Resource Center Menu

How to Choose a Quality Cat Food

In addition to providing mental and physical stimulation—and all the love and cuddles possible—the food we feed our cats is of utmost importance to their health and well-being. The options can be overwhelming for experienced cat parents as well as first-timers. That’s why it’s important to understand what makes  a high-quality cat food as well as what you should avoid.

What is high-quality cat food?

Cat food options vary in terms of ingredient quality, overall formula and nutritional value. A high-quality cat food typically has elevated standards when it comes to each of these variables. This includes ensuring the food is complete and balanced by offering the correct nutrients in the recommended amounts and that the ingredients are easily digestible to maximize nutrient absorption.

Keep in mind that no matter what you choose to feed your cat, their overall nutritional needs are based on factors specific to them, including  their age, activity level and environment. If you have specific questions about what kind of food you should be feeding your cat, consult your veterinarian.

What to look for in a cat food

Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need to eat meat to stay healthy. In general, a high-quality cat food should contain:

  • Protein, the bulk of which should come from a meat, fish or poultry source.
  • Taurine, an essential amino acid found in animal-based proteins that cats cannot produce on their own. It’s critical for vision, digestion and heart function.
  • Additional vitamins, minerals, enzymes and fatty acids.
  • cat eating food from silver bowl

Some lower-quality cat foods use filler ingredients that help a cat feel full but don’t add  nutritional value. As you read cat food ingredient lists, keep in mind that at least three or four of the first six ingredients listed should be meat.

Artificial colors, flavors and preservatives* add no value to cat food and may in fact be harmful, which is why Petco no longer stocks dog or cat food or treats that contain them.

How to read cat food labels

You can tell a lot about your cat’s food by reading—and understanding—what’s on the label, particularly the ingredient list. All ingredients are listed in the order of their percentage by weight from highest to lowest.

Also pay attention to how ingredients appear in the food name itself. Deciphering labels is easiest among pet foods that follow Association of American Food Control Officials (AAFCO) labeling guidelines. These guidelines include:

  • The 100% rule: For a cat food to meet this rule, the ingredient called out in its  name must make up 100% of the food, minus water and other trace amounts of preservatives. This is commonly represented with the phrase “all,” as in All Chicken Cat Treats. Keep in mind that cats require a number of ingredients for optimal health, so while an “all” product might be fine for an occasional treat, it shouldn’t be your cat’s main food source.
  • The 95% rule: Under this label, the named ingredient (of animal origin) must make up 95% of the product, not counting the water added for processing. If more than one item is named, then the combination must total 95%, with the first ingredient making up a higher percentage than the next. Example: Chicken for Cats or Chicken ‘n Liver Cat Food.
  • The 25% or dinner rule: Under this guideline, the named ingredient must make up 25% of the product, excluding water added for processing. Words like platter, entrée, nuggets and formula may also be used. If more than one ingredient is named, then the combination of those ingredients must total at least 25% of the product, and those ingredients must be listed in the same order as they are on the ingredient list. Each of those ingredients would also need to make up at least 3% of the total product. For example: Chicken Dinner for Cats or Chicken Formula Cat Food.
  • The 3%, or with, rule: At least 3% of the product must be the named ingredient. This label can be confused with the 95% rule label. Remember that, Chicken Cat Food will contain at least 95% chicken, while Cat Food with Chicken might only contain 3% chicken.
  • The flavor rule: This rule doesn’t have a specific percentage requirement for the ingredient in its name. All that’s necessary is that the ingredient be detectable. Keep in mind that the flavor may or may not come from the named ingredient itself but rather from a substance that imparts the flavor of that ingredient. Example: Turkey-Flavored Cat Food.
cat eating applaws cat food

Additional cat food label considerations

Besides simply listing the ingredients in your cat’s food, you’re likely to come across additional qualifiers like natural, gourmet and organic. Here’s what the AAFCO has to say about each of these:

  • Natural: These foods cannot contain any chemically synthesized ingredients, except for vitamins or minerals and whatever might occur naturally during the manufacturing process.
  • Gourmet: There is no specific standard for using the word gourmet in pet food, but it might contain higher-quality ingredients. You’ll have to read the individual ingredient list for information.
  • Organic: Organic products do need to meet certain stringent requirements, which you can find here.

Cat foods also have a nutritional adequacy statement listed in small print on the back of the label, and it’s important to pay attention to it. This nutritional statement helps identify the type of pet that that particular food recipe is intended for. For example, a “complete and balanced” label means that the food has been shown to provide the required nutrients in the necessary ratios for your pet’s needs, while the “life stage” label means that the food provides the appropriate nutrients for a pet who falls into a particular AAFCO-recognized life stage, which includes all life stages, maintenance and growth, and reproduction.

What to avoid in cat food

Understanding how ingredients are listed on cat food labels is important, but so is knowing what to avoid. For example:

  • Preservatives: Natural preservatives like vitamin C, vitamin E and the oils from certain spices are preferred to chemical preservatives like BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin, which should be avoided.
  • Artificial flavors: Artificial flavors, when chemically derived, can be harmful to your pet when ingested. Instead of chemicals, look for natural substances used to impart flavor like spices, fruit or fruit juice, vegetables, plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products or fermentation products.
  • Artificial dyes: Some companies add artificial dyes to their products to make them more visually attractive to pet parents. They do not add nutritional value.

A lot of factors go into deciding which cat food is the best for your particular pet, but a little knowledge goes a long way. When you’re ready—or when you simply need more information—Petco has high-quality options to help keep your cat healthy and happy for years to come.

*See how Petco defines artificial ingredients

Download cat food information as a PDF