The Puurrrfect Food at the Right Price

These days, demand for premium, specialized, and even organic pet foods has grown as pet lovers place more value on what they perceive to be most “healthy” for their furry family members. But conscientious cat owners really don’t need to spend top dollar for nutritious food that will keep their feline friends in top form. To identify the best budget cat food, Cheapism.com pored through expert recommendations and nutritional advice to better understand what to look for when considering different cat foods and recipe components. We also paid close attention to feedback from users to see how individual brands actually fared at feeding time. We landed on seven top picks — including wet cat foods and dry cat foods, grain-free and natural options, as well as a recipe for senior cats — that earn enthusiastic endorsements from both humans and cats alike. Most of our choices for best cheap cat food won’t cost consumers more than 30 cents an ounce, and even our pricier picks won’t take too large of a bite out of more indulgent owners’ wallets. As a bonus, we’ve also recommended an affordable cat food catering to cats with sensitive stomachs and a raw cat food with ingredients so prime users say the health benefits are worth the comparatively hefty price.

Our picks (and estimated costs) are representative of the wide assortment of flavors and formulas each brand offers. Cost per ounce for dry food is based on smallest bag size available. Prices may vary.

See full Buying Guide

Our Top Pick

Fancy Feast Classic Cat Food
Our Picks
Fancy Feast Classic Cat Food

Pros:

  • Relatively inexpensive and easy to find in supermarkets.
  • High in protein, with only a few meat by-products.
  • Grain free and contains no wheat gluten, which some cats cannot digest easily.

Cons:

  • Contains artificial colors and flavors.
  • A handful of owners report their pets suffered gas or stomach issues after eating.
  • Not available in larger sizes, so costs can add up in multicat households.

Takeaway: The fact that some pet owners refer to Fancy Feast Classic as “kitty crack” should tell you something about how tasty it is to most cats (it’s a top seller at Amazon and Chewy.com, too). Unlike some other cheap canned cat foods you’ll find in the supermarket, despite its low price Fancy Feast contains protein from quality sources; meat by-products are used, but they’re lower down on the list of ingredients. There are a good range of flavors available in this classic paté mix, but some may want to consider other selections in Fancy Feast’s original “gourmet” line for cats that may be more finicky about texture — the options for gravy lovers are extremely popular, and there are also grilled, sliced, and shredded varieties. There’s even a broth with fish for cats who have trouble eating solid food. Just keep in mind that other recipes may contain ingredients like wheat gluten, corn starch, or potato starch which you won’t find in this paté. In recent years, Fancy Feast has branched out into limited-ingredient and special-diet cat foods, as well as dry cat foods that earn equally positive reviews from consumers.

Purina One Tender Selects

Pros:

  • Contains both crunchy and soft morsels that make it easy for cats to chew.
  • Protein source is the first ingredient.
  • Appeals to just about every feline, according to product reviews.
  • Very affordable, particularly in large-sized bags; good for households with multiple cats.

Cons:

  • Contains more carbohydrates than many cat foods.
  • Relatively low in moisture, fat, and fiber.
  • Larger kibble might be hard for older cats to manage.

Takeaway: Like Fancy Feast (another Purina product), pet owner feedback suggests that nearly any feline — no matter how finicky — will come running for Purina One Tender Selects dry cat food. In fact, upbeat reviewers with more than one furry mouth to feed say Purina One is the only brand of dry food that all of their cats will eat; and even a few dogs have been known to sneak a taste. This hard-and-soft-bite kibble comes in two flavors, chicken and salmon, with the respective proteins prominent in ingredient lists, and it’s relatively nutrient-rich compared to many cheap cat foods. While purists may find the brand’s claim to contain “0% fillers” questionable — ingredients like rice flour, wheat flour, corn and corn gluten meal, as well as meat by-product meal may raise a few eyebrows — we read scores of reviews from owners who swear this incredibly affordable cat food has dramatically improved their pets’ healths and kept cats thriving. The mix of textures is a real plus, and the presence of tender nuggets means that cat owners do not have to mix this dry cat food with water. Just keep in mind that overall moisture content is low with all dry foods, so cats will still need to stay properly hydrated.

Tiki Cat Aloha Friends

Pros:

  • Low in carbohydrates and very high in moisture and protein.
  • Good for cats with health issues like urinary tract infections, diabetes, and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Several flavor combinations complement primary proteins (tuna or chicken) and add variety.
  • Uses wild-caught tuna and contains no GMOs or glutens.

Cons:

  • Recipes contain more fish than some owners would prefer their cats to consume.
  • Texture may be too smooth for some cats’ liking, according to reviews.
  • Contains less protein than other Tiki Cat wet foods.

Takeaway: Tiki Cat earns praise from experts for its limited-ingredient recipes that give cats healthy, calorie-dense nutrition without fillers. The most budget-friendly wet cat food the brand offers, this Aloha Friends blend contains pumpkin for fiber, sunflower oil for fat and omegas, and plenty of broth for moisture — and all of the flavors are grain free and gluten free. If you’re looking for even higher protein percentages than are found in these recipes, you might also consider the brand’s Grill and Luau canned cat food lines. Although they cost slightly more (and cans are smaller at 2.8 ounces), user ratings are even higher for these varieties. In fact, Tiki Cat’s Succulent Chicken flavor from the Luau line is ranked fourth by CatFoodDB out of more than 1500 canned cat food products considered, and other top contenders are decidedly more expensive than this affordable natural cat food brand. Since most Tiki Cat formulas are fish-heavy in their ingredients, which may raise allergy issues or mercury concerns, many reviewers say it is good now and then but not for everyday feeding. Tiki Cats Aloha Friends cat food is available in both cans and convenient pouches.

Taste Of The Wild Grain Free Cat Food

Pros:

  • Carbohydrates come from sweet potatoes and legumes, not grains.
  • Contains both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in healthy proportion.
  • High in protein.
  • Owners say it’s a convenient alternative to wet cat food that also serves well when fed as treats.

Cons:

  • First ingredient in Rocky Mountain blend is chicken meal, which is inferior to chicken meat as a protein source.
  • Some owners question the need for fruits in this cat food’s mix.

Takeaway: Taste of the Wild Grain Free contains more protein (42% for the Rocky Mountain Blend) than most cheaper dry cat foods. Sweet potatoes add moisture, fiber, and nutrients that some vets say are good for a cat’s digestive health. This natural dry food also contains some unexpected ingredients, including blueberries and tomatoes, both for the vitamins and minerals they provide and their antioxidant value, although a handful of reviewers express skepticism at this claim. Still, we read a number of positive comments from owners who say switching to Taste of the Wild alleviated all kinds of health issues plaguing their cats, from diabetes to shedding to gastrointestinal problems. Taste of the Wild is available in three dry recipes — Canyon River (trout and salmon), Lowland Creek (quail and duck), and Rocky Mountain Blend (venison and salmon) — and users say cats like the flavors. If wet cat food is more to your pet’s taste than dry food, the Canyon River and Rocky Mountain blends are also available in canned versions.

Hill's Science Diet Adult 7+

Pros:

  • Brand is a top choice of veterinarians to feed their own pets, according to surveys.
  • No artificial ingredients or preservatives.
  • Lower-phosphorus formula is good for cats with kidney problems.
  • Contains high-quality proteins for less renal stress.
  • Users claim “Youthful Vitality” blends have, indeed, boosted energy levels in senior cats.

Cons:

  • Most recipes contain wheat or corn gluten.
  • Some cats love the gravy but not the chunks in chunkier varieties, and some balk at the paté texture of the entrée recipes.
  • A few owners say it doesn’t seem to fill up their pets.

Takeaway: Hill’s Science Diet pet food is a ubiquitous mainstay at many vets’ offices, and the brand is known for its wide variety of special formulas meant to address specific health issues. For cats, there are recipes geared towards everything from urinary tract health to hairball control and skin sensitivity, just to name a few. The brand’s Adult 7+ canned food recipes are customized to suit senior cats and their unique nutritional needs, starting with relatively high moisture contents as well as softer textures that make them easier to chew. Low sodium and lower phosphorus levels (just under 0.7%) also make them more healthy for cats that may have renal health struggles or heart disease. We did read a fair number of comments from reviewers who say their cats turned their noses up at this food, and some say that the added water makes it less filling, but on the whole owners praise Hill’s Science Diet for keeping their mature cats both satisfied and thriving. These Adult 7+ mixes are available in 10 canned varieties as well as five dry food recipes. There are also blends for senior cats aged 11 and above

Nulo FreeStyle High-Meat Kibble Cat and Kitten

Nulo FreeStyle High-Meat Kibble Cat and Kitten Review

Buy on  $22.99

Available from Amazon, Chewy.com, and Walmart.
Price: Starting at $22.99 (29 cents/ounce; 5-pound bag) at time of publishing.

Pros:

  • Four of the first ingredients are animal-sourced proteins.
  • Grain free; carbs from fruits and vegetables give it a low glycemic index.
  • No corn, wheat, soy, or potato.
  • Contains probiotics for intestinal health.
  • Formulated for all life stages, from kitten to senior, making it good for multicat households.

Cons:

  • Some cat owners dislike the small kibble size.
  • Larger bags can’t be resealed, which can result in staleness and some product waste.

Takeaway: Nulo, another cat food reviewer favorite, is very high in protein, with up to 84% of it coming from animals. Pet owners like that it can feed cats of many ages, and the low-glycemic, low-carb formulas help to guard against excess weight gain and feline diabetes. Even better, users say most cats seem to love it, too, and it fills them up in a good way — several claim their cats eat this food more slowly and seem satisfied longer. The food is also credited with reducing stomach troubles and vomiting and producing soft and shiny coats. The tiny kibble size is good for kittens and older cats with fewer teeth, but it is the one low spot in otherwise stellar reviews. A few owners complain that there is not enough crunch to keep feline teeth healthy, and others say cats may be prone to swallowing it whole, which can cause choking or other issues. Still, the majority of Nulo purchasers say they’re happy with this brand and consider it a good value despite the slightly higher price tag. Nulo Freestyle Cat and Kitten dry cat food is available in two varieties: chicken and cod and turkey and duck. The line also includes specialized formulas for senior cats and indoor cats. Nulo’s MedalSeries cat foods, carried exclusively by PetSmart, add limited-ingredient recipes to the mix.

Nature’s Variety Instinct Original Grain Free

Pros:

  • High in meat content/protein, low in carbohydrates.
  • Quality meats include cage-free duck and chicken, wild-caught salmon, and grass-fed rabbit, venison, and lamb; USA-raised beef.
  • Grain-free; carbohydrates come from fruit and vegetables as well as flaxseed (a good source of fiber).
  • No corn, wheat, soy, or potato.
  • High in moisture.

Cons:

  • Many varieties contain egg, which might be an allergen for some cats.
  • Paté texture doesn’t appeal to every cat.
  • Some users complain of suspected changes in formula or quality control issues.

Takeaway: While this certainly can’t be called cheap cat food, the top-shelf ingredients in this line of Instinct canned cat food make it a reviewer favorite and a best buy in many books. CatFoodDB gives the majority of wet recipes in this line a rating of 9 out of 10 for composition and nutritional value, while All About Cats calls it “a promising choice for cats with food sensitivities and allergies.” Pet owners claim that this food has alleviated all sorts of kitty ailments, including many gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, weight problems, skin and coat issues, and various allergies. They also say that transitioning from other pet foods to this one took less time than expected. On the downside, some cats don’t like the mushy texture, and a few reviewers complain about the prevalence of pork in the rabbit flavor. Instinct Original Grain-Free comes in seven canned cat food varieties and includes larger, 5.5-ounce cans for households with multiple cats. The brand also carries limited-ingredient and high-protein wet cat food options, dry food, pouches, and several flavors of raw food.

Royal Canin Digest Sensitive

Pros:

  • Brand is frequently recommended by veterinarians; known for its commitment to research and test trials.
  • Healthy ingredient balance between protein, carbs, and fats.
  • Supports healthy weight regulation.
  • Easy to digest for cats prone to vomiting or bowel issues, owners confirm.
  • Good for older cats with dental issues, according to reviewers.

Cons:

  • Gluten and corn starch are among the ingredients.
  • Contains pork products and by-products, including plasma, which some may find objectionable.

Takeaway: If you have a cat that is prone to vomiting after meals or whose stool is loose and smelly, your pet may have a digestive issue like inflammatory bowel disease. Reviewers say Royal Canin Digest Sensitive canned cat food helps their pets keep down food, making it a good budget alternative to more expensive, special-diet prescription cat foods (which Royal Canin also makes). The Digest Sensitive Thin Slices with Gravy formula is easy for older cats with bad teeth to chew, and owners claim that even cats who turn up their noses at anything heath seem to like this food. For pickier felines who might find the texture of the slices a bit gummy, Royal Canin sensitive digestion recipes also come in a gravy-free loaf version, chunks-in-gravy pouches, and as dry kibble.

Stella and Chewy’s Grain-Free Freeze Dried Cat Food

Stella and Chewy’s Grain-Free Freeze Dried Cat Food Review

Buy on  $7.99

Available from Amazon and Chewy.com.
Price: Starting at $9.99 ($2.85/ounce; 3.5-ounce bag) at time of publishing.

Pros:

  • Meant to replicate “primal diet” cats would eat in the wild.
  • Made from 98% animal protein; cage-free poultry, farm-raised rabbit, and wild-caught fish.
  • Vitamins and minerals from organic fruits and vegetables.
  • No grains or glutens; no potatoes, peas, or lentils.
  • Simple to rehydrate by adding water, or can be eaten straight from the package.
  • Easy to digest for cats with sensitive stomachs or bowel issues, according to owners.

Cons:

  • Much more expensive than many other cat foods.
  • The fish flavor is extremely smelly, according to consumer feedback.
  • Some of the nuggets may be too big for some cats to chew.

Takeaway: Stella and Chewy cat food is made primarily from raw animal protein, with ingredients like pumpkin seeds for additional protein, and fat and kelp for nutrients and prebiotic properties. This freeze-dried cat food can be served dry or rehydrated. Cats seem to adore it, according to consumer reviews, and users like being able to adjust the amount of water to the consistency that their cats prefer. Some people use the dried nuggets (which are still soft enough to chew) as a snack for their cats, or as a treat or a pill pocket; and others say they add it as a supplement to either wet or dry food. While many cat owners attribute more sparing use of this cat food to the far-from-budget price, the majority say the extra expense is worth it — particularly those who’d already run up vet bills trying to cure their cats of ailments that switching to this raw food seems to have alleviated. Many say also that the convenience and comparative low cost compared to fresh raw food (and even some other brands) makes Stella and Chewy’s freeze-dried cat food an attractive option. These “dinner morsels” come in six flavors: chicken, duck, turkey, salmon and chicken, salmon and cod, and rabbit.

Buying Guide

Buying Guide

A quarter of American households contain at least one cat according to the most recent American Veterinary Medicine Association pet ownership demographic survey, and the average cat-owning household accommodates more than one furry friend. That's a lot of food over the typical feline lifetime —up to 17 years and counting for some indoor cats. And while pampering pets with high-priced delicacies is increasingly the fashion, there are plenty of budget-friendly foods available that will more than satisfy most cats’ finicky tastes and nutritional needs.

We researched veterinarian and expert advice on sites like CatInfo.org, Feline-Nutrition.org, CatFoodDB, PetMD, and Vet Nutrition (hosted by Tuft University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center) to assess what sorts of diets and foods were most favored by the pros. Although experts disagree about the detailed particulars of an optimal diet, they agree that cats need plenty of protein, lots of water, and minimal, if any, carbohydrates to thrive. It’s possible to meet most, if not all, of these requirements on the cheap — in fact, the very best cheap cat foods contain protein from identified sources and very little filler; many are completely grain free.

At the same time, cats are notoriously independent, and what they don't like they cannot be persuaded to eat. Most cat 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 industry professionals had to say about nutrition, it was the cats 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 also conducted an informal poll of a few cat-owning households to learn their animals’ preferences. Not surprisingly, we found that while many owners are inclined to feed their cats what humans (including vets) might consider appetizing and most healthy, the cats often had other ideas.

Cheap vs. Expensive Cat Food: Nutrition

Nowadays most cat food, cheap cat food or high-priced blends, bears the label "complete and balanced" or "100% 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 budget end of the cat food universe, along with supermarket aisles, is dominated by Purina — which owns both Fancy Feast and Friskies — and by competitors Whiskas, 9-Lives, and Special Kitty. These 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. Many may also contain artificial colors and preservatives, a trend that is falling out of favor. In 2018, for instance, Petco made a decision to stop selling any foods that include artificial ingredients, angering at least one Fancy Feast fan we interviewed.

Mid-tier specialized brands such as Blue Buffalo, Tiki Cat, Weruva, Wellness, and Taste of the Wild boast higher-quality natural ingredients, but still fall within what would be considered “budget” territory. With the exception of Blue Buffalo, which has gained crossover status (and which we’re excluding from our pick list due to a high number of recalls), you’re more likely to find these products at pet stores than at the local grocery. 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 and the like. Some pet owners see these brands as being superior because ingredients are organic and/or sustainably sourced and free of GMOs. Also growing in popularity are a range of raw foods, which some experts say most closely mirror a cat’s natural, ancestral diet. Just expect to pay a pretty penny to reconnect your cat to the primal experience — and the potential health benefits — of consuming fresh “prey.”

The product lineups for many brands, both mainstream and boutique, also include health-related blends. And some brands, like Royal Canin and Hills Science diet, have lines that exclusively cater to distinct health-based dietary needs, such as digestive sensitivity, weight control, diabetes, renal and liver health, allergies, etc.; Royal Canin even offers formulas catered to specific breeds of cat or dog.

Wet Cat Food vs. Dry Cat Food

Anyone who owns a cat is surely familiar with the long-standing wet cat food versus dry cat food conundrum. Some vets recommend wet food only, citing benefits such as higher moisture content and protein levels, a formula that most closely resembles the natural diet for cats. Also, since sufficient hydration is necessary for urinary tract and renal health, high-moisture canned cat food can lessen the need for water intake. (Still, experts recommend at least one-third cup of water a day for each 10 pounds of weight for cats who dine exclusively on wet pet food.)

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. On the other hand, not only does dry cat food contain less protein and more filler than wet cat food, but lack of moisture content can present issues. 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 — which may make for difficulties getting your pet to ingest the expert-recommended minimum of at least 1 cup of water a day for each 10 pounds of weight if the animal’s diet consists entirely of kibble. Some pet owners resolve this wet versus dry cat food dilemma by serving canned food in the morning and dry food at night, or a mix of wet cat food and dry cat food.

Regardless of personal preferences, what really matters when choosing between types of cat food is the quality. The experts at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center say there’s no evidence to suggest wet cat food or dry cat food is better for a cat’s overall health and either wet or dry food is acceptable as long as it contains sufficient nutrients and your cat is staying sufficiently hydrated.

Protein

No matter which brand of wet or dry cat food your pet prefers, there are some nutritional basics that you should look for when shopping. Cats need a healthy diet that's rich in protein from muscle meat. Vets say the least processed natural 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, lentils, and peas contain protein but can be difficult for cats to digest. The veterinarian who runs the site 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. 

All of the dry cat foods recommended in this report contain at least 30% or more protein, which exceeds AAFCO’s minimum standards for adult cat maintenance and which meets levels considered healthy by many experts. Still, some pros, such as the vet at CatInfo.org, say that the best cat food is approximately 50% protein and 40% fat or less. To boost protein levels when feeding kibble, some cat owners mix wet food into dry or add a bit of raw food as a high-protein topper.

Also keep in mind that 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 cat food because of the high proportion of moisture in the canned product — labels on wet foods usually list about 10 percent protein (although nearly all varieties of our recommended cat foods exceed this standard). Calculating the protein content of wet food on a “dry matter basis" — which gives a sense of actual ingredient percentages once the product’s moisture content is subtracted from the equation — will yield a much more accurate picture of the food’s true protein value. So, for example, a can of food like Tiki Cat’s Aloha Friends Tuna with Pumpkin, which has 12 percent protein and 84 percent moisture, would have a dry matter protein value of approximately 75 percent. (This number is only an estimate, however, since the percentage of protein and moisture in guaranteed analyses are listed as minimum and maximum amounts, respectively, as opposed to exact measurements.)

Grains and Carbs

Veterinarians often place cats on a diet free of grain, 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, and possibly even lower. Grain free does not mean low carb, though. Rice, peas, potatoes, and corn gluten are common high-carb ingredients used frequently in these kibble mixes. Many also contain fruits, like blueberries and raspberries, which are carb-rich and, some reviewers argue, provide cats with no nutritional advantages. (It’s worth pointing out that wet cat food typically contains fewer carbs than dry food.)

Other Ingredients

Omega-3 fatty acids 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, and you’ll usually find that quality cat foods often tout their formulas as omega-rich. Pay attention, however, to the ratios of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids in foods, which many experts say should fall between 10:1 and 5:1 in favor of Omega-6 for the best nutritional balance. Of course, all commercial cat food should also include taurine, an amino acid that cats need for healthy hearts, eyes, and reproductive functions.

Special Diets

Kidney problems are common in cats, particularly as they age. To help counteract these disorders, and stave off loss of muscle mass, vets suggest that older cats require high-quality protein from animal rather than vegetable sources. Older cats, as well as younger, may also require special diets directed at a wide spectrum of other health issues, too, such as urinary tract infections, hairballs, dry skin, sensitive stomachs, and excess weight (and diabetes). The good news is that in addition to the pricier specialized brands and prescription foods that you’ll find in vet’s offices, there are plenty of widely-available cheap cat foods with recipes designed to aid in digestion and address other common health concerns.