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Our cats evolved from desert animals whose protein-rich diets were made up of all the rodents and birds they could catch. Today, of course, most of our cats live in houses and are not (we hope) catching their own food. So how do we know what’s best to feed them? In this article, we explore protein-rich options for the best wet cat food. (You’ll find our article on choosing good dry cat food here.)
You’ll find some quick answers to your questions about cat nutrition in this comprehensive article from the Cornell Feline Health Center. It covers the basics and outlines some ways you can serve a healthy diet to your cat. We asked veterinarian Dr. Bruce Kornreich, director of the Feline Health Center, why we seem to worry so much about getting our cats the right food.
“I think people do this out of genuine concern for the well-being of cats,” he says. His advice? Relax a bit, and simply make sure that the food you give your cat has a statement on the package that it meets the minimum nutritional requirements for cats that have been established by the Feline Nutrition Expert (FNE) Subcommittee of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
Buying from a large, reputable brand with veterinarians on staff and in-house food production facilities can also help, he says.
“We have to remember that cats are not small dogs, and cats are not small people,” Kornreich says. “Humans and dogs are omnivorous, but cats need to eat a primarily meat-based diet because they can’t produce essential amino acids like taurine on their own. They have to obtain it from their food.”
Kornreich hopes cat parents will stick with reputable cat food brands and foods that meet AAFCO requirements. He notes that well-intentioned attempts to feed cats highly specialized diets (such as a vegan diet) can result in very sick cats. Currently, veterinarians are raising concerns about “boutique” pet foods, with ingredients such as exotic meats or legumes. These may be related to a rare heart issue called dilated cardiomyopathy.
Is Wet Food Better for Cats?
I’d always heard that wet food was better for cats than dry food, but Kornreich says that’s not always the case. There are reasons to feed both kinds of food, and it’s the quality of the food that’s important.
Here are some of the pros and cons of a wet-food diet:
- Plenty of healthy moisture. Wet food provides hydration, which cats need. If your cat is not an enthusiastic water drinker, a diet of wet food can ensure that they get fluids.
- Variety. While some cats insist on one flavor of food, others get bored easily. A variety of food encourages them to eat. Many wet foods come in small cans or packages and are sold as assortments, which makes it easy to keep your finicky eater interested at mealtime.
- Texture. Whether your cat licks, nibbles, or gobbles, there’s likely to be a wet food that suits their style. Choose from plates, broths, chunks, and creamy gravies. Cats that have had serious dental issues that interfere with eating may appreciate those patés.
- Feeding schedule. If you work long hours, you don’t want to leave a pile of wet food in a bowl. It can attract insects, plus it will be less appetizing—and unhealthy—in four hours. But if you feed small amounts of wet food and come home late, you’ll be greeted by a yowling, anxious cat.
- Mess and odor. Wet food tends to be smelly and messy; you’ll need to wash bowls thoroughly every day.
- Dental health. While some dry foods will help keep your cat’s teeth free from tartar, wet food has no cleansing effect. You will have to do some regular tooth care.
One issue to consider when feeding your cat wet food is what to do with cat food leftovers. They need to be refrigerated, but some cats will give you the stink-eye if you offer them chilled food. If your cat is OK with leftovers, keep in mind that wet cat food will last in the fridge for a week at the very most. After that, toss it. (Want to avoid waste? Freeze, then thaw, the leftovers.)
Selecting the Best Wet Cat Food
The wet cat foods that made our list contain these feline diet essentials:
- High in animal protein
- Moderate amounts of animal fats
- Essential vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids
Kornreich says that if your cat has health issues like diabetes or renal (kidney) disease, your vet may direct you to foods specially formulated for those conditions.
The Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University has more information on how to read nutrition labels on pet foods. You can also geek out on veterinarian Lisa A. Pierson’s exhaustive spreadsheet of the nutritional elements of more than 1,000 wet cat foods. Just keep in mind that the listed nutrient percentages (such as protein) have been adjusted so you can compare wet foods (which contain high percentages of water) with dry foods.
Be sure to select a food that is appropriate for your cat’s age, weight, and health status. Many brands offer breed- and age-specific formulas, as well as foods for animals with certain health conditions, such as urinary tract issues or weight problems.
The Best Wet Cat Food
Purina’s Pro Plan cat foods are at least 40% protein. According to Dr. Pierson’s chart, this turkey and chicken recipe contains 57% protein, 37% fat, and 6% carbohydrates—a great diet for most cats. (3-ounce cans)
This Weruva recipe contains only 3% carbohydrates (along with 65% protein and 32% fat), so if your cat likes the taste, it’s a healthy choice. Speaking of choice, we like the option to buy it in 3-, 5.5-, or 10-ounce cans.
Merrick’s Purrfect Bistro pâtés include this chicken recipe, plus turkey, salmon, beef, tuna, tuna and tilapia, rabbit, and duck. They also make pâtés specially formulated for kittens, indoor adult, or indoor senior cats. (3- and 5.5-ounce cans)
Tiki Cat is renowned for recipes high in animal protein. While many of the recipes are fish-based, you will find some poultry as well, like this shredded chicken variety with 77% protein. (2.8-, 6-, and 10-ounce cans)
Cats are just wild over Fancy Feast. Experts point out that this relatively inexpensive brand has some offerings that are high in protein and low in carbs, such as this grilled chicken and gravy recipe that’s 55% protein. (3-ounce cans)
This protein-rich pâté from Wellness has chicken as the first ingredient in a nutrient-dense recipe that includes antioxidants, taurine, vitamins, and minerals. (3-, 5.5-, and 12.5-ounce cans)
Another option from Wellness, this grain-free, protein-powered paté comes in single-serve pouches, perfect for the choosy feline who won’t tolerate leftovers. Real duck and chicken top the list of ingredients. (1.75-ounce pounces)
This recipe is more than 90% poultry protein (chicken, turkey, and chicken liver) and 5% vegetables and fruit. While Instinct is known for its raw foods, this canned food is cooked and packed in broth. Cat parents who reviewed Real Chicken Recipe report that cats either go wild for it—or turn up their noses. (3- and 5.5-ounce cans)
Shredded chicken and chicken broth are the top ingredients in this protein-rich wet food. Designed to be used as a complete meal or as a topper for a good kibble, the tasty broth is a great way to coax picky eaters. (3.2-, 6-, and 10-ounce cans; sold by the case)
Tips for Testing Out a New Wet Cat Food
If you are trying a new cat food on your furry little gourmand, be patient. Experts recommend doing it slowly, first mixing a small quantity of the new food in with the old, and upping the proportion of new food every day or two. While your cat is adjusting, keep an eye on not just what they’re eating and their enthusiasm but how their stomach is handling it. In other words, watch for vomiting or diarrhea.
If your cat repeatedly turns their nose up at the new food, accept that you may have to back down or try another brand or formulation. A stubborn cat can refuse to eat altogether, which puts them a risk for hepatic lipidosis, a serious health condition.