What’s Really Inside Those Cans? The Shocking Truth About Cat Food Meat


Cat food contains a variety of meat sources and other ingredients to provide complete and balanced nutrition for cats. The most common meat sources in cat food include beef, chicken, fish, lamb, turkey, and pork. However, manufacturers also utilize meat meals, meat by-products, and organs to provide protein. Cat food may also contain grains like corn, wheat, and rice as carbohydrate sources. Other ingredients like fruits, vegetables, and supplements add key nutrients. Cat food comes in dry kibble, wet canned, freeze-dried, dehydrated, and raw frozen forms. Food type and quality varies widely among brands.

Common Meat Sources

The most common types of meat used in cat food are chicken, beef, turkey, and fish.

Chicken is a lean protein that is an excellent source of nutrients for cats. It is a cost-effective option and a common ingredient in many cat food products. Chicken provides amino acids for strong muscles, and minerals like zinc and iron for a healthy immune system [1].

Beef is another lean red meat that provides protein, fat, and essential nutrients for cats. It contains iron, zinc, and B vitamins. Many cats enjoy the flavor of beef. It can be more expensive than chicken, so it may be mixed with other meats in cat foods.

Turkey is growing in popularity as a cat food ingredient. It provides an excellent source of protein and low fat content. Turkey contains amino acids for building muscle and enzymes for digestion. Some cat owners find their cats prefer turkey over chicken.

Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are important for skin and coat health. Fish often includes salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines. The oils provide anti-inflammatory benefits. However, too much fish can lead to mercury exposure, so it’s ideal when mixed with other meats.[1]

By-Product Meals

By-product meals are very common in dry cat food formulas. They consist of leftover animal parts and remnants that are not deemed fit for human consumption. These parts can include meat, bone, blood, feathers, heads, feet and organs.

According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), by-product meal consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines, exclusive of feathers.

The main advantage of by-product meals is that they provide an inexpensive source of animal protein in cat food. However, the ingredients are not specified and can vary greatly. Many cat owners prefer to avoid by-products due to concerns over quality control and nutrition.

High quality cat foods will specify the source of protein, such as “chicken by-product meal.” Generic “by-product meal” indicates lower quality. Ultimately, it comes down to the cat owner’s preferences and budget.

Grain-Free vs Grains

There has been much debate over whether grain-free or grain-inclusive cat foods are best. Both have their pros and cons.

Grain-free cat foods often use ingredients like potatoes, tapioca, or legumes as replacements for grains. Many cat owners choose grain-free foods because they believe grains can trigger allergies or intolerances in some cats. Since cats are obligate carnivores, some owners feel grain-free recipes with higher meat content align better with a cat’s natural diet. Potential benefits of grain-free foods include reduced risk of allergies/intolerances, higher animal protein content, and lower carbohydrate content.

However, grains also have benefits in cat foods. Whole grains provide fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. Many veterinarians argue there is no scientific evidence showing grains are harmful to cats without existing sensitivities. Grains like rice and oats are highly digestible for cats. Grain-inclusive foods tend to be more affordable as well. Potential benefits of grain-inclusive foods include digestibility, more balanced nutrition, and lower cost.

There is no definitive right or wrong answer. Check with your veterinarian if you are concerned about food allergies/intolerances. Look for high-quality ingredients, proper nutritional balance, and your cat’s personal preference when choosing between grain-free and grain-inclusive foods.

Wet vs Dry Food

Wet and dry cat foods each have their own pros and cons. Many cat owners wonder if they should feed their cat only wet food, only dry food, or a combination of both.

Some pros of wet cat food:

  • Tends to have more protein and moisture content which can help with hydration
  • Many cats prefer the taste and texture
  • Allows cats to get more moisture in their diet since they don’t tend to drink much water

Some cons of wet cat food:

  • More expensive per serving compared to dry food
  • Spoils quickly once opened and needs to be refrigerated
  • Not good for a cat’s dental health since crunching kibble helps clean teeth

Some pros of dry cat food:

  • Typically more affordable than wet food
  • Convenient – can be left out and doesn’t require refrigeration once opened
  • Some formulations are designed to help with dental health

Some cons of dry cat food:

  • Lower moisture content since it does not contain gravy or juices
  • Some cats do not like the texture
  • Kibble does not always adequately clean teeth

Many cat owners opt to feed a combination, such as free-feeding dry food for between-meal snacks and providing wet food meals. There are pros and cons to each type of food, so consult with your veterinarian on the best option for your cat based on health, preferences, and lifestyle factors.

Human Grade Ingredients

Human grade ingredients in cat food refer to ingredients that are safe and suitable for human consumption, meeting FDA standards (Chewy, 2023). This means the ingredients are sourced from human food suppliers and held to higher quality standards compared to ingredients that just meet pet food regulations. Human grade ingredients contain no additives, preservatives, or chemicals that are unsafe for people.

The benefits of human grade cat food include:

  • Higher quality protein sources like chicken, salmon, turkey
  • More natural, recognizable ingredients
  • No rendered meats, animal by-products
  • Fewer artificial preservatives or additives
  • Increased palatability and digestibility
  • Supports a healthier immune system
  • Higher bioavailability of nutrients

Popular human grade cat food brands include Smalls, Stella & Chewy’s, Open Farm, and Nature’s Variety Instinct (PureWow, 2023). While more expensive than conventional cat food, many cat owners find the upgrade in quality and nutrition worthwhile.

Raw Food Diet

A raw food diet for cats consists of uncooked meat, bones, fruits, vegetables, and supplements. The goal is to provide nutrients in their natural unprocessed state. Many pet owners switch to a raw diet because it mimics what cats would eat in the wild. Raw diets are praised for improving digestion, reducing allergies, and providing shinier coats (source). However, raw diets do carry risks like bacterial contamination and nutritional imbalances if not properly formulated.

When transitioning to a raw diet, it’s important to do so gradually over 2-3 weeks. Start by substituting 25% of the cat’s diet with raw food, and increase the amount week-by-week. Look for nutritionally balanced commercial raw products or consult with a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a homemade diet. Proper food handling and sterilization of feeding dishes is crucial to prevent bacterial risks (source). Overall, raw diets can be a healthy option but require diligent sourcing, prep, and monitoring.

Food Allergies

Cats can develop allergies to ingredients commonly found in commercial cat foods. According to Purina, the most common food allergens for cats include:1

  • Beef
  • Dairy Products
  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Eggs

Signs of a food allergy can include itchy skin, chronic ear infections, and gastrointestinal issues. If a food allergy is suspected, a veterinarian may recommend an elimination diet trial using a hypoallergenic formula to help identify the allergen. Once identified, the allergenic ingredient can be avoided in the cat’s diet.

Age-Specific Formulas

Cat nutritional needs change as they age from kitten to adult to senior. There are key differences between kitten, adult, and senior cat food formulas.

Kitten food is specially formulated with extra protein, fat, calories, and nutrients to support growth and development. Calories from fat and protein should make up around 50% of a kitten’s diet. High quality protein sources like chicken, fish, eggs, and turkey are ideal. Taurine is also essential for vision and heart health. Source

Adult cat food provides balanced nutrition for maintenance. It has lower calories and fat than kitten food, with around 30% from fat and protein. It also has controlled mineral levels to support urinary tract health. More fiber supports healthy digestion. Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are key protein sources.

Senior cat food adjusts levels of fat, protein, phosphorus, and sodium for aging cats. Protein sources are highly digestible. Antioxidants, omega fatty acids, and joint supplements support longevity and mobility. Limited calories assist weight control.

Transitioning between life stage formulas requires gradually mixing old and new food over 7-10 days. Sudden changes can upset digestion. Check stool quality and feed according to appetite. Consult your vet if concerns arise.



In summary, cat food contains a variety of meat sources including chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, and fish. The quality of the meat can range from whole cuts to by-product meals. Grain-free and wet foods typically have more meat content. Some brands use human-grade ingredients for higher quality. Choosing the right food depends on your cat’s age, activity level, and any food allergies or sensitivities they may have.


When choosing a cat food, look for high-quality ingredients with meat as the first ingredient. Avoid by-product meals and artificial preservatives. Feed a balanced mix of wet and dry food. For kittens, choose a formula tailored to their developmental needs. For older cats, pick an age-appropriate food that’s gentle on their teeth and digestion. If your cat has allergies, select a limited-ingredient diet. With some diligence reading labels and understanding your cat’s needs, you can find a nutritious cat food they’ll thrive on.

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