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A guide to picking the best cat food

Your cat's age can influence what's best for them.

It’s that time! Your cat is yowling at you for dinner. As you fill their bowl, you might wonder: Am I feeding my cat the best food around? Is there something else I should be adding to their diet? 

With so many options, it’s natural to be overwhelmed. So we spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Devitt, DVM, a general practice veterinarian and veterinary consultant for Fetch, to get an indoor-cat food breakdown.

How can I tell if I’m feeding my cat the healthiest food?

First things first: What differentiates the good from the great? The best cat foods are vet-recommended and formulated by veterinary nutritionists to be complete and balanced. They're also put through the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) appointed feeding trials. These diets contain the minerals, vitamins, proteins, fats and carbs your cat needs to live a healthy life. 

If you're unsure whether your cat’s food is complete and balanced, check the bag or can for the AAFCO nutritional-adequacy label. Your pet’s diet will also need to suit their individual needs, so be sure to consult your veterinarian.

Should I feed my cat wet or dry food?

An age-old question: Wet or dry food? Should you pour out kibble, opt for the canned alternative or mix the two?

“The best food for your cat is the one that has the nutrition your cat needs, tastes good, helps keep a healthy weight, maintains a shiny hair coat and results in normal litter-box habits,” Dr. Devitt says. “Many cats develop steadfast preferences for canned or dry food.”

What are the benefits of wet vs. dry food for indoor cats?

Wet food is easy to chew and typically available in a larger variety of flavors compared to dry food. It comes in cans and pouches and can help your cat stay hydrated and full at the same time. 

Unfortunately, the high-moisture content in wet food also means that it isn’t as shelf-stable as dry food. On the other hand, bacteria can grow very quickly, so don’t leave damp food of any kind sitting out.

Wet food can also benefit cats that need more water in their diets due to certain health conditions, like kidney or urinary issues.

Dry, crunchy kibble has a longer shelf life than wet food and doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Bags are available in various sizes, so you can choose which best fits your needs. Also, dry food doesn't have a strong odor, unlike wet food.

Because of the hard texture, dry food helps prevent buildup on your cat’s teeth (but they still need regular dental cleanings to keep them healthy) and can sit out for your cat to graze on. However, all cats may not prefer this satisfying crunch, as older felines are more likely to have trouble chewing on kibble. 

The best dry foods for indoor cats take into account the nutrient needs of a cat’s age, activity level and body condition, Dr. Devitt adds.

Best kitten food

Kittens have different nutritional needs than adult cats. According to Dr. Devitt, young pets need more calories, protein, fat, specific minerals (such as calcium and phosphorus) and other key nutrients to support their growth and development. 

Thankfully, there are diets specifically formulated for kittens. For example, dry foods are often made with a smaller kibble that’s easier for them to eat.

What’s the best food for older indoor cats?

If your cat is getting older, it’s worth considering changing them to senior cat food.

“Cats over 7 years old can benefit from dietary changes such as increased fiber to reduce obesity risk in those that are less active,” Dr. Devitt shares. “For cats in the 10 to 12, or older, age group, foods with increased high-quality protein can offset decreased ability to absorb protein and their tendency to lose lean muscle mass.”

Many senior cat diets also add essential fatty acids and antioxidants that support immune and brain health.

RELATED: Are cats lactose intolerant?

My indoor cat has a sensitive stomach. What’s the best food for them?

If your cat’s having tummy trouble, it’s best to take them in for a veterinary exam to rule out any serious issues. In some cases, switching food may help relieve your pet's upset stomach. Other times, this won’t be effective.

“It’s important to know if your cat is vomiting and why before you try a bunch of different foods. Some cats aren’t actually vomiting; they’re regurgitating, aka not even digesting the food before it comes back up,” Dr. Devitt explains. “That’s not a nutritional problem; instead, it’s typically an eating-too-fast or hairball-issue.”

Vomiting involves food in the stomach or upper small intestine, and there can be many different causes – not all of which are food related. Make sure your veterinarian rules out health concerns such as kidney, gastrointestinal or thyroid disease before you look to over-the-counter dietary solutions.

“If the source of vomiting is an underlying health issue, your veterinarian may prescribe a diet formulated to manage kidney health, urinary tract issues or gastrointestinal inflammation. There are also prescription diets with specific protein sources to manage food allergies,” Dr. Devitt says.

Generally, diets for sensitive stomachs often include limited ingredients to reduce the chances of intolerance, increased fiber to improve the food's movement through the digestive tract, higher-quality proteins for increased digestibility, moderate fat and/or essential fatty acids and pre-and-probiotics for intestinal health.

Best food for overweight indoor cats

Does your cat overeat? Or maybe they’re less active now that they’re older? Regardless of what's causing their weight gain, it’s important to talk to your veterinarian about a treatment plan.

“Whether they have an indoor or outdoor lifestyle, cats need to maintain healthy body weight. Obesity puts them at risk for diabetes, arthritis and other health conditions,” Dr. Devitt says. 

Talk to your veterinarian about the appropriate calorie intake for your cat — you might even be surprised to learn that you’re unintentionally overfeeding your pet. 

How to feed your cat

Healthy eating habits aren’t just about what you feed your cat but how you serve it to them.

“Before domestication, cats hunted for their food; they worked for small, high-protein meals several times a day,” Dr. Devitt explains. “Now they’re often lounging in houses, often with other cats, and none of them work for their food, so feline obesity is a big problem.”

Dr. Devitt recommends cats eat multiple small meals a day and that all cats get hassle-free access to food and water. Consider separate eating places that give pets a place to eat that is out of sight from other cats.

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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