One of the most important qualities of a good cat parent is considering the best food for your pet.
Maybe you have a picky eater, or a cat with a condition or two that requires a special diet.
Maybe you’ve been scared by recalls or have doubts about commercial cat food.
Whatever the reason, you want to control what you feed your cat – and that’s a good thing. After all, domestic cats can’t feed themselves. They depend on you to choose what’s best for them.
Is it a diet of raw foods? Or something you cook at home?
For humans, we know that healthy food, made at home, is better for us than commercially processed food. And we know that some foods, eaten raw, have more nutritional benefits than cooked. But those diets play out differently in cats and may not be best for their bodies.
Here’s the scoop.
What Is Homemade Cat Food?
Homemade cat food is cooked food you make at home for your cat. The recipe and ingredients depend on your cat’s nutritional needs and preferences.
Is Homemade Cat Food Healthy?
To make sure your cat gets all the vitamins and minerals it needs, its diet must be complete and balanced. This is a science and not based on what foods your cat likes best or on internet recipes from people without the proper veterinary credentials.
The safest and healthiest homemade diet for your cat is one that you create with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. Most veterinarians aren’t board-certified veterinary nutritionists: Ask your vet for a recommendation, or use the American College of Veterinary Nutrition’s online directory.
“If done correctly by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, a homemade diet is good for cats – or better said, a cat can do just as well on a homemade diet (some would argue better) as a commercial diet,” says Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, professor at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine and a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. “If a homemade diet is done poorly or incorrectly – if it is not complete and balanced, for example – then it would not be good.”
When formulating a homemade diet for his cat clients (and their pet parents), Bartges often uses chicken and turkey, sometimes fish; produce like mango and pumpkin; and carbs including rice, couscous, or tapioca pearls for texture, even though cats don’t have a carb requirement.
Bartges feeds his two 4-year-old cats a homemade diet of chicken, kale, fish oil, a vitamin-mineral supplement, and a probiotic.
“It is complete and balanced and meets AAFCO requirements for adult cats, but we mix it with small amounts of various cat foods,” he says.
What Are the Risks of Homemade Cat Food?
If you go rogue and don’t use a board-certified veterinarian to create a complete and balanced recipe specific to your cat, you put your pet’s health at risk.
“I truly believe that all the people out there who are advertising their recipes but aren’t certified want to help, but they don’t have years of focus and expertise. There’s also a bit of arrogance in some of these people thinking they’re an expert when there’s literally a board that certifies experts,” says Lindsey Bullen, DVM, a board-certified nutritionist. “Of the hundreds of homemade diets I’ve analyzed over the years, only one got close to being complete and balanced.”
If you make your own cat food, you also run the risk of accidentally feeding your pet something toxic, like grapes, raisins, chocolate, garlic, or onions.
What Is Raw Cat Food?
Raw cat food has raw meat (usually chicken or turkey), bones, and organ meats. There are two types: commercial and homemade.
Is Raw Cat Food Healthy?
According to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA), there’s no evidence that raw diets are healthier than commercial or homemade diets created by board-certified veterinary nutritionists.
“It depends on how the food is prepared and who formulated the diet,” says Bartges. “If done by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, then it should be complete and balanced and would be able to carry a nutritional adequacy statement, and with good hygiene and common sense, would be no more risky than feeding a commercial food.”
The “good hygiene” part is the crux of the issue. What makes raw cat food potentially unhealthy is its high risk of bacterial transmission.
What Are the Risks of Raw Cat Food?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is against raw cat food, as is the Center for Veterinary Medicine and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Why? Because many types of bacteria, including salmonella and listeria, hide in raw meat – that’s the reason we cook it – and can make your cat and everyone in your house sick. Foodborne infection can be serious and even fatal.
“I don’t advocate for or recommend raw because I can’t put my patients at risk, even if the risk is considered small,” says Bullen, who has two cats at home. “There was a recent case in the U.K. in which several cats who ate a raw venison diet gave their humans tuberculosis.”
How Can I Be Safe If I Still Want to Feed My Cat Raw Food?
“Can you feed raw safely? Yes, you can. But it’s really hard to ensure it’s safe,” Bullen says. “If my client is going to do it anyway, I’ll still work with them. I’d rather ensure their pet has a balanced diet and educate them on the risks of feeding raw than turn them away.”
Use these guidelines to avoid the risk of getting an infection from your cat or the raw food:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after you touch raw cat food.
- Disinfect everything that touches raw cat food, including bowls, utensils and surfaces.
- Keep raw cat food separate from other food in the freezer.
- Use separate prep areas for cat food and human food.
- Wash your hands after you pet your cat.
- Wash your face after your cat licks you.
Communication Is Key
Whether or not your vet agrees with the diet you feed your cat, they still need to know about it to have a complete picture of your pet’s health.
“It isn’t us and them,” Bullen says. “I’m a huge advocate for collaboration. Everyone has opinions, but it all boils down to communication. We’re all part of Team Pet.”