Finding The Best Cat Foods in 2023: A Comprehensive Guide

Cat happily munching on its meal.

As a cat owner, one of the most critical decisions you'll make is what to feed your feline friend. With the multitude of options available in the market, it can be challenging to determine the best cat food for your pet. This article aims to guide you through the process of choosing the best cat food in 2023, focusing on the top brands, the benefits of dry and wet food, and the specific needs of kittens and adult cats.

Feeding An Adult Cat: What You Need to Know

Adult cats should be fed a balanced diet that is appropriate for their age, health status, and lifestyle. Overfeeding can lead to obesity, which can cause serious health problems. Cats should also have access to fresh water at all times, ideally running water. It's important to monitor your cat's weight and adjust their food intake as necessary to maintain a healthy weight (Hill's Pet).

Kittens, by contrast, will need to eat far more often than adult cats - at 2 or 3 months, kittens should eat 4 to 5 meals in a day. By 6 months, this should decrease to 3 meals, and by 1 year, 2 meals.

Understanding Cat Nutrition: The Foundation of Good Health

Fluffy cat enjoying a meal.

Before diving into the best, it's crucial to understand the dietary needs of cats. The first thing to understand is that cat food should ideally resemble the makeup of their natural prey.

What Makes a Cat Food Complete and Balanced?

Empty bowl, happy cat, taking a moment to savor the last bites.

A complete and balanced diet for cats means it contains all the nutrients your cat needs in the right proportions. This includes proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water (FDA).  

As obligate carnivores, cats require a diet high in meat; it is biologically necessary for their survival. Meat protein is essential for their health, and they also need certain amino acids, like taurine, which are found in animal tissue. Cats also require certain micronutrients, such as fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals (Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine).Their natural prey, such as rodents, is composed of about 55% protein, 45% fat, 1-2% carbohydrates, and has a high water content (about 70%). 

However, cats do not need a high amount of carbohydrates in their food. Unfortunately, there is a good chance that the major pet food brands you see on your store shelves contain a high amount of carbohydrate fillers, including potatoes, rice, corn, wheat gluten, guar gum, and others. Generally, commercial cat food is made to contain about 20-50% carbohydrates, which is far more than a cat needs. A raw diet, rich in animal protein, aligns more closely with a cat's natural dietary needs.

Remember that a balanced diet is crucial for your cat's long-term health, so investing time in selecting the right cat food is essential to ensure their overall well-being. 

The Best Overall Type of Food For Your Cat: Raw Cat Food

cat eats piece of raw fish

Raw cat food can be a lot of work for pet owners because it requires purchasing and preparing a wide variety of meats and organs. However, it's considered the best overall diet for them, and there are numerous benefits your cat will feel as a result of that work. Here are just a few reasons why this diet is trending among cat owners:

No Artificial Preservatives

Raw food doesn't need to be cooked, processed, dyed, or preserved. It's in its fresh, whole state, providing bioavailable nutrients naturally. On the other hand, many commercial pet foods contain preservatives like ethoxyquin, which is used as a pesticide and a hardening agent for synthetic rubber.

Better Nutrient Absorption

The biological value of a food measures how much of its protein can be absorbed and utilized by the body. Raw, uncooked animal-based protein has the highest biological value, meaning it's the most bioavailable source of nutrients for your cat. Many commercial pet foods contain ingredients that your cat's body can't fully utilize, leading to less efficient nutrient absorption.

Improved Digestion

Cats have a short digestive tract designed to process raw flesh and bone quickly, protecting them against bacteria that raw flesh may contain. They also have a very acidic gut, which aids in the protection against harmful bacteria. Cats digest carbohydrates less efficiently than other animals, so a raw diet can lead to improved digestion.

Smaller, Less Smelly Stool

When cats are fed a diet that their digestive system is designed to process, their stool will not only be smaller but also less odorous. This is because the cat's digestive system is absorbing all of the nutrients that the raw meat, bone, and organs provide, expelling only the bare minimum.

Healthy Weight Maintenance

An estimated 60% of cats in the United States are overweight or obese. A raw diet, low in carbohydrates and high in protein, can help maintain a healthy weight and prevent overeating.

Lower Risk of Diabetes

Cats are less efficient at metabolizing carbohydrates than many other mammals. Many carbohydrates in commercial cat food rank high on the glycemic index, causing blood sugar levels to spike and potentially predisposing cats to diabetes. A raw diet can decrease the risk of diabetes by providing a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet.

Healthier Coat and Less Shedding

For a healthy coat, cats require retinol, fatty acids like omega-3s, and biotin. These nutrients are most bioavailable through animal sources. A raw diet rich in these nutrients can lead to a healthier coat and less shedding.

Better Dental Health

Dental disease is one of the most common issues veterinarians see in cats. A raw diet can improve dental health as raw meaty bones act like a toothbrush, scraping the teeth and removing any tartar that may have accumulated.

Better Urinary Health

Cats' bladders perform optimally when more water is flowing through them. A raw diet, which is 70-80% moisture, can greatly support your cat's renal system and help prevent urinary crystals and blockages.

The Pros and Cons of Dry Food

Man selecting cat food on grocery.

Dry cat food, also known as kibble, offers several benefits to pet owners. It's convenient, cost-effective, and can help keep your cat's teeth clean. However, it's important to ensure that the dry food you choose is nutritionally complete and balanced.

The key to making an informed decision lies in understanding pet food labels.

Understanding the Order of Ingredients

The first thing to note is the order in which ingredients are listed on the label. The ingredients are listed in order of weight, with the heaviest ingredients listed first. However, this weight is measured before the ingredients are cooked. This means that ingredients with high water content, like meat, will weigh less once cooked and dehydrated to make the kibble. On the other hand, ingredients like cereals, grains, and other powders maintain their weight. So, in reality, there might be less meat and fresh ingredients than you initially thought.

Decoding the Ingredients

The names of ingredients on pet food labels are regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Here's a quick guide to understanding some of the terms:

  • Meat: This includes muscle meat, which can be general skeletal muscles, heart, esophagus, tongue, and diaphragm. It can be called "meat" if it's from farm animals, or it can specify the animal species. Note that fish and chicken are not considered "meat" by AAFCO standards; they are listed as "fish" and "poultry," respectively.
  • Meat By-products: These are clean internal organs. If you're a raw feeder, you're already feeding these to your pet in small amounts. The species must be specified unless it's a farm animal.
  • Poultry By-products: Unlike meat by-products, these can contain bones, feet, and heads.
  • Meals: According to AAFCO, meals can contain blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach, and rumen contents in small amounts. The term "meal" on a pet food label might be a red flag due to these potential inclusions.

    Quick Tips for Reading Labels

    Here are some quick tips to help you read pet food labels on the fly:

    • Check for "meal", "powder", and "flour": These are not high-quality ingredients and are best avoided.
    • Look at oils: Good quality animal fat should be listed as "fat." "Oil" is rendered fat, which can be harmful to your pet's health. The only exception is a small amount of fish oil listed at the end of the label as a supplement.
    • Look at carbohydrates: Cats and dogs benefit from a low-carb diet, so avoid foods with high carbohydrate content.
    • Look for whole names: Whole names of proteins and other ingredients, such as "beef," "lamb," "whole eggs," "salmon," "cranberries," or "blueberries," are a good sign.
    • Check the "unreadables": If the list of ingredients you can't easily recognize is longer than half of the total list, it might be best to avoid that food.

      The Role of Wet Food in a Cat's Diet

      Cat with food on fur, staring intently.

      Canned cat food is often considered superior to dry food, because it resembles a wild diet more closely, including the water content of raw prey. Canned food can be a valuable addition to a cat's diet. It's often more palatable than dry food and can help keep your cat hydrated. However, it's important to balance wet food with dry food to ensure a well-rounded diet, and healthy teeth.

      Decoding the Front of the Can 

      The front of a can of cat food is more than just a pretty picture. It's regulated by strict rules regarding the name of the pet food.

      Understanding the labels on a can of cat food is crucial for knowing what you're feeding your pet. Here's a simplified breakdown:

      • If the can says "chicken cat food," it means the food is 95% chicken.
      • If it says "fish and giblets," then the food is 95% fish and giblets combined, with fish being the main ingredient.
      • If you see "dinner," "entree," "platter," or "supreme" on the can, it indicates that the named ingredient makes up 25% of the food. For example, "chicken dinner" should contain 25% chicken.
      • Be cautious with labels that use the word "with." For instance, "tuna and chicken dinner with real cheese" only needs to contain 3% cheese.
      • If the label mentions "flavored," such as "beef flavored dinner," it might not contain any actual beef.

      Understanding the Back of the Can

      Reading the back of a cat food can might seem tricky, but here's a simpler explanation:

      • The can lists many ingredients, including various vegetables. While some veggies are okay, manufacturers sometimes add more to boost the food's protein levels.
      • Ingredients are listed in order of their quantity. The higher an ingredient is on the list, the more of it is in the food.
      • If you can easily identify the first five ingredients (like recognizing "liver"), it's usually a sign of good quality food.

      Ingredients to Avoid

      There are two main suspects you'll want to avoid on the back of a can of food.

      First, multiple phosphates. If you see things that say "phosphate," especially more than one, consider it a dangerous food. An excessive amount of phosphorus can damage kidney performance in felines, and may play a role in the prevalent occurrence of chronic kidney diseases in older cats. 

      The second ingredient to avoid is carrageenan. Carrageenan is a thickener and a gelling agent for pate style foods, and has been linked to cancer development in cats. Avoid it where possible.

      How to Choose the Best Cat Food in 2023

      Choosing the best cat food involves considering several factors, including your cat's age, health status, and personal preferences. It's also essential to look at the nutritional content of the food and ensure it meets your cat's dietary needs.

      Best Cat Food Options in 2023

      Cat savoring a delicious meal.

      In 2023, several cat food manufacturers stand out for their quality and nutritional value. These include both dry and wet food options, as well as specialized diets for kittens, adult cats, and senior cats. Here's a list of cat food that meets the nutritional requirements for pet food, while also providing high quality ingredients.

      Best Fresh Food: Smalls Fresh Cat Food

      smalls fresh cat food

      Our first recommendation is the fresh cat food from Smalls. This is a great raw diet option that is available through a subscription only, which could be a deterrent for some. If you're comfortable with a cat food subscription, Smalls offers some of the best ingredient quality and nutrition on the market. All of their fresh foods are 100% human grade. Their recipes contain a lot of meat, including both muscle meat and organs, without having a substantial amount of plant ingredients and carbohydrates. This makes it a species-appropriate, highly bioavailable, easy to digest food. 

      Best Wet Cat Food: Rawz Canned Cat Food

      best wet cat food rawz

      If you have a preference for a more conventional wet cat food, we suggest trying Rawz's wet food range. These products primarily consist of meat with very few plant ingredients. Additionally, they do not contain gums, which is unusual for wet or dry food. 

      Best Budget Cat Food: Nulo Freestyle or Medal Series

      best budget cat food nulo

      This is a good option if you're shopping for good cat food on a budget. It's rich in animal-derived protein, and has moderate levels of fat, as well as a low carbohydrate content. Everything you'd want in a cat food, for a good price.

      Best Dry Cat Food: Dr. Elsie's Clean Protein or Open Farms Raw Mix

      best dry cat food

      If you are looking for a suitable recommendation for dry food, we suggest trying Dr. Elsie's pure protein. They offer a variety of options, and stand out by opting for gelatin instead of starchy additives, resulting in a remarkably low carbohydrate content. Additionally, this choice maintains the desired crunchy texture that cats enjoy. 

      Open Farms' dry food for adult cats, known as the raw mix, is our second choice for a dry option. Compared to other Open Farm Foods, the raw mix recipes have slightly higher levels of carbohydrates. However, they provide more protein from animal sources, making it more bioavailable for your cat and, thus, more nutritious and easier to digest. 

      Best Freeze-Dried Cat Food: Open Farms Freeze-Dried Raw Diet

      Best Freeze-Dried Cat Food

      If you're interested in providing your feline companion with a raw diet, but want some convenience, a freeze-dried cat food might be helpful to you. Open Farm also has great options, and it does not appear to have excessive levels of phosphorus. It also appears to be highly appealing to cats in terms of taste. 

      Best Food for Senior Cats: Weruva Truluxe Steak Frites

      Weruva Truluxe Steak Frites

      This food is specifically for older cats that do not have any additional health concerns that require a specific diet. One thing that stands out about this recipe is that it has a slightly lower phosphorus content compared to many other cat foods available in the market. Most cat foods contain phosphorus levels that exceed the minimum requirements suggested by AFCO for maintaining good health. This excessive intake of phosphorus may potentially increase the likelihood of developing kidney disease, which is a prevalent condition affecting around one-third of senior cats. 

      Best Kitten Food: Wellness Core Turkey and Turkey Liver Recipe for Kittens

      Best Kitten Food

      Our final suggestion is intended for kittens. Wellness Core turkey and turkey liver recipe for kittens is going to provide some of the best nutrition for your new family member. 

      The Best Cat Food for Weight Management: Tiki Cat Puka Puka Luau Recipe

      best cat food for weight loss

      If your cat is overweight, choosing the right food can help them reach a healthy weight. Some of your cat's food options are specifically designed for weight management and can be a valuable tool in your cat's weight loss journey. For those trying to help their cat lose weight, we recommend Tiki Cats Puka Puka Lua Recipe. This is an uncomplicated food primarily composed of shredded chicken muscle meat in a thin soup. However, the reduced calorie concentration of this food does come with a price. You'll be looking at spending about $4.50 per day.

      Best Food for Cats with Stomach Issues: KOHA Limited Ingredient Diet

      Best Food for Cats with Stomach Issues

      If you have a cat with what is commonly referred to as a sensitive stomach, meaning they have some sort of food sensitivity or maybe they have irritable bowel disease or they have allergies, then KOHA's line of wet cat foods could be a good option. KOHA offers a wide variety of limited ingredient diets and many of their foods are specifically intended for cats who have these types of digestive issues. If you own a feline that is known to have a delicate digestive system, such as having an allergic reaction to certain foods or suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, KOHA's selection of moist cat foods might be a suitable choice. KOHA provides a diverse range of diets with a limited number of ingredients, specially formulated for cats experiencing these specific digestive problems. 

      Best Food for Picky Cats: Caru's Classic Stews

      Best Food for Picky Cats

      Lastly, for picky cats, we recommend Caru's Classic Stews. However, choosing the right food for a picky cat is really individual. Pay attention to what your cat has enjoyed in the past, and which treats they like, as a model for the foods you choose later.

      Specific Diet Requirements for Purebred Cats

      Cat savoring a delicious meal.

      Some purebred cats may have specific dietary requirements due to their unique physical characteristics or predispositions to certain health conditions. For example, some breeds may require a diet lower in calories to prevent obesity, while others may need a diet higher in certain nutrients to support their fast growth. Always consult with a vet or a cat nutrition expert when planning your purebred cat's diet.

      Buying Cat Food: What to Expect in 2023 and Beyond

      Grocery cart.

      As we look ahead to 2023, we can expect to see continued innovation in the cat food industry. This includes new formulations designed to support cat health, as well as sustainable and ethically sourced ingredients.

      In conclusion, choosing an adult cat food or kitten food for your new feline friend is a crucial task that requires careful consideration. Remember to consider your cat's individual needs, consult with your vet, and keep an eye on the latest trends and innovations in cat food. Here are the key points to remember:

      • The best cat food brands prioritize high-quality ingredients and nutritional balance.
      • Choosing the best cat food involves considering your cat's age, health status, and personal preferences.
      • Dry cat food offers several benefits, including convenience and dental health.
      • Wet food can help keep your cat hydrated and is often more palatable than dry food.
      • The right diet can help prevent health issues and support your cat's overall health.
      • Some wet and dry food options are specifically designed for weight management, senior care, and to treat digestive issues.
      • The cat food industry continues to innovate, with new formulations and sustainable ingredients expected in 2023 and beyond.

      By keeping these points in mind, you can ensure that you're providing the best diet for your cat, supporting their health and happiness for years to come.

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