These days, demand for premium, specialized, and even organic pet foods has grown as pet lovers place more value on what they perceive to be most “healthy” for their furry family members. But conscientious cat owners really don’t need to spend top dollar for nutritious food that will keep their feline friends in top form.
To identify the best budget cat food, we pored through expert recommendations and nutritional advice to better understand what to look for when considering different cat foods and recipe components. Most of our choices for best cheap cat food won’t cost consumers more than 30 cents an ounce, and even our pricier picks won’t take too large of a bite out of more indulgent owners’ wallets. As a bonus, we’ve also recommended an affordable cat food catering to cats with sensitive stomachs and a raw cat food with ingredients so prime users say the health benefits are worth the comparatively hefty price.
Our picks (and estimated costs) are representative of the wide assortment of flavors and formulas each brand offers. Cost per ounce for dry food is based on smallest bag size available. Prices may vary.
If you want all of the benefits of a raw food diet without chopping and cutting and preparing, consider a food such as Primal Chicken & Salmon Formula Nuggets Grain-Free Raw Freeze-Dried Cat Food. This cat food is made from hormone-free chicken and salmon, and is great as either a fully rounded meal or a supplement to your cat’s raw food diet. It contains no grain, gluten, corn, wheat or soy, and gives your cat the amino acids and fatty acids they need to feel their best.
Owners love that you don’t have to prepare Primal Freeze-Dried Cat Food with water or liquid—simply open up the bag and feed. While some reviewers feed Primal as a full meal, many mix it with prepared raw or dry cat food to give their cat extra much-needed nutrients and vitamins.
Low in carbohydrates and very high in moisture and protein.
Good for cats with health issues like urinary tract infections, diabetes, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Several flavor combinations complement primary proteins (tuna or chicken) and add variety.
Uses wild-caught tuna and contains no GMOs or glutens.
Recipes contain more fish than some owners would prefer their cats to consume.
Texture may be too smooth for some cats’ liking, according to reviews.
Contains less protein than other Tiki Cat wet foods.
Takeaway: Tiki Cat earns praise from experts for its limited-ingredient recipes that give cats healthy, calorie-dense nutrition without fillers. The most budget-friendly wet cat food the brand offers, this Aloha Friends blend contains pumpkin for fiber, sunflower oil for fat and omegas, and plenty of broth for moisture — and all of the flavors are grain free and gluten free. If you’re looking for even higher protein percentages than are found in these recipes, you might also consider the brand’s Grill and Luau canned cat food lines. Although they cost slightly more (and cans are smaller at 2.8 ounces), user ratings are even higher for these varieties. In fact, Tiki Cat’s Succulent Chicken flavor from the Luau line is ranked fourth by CatFoodDB out of more than 1500 canned cat food products considered, and other top contenders are decidedly more expensive than this affordable natural cat food brand. Since most Tiki Cat formulas are fish-heavy in their ingredients, which may raise allergy issues or mercury concerns, many reviewers say it is good now and then but not for everyday feeding. Tiki Cats Aloha Friends cat food is available in both cans and convenient pouches.
Although the Missing Link Supplement was created to supplement canned and dry food, it also works very well to add nutrients to your cat’s raw food diet. This powder is cold-pressed to preserve the nutrients and gives your cat added Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, dietary fiber, and phytonutrients to help improve skin, coat, and immune health. It contains zero GMOs, preservatives or artificial colors or flavors, and should be added to your cat’s food gradually to ensure they adjust to the added nutrients.
The Missing Link is definitely a favorite among cat lovers. Some owners even call it a “miracle”, saying it helped resolve ailments ranging from irritated skin to upset stomachs. If you’re worried your cat isn’t getting the nutrients they need on their raw food diet, this is a great supplement.
Brand is a top choice of veterinarians to feed their own pets, according to surveys.
No artificial ingredients or preservatives.
Lower-phosphorus formula is good for cats with kidney problems.
Contains high-quality proteins for less renal stress.
Users claim “Youthful Vitality” blends have, indeed, boosted energy levels in senior cats.
Most recipes contain wheat or corn gluten.
Some cats love the gravy but not the chunks in chunkier varieties, and some balk at the paté texture of the entrée recipes.
A few owners say it doesn’t seem to fill up their pets.
Takeaway: Hill’s Science Diet pet food is a ubiquitous mainstay at many vets’ offices, and the brand is known for its wide variety of special formulas meant to address specific health issues. For cats, there are recipes geared towards everything from urinary tract health to hairball control and skin sensitivity, just to name a few. The brand’s Adult 7+ canned food recipes are customized to suit senior cats and their unique nutritional needs, starting with relatively high moisture contents as well as softer textures that make them easier to chew. Low sodium and lower phosphorus levels (just under 0.7%) also make them more healthy for cats that may have renal health struggles or heart disease. We did read a fair number of comments from reviewers who say their cats turned their noses up at this food, and some say that the added water makes it less filling, but on the whole owners praise Hill’s Science Diet for keeping their mature cats both satisfied and thriving. These Adult 7+ mixes are available in 10 canned varieties as well as five dry food recipes. There are also blends for senior cats aged 11 and above.
We love Instinct Freeze Dried Raw Boost Mixers for cat owners who want to give their kitty a little boost with raw food without changing over to an entirely raw diet. Made with cold-pressure processing to ensure safety, this topper has chicken and chicken liver as well as pumpkin seeds, carrots, apples, and butternut squash. It contains no grain, potato, corn, wheat, soy, or by-product meal, and is a great product if you have a picky eater who needs a little enticing to finish their food.
Reviewers say Instinct is a great alternative to a fully raw diet, noting that it works well for finicky eaters or aging cats who need extra nutrition. While it’s intended as a food topper, it also works well as a treat.
High in meat content/protein, low in carbohydrates.
Quality meats include cage-free duck and chicken, wild-caught salmon, and grass-fed rabbit, venison, and lamb; USA-raised beef.
Grain-free; carbohydrates come from fruit and vegetables as well as flaxseed (a good source of fiber).
No corn, wheat, soy, or potato.
High in moisture.
Many varieties contain egg, which might be an allergen for some cats.
Paté texture doesn’t appeal to every cat.
Some users complain of suspected changes in formula or quality control issues.
Takeaway: While this certainly can’t be called cheap cat food, the top-shelf ingredients in this line of Instinct canned cat food make it a reviewer favorite and a best buy in many books. CatFoodDB gives the majority of wet recipes in this line a rating of 9 out of 10 for composition and nutritional value, while All About Cats calls it “a promising choice for cats with food sensitivities and allergies.” Pet owners claim that this food has alleviated all sorts of kitty ailments, including many gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, weight problems, skin and coat issues, and various allergies. They also say that transitioning from other pet foods to this one took less time than expected. On the downside, some cats don’t like the mushy texture, and a few reviewers complain about the prevalence of pork in the rabbit flavor. Instinct Original Grain-Free comes in seven canned cat food varieties and includes larger, 5.5-ounce cans for households with multiple cats. The brand also carries limited-ingredient and high-protein wet cat food options, dry food, pouches, and several flavors of raw food.
Wysong Addlife Food Supplement is a great way to dress up commercial cat food or to add to raw chicken or turkey in order to give your cat extra vitamins. Simply sprinkle the topper onto your cat’s food and you’ll give their diet a boost of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. This powder supplement contains ingredients such as chicken, fish, and blueberries, and should be refrigerated after opening to maintain the quality.
Reviewers love that this supplement is incredibly easy to use and doesn’t require any extra steps. Owners use it both as a supplement for commercial food or homemade raw meals, and many say their cats will go nuts for it.
Meant to replicate “primal diet” cats would eat in the wild.
Made from 98% animal protein; cage-free poultry, farm-raised rabbit, and wild-caught fish.
Vitamins and minerals from organic fruits and vegetables.
No grains or glutens; no potatoes, peas, or lentils.
Simple to rehydrate by adding water, or can be eaten straight from the package.
Easy to digest for cats with sensitive stomachs or bowel issues, according to owners.
Much more expensive than many other cat foods.
The fish flavor is extremely smelly, according to consumer feedback.
Some of the nuggets may be too big for some cats to chew.
Takeaway: Stella and Chewy cat food is made primarily from raw animal protein, with ingredients like pumpkin seeds for additional protein, and fat and kelp for nutrients and prebiotic properties. This freeze-dried cat food can be served dry or rehydrated. Cats seem to adore it, according to consumer reviews, and users like being able to adjust the amount of water to the consistency that their cats prefer. Some people use the dried nuggets (which are still soft enough to chew) as a snack for their cats, or as a treat or a pill pocket; and others say they add it as a supplement to either wet or dry food. While many cat owners attribute more sparing use of this cat food to the far-from-budget price, the majority say the extra expense is worth it — particularly those who’d already run up vet bills trying to cure their cats of ailments that switching to this raw food seems to have alleviated. Many say also that the convenience and comparative low cost compared to fresh raw food (and even some other brands) makes Stella and Chewy’s freeze-dried cat food an attractive option. These “dinner morsels” come in six flavors: chicken, duck, turkey, salmon and chicken, salmon and cod, and rabbit.
Standard Measuring Cups/Day
Remember to keep plenty of fresh water available to your pet at all times.
A quarter of American households contain at least one cat according to the most recent American Veterinary Medicine Association pet ownership demographic survey, and the average cat-owning household accommodates more than one furry friend. That’s a lot of food over the typical feline lifetime —up to 17 years and counting for some indoor cats. And while pampering pets with high-priced delicacies is increasingly the fashion, there are plenty of budget-friendly foods available that will more than satisfy most cats’ finicky tastes and nutritional needs.
At the same time, cats are notoriously independent, and what they don’t like they cannot be persuaded to eat. Most cat owners find that trial and error is the only way to discover which cat food will keep their choosy customer well fed. So, while we looked at what industry professionals had to say about nutrition, it was the cats who really made a difference. In addition to reviews posted online at pet food retailers such as Chewy and PetSmart, traditional ecommerce sites such as Amazon and Walmart, and cat-oriented blogs and newsletters, we also conducted an informal poll of a few cat-owning households to learn their animals’ preferences. Not surprisingly, we found that while many owners are inclined to feed their cats what humans (including vets) might consider appetizing and most healthy, the cats often had other ideas.
Wet Cat Food vs. Dry Cat Food
Anyone who owns a cat is surely familiar with the long-standing wet cat food versus dry cat food conundrum. Some vets recommend wet food only, citing benefits such as higher moisture content and protein levels, a formula that most closely resembles the natural diet for cats. Also, since sufficient hydration is necessary for urinary tract and renal health, high-moisture canned cat food can lessen the need for water intake. (Still, experts recommend at least one-third cup of water a day for each 10 pounds of weight for cats who dine exclusively on wet pet food.)
For many cat owners, however, dry cat food boasts significant advantages. It’s cheaper than canned, mess free (no slop on the counter or floor, no cans to recycle), won’t spoil when left all day in the feeding bowl, and generally gives off a less pungent odor. Dry cat food also may help keep teeth sharp and healthy. On the other hand, not only does dry cat food contain less protein and more filler than wet cat food, but lack of moisture content can present issues. Because cats are “programmed” to get most of the fluid they need from the meat they eat, they don’t instinctively drink lots of water — which may make for difficulties getting your pet to ingest the expert-recommended minimum of at least 1 cup of water a day for each 10 pounds of weight if the animal’s diet consists entirely of kibble. Some pet owners resolve this wet versus dry cat food dilemma by serving canned food in the morning and dry food at night, or a mix of wet cat food and dry cat food.
Regardless of personal preferences, what really matters when choosing between types of cat food is the quality. The experts at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center say there’s no evidence to suggest wet cat food or dry cat food is better for a cat’s overall health and either wet or dry food is acceptable as long as it contains sufficient nutrients and your cat is staying sufficiently hydrated.
Kidney problems are common in cats, particularly as they age. To help counteract these disorders, and stave off loss of muscle mass, vets suggest that older cats require high-quality protein from animal rather than vegetable sources. Older cats, as well as younger, may also require special diets directed at a wide spectrum of other health issues, too, such as urinary tract infections, hairballs, dry skin, sensitive stomachs, and excess weight (and diabetes). The good news is that in addition to the pricier specialized brands and prescription foods that you’ll find in vet’s offices, there are plenty of widely-available cheap cat foods with recipes designed to aid in digestion and address other common health concerns.
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