By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 18 December 2011)
In recent years, many people have become concerned that artificial ingredients and hormones in the majority of commercially available cat foods may have adverse health consequences for their pets. In addition, such diets are often heavily processed, overly weighted towards carbohydrates, and contain poor-quality protein sources.
The Benefits of a Natural Diet
Natural diets are closer to what a cat would eat in the wild. They contain more protein and fat and less carbohydrate than most commercially available cat foods, and they are free of artificial additives and preservatives, wheat, and other ingredients that can trigger digestive problems or increase the likelihood of obesity and related health problems.
Feeding your cat a natural diet may reduce the risk of diseases of the bowel and intestinal tract. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests that cats consuming natural diets are often more active and have sleeker coats than those fed on regular commercial foods. However, there are a number of all-natural, organic, human-grade, holistic, and hypoallergenic tinned cat foods commercially available for those who don’t have the time to prepare meals for their cats.
If you’re interested in cooking for your cat (or preparing a customized raw diet), you’ll need to do some research and consult a veterinarian to make sure that you’re providing a complete and balanced diet that meets all of your cat’s nutritional needs and is tailored to his or her particular health concerns. If homemade diets aren’t implemented correctly, they do more harm than good, so it’s important to understand the nutritional needs of your cat when seeking alternatives.
Protein and Fat Sources for Cats
Turkey and chicken (especially the thighs) are particularly good protein sources for cats, and are often the best-liked as well. Rabbit is another good protein source that can be bought in bulk. Some people use beef, but there is a higher risk of allergic reactions with cow meat, and it’s not as close to what a cat would eat in the wild. Soy is another protein-rich ingredient that is unnatural in a cat’s diet and more likely to provoke allergic reactions.
The benefits of feeding fish are mixed. On one hand, it’s a very nutritious food. On the other, pollutant levels in many types of fish may contribute to the development of hyperthyroidism in cats. Also, if feeding fish, veterinarian Ron Hines (2011) recommends removing the heads and gills because they’re more likely to contain excessive iodine. Other problems associated fish, according to CatNutrition.org (2011) include the fact that it’s relatively low in calcium, so feeding it as a primary dietary staple may upset a cat’s calcium-phosophorus balance. Fish is also high in magnesium, which may contribute to urinary tract problems. Additional problems include the possibility of triggering a thiamine deficiency due to the high thiaminase content in certain types of fish.
The Lennawee Humane Society (2011) warns that canned tuna formulated for humans is a particularly bad choice as a dietary staple because it can trigger a vitamin E deficiency, and this can cause a serious and painful condition called steatitis (yellow fat disease). For this reason, you shouldn’t feed cats tuna formulated for humans on a regular basis – it’s alright for a treat now and then, but it doesn’t meet all of a cat’s nutritional needs and it’s not supplemented with anything to counter the vitamin E loss deficiency it can cause.
Of all the protein sources you can give your cat, eggs have the highest biological value, which means that your pet can use more of the protein. However, ggs should be cooked because there is a risk of contracting salmonella from raw eggs, and cats that regularly eat raw egg whites may develop a biotin deficiency. Studies have shown free-range, organic eggs to be more nutritious than typical factory farm eggs, so purchasing free-range, organic eggs is beneficial not only for treating farm animals more humanely, but also for the health of those who eat the eggs.
Many cats are lactose intolerant, so giving them milk may cause flatulence and diarrhea. Cottage cheese is a good low-lactose alternative. Some pets that can’t tolerate milk can eat live-culture unpasteurized yogurt without suffering any problems, but not all will be able to tolerate this. Although dairy products are good sources of protein for cats that don’t react negatively to them, cats can’t live on dairy alone without suffering a taurine deficiency that can lead to heart problems and blindness, so dairy products shouldn’t be fed exclusively.
Cats, as obligate carnivores, also require more fat in their diets than omnivorous dogs and humans, so you may need to use fattier meats or add some fat to the food (i.e., chicken fat/skin or drippings from nitrite-free bacon).
Carbohydrates for Cats
Not all experts believe that there is any need to add any carbohydrates to a cat’s diet. In fact, many recommend against it due to the health problems associated with high-carbohydrate diets. Cats would not consume vegetables in the wild and lack the enzymes to digest and use them properly. Veterinarian Lisa Pierson (2011) notes that in the wild, carbohydrates would constitute just 3%-5% of the natural feline diet, and recommends that carbohydrates comprise less than 10% of the calories in a cat’s diet.
If adding carbohydrates to homemade pet food, keep them to a minimal level and choose sources such as cooked brown rice or mashed potatoes rather than wheat and corn products, which often trigger allergic reactions.
Dietary Fiber for Cats
Cats eat grass, and it has been speculated that this may be a way of getting fiber and trace nutrients not supplied by their diets. Some experts believe that it’s beneficial to add a small amount of fiber to a cat’s diet, particularly if the cat is inclined to suffer from constipation. Good sources of fiber for cats include cooked peas and pumpkin (pure pumpkin – not pumpkin pie filling). Pumpkin is particularly good for treating both constipation or loose stools, though owners should keep in mind that it only treats the symptom; consulting a veterinarian is necessary to address any underlying medical problems that may be causing the symptom. When treating constipation or diarrhea, in addition to administering any veterinarian-prescribed medications required, I add a tablespoon of pumpkin to the food once a day until the problem has cleared up. Fiber can also be added via psyllium supplements.
If adding fiber from natural sources, don’t add too much all at once or your pet may suffer digestive upsets and fail to absorb required nutrients. Start with a tiny amount, and if you think that your cat requires more due to constipation or a need to lose weight, increase the amount slowly. Overall, fiber content should be very small unless your veterinarian recommends more to address a particular digestive issue.
Calcium for Cats
In the wild, cats eat the bones of their prey and pet food manufacturers usually add bone meal to ensure adequate calcium and provide other trace nutrients found in bone. If you’re grinding meats yourself, you can grind bones with the meat to provide these required nutrients. If you’re feeding boneless meat only, you’ll need to add bone meal (veterinarian Lisa Pierson recommends NOW brand Bone Meal).
Some experts believe that the best calcium-to-phosphorus (or bones-to-meat) ratio can be obtained by feeding entire carcasses. However, some raw-fed cats experience constipation, possibly as a result of consuming too much bone. To maintain an ideal balance, Pierson uses ground chicken thighs, which have a relatively high meat-to-bone ratio. It’s also worth noting that cats switched to high-protein (particularly raw) diets will likely need to defecate less frequently because they’re not consuming as much undigestable matter, so lower frequency of bowel movements doesn’t necessarily indicate constipation.
Some people also advocate feeding unground meaty bones to promote dental health. According to Pierson, the problem with this is that the bones in the types of meats available to cat owners tend to be much larger than those in a mouse or a small bird that a cat would hunt in the wild. Cats may swallow sharp fragments of bone, have pieces of bone stick in their mouths, or break teeth on these thicker, sturdier bones.
Taurine for Cats
Cats require the amino acid taurine; without it, they can suffer blindness, heart disease, and other devastating problems. Taurine can be added to the diet naturally via sliced dark leg meat, hearts, or gizzards from turkeys or chickens. In addition, there are taurine supplements available, and it may be necessary to use these, as it’s not always possible to provide sufficient taurine via natural sources.
Supplements for Cats
A balanced diet should meet a cat’s nutritional needs, but you may wish to add additional supplements supplement to be sure. Ask your veterinarian to recommend a vitamin supplement that will meet your pet’s particular nutrional requirements (requirements may vary based on health status because cats with certain conditions may require particular supplements).
Some pets also benefit from essential fatty acid supplements (usually in the form of fish oil) if they suffer from dry skin or certain health problems. Other supplements that may be necessary depending on the diet you’re providing and your cat’s particular health needs include Vitamin E, B-Complex, Taurine, Guar Gum, and Lite Salt with Iodine. For more information on these supplements, see Making Cat Food by Lisa Pierson, DVM.
Consult a veterinarian before using supplements, and be sure that you’re purchasing high-quality supplements specifically formulated for pets. There are a lot of poor-quality, useless, and even dangerous supplements on the market, so doing a little research beforehand is a good idea.
Other Things to Keep in Mind When Preparing Homemade Meals for Cats
The following are some additional issues to keep in mind if you plan to prepare meals for your cat at home:
- Cats with particular health concerns, such as chronic renal failure (CRF), pancreatitis, or other conditions may require special dietary modifications.
- Avoid using ingredients that are toxic to cats, including onions, garlic, grapes, raisins, currants, nutmeg, and others (see Foods Toxic to Cats and Dogs for a full list).
- Cats tend to resist change, so implementing a new diet often requires time and patience. New foods may have to be introduced a little at a time and possibly blended with the old food in increasing amounts over time. When trying to encourage cats to try new foods, Pierson recommends coating the new food in a probiotic called FortiFlora (the type formulated for cats) to make them more appetizing – you can use one-quarter of a packet or less to season a meal.
Raw Food Diets for Cats
There is much controversy surrounding raw food diets for pets, with some experts asserting that they’re worth implementing due to the health benefits they can provide and others recommending against them because of the potential risks. For example, veterinary nutritionist Rebecca Remillard has stated that diets based on raw meat are not safe, and the American Animal Hospital Association has also expressed concerns regarding the risk of salmonella poisoning (Edgar, 2011). Other experts, such as veterinarian Lisa Pierson (2011), assert that raw food diets are relatively safe and nutritious when implemented properly, and that many cats experience a variety of health benefits when switched to raw food.
Due to the risks involved, consulting a veterinarian before implementing a raw food diet is recommended to ensure proper nutrition and food safety. You’ll have to find a vet who is open to the idea of raw diets because some are strongly against them, whereas others believe that they can be beneficial if owners do the work required to ensure that they’re nutritionally complete and as safe as possible.
Raw food diets carry the risk of infestation with parasites or bacterial contamination. For this reason, all meats should be frozen for at least two weeks to kill parasites, and then thawed before feeding, and meats should be washed with clean water before you serve them to your cat. Ground meats should be avoided (unless you grind them under sanitary conditions at home) because bacteria can be ground right into the center of the meat, whereas bacteria can be washed from the surfaces of whole pieces of meat. Purchasing very fresh meat directly from a reputable source rather than a supermarket reduces the likelihood of contamination as well.
Pierson, a proponent of raw feeding, says that when obtaining meat from a supermarket rather than directly from the producer, owners can “split the difference” by partially cooking the outside of whole meats to kill any surface bacteria. Baking is better than boiling for this purpose, as more nutrients are retained and fat drippings can be added back to the meat.
For those who wish to implement raw diets for cats but don’t have time to prepare them, there are commercially available options such as Feline’s Pride (free of grains and vegetables) and Nature’s Variety (just 5% plant matter), both high-quality products recommended by Pierson.
Making Cat Food at Home: Cat Food Recipes
Homemade cat food can be precooked (or in the case of raw feeding, prepared in advance) in batches and then stored in the freezer in sealed tupperware containers or glass jars to save time.
Pierson offers a very detailed recipe for making raw food meals for cats, including necessary supplements. This recipe is available at CatInfo.org. CatNutrition.org also provides raw cat food recipes.
A recipe for cooked cat food provided by veterinarian Shawn Messonnier can be found at SPCA International.
If you don’t ensure an appropriate nutritional balance, providing homemade cat food will do more harm than good. If you lack the time and energy to research and plan the diet properly, choosing a good-quality canned food is by far the better option.
For answers to common questions about feeding cats and kittens, visit the Cat Food page.
- CatNutrition.org. (2011). “Frequently Asked Questions.”
- Edgar, J., Reviewed by Cook, A., BVM&S. (2011). “Homemade Cat Food and Raw Cat Food.” WebMD.com.
- Glasgow, A.G., Cave, N.J., Marks, S.L., & Pedersen, N.C. (2002). A Winn Feline Foundation Report on Role of Diet in the Health of the Feline Intestinal Tract and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Cat Fancier’s Association Inc.
- Hines, R., DVM, PhD. (2011). “Home Cooked Pet Diets, Home Made Recipes and Pet Nutrition.” 2ndChance.info.
- Lenawee Humane Society. (2006). “We’re Talking Tuna: How Much Is too Much for Your Cat?” Lenhumanesoc.org.
- Messonnier, S., DVM. (n.d.). “Homemade Diets for Pets.” SPCA International, SPCAI.org.
- Pierson, L., DVM. (2011). “Making Cat Food” and “Feeding Your Cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition.” CatInfo.org.