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A complete guide to cat food ingredients

Choosing the right food for your cat can be challenging. Many brands have unclear ingredients lists, which makes quality cat food hard to recognise. If you can find it on store shelves, it must be okay for cats, right? Not really.

Have you ever wondered what’s in cat food and whether cat food ingredients comply with the rules about what cats should eat? Untamed tackles cat food ingredients and answers the following questions:

  • What is cat food made of?
  • What does a healthy feline diet look like?
  • Which ingredients should you look for, and which ones are harmful to felines?
  • Is there a way to recognise quality cat food at first glance?

What is in cat food?

Most commercial cat food (dry, wet, and semi-moist) contains the following ingredients:

  • Meat (poultry or cattle)
  • Fish
  • Grain
  • Vegetables
  • Meat and vegetable by-products
  • Nutrient supplements
  • Synthetic thickeners
  • Flavour enhancers

Are these ingredients good for cats? The only way to get a definitive answer to this question is to take a closer look at essential feline nutritional needs and compare them to available cat food options.

An overhead shot of a white cat following dry food trails to the food bowl

Since when is the food coming to me? Oh, it’s for shooting purposes only.

Source: Freepik

What should cat food contain?

Every cat food manufacturer should strive to include adequate amounts of the following nutrients in their products:

  1. Water
  2. Fat
  3. Vitamins
  4. Minerals
  5. Protein

Water in cat food

Moisture in cat food plays a big part because it keeps felines properly hydrated. Did you know that wild cats don’t drink much water and get almost all the moisture they need from food? The ideal moisture content in cat food is around 70%, and commercially sold wet food typically meets this criterion. Cats who prefer biscuits should be given water and an occasional jelly or gravy meal or switched to wet food completely to support proper hydration.

Providing your cat with enough moisture is crucial to prevent dehydration. If left untreated, dehydration could lead to death or various medical problems, such as:

  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Blood flow reduction 
  • Poor oxygen transportation
  • Accumulation of harmful toxins

If your kitty is not fond of wet food, you can add some soup or broth to their biscuits to boost the moisture content.

Why do cats need fat?

Fat is primarily a taste enhancer, but it also transports nutrients to cells, impacts the speed of nerve signal transmissions, and acts as a secondary energy source when protein supplies are scarce. Consequently, fat should make up to 20% of your cat’s diet. 

Vitamins in cat food

Thanks to vitamins, all metabolic processes in a feline body work seamlessly. Vitamins that are essential for cats include:





  • Healthy skin
  • Proper vision
  • Reproductive health
  • Mucous membranes
  • Bone and tooth growth


Increases calcium and phosphorus levels which support growth and maintenance of bones


Has an antioxidative effect on the organism


Plays a crucial role in blood clotting


Partakes in carbohydrate metabolism

Niacin, pyridoxine, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid

Enable metabolising of fats, protein, and carbohydrates

Folic acid

Participates in the synthesis of DNA and methionine (an amino acid)


Helps in the production of fatty acids, amino acids, and DNA/RNA

Vitamin B12

Helps process fat and carbohydrates and enables proper nerve conduction


Is a neurotransmitter, a part of cell membranes, and a lipid transporter

The best source of vitamins for cats are organ meats, such as the liver

Protein in cat food

Proteins are chains of amino acids crucial for cats because they:

  • Are their main source of energy
  • Support healthy hair growth
  • Ensure a proper immune response

Felines need 22 amino acids to stay healthy, 11 of which they can’t synthesise (essential amino acids), as follows:

  • Valine
  • Lysine
  • Taurine
  • Leucine
  • Arginine
  • Threonine
  • Histidine
  • Tryptophan
  • Methionine
  • Isoleucine
  • Phenylalanine

Essential amino acids play a vital role in all metabolic processes. Since cats can’t synthesise them (or can, but in insufficient quantities), they must get them from food. Some amino acids—such as taurine—are only available in meat.

The ideal amount of protein for cats is at least 50% of their daily food intake. Since cats thrive on a high-protein diet, their diet should be based on:

Food group




  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Tuna
  • Sardine


  • Shrimp
  • Prawns

You can also treat your cat to lean deli meats, such as ham, but only occasionally and in moderation. Cold cuts have a high-calorie content and could cause your kitty to gain weight quickly.

Many cat food manufacturers include plant protein in their products, so they can claim that the product’s overall protein content is high. Cats are obligate carnivores, which means their digestive system is designed to absorb animal protein only. Plant protein is inappropriate for felines since they can’t break it down and utilise it properly.

A neat display of raw shrimp, salmon, tuna, chicken breast, chicken liver, and duck breast

Did someone mention a buffet breakfast?

Image (c) Untamed

What cat food shouldn’t 

Ingredients you should steer clear from in your kitty’s diet are:

  1. Meat derivatives
  2. Vegetable derivatives
  3. Raw meat and bones
  4. Dairy
  5. Grains
  6. Preservatives and artificial flavours and colours
  7. Sugar
  8. Spices

Why are meat derivatives bad?

Meat derivatives (also known as meat or animal by-products) are leftovers from the human food industry. They can be cheap slaughterhouse scraps that enable manufacturers to sell their products at low prices.

Animal by-products can include any of the following:

  • Meat fit for human consumption
  • Fish and crustaceans fit for human consumption
  • Meat meant for human consumption but withdrawn for commercial reasons
  • Shellfish shells
  • Domestic catering waste
  • Processed animal proteins (PAPs)
  • Eggs, eggshells, and egg by-products
  • Hides, skins, hooves, feathers, wool, horns, and hair with no signs of infectious disease

Meat or not, you never know what’s in your kitty’s food, and the by-products go through so many stages of processing that they lose most of their nutritional value and become packed with chemicals during food production.

Reasons to avoid vegetable derivatives

Most commercial cat food options advertised as rich in protein source this nutrient from plants. The food might contain a lot of vegetable protein, but cats can’t break it down and absorb it (which is why felines can’t be vegan).

Vegetable derivatives also boost calories of a particular food but are highly processed, don’t provide nutritional value, and can even cause stomach upsets.

Shouldn’t cats eat raw food?

The rising trend of B.A.R.F. cat food confuses cat parents presenting raw food as the best option for their feline’s diet. Although it’s nutritionally close to a wild cat’s diet, raw meat and bones could transmit harmful microorganisms or cause internal organ damage. No matter how much those eyes beg you, skip raw chicken or any other uncooked meat.

Close-up shot of a grey tabby cat licking a portion of raw food from a small white plate

When I asked for a rare steak, I didn’t mean uncooked!

Source: faimmuseau

Why is dairy bad? Aren’t cats supposed to drink milk?

Contrary to popular belief, cats shouldn’t drink milk because most lack the enzymes to digest it. Cats drinking milk experience nausea, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain. While your cat can occasionally have some yoghurt or cheese, larger quantities of any dairy product can cause stomach upsets.

Are grains bad for cats?

To say that grains are a suboptimal choice for cats would be an understatement. 

You should opt for grain-free cat food because:

  • Grains are an indicator of nutritionally poor food—Grains are typically used by cat food manufacturers as fillers or binding agents for dry cat food
  • Food with grains has a high carbohydrate content—Felines don’t need carbohydrates. They can have a bit of dietary fibre to boost digestion, but most commercial cat food exceeds the allowed amount (less than 3% of your cat’s daily food intake)
  • Grains cause food allergies—Veterinarians claim that cats who prefer food containing a particular ingredient could develop allergies if they have it every day. Grain is one of the most common allergens in cats
  • Cats on a nutritionally inappropriate diet eat more—Food packed with grains might cause your cat to crave more food to compensate for the lack of nutrients. This can lead to overeating, weight gain, and obesity
Ginger Exotic Shorthair looking at a plate with two cat-head-shaped slices of bread and a glass of milk

No milk or bread? What did I do to you today?

Source: elenacattaneo

Why are preservatives and artificial colours and flavours bad for cats?

Artificial flavouring should improve the taste of the particular product, and artificial colourings make it more appealing to the human eye (targets cats parents). Both aim to hide the nutritional deficiency of the product in question.

Harsh chemical preservatives—such as sulfites—cause thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, while others—such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin—can cause allergies and cancer.

Reasons to avoid sugar

Some cat parents might think a little sugar will do no harm to their furry friends and might make them like their food more. 

The truth is:

  • Manufacturers use sugar to give their products an appealing brown caramelised colour or thicken the sauce (if applicable)
  • Cats can’t taste sweet
  • Felines who eat sugar might experience vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and other gastrointestinal problems
  • High-sugar content causes weight gain, which could lead to diabetes and other health problems
  • Cats who eat food packed with sugar often have dental problems which (if left untreated) can cause early teeth loss

Why shouldn’t cat food have spices?

Spices aren’t beneficial for cats in any way and can even be toxic.

Check out the table below for more details:

Spices cats can have in small amounts

Spices toxic to cats

  • Parsley
  • Catnip
  • Sage
  • Cilantro
  • Dandelion
  • Thyme
  • Dill
  • Rosemary
  • Valerian Root
  • Garlic powder
  • Chives
  • Scallions
  • Oregano
  • Cocoa
  • Tarragon
  • Cannabis
  • Bay leaf
  • Mint
  • Salt

If your cat ingested toxic spices, take them to the vet immediately. Special pet food spices are the safest way to make your feline’s dishes appetising.

How to recognise quality cat food 

You might feel confused and scared when you enter a pet store and numerous products stacked on shelves, but did you know that cat food packaging speaks volumes? Untamed explains cat food labels and ingredient lists to help you make the best choice for your feline companion.

The true meaning behind cat food labels

According to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA), here’s what pet food labels mean:




The ingredients used during production can only be refrigerated—further processing or adding preservatives to prolong the product’s shelf life is prohibited


The use of synthetic ingredients is prohibited. The ingredients mustn’t contain additives or be subjected to chemical processing


The cleaning materials and pest control methods were strictly monitored and regulated, and no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or synthetic ingredients were used during the production


The product must contain all nutrients essential to cats in sufficient amounts

Light cat food

The food contains 15% fewer calories than products in the same category


The ingredient that follows is 15% more or less present in the food than in same-category products

No added/Made without/Without added/Formulated without

The ingredient that follows is not used as an ingredient directly or indirectly as an additive, animal feed, or similar

Estimating the quality of cat food by analysing its ingredient list

You don’t have to be a veterinarian or cat nutrition specialist to decipher cat food ingredient lists.

Products with long ingredient lists typically feature a lot of nutritional supplements, which indicates that the food itself is nutritionally inadequate. 

Many cat food manufacturers add vitamins and minerals to boost your cat’s health. If it’s a long list of vitamins and minerals and you notice amino and fatty acids in the mix, the product probably contains nutritionally poor ingredients. High-quality cat food doesn’t require additional supplementation.

Short ingredient lists can be a double-edged sword if you don’t read them thoroughly. Cat food manufacturers often group ingredients to shorten lists and appear more credible. A good example is when a brand lists meat as an ingredient, but you have no clue whether the food contains whole meat, organ meat, processed meat, meat by-products, or something else. 

With numerous fishy brands on the market, you can rarely find reliable and transparent ones, but Untamed ticks the right boxes. We firmly believe that you deserve to know what’s in your furry friend’s food bowl and that every ingredient should be appropriate and nutritious.

Untamed—earning cat parents’ trust with quality cat food ingredients

We understand every cat parent’s struggle with choosing high-quality cat food, so we keep things simple—our ingredients are of human-grade quality and gently cooked.

When you choose Untamed, you say:

Yes to

No to

  • Finest whole meat and fish
  • Vet-formulated recipes
  • Double the amount of protein than the industry standard
  • Optimal hydration 
  • Healthy and tasty cat food
  • Carbon-neutral operations and recyclable packaging
  • Harmful chemicals
  • Meat and vegetable by-products
  • Grain fillers
  • Sugar
  • Animal cruelty
  • Additional food preparation

If you want to see the difference healthy cat food makes, order your taster pack NOW!

How to order your taster pack

Untamed offers a convenient platform to buy canned cat food online. To order your first batch:

  1. Visit our Try Now page
  2. Complete the questionnaire
  3. Pick a meal plan

Your package will be on your doorstep in a day. If your furry friend loves it, you can get a steady supply of your feline’s favourites every month. You’re in total control of the cat food subscription—modify, pause, delay, or cancel any order if you need to.

Hungry Scottish Fold with orange eyes and a black coat sitting next to their food dish and two cans of Untamed cat food

Can we order again?

Image (c) Untamed

What makes Untamed great?

Our recipes are appropriate for cats of any:

We won the hearts of the most finicky felines. Here’s an expected timeline of Untamed health benefits as reported by our happy clients:

When did they notice the change?

What happened?

After one month

  • Better digestion
  • Less mess in litter boxes

After two months

  • More energy
  • Improved muscle tone

After four months

After six months

What happens if the ingredients in your cat’s food are nutritionally inadequate?

If your feline’s food is inadequate, they will quickly show signs of nutritional deficiency, such as:

Nutritional deficiency often happens in cats on an ill-planned homemade diet or low-quality commercial cat food. 

When to exercise extra caution around cat food ingredients

Pay special attention to food if your cat suffers from:

  • Diabetes
  • Food allergies or intolerances (diagnosed or suspected)
  • Kidney problems, cystitis, struvite crystals, and other urinary tract infections (UTIs)

Felines with these conditions require medical attention and monitoring as well as a tailor-made diet.

Sensitive cats react badly to too many ingredients in one meal. If your kitty has stomach upsets, consider switching to single-source protein meals, such as Untamed’s Chocka Chicken and Tuck-in Tuna.