Choosing The Right Food For Your Cat – Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, the different types and market segments of cat food were identified. The best food for your cat was defined as a food that best mimics their natural prey in its composition. This means a minimally processed food already containing the moisture your cat needs, made with ingredients appropriate for an obligate carnivore in the right mix of protein (high), fat (moderate), and carbohydrates (low). This typically means a raw, homemade, or canned food with a shortlist of ingredients that don't contain grain and few (or no) starches, where meat provides the protein.

Comparison of Commercial Cat Foods

When comparing cat foods, it will help to know the composition of a cat’s natural diet. Thanks to recent studies, we know that diet has an approximate 72 – 78 percent moisture content: the macronutrient contents (protein, fat, carbohydrates) on a dry matter basis are 63 percent protein, 23 percent fat, and 2.8 percent carbohydrates.

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Dry Food

Canned Food

Raw Food

Moisture Content

6% - 10%

65% - 75%

70% -75%

Carbohydrate Content

20% - 40%

15% - 30%

Less than 5%

Easy to serve




Long “shelf” life


Yes, when unopened



Extremely processed

Highly processed

Minimally processed

Dry Food

This food comes in the form of kibbles in various shapes, colors, and flavors. Dry food Ingredients cost less than other forms of cat foods, so almost all dry foods are cheaper than other food options. Dry food has the following characteristics:

  • Extremely high heat processed
  • Typically made from dried rendered ingredients which are themselves extremely high-heat processed;
  • Requires some form of filler to hold it together, usually resulting in a high carbohydrate content
  • More likely than other forms of food to contain non-meat sources of protein
  • Often uses more fillers than other forms of cat food (combined with the typically higher carbohydrate content results in bulkier stools)
  • Addictive - It is sprayed with “palatability” enhancers (fats) that often make it very addictive to cats (If for medical or health reasons you decide to switch to another form of food, it can be difficult to transition a dry food-addicted cat.)
  • Dehydrating - Cats did not evolve with a “thirst drive.” It can be difficult to encourage your cat to drink enough water. It is now well known that cats that do not consume an ample amount of water may develop urinary health problems. Chronic dehydration is associated with the development of kidney disease, the leading cause of death in cats; it is also associated with the development of megacolon. Mild chronic dehydration has been shown to reduce energy and speed up the aging process.

What is an “ample” amount of water? The majority of dry foods recommend feeding an amount that weighs between 2 and 3 ounces daily. Thus a cat eating dry food would need to drink up to 8 ounces of water (one cup) each day to equal the moisture content of a cat eating canned food.

Dry food will provide your cat with the nutrition she needs, and if that’s what you can afford, please see Tips to Increase Your Cat’s Water Intake. But dry food is not the optimum choice for your cat’s health. For those that have trouble affording inexpensive canned foods, dry food can be used as a supplement to a wet food diet to lower cost. But above all, feeding a dry food-only diet is a choice to meet either our budget or our lifestyle.

For more information on dry food, check out this post: Does Dry Food Actually Clean Your Cat’s Teeth?

Canned or Pouch Wet Food

This type is processed moist food that comes in a great variety of flavors, textures, and shapes. Whether pate-style, chunks and gravy, stew or shredded, wet cat foods are typically about 70 percent moisture. Pate style foods usually contain lower levels of carbohydrates than foods with gravies.

Advantages of Wet Food

  • Wet food is only “cooked” once, so is subject to less heat and processing than kibble, thus it retains more of its natural nutrition.
  • No starches or fillers are required as binders, so wet foods usually do not contain the same high level of carbohydrates found in most dry cat food.
  • Canned foods typically do not include rendered products (other than fat in some instances), so they often include higher quality ingredients than dry.
  • The high water content means your cat has a greater intake of water; this helps prevent bladder and urinary tract problems. (Just as it is recommended that people drink plenty of water to “lubricate” their entire systems, cats need plenty of water to keep all of their organs working properly).

Disadvantages of Wet Food

  • Once you open the can, the food must be refrigerated or removed from the can and frozen to keep it fresh.
  • If you leave it outside for more than half an hour (time may vary according to room temperature), it might go bad and give your cat an upset tummy instead of a good meal.
  • Because the cost of the food includes the water content, it costs more to feed wet food than most dry foods.

Tip: A simple way to warm up refrigerated wet food is to mix in some hot water and stir well. Some cats do not like refrigerated left-overs, even if warmed. Canned leftovers can be frozen in meal-sized portions: the food remains fresh, and can quickly be brought to room temperature by placing the frozen bag in lukewarm water prior to feeding.

Commercial Frozen & Freeze-Dried Raw

Take it as it sounds: minimally processed cat food fed uncooked, just as cats would not cook prey caught in the wild. Raw food comes in a variety of packaging options: tubs, sausage-like tubes called “chubs,” patties, medallions, and nuggets. Some include fresh ground bone; others use bone meal or an alternate source of calcium. Some are treated with High-Pressure Processing to kill pathogenic bacteria. If frozen, it needs to be thawed prior to feeding. If freeze-dried, just add water and serve!

As with other commercial cat food options, it comes in a variety of proteins. Many are complete and balanced; some are intended to be used in rotation or as supplemental feeding.

Advantages of Raw Food

  • Minimally processed
  • Provides nutrients in a more natural form and from a more natural source
  • Highly bioavailable. Raw feeders report greatly reduced stool volume and odor
  • Raw feeders report that cats eat less when on a raw diet. The quantity of food needed ranges from 10% - 30% less than when feeding canned.
  • Raw food if purchased without shipping can cost less to feed than premium canned foods because of the lower quantity of food required to maintain the kitty’s ideal weight.
  • High moisture content.

Disadvantages of Raw Food

  • Food must be thawed prior to feeding.
  • As with canned, the food should not be left out for the kitty to snack on

Which specific type is better for my cat – standard grocery brand, premium, super-premium: natural, holistic, or “human grade”?

In the U.S. to date, there are no formal regulations that define objective criteria for different market segments of cat food other than “organic.” All terms other than organic are commercial slogans. The terms such as premium, ultra-premium, natural, holistic, or human-grade have no official definition. The exception is organic cat food. Organic products must meet the same USDA regulations as organic human food.

Which age group does my cat belong to - growth, maintenance, or senior?

Research indicates that growing kittens and gestating females have different nutritional needs than adult cats and our senior pets. In the wild, nature does not make “life stage” distinctions. It is possible to formulate a cat food to meet the needs of every “category,” and many cat foods today are manufactured to be appropriate for “All Life Stages.”

On the packages of most cat foods, you can see an indication of the life stage for which the food is intended if not designated for All Life Stages.


Food labeled as "growth" or "kittens" is intended for weaned or semi-weaned kittens in their first year of life. It is also recommended for pregnant and lactating females.


The label "senior" or "mature" indicates food for the older and less active cat. As research discovers more about the special needs of our cats nutritionally, “Senior” diets should be classified as controversial at this point. “Senior” cat foods often target lower protein levels (among other things), which can lead to muscle wasting, a common problem in senior cats.


This cat food is the basic diet for any healthy cat that does not belong to any of the previous categories.

Any special needs I should consider?

Cats with special health problems often need specialty foods. It is best to follow your vet's advice regarding specific health conditions and feed your cat accordingly. Some of these special foods are available only through a veterinary clinic and are not sold in shops. The ingredient lists in many special diet foods leave a lot to be desired: you may want to work with a feline nutritionist to develop a diet specially tailored to your cat’s needs.

For the basics of what's healthy for your cat, review Part 1 of this article.

Written by Laurie Goldstein Laurie Goldstein is a CFA Charterholder. In addition to her work as an equity analyst, she applies her research skill to all things cat, focusing on nutrition and advocacy for feral cat management via trap-neuter-return (TNR) and educational research on cat predation. Learn more about feral cats on her website Stray Pet Advocacy.

Comments? Leave them using the comment section below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!

10 comments on “Choosing The Right Food For Your Cat – Part 2

Cazz4catsbelinda February 24, 2019
This article has answered many of my questions about how best to feed my babies. It was alarming to think that I was feeding my kids fattening and addictive foods. I am very grateful to have read this. It has surely opened my eyes. Luckily my babies are quite young still ranging from 4yrs and 2yrs and 14weeks. I am hoping it is not too late to change their diet to something healthy and lead to a much longer life. Also it has answered some of my concerns including large and smelly bowel motions. I also now know why my kids need to lose weight especially one of my 2yr olds. I wish I had known this earlier and hope its not too late to change her diet, I love my kids more than anything else on this planet. Thankyou for providing this life changing information. Cazz &Kids
akirababe January 23, 2016
I have one thing to add to this that I think should be well noted!  I had a discussion with my brother about cat/dog foods when he was first getting a pet and we did some searching online (of course, I can't find the same info right now, blaming the wee hours) but we found out that the term used alongside the name of the meat included in the food actually has a legal representation of how much of that particular product is included.  For example "Chicken FLAVOURED" represents not more than 5% chicken in the food.  "WITH Chicken" was something like "not more than 40%" .  It was a while back, and I don't remember all the terms and the associated %s, but it was very helpful to know! We also learned that corn is BAD for cats!!!  So if you're looking for a new food for your cat, read the ingredients carefully (especially with dry food; it's NOTORIOUS for fillers, as the article says) and watch for corn!  If you see it in there, put the bag back on the shelf and move along.   Corn has been found to cause digestive disorders, diabetes, hot spots, and more! Never mind that about 90% of American grown corn is GMO!  Also, look for foods where the first ingredient and at least 3 out of the first five are MEAT. Chicken/Liver/Duck/Beef "byproducts" "meal" are okay, but it's better still when there's no suffix/prefix to your meat ingredient :) I tend to spoil my kitties, but I've been on hard times.  If you're shopping at a Walmart for a good dry food, look for "Pure Balance" cat food!  I've personally vetted it (no credentials, but I'm ANAL about my pets, and I do a lot of research!) and it's actually pretty darn decent, and a really great price!  If you're going a bit classier, there's tons of options. I personally (and Whisper, too!) loved getting Blue Wilderness.  It's 100% grain free and comes in some neat off-shoot flavours for kitties with meat allergies. I was feeding my girl the Duck flavoured one and her stinky poops went away fast :P
donna cardinale January 19, 2016
Very informative.  I made cat food from raw beef liver for many years when I lived in Mexico City, and there was no commercial cat food to buy.  I cut the liver into small pieces and froze it in small bags.  It was a very slimy, despicable job, but I did it for years until Friskies canned food finally started to be imported to Mexico.  That cat lived for almost 20 years. Now that I'm back in the good 'ol USA I've generally used a combination of canned and dry.  This current 4 years old cat I have now, Newman, refuses to eat anything except dry food, and drinks a lot of water from a cat fountain.  Sometimes he does eat canned pate, but only for a couple of weeks at a time, and only one flavor.  I offer him raw meat sometimes, or cooked meat or fish, and he refuses it. I've never had a cat like this. I worry about him not getting enough protein.
crica November 25, 2015
raw meat can just as easily have insufficient nutrients as well - be sure to use suppliments in any raw diet 
maureen brad January 16, 2014
Excellent article LDG. Thank you so much!
ldg January 3, 2014
There's a thread discussing this in the forums. I actually give my cats freeze dried meat treats: chicken breast, chicken or beef liver, and sometimes cod or salmon. I also give them a tinned sardine (canned in water with no salt) once a week. Very healthy, lots of omega 3s and vitamin D!
bugs and bear January 3, 2014
Has anyone made treats or food for their cats before? If so is there a recipe you follow or just small raw fish?
ldg January 2, 2014
Thanks for that, Beth. Yes, reading labels is very important if you're going to feed commercial anything! Dr. Pierson has done a lot of the work for us when it comes to canned foods. She contacted all the pet food companies to get the average nutritional content (versus the "guaranteed analysis" provided on the labels), so this list has accurate information on the carb content of canned foods: or the list, directly: To identify low-carb foods, use the center columns that are presented on a dry matter basis (provides the information about food without the water content).
beth laubenthal January 2, 2014
"No starches or fillers are required as binders, so wet foods usually do not contain the same high level of carbohydrates found in most dry cat food."   Doing research, I found some low end cat foods full of fillers such as corn starch, wheat gluten, and soy. Higher end cat foods typically contain ingredients such as apples, potatoes, peas, alfalfa, rice, kelp, and other plant based foods.   Other than that, great article!
gravekandi January 2, 2014
Very imformative as always @ldg

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