As a vet with a public profile, I cop a lot of abuse. Especially if I talk about pet foods. Take this, for example:
Dear Dr Andrew Spanner,
Your advice on feeding cats is serious flawed and WRONG!
You take money from the junk pet food manufacturers (junk Hills, junk Purina junk Royal Canin)!
Veterinary malpractice – You continue to expose our feline population to junk high carb diets. Cats cannot cope on junk sugar diets! Excessive sugar fattens their liver which leads to obesity and diabetes type 2.
The problem in veterinary medicine is that it has been captured by the pharmaceutical industry. The pet food industry makes our cats sick then the pharmaceutical industry pretends to help our cats.
Dr Spanner has sold-out to a bad diet for felines!
Thank you Dr Tom Lonsdale (the pioneer) of Raw Meaty Bones for carnivores. You make folks like Dr Spanner look stupid. Well Done Tom! Keep-up the excellent work Tom. Australia is behind Tom.
(let’s call him Donald)
So why do I keep getting in the firing line? It’s the dreaded word ‘compromise’. I read the well-intentioned but extreme advice you see all over the net and turn it into something that’s safe, practical, and accessible to the majority of pet owners.
I even think that Donald isn’t far from the truth but we lack good alternatives. I tried twice (unsuccessfully) to get him to provide a balanced diet but it’s far easier to live in a tower of righteousness than get your hands dirty. Once again, it seems, that job’s all mine!
Who Is Tom???
Before I get to my views on cat diets, let’s clear up the email subject. Tom Lonsdale has been active in the Australian vet community for a generation promoting a diet for dogs and cats based on raw, meaty bones.
Those who know me know that I also support diets like this, but Tom is a lot more extreme. His diets rely almost entirely on this one ingredient. They look very unbalanced to me and I certainly don’t recommend them without analysis (Tom- if you read this, I’m happy to publish a balanced diet if you provide one).
But Tom aside, there are other resources available online for homemade cat diets. I’ll talk about them in a minute, but first, why is it even an issue?
What’s Wrong With Cat Food?
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. The short summary is: yes, problems do exist, but they aren’t as bad as some say.
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.
Making A Homemade Cat Diet
Getting cat nutrition right is harder than people think. It’s certainly not just a matter of giving them meat. Cats are highly specialised feeders and that comes with very specific requirements.
As a vet, I can’t recommend a diet unless I know it’s complete and balanced. Therefore, I won’t be providing or recommending any home recipes. The more credible ones I read online are, in my opinion, far too complex and time consuming to be safely used by the average busy person.
A 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. In doing so I aim to please exactly none of the warring camps and make enemies out of them all!
Step 1: 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 my 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.
Step 2: Add texture
Tins alone will rot the teeth. Plaque removal is needed via either raw bones, dental biscuits or tooth brushing. You can read more about feline dental care here.
My kitty gets a raw chicken neck every day. If that sounds crazy, it might help to know three things:
- I have never needed to clean or remove teeth in cats that get daily chicken necks
- Although risks exist, I have never seen neck bones get stuck
- Cats are usually unaffected by Salmonella
However, getting adult cats to like chicken necks is very hard, and often impossible. For these cats, let’s move to Step 3.
Step 3: Choose a balanced dental diet
I also feed a cat dental biscuit, despite the carbs. This is optional, and best avoided with diabetes or urinary problems. You just can’t go past it for practicality. A dental diet:
- gives extra dental care
- won’t spoil on hot days
- is safe around children
- can be put in dispensers and treat balls
- has minimal packaging or waste
- isn’t smelly or messy
By balancing it with wet food and chicken necks the amount isn’t excessive. If you can’t feed chicken necks I recommend Hills t/d as it seems more effective, but any are fine if you can.
Step 4: Add grass
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 and biscuits
All while keeping the diet balanced and safe.
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.
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.
Coming soon: the unbalanced cat foods you’re not being warned about.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. We do not accept payments or incentives in return for stories. Like or follow our page or subscribe via email to read the latest.