high quality cat food

Christina VercellettoFood & Treats / Nutrition

Your Complete Guide to the Best High-Quality Cat Food

We all want our cats to be happy and healthy—that’s a given. Providing them with a nutritious, high-quality cat food is one way to ensure just that. But with so many varieties of high-quality cat food on the market, knowing which one is the right choice for your fur baby can be confusing. What even is “high quality” cat food anyway?

For starters, it has to meet the nutritional standards set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This is essential for any cat food, says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, DVM, Chewy’s resident veterinarian. An easy way to be sure of that is to look on the package for the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement.

High quality food also has high-quality ingredients with nutritional benefits, like:

  • Protein: provides energy and is essential for growth, the transport of nutrients and oxygen delivery
  • Amino acids: build and repair tissues, help maintain healthy skin and coat, support the immune system, and muscle activity, making glucose, as well as transport nutrients and oxygen throughout the body
  • Fatty acids: maintain healthy skin and coat, and are essential for joint health and a healthy immune system
  • Vitamins and minerals: to ensure that the pet's nutrient requirements are met

Depending on the specific brand and ingredients, some may ease health problems (like weight control formulas for paunchy pets), while others—including high-protein diets for active cats—satisfy a particular nutritional need.

To help you figure out the best option for your favorite feline, we’re breaking down the various categories and detailing what you need to know. As with any change in a pet’s diet, be sure to talk to your veterinarian before switching to a high-quality dog food.

What to Consider Before You Buy

Before you start narrowing down the high-quality cat food options, consider these questions to find the perfect pick for your cat.

  • How much time do you have? Scooping kibble takes no time at all. Feeding frozen raw food, on the other hand, takes a bit of planning as it has to be thawed. How much time or planning are you willing to invest?
  • How active is your cat? A super playful, energetic feline may need more protein than laid-back snugglers.
  • Does your pet have any food sensitivities? If your cat has digestive issues, you may want to opt for a food formulated address those issues.
  • How old is your cat? Foods are labeled by the manufacturer to address the nutritional needs of your cat’s stage of life. It’s a good idea to buy a food that is labeled for your cat’s stage of life to make sure their current nutritional needs are met.
  • Does your cat stay entirely indoors, or do they also go outdoors? Indoor cats generally need fewer calories than their outdoorsy brethren, and may need dietary help with hairballs.
  • What is your cat’s weight? Plump kitties may do well on a weight-control food. Being overweight can cause a cascade of health issues.
  • Is your cat spayed or neutered? Intact pets generally need more calories in their diet, while spayed/neutered pets tend to need less, says Dr. Nelson.
  • What are your cat’s preferences? Let’s face it: Cats don’t much care about pleasing us. Knowing what your cat likes in terms of food form and flavors can make switching to a new high-quality food much easier.
  • What does your vet say? Never switch food without touching base with your veterinarian. They can guide you if you’re weighing a few different high-quality cat foods too.

Types of High-Quality Cat Food

With your sweet kitty’s particular needs, your lifestyle and your vet’s recommendations in mind, let’s break down the types of high-quality cat foods.

Dry High-Quality Cat Food

Dry cat food (aka kibble) is a popular choice because it’s convenient to store and can be relatively cost effective. Loaded with cage-free chicken and probiotics, Instinct Original Grain-Free Recipe is a satisfying option for cats in all phases of life. Eating dry food especially designed to remove plaque also may help keep teeth clean, says Dr. Lindsey E. Bullen, DVM, and Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas in Cary, North Carolina.

Perfect for cats who: are healthy and at any age (provided the life stage formula is appropriate), especially those who need a bit of help keeping their teeth clean.

high quality cat food - nulo
Nulo Freestyle Chicken & Cod Grain-Free Dry Cat & Kitten Food
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high quality dry cat food - fussie
Fussie Cat Market Fresh Chicken & Turkey Grain-Free Dry Cat Food
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high quality dry cat food - tiki cat
Tiki Cat Born Carnivore Chicken & Egg Grain-Free Dry Cat Food
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Wet High-Quality Cat Food

Packaged in cans, trays or little tubs, high-quality wet food is a favorite of many cats, thanks to its savory smell and meaty texture. Keep in mind that, unless you buy wet food packaged as single servings, you may need to refrigerate and reheat leftovers. Dr. Bullen says it can be helpful to introduce wet food to cats at a young age to reduce the risk of food-form aversion. “This way, if they need increased water in the future, they’re more likely to accept a canned diet,” says Dr. Bullen. “In particular, geriatric cats often have compromised kidney function, so adding moisture to their diet becomes more important.” Fortified with heart-helping taurine, Weruva Paw Lickin' Chicken is steeped in a savory broth and comes in an easy-open can.

Perfect for cats who: are persnickety eaters, need to up their water intake, or who are too young to easily chew dry food.

high quality wet cat food - instinct
Instinct Original Grain-Free Pate Real Rabbit Recipe Wet Cat Food
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high quality wet cat food - wellness
Wellness CORE Signature Selects Flaked Skipjack Tuna & Wild Salmon
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high quality wet cat food - fussie
Fussie Cat Premium Tuna with Salmon Formula Canned Cat Food
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Freeze Dried & Dehydrated Cat Food

Both freeze dried and dehydrated high quality cat food have had moisture removed, although the method is slightly different. Both are minimally processed options that preserve the nutrients. The main difference is that dehydrated food needs to be mixed with warm water, whereas freeze dried can be fed as is or rehydrated. Stella & Chewy's Chick Chick Chicken Dinner Morsels is a freeze-dried raw option, made with 98-percent cage-free chicken, organs and bone, along with certified organic veggies and fruit.

Perfect for cats who: aren’t dry-food fans, but still enjoy a chewy texture in their food, or who needs extra protein.

freeze dried cat food -feline natural
Feline Natural Chicken & Lamb Feast Freeze-Dried Cat Food
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dehydrated cat food - honest kitchen
The Honest Kitchen Grain-Free Chicken Recipe Dehydrated Cat Food
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high quality cat food - ziwi peak
Ziwi Peak Air-Dried New Zealand Mackerel & Lamb Recipe Cat Food
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Raw Cat Food

It’s pretty much what you think: You’re feeding your cat raw meat, usually along with organ meat and bones, much like what cats eat in the wild. Fans say raw diets improve digestion, fight obesity and improve the condition of a cat’s skin and coat, among other benefits. Not sure about going all raw? Instinct Raw Boost Mixers make it easy to start slowly. Just top your cat’s food with a few of these protein-rich morsels. Other raw food options include dry food infused with bits of raw protein, raw freeze-dried and raw frozen. Just remember to be careful to avoid cross contamination as you would if you were handling raw meat for your own dinner.

Perfect for cats who: have parents who think the potential benefits are worth the extra effort involved in feeding a raw diet.

Advantus Soft Chew Flea Treatment
Instinct Raw Boost Mixers Digestive Health Cat Food Topper
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raw cat food - Stella & Chewy's
Stella & Chewy's Freeze-Dried Raw Tummy Ticklin' Turkey
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raw cat food - instinct raw boost
Instinct Raw Boost with Real Chicken & Freeze-Dried Raw Coated Pieces
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Organic Cat Food

Certified organic cat food must be made with 95 percent organic ingredients. Look for a “USDA Organic” seal on the package, like the one on Castor & Pollux’s Organix Grain-Free Chicken & Sweet Potatoe Recipe. Free-range chicken, sweet potatoes, and omega-3 fatty acids make it a delicious and cat-strengthening option. The bottom line with organic food? “Organic food can be poor quality, just like non-organic food can be great quality. You are paying for the extra work of producing and raising the ingredients in a certain way,” Dr. Bullen says.

Perfect for cats who:
have parents who think the potential benefits are worth the extra cost involved in feeding an organic diet.

organic cat food - castor and pollux
Castor & Pollux Organix Organic Chicken & Chicken Liver Recipe
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organic cat food - gather
Gather Free Acres Organic Free-Run Chicken Dry Cat Food
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organic cat food - purpose
Purpose Carnivore Chicken Freeze-Dried Raw Food for Cats
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Grain-Free Cat Food

Grain-free pet food has gotten a lot of buzz in recent years. It’s formulated without ingredients like rice, corn or wheat, which are common food allergens for cats. Not surprisingly, cats who are experiencing food allergies or sensitivities are prime candidates for a grain-free diet. Made with free-range chicken, The Honest Kitchen Grain-Free Chicken Recipe is a complete and balanced dehydrated recipe that has no by-products or GMOs. Read more about grain-free cat food here.

Perfect for cats who: show signs, such as itching, fur loss, and skin irritation, of being allergic to food containing grains.

grain free cat food - instinct
Instinct Raw Boost Mixers Digestive Health Cat Food Topper
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grain free cat food - primal
Primal Freeze-Dried Grain-Free Nuggets Chicken & Salmon Formula
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grain free cat food - stella & chewy's
Stella & Chewy's Yummy Lickin' Salmon & Chicken Dinner Morsels
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Limited Ingredient Diet Cat Food

The logic behind short ingredient lists is to reduce the possibility of a cat’s exposure to food allergens. "Limited" is a relative term. Some foods may simply have fewer ingredients than the brand’s other foods. Sometimes, it’s made with ingredients that a cat would have been unlikely to have been exposed to enough to have developed an allergy to it, like goose. For example, Stella & Chewy's Duck Duck Goose Dinner Morsels are 98 percent duck, goose, organs and bone. “Keep in mind that long, chemical-sounding names on ingredient lists are usually vitamins and minerals,” says Dr. Joe Bartges, DVM and Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist at the College of Veterinary Medicine at The University of Georgia in Athens.

Perfect for cats who: don’t enjoy traditional foods, either due to food sensitivities, being hard to please, or both.

high quality cat food - LID - Ziwi peaks
Ziwi Peak New Zealand Mackerel & Lamb Recipe Canned Cat Food
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high quality LID cat food - vital essentials
Vital Essentials VitalCat Freeze-Dried Chicken Entree
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high quality cat food - limited ingredient - lotus cat
Lotus Just Juicy Venison Stew Grain-Free Canned Cat Food
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High Protein Diet

Being obligate carnivores, our feline friends need protein from meat to thrive. As Dr. Nelson explained above, protein provides energy and is essential or growth. Adult cat food must have a minimum of 26 percent protein on a dry matter basis (a means of measurement that allows for comparison between dry and wet food), per AAFCO standards. With 47 percent crude protein, Instinct Ultimate Protein is considered a high protein diet. Read more about high protein diets for cats here.

Perfect for cats who: are active (especially outdoor cats) or pregnant

high protein cat food - landmark
American Journey Landmark Chicken Recipe in Broth Canned Cat Food
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high protein cat food - merrick
Merrick Backcountry Real Rabbit Recipe Cuts Cat Food Pouches
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high protein cat food - Tiki cat
Tiki Cat Puka Puka Luau Succulent Chicken in Chicken Consomme
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Weight Control Cat Food

You’ll find many weight control cat foods to choose from. Generally, they are formulated to have fewer calories per serving than regular food. Your cat doesn’t “feel deprived” as they are still getting their usual amount of food as they trim down. Instinct Raw Boost Healthy Weight has the ideal amount of fiber to make your overweight kitty feel full longer. Note that there are both non-prescription and prescription weight control foods, so talk to your veterinarian about the best option for your pet.

Perfect for cats who: have a few pounds to lose. Senior cats (older than 10 years) tend to have slower metabolisms and may also benefit from a weight-control formula.

weight control now
Now Fresh Grain-Free Senior Weight Management Dry Cat Food
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weight control cat food
PureBites Mixers 100% Tuna & Salmon in Water Grain-Free Cat Food
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Nulo Freestyle Salmon & Lentils Recipe Grain-Free Adult Trim Dry Cat Food
Nulo Freestyle Salmon & Lentils Recipe Grain-Free Adult Trim
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Sensitive Digestion Cat Food

This is an especially easy-to-digest food for a pet who experiences vomiting and/or diarrhea. Ingredients vary from food to food; what agrees with one cat with digestive issues may not work as well with another. But poultry and rice are common in many of these foods, notes Dr. Bartges. “These diets must still meet or exceed the AAFCO nutrient profiles,” he reminds. Duck, duck broth, and turkey liver are the first three ingredients in Go! Sensitivity + Shine. It has no by-products at all, and the cans are BPA free.

Perfect for cats who: have food intolerances, and whose parents have cleared a sensitive digestion diet with their vet.

sensitive stomach cat food - go duck
Go! SENSITIVITIES Limited Ingredient Grain-Free Duck Pate Cat Food
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Comfortis Chewable Tablets for Dogs
Go! SENSITIVITIES Limited Ingredient Pollock Grain-Free Dry Cat Food
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sensitive stomach cat food - instinct
Instinct Raw Boost Mixers Digestive Health Cat Food Topper
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Natural Cat Food

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have a formal definition for "natural" in regard to pet food labeling, AAFCO defines it as "derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources. Generally speakingyou should expect that a natural cat food won’t have any artificial flavorings, coloring or preservatives. You’ll want to look at the overall formula, though, to make sure it’s a good choice for your feline. Stella & Chewy's Absolutely Rabbit Dinner Morsels is made in small batches and minimally processed. The rabbit was farm-raised with no antibiotics.

Perfect for cats who: are healthy and of any age (provided the life stage formula is appropriate).

Instinct Original Grain-Free Pate Real Chicken Recipe Wet Canned Cat Food
Instinct Original Grain-Free Pate Real Chicken Recipe
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Fussie Cat Premium Tuna with Chicken Formula in Aspic Grain-Free Canned Cat Food
Fussie Cat Premium Tuna with Chicken Formula Grain-Free Food
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Farmina Natural & Delicious Chicken Grain-Free Formula Dry Cat Food
Farmina Natural & Delicious Chicken Grain-Free Formula Dry Cat Food
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Indoor Cat Food

While indoor and outdoor cats have the same nutritional needs, some indoor cats may not move as much. Indoor cats also tend to get more hairballs, as their shedding isn’t always limited to seasonal cycles (and they groom themselves more as they laze around). That’s why indoor cat food typically has fewer calories per serving as well as more fiber to move hairballs through the digestive tract. Formula and benefits do vary somewhat from brand to brand. “To my knowledge … there is no standing criteria for what constitutes indoor cat food,” says Dr. Bullen. A smooth pate, Wellness CORE Indoor Recipe is a universal cat pleaser, full of chicken, chicken liver, flaxseed, and salmon oil. Read more about indoor cat food here.


Perfect for cats who: are housecats in every sense of the word.

Nulo Freestyle Duck & Lentils Recipe Grain-Free Indoor Dry Cat Food
Nulo Freestyle Duck & Lentils Recipe Grain-Free Indoor Dry Cat Food
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Instinct Raw Boost Indoor Grain-Free Recipe with Real Rabbit & Freeze-Dried Raw Coated Pieces Dry Cat Food
Instinct Raw Boost Indoor Recipe with Real Rabbit & Freeze-Dried Raw
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Sentinel Flavor Wellness CORE Grain-Free Indoor Formula Dry Cat Food
Wellness CORE Grain-Free Indoor Formula Dry Cat Food
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At the end of the day, there is no one perfect food for all cats. “There is no one best food or best food company,” Dr. Bartges says. “It’s more trial and error finding what food your pet does well on.” But working with your veterinarian to find the best high-quality cat food can help give you peace of mind that you’re doing everything you can to keep your pet happy and healthy.

By: Christina Vercelletto
Christina Vercelletto is a pet, travel and lifestyle content specialist and a former editor of Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and Woman’s Day. She lives on Long Island with her Chiweenie, Pickles, and 20-pound Calico, Chub-Chub.

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