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The Cat (Food) Is Out of the Bag

Integrative veterinarian Dr. Ruth Roberts on what ingredients to include when considering a home-cooked diet for your cat.

by Jodi Helmer
November 21, 2021
A woman feeding food to her cat at a dining room table
Milles Studio / Stocksy

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Does your cat give you the side eye when you sit down to savor a home-cooked meal...then pour them a bowl of bagged cat food? Oh, the hypocrisy. Sure, commercial cat foods are safe for your cat and brands stamped with an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal provide a complete and balanced diet — but that doesn’t mean your cat wants to spend their nine lives eating the same triangle-shaped rations.

“Bagged foods are pretty high in carbohydrates that we’ve created little carb junkies,” says integrative veterinarian Dr. Ruth Roberts DVM, CVA, CVFT, holistic pet health coach, and creator of The Original Crockpot Diet. “There is also an alphabet of chemicals [on the label] that makes [some pet parents] want another option.” Indeed, commercial cat foods, while nutritionally balanced, are also formulated with often unfamiliar ingredients (what are mixed-tocopherols and powdered cellulose anyway?) and often contain preservatives and dyes. DIY cat food allows you to cook with fresh proteins and veggies (you can also source organic and local ingredients if that’s important to you).

A home-cooked feline feast is about more than knowing what your cat is consuming, though. It can also be a strategy to address health issues. Dr. Roberts notes that pet parents often seek out fresh, whole-food diets when their cats are diagnosed with chronic diseases, from irritable bowel disease to cancer. You might be able to whip up your favorite recipes without much thought, but cooking for your cat is a little more complicated.

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Getting the Balance Right

Cats are “obligate carnivores” which means their diets must contain animal proteins, for starters. A nutritious diet for cats should include the right balance of nutrients, including protein from meat or fish, amino acids, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. The sources of these ingredients range from beef and salmon to vegetables, avocado oil, and supplements.

“You need to make sure you’re using a recipe that allows you to create a complete and balanced diet,” Dr. Roberts says. The ingredients you leave out are equally important. Certain foods — including raisins, grapes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, nuts, and the artificial sweetener xylitol — are toxic to cats. She also cautions against adding too much corn, rice, soy, or other simple carbohydrates to homemade cat food because they are harder to digest and have a negative impact on gut health. Work with a veterinarian or nutritionist to develop a recipe for your cat’s specific health needs. With a little prep and the right ingredients, Dr. Roberts believes, “[The cost of] cooking for cats is comparable to purchasing high-end cat foods.”

Cook with Caution

Like other fresh, homemade foods, DIY cat foods have a limited shelf life. In the refrigerator, a batch lasts about five days. Dr. Roberts suggests cooking in large batches and separating the homemade food into smaller portions, storing the rest in the freezer and thawing as needed.

Quitting kibble is not as simple as tossing it out. Dr. Roberts advises against making an abrupt switch. Cats are often too finicky to accept a new food, and the transition period reduces the risk of stomach issues from switching them too fast. Aim to transition your cat to homemade cat food in about two weeks to give them time to adjust. Start by mixing 25% of the homemade cat food with their kibble, then adding a higher percentage of homemade cat food and reducing the amount of kibble each week until your cat transitions off of their existing diet.

Dr. Roberts acknowledges that a DIY diet is not for all cat parents. She points to the ever-increasing number of commercially available fresh, whole-food diets for cats as an alternative. Check the label to make sure the diet isn’t too carb-heavy (if the ingredient label lists peas, beans, potatoes, or corn as the first ingredients, it’s a red flag that it’s a high carb diet).

Pet parents who make the switch often notice their cats have more energy, less poop, glossier coats, and even improved values in their blood work, according to Dr. Roberts.

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Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who shares her home with an embarrassing number of rescue dogs and relies on four feral cats to patrol the barn. When she isn’t refilling food and water dishes, Jodi writes about animals for Scientific American, Sierra, WebMD, AKC Family Dog, Living the Country Life, and Out Here.