When walking through the cat food aisle at your local grocery store, it may seem like one cat food is the same as any other. There are differences in packaging from one brand to another. But, if you were to open up any two bags, the product inside would look pretty similar.
If you take a closer look at the product names, however, you’ll start to notice keywords like “natural,” “holistic,” and “grain-free.”
Claims like these are common on pet food labels but they can be a little misleading for pet owners.
When you see a product labeled “natural,” for example, you might wonder whether other brands are somehow not natural. When you see “grain-free” on the label, you may wonder whether a product that contains grains is somehow worse.
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not a simple “yes” or “no.”
The Truth About Grain-Free Cat Food (Explained by a Vet)
The popularity of grain-free diets for pets has skyrocketed in recent years. However, there’s a great deal of misinformation out there about what “grain-free” really means and whether grain-free diets are any better or worse for your cat. You may also be aware of FDA reports linking grain-free diets to an increased risk of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a form of heart disease, in dogs.
In this article, we’ll explore the subject of grain-free diets to learn what they are and whether they’re good for your cat. You’ll also see our recommendations for the top 11 grain-free cat foods, wet and dry.
In addition to performing our own qualitative analysis of the brands reviewed here, we submitted samples for analysis at an ISO 17025 certified food testing and analysis lab.
We bought the products at full retail price, and the entire testing process was funded by Cats.com without direct input or influence from the companies involved.
Analytical testing in a food chemistry lab gives us the exact macronutrient and micronutrient content of each recipe. The tests also look at microbial content, yeast, mold, and heavy metals, helping you ensure that you’re only putting the best in your cat’s bowl.
At A Glance: Best Grain-Free Wet Cat Foods To Buy
Want a quick look at the products reviewed in this article? In the comparison table below, we’ve highlighted some of the most important features of each product. You’ll find more detailed information about each product later in the article.
- Made with real animal protein as main ingredients
- Nutritionally balanced for adult cats
- Packed with moisture and low in carbohydrates
- Rich in animal-based protein and moisture
- Made with all-natural ingredients
- Packed with healthy omega fatty acids
- High protein content, low in fat and carbohydrates
- Real chicken flavor picky cats find appealing
- Recommended for cats with kidney disease
At A Glance: Best Grain-Free Dry Cat Foods To Buy
Looking for grain-free cat food but prefer dry food over wet food? Here are our top six picks. In the comparison table below, we’ve highlighted some of the most important features of each product. You’ll find more detailed information about each product later in the article.
- Relatively high in protein for a dry food
- One of the most economical cat food brands
- Guaranteed levels of probiotics for digestive support
- Rich in animal-based protein
- Highly digestible natural ingredients
- Free from grains, fillers, and artificial additives
Is Grain-Free Cat Food A Good Choice?
Before getting into the details of whether grain-free cat food is a good choice for cats, let’s take a moment to explore what grain-free diets are.
As the name suggests, a grain-free diet is one that doesn’t include any grains. That means no wheat, barley, rye, rice, corn, or oatmeal. The thing you need to realize about grain-free diets is that they are not necessarily carbohydrate-free.
In fact, some grain-free diets are higher in carbohydrates than similar products.
When a pet food manufacturer removes grains from a product, they often replace it with another carbohydrate like potato, lentils, peas, or tapioca. In many cases, grain-free products are loaded with high-glycemic carbs that can cause your cat’s blood sugar to spike. This can be particularly problematic in cats with feline diabetes.
Regardless of what kind of carbohydrates the recipe contains, remember that cats are obligate carnivores and have no biological requirement for carbohydrates in their diet.
Your cat is an obligate carnivore, which means he’s evolved to follow a primarily meat-based diet. The majority of his nutrition needs must come from animal sources, not plants. Whether you’re considering a grain-free or grain-inclusive diet, it’s important to determine the total carbohydrate content.
Unfortunately, this can be a little tricky because pet food manufacturers don’t list the carb content of their foods. You can, however, estimate the carb content of a cat food recipe using the information provided in the Guaranteed Analysis that’s on the cat food label.
To estimate the carb content of a cat food recipe, add up the values for Crude Protein, Crude Fat, Crude Fiber, and Moisture. You’ll also need to add the Ash content, if listed. If it isn’t listed, you can estimate about 7% for dry food and 3% for wet food. Add up these five percentages and subtract from 100% – that will give you the estimated carb content of the recipe.
Ideally, you want the carb content to be close to zero, but we’re generally happy with commercial diets that contain less than 10% estimated carbohydrate.
So, as long as a grain-free cat food is primarily meat-based and provides for your cat’s nutritional needs, there’s no reason not to choose it. You should always be checking the list of ingredients for red flags and do a quick calculation on estimated carbs to determine whether a product is worth considering.
Controversy And Misconceptions Surrounding Grain-Free Cat Food
Though there’s theoretically nothing wrong with grain-free cat food as long as it provides for your cat’s nutritional needs, there’s still a great deal of controversy and misinformation surrounding the issue.
Until recently, grain-free diets were primarily found in veterinary offices and marketed as specialty diets for cats with food allergies and certain health problems. During the early 2000s, low-carb and gluten-free diet fads became popular and, along with them, a rise in the popularity of grain-free diets for pets.
The million-dollar question is this: do cats need grain-free food? No.
It may be true that you won’t find a lion munching on grains in the wild, but grains can be used as a natural source of vitamins, minerals, and energy in a nutritionally-balanced commercial cat food recipe. As long as the recipe meets your cat’s needs for protein and doesn’t go overboard on carbohydrates, there’s nothing terribly wrong with it.
What About Cats With Food Allergies?
If your cat is allergic to grains, a grain-free diet is certainly a better choice than the alternative. That being said, food allergies are rarer in pets than the general public seems to believe. Also, grain allergies are less common than allergies to animal proteins like chicken, beef, and fish.
Common symptoms of food allergies in cats include itchy skin, hair loss, and digestive issues. If your cat is exhibiting these symptoms, talk to your veterinarian and consider an elimination diet using a limited ingredient or single-source novel protein recipe.
Do Grain-Free Diets Cause Heart Disease?
In July of 2018, the FDA announced the launch of an investigation into reports of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in pets following grain-free diets. It’s worth noting, however, that the diets in question contained a high proportion of peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes. As a group, these are referred to as ‘BEG’ diets: boutique, exotic, or grain-free.
DCM is uncommon in dogs overall, but large-breed dogs have an increased risk of developing the condition. DCM is fairly rare in cats.
The concern is that the FDA received a significant number of reports of DCM for dog breeds that weren’t previously known to possess a genetic predisposition for the disease. In response to customer complaints, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine collaborated with the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network to investigate the claims.
The FDA issued several updates over the course of the next two years, but no definitive link between grain-free diets and DCM in dogs could be identified.
In September 2020, the FDA issued another update regarding a study involving 150 dogs diagnosed with DCM in an attempt to identify potential causative factors. The results showed that DCM is a complex issue with multiple potential variables, including breed, age, weight, and more. Dietary changes were not judged responsible for dogs that experienced full or partial recovery.
In other words, the analysis revealed no definitive relationship between grain-free and legume-rich diets and the incidence of DCM.
What About Taurine Deficiency?
Taurine is an essential amino acid. Deficiency in this nutrient is a well-documented potential cause for DCM. In conducting their analysis, the FDA tested for taurine deficiency, but the majority of dogs diagnosed with DCM in relationship with grain-free diets were not found to be deficient.
Furthermore, taurine is derived from animal sources and not grains, so the concern that grain-free diets might contribute to taurine deficiency is unfounded.
Ultimately, when it comes to the subject of grain-free diets for cats, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
It’s important to remember that grain-free diets are primarily a marketing tool used by pet food manufacturers – the incidence of grain allergies in cats is actually fairly low. Though cats require animal-based sources for the majority of their nutrition, they have some ability to metabolize high-quality carbohydrates like whole grains and vegetables.
Remember as well that many grain-free diets are actually higher in carbohydrates than their grain-inclusive counterparts.