Cats are obligate (strict) carnivores, which means that your cat designed to get its nutritional needs met by the consumption of a large amount of animal-based proteins (meat/organs) and derives much less nutritional support from plant-based proteins (grains/vegetables). It means that cats lack specific metabolic (enzymatic) pathways and cannot utilize plant proteins as efficiently as animal proteins. Think of a whole mouse as being the perfect well-balanced meal for your cat, meat, skin, hair, bones, gristle, guts (protein) and all including stomach contents which main contain a few grains of vegetation/grain (carbohydrate). Thus one must adhere to a 98% ratio of meat based protein to two percent vegetable/grain carbohydrates (even if they contain protein) to obtain optimal nutritional intake for your feline.
Proteins derived from animal tissues have a complete amino acid profile. Plant-based proteins do not contain the full complement of the critical amino acids required by an obligate carnivore. Humans and dogs can ingest the amino acids present in plant proteins and, from those, make up the missing amino acids by ingesting other foods, which have the missing amino acids, but cats cannot do this. This is why humans and dogs (not recommended) can live on a vegetarian diet but cats cannot. Taurine is one of the most important nutrients for cats and is present in meat but it is missing from plants. Taurine deficiency will cause blindness and heart problems in cats.
If a cat's diet relies too heavily on plants (grains, etc.) as its source of protein as those found in dry food, it would quickly become deficient in in the essential amino acid taurine. Pet food companies add synthetic taurine to their food, which often come from China rather than using the naturally occurring (and thus more expensive) taurine found in meat.
In their natural setting, cats, whose unique biology makes them true carnivores, would not consume the high level of carbohydrates (grains, potatoes, peas, etc.) that are in the dry foods (and some canned foods) that we routinely feed them. Again, think of the mouse as a well-balanced meal for a cat and the only grains that might be present in that mouse are the few grains that are in its stomach ingested during its last meal.
In the wild, your cat would be eating a high protein, high-moisture, meat/organ-based diet, with a moderate level of fat and with only approximately one to two percent of it diet consisting of carbohydrates. The average commercial dry food contains 35-50 percent carbohydrate calories. Some of the less expensive dry foods contain even higher levels.
Cats have no dietary need for carbohydrates, more importantly; a cat's diet that is high in carbohydrates can be detrimental to its health. Cats have a physiological decrease in the ability to utilize carbohydrates due to the lack of specific enzymatic pathways that are present in other mammals, and they lack a salivary enzyme called amylase.
Diabetes is a very serious and difficult to manage disease that is not uncommon in cats. We do not know all of the causes of this complex disease but what we do know is that many diabetic cats cease needing insulin or have their insulin needs significantly decrease once their dietary carbohydrate level is decreased to a more species-appropriate level than that found in many commercial foods.
Given this fact, and given what we know about how the cat processes carbohydrates, it is reasonable and logical to conclude high carbohydrate diets could very well be a significant factor in causing diabetes in some cats. There are countless cases of successful diabetic remission when cat caregivers remove all dry food and all high carbohydrate canned food from their cat's diet. Carbohydrates affect the blood sugar level of some cats, dry food is very calorie dense, is very palatable, and is usually free-fed. This often leads to obesity. Fat cells produce a substance that makes the other cells in the body resistant to insulin. This promotes the diabetic state.
Water is an extremely important nutrient that contributes to overall health in every living creature. Couple this with the fact that cats do not have a very strong thirst drive when compared to other species and you will understand why it is critical for them to ingest a water-rich diet. The cat's lack of a strong thirst drive can lead to low-level, chronic dehydration when dry food makes up the bulk of their diet.
A cat's normal prey contains approximately 70 to 75 percent water. Dry foods only contain 7-10 percent water whereas canned foods contain approximately 78 percent water. Canned foods therefore more closely approximate the natural diet of the cat and are better suited to meet the cat's water needs. A cat on a canned food diet consumes approximately double the amount of water consumed by a cat eating dry food. This is a crucial point when one considers how common kidney and bladder problems are in the cat. Think of canned food as 'flushing out' your cat's bladder several times each day. Please keep in mind that when your cat starts eating a more appropriately hydrated diet of canned food, its urine output will increase significantly, often doubling, which is a very good thing for bladder health. Because of this increase in urine production, litter boxes need to be scooped more frequently or more boxes need to be added to the home.
Meat by-products are always a controversial subject but it makes much more sense to feed animal-based by-products to a cat than it does to feed grains or potatoes. Therefore, do not shy away from the more economical foods like Friskies or 9-Lives if you cannot afford the more expensive canned foods without by-products.
Contrary to what we are told by pet food companies an all-by-product canned food has a higher nutritional value for a cat than any dry food, because even the cheaper canned foods have the 'Big Three Essentials' covered:
By-products are not necessarily low quality protein sources. In fact, they can be extremely nutritious. However, there is more variability in terms of quality when compared to muscle meat. The higher priced canned foods, have a muscle meat listed as the first ingredient. A muscle meat will be listed as "chicken," or "turkey," etc., not "chicken by-products" or "chicken by-product meal," or "chicken broth" or "liver".
"Chicken meal" is technically a muscle meat but the term "meal" denotes that it has been rendered (cooked for a long time at very high temperatures) and is lower in quality than meat that has not been as heavily processed. A "meal" product is generally present in dry foods. By-products can include feet, intestines, feathers, eggshells, etc., which are less nutritious (less biologically valuable/digestible) than meat.
Liver is a very nutritious organ meat and should be present in small amounts, but it should never be the first ingredient as it is very high in vitamin A and possibly D and you don't want to feed too much of those vitamins.
Let's now examine the veterinarian 'prescribed' diets which are also known as "therapeutic" or "prescription" diets. "Prescription/therapeutic diet" is another label that is certainly not indicative of a high quality diet or one that is necessary. These diets represent an area of the commercial cat food industry that is very misleading.
Many of these very expensive products contain corn, wheat, and soy, which have no logical place in your cat's diet. These diets are often very high in carbohydrates and, of course, all of the dry versions are water-depleted. Many of these expensive cat food products also contain meat by-products as the main and often only source of protein and no lean muscle meat!
It is important to note that most of these diets do not have robust clinical feeding studies supporting their safety for long-term feeding or even for use in treating the various diseases they target. On the contrary, we have plenty of evidence to show that feeding water-depleted, high carbohydrate, plant-based diets to carnivores does not honor their carnivorous make-up but, instead, promote disease in this species.
It is also critical to understand that there is no independent agency overseeing these 'Prescription/Therapeutic 'diets' medical claims--none, zip, zero, nada, including the FDA and the FDA shows no interest in remedying the situation!
The FDA has 'punted' the responsibility of scrutinizing these diets for efficacy, safety, and suitability to the veterinarian but most veterinarians are very poorly educated in the area of nutrition. Feline nutrition is not given emphasis in veterinary schools and the minimal course work that is required, is often taught by people who have strong ties to the pet food industry! Also these same people are advising general practitioners on all matters of nutrition. After recognizing this situation, you will see an obvious and very significant conflict of interest. In the end, veterinarians allow Hill's, Purina, Iams, and Royal Canin to dictate what ends up in their patients' food bowls. With this being said, 99% of all veterinarians who 'prescribe' these diets truly feel that they are doing the best for their patients. The companies (Hill's, Purina, Iams, Royal Canin) that manufacture the 'alphabet' diets have done a wonderful job marketing their products to veterinarians, making it difficult to refrain from falling into the trap of using them.
These companies make it very easy for our veterinarians to reach for a can of K/D or NF or LP and if a cat has an urinary tract problem, it is easy to grab some C/D off the shelf. However, contrary to what is often believed by both the veterinarian and the client, the 'therapeutic/prescription' diets sold in veterinary hospitals are not formulated for optimal health of a carnivore and, in many cases, are actually detrimental to the patient's health. In addition, they are simply not necessary in most cases and do not optimally address the problems they claim to treat. Therefore it is essential one feeds our feline friends with meat based protein diets with the essential ratio 98% of meat based proteins to a nominal 2% of carbohydrate/proteins sourced from vegetables and grains and with of course well hydrated with essential water.
Many people including many vets have a strong negative reaction to the idea of feeding their cat raw meat but this is what your carnivorous feline is designed to eat. In addition, wild cats do not always consume their prey in its entirety immediately upon killing it so the meat that they eat is not always from a fresh kill.
Cats are very different from humans with respect to their susceptibility to 'food poisoning'. Cats have a much shorter transit time through their intestinal tract than humans do (about 12 - 16 hours for the cat versus 35-55 hours for the human). This is a very important point because the more time bacteria spend in the intestinal tract, the more they multiply, eventually leading to intestinal upset. With that being said, not all sources of raw meat are created equal. For example, do not feed pre-ground supermarket meat in a raw form. Instead buy only whole cuts of meat which can be thoroughly rinsed prior to grinding or they can be partially baked to kill the surface bacteria.
A properly handled and prepared raw or semi-cooked meat diet has much less bacteria in it than many commercial dry foods. Commercial pet foods may also contain high levels of mold toxins from grains, which are never a danger in a grainless raw meat diet.
Making cat food: Do it and do it right, or don't do it at all. It is not difficult to make cat food but do your homework first and do not get 'creative' and start adding/omitting ingredients to/from a balanced recipe.
The above article is an edited excerpt from Lisa A. Pierson's, DVM excellent article about Feeding Your Cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition. It is a website loaded with great information about feline nutrition and the preparation of homemade Cat Food, raw and cooked.
Here is Lisa A. Pierson's, DVM article about Making Cat Food as well as her recipe, explainations and recommendations.
Another excellent website about proper feline nutrition is Anne Jablonski's Cat Nutrition Website.
Website Launched April 15, 2010