tl;dr: Fresher is better. If you can’t home cook (and we don’t recommend it for most people), then a store bought cooked or raw diet is our favorite.
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Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.– Hippocrates
If there’s one place in your kitty’s life where you shouldn’t skimp, it’s this: diet. What to feed a cat is the most important decision you can make to keep your cat healthy.
Almost every cat I’ve ever treated in my veterinary practice improved after we changed its diet. And look at all the common cat illnesses that vets routinely treat with changes in diet: kidney disease, obesity, diabetes, bladder stones, gastrointestinal disease, allergies…
Which begs the question, if all these conditions are relatively common and improve with a diet change, does that mean we’re not feeding them well to begin with?
My take? No. We’re not.
How can a healthy diet help my cat?
My friend Dr. G is a talented cat-only vet. Like many vets, she used to recommend kibble for her patients because that’s what we were taught, and because those diets “have the most research” behind them.
Another vet suggested she try a wet, meat-only diet for her cat patients, and she says the results were so good that it’s the only nutritional approach she uses anymore. (Dr. G is also a nerdy scientist, so for her to switch, the results would have to be really, REALLY good.)
I’ve seen the same with my own patients. An upgrade in diet can work wonders for all sorts of chronic conditions. Here are some of the things that I’ve seen massively improve just by fixing a cat’s diet:
- skin & coat
- anal gland problems
- ear infections
- digestive issues
- kidney disease
- urinary tract issues
Every holistic vet I know has had the same results. To me, it just makes sense to feed better food to begin with.
What Do Cats Eat Naturally?
If you were to look at the diet of any wild cat on the planet, you’d notice one thing: it doesn’t look like kibble. It looks like fresh meat.
Granted, our little domesticated feline friends are not wild cats, and it would be wrong to assume that anything that’s good for a wild cat is also good for a domestic cat. That being said, we can make a few generalizations about a wild cat’s diet.
- it’s not processed food
- it has a lot more moisture than kibble
- it’s heavy on protein and light on carbs
We know from human studies that highly processed foods—foods that contain added fats, starches, and sugars, additives, artificial colors and flavors, and/or preservatives and taste enhancers—are not as healthy as fresh foods.
Kibble is a highly processed food. I don’t think it’s much of a leap to say that in general, it’s not as healthy as fresh food. Although there are a lot of vets who still recommend kibble, there is a growing number of vets who are giving kibble the side-eye.
I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons cats are prone to kidney disease is that many of them are chronically dehydrated because they eat kibble.
There aren’t a ton of studies that show how much moisture needs to be in a cat’s diet, but here is one of several that suggest more moisture is better .
High Protein, Low Carb
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning their optimal diet is almost entirely meat. If you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, that may be a fine choice for you, but not for your cat.
Cats are designed to eat a diet fairly high in protein and low in carbs . The trouble is, kibble HAS to include a lot of carbs in order for it to stick together. (The bakers out there will understand that it would be hard to make a cracker out of meat and no flour.)
So kitties need high protein and low carbs, and kibble is high carb? No bueno.
What Should Cats Eat?
I’ve come to think of pet food as a spectrum.
On one end is the cheapest kibble money can buy, from the discount shelf at the dollar store.
On the other end is a three-star Michelin chef coming in to your home each day to prepare fresh, organic, nutritionally balanced meals from locally grown, non-GMO ingredients tended by fairies and unicorns under the light of a full moon.
The chef—or even just home cooking—would be nice, but for the majority of folks that’s about as feasible as hiring a unicorn. With my patients, my goal is to get them as close to the fresh end of the spectrum as budget and lifestyle allow.
With that in mind, here are some diets I would recommend to help push you toward the fresher end of the spectrum.
Mice and Birds
Really? No, not really.
It is kind of weird to me that we feed snakes mice, but we don’t feed cats mice. Then again, here are some good reasons we don’t:
- Some kitties may not be able to digest whole animals well
- Feeding mice or birds is kind of gross to a lot of people
- Wild mice and birds often carry parasites
- Cats aren’t good for songbird populations
As far as I can tell, nobody’s actually studied whether it’s a good idea to feed domestic cats a diet of only mice and birds, although that’s what they’d eat outside (along with bugs, fish, rats, roadkill…).
Ideally, we’d all be making our cats’ food. But. BUT. And this is a huge, huge BUT—most people do not have the time or energy to do this properly.
I’ll talk about this more in a future post dedicated solely to home cooking. For now, if you want to make your cat’s food, I recommend starting with Dr. Lisa Pierson’s Cat Info site, or Raw Fed and Nerdy.
Fresh Food: RAW or Cooked
As far as store bought foods go, on the fresher end of the spectrum you have both raw and cooked options.
The controversy around feeding raw deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that I routinely recommend raw diets for some of my patients. No diet is one size fits all.
I’d steer you toward cooked food in these situations:
- elderly or very frail cat
- cat with a compromised immune system
- cat lives with a human with a compromised immune system
Why? I like them because they use quality ingredients, and they ship directly to you, rather than to a distributor. Instead of sitting around in a warehouse freezer for a long time before it reaches you, it’s at your house shortly after it’s made.
I have fed Darwin’s to my own cat (and my client’s cats) for years, and have recently started rotating in VIVA foods, too.
Fresh cooked food is a good option for kitties who are more delicate, or for people who are concerned about the potential for bacteria in raw food.
My favorite cooked food for cats is Raised Right.
Nom Nom Now and Just Food for Dogs (an unfortunate choice of name, but cats are welcome there) also make fresh foods, but they appear to be quite carb heavy, and the carbohydrate content is not disclosed on their website. 🙁
Dehydrated / AIR DRIED / Freeze Dried
I use dehydrated, air dried, or freeze dried food when traveling, at home to provide a little variety, or for cats who don’t like the other options.
It’s nice to have on hand for emergencies, too, because it keeps well.
The Honest Kitchen makes dehydrated foods that store easily. Just add warm water for a yummy soup.
Ziwi Peak makes an air-dried food that’s crunchy like kibble, but doesn’t have the added starch of kibble. The one drawback is that it has no moisture, so you’ll need to make sure your cat gets plenty of liquid from other sources.
There are so many varieties of canned cat food that it’ll make your head spin.
Things to avoid in canned cat food:
- Anything with chunks
(These are usually starch chunks made to look like meat, not actual meat. Gross.)
- Artificial colors or flavors
- Starches or grains in the first 3-5 ingredients
- Carageenan and other gums
(These are known to irritate the digestive tract in humans, but are hard to avoid.)
I like to see about 5 main ingredients that are meat based, and the rest vitamins and minerals. Maybe a veggie or two.
Contrary to popular belief, grains are not inherently bad for cats. One grain here or there in an otherwise high protein, low carb diet is fine for most cats. But if a food has wheat flour AND wheat gluten AND rice AND vegetable starch AND (you get the idea), then give it a miss.
There are so many canned food brands, which are constantly changing their formulations, it’s impossible to stay on top of them all. I don’t have a favorite brand, and I read the ingredients every time!
Just say no to kibble! Unless your cat is a complete kibble crack-head, please avoid it like the plague (I’ll write about why in another post).
Here are a couple of options if you have a kitty who’s a kibble fiend.
Ziwi Peak makes an air-dried food that’s crunchy like kibble, but doesn’t have the added starch of kibble.
Lotus Pet Foods has an oven-baked kibble, which, because of the lower processing temperature, also doesn’t require as much carbohydrate as a regular kibble.
Fresh Food on a Budget
The great advantage kibble has over all the other options on this list is that it’s cheap, and it’s easy. If you’re on a budget, it’s easy to feel discouraged with your options.
Here are some ideas to get you toward the fresh food end of the spectrum without breaking the bank.
Add fresh food toppers
Just because you’re feeding kibble doesn’t mean you can’t add in some fresh food.
Got some canned food in the cupboard? Put a spoonful on their kibble.
Are you having squash tonight? Try giving a little to your kitty.
We know from studies in dogs that adding just a little bit of fruit or vegetables can improve their health. There’s no reason to think this isn’t true of cats, too.
(We’ll do another post about what human foods are okay to give.)
Rotate through different foods
You don’t have to feed your cat just one diet, either. You can choose different types of foods, and different flavors.
You wouldn’t want to eat the same thing for every meal of your life, and neither does your cat!
How to Transition Your Cat to a New Food
When you’re adding new foods to your cat’s diet, introduce them one at a to make sure your kitty will tolerate them. If you try ten new foods in a week and kitty has diarrhea, you won’t know which one caused it. Stick to no more than one new food per week.
Also, don’t go cold turkey! If your cat has been eating kibble for years, the last thing you want to do is plop down a bowl of raw food and hope they’ll eat it.
Start by adding just a smidge to whatever they’re already eating. Give that a few days, then add two smidges and take away some of their original food. Gradually increase the amount of the new food, and decrease the amount of the old food to help kitty get used to the change.
Pro tip: do not serve food cold from the fridge. Add a little warm water to make it fresh mouse temperature.
So, What to Feed a Cat?
If you can’t get Gordon Ramsay to drop by, and the thought of a live mouse massacre in your kitchen doesn’t appeal, then give one of these other options a go. It’s the best thing you can do for your cat.