Cat Food

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 36 cat food brands.

We also look at factory farming, palm oil, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Lily's Kitchen and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying cat food:

  • Is it organic? Looking for organic is a fail-safe way to avoid most of the nasty, artificial chemicals that so many agricultural products are grown with, and thereby also protect the environment.

  • Is it MSC certified? Fishing is often extremely unsustainable, damaging marine ecosystems, so look for MSC certified if choosing a brand that contains fish to avoid this environmental damage.

  • Is it vegan? You can look for ways to cut down the meat content of your pet food to support the environment and animal rights. Please read the expert advice below and definitely consult your vet before switching your cat's diet as they have specific nutritional needs.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying cat food:

  • Does it come packaged in plastic? Try to avoid pet food that is individually portioned in plastic pouches – it might be convenient to use but it isn’t convenient to recycle!

  • Is it tested on animals? Try to avoid companies that don’t have a policy against animal testing. We provide a list of all the companies that are not using animal testing.

  • Is it made with unsustainable fish? The fishing industry is incredibly unsustainable – (see our guide to Tuna, available on the website) make sure any fish in your pet food is certified sustainable by MSC.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

The popularity of pets in the UK has often led us to be described (mainly by ourselves), as a nation of animal-lovers. Unfortunately, inviting cats and dogs into our homes has a negative impact on the welfare of other animals. 

Whether its related to factory farming, fishing or animal testing, we take a look at how we can use our purchasing power to ensure a better situation for all animals and not just the ones that we live with.

There is not much point in ensuring a happier life for animals if we end up destroying the environment they (and we) live in, so we also take a look at cat food packaging, palm oil and ways to reduce your cat’s ‘carbon pawprint’. This way we can purchase in a way that is good for pets, people and planet. 

Image: cat with paws spread wide and legs up
"I didn't even know I had a carbon pawprint!"

Cat Food and Animal Welfare

As much of the widely available meat-based cat food is generally made from by-products from the human food industry, people may feel it doesn’t make any difference what standards we choose, because the meat would otherwise be discarded.

However, when you buy cat food with low-animal welfare standards it increases the value of farming in that way.

Factory farms can not only profit from the human-grade meat but from the byproducts as well. If cat-owners buy higher welfare animal products – organic for example – it helps to create more value for those farmers.
 

Organic cat food for higher welfare

The IAMS (US) website has a blog about natural, holistic and organic pet food where they question what value an organic diet has for your pet. But actually, this isn’t all about them. It has significant consequences for farm animal welfare, environmental impacts, and antibiotic use.

Organic certification ensures the highest standards of animal welfare.

According to the SOIL Association, not only are animals required to be free range but they:

  • Must have access to pasture (when weather and ground conditions permit) and be truly free range.
  • Must have plenty of space – which helps to reduce stress and disease.
  • Are fed a diet that is as natural as possible and free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Over a million tonnes of GM crops are imported each year to feed the majority of non-organic livestock which produce chicken, eggs, pork, bacon, milk, cheese, etc. This practice is banned under organic standards.
  • Graze and forage naturally on organic pasture (grasses and other crops) where only natural fertilisers are used and pesticides are severely restricted.
  • Must not routinely be given antibiotics.
  • Farm animals now account for almost two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the EU. These are passed to us through the food chain.

The following brands offer an organic cat food: Yarrah, Benevo, Lily’s Kitchen, Burns and Simpsons Premium.

Yarrah is an entirely organic company apart from its fish, which is certified sustainable through the MSC. See below for more details.

Image: rabbits in cages factory farming pet food dog food
Rabbits are factory farmed in wire cages for use in pet food.

Factory farmed rabbits in cat food

Our last pet food guides, in 2015, reported on the 2014 undercover investigation by animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) which revealed that rabbit meat, perhaps assumed to come from the wild, is actually from factory-farmed rabbits.

CIWF are still campaigning on this issue and released an End the Cage Age report in 2018. 

Almost all of the 120 million commercially farmed rabbits in the EU are kept in wire cages. They cannot lie stretched out or stand with their ears up. Some don’t even have enough space to perform a single hop.

The top three EU producers of rabbit meat are Spain, France and Italy, where at least 97% are caged. 

Barren cages (basic box cages with no modifications to improve quality of life or allow for natural behaviour) are banned in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. In France, there are about a dozen farms using organic standards, where rabbits are kept free-range in a large outdoor enclosure or in outdoor mobile runs.

Avoiding rabbit varieties of pet food is one solution, but choosing organic ensures that there are no factory-farmed animals in your pet food.

If you are an EU citizen you can add your signature to End the Cage Age.

Four Paws also has a petition to retailers to stop importing caged rabbit meat.

Cat food and Animal Testing

The majority of cat food manufacturers no longer use invasive animal testing methods for their pet food, but they may still use captive animals in research centres for palatability tests. Companies that do this, or did not clearly say that they didn’t, received a mark in the Animal Testing column.
 

Best rated companies for animal testing

The following companies are on PETA's list of 'Non-Animal-Tested Companion Animal Food':

  • Ami
  • Barking Heads
  • Burns
  • Encore
  • Applaws
  • Benevo
  • The Co-operative Food
  • Lily's Kitchen
  • Yarrah

Yora stated that they do no animal testing in our questionnaire. They responded that "None of our products are tested on animals and none of our ingredients are tested on animals."
 

Middle rated companies for animal testing

Hill's Science plan conducts palatability testing on animals in their own facilities.

The following companies have no animal testing policy or information made available:

  • Butchers
  • Hi-Life
  • Simpsons
  • Eukanuba
  • Iams

Worst rated companies for animal testing

The following companies use captive animals for palatability testing:

  • Acana
  • Orijen
  • Harringtons
  • Wagg

Global companies which do use animal testing in some cases

  • Mars brands (James Wellbeloved, Royal Canin, Nutro, Whiskas, Sheba, Kitekat, Perfect Fit)
  • Nestle brands (Bakers, Bonio, Purina, Winalot, Gourmet, Felix, Go-Cat, One Dry, Purina)

Supermarkets were all marked down under Animal Testing for selling other products from companies known to test on animals.

Labelling

Pet food labels use anthropomorphised descriptions to appeal to pets’ human owners – broth, pâté, chicken and asparagus, roasted chicken and beef entrée...

The ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight. They can be indicated using category names such as ‘meat and animal derivatives’, or under their own individual names. If particular attention is drawn to a specific ingredient (e.g. ‘With Chicken’), the percentage of that ingredient must also be listed. If the packaging says ‘chicken & rice’, the named meat minimum content must be 26%. 

But, if it says ‘rich in’ chicken the minimum must be just 14% and ‘flavoured with’ or simply ‘with’ will contain a bare 4% minimum.

More often than not, on most mainstream brands you’ll see ‘meat and animal derivatives’ listed as the main ingredient. ‘Animal derivatives’ are anything other than the muscle tissue or ‘meat’ and may mean internal organs, bones, poultry heads, feathers, hooves and feet.

Whilst it might seem to make sense to use up these by-products, it also may mean that your pet is not getting the nutrition that it needs.

 Cats need the right amount of protein, the percentage of protein shown as ‘Analytical Constituents’ on the label is, unfortunately, no help, as it includes low-quality indigestible protein.

Look at the ingredients label: if chicken or lamb or identified organs are listed first then they are a good source of protein, but if meat derivatives or byproducts are listed first, they may be a less-good source.

Grains and cereals are another one of those generic sources of proteins that may be high or low quality and are used by many manufacturers as a filler. Other ingredients in cat food may include sugar, salt and artificial colourings.

Other words used by pet food companies to communicate to you that their product is ‘good’ in some way can be misleading:

Natural

One of the most common words we found on companies’ websites during our research was ‘natural’, which Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) have criticised as being meaningless. 

CIWF says, “Chicken labelled as ‘all natural’ can come from factory farms where the animals have been selectively bred to grow so rapidly that their legs become painfully crippled from the weight of their bodies.”

Sign the CIWF petition for honest labelling.

Free run or free range?

We also came across the term ‘free run’ for chicken, ducks and turkey, which sounds a lot like ‘free range’. Free run just means the birds are cage-free but are still indoors. Free range means they must have access to some outdoor space, and CIWF says, “Because they grow slower and have opportunities for exercise, free-range chickens have better leg and heart health.”

Asda’s Tiger Select Free Range Collection cat food was only ‘with’ free range chicken or turkey but, as this can be only 4% of the ingredient volume, it was not treated as a free-range product on our score table.

Dolphin friendly

On the MPM Products website (owner of the Applaws and Encore brands) the company used the word ‘ethical’ several times without any explanation. On its Ethical Policy page, it said that “All of the fish in our recipes is sea caught using dolphin friendly methods and we only use species from sustainable resources.” Again, it did not explain what it meant. It did state “The tuna that we fish is further accredited by the Earth Island Institute.”

According to EII, ‘dolphin friendly’ is a term used in Europe and is usually interchangeable with ‘Dolphin Safe’, which was defined in US law in 1990, as tuna caught without deliberately encircling any dolphins with tuna nets during the entire trip of the tuna vessel.

EII states that “Dolphin deaths in tuna nets have declined by 99% since 1990”, but Greenpeace has pointed out, “Dolphin safe does not mean ocean safe. It means that one fishing method that targets tuna that swim with dolphins is not used to catch the tuna. What about the rays and turtles?!"

GMOs in animal feed

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are another controversial ingredient. While they may not be in the final product, unless meat is organic they are highly likely to have been used in the animal feed.

  • The UK government website stated at the time of writing that:

“According to the European Feed Manufacturers’ Association (FEFAC), at least 85% of the EU’s compound feed production is labelled to indicate that it contains GM or GM-derived material.”

  • Yarrah only makes organic (and therefore GM-free) products.
  • Lily’s Kitchen, Benevo, Burns and Simpsons Premium have some organic (and therefore GM-free) lines.
  • Yora told us, in January 2019, that its products are made from larvae that have been fed with organic food byproducts.
  • Beco told us in March 2019 that its meat sources were not fed GMOs.
  • All varieties from Benevo are listed as approved by the Vegetarian Society so are required to be GM-free.
  • Ami is no longer approved by the Vegetarian Society, but it is a plant-based food and one of its products was marked GM-free. It did not have a publicly available. 
  • GM policy and could not be reached for comment, but was not assumed to contain GMOs as it was based in Italy and GMOs must be labelled in the EU.
  • None of the other companies stated that the meat in their pet food was not from GM-fed animals.
  • Interestingly, although Mars had previously lobbied against the labelling of products containing GMOs in the USA, in December 2018, it was reported to have chosen voluntarily to disclose all GMOs in its foods.

Fish

On our score table we have awarded an extra positive half mark for product sustainability to products that carry the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, unless it is an insignificant amount of an otherwise uncertified product (e.g. Asda’s Tiger Select Ocean Collection cat food has several products with the MSC logo, but these are only ‘with’ MSC fish, which is not necessarily more than 4% of the ingredient volume).

One of our Best Buys, Yarrah, only uses fish if it is MSC certified and its other ingredients are certified organic. 

See our Supermarkets Guide for more on MSC certification.

As well as the effect on habitats, fishing also has human rights implications. In 2016, Greenpeace activists blocked the entrance to a Whiskas facility in New Zealand due to its links to the Thai Union Group – a supplier that has been connected with labour violations. In 2017, Thai Union Group agreed to work with Greenpeace to improve, including ensuring independent observers were present on all longline vessels. Part of the agreement was also for an independent third-party review of its progress at the end of 2018, so look out for this.

Palm Oil

As we wrote in our last pet food guide, it was reported, in 2011, that a tenth of all the world’s palm kernel meal – a byproduct of palm oil production – is fed to British animals. No certified palm kernel meal was imported to Britain at the time of the report. However, most pet food brands on our table did not appear to use palm oil or its derivatives.

Hi-Life, and Harringtons and Wagg (the latter two are from the same company) listed ingredients which could be derived from palm oil, including vegetable glycerine, vegetable oil and “oils and fats”. We contacted the companies to ask what these ingredients were but did not receive an answer. 

As Wagg had previously declared to Ethical Consumer that it used no palm derivatives this was assumed to still stand, but HiLife was marked down for lack of transparency.

The biggest companies on our table, Nestlé, Mars and Colgate, and the supermarkets use palm oil in other products they make.

Even if palm is not an ingredient in most pet food, as most pet food is meat-based, palm kernel meal may have been part of the animal feed used in its production.

Packaging & recycling

Tins and foil can be recycled. Dry food has the advantage that it may be stored in plastic-free paper-based packaging. It also keeps better so you can buy it in bulk to further cut down on packaging needs.

At the other end of the spectrum, it has now become common to find wet cat food individually portioned into separate pouches. These pouches are one of those difficult-to-recycle inventions made by layering thin pieces of plastic together with adhesive and often an added layer of aluminium. The combination of materials and the effectiveness with which they have been sealed means they don’t fit into the normal recycling categories and will not be accepted with your kerbside recycling.

In 2018, TerraCycle, in collaboration with Mars’ brands Whiskas and James Wellbeloved, launched the ‘Pet Food Recycling Programme’. Pet owners can send their used pouches to TerraCycle, drop them off at designated collection points or create their own collection point. It is free, but you do have to become a member.

However, it isn’t the ideal response when there are many ways to avoid plastic packaging altogether. 

According to the TerraCycle website, the pouches are recycled into items such as fence-posts and benches. This only really delays the plastic problem as these objects will still be subject to erosion which can lead to microplastics finding their way into the environment.

The real solution, as with all our current packaging problems, comes with radically changing the way we package and purchase products in the first place. See if you can find a local shop that sells pet food without packaging.

Can a cat be vegetarian?

image: tabby cat with pumpkin could a cat be vegetarian ethical consumer
Do you think it's okay for a cat to be vegetarian/vegan?

As people become more aware of poor animal welfare standards and high environmental impacts in the meat industry, many are starting to look into veggie and vegan options for their pets.

Many vegan and vegetarian brands provide tasters, so you can see how your cat reacts to a more plant-based diet. You can purchase taster packs of Ami, and Benevo for 80p-£1 from www.veggiepets.com. You can also speak to your vet about your cat’s specific dietary requirements and how a vegetarian or vegan diet might impact them.

We understand that this is a contentious issue, and so we reached out to two experts to give their views on whether it is safe for your cat to become vegan – Daniella Dos Santos and Andrew Knight.

We gave each a chance to respond to the others’ comments.

Yes - Andrew Knight

Veterinary Professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics, Founding Director of the Centre for Animal Welfare, at the University of Winchester and an experienced dog and cat veterinarian, he has a special interest in vegan companion animal diets

“Somewhere deep inside every pampered house cat lurks a fearless hunter of birds, mice and other small mammals. Dogs are little better. Both are biologically carnivorous, and cannot survive, let alone thrive, without meat – right?

Wrong, actually. Dogs and cats do indeed have well-established nutritional requirements and will eventually suffer health problems if fed diets deficient in these nutrients.

However, these elementary points are specific to neither cats or dogs nor to vegan diets. Poorly formulated meat-based diets carry similar risks and have caused problems in the past for many more companion animals than vegan diets ever have. In fact, there are neither substantial scientific nor practical barriers to formulating diets entirely from plant, mineral and synthetic sources. 

Such diets can be designed to meet all the nutrient requirements (including adequate protein content and digestibility) for cats and dogs, and growing numbers of commercially available vegan diets aim to do so. Detailed health and nutritional information about vegan vs meat-based feline diets is available at www.vegepets.info."

British Veterinary Association's Junior Vice President's response

“We know that most owners want to take the best possible care of their pet – this includes ensuring they have an appropriate diet, with all the necessary nutrients to help them live a healthy and happy life. Commercially prepared pet foods that conform to PFMA regulations have been formulated to meet the dietary needs of modern-day pets and undergone controlled feeding trials.

To provide missing or limited essential nutrients, vegetarian or vegan cat and dog diets need to be heavily supplemented with synthetic sources to ensure that the diet is balanced for optimal health. However, it is not enough to simply supplement a plant-based diet for your cat or dog as we are not currently able to assess how accessible (bioavailable) synthetic taurine and other nutrients are, nor be certain that they wouldn’t interfere with the action of other nutrients.

Robust, peer-reviewed research is needed to ensure that non-animal protein sources can meet the animal’s dietary requirements. 

Until this is available, we do not recommend vegetarian or vegan diets for cats or dogs. Cats, in particular, should not be fed meat-free diets because it is so difficult to deliver what they need without meat and the risk to their health is too high."

There is lots more information about what is legally allowed in pet food from the Pet Food Manufacturer's Association.

No - Daniella Dos Santos

British Veterinary Association Junior Vice President and Companion Animal Vet.

“We welcome pet owners taking an interest in the sourcing and ethics of their pets’ food, but an owner’s values must not be projected onto their pets if this results in a diet that is unhealthy and unsuitable for the animal.

Cats are obligate carnivores which means they require animal-sourced ingredients to provide essential dietary nutrients in order to remain healthy. These include preformed vitamin A and arachidonic acid, higher requirements for overall protein, arginine, the sulphur-containing amino acids cysteine and methionine, and a requirement for the free amino acid taurine, all of which are minimal or even absent in plant ingredients. 

The health risks of unbalanced diets can be life-threatening and given the complexities and current research, we do not advise withdrawing meat from a cat’s diet. If potential owners are distressed by the idea of feeding meat to their pet then we would suggest that they opt for an animal which is naturally suited to a meat-free diet.”

Founder of the Centre for Animal Welfare's response

"An owner’s values must not be projected onto their pets if this results in a diet that is unhealthy …” – I could not agree more! Millions of helpless cats and dogs are forced to eat body parts from cows, pigs, sheep, ducks, chickens and fish – animals they would never naturally eat – laced with unnatural additives of questionable safety. 

These include Salmonella, Listeria, and a range of other potentially pathogenic microorganisms, abattoir products condemned as unfit for human consumption, old or spoiled supermarket meat, free radicals, trans fatty acids, and other toxins from restaurant grease used as a fat source, hormonal residues, chemical preservatives, mercury and PCBs in fish, and the list goes on and on. This information is available in a study done in 2016 and this is not in reference to any particular country. Indeed much of this work originates from the US.

Because we misperceive these diets as somehow ‘natural’, we fail to provide our cats and dogs with healthy, wholesome food that meets all of their nutritional requirements. However, we can supply nutritionally complete diets formulated from plant, mineral and synthetic sources – without the hazards common to commercial meat-based diets. Surely, this is what our companion animals deserve."

Tips for reducing your cat's 'carbon pawprint'

While the name might be cute, the ‘carbon pawprints’ of our pets presents a serious problem for our planet. Here are some tops tips for reducing the impact of our furry friends. The good news is that the options for better animal welfare will also often be better for the environment too.

  • Consider plant-based options: Either speak to your vet about reducing the amount of meat or dairy your cat consumes or get an animal that is a natural herbivore in the first place. Rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters can uncontroversially be vegan.

  • Less processed: Generally, the more processing food has gone through, the more energy has been used. You can reduce food waste along with your pet’s carbon pawprint by feeding your animals scraps – visit your local butcher or fishmonger for cuts that would otherwise be thrown away.

  • Dry vs wet: Wet food is heavier because of the higher water content – this means higher emissions when it comes to transporting.

Rescue an animal in need:

We can reduce the overall carbon impact of pets by avoiding making more of them. Try to avoid buying from breeders or letting your own pets breed. There are plenty of animals of all kinds already in shelters and in need of care. You can also rescue animals that would normally be farm animals – so instead of feeding chicken to your pet, you could have a pet chicken!

Other ethical concerns

Tax Avoidance

The following companies received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies:

Walmart Inc. (Asda); Tesco; Nestlé SA; Wm Morrisons Supermarkets; Schwarz Beteiligungs-KG (Lidl); Colgate-Palmolive Co; Spectrum Brands; Marks and Spencer Group; John Lewis Partnership Trust; J Sainsbury’s.

Only Siepmann Stiftung (Aldi Sud) received a middle rating. The rest of the companies on the table received a best rating.

Controversial Technologies

Where companies have lost a half mark under Controversial Technologies it is related to the use of GMOs, widely used in animal feed, unless it is organic.

We cover GMOs in more detail below. Tesco lost a full mark because it was also involved with nanotechnology.

Company Profile

Lily’s Kitchen does do an organic range, but the company lost marks under Factory Farming because it also had a meat range that wasn’t labelled free-range or organic.

The company has been growing, which means we would start expecting to see more concrete and well-formed policies, which, in terms of Environmental Reporting, was not being delivered. Lily’s Kitchen is, however, a certified B-Corp which means that it is legally required to balance profitability with impact.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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