Feeding Your Cat


David McCluggage, D.V.M., C.V.A.

To understand how to feed a cat, let's first look at some basic aspects of feline nutrition. Cats are strictly carnivores, with essentially no grains required, and only a small amount of vegetables or other food items needed. Cats thrive on diets made up almost entirely of meat, as long as we feed organ meats and bones as well as muscle meats.

Conventional-minded veterinarians often say that commercial diets are superior to home-prepared diets, because the commercial diets are balanced, while home cooking creates nutritional deficiencies and diseases. The reality is just the opposite, as we will see. First, it is really not hard to feed a good, nutritious diet of fresh foods that you prepare. As we will explain, it is actually easy and very rewarding to provide the type of diet that cats love to eat and actually thrive on.

Let's look at commercial diets. The long-standing veterinarian recommendation has been to feed nothing but a commercial diet (usually one of the "kibble diets," meaning the hard, dry foods). Kibble, or hard cat food, is supposed to improve a cat's teeth. Actually there are no studies that show this, and in our experience, cats with the best teeth are eating a natural food diet.

Many cat owners feed a "wet and dry" meal, meaning they leave out dry food all the time and supplement this by feeding some canned food daily. This is not necessary, and in fact is not needed, as you will see. Further, leaving cat food available is detrimental to the cat. Having food always available creates finicky eaters. Also, not allowing a period of fasting between meals does not allow for the cat to process the food and then detoxify their meals. Over time this will lead to chronic diseases.

Commercial cat diets claim to be nutritionally complete and balanced, and "AAFCO Certified." According to conventional thinking, feeding anything else will lead to a multitude of nutritional diseases. But, when looked at more closely, this idea makes little sense.

First, we know that basic anatomy, biochemistry, and organ function is essentially the same for cats and humans. For people, the most basic concept of a good diet is eating fresh foods, and eating a variety of these foods. We would never think of feeding ourselves out of a can, or of feeding ourselves a monotonous piece of dry "people kibble." And we would never think of feeding ourselves the same food day in and day out, because we know how important variety is to the total diet.

Years ago, nutritionists thought that it hardly mattered what type of foods one ate, as long as the food contained certain levels of amino acids (proteins), fatty acids, and carbohydrates (simple and complex sugars). The "old thought" used to be that the body's digestion would break down any food item into simple amino acids, sugars, and fatty acid; then reassemble them in the body to form the complex molecules required by life. This explains the evolution of foods such as Wonder Bread with 13 added vitamins. As the study of nutrition has advanced, we now know that the body does indeed absorb complex nutritional compounds, not just simple sugars, carbohydrates, and fatty acids. Not only can these complex compounds be absorbed, but also the body actually requires them for optimal health. The body actually "expects" to have these nutrients available, and will utilize these chemicals as building blocks for a variety of processes, including immune function, nerve function, and rebuilding damaged cells, to name a few.

Let's look at some of the most recent research on human nutrition:

"Consuming a diet rich in plant foods will provide a milieu of phytochemicals, non-nutritive substances in plants that possess health-protective benefits."

"Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, herbs, nuts and seeds contain an abundance of phenolic compounds, terpenoids, sulfur compounds, pigments, and other natural antioxidants that have been associated with protection from and/or treatment of conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.Craig W, Beck L. Phytochemicals: Health Protective Effects. Can J Diet Pract Res. 1999 Summer; 60(2): 78-84."

Many of these phytonutrients are not heat stable, especially when cooked extensively, as with commercial cat foods.

Considering the high temperature, high pressure, and processing that commercial cat foods receive, we can expect that these cat foods are totally devoid of the beneficial nutrients mentioned by Dr. Craig in this well-respected study. In recent years, the practice of recommending commercial diets as the only source of food for cats has come under increasing scrutiny, often by trained nutritionists. It has been stated by one veterinarian with a Ph.D. in nutrition that we "are killing our pets with commercial diets." Most holistic doctors agree that the best diets are those with home-prepared foods as part of the diet. Many conventional veterinarians will at least agree that diets will improve when we offer some fresh foods and use variety.

I have seen the health of almost all cats deteriorate in general when fed commercial diets. Conversely, when my feline patients are placed on wholesome diets, fully a third of the cats that arrive in our practice diagnosed with a chronic, incurable disease return to complete health just by the change in diet!

Why are commercial diets so poor? Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Cost
    Even premium diets cost about one dollar a pound; when we factor in manufacturing, marketing, shipping, packaging, and mark up costs for the manufacturer, the wholesaler, and the retailer, the true cost of the basic ingredients is more likely 10-50 cents per pound.
    Reflect on what type of raw ingredients can be purchased for this price
    Commercial diets are primarily conceived and developed to minimize costs, not maximize nutrition
    To keep the cost so low, commercial diets have foods in them that have been rejected for human consumption. Even those that refrain from using condemned foods must resort to including foods that are far worse than what people would demand for themselves
  2. Diets are made to meet minimal standards, not optimal standards
    Again, due to cost considerations, essential fats, complex carbohydrates, and high-quality digestible proteins are kept to a minimum in the diet
    Healthy animals can survive on these diets, but over time, there is a price to be paid in deteriorating health and a more rapid aging process for your animal companion
    Sick animals, and those with a more fragile constitution, require high quality, optimal diets

  3. Over-processing (i.e., high temperature cooking under pressure) is used to make indigestible foods digestible
    Food processing plants have known for a very long time that if one wants to feed a food item that is essentially indigestible, the way to do this is to cook the product so excessively that it turns into a soup, then by adding grains (again, after extreme cooking methods), one can cook the product once more and turn it into a hard biscuit or kibble
    Unfortunately, all of the complex compounds we already mentioned as being so essential have disappeared
    Vitamins are also gone, so the commercial food industry will then spray vitamins mixed with oils (which have likewise been destroyed) onto the resulting hard kibble at the end of the processing. The vitamins are often synthetic, and the minerals are often poorly digestible at best. An example is zinc oxide and ferrous oxide, forms of zinc and iron supplementation that are often preferred by the food industry because they are so cheap (they are, in reality, rust). But they are very poorly absorbed, making them almost useless in reality

  4. "Garbage in garbage out," a long-standing truism in the computer world, is just as true in diets: poor quality foods can't become good quality foods, no matter what one tries to do with them. a. To the degree possible, diets should start with the highest quality, most digestible and wholesome food possible, instead of starting with the worst foods and trying to improve them with synthetic vitamins and false claims of being "nutritionally complete." b. This is called the food's "Biological Value."

Labels and Labeling Requirements

All regulations that control the labels on cat foods are created by AAFCO. AAFCO, as has already been stated, is a group controlled by commercial animal food manufacturers. It is not surprising to find that there are enough loopholes in labeling requirements to make it completely impossible to know what is in a diet, let alone the quality of the diet. Any manufacturer who wishes can create the marketing image that their product is a "premium diet."

In fact, most of these premium diets are at best only marginally better than the average diet, and many of them are conceived entirely as a marketing ploy to sell an average diet with a higher mark-up, creating higher profit margins.

One example of how easy it is to use subterfuge to create an image of wholesomeness, or using a term popular in the industry, "natural," is in the use of preservatives. Many companies will use standard preservatives such as ethoxyquin; yet not mention this in the ingredient list. This is possible if the company adds the preservatives themselves, instead of buying a product that already includes them as a preservative. Making the situation even worse is that it is common to then say on the package, "preserved naturally with Vitamin E." This statement naturally implies that no other chemical preservative is in the product, when in fact the company can make this claim by simply adding a little extra Vitamin E than is required by AAFCO to meet minimal needs. The ethoxyquin can then be purchased in a product such as chicken fat that contains ethoxyquin, and thus that information never needs to be placed on the label!

Basic Diet Recommendations for Cats

Note: These diet recommendations will always vary in practice due to the age, health, disease status, and constitution of the cat. Cats are carnivores, so they need meat. No plant foods contain all the proteins that a cat needs to thrive. This is why we do not recommend a vegetarian diet for a cat.

Always start the following recommendations gradually, introducing these foods slowly, over a couple of weeks.

We are giving you basic guidelines that are used when you are feeding a variety of different foods, and home cooking for part of the diet and feeding commercial for the rest of the diet. Feel free to modify our recommendations, but remember that you MUST feed a balanced diet, do NOT let them eat only meat, for example.

THE MEAT COMPONENT
  1. All cats should be fed, by volume of the total amount fed each meal, 25-50% meat.
    The meat can include:
    Beef
    Chicken
    Turkey
    Fish

  2. The easiest way to start this program is to use ground meats. Take the portion to be fed, mix with water, and cook on the stovetop or in the microwave until the meat is cooked medium (pink) to medium-well.
    Some animals will thrive on raw meats, and we love cats on raw meat diets. Still it is best to use cooked meats at first.
    Take this meat portion, including the water, (broth?) and add it to the rest of the ingredients

COMMERCIAL CAT FOOD COMPONENT

Although there are many good home-cooking recipes (which we can provide you), we feel that most owners have little time or inclination to routinely feed an entire home-cooked diet for their cat. Good intentions fall by the wayside, and the diet plan is not followed, as it should be. Instead, by feeding some meat, some commercial diet, and the rest as outlined below, the cat receives an excellent, well-balanced diet. Costs are kept at a minimum, and the time required to prepare the diet is so moderate that even the busiest person will be able to follow this feeding protocol.

There are many commercial diets that are good diets. However, none stand out as clearly superior to any other (they are NOT home cooking, after all). There are, however, a large number that are not worth feeding because they are either of too poor a quality or they are not cost effective (remember the average commercial diets that masquerade as premium diets). There are too many of these to mention, but a good clue that the diet falls in this category is if it claims to be "just as good as such and such, but costs less." Or the "premium diet costs less than about a dollar a pound."

We use and recommend the premium canned foods or the commercial frozen raw food diets. If you use dry food you need to add hot water, meat and foods from the variety component below to soften the dry food; in other words feed the food in a stew like consistency.

The commercial diet, hopefully premium quality canned or raw frozen, should be of as high a quality as you can afford, and should make up no more than 25-40% of the diet.

THE VARIETY COMPONENT
  • Since grains and other carbohydrates are not necessary, we recommend they be fed sparingly. Their biggest benefit is that they are inexpensive. Using the plan we are outlining, they are even less necessary, because the commercial diets contain grains
  • Two of our favorite grains to use is long grain white rice, or quinoa. Many cats have digestive problems, which improve when rice is fed
  • Vegetables should be routinely added. We recommend:
    Carrots
    Broccoli
    Peas
    Leafy greens
  • Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, yams, and squashes are all excellent additions to the diet. Sweet potato is especially good, inexpensive, easy to prepare, and readily accepted. Sweet potato should be cooked, and then can be used a portion at a time over a few days. They can be mashed and mixed so well into the diet that all animals will accept them. Carrots often need to be cooked lightly or shredding/chopped finely, or they may not be accepted or completely digested
  • Dairy products can be included sparingly
    Yogurt
    Cottage Cheese
  • Eggs are great to feed, and can be fed cooked or raw. We recommend no more than a couple of eggs a week if fed raw. Cooked eggs can be fed a little more frequently
  • Leftovers can be fed as well, as long as they are good food and not excessively fatty or sweet
  • The variety component should be just that: fed for variety, one thing one day, and another thing another day. Don't get caught up in a routine where you are feeding the same things all the time. Variety is just as necessary for your cat as it is for yourself
  • A couple final thoughts:
    Legumes (beans, peanuts) are good sources of proteins and fiber, but do not have particularly large amounts of vitamins and tend to provide excessive carbohydrates, which leads to obesity.
_______________________________________________________________________________________ ONE HOME COOKING RECIPE

You can feed the mix and match, variety component, as above, or you can use the following recipe for home prepaired diets. Remember, you must have variety in the diet, so swith from meat to the next, and one veggie to the next as part of the feeding plan. The following recipe can be fed as a raw diet of cooked. ALL THE FOODS must be carefully and thuroughly blenderized into a mash, similar to what you find in a can of cat food.

  • Two portions of avian muscle meat (turkey or chicken)
  • One portion of mammalian muscle meat
  • One portion of avian organ meat
  • 1/4 portion veggies (mixed frozen are ok, carrots, broccoli, etc)
  • 1/4 portion carbohydrate (long grain rice, potato, quinoa)
  • 1/2 portion of fish
  • Daily, to this for each cat:
    • 100 mg calcium Citramate
    • Feline Multi vitamin/nutiritional supplement-Rx Vitamins Rx Esentials for Cats is a good one
    • Olive oil (NOT fish oil, many cats hate the flavor) or coconut oil 1/4 to 1/2 tsp per meal
    • Taurine 75-100 mg (less or more depending on the multi used and how much organ meat fed)
    • 1/8 tsp Potassium chloride
    • A dash of sea salt

An absolutely wonderful addition to the diet is raw chicken wings, necks, often chopped up somewhat with a meat cleaver (to partially shatter the bones). Another wonderful addition is letting them catch mice, if one can allow that in the cat's environment.

For Diarrhea, Add:

  • Cooked white rice, to 25% of the diet
  • Cooked sweet potato, to 10% of the total