Best Grain-Free Cat Food

Updated July 2021
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

30 Models Considered
10 Hours Researched
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161 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for Best grain-free cat food

Cat owners love to joke about their pets being “little tigers,” but the truth is that domesticated felines aren’t so different from their wild cousins, especially when it comes to diet. 

Big and little cats alike thrive on a diet of protein. However, inexpensive, low-quality cat foods typically contain a lot of filler (primarily grains like corn and wheat) that may leave your kitty unsatisfied. These foods can cause digestive problems or allergies and make it more difficult for your pet to maintain a healthy weight. 

Grain-free cat food includes animal protein as the main ingredient. This type of food is ideal for pet owners who want to mimic their cat’s natural diet as well as those who have cats sensitive or allergic to grain. However, not all grain-free cat food brands are of equal quality. Some contain dubious fillers or low-quality protein sources, have a high fat content, or have a taste that simply doesn’t appeal to cats. 

Keep reading to find out which grain-free cat food is right for your little tiger. In this guide, we offer helpful tips, answers to frequently asked questions, and our top grain-free cat food recommendations.

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The majority of cats like to eat near dusk and dawn, when they would naturally prowl for food in the wild.

Key considerations

Wet vs. dry food

One of the first choices you’ll need to make is whether you’d like wet or dry food for your kitty.

Wet: Wet cat food is typically more appealing to picky eaters and older cats who struggle with dry food. Wet food closely mimics a cat’s natural diet of raw meat. In the wild, cats use food as much as water for hydration, so wet food can provide much-needed liquid to your cat’s diet. For kitties with digestive issues or allergies, wet food may be extremely helpful in mitigating health problems. However, wet cat food — especially grain-free varieties — has a few drawbacks worth considering. 

Wet food that’s high in animal protein and free of preservatives can quickly spoil and become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and foul smells. And unless your cat licks the bowl clean (the majority don’t), you’ll need to very quickly wash out the scraps to avoid odors and ants in your home. Wet food can also contribute to tartar buildup and bad breath unless you brush your kitty’s teeth regularly. 

Dry: Dry food is more convenient, less prone to spoilage, and easy to store, and it may actually help reduce tartar and bad breath. Cats tend to enjoy the taste (even picky eaters, when you find the right flavor), and those with health issues who are transitioning from a lower-quality grain-dense food typically see significant improvement with allergies and digestive problems. However, dry food also has its drawbacks. 

Since dry food contains less liquid than wet food, it can lead to dehydration and kidney or urinary tract problems if your cat isn’t drinking enough water. And unless you portion control your cat’s food (rather than leaving out a dish of food), your cat may overeat dry food. 

Protein source

The type of protein in grain-free cat food is a key consideration, particularly if your cat has food sensitivities or allergies.

Multi-source: Value grain-free cat foods are a smorgasbord of different protein sources such as turkey, chicken, fish, pea protein, and duck. While most cats do fine with a blend of proteins, it can be difficult to hone in on which ingredients might be causing continued sensitivities or allergies. Many cat owners don’t realize that beef and dairy proteins can cause allergies as often as grain.

Single source: High-end grain-free cat foods commonly use a single protein source to help owners with sensitive pets. If you have a kitty with allergies or food sensitivities, try grain-free cat food with whitefish as the protein source. This lean protein is easy on the stomach and great for cats who may react to poultry or beef. 

Byproducts: Be wary of cheaper grain-free cat foods that list “byproducts” as the first ingredients. These byproducts can include ground-up carcasses, feet, bones, bladders, and even roadkill. While your cat isn’t likely to complain (after all, they eat plenty of these things in the wild), factory byproducts are typically fattier and may contain more chemicals and toxins than meat. 

Fat content

The majority of cats thrive on a diet that consists of 30 percent to 40 percent protein and 15 percent to 20 percent fat. Fat provides omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and allows your cat to absorb important nutrients and minerals properly. As a rule of thumb, the best cat foods have twice as much protein content as they do fat. Since grain-free foods are higher in protein, they typically have a healthy ratio of fat content, but some brands are heavier on the fat content. If you have a senior cat or a cat who is recovering from surgery and needs to gain a little weight, you may want to consider serving cat food with more fat. However, if your cat is overweight or sedentary, consider a grain-free cat food that’s less fatty. 

Contrary to popular belief, cats are actually lactose intolerant. Milk and dairy should be avoided.

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Taste 

While it’s a bit tricky for a human to quantify the taste of a particular cat food (it’s your cat’s opinion that counts, after all), you should know that some picky eaters have definite preferences. Some companies are willing to send out samples before you invest in a big bag of expensive grain-free cat food, so don’t be afraid to ask. Single-protein sources are typically the easiest way to please picky eaters.

Fillers 

The majority of traditional cat foods rely on corn or wheat as carbohydrate fillers. And while grain-free cat food eliminates fillers that can cause problems with your cat’s dietary health, it may still contain carbohydrates and fillers. Quality grain-free cat foods include green peas, potato starch, or sweet potatoes for carbohydrates.

Shelf life 

In general, the fewer preservatives in your cat’s food, the shorter its shelf life. A significant percentage of grain-free cat foods tout few or no preservatives, so pay attention to expiration dates. As your cat food nears its expiration date, check for signs of mold, spoilage, or unpleasant odor. Generally, a grain-free cat food will last at least four months before expiring.

Artificial colors, flavors, and additives

Dyes and artificial colors are added to cat foods to appeal to pet owners, not pets. They serve no purpose other than visual appeal and have even been linked to food sensitivities and health problems in cats. (For example, iron oxide, which adds a red “meat-like” color can be a skin irritant.) A quality grain-free cat food that’s rich in real protein shouldn’t need extra artificial flavors. In that same vein, watch out for grain-free cat foods that are high in sodium or phosphorus, both of which can lead to health problems when consumed in high levels.

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DID YOU KNOW?
Active outdoor cats need more protein than sedentary indoor cats and are especially benefited by grain-free, high-protein cat food.
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Grain-free cat food prices

Inexpensive

For $.07 to $.13 per ounce (about $12 to $20 for a 10-pound bag), you can find value grain-free cat food that does not contain wheat, corn, or gluten. In general, dry grain-free cat food will be your best bet if you’re on a budget. The larger the bag, the less it’s likely to cost per ounce.

Keep an eye out for byproducts and fillers in this price range as well as artificial colors, dyes, and preservatives. Most value grain-free cat foods contain protein from multiple sources, and some are high in fat content.

Mid-range

For $.14 to $.17 per ounce (about $22 to $28 for a 10-pound bag), you’ll find mid-range grain-free cat foods. These middle-of-the-road options include more single-source choices and flavors and should be free of by-products, fillers, and artificial colors. You can find high-protein, low-carbohydrate choices in this tier for cats who need to lose weight or have diabetes. A select few wet grain-free cat foods can be found in this tier, but most of the options are dry.

Expensive

For $.18 to $.35 per ounce and up, expect to find cat foods with premium ingredients, no fillers or byproducts, and a minimum of dyes, preservatives, and artificial flavors. These pricier grain-free cat foods often have the highest protein content and tout locally sourced ingredients (rather than protein from overseas) and flavors meant to entice even the pickiest eaters. On the high end of this price tier, you’ll find wet grain-free cat foods that come in pouches or cans. Savvy shoppers will note that bulk purchases tend to drive the price down.

A foul-smelling litter box can be a sign that your cat has digestive problems or food sensitivities caused by grain.

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Tips

  • Slow introductions are best. Introducing a new type of cat food to a picky eater? Start slow, mixing in a bit more of the new food with the old food each day, until you have successfully transitioned.
  • Portion control helps weight control. If your cat has a tendency to overeat, try using an automatic feeder or measuring cup to portion out food instead of leaving a full bowl available. 
  • Cats need around 200 calories per day. Of course, your particular cat’s nutritional and caloric needs depend on their weight and age. Grain-free foods typically leave kitties more satisfied with less food because they don’t incorporate many fillers. 
  • Cat’s can’t survive on raw meat from the grocery store. In an effort to go “completely natural,” some cat owners try this dietary approach, but it’s ill-advised. In the wild, cats eat the whole animal. Meat from the grocery store will be devoid of connective tissue, organs, and bones that provide important nutrients to your cat. 
  • Some cats gobble their food too fast. If your cat regularly vomits after eating, they may be eating too quickly. Provide your kitty with a private, relaxed eating place away from other cats and people. 
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Weigh your cat regularly to identify health problems or food allergies promptly, particularly when switching to a new food.

FAQ

Q. Will I need special grain-free kitten food for a younger cat? 

A. Yes. Kittens are growing rapidly and need specialized food to meet their nutritional requirements. A grain-free cat food formulated for kittens should be fed until your cat is 12 months old. When you make the switch to adult food, do so gradually over a week or so, mixing in new adult food with the kitten food little by little. 

Q. What are some signs my cat might have a grain allergy?

A. Telltale signs that indicate a possible grain allergy include excessive itching and scratching, endless grooming, hair loss in patches, flaky or red skin, scabs or grooming injuries, watery or foul-smelling stool, noticeable gas, very bad breath, and vomiting. If your cat has a grain allergy, switching to a single-protein, high-quality grain-free cat food should result in noticeable results in a few weeks.

Q. Are grain-free cat foods low in carbohydrates?

A. Some grain-free cat foods are low in carbohydrates, but “grain-free” and “low-carb” are not synonymous. Grain-free cat foods still contain carbohydrates, typically in the form of potatoes, peas, lentils, or tapioca. If you have a sedentary cat or a cat who needs to lose weight, pay attention to the carbohydrate content, and choose something with more protein and less carbs.

 

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