Cat Food Ingredients: What Should Go Into Your Cat's Food?

Providing your cat with a nutritious diet is essential to her health and quality of life. The best way to keep her healthy is to educate yourself about the best cat food ingredients and how they benefit your furry friend.

Cat food labels will tell you which ingredients are in the can or bag, but they won't tell you how and why those particular components are good for your kitty, so it's important to be informed before you start filling up your shopping cart. Each cat food brand also has its own idea of what your pet should be eating, and not all of them are in agreement. The Hill's nutritional philosophy is built upon a foundation of high-quality ingredients, research and innovation that "proves it's the proper balance of essential nutrients supplied by those ingredients that is the key to optimal health for pets." Every cat food Hill's® formulates starts with a scientific foundation. Research into the biology of cats helps us understand how every ingredient works with your cat to help bring her the optimal nutrition. Additionally, the best cat food ingredients are the ones that fulfill your kitty's nutritional requirements, but tastes great too.

Reading Labels

Pet food labels must follow guidelines set forth by the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA-CVM), and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an entity that defines and regulates the ingredients for all commercially sold pet foods. FDA-CVM and AAFCO requirements are very specific, down to how each ingredient must be identified and in which order. Items in pet food must be listed in descending order according to their weight (meat is measured at precooked weight).

For example, a common misconception is that cat and dog food contains poor-quality animal by-products. AAFCO defines the word "meat" as pertains to pet foods down to the part of an animal it can and can't come from, and explains how that meat must be prepared. It also requires companies to list which ingredients (such as ascorbic acid, a vitamin) are included as additives to balance the cat food nutrition.

AAFCO has also established what it calls "the 95 percent rule:" Any pet food with a name that implies it contains mainly one ingredient must contain 95 percent of that ingredient by weight, not including added water (or 70 percent if accounting for added water).

Cat Food Ingredients and Their Benefits

The most important nutrients found in ingredients to look for when choosing the best cat food are protein, fat and carbohydrates, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center, part of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. Cats' meals should meet these basic requirements for these nutrients. As an obligate carnivore (that is, cats are biologically wired to require meat for survival), your kitty needs these ingredients to maintain optimal health. However, obligate carnivore doesn't mean she can't benefit from other sources such as vegetables, fruits and grains in addition to the meat within her food. The type of meat your cat scarfs down also isn't as important as the protein it provides. Your cat can't read, so the chicken, beef, salmon, tuna and even less common meats like duck and rabbit in her food are all marketed to you. Healthy protein can also come from other sources like eggs and pea protein.

Certain vitamins and minerals are vital to a cat's well-being, reports VetInfo, including calcium, vitamin A, iron, magnesium and sodium. Cat food ingredients you'll find in kitten-specific formulas include DHA (a fatty acid that aids brain and eye development), taurine (an amino acid that cats need at all life stages), and folic acid (for cell growth), all of which are necessary for your kitty as she grows up.

Striped cat eating wet cat food out of food dish

In the wild, cats obtain the nutrients they need by eating the entirety of their prey — bones and all (as shown by your shredded toy mice, your little furball is a fierce hunter on the inside.) With domesticated cats, it's up to pet parents to provide a meal with the right ingredients.

Necessary vs. Unnecessary Ingredients

When searching for the best cat food ingredients for your fur baby, look for a food that provides just what your cat needs without any unnecessary additives.

Ingredients such as meat, vegetables and grains are great starters for a nutritious meal for your cat, but before you cook up a nice stir-fry for kitty, consider Cornell's recommendation to buy rather than make your own cat food. Developing a recipe that provides the right balance of nutrients is extremely difficult. Instead, you and your veterinarian can work together to decide which cat food will give your cat the nutrition she needs and the flavor she enjoys. This is why Hill's employs over 220 veterinarian and pet nutrition specialists to make sure that our cat foods provide the right balance of ingredients for your cat's life stage and life style.

According to AAFCO guidelines, "natural" ingredients are those "not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices." When looking for the best cat food ingredients, natural foods such as those found in Hill's® Ideal BalanceTM cat foods, include important proteins like chicken, vegetables and grains for vitamins and minerals and eggs for amino acids. While natural ingredients sound like the best option for your cat, remember that added elements such as antioxidants and additional vitamins that don't necessarily occur naturally in some cat food ingredients may be added to your cat's food to provide her with additional health benefits. So, look for cat food that contains the proper balance of nutrients your cat needs for health, not just natural ingredients.

Some ingredients, says AAFCO, including spices and extracts like ginger, chamomile, rosemary and fennel, primarily are included for flavor and not nutrition; therefore, they are not considered requirements for a balanced cat food. The Food and Drug Administration regularly reevalautes what ingredients are harmful to cats, such as propylene glycol, a synthetic food additive that was banned from being used in cat food in 2017.

While perusing cat food labels, you'll also come across long-winded terms that are not immediately decipherable: butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or mixed tocopherols (BHT). These are chemical and natural preservatives that keep the food fresh. The Daily Cat points out that mixed tocopherols act as an antioxidant and are a derivative of vitamin E. Other additives provide amino acids: L-lysine, L-threonine, DL-tryptophan, to name a few. Under AAFCO, they must be included in the list of cat food ingredients, and there are regulations as to the allowable amount that is included.

Wet Food vs. Dry Food

Another question in the search for the best cat food ingredients is whether you should buy wet food, dry food or both. Both types are nutritionally complete, meaning that neither one is better than the other in terms of nutritional requirements. In the wet food or dry food debate, there are pros and cons to each choice.

Two cats eat food off a white plate at the same time.Canned food is great for portion control and contains more water, which helps cats — especially those who are ill — stay hydrated. But, it also can be more expensive and messier, and, because cans with leftover food have to be refrigerated after opening, your cat might snub the cold food. You can heat leftovers in a microwave, but make sure that it's cool enough to eat before serving.

Dry food is a good option because it can be stored for quite some time properly sealed within the bag, so you can buy in bulk, making it more cost-effective. However, it is important to note that even dry cat food has an expiration date, so make sure you are only feeding your cat food that is still within the acceptable freshness range.

Cats are well-known for being picky eaters, so your choice might depend upon the type yours chooses. Experiment with wet and dry types, especially with a kitten. You even can add a bit of water to a dry food to make it more palatable for baby kitties, but don't add milk because dairy can upset their digestive system.

Researching Cat Food Ingredients

There is no doubt that if you are researching cat food ingredients, then you want to provide the best care for your cat. An educated cat parent is a better cat parent for it. In your research, you will likely come across a host of different nutritional philosophies (much like you will for your own nutrition), and you will also likely encounter a number of sites that provide you with unsubstantiated claims based on personal bias. It's important to not fall victim to these opinions because you can put your cat's health at risk just trying to follow what you read on the Internet. This can be true of friends and family — while their advice is no doubt given with the best intentions every cat situation is a little bit different, and therefore should be treated as such. Talk to your veterinarian about your concerns about certain cat food ingredients and whether or not the claims are true or false. They are truly the best, and most educated, source of information you can get when it comes to choosing a healthy cat food with proper ingredients.

If you are interested in changing your cat's meals in a significant way, we recommend speaking with your veterinarian first. Self-treating based on ingredient profiles could be problematic, especially if you're considering eliminating an ingredient. For instance, as noted above, cats require meat for proper nutrition, so a vegan or vegetarian meal plan is not a healthy choice.

Work closely with your vet to determine the best cat food ingredients, and you'll find the nutritionally balanced option that's right for your feline friend.

Contributor Bio

Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.

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