Following are just a few of the erroneous statements found online to try to scare people into thinking that commercially prepared cat food is bad for their pets.
“Our cats…are slowly and progressively getting sick and dying from commercial pet food.”
“By providing their pets with commercially available dry and moist foods…pet parents are lulled into a false sense that their pet’s best health is being served….In fact, pet parents can inadvertently poison their furry family members.”
“Most commercial pet foods…are far from ideal. And yet we pet parents seem to trust them…a catastrophic mistake.”
With warnings like this floating around the Internet, it’s no wonder that many people are skeptical about the soundness of commercial diets for their cats and believe that homemade diets are superior. And they are certainly free to go the homemade route. “If folks want to home cook cat food, that is a viable option,” says Deborah Linder, DVM, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at the Tufts Clinical Nutrition Service for Animals.
“For me personally,” Dr. Linder says, “it’s important to feed a food that has undergone clinical feeding trials. I love testing. I love information. That comes from companies that can feed a diet to many animals and then do large-scale analyses to see how the cats fare. But cooking for your cat in your own kitchen can be done. In fact, in some cases, it may even need to be done. A cat may have a medical condition for which there is not a commercial diet out there that meets their nutritional needs. It just has to be done safely.”
Choose a home-cooking teammate
“Cooking your cat’s meals is a lot of responsibility to take on,” Dr. Linder says. “You become your own pet food company. Do you have quality control? Do you have the expertise? There are 30-plus essential nutrients that a cat needs. You want to make sure your pet has all of them — and in the right balance. That’s why, if you’re going to be taking on the role of cook for your cat, you want to make sure you have an expert in your corner to make sure you’re doing it right.”
That expert is most likely not someone who has devised a recipe you come across on the Internet, or in a book. In fact, research has shown that such recipes are, for the most part, woefully inadequate.
Instead, the expert you want in your corner is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. There are two ways to engage one.
Find one at the website of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN.org). You can either plug in your location and see if there’s a veterinary nutritionist nearby, or look at the full list of board-certified veterinary nutritionists by clicking on the “ACVN Diplomates” tab. The doctor doesn’t necessarily need to be in your area, as many are doing telehealth.“The supplements featured on those sites are also created for cats rather than for people,” Dr. Linder says. “That’s better for the narrow ranges of safety for nutrients in cats, who are much smaller than we are.” Consider a website made by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to help people create their cats’ homemade diets. Some of these doctors also create supplements that can be incorporated into the recipe to make sure the diet you feed your cat is complete and balanced. “I include a supplement in almost every recipe to ensure it is fortified with nutrients in specific amounts that I know have been tested to be easily absorbed by cats,” Dr. Linder says. “That helps increase confidence about meeting — but not overdosing on — all those essential nutrient needs. Our own foods — breads, cereals, and other items — are fortified with vitamins and minerals, too.
Working with a veterinary nutritionist does not necessarily come cheap. If you work with one directly instead of going the online route, it will probably cost a few hundred dollars for the initial consult and the time it then takes for the doctor to devise a diet specifically for your cat. But if it is important to you — or to your cat’s health — it it is not unreasonable to consider it money worth spending.
Unfortunately, even people who work with a veterinary nutritionist to help them create nutritious homemade meals for their cats often don’t end up feeding those meals. In a Tufts survey, only 13 percent of respondents who owned pets adhered strictly to recipes created for them by a veterinary nutritionist. Some people changed ingredient amounts by using non-specific weights, for example, using two chicken thighs rather than 9 ounces of chicken weighed on a scale. Some changed meal preparation methods, using raw chicken instead of baked.
The survey was conducted with dog owners, but the same problem goes for people with cats. The researchers call it diet drift. A pet parent begins with a nutritionally complete menu for a homemade diet but deviates from the recipe instructions over time.
It becomes particularly concerning when a cat has a medical condition. With something like kidney or heart disease, the nutritional profile of a cat’s meals is integral for staving off an untoward medical event and also for slowing the progression of an illness. Mess with the ingredients, even unintentionally, and all your hard work at the grocery store and in your kitchen goes down the drain because the sick cat does not get the dietary benefit he is supposed to.
“If the recipe calls for 90 percent lean beef and you buy 85 percent lean because you couldn’t find 90,” Dr. Linder says, “the diet may be inappropriate for a pet depending on the disease he has. Or it may be unbalanced. You’ve really got to use precision.”
A related issue is that what a cat is supposed to eat may change over time. A disease may worsen, necessitating a new balance of vitamins and minerals. It’s for that reason that Dr. Linder says it’s important to stay in touch with the board-certified veterinary nutritionist you choose. The doctor will follow your cat over time and will tweak the recipe to suit your pet’s health profile.