Grain Free Cat Food: What You Need to Know

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Find a cat food that fits your pet’s needs

Pet parents are focused like never before on reading labels and searching out foods that are "free" of something–think gluten-free, fat-free and sugar-free, for instance. Now, that pet parent sophistication has grown to include the food choices they make for their beloved four-legged family members. After all, you want your favorite furry friend to feast on foods that will keep her healthy and happy for years to come!

That interest in what goes into a pet's food has led to an increase in the number of grain free cat food options in recent years. But is grain free food for cats the right option for your favorite kitty? Many cat parents who choose grain free food for cats believe grains have little to no nutritional value and are actually causing food allergies in cats. But are those preconceived notions true? Here are the answers to some of your most common questions about grain free cat food and whether you should consider it as an option for your pet.

What Is Grain Free Cat Food?

Grain free cat food is just what its name describes–a cat food made free of grains. Common grains found in cat food include wheat, corn gluten meal, and rice.

Woman playing with cat

Most cats don't require a grain free food. But there are some cats who do have a need, such as cats with a veterinarian-diagnosed grain allergy. Cats with diagnosed grain allergies are unusual, however. In a study published in Veterinary Dermatology, corn was found to be one of the least likely sources of food allergy in a cat. Of the 56 cats in the study with food allergies, corn was responsible for four cases of allergy issues. Forty-five cats, meanwhile, suffered from allergies associated with eating beef, dairy, and/or fish. So how can you know if your cat has a food allergy? PetMD identifies possible symptoms to a food allergy as:

  • Itchiness
  • Excessive grooming
  • Excessive hair loss
  • Bald patches
  • Inflamed skin
  • Sores and scabs
  • "Hot spots"

You can narrow down what type of allergy your cat has by having your vet do an elimination trial, the gold standard for diagnosing a food allergy. That can help you determine what the cause of your cat's discomfort is. If there is ever a question, your vet should be your number one source for discovering if any allergies do exist.

Two gray and white cats look up in anticipation.

Does Grain Free Mean Gluten-Free?

More than 3 million Americans suffer from celiac disease, a painful condition that can be managed by following a gluten-free diet. But the good news is there is no scientific evidence that the same condition affects cats, PetMD says. So when it comes to your cat's food, it's important to be aware that grain free does not mean gluten-free. To replace grains, grain free food for cats often uses ingredients such as potatoes, apples, and peas. In fact, some grain free pet foods contain carbohydrate levels similar to or even higher than cat food containing grains. Those carbohydrates help provide your kitty with complete and balanced nutrition–the key to good health.

Can Cats Digest Grains?

Another common misconception about a grain free cat food is that it means it's high in protein. Protein is especially important in cat food because–unlike many other animals–protein is a cat's primary energy source. What many people don't realize–57 percent of cat parents, according to a PetMD survey–is that while cats do require part of their protein to come from animals, their systems are also very good at digesting and absorbing nutrients from high-quality, plant-based ingredients.

In fact, a food that relies solely on meat as a protein source can be higher in phosphorous. While phosphorous is an essential nutrient, there is a link between high phosphorus foods and progression of established kidney disease in cats and dogs. Vegetables and grains are low phosphorus sources of many of the amino acids that cats need, providing your cat with a source of protein she needs to be healthy.

How to Find the Right Grain Free Food for Your Cat

How do you know if what you're feeding your pet is high in quality? One way to determine if the manufacturer is meeting high nutrition standards is by looking to see whether its food meets guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)–which sets standards for pet foods in the United States. In order for a pet food to be marketed as "complete and balanced," it must meet the nutritional standards established by AAFCO. All of Hill's® brands meet or exceed its criteria.

Hill's offers several grain free foods to choose from, all of which offer the precise balance of nutrients your cat needs for optimal health. Chicken or fish is listed as the first ingredient in each of the grain free options available in the Science Diet® and Ideal Balance™ lines of cat foods, and options are available in both wet and dry foods.

The all-important thing to keep in mind when choosing grain free food for cats is that–just like with humans–different cats can have different nutritional needs. That means there is no one kind of food that is perfect for all cats, which is why Hill's offers an array of foods to meet every kind of nutritional requirement.

The ingredients in Hill's grain free food lines healthy immune systems and good vision, while also providing the nourishment needed for a radiant and lustrous skin and coat. Prebiotics, meanwhile, promote nutrient absorption and digestive health. Like all of Hill's foods, the grain free cat foods were developed by a team that included veterinarians, Ph.D. nutritionists, and food scientists. Their job is to create products that will help your pet live a long, healthy, and full life.

Research the different options available for your cat, and then choose a food that is high in quality and meets all the nutritional standards your cat requires (and that your cat actually likes to eat!). Your diligence will go a long way to ensuring your cat's health now and long into the future.

Contributor Bio

Kara Murphy

Kara Murphy


Kara Murphy is a freelance writer in Erie, Pa. She has a cat named Olive who, thankfully, is hairball-free.


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