Several years ago, Lynette Ackman of Chicago began making food at home for her five rescue cats. She had tried kibble and canned food to treat one’s inflammatory bowel disease and another’s diabetes, but it wasn’t until she adopted a raw diet of rabbit and fowl that their health dramatically improved, she says.
“I think raw is the gold standard for a feline diet,” she says, explaining that she chose that path after seeing a friend’s gorgeous cats who ate a diet of raw meat.
Ackman, a software tester, is among a growing number of cat owners doing it themselves -- the pet food scares of recent years have, by some accounts, motivated the trend -- but she doesn’t mention the diet to veterinary specialists she’s seen over the years; she says they tend to be “anti-homemade and anti-raw.”
There is a chasm between cat owners who feed their pets raw or homemade cat food and veterinarians who warn that without quality control, the risks of bacterial contamination or nutritional deficiency are too high.
If you choose to go it alone, be warned: Making your own cat food is an exacting and time-consuming business. Striking the right balance of ingredients, including vitamins and minerals, and properly storing the food are critical for a happy and healthy animal.
What Do Cats Need to Eat?
As obligate carnivores, cats need:
- Protein from meat or fish
- Amino acids like taurine and arginine (from meat or fish)
- Fatty acids
Carbohydrates like rice and corn in small amounts are fine, but they aren’t necessary for a cat’s diet. However, a modest amount of carbs will provide useful energy and may reduce the cost of a home cooked diet, says Rebecca Remillard, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist who works with the MSPCA Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston and maintains a dietary consulting business.
Nutrition guidelines for cats are available through the American Association of Feed Control Officials.
Raw Cat Food: The Risks and the Rewards
Remillard says raw meat diets are neither safe nor nutritionally sound. She’s backed up by the American Animal Hospital Association, which warns against the risk of salmonella poisoning to both the cat and human members of the household.
“There are a lot of people who want to feed raw. I tell them they have to be aware of zoonotic (animal to human) disease transmission, food safety, and contagion issues. I don’t think veterinarians should get upset about it, but they should make clear the health issues,” Remillard says.
Feeding cats a raw meat diet also leaves too much room for variables, another reason she doesn’t advocate such a diet. The potential for slip-up is high if the owner goes out of town and the food is left out too long or if they substitute one ingredient for another, she says.
Lisa Pierson, a veterinarian in Lomita, Calif., is familiar with the arguments and disputes them passionately on her own web site. She says she hasn’t had issues with bacterial contamination in the six years she has made her own cat food because she is careful: She knows where the meat comes from, she parboils mostly rabbit and bone-in chicken, grinds it herself, and adds minerals like taurine to make sure her cats are eating a balanced diet.
She says it’s also cheaper than higher-quality canned food and would take an owner of two cats about two hours a month to make.
A Cooked Diet: The Risks and Rewards
Little scientific evidence exists either for or against a cooked diet for cats.
Some, like Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, warn against making raw or cooked cat food at home because of the importance of getting the right quantity and proportions of nutrients.
Remillard says she has talked to many cat owners eager to switch to homemade cat food in the wake of melamine poisoning in commercial cat foods. And although she doesn’t push homemade cat food diets, she says they can work -- as long as cat owners consult a veterinarian-nutritionist to formulate one.
Raw Meat Diet: A Recipe for Healthy Cats
The following recipe was developed by Pierson. It yields enough food for 10-14 days for the average cat. For more guidelines in making this food, go to www.catinfo.org.
- 3 pounds of whole fowl or rabbit, including bones, organs, and skin
- 1 cup water
- 2 eggs (use raw yolks, and lightly cook the whites)
- 2000 mg wild salmon oil
- 400 IU vitamin E (powdered E in capsule form works)
- 100 mg vitamin B-complex (start with a smaller amount when beginning a raw meat diet; the vitamin has a strong odor)
- 2000 mg taurine, powdered
- ¾ tsp lite salt with iodine (when using chicken parts)
- Liver (add 4 oz if the meat you are using does not include organs)
- Psyllium (add when first introducing the raw meat diet to your cat. See www.catinfo.org for additional information on this ingredient)
Cooked Diet: A Recipe for Healthy Cats
The following recipe, from the MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center, is for a day’s feeding of an average 12-pound adult cat with no medical problems. It is endorsed by Remillard.
Use a dietary gram scale to weigh out foods until you get accustomed to the correct measurements, and make sure all ingredients are well blended before serving. The food must be kept refrigerated or frozen between meals, and for palatability’s sake, warmed before being given to your cat.
- Protein: cooked dark meat chicken, beef, pork, lamb, salmon, or tuna (83 grams or 3 wt-ounces)
- Carbohydrate: cooked white rice, oatmeal, barley, corn, peas, or pasta (50 grams or 1/3 cup)
- Fiber: cooked sweet potato, without skin (30 grams or 1/5 cup)
- Fat (optional): vegetable, safflower, olive oil or fish oil (1/4 teaspoon)
- Balance IT Feline: 2.7 grams or half a red scoop (in the container). This is a commercial blend of vitamins and minerals.