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As a cat parent, you want to be sure you choose a healthy diet for your beloved feline. Grain-free diets are touted by manufacturers as healthy for pets, but what’s the real story about grain-free cat food?
According to the veterinary experts we talked with, “grain-free cat food” is a marketing concept, not a health concept. Just because a cat food product is free from grains doesn’t make it inherently healthier for your pet than a cat food that includes grains (grain-free foods usually include non-protein carbohydrates such as vegetables and potatoes). We talked with veterinarians, including Rover’s veterinary medical advisor, who saw no particular reason why cat parents need to buy grain-free cat food.
Dr. Cailin Heinze was part of a team at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University that studied 77 types of grain-free cat food. Their 2017 study concluded that grain-free foods were not particularly healthy—or unhealthy.
The study was skeptical of health claims for ingredients in grain-free foods that sound appealing to humans but are of little value to cats. Companies often tout ingredients like cranberries as promoting kidney and bladder health, but the researchers noted that cranberries aren’t present in large enough amounts to help with urinary issues. “The cranberries serve more to make you feel good than to actually help your cat—a classic example of marketing rather than science,” Heinze noted. “Likewise, ingredients like lettuce, watercress, blackberries, avocado, and artichokes aren’t making your cat any healthier, but they may be making the food more expensive than it needs to be.”
As for treating feline allergies, the researchers didn’t think grain-free foods would help or hinder. “Overall, food allergies are much less common than many pet owners believe and when they do occur they are usually caused by animal-sourced ingredients such as chicken, milk, fish, and eggs,” Heinze said. Many of the grain-free foods they examined included those proteins.
What to Watch for in Grain-Free Cat Food
If you’re selecting grain-free pet food, you need to be careful. When removing grains from the equation, some manufacturers fill the void with extra fat. And that can lead to obesity and other health problems.
Digestibility is another important factor to consider. Even high-quality grain-free carbohydrates like beans and legumes can be difficult for your cat’s body to process efficiently. In large amounts, they can also trigger digestive upset.
If you choose to feed your cat a grain-free diet, check ingredients carefully sure it is made with wholesome ingredients and properly balanced for complete nutrition. Look for the AAFCO-approved nutritional guarantee. You might want to talk with your veterinarian about the issues with grain-free cat food for your particular cat.
If grain-free is the right choice for your cat, read on to see our picks for the best affordable grain-free cat food brands on the market.
Affordable Grain-Free Cat Food
Made with real ocean whitefish as the primary source of protein, this nutrient-packed dry food is grain-free, high in moisture, and supplemented with natural fibers to aid digestion.Shop on Chewy
This grain-free pâté features deboned turkey as the main ingredient with digestible grain-free carbohydrates for added nutrition and dietary fiber to support digestion.Find on Amazon
Featuring farm-raised chicken as the main ingredient, this grain-free dry cat food is supplemented with a fiber blend for optimal digestion and hairball prevention for indoor cats.Find on Amazon
Manufactured by Merrick Pet Care, the Whole Earth Farms brand is designed for affordability while still providing high-quality products like this chicken recipe dry food.Shop on Chewy
Featuring cage-free white meat chicken and fresh pumpkin, this minimally processed wet food is complete and balanced for adult cats and supplemented with fiber and essential nutrients.Shop on Amazon
Loaded with premium roasted meats like venison and salmon, this grain-free dry food is nutrient-rich and highly digestible to nourish your cat’s body from the inside out.Find on Chewy
The Wellness brand is dedicated to holistic nutrition and this chicken recipe features natural ingredients like chicken, fresh cranberries, and ground flaxseed.Find on Amazon
American Journey is Chewy’s in-house brand and this grain-free recipe contains a blend of deboned chicken and turkey for protein-rich nutrition and maximum flavor.Shop on Chewy
A healthy, holistic recipe featuring chicken as the main ingredient, this indoor cat formula also contains a blend of natural fibers to prevent hairballs and support regular digestion.Shop on Amazon