Browsing for cat food can be a huge headache.
Every brand is trying to grab your attention and tug at your pet-loving heartstrings.
Whether its cute pictures of cats, artistic graphics or a plethora of health and nutrition claims, walking into a pet store can be just as overwhelming as the grocery store. Terms like all-natural, grain-free, soy-free, high-protein, freeze-dried, free-range and more are everywhere, usually featuring attractive fonts and cute pets on the packaging. With this kind of information and marketing overload, it can be hard to tell what you should be feeding your cat.
A grain-free food might be the answer. But before getting into what grain-free cat food is, let’s start off with some cat nutrition basics.
Cat Nutrition Basics
Cat’s are obligate carnivores. Unlike dogs, a cat’s natural diet largely consists of meat. Cats’ digestive systems have evolved with this diet in mind, meaning they thrive off of high-protein, moderate-fat, low-carbohydrate, low-plant diets.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) both work to make sure pet food ingredients and nutrition facts are transparent and presented in a consumer-friendly manner.
According to the AAFCO’s 2014 Cat Food Nutrient Profile, an adult cat needs a minimum crude protein level of 26% and a minimum crude fat level of 9%. Some disagree on these levels, arguing that a minimum protein level of 30-40% is more appropriate.
You can definitely spend hours upon hours researching the optimum percentages for your cat, but these guidelines are helpful baselines when looking at what types of food we should feed our cats.
What is Grain-Free Cat Food?
One of the more ubiquitous labels you may see on cat food these days is “Grain-Free.” The term itself is self-explanatory: cat food labeled as “grain-free” does not have any grain ingredients in its recipe. Grains, usually rice, wheat or oats, are found in many cat foods as “filler” ingredients. These grains are also used as a carbohydrate to keep dry kibble shapely.
Because grains are generally low in protein and high in carbohydrates, they are not very nutritious for cats. Grain-free cat food can be a healthier choice when compared to regular big brand options.
However, grain-free cat food is not always the healthiest choice. A grain-free product is not automatically healthy, natural, high in protein and low in carbohydrates. This caveat is where checking the nutrition facts and ingredients list comes in handy.
Should Cats Eat Grain Free Food?
A nutritionally complete and balanced grain-free cat food can be a good choice for most cats, according to Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, who serves on the advisory board for Cat Life Today. The major thing to look for is, again, high protein and low carbohydrates.
Many grain-free cat foods include healthy, balanced recipes, where the primary ingredient is meat or fish, followed by a balance of other ingredients to provide cats with balanced nutrition and vitamins. Because grain-free food cannot use the shortcut of filling their recipe with cheap grain, they are generally more expensive, but healthier than the competition.
Grain-free cat food can also help with cats who have grain-allergies. While most cat allergens are found in beef, fish and chicken, some cats are indeed allergic to grain, meaning grain-free is a perfect solution.
Overall, grain-free cat food can strike a great balance between protein, fat, carbohydrates and vitamins, while not being inordinately expensive.
Is Grain Free Bad for Cats?
The most important aspect of your cat’s diet is not whether their food is grain-free, but whether it is healthy and nutritious. Again, just because a cat food is labeled “grain-free” does not mean it is automatically healthy. Some grain-free cat foods are actually very high in carbohydrates, using ingredients like potato, sweet potato and tapioca to fill the recipe.
Dr. Coates stated it very simply: “low carbohydrate and low grain isn’t the same thing.”
There is nothing inherently healthy or unhealthy about grain-free cat food. The focus remains on nutrition. When shopping for grain-free cat food, make sure to take a look at the ingredients list. Carby ingredients like potato, sweet potato and tapioca will likely be present, especially in dry food, where they help kibble to maintain its shape, but they shouldn’t be too high on the list.
Again, the focus here is keeping the protein count high, the carbohydrate count low, and the ingredient list as balanced as possible.
Best Grain-Free Cat Food
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the best, most reviewed, highest rated grain-free cat food out there. There are plenty of choices, meaning every kind of cat and cat-parent can find something that’s right for them.
Best Raw Grain-Free Cat Food
Raw cat food is food that uses a very limited ingredient list, sticks to one source of protein, and is generally devoid of filers, preservatives, flavoring, artificial colors and the like. As the food is so natural, it expires more quickly, and is more expensive. Raw food is often freeze dried, to be rehydrated at your home, when it’s meal time for your cat.
Public Goods’ Freeze Dried Kibble uses a duck formula that hits all the nutritional levels recommended by the AAFCO, and then some. It’s grain-free, great for cats of all ages, and made in USDA certified pet food facilities.
Primal’s freeze dried formula consists of 90% chicken, and their respective organ and bone parts. The other 10% is a balance of vegetables and vitamin supplements. With a short, natural ingredients list and high protein and fat content, Primal is another good choice for cats that enjoy raw foods.
Blue Buffalo Wilderness provides a balanced recipe that checks all the nutritional boxes for an adult cat. The recipe is available in an indoor cat formula as well!
My rescue cat came from a household where she was fed an unhealthy — but likely delicious — diet. As such, she was very picky about her food, and snubbed her nose at many healthier options. Blue Buffalo Wilderness was the brand that broke her picky streak.
This recipe comes in multiple flavors, large bags, requires no special storage, is average in price, and is full of animal protein, vitamins and nutrients for a healthy cat.
Best Wet Grain-Free Cat Food
Tons of wet cat food brands are grain-free, as carbohydrates are not needed to maintain food shapeliness like in dry kibble.
In addition, wet food is often regarded as healthier in general when compared to dry food.
“In general, wet foods are better able to match a cat’s high-protein, low-carbohydrate dietary needs,” Dr. Coates said. “Many quality wet foods contain little if any grain.”
Looking at wet cat food nutrition facts, you may be a bit confused to see crude protein level percentages much lower than 25%. That’s because crude protein levels are calculated differently for wet food. The FDA explains this in more detail within this helpful article.
Made with an impressive 95% chicken, turkey, and liver recipe, Instinct’s wet food is very healthy and nutritious, with a short list of ingredients that avoids items like potato, gums, and artificial colors and preservatives. If you have an unpicky cat, give this pick a try, as it is one of the healthiest big brands out there.
If your indoor cat shys away from Instinct’s recipe, Blue Buffalo Freedom could be more appealing! Free of grain, corn, wheat, soy, gluten, by-product and pea ingredients, this recipe comes in multiple flavors, as well as an older cat variant.
Best Budget Grain-Free Cat Food
At under $20 per 11 pound bag at the time of writing, this Purina Beyond recipe is perfect for cats and cat parents transitioning off of cheaper, bulkier foods. It’s grain, soy, and by-product free, and hits a nice 35% minimum protein. Purina Beyond also comes in multiple flavors, with additional variety offered as wet food as well.
American Journey, Chewy.com’s exclusive brand, aims to strike a balance between health and cost, cheaper than brands like Blue Buffalo and Instinct, but healthier than big name brands like Iams and Fancy Feast. With tons of positive reviews, a high 40% minimum crude protein count, and current cost of $25 for 12 pounds, American journey is another good option for transitioning off of cheap, unhealthy brands.
Best Grain-Free Cat Food For Kittens
Instinct’s dry recipe strikes a great middle ground between raw and regular cat food. Their kitten dry food recipe boasts a high 70% real animal ingredients, and a low carbohydrate count, especially among dry blends.
Wellness is known for its natural, healthy recipes, and their kitten formula is extremely popular. Starting your kitten immediately on healthy options is crucial, as it avoids the picky, unhealthy eater problems older rescue cats (like mine) often have.
Wellness’ kitten formula touts a balanced nutritional blend that promotes a healthy coat, sustained energy, and strong immunology and urinary health.
What’s The Right Food for Your Cat
At the end of the day, it all comes down to your cat, and what they enjoy. I hope one of the foods in this list is right for them, and for you. There are many more foods and brands for cats and other pets out there, but these selections try to strike a balance between quality, affordability and accessibility.
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