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You’ve probably noticed that the feline world also has an abundance of fad diets. It can become confusing for us to decide which of these diets is best suited for our cat. Since no two cats are the same, their dietary needs may also vary according to their specific needs.
I’ll cut to the chase: a grain-free diet is probably not necessary for your cat unless she has specific health issues that require her to stay away from grains, such as allergies. However, in addition to grain allergies being quite rare in cats, removing grains from a cat’s diet may also deny her some of the healthy benefits of grains.
Below you’ll find everything you need to know about grain-free cat food, including what grain-free entails, the pros and cons of keeping grains in your cat’s diet, and what the ideal amount of grain intake should be for your cat. I’ve also included a carefully selected list of 5 grain-free dry cat foods that are actually high in protein, low in carbs, and that have nutritious whole food ingredients.
What is Grain-Free Cat Food?
You may be familiar with the grain-free diet for humans, but what does it mean for cats? In order to determine whether or not grain-free food is necessary for your cat, let’s see what the deal is.
Grain-free cat food is made without grains that are commonly found in cat food such as wheat, corn, rice, barley, and oats. Grain-free cat food also lacks grain by-products such as gluten, bran, starch, and flour.
Does Grain-Free Mean Gluten-Free?
Yes, grain-free does mean gluten-free because gluten is a protein that is found only in grains. However, gluten is found in some grains, not all. For example, wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten whereas corn and flax do not. Therefore, gluten-free does not necessarily mean grain-free.
So, foods that are labeled “wheat-free” or “corn-free” may have different meanings in terms of their gluten content.
But what does gluten-free signify for cats? Gluten-free dieting may be necessary for us humans that suffer from celiac disease or simple gluten intolerance. However, there has been no evidence to suggest that cats require a gluten-free diet.
Does Grain-Free Mean Low-Carb or Low-Calorie?
No, not necessarily.
This study from 2017 has established that while grain-free cat foods have lower carbs than standard food, some of them can still have the same levels of carbs and calories as standard cat food, sometimes even more.
Grains and carbs are not two words for the same thing. All grains contain carbs, however, not all carbs are grains. Therefore, it is still possible to have carbs in grain-free food.
When we think grain-free, we usually assume that it will be low in calories and help with weight control. However, grain-free cat food doesn’t mean low-calorie food because unless the food is specifically formulated to be low-calorie, the calories from the missing grains will be compensated by other sources – usually from carbs.
Another common misconception is that grain-free cat food has more protein than standard cat food. This is usually not the case because the missing calories from grains are not made up for with more meat but rather other sources of carbs like peas, sweet potatoes, tapioca, fruits, lentils, and other legumes.
Grain-free cat foods can also contain some unusual whole foods that don’t quite benefit cats such as artichokes, avocados, apricots, celery, and watercress. Removing grains to make room for these “human foods” defeats the purpose of providing a healthier food option.
Benefits of Grains
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that no less than half of their daily calorie intake should come from animal-sourced quality protein. The remainder of their diet should consist of a moderate amount of fats, a small portion of carbs, minerals, and vitamins. Grains are important sources for all of these nutrients, including protein.
Of course, a cat’s primary source of energy is animal protein. However, grains can be a part of their diet in an ideal amount. Cats benefit from a diet that is lower in carbs but not necessarily lower in grains.
Does My Cat Need Grains?
Grains consist of essential nutrients such as protein, fatty acids, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. So, they are not just useless filler calories in cat food – they benefit your cat when consumed in ideal amounts.
Whole grains are good sources of digestible protein. While animal-sourced protein is essential for your cat, getting all their protein from meat may cause a high intake of phosphorus. High consumption of the mineral phosphorus may trigger kidney-related problems such as chronic kidney disease. Grains and vegetables provide your cat with plant-based protein that does not have excessive phosphorus and is easily digestible.
Grains are a great source of fiber. An appropriate amount of dietary fiber is necessary for a cat’s diet for health benefits including the prevention of hairballs, maintaining gastrointestinal health, aiding weight control, and reducing high blood sugar.
Grains also contain important vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium, niacin, and folate – all beneficial for your cat’s health.
Does Grain-Free Pose Health Risks?
While grains have several health benefits for your cat, there do not seem to be any serious health issues that have been linked to grain-free dieting in cats. Of course, this also depends on the quality of the grain-free food of choice.
You may have heard about a possible link between heart disease and grain-free dieting. While this may be the case for dogs, there hasn’t been any clear evidence that grain-free dieting can cause heart disease in cats.
Good quality grain-free cat foods make up for the necessary amount of fiber, minerals, and digestible protein from other whole food sources or supplements. As long as these needs are met properly, grain-free cat food will not cause any serious deficiencies for your cat.
I can hear you asking: but what if my cat has a grain allergy? Is it okay to feed her grain-free food in that case? Well, of course – but keep in mind that grain allergies are extremely rare in cats. In fact, the majority of food allergies in cats are from animal-based protein sources like dairy, fish, beef, or poultry.
Cats are perfectly capable of digesting the amount of grain content that is usually found in standard cat food.
If your cat shows signs of food allergies such as itchiness, hair loss, intestinal discomfort, and skin problems like scabs, you should have her examined by your vet because it is very difficult for you to pinpoint the exact source without the help of medical testing.
Therefore, blaming grains for your cat’s discomfort and removing them haphazardly from her diet would be a misguided action. You need to consult your vet and have the necessary tests done to determine the source of your cat’s allergy.
Grains in the Cat Diet
Here are some questions and answers about the ideal consumption of grains for cats:
What Type of Grain Is Best for My Cat?
There is no one best type of grain for cats.
The common grains found in most cat food are wheat, corn, oats, barley, and rice. All of these grains are perfectly fine and easy for your cat to digest. Since grains take up a fairly small portion of a cat’s diet, the type of grain they consume doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.
A distinction that seems to concern cat parents when it comes to different types of grains is their gluten content. As I’ve mentioned before, some grains have gluten while others don’t. However, this is a non-issue because gluten has no negative effect on cats. So you can rest assured that any type of grain commonly found in cat food is more than fine.
Perhaps the only thing to consider would be choosing whole grains that have their full nutrients intact over processed grains. So for example, brown rice is a better alternative to white rice. But as I’ve said, since the consumption of these grains is very little, there isn’t any substantial difference to worry about.
What Is the Ideal Amount of Grains in Cat Food?
Cat food labels can be tricky, believe me, I know. However, once you know what to look for, you’ll be amazed to see how easy it becomes to compare the nutritional values of different food.
The nutrients listed in an ideal cat food label (on a dry matter basis) for a mature healthy adult cat should roughly be 30-50% crude protein, 10-25% fats, 2-8% fiber, and 5-10% ash (minerals).
Carbohydrates aren’t listed on the labels specifically, but you can deduce the carbohydrate amount by subtracting the total of these percentages from 100. Ideally, carbs should be somewhere between 5-25% on a dry matter basis – although many dry foods, unfortunately, exceed this range.
Dry matter basis signifies the content found in the food once the moisture has been eliminated. This is why the percentages on dry and wet cat food labels can vary and you need to account for this difference when comparing their values.
Grains contain all of the above nutrients to some extent, but they are a rich source of carbs in particular. Therefore they should take up only a small portion of a cat’s diet.
Since grains aren’t listed on cat food content labels like macronutrients are, you can’t know exactly how much of a given grain is in the food. What you can know, however, is the overall carbohydrate content. As long as the carbohydrate content level falls between the ideal range, then you can rest assured that the grain content is also appropriate (unless the food is grain-free).
Does Dry Food Have More Grains?
The carbohydrate amount in dry food is usually a lot higher than it is in wet food. When compared on a dry matter basis, most canned food has about 10-15% carbs while most dry food can have up to 35%.
Grains are an important source of carbohydrates, so dry foods likely have more grains. However, carbs can also come from other sources such as vegetables (i.e. potatoes), and legumes (i.e. peas). Therefore, the level of grains in dry vs wet food may not positively correlate with their carb content.
If you are concerned about the carb intake of your cat, veterinarians usually recommend a switch to an all-wet diet. Besides having a lower carb content, wet food also has a lot of moisture to ensure that your cat stays hydrated. If your cat is used to kibble and has a hard time switching to wet food, then a quality grain-free kibble that is actually low-carb may be an option to consider.
Top 5 Best Grain-Free Dry Cat Food
As I’ve made clear, grain-free dieting is not necessary for the majority of cats. However, you may still be recommended a switch to grain-free food by your vet for dealing with digestive sensibilities, weight control, or to lower carb intake.
Although all grain-free cat foods don’t necessarily mean low-calorie or low-carb, some options may serve this need. Good quality grain-free dry foods may also prove useful if your cat needs a wet food diet for low-carb intake but doesn’t want to give up kibble.
What to Look for in Grain-Free Cat Food
If you’re looking for good quality, nutritious grain-free food, you should examine their content labels very carefully to check for these:
- Fiber: Is there enough fiber to make up for the missing grains? There should be between 3-5% fiber in your cat’s food on a dry matter basis.
- Carbohydrates: If you are switching to grain-free because you want lower carbs in your cat’s food, then make sure that the food you choose is in fact low-carb. Opt for options that have no more than 30% carbohydrate on a dry matter basis.
- Protein: Grain-free or not, always check the protein amount and source. Don’t go for less than 35% protein on a dry matter basis. Also, besides animal-sourced protein, are there any plant-based sources of digestible protein?
- Replacements: Which foods have been used to replace grains and are these good for your cat? Do these replacements make up for the fiber, protein, and minerals that would otherwise have come from grains?
Fortunately, I’ve considered all these points mentioned above and gathered some top-quality grain-free cat food options for you to choose from.
I’ve done the math* and compared the contents of a variety of top-rated grain-free dry foods on a dry matter basis. I’ve compared their amounts of protein, fat, fiber, and carbs (which I’ve listed for each of them for you to see for yourself) and taken into account the other ingredients that are listed on their labels.
So, here are the top 5 grain-free dry cat foods that are actually high-protein, low-carb, and have a nutritious, well-balanced content.
The Instinct Original Grain-Free dry cat food is our top choice because it has the highest protein and lowest carbohydrate content in the selection of top quality grain-free dry foods that we have compared. The Instinct Original also has a grain-free option for kittens.
Animal protein ingredients: Chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal, menhaden fish meal, freeze-dried chicken, freeze-dried chicken liver, freeze-dried chicken heart.
Whole food ingredients: Peas, chicken fat, tapioca, dried tomato pomace, carrots, apples, cranberries, pumpkin seeds. All of these are standard, healthy ingredients found in most cat food – no red flags. In case you were wondering, tapioca starch is a grain-free and gluten-free flour that is sourced from the root vegetable cassava.
Fiber content: Sufficient
Analysis (on a dry matter basis): Protein: 45,1% / Fat: 23% / Fiber: 3,3% / Carbs (roughly): 22,6%.
The Taste of the Wild Grain-Free dry cat food is also very high in protein and low-carb, with very similar guaranteed analysis levels as the Instinct Original brand listed above.
Animal protein ingredients: Chicken-meal, smoked salmon, roasted venison, ocean fish meal.
Whole food ingredients: Peas, sweet potatoes, chicken fat, dried chicory root, tomatoes, raspberries, blueberries. Peas and sweet potatoes are common substitutes for grains used in grain-free cat food. Peas especially are a great source of fiber and protein.
Fiber content: Sufficient.
Analysis (on a dry matter basis): Protein: 46,6% / Fat: 20% / Fiber: 3,3% / Carbs (roughly): 24,1%.
The Blue Buffalo Wilderness is a grain-free option that also has high amounts of protein and is low on carbs.
Animal protein ingredients: Deboned chicken, chicken meal, menhaden fish meal, dried egg product.
Whole food ingredients: Sweet potatoes, carrots, vegetable juice, blueberries, cranberries, dried kelp, parsley, turmeric, pea protein and pea fiber, flaxseed, tapioca starch, barley grass. The ingredient barley grass is a controversial issue for those with strict grain-free concerns. Barley grass is the leaf of the barley plant, not the seeds – so it is not necessarily a grain and it should be gluten-free.
Fiber content: Sufficient.
Analysis (on a dry matter basis): Protein: 44% / Fat: 19,8% / Fiber: 4,4% / Carbs (roughly): 25,8%.
The American Journey Grain-Free dry cat food is also high protein and low carb when compared to other grain-free dry cat food brands.
Animal protein ingredients: Deboned turkey, turkey meal, deboned chicken, chicken meal, dried egg product, menhaden fish meal.
Whole food ingredients: Tapioca starch, pea protein, pea fiber, peas, chicken fat, flaxseed, spinach, apples, blueberries, carrots, cranberries, pumpkin. What caught my attention in this ingredient list was spinach, which is not a common whole food found in cat food. Rest assured, it is perfectly safe for cats (in the right amounts) and provides beneficial antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Fiber content: Sufficient.
Analysis (on a dry matter basis): Protein: 44,4% / Fat: 16,7% / Fiber: 4,4% / Carbs (roughly): 28,5%.
The Purina Beyond is a high protein grain-free dry cat food. Its carbohydrate content is slightly higher than the abovementioned options, while it is lower in fats. The Purina Beyond is well-balanced and its main protein source is whitefish.
Animal protein ingredients: Ocean whitefish, chicken meal, dried egg product.
Whole food ingredients: Dried sweet potatoes, pea protein, pea fiber, pea starch, tapioca starch, beef fat. As you can see, Purina Beyond doesn’t have a long list of whole foods like the other brands on this list. This is not a bad thing because although cats may benefit from whole foods like cranberries, apples, or spinach, these are in no way staples of their diet – so it is perfectly okay to skip them.
Fiber content: Sufficient.
Analysis (on a dry matter basis):
Protein: 39,8% / Fat 15,9% / Fiber 4,5% / Carbs (roughly): 33,8%
So, is a grain-free diet better for your cat? Well, unless your cat is allergic to grains (which is very rare), then not really. It is completely okay for your cat to consume the appropriate amount of whole grains in her diet.
Remember that the recent popularity of designer pet diets such as gluten-free, carb-free, low-fat, and grain-free are primarily due to the misconception that what can be good for humans is also bound to be good for our pets. This is a dangerous belief that may put your cat’s well-being in danger.
Excluding a few quality brands of grain-free pet food like the ones I’ve recommended above, the “grain-free” label on most are usually used as a marketing tool to sell you an expensive designer pet food that is not necessarily healthier than standard pet food.
If you do choose to get grain-free cat food, please evaluate the ingredients and nutrient amounts thoroughly. Opt for food that is lower in carbs and higher in protein. You may always consult your vet for recommendations – which reminds me: please keep in mind that a change in your cat’s diet is a serious undertaking. Always make sure to consult your vet when considering this drastic change.