And always remember to avoid human foods that are toxic to cats.
Pet parents may consider home cooking for their pets for many different reasons. This may include concerns related to pet food recalls, health conditions such as food allergies, and/or a desire to provide the best quality foods for their fur babies. The internet is full of recipes and suggestions for the best ways to cook for your cat, so you may be surprised to learn that vets and veterinary nutritionists recommend against this practice. Cats' dietary requirements and the way that they absorb nutrients is extremely complex. Crafting a diet at home that will meet all of their nutritional needs and allow proper absorption of those nutrients is very difficult to do. The risks to your kitty’s health can be serious if done improperly. Find out all about your cat’s unique dietary needs and alternatives to home cooking.
Common Reasons for Wanting to Cook Your Cat's Food
Pet Food Recalls
Over the years, there have been pet food recalls for many different reasons. Most of the time, a company voluntarily recalls a batch of food if minor problems arise. For more serious risks, the FDA may issue a mandatory recall if there is concern for serious adverse health consequences or death. When these stories make the news, it understandably creates anxiety for pet parents. At the same time, these recalls let us know that our cats’ commercial diets are carefully monitored and tested so that we find these problems quickly and can take action. Feeding a homemade diet may give you more control, however, home cooked diets are also at risk for contamination with potentially dangerous germs and/or unsafe ingredients.
Your kitty may need a diet change if it is diagnosed with certain health conditions. While this may feel overwhelming at first, a change in diet can go a long way to managing certain diseases. For example, special diets are often recommended for cats with diabetes, kidney disease, a food allergy, or urinary tract disorders. Prescription diets are carefully formulated to help treat these medical problems in ways that over-the-counter commercial diets cannot. They should only be used for a cat diagnosed with that specific condition and only under the guidance of your veterinarian.
Wanting the Highest Quality Ingredients
When you see the ingredients listed in commercial pet food diets, they can sound unappealing or frankly, gross. It raises eyebrows when you read the label and see "chicken byproduct" or something equally unappetizing, and it may be more appealing to envision your kitty eating a nice slice of roasted chicken with a side of shrimp. However, what you can’t see is the actual nutritional value of these ingredients. In most cases, the ingredient list does not tell the full story since pet food companies can add certain ingredients to improve their image without those ingredients having real nutritional benefits. In other cases, the best nutrients may come from ingredients that sound less appealing but contain more of what your kitty needs.
Most cat owners have been here at some point; you pop open a can of your kitty’s favorite food just like you do every day, and all of a sudden, it sniffs it and walks away in complete disgust. This may be a sign that your cat is sick, so you should always check in with your vet when this happens. Other times, it turns out to be a change in your cat’s preferences or a behavioral issue. This can be especially frustrating if your healthy cat is turning up its nose at a smorgasbord of options you offer while simultaneously stealing table scraps. It can lead cat owners to think their cat wants human food and that a home cooked diet will appease them. However, it is important to consider other factors such as boredom, fears, or changes in the formulation of the diet as to why your cat is no longer eating its food. If deeper issues are at play, they will arise again, even with a home-cooked diet. cite
Let’s face it, high quality commercial cat foods can be expensive. Home cooking for your cat may seem like a way to save money and also provide high quality ingredients. However, to do it properly and provide all of the necessary nutrients for your cat(s) would cost significantly more than most commercial diets on the market. This is because you need to cook a fresh batch of food every few days to avoid spoilage, and you need to purchase many different ingredients and supplements in order to make a balanced diet for your cat.
The Unique Nutritional Needs of Cats
Cats have special dietary needs that differ from humans and dogs. This is what makes home cooking for them especially challenging. Cats are true carnivores, meaning they require a high content of animal protein as the bulk of their diet. Additionally, they are unable to make certain amino acids and vitamins and must absorb these from their diet.cite Wild relatives of cats and outdoor cats usually obtain these nutrients when they eat whole prey. Commercial diets have been carefully formulated to meet these needs as well. However, it is very difficult to meet these needs by cooking for your cat since many of these nutrients come from organ meats, bones, and other parts of prey animals that would not be typically cooked in our homes. For this reason, home cooked diets are usually deficient in crucial nutrients unless they are balanced with a large number of supplements.
Risks of Home Cooked Diets
It is understandable why you may consider home cooking for your cat if you find yourself in one of the situations mentioned above. However, as you learn more about cats’ highly specific dietary needs, the challenges and health risks become more evident. In fact, a study in 2019 showed that over 100 home cooking recipes for cats that were tested and analyzed were deficient in important nutrients and were not as complete as commercial diets. cite The most commonly noted concerns include:
Deficiencies in home-cooked diets include taurine, choline, iron, thiamine, and Vitamin E.cite Cats that are not getting enough of these nutrients may seem fine for a while, which can reassure owners that their diet is adequate. However, when they do show signs of a deficiency, it can be serious.
Taurine deficiency can lead to heart disease known as Dilated Cardiomyopathy, blindness due to retinal degeneration, and neurological signs.
Iron deficiency may cause anemia, which results in cats who are weak, lethargic, and may have rapid breathing as well as risks of collapse or death.
Thiamine deficiency initially may result in decreased appetite, nausea, and vomiting. In time, it will lead to serious neurological signs including stumbling, blindness, inability to lift the head, seizures, coma, or even death.
Choline deficiency often leads to liver problems. In cats, this can trigger Hepatic Lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, which can be serious and challenging to treat.cite
Vitamin E deficiency in cats can lead to pansteatitis, a condition where the fat inside the body becomes inflamed and painful.cite
In addition to concerns about improperly balanced diets, home cooking also increases the risks of food borne illnesses and/or spoilage. This is because home-cooked foods have a much shorter window of freshness and lack preservatives that can prolong their stability. New batches of food need to be cooked every few days to avoid illnesses related to the growth of bacteria and other harmful germs. Leaving home-cooked food out at room temperature in your cat’s bowl will also increase the risk of harmful germs for the same reasons, making it difficult to leave food available for long periods of time. These risks are further magnified with raw food diets as feeding raw meats skips the step of thoroughly heating the food to kill off the germs. Raw food diets are at much higher risk of contamination with nasty germs like Salmonella and E.coli, and humans have become sick from handling raw pet food.cite
Home-cooked diets are often not as tasty to cats. This is because in order to make them nutritionally complete, many supplements need to be added to the basic ingredients and most cats will be turned off by their taste and/or smell.cite
Safer Alternatives to Home Cooked Recipes
The best option for a healthy diet is to find a commercial food that meets your cat’s needs. There are so many cat foods available now that it is possible to find a food that suits even the pickiest palate, or most specific needs. When analyzing a diet to determine if it is nutritionally complete, it is important to look at a number of factors other than the ingredient list. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association has put together a list of important guidelines and the Pet Nutritional Alliance has compiled an interactive document where you can see if a particular pet food manufacturer meets those guidelines.
For those kitties who need a special diet due to a medical problem, the best option is to consult with your veterinarian to find a prescription diet that will address your cat’s health needs. If these diets are not suitable for some reason, be sure to speak with your vet to find a safe alternative. Sometimes they know of other creative solutions to meet your cat’s nutritional and medical needs.
Finally, for the really rare situation where there is no commercial diet available that can meet your cat’s needs, you will need to consult with a board certified veterinary nutritionist to get a custom-designed diet for your cat. A nutritionist will be able to craft a diet that includes all of the required nutrients for your cat.They usually use specialized software to calculate exact quantities of all of the important supplements. Be prepared for a lot of labor and expense in keeping up with this kind of diet and make sure to follow the instructions exactly. Changing even a brand or source of a certain nutrient can affect its availability to your cat.
There are many reasons cat owners might consider home cooking, however, the complications that arise from homemade diets can be serious and are simply not worth the risks. Cats are complex little beings with unique dietary requirements, and ensuring their diets are healthy and balanced is best left to the experts.
Questions and Answers Regarding Mandatory Food Recalls: Guidance for Industry and FDA Staff. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration. 2018; 3-7. https://www.fda.gov/media/117429/download Accessed June 14, 2022