Cat lovers know that cats enjoy treats just as much as dogs do, even if they’re not as likely to learn to “sit” or “shake” to the sound of the treat bag opening. Treats are a great way to bond with your cat, entice it into a carrier, or distract it during a grooming session.
Our top pick is Orijen Tundra Cat Treats, a healthy and “biologically appropriate” treat that consists of nothing but protein. The treats come in a variety of flavors so that you can find the right fit for your cat’s tastes, and every formula boasts regionally sourced ingredients — from a company with an outspoken commitment to quality control. They’re small, soft, and easy for cats to eat without making a mess.
Our runner-up for best cat treat, Vital Essentials Minnows Freeze-Dried Cat Treats, have just one ingredient: minnows. These tiny fish — eyeballs, tails, and all — will be unappealing to the faint of stomach, but our cats loved them, and they have a less pungent scent than most of the fish treats we tested: We could barely smell them when we opened the bag.
Another fishy option, Cat-Man-Doo Dried Bonito Flake Cat Treats took us by surprise. This simple treat consists of nothing but dried fish flakes, each piece roughly the size of a corn flake. Bonito flakes are so lightweight that we found them tricky to portion out individually, but they’re great for sprinkling onto kibble for cats who are finicky eaters.
The Honest Kitchen Functional Liquid Treat Bone Broth is another mix-in that we liked. Like Cat-Man-Doo, this option can be added to wet or dry food to make it more enticing. Just be warned that it’s more labor-intensive to prepare: You’ll have to heat water, mix in the powdered broth, and then wait for it to.
We started by compiling a list of major cat treat brands sold at pet supply retailers like Chewy.com, Petco, and PetSmart — brands like Blue Buffalo and Purina, which most cat owners recognize from a trip down the cat food aisle. This gave us a starting list of 254 products, from baked treats and freeze-dried minnows to individual tuna pouches. Note that we looked only at treats for cats in good health, avoiding products intended to treat issues like hairballs or diabetes.
First, we cut products with corn, soy, or wheat.
In the wild, cats eat meat — and that’s pretty much it. Their dietary fiber tends to comefrom whatever grains and grasses are already inside their prey’s stomach. Housecats might be more interested in attacking the curtains than killing their dinner, but their dietary needs remain the same as those of their wild cousins.
In line with this thinking, we prioritized treats heavy on whole proteins, avoiding formulas that relied on corn, wheat, or soy as fillers. Cats and carbs simply don’t mix well. Dr. Gary Richter, who owns Oakland’s Montclair Veterinary Hospital and Holistic Veterinary Care, explains, “Diets with high levels of carbohydrates can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance, and diabetes.”
We also cut products with added sweeteners.
Many commercial cat treats contain added sweeteners like corn syrup or sugar. We weren’t wild about these additions for two reasons: First, with diabetes and pet obesity a growing concern in the US, the addition of sugar to treats is considered harmful by experts. Second, evidence suggests that cats can’t even taste sweets — there’s truly no reason for sugar to show up at all in your treats’ ingredient list.
We nixed cat treats with artificial flavors, preservatives, or dyes.
Pet treats need preservatives in order to stay fresh on the shelf for months, but as we learned when we reviewed dog treats, many commonly used options come with health concerns for our pets:
The artificial preservatives BHA and BHT are used in commercial cat foods and treats from brands like Purina, but there is evidence to suggest they’re carcinogenic to animals.
Glycerin is another common preservative. But because this ingredient is often derived from petrolatum, the US Food & Drug Administration has raised concerns over methanol contamination. (Note that “vegetable glycerin” is a totally different, and safe, ingredient.)
Many artificial dyes are used to make treats look more appealing to pet owners. But these ingredients are suspected carcinogens to humans — and your cat isn’t going to care about the color of its treats to begin with.
A treat or two with any of these ingredients isn’t going to be especially harmful. But given the choice, we opted for no dyes, and for natural preservatives like tocopherols (vitamin E) or ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which are widely regarded as harmless.
We cut treats that contained by-products or meat meal.
Meat byproducts and meat meal are the parts of a carcass (like bones or viscera) deemed unsuitable for humans to eat. Your cat might not object to them, but it’s hard to gauge the quality of these ingredients. One industry study suggests that the poor quality of the protein in many meat meals can negatively impact a cat’s health, and Dr. Richter emphasizes, “The unknown quality and digestibility of these products makes them highly undesirable for pets to consume.”
“Think of nutrients as construction materials,” he told us. “To build a high-quality building, you have to start with the best materials.”
And we skipped the added sodium.
Eliminating extra sodium took many popular brands off our list, even those generally regarded as healthy, like Blue Buffalo. But veterinarian Dr. Elisa Katz from Feline-Nutrition.org points out that cats on dry food diets are already prone to dehydration, which in turn can lead to issues like kidney stones and urinary crystals.
Dr. Richter explains: “Small amounts of added salt should not be a medical issue for a healthy cat. That said, what’s the point?”
Then we checked out our finalists for deal-breakers.
From our remaining list of treats, we gave priority to companies that offered multiple flavors. Cats, like people, can have food allergies and flavor preferences, so we focused on brands with at least three options to choose from.
Honestly, all of our finalists are great choices. They’re free of fillers and offer the whole protein sources that cats love. To land on our favorites, we went the extra mile, looking at the following qualities:
Smell: Cat treats are designed to appeal to animals who’d happily eat a dead bird, so we weren’t expecting to find them appealing. But we wanted to be able to open the bag without cringing. We weren’t wild about the pungently fishy smell of PureBites Oceanfish treats.
Size: We favored small treats. Not only is a bite-sized tidbit easier for a cat to eat — it’s also better for them, helping you avoid doling out unnecessarily large portions. Grandma Lucy’s Freeze-Dried Liver, for example, packs plenty of great nutrients but comes in chunks roughly the size of a quarter that seemed more appropriate for dogs (and, in fact, the treat is advertised as being “for dogs and cats”).
Packaging: In each case, we made sure each bag was easy to open and seal back up for freshness. Most treats didn’t have trouble here, although Fancy Feast Tuna Treats lost ground. Its individual plastic packages of pre-portioned tuna seem like a neat idea, but they take a lot of effort to open and then dole out.
Real-life testing: To make sure we were only recommending cat-approved products, we gave each treat to our four test cats: two healthy seniors and a pair of 2-year-old siblings. Our cats were generally eager to taste every treat given to them, although they had a slight preference for fish smells and flavors.