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Best Grain Free Cat Food

‘Grain-free’ is definitely a popular buzzword when it comes to pet food. Manufacturers are so keen to tell pet owners that their particular recipe contains no grain, that you’ll find the claim plastered across tens of products down any pet food aisle.

As obligate carnivores, cats should never eat large amounts of carbohydrates, so removing grain from their diet is always a plus. However, taking the ‘grain-free’ label as a synonym for ‘healthy’, without a close look at the ingredients list, may leave your cat with a less nutritious dinner than they began with.

To sort the marketing spiel from the genuine health claims, we reviewed hundreds of the biggest grain-free products on the market. Here are the grain-free cat foods that came out on top in 2020:

Why do manufacturers love to shout about being grain-free?

Even though evidence suggests that domestic cats may be able to metabolize carbohydrates far more efficiently than their wild cousins, they still don’t source any major nutritional value from carbs, especially grains.

Despite this, many pet food brands opt to raise their profit margins rather than create the best product possible, by stuffing their products with low-value rice, wheat, corn, oats, or barley. Because these grains aren’t directly harmful to cats, and are hard to spot in a dried or jellied product, manufacturers usually get away with it!

By going grain-free, pet food companies are signaling that they put your cat’s health before their own bottom line (even if they do charge slightly more for their grainless options.) By the same token, it’s assumed that, if a brand goes to the effort of formulating their meals without grain, their recipes also source healthy options for other key ingredients, such as proteins and fats.

On a side note, there may also be some association between the rise of grain-free pet foods and the recent popularity of gluten-free alternatives in human food products.

The best grain-free cat food 2020

Best grain-free dry food

The ‘grain-free’ label is perhaps most useful when shopping for dry foods—the category where grains and other unhealthy fillers are the most widespread. Dr. Elsey’s cleanprotein dry formula is about as healthy as dry cat food gets, with a nutritional profile inspired by the protein levels found in natural prey.

Dr. Elsey’s cleanprotein Chicken Formula Grain-Free Dry Cat Food
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First ingredients:

  1. Chicken
  2. Dried egg product
  3. Pork protein isolate
  4. Gelatin
  5. Chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols)

With an all-animal first five ingredients, this formula manages to source 90 percent of its protein content from natural animal sources with a high biological value—mainly chicken, pork, salmon, and egg. This not only makes it a great supplement to wet food but also an effective way to support underweight or growing cats.

As a true grain-free recipe, Dr. Elsey’s is extremely light on carbohydrates and sugars, as well as being “no-to-low oxalate,” meaning that it’s appropriate for cats with a high risk of developing oxalate crystals and bladder stones.

What are owners saying?

Over 300 reviewers have given Dr. Elsey’s cleanprotein formula a rating of 4.5, with many owners pointing out how switching kibbles resulted in healthy weight loss. Others noted how their picky cats seemed immediately interested in this product—which counts as unusual behavior for them.

Nutritional info:

  • Crude protein (min): 59.0%
  • Crude fat (min): 18.0%
  • Crude fiber (max): 4.0%
  • Moisture (max): 12.0%
  • Carbohydrates: 7.0%

Best grain-free wet food

We love the simplicity of this recipe from Tiki Cat. It’s basically just hormone and antibiotic-free whole chicken combined with chicken broth, supplemented with all the minerals, fats, and essential amino acids that your cat needs to thrive.

Tiki Cat Puka Puka Luau Succulent Chicken in Chicken Consomme Grain-Free Canned Cat Food
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Key features:

  • Hormone and antibiotic-free chicken
  • Zero grain, gluten, carbohydrate, starch, or flour

First 5 ingredients:

  1. Chicken
  2. Chicken Broth
  3. Sunflower Seed Oil
  4. Calcium Lactate
  5. Dicalcium Phosphate

As a result, the formula has an optimal ratio of proteins to fats, as well as an impressive array of medium- and long-chain fatty acids—compounds such as Omega oils, which help maintain cats’ skin, coat, and digestive health.

Because Tiki Cat has a commitment to using no grains, gluten, carbohydrates, starches, or flours in their premium recipes, we consider this formula to be suitable for all types of cat and life stages. In fact, the brand has gathered hundreds of positive reviews from a range of owners, including those who were recommended the food by their vet, and owners of moggies vulnerable to bladder crystal flare-up.

Nutritional info:

  • Crude protein (min): 16%
  • Crude fat (min): 2.6%
  • Moisture (max): 80.0%

Best grain-free food for kittens

With its first 6 ingredients being animal-based, Wellness Core Natural stands out as one of the most meat-rich recipes on this list.

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Key features:

  • First 6 ingredients meat based
  • High protein, high fat
  • Grain free
  • No carrageenan, artificial colors, flavors, or meat byproducts

First 5 ingredients:

  1. Turkey
  2. Chicken Liver
  3. Turkey Broth
  4. Chicken
  5. Chicken Meal

Nutritional Profile

What the owners are saying?

“This food is a noticeable step up: my kittens devour their food, it smells delicious, and their coats are silky soft.”

“I think he really likes how soft and juicy it is. Unfortunately, it is not in my budget to continue feeding.”

Nutritional info:

  • Crude protein (min): 12.0%
  • Crude fat (min): 7.5%
  • Crude fiber (max): 1.0%
  • Moisture (max): 78.0%

Best grain-free food for cats with sensitive stomachs

Merrick has created this limited-ingredient recipe that goes beyond being simple ‘grain-free,’ adding carefully picked carbohydrates that should support cats with difficulties digesting regular foods.

Merrick Limited Ingredient Diet Grain-Free Real Chicken Recipe Dry Cat Food
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First 5 ingredients:

  1. Deboned Chicken,
  2. Chicken Meal,
  3. Chickpeas,
  4. Peas,
  5. Chicken Fat (Preserved with Mixed Tocopherols).

Chickpeas are a tried-and-tested source of plant fiber, while Merrick ensures that the chicken meal, which they pair with the whole chicken, doesn’t contain any potato or other gluten sources.

What are owners saying?

With a rating of 4.2 by over 132 reviewers, many owners of picky cats found that this formula stood out as being far more palatable than most. It’s also been used by several customers as a way to continue feeding their cats chicken without encountering digestive issues. However, as can be the case with formulas targeted at cats with sensitive stomachs, a significant number of cats simply refused to eat Merrick’s grain-free food.

Nutritional info:

  • Protein: 34%
  • Fat: 14%

Best grain-free food for indoor cats

With its high protein/high-fat formula, and four sources of meat, Nulo Freestyle’s Duck and Lentil recipe is our pick for the best dry food for indoor cats.

Nulo Freestyle Duck & Lentils Recipe Grain-Free Indoor Dry Cat Food
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Main 5 ingredients

  1. Deboned Chicken
  2. Chicken Meal
  3. Turkey Meal
  4. Deboned Cod
  5. Whole Peas

We like how this recipe retains value for money while also putting cats’ health first, using a mix of whole poultry and oil-rich meat meals. This gives Nulo’s formula an impressive animal protein concentration of 82%, plus significant levels of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

Added nutritional benefit comes in the form of probiotic supplements, dried chicory root, and dried kelp, all designed to support consistent digestion and nutrient absorption. Vitamin A and taurine provide essential components for maintaining eye and heart health.

What are owners saying?

“My cats were chewing through the bag before I even opened this to get to the food. They were already on Nulo but I like this formulation more for adult cats.”

“Bought this originally when my indoor cat had skin issues…I slowly introduced this and in the 6 months he’s been on it exclusively, he no longer has itchy, flaky skin.”

Nutritional info:

  • Crude protein: 40%
  • Crude fat: 17%
  • Moisture content: 10%

Best grain-free food for senior cats

Go with wet food for urinary health. In particular, we recommend this nutrient-dense can with real chicken as the first ingredient.

Blue Buffalo Wilderness Mature Chicken Recipe Grain-Free Canned Cat Food
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First 5 ingredients:

  1. Chicken
  2. Chicken broth
  3. Chicken liver
  4. Potatoes
  5. Pea flour

It has a smooth pate texture that is super popular among finicky felines, so give it a try if palatability is high on your list.

The hearty can is full of healthy fruits, veggies, vitamins, minerals, and taurine and contains absolutely no grain, gluten, by-product meals, corn, wheat, soy, artificial flavors or preservatives. It also has a significant DHA profile to give your cat an extra boost in cognitive functioning and heart health.

Nutritional info:

  • Crude protein (min): 8.0%
  • Crude fat (min): 5.5%
  • Crude fiber (max): 2.0%
  • Moisture (max): 78.0%

Does ‘grain-free’ equal healthy cat food?

Here’s the thing. Making cat food grain-free is definitely a health-forward decision, but taken alone, it’s just not enough information by which to judge the overall nutritional value of your cat’s dinner.

In other words, removing grain is only a benefit if the remaining ingredients stand up to scrutiny, and, if the removed grain isn’t simply replaced by another, less-trending carbohydrate.

There are some cats who may develop allergies or intolerances to different grains, particularly wheat and corn. For these guys, grain-free food is obviously worthwhile. But for the rest of the moggies out there, here are the other nutritional elements needed for ‘grain-free’ to also mean ‘healthier alternative.’