As cat parents, keeping our feline friends happy and healthy is a top priority. And we know that good health starts with proper nutrition and a well-balanced diet. But a trip to the pet store can leave us baffled by a dizzying array of choices. “Organic” vs. “all-natural.” “Chicken meal” vs. “chicken products.” So many different brands and choices with varying protein and nutrition – how can you know what’s best?

Fortunately, there are ways to cut through the fluff of nutrition labels. For starters, the most important thing to look for is the protein content. Remember, cats are carnivorous. Though carbohydrates can be a good source of short-term energy, a feline’s diet should primarily consist of protein-rich foods like chicken, beef, or seafood. But how do you figure out how protein or carbohydrates a food actually has?

– Begin by examining the first three ingredients listed on the label. Most pet food companies list the ingredients based on their weight, starting with the heaviest. If protein-rich foods appear near the top of the list, you’re in good shape. Be warned, however, that water weight can make the rankings misleading in some cases. Chicken, for example, often contains a high percentage of water, which obviously lowers the protein content. This also affects the concentrations of protein in wet and dry foods. The moisture content in the former may be as high as 80%, whereas dry food may be as low as 10%. So just remember a protein concentration of 8% means different things in wet and dry foods.

– The next thing to look for is any guarantees or certifications regarding the nutritional content. For example, check if the label mentions a mandatory guarantee analysis. This ensures that the food contains the labeled percentages of crude protein, fat, fiber and moisture. Don’t be put off by the term “crude,” though. It simply refers to how the product is tested. Another thing to look for is a statement on the packaging that reads: “[Brand name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the [Association of American Feeding Control Officials] AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage/age of cat].” Even better are foods that meet the minimum nutritional requirements “as fed” to real cats in a defined feeding trial. These trials are considered as the gold standard, and you can be sure that the foods tested contain the nutrients they are said to contain.

– Finally, check the AAFCO label with which nearly all cat foods are marked. It should read either “All Life Stages” or “Adult Maintenance.” The former is actually formulated for growing kittens and lactating adult cats. As such, it may contain more calories, calcium, and/or phosphorous. The Adult Maintenance variety, on the other hand, is more balanced and appropriate for a wider majority of adult cats.

Here are a few additional tips as you make your final food selection:

– Grain-free foods are generally good for your cat, as the lower carbohydrate content and higher percentage of protein aids with weight control. However, even if a brand is labeled “grain-free,” it may still contain carbs in the form of potatoes and vegetables.

– Surprisingly, many cats are allergic to fish. If your cat is one of those, make sure that the label says zero fish products. A good rule of thumb is “fur and feather.”

– If the cat food is labeled “natural,” it means that, in accordance with FDA guidelines, none of its ingredients have been chemically altered.

– The contents of “organic” cat food should be a minimum of 95% organic ingredients, not including the water content. If the label says that it was “made with organic ingredients,” the food should contain a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, not including water and salt. It should also have an official USDA label.

There are a lot of options available on the market and finding a good fit for your cat based on its age, lifestyle and preferences can be tricky. Feeding the right food and getting your cat the best nutrition can help your furry family member live a happy and healthy life. If you have additional questions, talk to your veterinarian about your cat’s specific needs.