Choosing Cat Food
More than one-third of American households own at least one cat, according to the latest 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owner's Survey, and the average cat-owning household accommodates two furry felines. That's a lot of food over kitty's lifetime -- up to 17 years and counting for some indoor cats. And while pampering a pet may provide great pleasure, there's no need to serve up high-priced delicacies. Cheapism researched the type of diets cat experts recommend and what pet owners say about the available offerings in order to identify the best cheap cat food. Our top picks for best wet cat food and best dry cat food promise frugal pet owners and their notoriously finicky friends food that is healthy, satisfying, and priced right.
Cat Food Brands.The budget end of the cat food universe is dominated by Purina, which is credited with its namesake products as well as brands like Fancy Feast and Friskies. Other popular supermarket labels include Whiskas, 9-Lives, and Special Kitty. The middle tier holds more specialized brands such as Halo, Weruva, Wellness, and Blue Buffalo, some of which sell at what passes for a budget price. At the top end are what may be termed farm-to-bowl cat foods made of human-grade protein sources such as free-range chicken; these formulas make a point of containing no grain or GMO products. Freeze-dried foods like Stella & Chewy's Duck Duck Goose Dinner are high in raw protein from primary organic sources but cost about $2 an ounce. Some brands, like Royal Canin, have lines that exclusively cater to special health-based dietary needs, such as digestive sensitivity, weight control, diabetes, renal and liver health, allergies, etc. The product lineup for many mainstream brands also includes health-related blends.
Canned Cat Food or Dry?Pet owners are surely familiar with the long-standing wet cat food versus dry cat food conundrum. Some vets recommend wet food only, citing benefits such as high moisture content and protein levels, a formula that most closely resembles the natural diet for cats. For many cat owners, however, dry cat food boasts significant advantages. It's cheaper than canned, mess free (no slop on the counter or floor, no cans to recycle), won't spoil when left all day in the feeding bowl, and generally gives off a less pungent odor. Dry cat food also may help keep teeth sharp and healthy. Some pet owners resolve this dilemma by serving canned food in the morning and dry food at night.
Regardless of personal preferences, what really matters when choosing between cat foods is the quality of the meals served. The experts at Tufts University's Cummings Veterinary Medical Center say there's no evidence to suggest that one type of food is better for a cat's overall health and either wet or dry is acceptable as long as it contains sufficient nutrients. (Just be sure that in addition to the chosen food type the animal drinks enough water, which will be particularly important for cats with a kibble-heavy regimen.)
In the canned/wet cat food column our top choices for best cheap cat food include Fancy Feast Classic (starting at 18 cents/ounce) for the universal love it generates among consumers (that would be cats) and Tiki Cat (starting at 36 cents/ounce) for its chunky texture and lack of filler. Served up in second place is Purina Pro Plan (starting at 26 cents/ounce) owing to its perceived health benefits and taste.
In the dry/kibble cat food column, Taste of the Wild Grain Free (starting at 17 cents/ounce) earns top billing for high protein content. It shares the perch with Hill's Science Diet (starting at 20 cents/ounce), which is often recommended by veterinarians. Purina Beyond Grain Free (starting at 23 cents/ounce) holds the runner-up spot for its relatively low price and low-additive formula.
Two cheap cat foods that don't make the cut are Rachael Ray's Nutrish Natural (starting at 33 cents/ounce), which looks fine on paper but is spurned by many cats, and Whiskas Dry Cat Food (starting at 10 cents/ounce), which is cheap enough but dinged for the ingredients.
Editor's note: Our picks (and the prices) are representative of the wide assortment of flavors and formulas each brand offers. Prices per ounce for dry food are based on smallest bag size available.
Cheap cat food is readily available at local brick-and-mortar stores, including big-box retailers and specialty pet supply houses, where sales are frequent. However, online ordering from vendors like Chewy.com can sometimes mean big savings. For example, a 24-can case of Purina Pro Plan Focus Urinary Tract Health can be ordered from Petco for $23.54 compared with $18.51 from Chewy. Bulk buying also reduces costs: Purchase a 15.5-pound bag of Hill's Science Diet, as opposed to the smallest 3.5-pound bag, and the price per ounce drops from 20 cents to just 13 cents.
Nutrition: Cheap vs. Expensive Cat Food.Nowadays most cat food, cheap or high-priced, bears the label "complete and balanced" or "100 percent nutritious." These products meet standards set by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) for nutritional adequacy. Federal and state regulations require that pet food labels specify, among other things, a list of ingredients in order of relative weight, a statement of nutritional adequacy for a given life stage, and a guaranteed analysis that indicates minimum percentages of protein and fat and maximum percentages of fiber and moisture. There are also strict guidelines that control how foods are designated based on the percentages of ingredients included -- from, for example, "chicken cat food" (95% of product not counting water must be chicken) to "chicken dinner/entrée/formula" (25% of product not counting water must be chicken) to the always dubious "cat food with chicken" (only 3% of product need include the stated ingredient).
The best cheap cat foods meet both industry and veterinarians' nutritional standards, although as a rule they include more filler and carbohydrates and less high-quality protein than pricier varieties. We ignored the popular Purina Cat Chow Complete, for example, because it met few of the requirements vets have for cat food; its primary ingredient is a by-product meal and the next few listed on the label are carbohydrates of some kind. Ditto for Whiskas, one kibble option we specifically do not recommend.
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Cat Food Reviews: What We Considered
Cats are notoriously independent and what they don't like, they cannot be persuaded to eat. Most pet owners find that trial and error is the only way to discover which cat food will keep their choosy customer well fed. So, while we looked at what the experts had to say about nutrition on sites like Catinfo.org, Feline-Nutrition.org, Peteducation.com, and Vet Nutrition, it was cat owners who really made a difference. In addition to reviews posted online at pet food retailers such as Chewy and PetSmart, traditional ecommerce sites such as Amazon and Walmart, and cat-oriented blogs and newsletters, we conducted an informal poll of a few cat-owning households to learn their animals' preferences. We found that while the "parents" would rather feed their cats what humans might consider appetizing, the cats often had other ideas.
Protein.Cats may be domesticated but their hearts and digestive systems remain wild, which means they need a diet rich in protein from muscle meat. How much protein cats require is a subject of much debate, however, with many experts now saying that mandated protein requirements in cat food may be lower than the ideal. The veterinarian who runs the site CatInfo.org, for example, maintains that feline diets should be approximately 50 percent protein, at most 40 percent fat, and include a very low percentage of carbohydrates (including fruits and vegetables).
Other experts Peteducation.com also point out that the ability of a cat's body to process protein varies by the form that protein takes. Vets say the least processed protein sources are better than by-products (scraps left over after processing) or meals (concentrated protein sources with all the water removed). In other words, chicken, whitefish, tuna, lamb, and egg are the gold standard; non-meat sources such as corn, wheat, and pea contain protein but are difficult for cats to digest. As such, plant-based protein should play a marginal role in a cat's daily intake. (The vet at Catinfo.org would further suggest that fish be approached with some caution as a protein source due to concerns regarding allergies, toxins, and its addictive qualities.)
The best dry cat food contains about 30-35 percent protein. Among our favorites, Purina Beyond Grain Free hits the high end at 35 percent, Hill's Science Diet hits or just misses the mark with its many offerings, and Taste of the Wild soars high with protein content of 42 percent in the Rocky Mountain Grain Free blend. Some reviewers of the Canyon River Feline Formula from that brand consider the food a tad pricey but say the slight premium is worth overlooking because the nutrient-dense recipe means cats eat less. Purina Beyond Grain Free contains protein meal and dried egg product as well as protein from peas, but the first ingredient listed is fish or chicken, which is a huge selling point for pet owners who reviewed the product on the company website. By contrast, Whiskas may be 35 percent protein, but the label on the Seafood Selections variety, which boasts salmon and shrimp "flavors," specifies poultry by-product meal as the main ingredient followed by ground yellow corn and corn gluten meal.
Comparing protein content of dry cat food to wet cat food is like comparing apples to oranges. The percentage stated in the wet cat food guaranteed analysis always will be lower than for dry because of the high proportion of moisture in the canned product -- labels on wet foods usually list about 10 percent protein. Our top picks beat this standard on nearly all varieties (and there are many), with some from Tiki Cat hitting 16 percent or more. Calculating that protein content on a "dry matter basis" -- which gives a sense of actual ingredient percentages once the product's moisture content is subtracted from the equation -- a can of Tiki Cat's Puka Puka Luau: Ahi Tuna & Chicken, with 17 percent protein and 78 percent moisture, would have a dry matter protein value of approximately 77 percent. (Keep in mind that this number is only an estimate since the percentage of protein and moisture in guaranteed analyses are listed as minimum and maximum amounts, respectively, as opposed to exact measurements.)
Fancy Feast Classic cat food varieties contain primary-source protein along with some protein by-products and tally a bit lower than Tiki Cat when it comes to dry matter protein content; generally, the line boasts between 10.5 and 11 percent crude protein, translating to about 50 percent protein on a dry matter basis. Nevertheless, the brand's protein content is relatively high for a cheap cat food, and reviewers posting on Chewy like that it gets the nod from vets and seems to slim down heavier animals.
Grains and Carbs.Veterinarians often place cats on a grain-free diet, or at least one that's low in carbohydrates. Some cats develop diabetes, and prevention or cure generally calls for a diet with less than 10 percent carbs. http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/feeding-the-diabetic-cat This is another reason we included Taste of the Wild and Purina Beyond, two grain-free dry cat foods, among our picks; of our top wet food picks, Tiki Cat likewise eschews grains. Wheat, corn, wheat gluten, and corn gluten, are common ingredients in cat food -- kibble especially -- and are found in some of the most popular budget brands, such as Purina Pro Plan (wet) and Hill's Science Diet (dry) varieties. They're key ingredients in Whiskas dry food, which is why we pooh-pooh it.
Grain-free cat food is not necessarily low in carbohydrates, though, and it's difficult to determine the carb content because it's not part of the guaranteed analysis. Peas and potatoes, common in most grain-free cat foods, add to the carbs. Some reviewers of Purina Beyond Grain Free, which contains peas and cassava root, argue that it's too high in carbs for diabetic cats. Taste of the Wild also mixes in potatoes, peas, blueberries, and raspberries, all of which are carb-rich and, some reviewers argue, provide cats with no nutritional advantages.
On the other hand, canned cat food generally contains fewer carbs than dry food. Some of Tiki Cat's grain-free wet formulas, which use no fillers, tout zero carbs, and a commenter on a feline diabetes site attributes a diabetic cat's remission to the low carbohydrate content in Fancy Feast Classic.
Other Ingredients.Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids play an essential role in cat health, according to the experts, and are particularly beneficial to skin and fur. These acids are found in fish oils and oil from seeds, such as sunflower. The better cat foods, including Tiki Cat, Hill's Science Diet, and Taste of the Wild contain these acids, as does Halo Spot's Stew Wholesome Chicken Recipe, which draws rave reviews for producing silky coats and minimizing hairballs.
Of course, all commercial cat food should also include taurine, an amino acid that cats need for healthy hearts, eyes, and reproductive functions. Actual taurine content varies among the brands we list here, ranging from .05 percent to a high of .2 percent across Tiki Cat varieties. Purina Beyond Grain-Free lists Taurine as an ingredient, but we found no specific percentages listed.
Dry Cat Food: Texture and Taste.Not only does dry cat food contain less protein and more filler than wet cat food, but, by definition, it also contains much less water than canned. This is important to take into account because cats are "programmed" to get most of the fluid they need from the meat they eat; they don't instinctively drink lots of water. Experts recommend at least 1 cup of water a day for each 10 pounds of weight if the animal's diet consists entirely of kibble.
Hill's Science Diet is easy to eat, according to some reviews at PetSmart, because it's not as dry as some kibbles. And Taste of the Wild, available in two flavors, finds favor with picky cats who generally prefer canned food, say reviews on Chewy. In fact, while one user reviewing this food on Amazon wonders at the fruit and other seemingly unnecessary carb sources that are found in the mix, in the final assessment it's admitted that her older cat is unwilling to switch to a canned diet and the cat's stomach tolerates this food better than any other; a happy cat means a happy owner, so Taste of the Wild remains top of menu, blueberries and all.
Wet Cat Food: Texture and Taste.Canned cat food is less popular than dry because it's pricier, messier, smellier, needs refrigeration once opened, and requires disposing of the cans. Still, many vets and some canned cat food reviewers promote wet because, with more protein, more food-based moisture, and fewer carbohydrates, it's what cats would eat if left to forage on their own. Although canned cat food lessens the need for water intake because of the high moisture content (sufficient hydration is necessary for urinary tract and renal health), experts recommend at least one-third cup of water a day for each 10 pounds of weight for cats who dine exclusively on wet food.
Fancy Feast is the top choice of our polled cat owners, who say it satisfies fussy eaters; one review on Walmart reports that a very sick cat who spurned other foods came back to life when offered this product. The hunks of fish in one of the Tiki Cat varieties are suspended in a consommé-like substance that cats find very appealing, as do some owners who note on Chewy that it almost resembles human food.
Weruva's BFF Grain-Free Pouches (starting at 38 cents/ounce), a cheaper version of a relatively expensive brand with very high quality ingredients, is heavy on fish (vets are divided on whether too much fish is a good thing) and incorporates little else in the mix except broth and added vitamins. Cat bloggers and owners say cats adore it. Rachael Ray's Nutrish, on the other hand, contains a fair amount of primary-source protein, but reviews on Amazon say it fails the taste test with many cats; one complains about the number of bones in the mix.
Special Diets.Kidney and urinary tract infections are common in cats, particularly as they age. Both Purina Pro Plan and Hill's Science Diet include blends that specifically address this issue. Cat rescue facilities and foster households often make use of both. Reviews of Purina Pro Plan Urinary Tract Health Formula at PetSmart say it helps cats recover from infections (while staving off recurrences), and proves very popular with the animals. Hill's Science Diet reviews on Amazon say it also has a salutary effect, although some cats won't touch it.
Other issues targeted by some of the best cheap cat foods include hairballs, dry skin, excess weight, and age. Reviews at 1-800-PetMeds report that skin and digestive problems were alleviated and older cats with little energy perked up after switching to Halo Spot's Stew (starting at 27 cents/ounce), which is touted for its "holistic" qualities. While it costs a bit more than our official dry food picks, it's a modestly-priced product certainly worth a mention to frugal feline owners looking for an easy-to-digest formula that contains whole meat and is free of animal by-products, gluten, artificial flavors, coloring, and preservatives.