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Our cats might not know what a love language is, but they sure love it when we provide delicious cat food that meets their nutritional needs. If you’re shopping for wet cat food, there are hundreds of options. We’ve rounded up our recommendations with advice from veterinarians.
Wet and dry food are both quality options for your cat, says Dr. Bruce Kornreich, a board-certified veterinary cardiologist and director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. But there may be cases where wet food is recommended in addition to, or in place of, kibble. Kornreich says wet food benefits cats who need more water, particularly older cats with kidney disease. It packs 75% to 78% moisture, whereas dry foods contain 10% to 12%.
While our veterinary experts didn’t recommend specific brands or formulas, our picks are based on their input on appropriate food for kittens, adult cats, and seniors with various nutritional needs. We also followed the guidance of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the Global Nutrition Guidelines published by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA). You can read more about how to shop for high-quality wet food at the end of this article.
Cats need to eat animal proteins to satisfy their essential amino acid requirements, which help maintain normal body functions. The need for animal protein makes cats obligate carnivores, which is why meat should be the first ingredient in cat food. While interpreting the rest of the ingredient list can be tricky, you should be able to find a nutritional adequacy statement from the AAFCO on the cat food label. This statement indicates that the food meets AAFCO’s recommended balance of fats and proteins as well as essential vitamins and minerals for a cat’s life stage.
A minimum of 9% fat and 30% protein is recommended for kittens, while adult cats should have a minimum of 9% fat and 26% protein. To compare nutrient profiles of wet food to the AAFCO standards, you’ll need to convert wet food percentages of fat and protein to a “dry matter basis.” You can do this by following the directions from the Tufts University Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, calling the food manufacturer, or asking your veterinarian for help.
Although some of our picks are pricier than other foods, they’re packed with animal proteins such as deboned chicken, salmon, and turkey that cats love — and require.
Cost is a big factor when choosing a cat food. Luckily, plenty of budget-friendly options meet a cat’s nutritional requirements.
Budget-friendly cat foods often contain byproducts, a concentrated source of protein that’s biologically appropriate for felines. Byproducts are repurposed ingredients that keep the cost of cat food down, says Dr. Korinn Saker, a board-certified veterinarian and associate professor of clinical nutrition at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. They include parts of the animal other than skeletal meat that are still nutritious for cats, such as organs. While many cat foods are touted as free of grains and byproducts or artificial preservatives, these diets have no proven benefit compared to other cat foods meeting AAFCO standards.
The budget foods we recommend are significantly higher in protein than the 26% AAFCO minimum recommendation and include selections with and without byproducts.
Best for indoor cats
Indoor cats might not face the dangers that outdoor life brings, like predators and food scarcity. But they do face a growing epidemic: feline obesity.
Pet caregivers play an invaluable role in regulating a cat’s access to food and ensuring their food is appropriate for their needs, says Dr. Deb Zoran, a board-certified small animal internist, nutritionist, and professor at Texas A&M University. Indoor cats can’t catch their own food, and they typically don’t exercise as much as an outdoor cat would. An indoor cat diet shouldn’t replace environmental enrichment and daily play, but incorporating food made for their unique needs is a step in the right direction.
The recommendations below take an indoor cat’s lifestyle into consideration. They’re lower in calories, which helps them maintain a healthy weight and physique. Additional ingredients like omega fatty acids derived from salmon and salmon oil keep fur soft and shiny while reducing shedding and hairballs.
Best for sensitive stomachs
Limited ingredient diets can help cats with food intolerances and sensitive stomachs. They contain fewer ingredients, reducing the risk of digestive upset like diarrhea, vomiting, or gas. They are also typically made with whole food ingredients that are easier to digest than other options.
However, limited ingredient diets aren’t always necessary unless your cat has food sensitivities. According to Saker, food intolerances can mimic some of the symptoms of food allergies, but food intolerances are typically limited to the gastrointestinal tract rather than a full-body immune response. Before transitioning your cat to a limited ingredient diet for digestive issues, talk to your veterinarian to rule out other underlying problems.
The limited ingredient and sensitive stomach formulas below include sources of dietary fiber, like pumpkin and cellulose, which can help regulate your cat’s digestion.
Best for senior cats
As your cat begins to show age-related changes as early as 7 years old and reaches their senior years around 12 years old, simple changes can improve their quality of life. They’ll likely have two wellness visits yearly rather than one, which is an ideal time to discuss your cat’s changing activity level and caloric needs.
Most senior cats can eat kibble, says Dr. Jennifer Larsen, a board-certified veterinarian and professor of clinical nutrition at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. However, dry foods tend to be three to four times more calorie dense when compared to canned foods. Wet food is also higher in moisture, which helps support kidney function and can help manage symptoms of chronic kidney disease.
The AAFCO doesn’t provide standards for senior cat food. Instead, the food is formulated to meet AAFCO nutritional recommendations for adults and may vary in calories, fiber, and protein. To be sure a food is appropriate for your cat, review its nutrition and calorie content, then consult your veterinarian. Look for ingredients like glucosamine and fish oil, which are included in our picks. They can help reduce pain, inflammation, and stiffness associated with age-related conditions such as arthritis. Additionally, our senior recommendations contain fewer calories than our adult food selections.
Best for kittens
Choosing the right food for your kitten can be challenging with so many options available. So start with the first step: Look for a food appropriate for a growing kitten’s nutritional needs. It should be formulated according to the AAFCO standards for growth or all life stages to support a kitten’s rapid growth and high-energy needs. This ensures your carnivorous kitten gets at least 30% protein and 9% fat from their food.
Plus, food formulated for growth includes key nutrients like calcium to support bones and teeth and the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for brain growth and mental development. Our kitten-friendly picks have all the essential nutritional qualities for growth. They also include healthy ingredients like antioxidants and prebiotics, which help support a kitten’s developing immune and digestive system.
Best for hairball control
Hairballs are common in cats, but frequent hairballs should be discussed with your veterinarian. Hairballs can become a medical issue, including balling up in the digestive tract and causing an obstruction. A high-fiber diet can help your cat safely pass hairballs, says Larsen.
While the AAFCO doesn’t recommend a specific level of dietary fiber for cats, most complete and balanced cat foods include fiber sources in the form of digestible (starches), fermentable (oats), and insoluble (cellulose) fibers. Most hairball control diets contain insoluble fiber sources like rice hulls, pea fiber, and cellulose. While all types of fiber are beneficial for digestion, insoluble fiber adds bulk to stool, which helps to pull fur along the digestive tract.
Dry cat foods are typically higher in fiber, but our wet food picks are formulated with extra insoluble fiber. They also include omega fatty acids to improve skin health and reduce shedding.
Some cats want a bite of every meal we cook, but not all of us have the time or resources to cook our pets fresh meals consisting of whole meats and vegetables. Fresh cat food provides a solution with nutritionally complete and balanced meals made with high-quality human-grade ingredients. The food is cooked using heat rather than extreme pressure, which means fewer nutrients lost and easier digestion for cats. Some fresh foods are offered through subscriptions, while others are available for single purchases.
JustCats is a fresh food option made in one of nine privately owned kitchens across the US, where it’s prepared in collaboration with on-staff veterinary nutritionists. They don’t share processing plants or packaging lines with other companies. According to Kornreich, this means greater quality control over the ingredients and the prepared food.
Freshpet and JustFoodForDogs are the only two fresh cat food brands that employ full-time veterinary nutritionists. However, we’re currently not recommending Freshpet due to two recalls from 2021 and 2022.
What to look for in wet cat food
AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement: A cat food with an AAFCO statement on the label is nutritionally complete for a cat’s life stage. The AAFCO is a nonprofit organization that defines the standard nutritional requirements for pet food and animal feed. Food with an AAFCO statement for growth or all life stages is guaranteed to be complete and balanced for kittens. Food with an AAFCO statement for maintenance or all life stages is guaranteed to be complete and balanced for adult cats.
Guaranteed analysis and nutrient profiles: The guaranteed analysis consists of the percentages of protein, fat, and other important nutrients. For kittens, a minimum of 9% fat and 30% protein is recommended, while adult cats should have a minimum of 9% fat and 26% protein. Cat foods should also contain other essential nutrients, including amino acids like taurine, fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins
Key ingredients: The ingredients on a pet food label appear in order of weight. Animal protein is essential for cats to maintain normal body functions because it contains essential amino acids. As a result, cats are obligate carnivores. Therefore, animal-based protein should be the first ingredient in cat food.
Expert formulations: Look for brands with a dedicated nutrition expert on staff, which aligns with the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) guidelines and our experts’ guidance. Even better are brands that are active in research on small animal nutrition or those that collaborate with universities and colleges.
Manufacturing standards: When choosing a brand of cat food, it’s important to consider the quality control measures and facilities used. Brands that own their manufacturing plants have greater control over the ingredients in their recipes and, therefore, the food your cat consumes. It’s also important that a brand is transparent about how they implement quality control measures. Merely stating that they conduct quality control may not be sufficient. Pet food companies should make this information available on their website or be willing to provide it upon request.
Calorie content: Cat food lists calorie content in kilocalories, or kcals. The number of calories a cat needs varies based on age and activity level.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, kittens should be given multiple meals daily and allowed to eat as much as they want since they require more energy to support their rapid growth. As your kitten approaches 9 to 12 months of age, consult with your veterinarian to determine their ideal body condition, weight, and caloric requirements.
The WSAVA offers a reference chart to estimate the number of calories an adult cat should eat based on their weight, but these are just general guidelines. The appropriate amount of food for your cat depends on their weight, energy level, breed, and overall health. Talk with your veterinarian to determine how many calories your cat should consume daily.
How we selected wet cat food
To land on our recommendations, we consulted three veterinary nutritionists and one board-certified veterinary cardiologist.
Dr. Bruce Kornreich is a board-certified veterinary cardiologist and director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. While Cornell University faculty cannot disparage or recommend specific brands, Kornreich helped us understand when wet cat food might be appropriate to serve in addition to, or in place of, dry food. He also guided our understanding of what makes a high-quality wet food and what to avoid.
Dr. Deb Zoran is a board-certified small animal internist, nutritionist, and professor at Texas A&M University. Zoran shared insights on cat nutrition and quality food.
Dr. Jennifer Larsen is a veterinarian, distinguished member of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, and professor of clinical nutrition at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Larsen spoke with us about senior cat nutrition and the role of high-fiber diets in feline nutrition and well-being.
Dr. Korinn Saker is a veterinarian, distinguished member of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, and a professor of clinical nutrition at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. We spoke with Saker about the metabolic needs of indoor cats, in addition to feline food intolerance and sensitivities.
We also consulted guidelines and recommendations from other organizations, including the AAFCO and the WSAVA Global Nutrition Guidelines.
Wet cat food FAQs
What is the healthiest wet food for a cat?
Because cats are obligate carnivores, the healthiest wet food for a cat includes animal-based protein as the first ingredient. Complete and balanced food also has an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement on its label. However, there isn’t a perfect wet food choice that fits every cat or kitten. Instead, ask your veterinarian for food recommendations tailored to your pet. They may be able to suggest some options that meet your cat’s specific nutritional and caloric needs based on their age, body condition, and overall health.
What wet food is best for indoor cats?
Obesity is common among indoor cats, especially middle-aged and neutered male cats. Your cat’s ideal weight can be maintained through regular exercise, play, and enrichment, as well as low-calorie indoor cat food. Omega fatty acids are also included in some indoor cat formulas to promote healthy skin, which could mean less shedding and fewer hairballs. Indoor cats prone to frequent hairballs may benefit from a diet high in insoluble fiber, says Larsen. Most hairball control diets contain insoluble fiber sources like rice hulls, pea fiber, and cellulose.
Is it OK to give cats wet food every day?
Wet food with an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy is OK to feed your cat every day. However, to prevent food inflexibility, Zoran recommends rotating textures, proteins, and brands starting from a young age.
Do vets recommend wet food for cats?
Both canned and dry food choices can meet the nutritional needs of cats and kittens, as long as they’re labeled with the AAFCO statement for your cat’s specific life stage. The most appropriate food for your cat depends on their overall health, your budget, and your cat’s preferences. According to Kornreich, veterinarians may recommend a wet food diet for older cats with kidney disease or cats prone to dehydration. If you’re unsure how much your cat should eat or if they have special nutritional needs, talk to your veterinarian.
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