So many cat owners are old-school, buying well-known "premium" foods from a supermarket or pet store chain, trusting that they are good because there's so much advertising backing them up and because huge multinational companies are manufacturing them. That ignorance is bliss, until their cats develop diabetes, obesity, thyroid and kidney diseases, and lymphoma — almost predictably. Then most vets will sell them "prescription" food, which is often worse than the stuff in the stores. The pet food companies we've trusted most should be trusted least, I'm sorry to say. While cats are living longer, healthier lives in general, I credit improved veterinary care and not the food. It's common sense but most of us never get this far: feeding a complex creature like a cat properly has to be more complicated than opening a box and pouring out fish-flavored cereal twice a day.
My hat is off to you if you're also pondering this subject because the vast majority of us cat lovers are not. So, if you're interested in thinking about cat food with me, read on. If not, just enjoy this photo of Harris doing The Twist and skip this post.
You may have followed some of the links in my previous posts and learned that cats are obligate carnivores who need a very high animal-protein diet and not much more. If you want a good introduction to the basics of cat nutrition, go to those links or just read this, by Dr. Lisa Pierson, probably the top expert on feline nutrition whose work is accessible online. But I'll summarize: supermarket brands of canned and dry cat food are usually loaded with grains, carbs, and non-animal protein sources that are not nourishing for cats. The simplest way to improve your cat's diet is to stop feeding dry food. Even low-quality canned cat food is better than high-quality dry food, because cats need water to aid digestion and protect their kidneys and urinary tracts. They rarely get a sufficient amount by drinking, so it needs to be right in their food. Mixing water into kibble is not a solution, trust me. I'm not going to get into the disgusting ingredients that are in many popular brands of dry food. Use your worst imagination, and know that bacteria can grow even faster if you add water to the stuff.)
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In a nutshell: there is no safe, perfectly nutritious, affordable, easy-to-serve commercial cat food. (And if there were, your cat still might not want to eat it. I'm not going to get into THAT problem, either!)
If you want "the best" food, you need to make your own. Option 1 is to grind your own raw poultry and meats, being careful to use a mix of different proteins (duck, chicken, turkey, quail, lamb, rabbit....), with the correct proportions of phosphorus and calcium (from bone), which I find a tricky proposition. Too little and you'll have deficiencies; too much and it could stress the cats' kidneys, and also cause constipation. You have to figure out the correct proportions of meat, fur, fat, etc., to approximate what cats catch and eat in the wild.
Then you should add poultry hearts, to provide taurine, plus some additional supplements: vitamins and minerals, Omega-3 sources, probiotics, etc. Dedicated cat people spend part of a day making a large batch of raw food about once a month. They buy ingredients in bulk, sometimes from a supplier that takes care of the grinding and then freezes the meat. Then they thaw it, tie on their aprons, get out their giant metal bowls, and measure and mix away. They weigh out portions, package them, and refreeze for rethawing later. Then they do a whole lot of disinfecting.
My freezer is the size of a breadbox and it's full of homemade chicken stock and soups that I can't part with quickly or easily. If we ever move, I hope we'll have a grown-up freezer, so I can join this merry band. Because they are doing the very best for their cats. And cats who are fed good raw food prosper.
When I do join the band, I'll be a nervous wreck, and not just because I'm worried about salmonella and the other germs that vets and cat food companies warn about. If you're careful about cleaning and use common sense and good ingredients (no packaged meat from supermarkets, for example), you're supposed to be fine. I imagine I'll be pretty obsessive about cleaning. I'm more worried about getting the mix right every time. There are online calculators to help with this, and there are pre-made supplements you can buy that are supposed to include everything you need. For me, mixing a box of powder into the food seems to defeat the purpose of its being "natural." At any rate, it remains a very complicated operation as I see it. I'm also worried that I'll be grossed out by making upwards of 30 pounds of cat food a month, which is the minimum I'd need to feed mine twice a day.
Now for Option 2: Another dedicated group of people feed their cats whole prey. Raw chicken parts, for example, or defrosted frozen mice and small birds. This is more natural than feeding raw ground food because it gives a cat something to sink her fangs into. Besides the nutritional benefits, these cats exercise their jaws and clean their teeth as they munch (something no dry food will ever do, by the way). The difficulty with this is that you end up with body parts all over the kitchen. Cats like to play with their food. Needless to say, I'm not ready for this. I wanted to adopt the mouse that Possum found last summer and build it a lovely house. I still long for that mouse. I can't be cutting mice lengthwise so my cats can eat them.
Option 3 is raw frozen food, available in logs, patties, tubs, and nuggets. I have only experimented with the logs, also called "chubs," and found them a total pain to defrost, slice up, and repackage for re-freezing. They leak blood all over your fridge if you aren't careful; no one told me that. I need to try patties and chunks, which come in bags that shouldn't leak. But these are expensive and the quantity I need for four cats adds up to a small fortune, and also requires freezer space I don't have.
Then there's Option 4: freeze-dried raw food, in bags and boxes. Just add water to rehydrate and serve. My cats love this stuff but the brands available around here are outrageously expensive. It worked out to be something like $12/day to feed my foursome, if I did the math correctly. So I feed it as an occasional treat. It takes so long to rehydrate that the cats go crazy waiting for it while I attack the soaking nuggets with a fork to speed up the process. You're paying not only for quality ingredients but for the convenience of not having to deal with fresh meat.
Option 5 is my option: high-quality canned food that's very high in animal protein and low in starch and carbs. It's not the best nutrition because raw food has more nutrients, but it's still "complete" nutrition... allegedly. And it's safe nutrition... allegedly. And it's easy to serve, relatively affordable, and simple to buy, store, and handle. Ideally, you should rotate multiple brands and different flavors constantly. You should avoid fish (too many toxins). I also avoid beef and any meat from China.
Always keep an eye out for recalls if you use commercial food. Even the best brands have recalls, so stay vigilant. Sign up for Susan Thixton's newsletter on TruthaboutPetFood.com. (Here's a woman doing hard, important work to protect animals from the often-hidden dangers of pet food.)
What I'm Feeding
I chose my canned brands after consulting Liz Eastwood's Natural Cat Care Blog. She's done excellent research and recently revised her list of Today's Best Cat Foods. I believe this list is as good as it gets. While I spent weeks doing research online and grew more and more confused as I sought the best foods, Liz did the same work with real results, using the same criteria I did, and more. (There are many small, regional raw brands that aren't on her list, which aren't easily available in Boston; to find out about those, you should buy Susan Thixton's list of her highest-rated food. But that list has a lot more to offer dogs.)
So, I'm feeding the following brands, which are available in the Boston area — and I admit it isn't perfect. But less than a year ago, I was feeding Fancy Feast cans and Taste of the Wild kibble, so I consider that I've come a long way in a short time, with further to go. I'm feeding
1. Nature's Variety Instinct (duck and lamb, some chicken, and not rabbit because it's sourced in China). This stuff ranks in 2nd place on Liz's list because it contains montmorillonite clay, which is controversial. It also has a bunch of fruits and vegetables, making up about 5% of the food, which may provide essential nutrients or may not, depending on whom you believe. I'm generally against putting cranberries and carrots, etc., in cat food, but practically every "good" brand contains a small amount, perhaps because they think it makes it seem more appetizing to the humans buying it. Veggies and fruits are cheaper than animal protein, too.
2. Nature's Logic (rabbit and chicken). This brand was dropped from Liz Eastwood's list because it does not meet petfood industry standards for nutrition in a couple of ways. The company's argument is that it doesn't use chemical additives; all the supplements come from food, and that those standards are much higher than what cats actually need. I consider it good organic food but I use it as no more than a quarter of the cats' diet). This stuff also has montmorillonite clay and fruits and vegetables. I talked to a customer rep and my impression is that they know what they are doing. I tend to be skeptical, but I like this food — as does Susan Thixton. I recommend subscribing to the paid portion of her site, where she analyzes and rates pet foods, if you're serious about checking out brands.
3. Tiki Cat (only non-fish flavors: Puka Puka Luau [chicken] and Koolina Luau [chicken with egg]). These are basically chicken breast in water, with supplements. Very simple, high-protein food. The one with egg is high-calorie, while the regular kind is low-calorie. Together, they average out, and calories aren't all that important when they come from a good mix of protein and fat rather than carbs.
4. Hounds and Gatos (chicken, lamb, rabbit). This food also consists of a few basic ingredients, with lots of protein. Simpler is better.
We're spending $8 to $10 per day to feed four cats. It's a bit stunning, compared to how cheaply we were doing it for many, many years. But it makes good sense to me. I'm willing to pay more to feed these youngsters right. If they stay at healthy weights and don't develop kidney or thyroid diseases later in life, I'll be thrilled. I order my food from a local, independent pet store and they deliver it for free (120 cans a month, a heavy load). I might find better deals online but probably not when shipping is factored in.
I will eventually get some of that soup out of my freezer so I can buy more raw frozen food. I envision a 50–50 raw-canned diet as my next step toward optimal nutrition. I'd like to try Radcat, K9, and Feline Pride, but they are only available online, with high shipping costs, at least for those of us in the Boston area. Instead I'll try Nature's Variety and Primal. This might turn out to save us money, too.
Well, I'm worn out, and I bet you are, too! Thanks for reading! I love discussing cat food, and it would be fun to do so with others who are actually interested (instead of overwhelming every unsuspecting person who asks me a question in a pet store) for a change. So please send me comments, let me know your thoughts, what you're feeding, what your concerns are. I still have a long way to go.