Healthy Eating for Cats: How To Pick the Right Cat Food

cat with milk and raw fish - funny photo advertising healthy natural food for pats

Key Points

  • Your cat's diet influences their health throughout their life.

  • Every cat needs proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and amino acids to thrive.

  • Consider your cat's age when choosing the healthiest food for cats.

  • Talk to your veterinarian about your cat's health sensitivities and if they call for diet changes.

  • Do as much online research as possible about the ingredients in your chosen cat food.

When it comes to your feline friend's well-being, choosing the best food for cats is of utmost importance. A balanced and nutritious diet plays a vital role in maintaining their overall health and longevity.

Every ingredient in your cat's wet or dry food influences the way their body functions, their hydration level, and how much energy they have throughout the day.

Some ingredients, such as artificial colors and preservatives, have long-lasting negative effects, so it's important to read the label of every cat food you consider.

This article aims to provide you with a comprehensive guide on how to select the best cat food for your furry companion.

cat eating out of bowl

Nutritional Requirements

Cats require a well-balanced diet that includes essential nutrients to support their growth, energy, and overall health. These nutrients include proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.


Proteins are the foundation of a cat's diet. High-quality animal protein sources like chicken, fish, or turkey should be the primary ingredient in their food, ensuring they receive the necessary amino acids for proper growth and maintenance of body tissues.

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat animal protein in order to get vital nutrients. It's of utmost importance to opt for a diet with an appropriate amount of protein, ideally sourced from real meat rather than meat by-products such as hoofs, bones, and skins.


Fats provide a concentrated source of energy for cats and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6, contribute to healthy skin and coat.

These nutrients ensure that their hearts function properly, their joints are well-lubricated, and their natural body aging process slows down. Good sources of fats come from fatty fish varieties such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna or seeds such as flax.


While not a dietary necessity for cats, carbs provide a good source of energy. High-quality cat foods often include carbohydrates in the form of pumpkin, peas, or sweet potatoes in limited quantities.

Try to avoid diets that have a high carb content from sources such as wheat, corn, rice, or pasta, all of which can cause digestive distress in cats.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are required in small amounts to support various bodily functions. Vitamin A supports vision health, while vitamin D aids in calcium absorption for strong bones. Minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium contribute to bone health and muscle function.

Other important nutrients to look for in your cat's diet are:

  • Vitamin B12

  • Folic acid

  • Vitamin C

  • Iron

  • Zinc


This amino acid is extremely important for cats. It's present in most cat food, even the most affordable options.

According to veterinarian Jennifer Coates, DVM, "[T]aurine deficiency was linked to a form of heart disease — dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)." It can also cause central retinal degeneration and, in time, blindness.

If you feed your cat a homemade diet, you may not know how much taurine to put in the recipe. Ask your vet or pet nutritionist for specific instructions as to how much to add to every homemade cat meal.

Breed-Specific Needs

Historically, the breeding of cats and dogs has been based solely on desirable physical features. In the past decades, however, these breeding practices have grown less unethical.

Still, cats have breed-specific dietary needs. If you know that your cat's breed is generally predisposed to developing a specific health condition, keep this in mind when looking for food. Some diets are manufactured to address breed-specific concerns such as skin and coat health.

Understanding the Unique Dietary Requirements for Different Cat Breeds

Certain breeds may have a higher predisposition to health issues such as urinary tract problems or dental concerns. By understanding your cat's breed, you can tailor their diet to address these needs effectively.

Some breeds, such as Birman, Manx, Persian, and Sphinx, are prone to weight gain, so a diet rich in lean proteins and low in carbohydrates helps maintain their optimal weight.

On the other hand, breeds more likely to develop urinary tract pathologies, like the Russian Blue and Himalayan, require a diet with lower mineral content and higher moisture content.

Cat food formulated to maintain lower urinary pH, with ingredients like cranberries that promote urinary health, helps prevent urinary stones or blockages. Other ingredients such as antioxidants support a healthy immune system and contribute to their overall well-being.

Recognizing Breed-Specific Health Concerns and Nutritional Solutions

Some breeds, like British and Exotic Shorthairs, are known to have a higher incidence of dental problems. In this case, pet food with dental-care benefits, such as specially designed kibble shapes that reduce plaque and tartar buildup, can be beneficial.

Including additional nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids in their diet supports their joint health.

Food Sensitivities and Allergies

Like humans, cats can develop allergies or sensitivities to certain ingredients in their diet. With your vet's assistance, you can identify which ingredients in their diet are causing these issues.

The Most Common Food Sensitivities and Allergies in Cats

Most cats are sensitive or allergic to wheat or corn, certain proteins like chicken, or additives such as artificial colors or preservatives. Identifying these allergens helps you eliminate them from their diet effectively.

On July 21, 2023, Petco published a guide on how to treat a cat's allergies, tackling everything from seasonal allergy symptoms to relief options.

Some of the most noticeable signs of allergies and food sensitivities are:

  • Excessive scratching

  • Rashes

  • Swelling of the face

  • Hair loss (alopecia)

  • Vomiting or diarrhea

  • Appetite changes

It's essential to consult with your veterinarian to determine the specific allergen and modify your cat's diet accordingly. Choosing food and treats for cats with dietary restrictions and allergies is essential for preventing these symptoms.

Choosing Appropriate Cat Food to Address These Sensitivities and Allergies

If your cat has a grain sensitivity, selecting a grain-free cat food can alleviate their discomfort. Opt for novel protein sources like duck or venison if your cat is allergic to common proteins like chicken.

By reading ingredient labels carefully and avoiding additives, you'll find a cat diet that meets their nutritional needs without triggering allergies.

For severe food allergies, your veterinarian may recommend a hypoallergenic or prescription diet that includes hydrolyzed proteins or limited ingredient formulas. These specialized diets are carefully formulated to minimize the risk of triggering an allergic reaction.

Life Stage Considerations

Cats go through various life stages, each with distinct nutritional requirements. Kittens, adult cats, and senior cats have specific needs that must be met for proper growth, development, and overall health.

Kitten Diet

During the kitten stage, proper nutrition is crucial for their rapid growth and development. Their diet should provide essential nutrients like high-quality proteins and healthy fats to support their energy requirements and promote the development of strong muscles and bones.

A kitten's caloric intake is also different compared to that of adults and seniors. They need about 60 calories per pound of body weight split into multiple meals throughout the day.

Adult Diet

Adult cats have different nutritional needs compared to kittens. Their diet should focus on weight maintenance, promoting optimal organ function, and supporting overall well-being. Providing a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and essential nutrients is paramount. Adult cats' daily caloric necessity is approximately 250 calories split into two main meals (breakfast and dinner).

Keep in mind that most kittens become adults around the age of six to 12 months. However, there are a few exceptions, such as the Norwegian Forest Cat or the Maine Coon, both of which become adults at around 18 months of age.

Senior Cat Diet

While there are different opinions among vets as to when cats become seniors (some say at seven years old while others say at 10 years old), an older cat's diet should look dramatically different from that of an adult or kitten.

When cats reach the age of 10, they need more calories. However, they require diets formulated to prevent weight gain while still providing adequate nutrients for their aging bodies. Ensure your senior cat's diet contains high-quality ingredients and a lower mineral content (particularly sodium and phosphorus).

Most geriatric cats are likely to develop some type of lower or upper urinary tract disease. Kidney failure is not treatable, although some pets can live for years after the diagnosis. That's why sodium and phosphorus levels should be kept low while moisture levels kept high. Feed your senior cat wet food to ensure proper hydration.

Additionally, ingredients like joint-supporting compounds and antioxidants promote mobility and a better immune response in older cats.

Quality Ingredients

High-quality cat food should contain ingredients that promote optimal health and well-being. Look for cat foods that feature real meat or protein sources as the primary ingredient. Meat meals or named meats like "chicken meal" are nutrient-dense and provide a concentrated source of protein.

Low-Quality or Potentially Harmful Ingredients in Cat Food

Avoid cat foods that contain artificial additives such as colors, flavors, or preservatives. These additives are unnecessary and potentially cause adverse reactions in sensitive cats.

Furthermore, ingredients like soy, corn, or wheat serve as common fillers and are not as nutritionally beneficial as high-quality protein sources or whole grains.

Good Fiber vs. Bad Fiber

Whole grains or alternative carbohydrate sources like brown rice or sweet potatoes provide your cat with the necessary amount of energy and fiber.

Other healthy sources include:

  • Cooked carrots

  • Green beans

  • Broccoli and greens such as spinach (not recommended for cats with any urinary conditions)

  • Lettuce

  • Pumpkin

These carbohydrates should be present in appropriate amounts to support digestion and overall health.

Evaluating Cat Food Labels to Ensure Proper Nutritional Content

When examining cat food labels, pay attention to the ingredient list and the guaranteed analysis.

The ingredient list should feature high-quality protein sources as the primary ingredient. Avoid cat foods that contain fillers, by-products, or artificial additives. For example, Red #40 is a common artificial color used in commercial pet foods which has been found to cause allergies in both dogs and cats. It has potential carcinogenic effects when cats are exposed to it in the long run.

Guaranteed analysis provides information about the essential nutrient content in the cat food. Ensure that the levels of protein, fat, and other nutrients align with the appropriate requirements for your cat's life stage. Strive for cat food that meets the guidelines set by respected veterinary organizations.

If your pet has a specific sensitivity, consider consulting a veterinary nutritionist who may be able to offer more targeted dietary assistance than your regular veterinarian.

Wet vs. Dry Cat Food

There are both pros and cons to choosing either wet or dry cat food, but your primary goal should be your cat's health. Choose a diet based on your vet's recommendations and your schedule.

Understanding the Benefits and Drawbacks of Wet Cat Food

Wet cat food has a higher moisture content, which can contribute to optimal hydration, especially for cats who don't drink enough water. Additionally, it's often more palatable and comes in a variety of flavors, textures, and formulas.

However, wet cat food is more expensive and has a shorter shelf life once opened. It may require refrigeration and is less convenient to serve compared to dry cat food.

There's a simple solution to this problem. Open the can or pouches, divide the food into portions, and store it in the freezer in very small sandwich bags or Tupperware containers. Thaw each portion in the microwave before feeding your cat.

Examining the Advantages and Disadvantages of Dry Cat Food

Dry cat food is more convenient to store and serve. It promotes dental health, as the crunchiness reduces plaque and tartar buildup. Additionally, it's usually more cost-effective than wet cat food.

However, dry cat food has a lower moisture content, which can lead to dehydration if cats don't drink enough water. Some cats may also have difficulty chewing the hard kibble.

Cats with urinary pathologies and seniors should not eat kibble. If you're regularly away from home for multiple hours, choose a variety with higher moisture content and use a cat bowl with an automatic feeder that disperses small portions throughout the day.

cat eating out of dish

Always Stay Informed

At the end of the day, choosing the right cat food is essential for maintaining your feline companion's health and well-being. By understanding breed-specific needs, considering food sensitivities, and catering to their life stage requirements, you provide them with a balanced and nutritious diet.

Evaluating the nutritional content and ingredient quality ensures your cat receives the necessary nutrients to thrive. Remember to consult with your veterinarian for personalized dietary recommendations based on your cat's specific requirements.

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