Updated March 30, 2021
There are four key differences between most commercial cat foods and the diets that cats have adapted to eat in the wild:
- High carbohydrate levels: cats eat almost no carbs in the wild
- Low moisture content: wild cats get most of their water from prey
- Plant-based proteins: proteins from animal sources have a higher value to the body
- Lack of texture: only physical cleaning seems to work on cats’ teeth
Depending on who you believe, you could add a fifth: Safety. That’s what we’re hopefully going to fix with the pet food senate inquiry.
Right now you might be thinking, “if these cat foods are so bad, why does my cat seem healthy?” Our page on What’s wrong with cat diets covers what we know about the link between cat foods and diseases like diabetes and cystitis.
Good Nutrition For Cats
So maybe you want to start a homemade diet for your cat, or maybe you just want to improve what your cat currently eats. Either way, you’ve come to the right place.
Option 1: Homemade Cat Diet
Getting cat nutrition right is harder than people think. Read here why it’s not just a matter of giving them meat and offal. Cats are highly specialised feeders and that comes with very specific requirements.
If you really want to make a balanced home made diet, you need the help of a genuine animal nutritionist. We can put you in touch with some who will, for a fee, construct a suitable diet based on your needs.
For most cat owners, the diet below should tick all the boxes.
Option 2: Practical Compromise Diet
Here’s what I do recommend for normal, healthy cats & kittens. I’m going to take the best ideas, add practicality, and make a good diet that anyone can do.
Choose a low carb tinned food
The closest foods you can buy to what a cat needs are inside some, but not all tins. The idea is to find some quality ones with low carbohydrate levels. These are usually loaf-style without gravy or sauces.
Click here for a calculator & table of carbohydrate levels in Australian cat & kitten foods. You’ll see that there’s a tremendous variation between wet foods from very low to very high. There’s also a calculator so you can do it yourself.
It’s probably more important to be low in total carbohydrate than grain free. With a bit of searching it should be possible to be both.
There is also a dry food option. Ziwi Peak have developed an air-dried complete and balanced food that manages to be both grain free and low carb. It seems a bit pricey to be a cat’s only food, but could be a good add-on.
Tins alone are bad for the teeth. Plaque removal is needed via either raw bones, dental biscuits or tooth brushing. You can read more about feline dental care here.
The ideal dental cleaning option for a grain free diet is a raw chicken neck every day.
I’ve written a guide to getting cats to eat chicken necks. However, for many adults it’s very hard, and often impossible.
For cats that won’t eat chicken necks, I advise a cat dental biscuit, especially if you can’t feed chicken necks. This is optional, as these diets are neither low carb or grain free. However, without dental foods, your cat will need frequent dental cleans.
I keep two pots of grass on the go. One in the house and one in ‘grass hospital’ where it recovers from being chewed. Cats have a strong drive to eat grass so it makes sense that we offer it.
That’s the diet! Now, remember those four problems? Let’s tick them off:
- Carbohydrate levels are kept low by a carefully selected tinned food and chicken necks
- Moisture content is moderate (with dry) or high without
- Animal-based proteins come from chicken necks
- Texture is in the necks
All while keeping the diet balanced and safe. It’s important to point out that raw chicken is commonly contaminated with Salmonella and Campylobacter, but cats are relatively resistant to the harmful effects.
Option 3: Formulated BARF Diets
Since writing this article several BARF diets have been developed for cats. These should work fine as long as they say ‘complete and balanced’ on the label. The ones I know are sold frozen in pet stores.
Brands include Big Dog, Dr B’s, Leaps and Bounds. I can’t vouch for their quality.
But let me say this in conclusion. There is clearly no feeding mistake as great as allowing obesity. If you can be strong enough to keep your cat at an ideal weight, you’re heading for an above-average lifespan. That’s almost regardless of the diet you choose.
Even though current diets aren’t ideal, it isn’t a disaster. Kittens and cats are far better off than before balanced diets were introduced and living longer than they ever did. Just talk to any retired vets, like my parents.
What would be a disaster is if cat owners are made to feel like they have to make their cats’ food instead of buying it. As I hope you can now see, it’s quite possible to feed your cat a biologically appropriate diet without reinventing the wheel.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!