Reading cat food labels can feel like walking through a briar patch barefoot. Use our common cat food ingredient glossary as a guide when constructing a quality diet for your cat.
Cats are obligate carnivores and receive basic nutrients — protein, fats and carbohydrates — plus vitamins and minerals from a meat-based diet.
Protein is necessary for healthy bones, muscle tissue and nervous system and is an energy source.
Fats are a concentrated form of energy and necessary to cell structure, a healthy immune system, a healthy coat and the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fats spoil easily; look for natural preservatives.
Carbohydrates come from plants and provide energy and fiber which aid in fecal elimination and healthy bacteria balance in the digestive tract.
The American Association of Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) dictates that ingredients are listed in descending order by volume. Therefore, the first few are the most important.
Below is a list of common cat food ingredients, in the order that they most likely would be found on the label.
Chicken, duck, lamb, turkey meat
These meats are complete protein sources. Quality depends on the source and the cut.
Chicken, duck, lamb, turkey meal
These ingredients are often primary protein sources. Rendered (cooked down) meat is used in dry food. Named meat is usually good quality.
Byproducts are controversial. Some experts warn against feeding byproducts, while others claim that clean byproducts like liver and kidneys are high-quality protein sources.
According to the AAFCO, byproducts are “the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low-temperature fatty tissue and stomachs, and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hooves.”
Inferior or unidentified meat sources include meat and bone meal, beef and bone meal, and byproduct meal. Avoid these ingredients if possible.
Eggs are a complete protein source.
This essential fatty acid is found in meat. It promotes healthy eyes, heart, and reproduction.
Corn meal gluten or wheat gluten
These ingredients are low grade, inefficient cereal protein. They are prone to mold and other toxins. Wheat is a common allergen, and some experts believe corn’s hypoglycemic index is suspect for development of feline diabetes.
Soy protein is an incomplete plant-based protein source.
Fish is a good source of protein, but can cause allergic reactions in some cats.
Poultry fat or chicken fat
Poultry fat or chicken fat is a source of Omega-6. Avoid “animal fat” or “beef tallow”— an unidentified fat source and inferior quality, respectively.
Fish oil is a fat source for Omega-3. A proper Omega 6:3 ratio promotes healthy skin and coat.
Tocopherols or mixed tocopherols
These ingredients are a natural antioxidant and vitamin E source that reduce fat and oil spoilage.
BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole), BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) and Ethoxyquin
Studies show BHA, BHT and Ethoxyquin are possible carcinogens. These chemical preservatives are added to retard fat spoilage. Avoid these ingredients.
Green vegetables, beet pulp, corn bran, wheat bran
These are fiber sources. (Please see above precaution about wheat and corn.)
Calcium, phosphorus, sodium, chlorine potassium, and magnesium aid in bone construction and cell structure. Iron, copper, zinc, iodine, manganese and selenium are responsible for many physiological functions.
Vitamins are essential to life. Fat soluble A, D, E and K are found in animal sources. They promote vision, growth and cell structure. Water soluble C and B vitamins (vitamin B complex, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, biotin and choline) found in liver, fish, eggs and grains are necessary for metabolic processes.
Ramona Marek, M.S. Ed., is a freelance writer, member of the Cat Writers’ Association and former special education teacher. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and Siberian, Tsarevich Ivan.