The 21 Best Dry Cat Foods of 2023, With Guidance From Vets
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Dry cat food — aka kibble — was invented in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s and 1990s that it became a phenomenon, says Deb Zoran, a board-certified small animal internist and professor of small animal clinical sciences at the Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Before the late ’80s, most cats lived both indoors and outdoors. They had a lot of food variety, as they caught meals outside and were also fed both kibble and wet cat food. But once pet caregivers began to bring their cats indoors, they also needed to provide all of their meals. Kibble was an affordable, convenient option that met feline nutritional requirements.
In fact, both dry and wet food choices provide the nutrition that cats and kittens need, as long as they’re labeled with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement for their life stage. The biggest difference between the food types comes down to moisture content. Wet foods typically contain 75% to 78% moisture, while dry food contains only 10% to 12% moisture.
When it comes to shopping for kibble, the sheer number of options can make it tough to choose a brand — but our guide to the best dry foods can help. We evaluated and selected 21 foods that meet the AAFCO feline nutritional requirements. Our picks align with our expert-informed criteria and the Global Nutrition Guidelines from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA). You can read more about how to shop for cat food at the end of this article.
When choosing a food for your cat, it’s important to consider their wild roots. Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they mainly eat meat and must get their essential amino acids, like taurine, from animal protein sources. While cats do eat a small amount of grain in the wild, it typically comes from the stomachs of their prey.
To ensure cats consume enough animal protein and other nutrients, the AAFCO recommends minimum nutrient standards for growth and maintenance. According to these standards, food meant for kittens or cats at all life stages must have a minimum of 30% protein and 9% fat. Food meant for adult cats is labeled “maintenance” or “for all life stages” and must have a minimum of 26% protein and 9% fat on a dry matter basis, which is calculated after moisture is removed.
The picks below meet our criteria for quality food for adult cats. While they cost slightly more than our budget picks, they’re packed with ingredients like deboned chicken, salmon, and beef fat.
The price of a pet food doesn’t necessarily indicate its nutritional value or quality, says Dr. Korinn Saker, a board-certified veterinarian and associate professor of clinical nutrition at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
To put it simply, quality food doesn’t have to cost a bundle. Any pet food with a nutritional adequacy statement on the label or packaging will meet the minimum nutritional requirements of your pet. When it comes to cats, Saker says quality means that protein is the number one ingredient, especially for growing kittens and active adults. When animal protein is the first ingredient, that protein source will meet most of a cat’s essential amino acid needs.
Our picks for affordable dry foods have an animal-based protein as the first ingredient. Plus, they’re supplemented with vitamins and minerals like omega fatty acids and antioxidants to promote better overall health for your cat.
Best for indoor cats
Indoor cats love to sleep — as much as 19 hours per day. Even when they have cat trees, perches, and exercise wheels, indoor cats tend to be less active and may have a slower metabolism than their outdoor counterparts, which could leave them more likely to gain excess weight over time. In fact, research suggests up to 63% of pet cats may be overweight or obese.
During wellness exams, your veterinarian uses a 9-point scale called the Body Condition Score (BCS) to assess your cat’s body fat based on observations of their ribs, belly, and hips. The scale ranges from emaciated (1) to obese (9), with a score of 5 representing an ideal weight, or body score. Knowing your cat’s BCS can help you and your veterinarian determine their ideal weight and the number of calories they need to achieve or maintain it.
When purchasing food for your pet, consider the calorie amount per cup and only serve your cat the right amount for their individual needs. Your vet can always offer more guidance on daily feeding if you’re unsure. These low-calorie cat food options are packed with beneficial ingredients for indoor cats, such as soluble and insoluble fiber sources which keeps your cat feeling fuller for longer.
Best for sensitive stomachs
Sensitive stomach cat food formulas may be a good choice if your feline friend shows signs of a food intolerance, including diarrhea and vomiting or gas. Recipes designed for cats with sensitive stomachs typically include highly digestible protein, omega fatty acids to reduce inflammation, and digestive aids like pre- and probiotics.
Just keep in mind it’s always best to talk to your vet before switching to a new food. Also note that a food intolerance is different from a food allergy. A cat with a food allergy may show different signs, like itchy skin and ear infections, in addition to vomiting or diarrhea. The difference between a food allergy and intolerance lies in this immune system response, Saker says.
If you suspect your cat may have an allergy, let your vet know. They’ll likely recommend starting a prescription diet.
Best for senior cats
When cats begin to show signs of aging (beginning at 7 years old) and reach their senior years around age 12, their activity level and metabolism begin to slow. So, you might consider offering a senior cat food with fewer calories and less fat. This switch can benefit your cat’s health, since high-fat diets could lead to weight gain and obesity-related diseases in senior cats with low activity levels, Saker says.
When choosing a senior cat food, it’s important to keep in mind that the AAFCO doesn’t set any specific nutritional recommendations for senior cat foods, says says Dr. Jennifer Larsen, a board-certified veterinarian and professor of clinical nutrition at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Senior cat foods with an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement will meet the minimum nutrient, vitamin, and mineral requirements for adult and senior cats. However, the calories, fats, proteins, and fibers in senior-specific formulas may vary from brand to brand. That’s why it’s a good idea to check each formula’s calorie content and ask your vet for more guidance about your cat’s daily calorie needs.
Zoran says she likes to rotate Nutro into her cats’ food lineup, as their senior diet food has fewer calories than most adult formulas but doesn’t skimp on protein. As part of our senior diet picks, we’ve included food with antioxidants, omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, and beta-carotene. These ingredients may help reduce inflammation, boost your cat’s cognitive function, and support their immune system.
Best for kittens
If your cat is less than a year old, opt for kitten food or food labeled “for all life stages.” Foods labeled for all life stages are formulated to meet the minimum requirements for nutrients needed for growth, like protein, calcium, phosphorus, and fat. These foods will exceed the minimum requirements for an adult cat’s nutritional needs, Saker says.
But foods specially formulated for growing kittens may be a better choice. Not only is the smaller kibble better suited to tiny mouths, kitten food has higher minimum percentages of these essential nutrients. It also has docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that helps support the growth of your kitten’s brain. Good sources of DHA include fish, fish oil, and fish meal.
You can help your kitten explore a variety of foods by rotating your selection of brands, flavors, and textures. According to Zoran, this encourages kittens to be more food flexible throughout their lives. Zoran says this doesn’t mean your kitten should eat brand-new food every day. Instead, rotate foods every two weeks or so. You can gradually transition to a new food by adding a little more of the new food each day. If your kitten doesn’t seem to like the new food or shows signs of an upset stomach, you can slow the transition or switch back to the previous food.
Best for hairball control
Hairballs form when cats groom themselves or each other, two natural and healthy behaviors. Small amounts of hair can pass through your cat’s system and leave their body as waste. But if cats consume too much hair, this excess could end up on your carpet as a hairball — or worse, become stuck inside your cat’s digestive tract and cause an obstruction.
A change in diet shouldn’t replace brushing your cat, but high-fiber cat food can help hair move through the digestive system, says Larsen. “The goal is to use fiber to pull the hair along the gastrointestinal tract so it’s defecated rather than balling up in the stomach,” she says. Some key ingredients that help promote this movement include rice hull, pea fiber, and cellulose.
Plus, there’s another benefit to fiber-rich diets for cats, Larsen says. High-fiber recipes can keep cats feeling fuller for longer while reducing their calorie intake. So, you might consider a diet with more fiber if your vet recommends weight loss for your cat.
What to look for in dry cat food
When shopping for dry cat food for your kitten, adult, or senior cat, you’ll want to consider the following criteria:
AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement: The most basic measure of nutritionally complete cat food is an AAFCO statement on the label. 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, while 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 in a food. Food for kittens should have a minimum of 30% protein and 9% fat, and food for adult cats should have a minimum of 26% protein and 9% fat. Food for cats of any age 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. Because cats are obligate carnivores, proteins in the form of whole meat or meat meal should come first on the ingredients list.
Expert formulations: For this guide, we prioritized brands with a dedicated nutrition expert on staff, which aligns with the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) guidelines and our experts’ guidance. We also opted for brands active in research on small animal nutrition, as well as brands that collaborate with universities and colleges.
Manufacturing standards: When selecting a cat food brand, consider a manufacturer’s quality control measures and the types of facilities they use. For instance, manufacturers that own their plants have more control over the ingredients in the recipe and the food your cat consumes. Just keep in mind that it’s not enough for a brand to say they conduct quality control. Pet food companies should also provide information about their quality control practices on their website or upon request.
Calorie content: The calorie content of cat food is listed in kilocalories (kcals). Your cat will have different calorie needs, depending on their age and activity level. Kittens grow quickly in their first year, and all that growth requires plenty of energy. Therefore, kittens should eat multiple meals per day without calorie restrictions. As your kitten approaches 9 to 12 months of age, talk to your vet about their ideal body condition, weight, and caloric needs.
Once cats reach their adult years, the amount of food they should eat depends on their weight, energy level, breed, and overall health. Your vet can offer more detailed and personalized guidance about how many calories your cat requires per day.
How we selected dry cat food
To select the dry cat foods for this guide, we consulted three veterinary nutritionists.
Dr. Deb Zoran is a board-certified small animal internist, nutritionist, and professor of small animal clinical sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Zoran’s expertise helped us better understand cat nutrition and quality food. She also shared her personal feeding preferences, which may not represent specific endorsements shared by Texas A&M University.
Dr. Jennifer Larsen is a board-certified veterinarian, distinguished member of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, and a professor of clinical nutrition at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis. Larsen’s expertise helped us better understand senior cat nutrition and the role of high-fiber diets in feline nutrition and well-being.
Dr. Korinn Saker is a board-certified veterinarian, distinguished member of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, and a professor of clinical nutrition at the College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University. Saker’s expertise helped improve our understanding of feline food intolerance and sensitivities, as well as an indoor cat’s metabolic needs.
We also consulted guidelines and recommendations from other organizations, including AAFCO and the WSAVA Global Nutrition Guidelines.
Dry cat food FAQs
What are the benefits of dry cat food?
Dry food is a popular choice for its affordability, convenience, and ease of storage. “There is a small amount of evidence that some, very few and specific dry cat foods may have some oral health and dental benefits,” says Dr. Bruce Kornreich, a board-certified veterinary cardiologist and director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “But the most important thing that cat owners can do to maintain their cat’s oral health is to brush their cat’s teeth,” he says.
Which dry cat food brand is the healthiest?
To ensure you’re purchasing quality food for your cat, Zoran recommends first checking the label for the AAFCO statement. That way, you’ll know the recipe meets your cat’s nutritional needs. Then, you might consider other brand attributes, including whether their food has ever been recalled, if they employ board-certified nutritionists, and whether they participate in research studies. If a company is reputable, you can generally trust what they print on the label, according to Zoran.
What is the best dry food to give a cat?
There’s not a perfect dry 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 calorie needs, based on their age, body condition, and overall health.
Is it OK to feed cats dry food only?
Zoran recommends feeding cats a combination of dry and wet food from different brands starting at a young age. This encourages food flexibility in cats and can prevent them from becoming picky eaters — which may prove particularly helpful when their preferred food is unavailable, recipes change, or they require a prescription diet.
Do vets recommend dry or 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 ideal food for your cat generally depends on your budget, along with their overall health and food preferences. However, to prevent finicky tastes and food inflexibility, Zoran recommends rotating textures, proteins, and brands from a young age.
Should I leave dry food out for my cat all day?
Zoran doesn’t recommend free-feeding cats. “It is exceptionally hard to regulate a cat’s weight and proper amount of food by free-choice feeding,” she says. Instead, portion their food into two to three small meals a day. If you’re not sure how much to feed your cat, you can ask your vet for more specific guidance based on your cat’s age, ideal weight, and overall health.
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