Cat Food Ingredients [Distinguishing Quality]

Cat Food Ingredients [Distinguishing Quality]
Shop our solutions →

You've heard the Meow Mix jingle and likely have the "meow meow meow meow" chant stuck in your head. You've walked down the cat food aisle at the pet store and winced at those $50 bags of cat food backed by veterinarians. But how do you know which options have the right cat food ingredients?


Cats can be picky when it comes to taste. However, owners may need to start being a bit more selective when it comes to the food they bring home to their feline companions. There are a lot of important nutrients cats require to stay healthy and a lot of ingredients to avoid if you want your cat to remain active and a healthy weight.



How to Check Cat Food Ingredients

Similar to how human food is regulated, pet food labels must also follow guidelines created by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA's guidelines for cat food come from the Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA-CVM) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which regulates the ingredients for commercial pet food, as well as how the ingredients are identified and ordered on the label.



cat eating its food out of saucer



Cat food labels list the ingredients by weight, meaning the more prominent or heavy ingredients will come first. For cats, this should usually be meat, including chicken, turkey, and salmon. The AAFCO even regulates which part of the animal the meat can and cannot come from and explains how this meat should be prepared. They also require pet food companies to list the additives used to balance the cat food nutrition, usually ascorbic acid and vitamins.


The AAFCO also ensures that pet food companies can't make false claims about the ingredients in their product. If a bag of cat food claims it contains mainly one ingredient, the AAFCO requires that it contain 95% or more of that ingredient — usually meat — and that can't include added water.


Cat food labels also include the following information:


  • Purpose or intent: The package must emphasize that the food is specifically prepared and created for cats.
  • Feeding directions: The amount you should feed your cat a day based on the ingredients and your cat's weight.
  • Nutritional adequacy: The cat food package will state what age or lifestyle (indoor, weight loss) the food is intended for.

Read more : CBD For Cats

Why Pay Attention to Cat Food Ingredients?

It's important to pay attention to cat food ingredients because your cat needs proper nutrition to stay healthy. Is your cat a bit overweight? Are they lethargic? Is your cat vomiting or having irregular bowel movements? It might be because of the food you're feeding your cat.


The ingredients in cat food are about more than being tasty. Cats require a very specific list of ingredients to maintain a healthy weight, stay active, and avoid health problems. While most cat food manufacturers aim to include these ingredients, not every cat food brand will have the same amount of these essential nutrients. And some brands might even have extra ingredients that are possibly dangerous.



Healthy Cat Food Ingredients

There are a lot of specific cat food ingredients you should be on the lookout for when you pick out cat food. These are ingredients that ensure your cat is getting the right balance of nutrients in order to remain healthy and active.



ingredients cat food



Protein Source

The most important ingredient to identify in cat food is the protein source. You need to make sure the meat is identified, not just labeled as "meat." Instead, look for sources like chicken, salmon, beef, and turkey. Sometimes it may even be names of the specific organs, like chicken liver and heart.



Taurine is essential in a cat's diet. After studies found that cats need a specific amount of taurine to remain healthy, cat food manufacturers started including taurine in most brands of cat food. It's needed to help cats avoid retinal degeneration and heart diseases. Taurine is a type of amino acid that most mammals, including humans, naturally produce. But cats curiously don't produce enough of this essential amino acid, meaning that taurine is one of the most important ingredients in cat food.


Fat Source

Cat food is often high in fat, which is okay for felines. But you want to make sure that the fat source is named within the ingredients. This could be chicken fat or something like sunflower oil.



Cat food often contains Vitamin C (calcium) and Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) as preservatives, along with a few other minerals.



Ingredients to Avoid in Cat Food

Just like with human food, you want to look for cat food with fewer ingredients. The more ingredients there are, the more unhealthy the food most likely is. This is why it's a good idea to keep an eye out and avoid bad ingredients in cat food if possible.



When shopping for dry food, you'll notice that a lot of brands rely on carbohydrates as "fillers." There are a few different types of carbohydrates, some more acceptable as ingredients than others. While green peas and sweet potato are considered acceptable fillers for cat food, a lot of owners will avoid grains like corn and wheat.


Carbohydrates are usually the reason your cat is experiencing digestion problems or food allergies. This website lists all of the major commercial cat food brands and their main ingredients, making it easier to compare their quality and nutritional value. As you can see, a lot of the popular brands — Purina, 9 Lives, Meow Mix — contain a lot more carbohydrates than the healthier brands at the top of the chart. Instead of having meat as their first ingredient, these cheaper brands rely on rice, corn, and wheat to keep your cat full. This is the equivalent of feeding a child cookies for lunch.


BHT, BHA, and Ethoxyquin

These chemical preservatives keep dry cat food fresh longer but have a lot of health risks. There's a chance that these ingredients are cancer-causing agents. They have also been linked to kidney and liver damage in rats. Ethoxyquin is illegal to use in human food in the states since it's dangerous to swallow. In fact, humans can't even come into contact with it since it can damage the skin.


Many pet food manufacturers have implemented Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and other more natural preservatives in recent years. The AAFCO also has regulations in place that discuss the allowable amount of these questionable cat food additions.



grey cat eating



Meat By-products

Meat by-products are defined by the AAFCO as "non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals." These ingredients can include kidneys, brain, livers, blood, lungs, and intestines. These are non-nutritious parts of the animal that don't provide cats with the protein they need.


You should especially keep an eye out for "meat meal" ingredients. This is concentrated meat that doesn't have the proper natural enzymes and protein since they're destroyed in the rendering process. This low quality "meat" should never replace meat products in your cat's diet.



Carrageenan is a red-colored seaweed sometimes used as a thickening agent in pet food. Many cat owners avoid his product because they believe that their cat's stomach acid will degrade the carrageenan once ingested. Degraded carrageenan is a potential carcinogen, meaning your cat's risk of cancer can go up from this ingredient.


While this hasn't been heavily researched, not much is understood about carrageenan at this time. As such, many people decide to avoid the risk altogether and choose cat food brands without it.



This is a filler you'll often find in lower quality cat food, leading to digestion problems and a lack of nutrition. Cellulose is an insoluble fiber that's often made up of wood pulp from pine trees, something that most cats would never eat on their own.


Glucose and Dextrose

Just like it would for humans, these sugars lead to obesity and possibly diabetes in cats. Glucose and dextrose are sometimes used in pet food as a sweetener. This is often not needed in a cat's diet and instead leads to health problems if cats eat enough of it over time.



Garlic is highly toxic to cats. It causes damage to their red blood cells and leads to anemia. Most cat food companies who use garlic only add very small doses for this reason, but most cat owners will avoid brands of cat food that list garlic as an ingredient at all since it's an unnecessary risk.



Caramel is sometimes used to give cat food a rich color. Of course, cats don't mind what color their food is. All they want is their meat and taurine. This is usually a marketing gimmick used by cheaper food brands to appeal to people more than their cats. Always be on the lookout for caramel and other food coloring — like red, yellow, and blue food coloring. These are potential carcinogens that should be avoided in cat food whenever possible.


Iron oxide is another ingredient solely used to give the meat a different color in cheaper cat food. Iron oxide is an unnecessary ingredient.  As a result, many cat owners avoid this ingredient. This is because so little is known about its effects — good or bad — on a cat's body once digested.



Cat Food Ingredients: Wet Food vs. Canned Food

As you begin to peruse the cat food labels for all of the above ingredients, you'll begin to notice that a lot of dry cat food contains carbohydrates of some sort. Even a lot of the more expensive brands — Pro Plan, Royal Chain, Science Diet, and Iams — include brown rice, cornmeal, corn grits, and wheat gluten. Because of this, many cat owners have considered canned food instead.


Canned Food Benefits

Canned cat foods are great for portion control. They are also good for helping your cat stay hydrated thanks to the water each can contains. A lot of cats become dehydrated because they are picky about their water source, making wet food a great alternative to dry food. The moisture content of canned cat food should be around 75%.


Many of the top wet food brands also contain virtually no carbohydrates and fillers, meaning that your cat is getting a healthy portion of meat and protein from this food source.



dry wet cat food



Canned Food Cons

Some of the bigger setbacks for wet food revolve around cost. It's usually a lot more expensive to feed your cat a strictly wet food diet. While dry food can be stored for some time if properly sealed, leftover wet food is sometimes turned down by cats for being too cold or dried up. This leads to it becoming even costlier over time.


While it may be pricier to feed cats canned food, some pet owners feel it's worth it because of the healthier ingredients. Without as many carbohydrates present, cats who eat wet food are also less likely to have digestion problems and food allergies. One negative side effect of wet food is stronger "cat breath." But if you can handle a few fishy yawns, wet food may be a great substitute for dry food.


Related article: What is the Best Home Remedy for Bad Breath in Cats?


If you prefer feeding your cat dry food, just take a closer look at the ingredients on the label. Many dry cat foods provide a healthy diet for your furry friend. You may want to experiment with different wet and dry cat foods to see what your cat prefers. Some people will provide a balanced diet of both types, depending on the cat.



Healthy Ingredients You Can Add to Cat Food

Contrary to popular belief, milk is not a healthy ingredient for cats — even kittens (unless it's from their moms). Dairy can upset a cat's stomach since they can't digest it properly. But there are many healthy ingredients you can add to cat foods to increase the vitamins and minerals your cat's getting in their diet.



If you have pesticide-free dandelions in your yard, dig them up — roots and all — and finely mince them after a good rinse. You can also dry them in the oven and then store them in an airtight container. Sprinkle a small amount of the cut-up dandelions onto your cat's food. They'll enjoy the extra roughage and also get some help with their digestion.



Just like with humans, cranberries can help a cat with their urinary and kidney health. If you're having any litter box-related issues with your kitty, you might want to consider adding some cranberries to their diet. Packed with antioxidants and some anti-cancer agents, a small number of cranberries mixed into your cat's food can do the trick.



Eggs are a great source of protein, something cats need a lot of in their diet. They also contain essential amino acids that help your cat stay fit, active, and lean.


You will want to stick with cooked eggs for your cat since raw eggs can lead to food poisoning. You also want to avoid avidin, a protein found in raw egg whites that makes it tougher for your cat to absorb Vitamin B. Cats need that for healthy skin and a shiny coat. Try giving your cat a small portion of a scrambled egg once a week. Cats can easily digest eggs and will enjoy chomping down on it as a treat.


CBD for Cats

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is often used to promote overall well-being for cats, providing extra comfort if they're experiencing joint discomfort. CBD may also calm cats that are feeling anxious, tense, or nervous. That's because CBD is a nonpsychotic cannabinoid that interacts with the receptors in your cat's endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS aims to keep you at a healthy balance of internal conditions despite outside factors.



good cat food ingredients



Related: Endocannabinoid System in Cats & Dogs Explained


Apply a few drops of Holistapet's full-spectrum CBD oil for cat right onto your cat's food for quick absorption and fast results. If you're unsure how much CBD you should give your cat or how often, check out our CBD dosing chart.



Final Notes

Seeing all the cat foods in the pet store can be overwhelming. What should you be looking for? What makes one cat food better than the other? Should you try canned food instead? While it can be a lot to take in at first, you'll start to realize that the best food choices for your cat all have similar ingredients on their label. And, they're all avoiding the same ingredients.


Just remember to test a few quality dry and wet food products to see which one your cat prefers — and mix in some treats and add-ons here and there!. Find out more.

Reading next

Is CBD Safe For Cats? - Holistapet
Omega-3 for Cats - 4 Ways To Give Your Feline This Essential Nutrient

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Looking for something in particular?

Stay connected & get updates on the latest pet news