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Cheap Cat Food Buying Guide

We researched cheap canned (a.k.a., wet) cat food and cheap dry (a.k.a. kibble) cat food to find the best of each for the average cat.

In the canned cat food column we put Trader Joe's Premium (starting at 69 cents/5.5-ounce can) in first place for its quality ingredients, followed by Friskies Meaty Bits (starting at $11/24-pack 5.5-ounce cans) for the their bargain price and popularity with consumers (that would the cats). In the dry cat food column, Purina One Smartblend Adult Variety (starting at $27/16 pounds) earns top billing for relatively high protein content and low price while Taste of the Wild Feline Formula (starting at $28.50/15 pounds) comes in second for its perceived health benefits and feeding efficiency (owners say a little goes a long way). Two cheap cat foods that just don't rank are Special Kitty Premium (starting at $10.18/24-pack 5.5-ounce cans), Walmart's in-house brand, and Friskies Dry (starting at $13.50/16 pounds), both of which sink on the ingredients test.

The experts at Doctors Foster and Smith say sufficient protein from the right food sources is critical for cat health. Cats may be domesticated but their hearts and digestive systems remain wild. They should eat as though they still roam free, which means a diet rich in protein from muscle meat. The vet at Cat Info, a fierce proponent of canned food, ranks poultry above beef as the best protein source and is wary of fish due to allergies, toxins, and its addictive qualities. Animal experts frown on the inclusion of meat and fish byproducts (e.g., bone, blood, brain) and say plant-based protein should play a marginal role in a cat's daily intake. Grains and carbohydrates, including complex fruits and vegetables, should be kept to less than 10 percent of their diets.

The best cheap cat foods contain a good balance and mix of inputs, but typically less real meat and more fillers and additives than show up in the priciest cat food. Raw food enthusiasts rave about Stella & Chewy's, a freeze-dried product made of ground meat or fish and no hormones or antibiotics, grains or fillers, artificial preservatives or coloring -- but a 12-ounce bag of chicken dinner will set you back at least $20. In between the familiar cheap cat food brands -- Friskies, Meow Mix, Purina, 9Lives -- that line supermarket shelves and the upper tier cat food brands are others such as Iams, Hill's, Eukanuba, and Wellness.

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If you're looking for a product to try out on a fussy cat that costs less than a bundle but provides nutritional bang for the buck, the options on our list are a good place to start. We culled expert advice from the web, read online reviews, and informally polled cat owners we know. All point to the critical importance of nutritional value, the cat's own preferences, and price when choosing the best cheap cat food. Many cat food producers offer a variety of formulas for specific needs (e.g., hairball control, urinary tract health, weight control) and life stage (e.g., kitten, adult, senior). We researched standard formula cat food for adult cats.

One issue not so readily resolved is the wet cat food versus dry cat food conundrum. Some vets recommend wet food only, citing benefits such as high moisture content and protein levels. Dry cat food boasts advantages, too -- lower price, greater convenience, and possibly better dental health -- and some vets say either wet or dry is acceptable as long as it contains sufficient nutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids) and the animal drinks enough water, particularly when following a kibble-heavy diet. Ultimately, what really matters is the quality of the meals served. As the experts at Catster point out, any cat is better off with the best dry food than the worst canned food.

Nowadays most cat food, cheap or high-priced, bears the label "complete and balanced" or "100 percent nutritious." These products meet standards set by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) for nutritional adequacy. Federal and state regulations require that pet food labels specify, among other things, ingredients listed in order of relative weight, a statement of nutritional adequacy for a given life stage, and a guaranteed analysis that indicates minimum percentages of protein and fat and maximum percentages of fiber and moisture. (Note: Comparing protein content of dry cat food to wet cat food is like comparing apples to oranges. The percentage stated in the wet cat food guaranteed analysis always will be lower than for dry cat food because of the high proportion of moisture in the canned product.)

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There are also clear rules that control the naming of a cat food product, the name being a giveaway to the amount of a particular ingredient (invariably an animal protein). For example, a can of "lamb cat food" must contain at least 95 percent lamb minus the water used for processing or at least 70 percent lamb including the water (so-called "condiments" are also excluded from the calculation). At the other extreme, cat food with the term "lamb flavor" in the name need only have a detectable amount of the flavor, which may not come from lamb at all. Holding the middle ground are terms like "platter" and "dinner," which require at least 25 percent of the named ingredient, and "with XXX" (i.e., turkey, chicken, lamb, beef, tuna, salmon), which contains just 3 percent of the named component. Still, experts advise pet owners to always check the ingredients before buying a bag, box, or can of cheap cat food.

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 cheap cat food will keep their finicky customer well fed. The informal poll we conducted revealed that many cat owners would prefer to feed their cats what one person terms "holistic" food but are dismayed that the cat has other ideas. Regardless what you and the cat agree on as the food of choice, always make sure the animal has plenty of fresh water. Experts recommend at least a cup a day for each 10 pounds of weight if the diet consists entirely of kibble and about half that if wet food is the norm.

Cat food is one category for which online ordering is not always a bargain deal. Cheap cat food is readily available at local brick-and-mortar stores, including big-box retailers and specialty pet supply houses, where store brands are usually cheaper than national name brands.

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