Is It Real Meat In Cat Food?


The pet food industry, including both dog and cat food, is big business. In 2021, the global pet food market was worth over $108 billion, with North America accounting for over one-third of the market share.

Cat food specifically accounted for $31 billion in global sales in 2020. As cat ownership continues to grow around the world, so does the demand for cat food.

With so much money being spent on cat food every year, many cat owners want to know exactly what’s in those enticing cans and pouches. The question “Is it real meat in cat food?” is common, as owners aim to find the best nutrition for their feline companions.

What’s Typically in Cat Food

Cat food contains a variety of ingredients including meat, grains, vegetables, vitamins, and minerals. According to Caticles, common meats in cat food include chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, salmon, tuna, and liver. Grains like corn, wheat, rice, barley, and oats are inexpensive fillers added to many dry foods. Vegetables like carrots and peas add nutrients, while brewer’s yeast, kelp, and flaxseed provide vitamins and omega fatty acids.

Additives like thickeners, emulsifiers, and preservatives give the food texture and help preserve it. Artificial colors and flavors make the food more palatable. While meat should be the main ingredient in cat food, cheaper brands often put more grains, additives, and meat by-products into their formulas.

According to Messy Beast, some premium brands add exotic meats like duck, quail, bison, and kangaroo. They avoid controversial ingredients like corn, wheat, and by-products. Overall, the ingredients in cat food can vary greatly depending on the brand philosophy and manufacturing processes.

Meat Content Regulations

Pet food regulations in the United States were established by the FDA under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). Per the FDA’s guidelines for pet food, there are no federal requirements for the minimum amount or quality of meat a pet food must contain to be marketed as beef, chicken, turkey, etc.

However, there are some standards that pet food manufacturers must follow in terms of meat content labeling. As stated by the FDA, “Brand names and product names suggesting meaty ingredients (such as ‘Beef Dinner’) must contain at least 95% by weight of the named ingredients” (1). This means a product named “Beef Dinner Cat Food” must contain at least 95% beef by weight, excluding water.

The problem is that meat meals like “beef meal” or “chicken meal” also count towards meeting the 95% minimum, even though they are rendered meat by-products which contain much less nutrients than whole cuts of meat. So a pet food could contain mostly meat meal and still meet the “95% beef” labeling requirement.

Additionally, there are no FDA rules about claiming a certain meat is the “#1 ingredient.” A pet food may advertise a meat as the first ingredient when it’s really just a meal, concentrate or by-product (2).

Label Tricks

Cat food manufacturers often use misleading marketing and label tricks to make their products seem like they contain more meat than they actually do. According to Catster, “Your cat food might be “Beef Flavor,” but the actual beef content is only 0–2.9%.” How to Read Cat Food Labels: What to Look For & Tips

Pictures of fresh chicken, fish, or other meats on the package are another tactic used to deceive consumers about the actual meat content. As explained by Medium, “Pet food manufacturers use marketing tricks and misleading pictures of fresh meat to get you to buy their food.” What’s in Cat Food? How to Read Cat Food Labels and …

Labeling something as “with” a certain meat is another exaggeration, as the meat may only make up a small portion of the total recipe. JH Vet notes ““With” claims (i.e. “with real chicken”) are required to contain only 3% of the specified ingredient.” Pet Food Labels

Being aware of these common tactics can help identify when a cat food label may be exaggerating the actual meat content of the product.

Identifying Quality Meat

One of the best ways to identify real meat vs synthetic meat in cat food is to carefully read the ingredients label. The order of ingredients matters – real meat like chicken, beef or fish should be listed first. Avoid foods that list “meat by-products”, “meat meal”, or other vague terms high up.

Look for specific muscle meats like “chicken breast” or “beef sirloin” as quality indicators. Meat meals that name the species like “chicken meal” or “salmon meal” are also decent. Gluten meals and “meat and bone meal” contain very little nutrition so try to avoid those.

The guaranteed analysis on the label will also give clues about meat content. Quality wet foods often have 9% or more crude protein, while dry kibbles range from 30-42% crude protein typically. The less carbs and plant material, the more meat present usually.

Finally, consider the price. Very cheap cat foods likely cut corners on meat. Spending a bit more often gets you much higher quality nutrition. Checking reviews helps too – savvy cat owners are good at identifying when ingredients don’t match quality.

Meat Meal vs Fresh Meat

Meat meals and fresh meats differ significantly in their nutritional composition. According to Fresh meat kibble higher in amino acids than meat meals, fresh meat contains higher levels of essential amino acids like taurine compared to meat meals. Taurine deficiency can lead to heart disease, eye problems, and other health issues in cats.

Meat meals go through a rendering process that removes moisture, leaving a more concentrated protein source. However, this process also leads to a decrease in amino acid content. Fresh meats retain higher moisture levels and therefore have increased amino acid concentrations. According to What You Need to Know About Fresh Meat Kibble, adding fresh meat to kibble results in greater amino acid content than dry kibble made with only meat meals.

While meat meals offer a concentrated protein source, fresh meats provide superior nutrition in the form of essential amino acids, fatty acids, and micronutrients. When evaluating cat food quality, fresh meat content is a better indicator of nutritional value than meat meals.

Health Impacts

The meat content in cat food can significantly impact feline health. According to a 2023 study, cats fed plant-based diets were reported to have more ideal body condition scores and fewer health problems than cats fed meat-based diets. The research showed 18% fewer veterinary visits for vegan cats compared to cats fed conventional meaty diets. This suggests meat-based cat foods may negatively affect cats’ health.

Another 2023 study also found vegan diets did not appear to compromise cats’ health. The findings support the healthfulness of properly balanced vegan cat foods over those with higher meat contents.

Meat meals commonly used in cheap cat foods are associated with a higher risk of diabetes, urinary tract disease, kidney disease, and heart disease compared to high-quality meat ingredients. The inferior amino acid balance, advanced glycation end-products, and contaminants in meat meals likely contribute to these health risks.

Price Differences

When looking at the price of cat food, there is a noticeable difference between brands that use high-quality, fresh meats versus lower quality meat meals. Here’s a cost comparison:

– Low meat cat foods made with meat by-products or 4D meats (meat from dead, dying, diseased or disabled animals not fit for human consumption) typically range from $0.50 – $1 per pound. Examples are generic or store brands.

– Cat foods with added meat meals as the primary protein source range from $1 – $2 per pound. These offer a bit more meat quality than generic brands but are still highly processed.

– Premium brands with fresh meat as the first ingredient generally cost $2 – $4 per pound. You’re paying more for higher quality ingredients and less processing.

– Super premium or “natural” brands using human-grade meats cost $4 – $6+ per pound. These have vast superiority in fresh meat quality and minimal processing but come at a cost.

The extreme ends of the spectrum show a 6-12x price difference between low quality meat and human-grade meat cat foods. In general, the more you pay, the higher quantity and quality of real meat is present.

Top High Meat Cat Foods

There are a number of high quality cat foods with high meat content to choose from. Here are some top options:

Blue Buffalo Wilderness

Blue Buffalo Wilderness is a grain-free dry cat food line with multiple flavor options all featuring real meat as the first ingredient. It contains a high percentage of meat and is free of corn, wheat, soy, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.

Wellness Core

Wellness Core is another premium grain-free dry food line that is high in protein from premium meat sources. It is packed with nutrients and contains no meat by-products, fillers or artificial ingredients.

Orijen Cat & Kitten

Orijen makes biologically appropriate and grain-free dry cat foods with up to 90% meat ingredients. They use premium sources of meat and fish without any artificial preservatives.

Nature’s Variety Instinct

Nature’s Variety Instinct offers grain-free canned and dry food for cats with 95% meat ingredients and added vitamins and minerals. It comes in several flavor and formula options.

Taste of the Wild Canyon River

Taste of the Wild Canyon River formula features trout and smoked salmon as the first two ingredients. It is grain-free and made without artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.


In summary, when choosing cat food it is important to read labels carefully and look for high quality meat ingredients. Meat should ideally be the first ingredient listed, with a named meat source rather than generic terms like meat meal. High protein levels from animal sources are ideal. Avoid fillers like corn, wheat, and soy. Canned food tends to have higher meat content than dry kibble. Choose reputable brands that follow pet food regulations and quality standards. Consider your cat’s needs and budget when deciding on cat food. With a little research, you can find high quality cat foods with ample meat content to properly nourish your feline friend.

For a healthy cat that thrives on a meat-rich diet, look for products with specific fresh meat ingredients like chicken, turkey, beef, or fish rather than generic meat meal. Prioritize high protein and low carb formulas. Check labels for fillers and artificial ingredients. Paying a little more for quality is usually worth it. Follow serving guidelines and monitor your cat’s condition. Provide a mix of wet and dry food if possible. With the right high meat cat food, your furry friend can enjoy better nutrition and improved health.

Scroll to Top