 2013:
A really interesting hub - I wonder what they put in pet food in France as both my cats ended up with stomach tumours, as did two of my neighbours' dogs! I feel guilty that I should have bought better quality or something - but having seen my cats munching happily on a) a rat's head and b) the scuzzy rain-sodden neighbours' dog biscuits, I didn't think they were that picky!! But four tumours out of four pets - something's wrong.