Feeding cats can be a tricky business. Owners want to serve nutritious foods and cats will eat only what they choose to eat. Although experts disagree about the detailed particulars of an optimal diet, they agree that cats need plenty of protein, lots of water, and minimal, if any, carbohydrates to thrive. The very best cat foods contain protein from identified sources and very little filler; many are completely grain free.
It's possible to meet most, if not all, of these requirements on the cheap and still find food that appeals to cats as well as their owners. Cheapism.com pored over reviews from experts and users, and even interviewed pet lovers for added input, to identify the best wet and dry food for the average cat. We came up with six budget-friendly brands, and two with a little something extra, that won't cost consumers more than 38 cents an ounce. Even better than the smaller dent they'll make on pet owners' wallets, the majority of cats should deem them delicious -- at least most of the time.
Our picks (and the prices) are representative of the wide assortment of flavors and formulas each brand offers.
Good Cheap Canned Cat Food with Customized Blends
Price: $18.51 (26 cents/ounce; 24 3-ounce cans) | Buy it at Chewy.com
- Specific formulas target life stages and health issues; some options are grain-free.
- Many varieties contain gravy, which ups the moisture content.
- All versions in Pro Plan line list a named protein (such as chicken, turkey, or salmon) as the first or second ingredient (after water).
- Only some varieties are grain-free; others contain wheat, corn, and soy.
- Contains meat by-products.
Takeaway: The urinary tract health version of Purina Pro Plan is particularly popular given the prevalence of this problem among cats. Reviewers at shelters and foster homes say it helps mitigate health issues and cats really go for it.
Good Cheap Grain-Free Dry Cat Food
Price: $10.98 (23 cents/ounce; 3-pound bag) | Buy it from Walmart
- Does not contain wheat, corn, soy, or by-product meal.
- Helps make cats' fur shiny and minimizes hairballs, owners say.
- Many cats prefer this to more expensive dry foods.
- No artificial colors or flavors.
- Fish flavors give off very fishy odor.
- Limited number of flavors, and some are more expensive.
Takeaway: For a low-price, grain-free cat food, Purina Beyond Grain Free is a solid choice. The proteins come from dried fish, chicken, or egg, and carbohydrates are generally limited to sweet potato and peas. Cranberries are added to some varieties to promote urinary-tract health.
Best Cheap Canned Cat Food For Finicky Eaters
Price: $13.23 (18 cents/ounce; 24 3-ounce cans) | Buy it from Walmart
- Finicky cats scarf it down.
- Options include the classic pâté style, grilled, sliced, shredded, as well as selections for gravy lovers.
- High in protein, with only a few meat by-products.
- Small amount of wheat gluten in a few varieties; absent in many others.
- Contains artificial colors and flavors.
- Some cats present with gas or stomach issues with this food.
Takeaway: With several flavors to choose from, Fancy Feast Classic, sometimes referred to as "kitty crack," draws in picky eaters. This low-cost canned cat food contains protein from quality sources; meat by-products are used, but they're lower down on the list of ingredients.
Best Cheap Grain-Free "Gourmet" Canned Cat Food
Price: $11.99 (36 cents/ounce; 12 2.8-ounce cans) | Buy it at Chewy.com
- Human-grade cat food at an affordable price.
- Grain-free, low in carbohydrates and very high in moisture and protein.
- Good for cats with health issues such as urinary tract infections, diabetes, and IBS.
- Mostly fish flavors, which may not be the best choice for daily feeding.
- The fishy smell is off-putting to some people.
Takeaway: While many reviewers say Tiki Cat is unappealing to humans, it's undeniably attractive to most cats. The cans are on the small size for the price, but the chunky formula contains no filler -- it's calorie-dense with the right kind of nutrition.
Best Cheap Grain-Free Dry Cat Food
Price: $13.99 (17 cents/ounce; 5-pound bag) | Buy it at Chewy.com
- Suitable for all life stages.
- Carbohydrates come from sweet potatoes and legumes.
- Wet cat food users say it's a convenient alternative that also serves well as treats.
- Contains omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Very high percentage of protein in Rocky Mountain Feline blend.
- Roasted venison flavor is mostly chicken meal.
- Does not appeal to all cats.
- Some owners question the need for fruits in the mix.
- Little variety in flavors.
Takeaway: Taste of the Wild Grain Free contains more protein (42 percent for the venison and salmon variety) than most cheaper dry cat foods. The sweet potatoes add moisture, fiber, and nutrients that some vets say are good for a cat's digestive health.
Best Cheap "Vet-Recommended" Dry Cat Food
Price: $11.47 (20 cents/ounce; 3.5-pound bag) | Buy it from Petco
- Said to be top choice for veterinarians to feed their own pets, according to surveys.
- Protein is the first ingredient.
- Owners report less throwing up and fewer hairballs.
- Cats generally like the taste and seem to thrive.
- First five ingredients in dry formula include wheat and corn gluten.
- Dry food is very low in moisture.
- Some owners say it doesn't seem to fill up their pets.
Takeaway: Rescue cats are often fed some variety of Hill's Science Diet in shelters, and owners continue with the brand when they take those cats home. The moisture content is low, even for a dry food, so supplementing with wet food is a good idea. Science Diet addresses certain health issues, such as weight gain, urinary tract, and hairball, with special formulas that seem to work for most cats.
Also Recommended: High-Quality Protein Dry Cat Food
Price: $12.85 (27 cents/ounce; 3-pound bag) | Buy it on Amazon
- Good for all life stages.
- Contains primary-source proteins and no meals or gluten.
- Flaxseed and salmon oil for omega-3 fatty acids.
- Sweet potatoes are a natural stool softener.
- Lots of vegetables.
- Higher in calories per cup than many other cat foods; not good for overweight cats.
Takeaway: While Halo Spot's Stew contains many of the same ingredients as cheaper cat foods, the quality of the proteins is higher. The vegetable content looks good to humans but might not do much for cats. Grain-free varieties are more expensive. Halo commits to donating free food to animal shelters.
Also Recommended: High-Moisture, Grain-Free Wet Cat Food
Price: $13.07 (38 cents/ounce; 12 3-ounce packets) | Buy it at Chewy.com
- Produced in a human-grade food plant.
- Grain-free, low in fat and carbohydrates.
- High in moisture content; very soupy consistency.
- Low in phosphorous, making it especially good for cats with kidney diseases.
- Pouches are a little messy; difficult to get all residue out.
- Tuna is main ingredient, and may not be best choice for daily feeding.
Takeaway: BFF is a lower-priced product in the upscale Weruva family of pet foods. The pouches take some getting used to, and some cat owners swish a bit of water in the bottom to make sure they get out every last drop. The soupy texture is good for older cats and ensures all cats get enough moisture; a canned variety has somewhat less moisture.