We may be living in a golden age for cat owners looking for fancy litter boxes or designer perches, but choosing the right food for our feline friends can still be surprisingly difficult, due to confusing labels and the lack of transparency required of food companies. “Owners are trained to look at the ingredient list as the only way to judge the quality of pet food,” says Martha G. Cline, a certified veterinary nutritionist at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in New Jersey. “But it doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of that ingredient or the nutrient provided in that ingredient.” Jennifer Coates, a veterinary expert at Chewy, says cats need more protein than many other species and stresses that the protein “should be sourced from animals.” But aside from noting the kind and amount of any cat food’s animal protein, the labels on many brands won’t give you much useful information, according to the professionals we spoke with.

Fortunately there are a few resources out there that can help you better choose your cat food. “Probably the most important part when you’re buying [food] for your pet is looking for the nutritional-adequacy statement and making sure it’s for the appropriate life stage for your pet,” says Cline. All pet food should have a nutritional-advocacy statement from the American Association of Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) noting whether they meet the standards for growth (good for kittens), adult maintenance (for maintaining a healthy weight), or all life stages (any age). Several vets we spoke with also pointed us to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA)’s tool kit with questions pet owners should ask when they’re shopping for cat food, including about the percentages of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in a particular food (this data isn’t required on labels). After asking many of these questions herself, veterinarian Lisa Pierson compiled a thorough chart of the nutrient profile for hundreds of cat-food flavors. As for what to look for on that chart, Jennifer Berg, founder of Tribeca Veterinary Wellness, says “more protein than fat, and then very little of any kind of carbohydrate is what we feel is probably ideal.” She advises looking for food that’s at least 45 percent protein and less than 10 percent carbohydrates, noting that nutrient profiles can vary widely between flavors of the same cat-food brand, so be sure to check the chart for each individual flavor.