Even if you aren’t a health nut yourself, you are probably aware of the gluten-free trend sweeping the nation. Gluten-free food items are popping up on grocery store shelves all over the country and more and more people are switching to the gluten-free diet. What many pet owners do not realize is that the gluten-free diet can be adapted for cats. In fact, gluten can cause serious digestive issues in cats and even cats that do not experience these problems can benefit from gluten-free cat food.

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Gluten-free cat food does not need to be made with any special ingredients. The key is to simply choose a product that doesn’t rely on grains (especially gluten-containing brains like wheat and barley) for carbohydrates.

By definition, all grain-free cat foods are also gluten-free but gluten-free cat foods are not necessarily grain-free.

Before you switch your cat to a gluten-free cat food, take the time to learn about why gluten is bad for cats, how to choose a quality gluten-free cat food, and how to transition your cat onto his new gluten-free cat food.

Why is Gluten Bad for Cats?

Before you can learn why gluten is bad for cats, you need to learn what gluten is. Gluten is a type of plant protein found in certain grains like wheat, barley, and rye. This protein acts as a sort of binder, helping to give wheat-based doughs their classic elasticity – gluten is always what gives bread its spongy texture. Gluten can also be used as a stabilizing agent in certain foods like ice cream and ketchup. In cat food, gluten is not used for any specific purpose in most cases, it is simply a component of grain-based fillers and thickeners that many pet food manufacturers use in their products.

There are a number of reasons why gluten is bad for cats. For one thing, it is a component of many grain-based ingredients which are low in nutritional value for cats. Many pet food manufacturers use things like wheat flour or wheat gluten to add bulk to their products without increasing the cost or the meat content. Not only are wheat-based ingredients low in nutritional value for cats, but they are also one of the most common causes of food allergies in pets. Some cats can eat gluten without any issues, but many cats suffer from gluten allergies or gluten intolerance.

For cats that suffer from gluten allergies, sensitivities, or intolerance, eating a cat food that contains gluten can cause a number of unpleasant symptoms including the following:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach upset
  • Vomiting
  • Asthma
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Skin problems

Although gluten is a type of protein, it is not one that can be easily digested by your cat. Plant proteins are less biologically valuable than animal proteins for this reason. Another reason pet food manufacturers sometimes use gluten-containing ingredients in their products is to increase the protein content without actually adding more meat. The guaranteed analysis on a pet food label only shows the minimum value or protein by percentage, it doesn’t tell you where that protein comes from. You have to actually review the ingredients list to see what protein sources are used.

Quick Look : Top 4 Gluten Free Cat Foods

Food Price Nutrition Rating
Nature’s Variety Instinct Grain-FreeNature’s Variety Instinct Grain-Free
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$3.45/lb A+ 5 stars
Halo Grain-FreeHalo Grain-Free Cat Food
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$1.63/5.5 oz can A 5 star
Blue Buffalo Freedom Grain-FreeBlue Buffalo Freedom Grain-Free
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$2.91/lb A 5 stars
Nutro Grain-Free Cat FoodNutro Grain-Free Cat Food
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$.95/3 oz can A 5 stars

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Gluten-Free vs. Grain-Free Food

If your cat has trouble tolerating gluten, you should seriously consider switching to a gluten-free or grain-free cat food. Because gluten is a protein found in certain types of grains, grain-free cat foods are inherently gluten-free, but the opposite is not necessarily true. For example, gluten-free cat foods can still contain gluten-free grains like rice, oats, millet, quinoa, and others. Some of these grains are fairly digestible for cats as long as they are properly cooked and minimally processed. For example, whole grain brown rice or whole grain oats are generally considered to be digestible carbohydrates for cats and they are included in many high-quality commercial cat foods.

Though gluten-free cat food and grain-free cat food is not always the same, they both provide similar benefits. Aside from relieving digestive issues caused by gluten consumption, both gluten-free and grain-free cat foods tend to be lower in carbohydrate content than traditional kibbles. If you look at the ingredients list for a low-quality kibble from an inexpensive brand you will likely see half a dozen carbohydrate sources (or more) with a limited number of healthy animal proteins and fats. It is important to remember that cats are obligate carnivores which means that their bodies are adapted to digesting animal products, not plant products. The higher the carbohydrate content of the cat food product, the more difficult it will be for your cat’s body to digest. If your cat can’t digest the food you give him, he won’t receive the vital nutrients he needs and he could suffer from any number of nutritional deficiencies or other health problems as a result.

It is also worth noting that many gluten-free and grain-free cat foods are also low glycemic cat foods. The glycemic index is simply a scale that measures the degree to which certain food products affect the blood sugar level of your cat. High-glycemic foods include things like refined sugar, processed grains, corn, and wheat. When your cat eats these ingredients, it causes his blood sugar levels to spike suddenly as the simple sugars enter his bloodstream. This spike in blood sugar is frequently followed by a sudden crash. This cycle can lead to metabolic stress in cats and it contributes to diabetes as well. Low-glycemic ingredients, on the other hand, typically include complex grains like brown rice and whole grain oats as well as grain-free carbohydrates like tapioca and sweet potato. These ingredients have a lesser effect on your cat’s blood sugar level.

Choosing a High-Protein, Gluten-Free Food

Because cats are obligate carnivores they require a diet that is composed primarily of animal proteins and fats with a limited amount of carbohydrate. When shopping for high-protein, gluten-free cat food you need to pay attention to two key parts of the pet food label – the guaranteed analysis and the ingredients list. The guaranteed analysis shows the minimum values for crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber and moisture as percentages. The higher the protein value for the product, the better it is for your cat – it is also good to see a low fiber content, no more than 5%. Gluten-free cat food and grain-free cat foods tend to have lower fiber and carb content, though that is not always the case.

While you can start evaluating the quality of a gluten-free cat food by looking at the guaranteed analysis, you also have to take a look at the ingredients list. Remember, protein can come from either animal-based or plant-based sources and the guaranteed analysis does not differentiate. The ingredients list will show all of the ingredients that are included in the product in descending order by volume. The ingredients at the top of the list are present in the highest volume, so this is where you want to see quality animal proteins like fresh meat, meat meals, poultry, fish, and eggs. The first ingredient in a quality pet food will always be a source of animal protein, though many quality cat foods include multiple protein sources.

After ensuring that the gluten-free cat food contains at least one quality source of animal protein, you also need to check for healthy fats. Fats are the most highly concentrated source of energy available to cats and, like proteins, they are most biologically valuable when they come from animal-based sources. Things like chicken fat, salmon oil, and other fish oils are valuable fat sources for cats. Plant-based proteins like flaxseed or canola oil are not necessarily bad for your cat but they are best used as supplementary sources of fat, not as the sole source of fat.

When it comes to the carbohydrates used in gluten-free cat foods, you want them to be as digestible as possible. If the recipe includes gluten-free grains you want them to be whole grains, not processed grains – whole grain brown rice, whole grain oats, and whole grain quinoa are some excellent gluten-free grains. If you want a recipe that is both gluten-free and grain-free you should look for a product that uses tapioca starch, green peas, potatoes, or sweet potatoes as the primary carbohydrate sources. Fresh fruits and vegetables can also be included for a boost of dietary fiber as well as essential vitamins and minerals. Just be wary of things like tomato pomace, rice hulls, beet pulp, and soybean hulls because these items offer very limited nutritional value.

Transitioning Your Cat onto a Gluten-Free Diet

Even if your cat is experiencing digestive problems on his current food, you still need to be careful about transitioning him onto a new gluten-free cat food. Making sudden changes to your cat’s diet can cause further digestive upset which can be unpleasant for both you and your cat. Once you’ve chosen your new gluten-free cat food you should mix a small amount of it into your cat’s current food for a few days to help start the transition. Begin with about 25% of the new food and mix it with 75% of your cat’s old food. After two or three days (if your cat doesn’t have a reaction) you can up it to 50% of each food. After another two or three days, increase it to 75% new food and 25% old food. Finally, make the switch to 100% new food once your cat is free from digestive problems for a few days.

Top Recommended Gluten-Free Cat Food Brands

If you are thinking about switching your cat over to a gluten-free cat food you will find that you have many options to choose from. To help you get started in your search, consider some of these top-rated brands of gluten-free and grain-free cat foods.

Food Price Nutrition Rating
Nature’s Variety Instinct Grain-FreeNature’s Variety Instinct Grain-Free
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$3.45/lb A+ 5 stars
Halo Grain-FreeHalo Grain-Free Cat Food
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$1.63/5.5 oz can A 5 star
Blue Buffalo Freedom Grain-FreeBlue Buffalo Freedom Grain-Free
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$2.91/lb A 5 stars
Nutro Grain-Free Cat FoodNutro Grain-Free Cat Food
Read Reviews Next ArticleWhere To Buy Next Article
$.95/3 oz can A 5 stars
ALSO READ:  Best Vegan Cat Foods: We Recommend Adding Meat...

Nature’s Variety Instinct Grain-Free

When it comes to grain-free and gluten-free cat food, few companies offer as many selections as Nature’s Variety. Nature’s Variety offers two different brands – the Prairie brand of affordable pet foods and the Instinct line of all-natural pet foods. Within the Instinct brand there is a wide variety of product lines. The Instinct Raw line includes a selection of raw bites and raw medallions, both of which are made up of 95% animal protein with 0% grains and gluten. These raw frozen diets are designed to mimic the ancestral diet of wild cats and they are complete and balanced for cats in all life stages. If you want to give your cat the nutritional benefits of raw food with the convenience of dry food, Nature’s Variety Instinct Raw Boost formulas are a great way to go. These products consist of grain-free kibble with freeze-dried raw pieces mixed in. You can also purchase Raw Boost Mixers if you want to add freeze-dried nutrition to your cat’s current diet.

Another option in grain-free and gluten-free nutrition for cats is the Nature’s Variety Instinct Ultimate Protein line of products. This line includes two dry food options and one wet food option. The two dry food options are made with either chicken or duck as the primary sources of protein and they are completely gluten- and grain-free, loaded with 95% real animal protein. These kibbles are also made with a freeze-dried raw coating for added nutrition and flavor your cat is sure to love. The Instinct Originals line of products includes four kibble recipes and seven wet food options. Each recipe is grain-free and gluten-free, loaded with real animal proteins and healthy fruits and vegetables. These recipes are nutrient-dense, highly digestible, and inspired by the ancestral diet of wild cats. No matter which one of Nature’s Variety’s products you choose, your cat is sure to love it.

Halo Grain-Free

The Halo, Purely for Pets Company has existed for more than 25 years and they have made a name for themselves within the holistic pet food industry. This company believes that quality nutrition is the single most important determining factor in the health and wellness of pets. Halo was founded in 1986 when the owner of a cat named Spot set out to create a homemade diet to address his unique nutritional requirements. Since then, Halo has been an innovator in the natural pet food industry and they have gained a reputation for providing their customers with honest information and quality nutrition for pets. The Halo Difference promises that none of their formulas will include any chicken meal, rendered meats, or by-product meals. They use only the freshest, most high-quality ingredients in recipes that are formulated to deliver optimal nutrition for cats in all life stages.

When it comes to gluten-free cat food, Halo offers a wide variety of grain-free products. For dry food, Halo offers two lines of products – the Vigor line of grain-free options and the Spot’s Stew line of products. Halo Vigor Grain-Free cat foods promise high-quality protein sources to build strong muscles, natural plant enzymes for digestive support, complex carbohydrates for fiber and energy, and a balance of healthy vitamins and minerals for maximum nutrition. The Spot’s Stew line of grain-free cat foods features quality proteins like chicken, whitefish, salmon, and game birds with gluten-free carbohydrates like whole peas, sweet potatoes, and green beans. Each recipe is free from artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, plus they are supplemented with dried fermentation products and chelated minerals to ensure maximum nutrient absorption.

Blue Buffalo Freedom Grain-Free

The name Blue Buffalo has become synonymous with “quality” when it comes to pet food products. The Blue Buffalo Company was founded by a pair of concerned pet owners who wanted to create a quality product for their dog and it has blossomed into one of the biggest natural pet food companies on the market. Blue Buffalo offers five different product lines for cats and dogs including a Natural Veterinary Diet line of products. The other four product lines include the BLUE line of all-natural pet foods, the Basics line of Limited Ingredient Diets, the Wilderness line of protein-rich products, and the Freedom line of grain-free pet foods. All of Blue Buffalo’s products also include their LifeSource bits which are made of a proprietary blend of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals to help ensure balanced nutrition.

When it comes to gluten-free cat food, the Blue Buffalo Freedom line of grain-free products is a great option. This line includes five dry food options and five wet food options. Among the five dry food options there are two traditional adult indoor recipes, one indoor kitten recipe, one indoor mature adult recipe, and one indoor weight control recipe. For wet foods, the same flavors are available in canned food form. Blue Buffalo Freedom cat foods feature quality proteins like chicken, whitefish, and turkey as well as gluten-free carbohydrates like carrots, peas, and sweet potatoes. Each recipe is free from corn, wheat, and soy ingredients as well as artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. Not only are these recipes gluten-free, but they are made with dried fermentation products for probiotics as well as chelated minerals to ensure maximum nutrient absorption.

Nutro Grain-Free

The Nutro Natural Choice brand was founded in 1926 and in the years since their inception they have become a leading name in the pet nutrition industry. Not only do they follow the highest standards for quality in production but they also use the freshest, most natural ingredients available. Nutro uses real animal proteins like farm-raised chicken and New Zealand lamb in their formulas as well as whole grains and other natural ingredients. Their recipes are made with a blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to ensure healthy skin and coat as well as immune system support. Nutro grain-free cat foods are supplemented with antioxidants, DHA, and an assortment of vitamins and minerals to help support your cat’s whole body health and wellness. Their products are also loaded with natural flavor!

When it comes to gluten-free cat food, Nutro offers two dry food recipes and a wide variety of canned food options. The two dry recipes are the Salmon & Potato recipe and the Duck & Potato recipe. Each of these recipes contains 0% grains and they are highly digestible which is important for cats with sensitivities to grains. Nutro grain-free cat foods are supplemented with antioxidants for healthy immunity and nutrient-rich potatoes and peas to provide all-day energy. For grain-free wet foods, Nutro offers a wide variety of products including sliced entrees, minced cuisine, chunky loaf dinners, meat and egg skillets, and more. Their products feature quality proteins like salmon, tuna, chicken, turkey, and duck as well as all the healthy supplements your cat needs for optimal nutrition.

ALSO READ:  Best High Protein Cat Food

Not all cats have a negative reaction to gluten, but it is undeniable that gluten-containing grains offer very limited nutritional value for cats. If you want to maximize your cat’s nutrition with a pet food product that is also highly digestible, look for a gluten-free and possibly grain-free product. If you need help getting started with your search, consider one of the top-rated gluten-free cat food brands reviewed above.

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Kate Barrington

Kate Barrington is a freelance writer specializing in the subject of pet health and wellness. An avid dog lover and adoring owner of three cats, Kate has a great deal of experience writing about all kinds of pets and all aspects of pet care. Her work has been featured on a number of pet websites and she is a regular columnist for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine.

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  • I adopted a 10(?) yr old female Russian Blue 2 yrs ago.
    A beautiful, healthy girl, until 2 wks ago when she started obsessively grooming & scratching. There are
    numerous, isolated patches of dry, crusted “growths”
    (for want of a better word) extending from her ears/cheeks to the base of her tail.

    My first thought was gluten intolerance and I’ve put her on a grain-free diet (1 wk now) with, thus far, no
    readily apparent improvement.

    I live on a small pension and vet’s want a pound of flesh.

    Any thoughts?

    Sincerely,

    Dean E Morrison