You’ve probably noticed that the feline world also has an abundance of fad diets. It can be confusing to decide which of these diets is best suited for our cat. Since no two cats are the same, their dietary requirements may also vary according to their specific needs.
One of the current diets circulating in the cat world is the idea of a grain-free diet. Now, 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. Nevertheless, many pet parents swear by a grain-free diet! So, who’s right?
Anyone confused about grain-free diets can relax. 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 the ideal amount of grain intake for your cat.
I’ve also included a carefully selected list of five grain-free dry cat foods that are high in protein, low in carbs, and have nutritious whole food ingredients. If you decide going grain-free is the right move for your kitty, these five options are a great starting point in your search.
What is Grain-Free Cat Food?
First thing’s first: what is grain-free cat food? As the name suggests, this is cat food that doesn’t contain any grains in its formula. However, this definition can still be a little confusing; you may be familiar with the grain-free diet for humans, but what does it mean for cats?
It may come as a surprise, but many of the grains found in human food are also included in cat food recipes. Common examples include wheat, corn, rice, barley, and oats. Therefore, grain-free cat food is made without these common grains appearing in their ingredients list.
Grain-free cat food also lacks grain by-products such as gluten, bran, starch, and flour. Although not grains in their own right, they are compounds only found in grains. If grains are missing from the cat food, so are these by-products by proxy.
Below I delve into what “grain-free” means in more detail by answering all of your frequently asked questions.
Does Grain-Free Mean Gluten-Free?
Yes, grain-free means gluten-free because gluten is a protein found only in grains.
If there are no grains in the cat food, there cannot possibly be any gluten! Gluten cannot be present without the presence of certain grains. But gluten is found in some grains, not all.
For example, wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten. On the other hand, corn and flax are grains but neither contain gluten. This means grain-free food is always gluten-free, but gluten-free does not necessarily mean grain-free. This highlights why it is essential to check each packet’s label carefully. Foods labeled “wheat-free” or “grain-free” never contain gluten, whereas “corn-free” cat food 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. This explains why you rarely find cat food labeled as “gluten-free” – the grain content is far more important for our cats.
Does Grain-Free Mean Low-Carb?
Another question pet parents commonly ask is whether grain-free cat food contains fewer carbohydrates. While some certainly can, the true answer is: no, not necessarily.
Much like the gluten misconception, grains and carbs are not two words for the same thing. All grains contain some carbohydrates, meaning cat food made with grains certainly contains carbs. However, not all carbs are grains. Therefore, it is still possible to have carbs in grain-free food – these carbohydrates simply come from another source.
A study from 2017 established that grain-free cat foods have lower carbs than traditional food (which is predominantly protein-based). However, many grain-free foods still have the same levels of carbs and calories as standard cat food, sometimes even more!
Does Grain-Free Mean Low Calorie?
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; unless the food is specifically formulated to be low-calorie, the calories from the missing grains will be compensated by other sources – usually carbs.
Occasionally, these missing calories are compensated by adding protein to the formula. However, this leads to another common misconception: grain-free cat food has more protein than standard cat food. This is usually not the case as the missing calories from grains are replaced with other sources of carbs like peas, sweet potatoes, tapioca, fruits, lentils, and other legumes.
Grain-free cat foods can also contain unusual superfoods such as artichokes, avocados, apricots, celery, and watercress. This is another reason why grain-free foods are considered a healthier option – but people wrongly assume this means they’re low-calorie.
What Are the Benefits of Diets Containing Grains?
We now know what grain-free cat food is. But hold up – why are manufacturers putting grains in cat food in the first place?
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 moderate fats, a small portion of carbs, minerals, and vitamins. Grains are important sources of 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 and are beneficial for all the reasons listed below.
1. Packed with Essential Nutrients
Many people wrongly assume that grains are added to cat food as fillers. But as I just mentioned, grains consist of essential nutrients. This includes important vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium, niacin, and folate – all beneficial for your cat’s health. So, they are not just useless filler calories in cat food – they benefit your cat when consumed in ideal amounts.
One question you might be asking is: Why grains? A cat’s natural diet doesn’t contain grains, so why have food manufacturers chosen grains as a source of these essential nutrients?
One reason is cost – grains are abundant and are a cheap way to ensure your cat is getting everything it needs. The use of grains is a cost-effective solution. Another reason is that grains provide all the valuable nutrients in one. This helps to keep ingredients lists shorter while not depriving your cat of its essential vitamins and minerals.
2. Contains Digestible Protein
Cats are obligate carnivores and need protein for survival. As such, all commercial cat food contains more protein than any other macronutrient (the other two being carbohydrates and fats). Most of this will come from animal sources, such as chicken, tuna, beef, turkey, or salmon.
While animal-sourced protein is essential for your cat, it needs to digest and metabolize this protein into its amino acids. These are the building blocks of proteins cats can use in their body. However, extracting all this protein from meat may require a high phosphorus intake. Increased consumption of this mineral may trigger kidney-related problems such as chronic kidney disease.
Thankfully, grains are here to help – they’re packed with digestible protein! This means it is more readily available to use in the body. Moreover, grains and vegetables provide your cat with plant-based protein that does not have excessive phosphorus. This is an excellent option for cats with kidney-related problems to ensure they still consume the protein they need.
3. Healthy Source of Fiber
Grains are also a great source of fiber. An appropriate amount of dietary fiber is necessary for several health benefits, including the prevention of hairballs. Insoluble fiber helps to sweep up hair from the intestinal tract and eliminate it from the body. This reduces the risk of intestinal blockages due to hairballs and promotes all-around good gastrointestinal health.
Fiber is also essential in the formation of healthy stools. Too little fiber, and your cat might become constipated. This can make defecation painful and be very uncomfortable for your kitty. Too much fiber, and you’re left with the opposite problem on your hands – runny, watery stools. However, a healthy balance contributes to healthy stool formation.
The benefits of fiber don’t stop there! This nutrient also helps weight control and reduces high blood sugar in cats. With grains comes fiber, and with fiber comes all these benefits.
What Are the Benefits of Grain-Free Diets?
As we’ve just learned, grains benefit your cat’s health. It follows that putting your cat on a grain-free diet removes these health benefits, right? Surprisingly, no! Grain-free diets can be just as healthy!
While grains have several health benefits for your cat, there do not seem to be any serious health issues linked to grain-free dieting in cats. 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.
Of course, this also depends on the quality of the grain-free food of choice. Good quality grain-free cat foods make up for the necessary fiber, minerals, and digestible protein from other whole food sources or supplements. As long as these needs are adequately met, grain-free cat food will not cause any deficiencies for your cat.
Additionally, grain-free dieting carries advantages in certain situations. Below are some benefits foods without corn, wheat, oats, and other grains can bring to your cat.
1. Grain Allergies
The most significant benefit of a grain-free diet is in relation to allergies. Like humans, cats can be allergic to anything they eat. If your cat is allergic to one or more commonly used grains, opting for a grain-free diet has huge health benefits. It will rid your cat of all their nasty allergy symptoms, including:
- Excessive scratching and itching
- Hair loss or a patchy coat
- Intestinal discomfort
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Large amounts of flatulence
- Skin problems such as scabbing
However, keep in mind that grain allergies are extremely rare in cats. In fact, most food allergies in cats are from animal-based protein sources like dairy, fish, beef, or poultry. In most cases, cats can digest the grain content found in standard cat food.
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 performed to determine the source of your cat’s allergy. Grain-free diets can be hugely beneficial if your cat does have a grain allergy but always pinpoint the exact source before making any drastic changes.
2. High in Protein
I mentioned earlier how there is a common misconception that grain-free food contains more protein. The calories from grains can be replaced by any macronutrient, be that protein, carbohydrates, or fats. However, choosing the right grain-free option can introduce more protein into the diet.
Cats need protein for survival, and there are some instances when a high-protein diet is required. For example, iron-rich cat food for cats with anemia typically has more heme protein by replacing grains and plants with animal products. The only way to get more protein into cat food is to remove another element, and grains are a simple swap to make.
On the converse, high-protein low-grain diets aren’t for everyone! Feeding cats too much protein can lead to obesity as excess protein is stored as fat. Cats with chronic kidney disease should also avoid high-protein diets. All extra protein is processed through the kidneys, and you don’t want to put any more strain on these organs than necessary.
3. Fewer Carbohydrates
Finally, grain-free cat food is helpful if you want to put your furry friend on a low-carb diet. As I mentioned earlier, “no grains” does not necessarily mean the cat food is low on carbohydrates. However, grains are a type of carb. Cutting out grains and replacing them with fat or protein – instead of an alternate carbohydrate source – does create a low-carb formula.
Why would you want to reduce the number of carbs your cat eats? Too many carbohydrates are difficult to digest. After all, cats are obligate carnivores and are much better adapted to breaking down protein. Therefore, dry and wet cat food for sensitive stomachs is usually low in carbohydrates. They are more easily digestible and improve the formation of healthy stools.
Grains in the Cat Diet: FAQs
As you can see, feline nutrition and grain-free diets are much more complex than they initially appear. To help improve your understanding, here are some questions and answers about the ideal consumption of grains for cats.
What Type of Grains Are Best for My Cat?
There is no one best type of grain for cats. The common grains in most cat food are wheat, corn, oats, barley, and rice. All these grains are perfectly fine and easy for your cat to digest. Since grains take up a relatively small portion of a cat’s diet, the type of grain they consume doesn’t make much difference.
A distinction that seems to concern cat parents regarding different types of grains is their gluten content. As I’ve mentioned, some grains have gluten while others don’t. However, this is a non-issue because gluten has no adverse 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. Whole grains have their complete nutrient profiles intact, whereas processed grains are stripped from many valuable nutrients. In fact, processed grains are predominantly made of starch and not much else!
Therefore, whole grains should be your preferred choice if you want all the health benefits. But as I’ve said, since the consumption of these grains is very little, there isn’t any substantial difference to worry about. Opting for high-quality protein over processed meat is a much more crucial decision.
What Is the Ideal Quantity 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 as follows:
- 30-50% crude protein
- 10-25% fats
- 2-8% fiber
- 5-10% ash (minerals)
Since grains aren’t listed on cat food content labels like macronutrients are, you can’t know precisely how much of a given grain is in the food. What you can know, however, is the overall carbohydrate content. Grains contain all the above nutrients to some extent, but they are a particularly rich source of carbs.
Carbohydrates also aren’t listed on the labels specifically, but you can deduce the carbohydrate amount by subtracting the total of these percentages from 100. For example, cat food containing 45% protein, 20% fats, 5% fiber, and 10% ash contains 20% carbohydrates (100 – 45 – 20 – 5 – 10 = 20).
Ideally, carbs should be somewhere between 5 to 25% on a dry matter basis – although many dry foods, unfortunately, exceed this range. As long as the carbohydrate content level falls within the ideal range, you can rest assured that the grain content is also appropriate (unless the food is grain-free).
I keep referring to “dry matter” here, and it’s important to know what this means. 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.
Does Dry Cat Food Have More Grains?
The carbohydrate amount in dry food is usually much higher than 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 essential source of carbohydrates, so dry foods likely have more grains. However, carbs can also come from other sources such as vegetables (such as potatoes and carrots) and legumes (such as peas and beans). Therefore, the level of grains in dry vs. wet food may not always 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 your cat stays hydrated. If your cat is used to kibble and has difficulty 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 unnecessary for most 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 addition 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 low-carb. Opt for foods with 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 various 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 considered the other ingredients 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%.
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%.
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 controversial 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 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%.
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 typical 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 primary 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 choose grain-free cat food, please thoroughly evaluate the ingredients and nutrient amounts. 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.