Guest post by Fern Slack, DVM

In veterinary school, I was taught to feed cats breakfast cereal.

This is not a joke. It is hard to imagine anything further removed from a cat’s evolutionary diet (small animals of the feathered and furred varieties) than a diet consisting of corn, wheat, rice, squash, peas, tapioca, carrots, apples, sage, oregano…. The list goes on. Many trendy cat foods today have ingredient lists that look just like this. Sounds like the makings of a wonderful Thanksgiving feast – but not for a cat.

Cats are obligate carnivores

Cats need animal protein. They are obligate carnivores. Cats are healthiest when consuming a diet which mimics a whole small prey animal as closely as possible. Possibly you have noticed that wheat, potatoes and cranberries are not animals. I mention this because many pet food companies would have you believe that these cheap fillers are just as good as proteins, if not better, for our cats. In fact, cats have neither the digestive enzymes nor the proper metabolism to process carbohydrates. Cats are hunters, and they do not hunt plants.

Cats are not designed to eat breakfast cereal

And yet so many of us, vets included, continue feeding them dry food – essentially breakfast cereal with meat flavor sprayed on the outside. Why do we do this?

Three reasons: First, dry food is generally cheaper to buy than canned food. It is certainly much less costly to produce. Rice costs less than chicken. A cat food full of rice costs less to produce than one primarily composed of chicken. Usually, the price to the consumer is lower too, but this is not always the case.

Second, it’s convenient. As a society, we tend to leave dry food out all the time – just in case we get home late or if we have to leave for a day. Dry food doesn’t smell bad or leave a messy bowl behind. Dry food doesn’t generate piles of cans that have to be recycled.

Third, and probably most importantly: we’ve been assured over and over that it’s good for them. (Plus there’s that pesky marketing that makes your average pet food look more appetizing than a $75 steak at Morton’s.) We have been indoctrinated so thoroughly that it took me years to notice the bag of bricks that was repeatedly hitting me over the head. Entirely avoidable health problems such as diabetes, obesity, and urinary tract disease, to name only a few, afflict numerous cats as a result of feeding pet foods full of carbohydrates.

What constitutes a bad cat food?

Now that we’ve established that in principal, let’s specify what constitutes a bad cat food. It’s pretty simple really. Anything with grains, vegetables, fruits, herbs, or any mutated form thereof (such as rice powder), with the caveat that a food containing less than 5% veggies may be okay if the veggies are used as a natural source of vitamins and minerals. ALL dry foods, and most if not all of the “prescription diets.” This list also includes, to the surprise of many, the majority of canned foods.

Don’t believe me? Walk the pet food aisle at your local grocery store, pick up a few cat food cans at random, and read the labels. Many of the ones with some form of meat listed first will be packed full of yummy-sounding veggies and fruits. The pictures are right on the label to prove it. A cat, surrounded by broccoli and carrots – which in itself provides a good general rule of thumb: if there are pictures of veggies on the label, put it down and move on.

Finding a good commercial food

This means the first challenge for cat parents committed to getting their cats off junk food is to find a good commercial food. Ideally, this would be a mouse, because mice are what cats are supposed to eat. Unfortunately, pet food companies seem to have been unsuccessful at marketing a mouse- or rat-based cat food, so we look to the next best options: canned or raw diets that have the correct nutrients, low to no carbs, low fat, and a whole pile of protein. You are unlikely to find these at the grocery store, and only in small numbers at the big chain pet stores, because they are not as profitable to stock as the more cheaply-made foods. The good news is that these foods are readily available at many smaller stores and online, and so are accessible to pretty much everyone.

Coming next week
Ask a Cat Vet: How Do I Transition My Cat to a Healthy Diet?

Dr. Slack graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia, and has been working exclusively with cats since 1993. She is the owner of Uniquely Cats Veterinary Center in Boulder, CO.

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39 Comments on Ask a Cat Vet: What Should I Feed My Cat?

  1. Hello, Dr. Ingrid!

    When my cat reached a year of age or so, he started getting ear infections constantly, and my vet diagnosed it to be caused by his diet (he was eating regular dry cat food). She specifically said she had seen this happen a lot to cats with sensitivities or allergies to grains and chicken. Ever since, I’ve just been feeding a dry food that’s grain free and doesn’t have chicken as a main ingredient (when I started searching for completely chicken free, I never found any. They always at least had chicken meal somewhere down the list). This was years ago, and I’m a much more educated pet parent when it comes to diet and nutrition, so I’m trying to switch to a raw diet for my cat now. I’m wondering if chicken really ever was the problem with his health problems, and if I should stay away from raw diets with chicken? I found Darwin’s brand, and I can get turkey and duck, but they still recommend I include chicken, too. I’m just not sure what to do at this point. An allergy panel was always so expensive when I looked into it last, I don’t know if it’s okay to just continue to avold chicken, or should I try to reintroduce it? Sorry, this is a lot of information. I just want to feed my cat what’s best, but also not break my bank trying to do so.

    • Hi Meg! First of all, I’m not a doctor 🙂 I would steer clear of chicken for now and start with turkey and/or duck. Once your cat has accepted the raw diet, you could try to reintroduce chicken, although there’s really no reason to unless you want to give it a try.

    • Hi Meg!
      What a great comment. Thanks for this question!
      I have a couple of key concepts for the answer.
      First: in my experience, all dry foods have the potential to cause a whole slew of problems in felines. One of the most common issues I’ve associated with dry foods (and with all foods containing significant amounts of carbohydrates in any form) is inflammatory diseases. These are often (if not always) systemic, with manifestations in multiple organ systems. In my opinion, many “dietary allergies” diagnosed in cats are actually inflammatory disorders caused not by allergies as such, but rather by the cat’s normal reaction to the carbohydrates in the food. Cats are not evolved to eat carbs in any amount larger than the (pre-digested) food found in the gut of their prey. Legumes, particularly, contain lectins, molecules that can create direct GI irritation and inflammation. Since cats often manifest inflammatory reactions systemically, inflammation in the gut can lead to inflammation in the ears — and “ear infections” in cats, apart from those caused by ear mites, are almost always secondary to the inflammation which came first.
      Knowing this, I would strongly question whether your cat is allergic, per se, to anything. An inflammatory response to an irritant chemical is no more an allergy than you getting a red itchy bump when a mosquito bites you. Yes, your cat might be allergic to chicken or grains, but my experience has been that most cats experiencing such food reactions stop having them when switched to a carnivore-appropriate evolutionarily-based diet.
      This brings me to the second key concept in answering your question. Food allergy tests are indeed expensive, and worse, pretty much worthless. The percent of results that are falsely positive and falsely negative leave me, as a practitioner, knowing no more than I did before I ran the test, and worse, can influence me to make an inaccurate diagnosis. I do not recommend food allergy tests ever, at all, at any time.
      The only accurate way to diagnose a food allergy is through consecutive single ingredient trials, with each single ingredient being fed for a minimum of 4 weeks, and many academicians feel it should be longer than that. This is generally done with home-prepared single-ingredient food, such as steamed chicken muscle meat. If a cat is fed such a diet for 4-6 weeks and experiences a resolution of inflammatory problems, we can put the ingredient on the “hopefully safe” list, and move on the next ingredient. These single ingredients are always meats, human grade, prepared at home and best obtained as antibiotic free, hormone free and not treated in any way prior to your purchase.
      This process can take months — and is almost always unnecessary. While there are cats with actual specific meat allergies, the VAST majority of cats who have come to me with such a diagnosis (from another veterinarian) whom I have then put on a carnivore-appropriate diet (such as Darwins) simply get better, and the question becomes moot. It is only after I’ve tried a patient on several such diets and still have a problem that I’ll ask the owner to go through single ingredient dietary trials.
      The bottom line here: I cannot, of course, diagnose or prescribe for your cat in particular, without an examination, medical record review and a legal doctor/client/patient relationship. I can only tell you what I have found to be the case with my patients in general, which I have done here. I do strongly encourage all cat parents, as a matter of general health, to feed a high-quality carnivore-appropriate diet and to avoid dry food of any kind at all costs — that is not specific medical advice. I would encourage you personally to call and interview veterinarians, and find one for your cat who understands what carnivore-appropriate nutrition truly is (such vets are rarer than you would believe), and have that vet help you through this process.
      I hope this helps, and best of luck to you and your kitty!

      Dr. Fern

      • Thank you so much for the response! That was very informative and helpful. Those were all my suspicions since I started researching it and looking into what integrative and holistic vets have to say about those issues, but I’ve wanted to consult with a vet personally about it. There are no vets where I live that support any type of holistic treatment or raw diets. They all recommend prescription diets and kibble, which just kills me because had I been told by a vet sooner about a more nutritionally appropriate diet, I would have listened. I’ve owned pets my whole life and it took me getting a Biology degree and taking mammalogy to start asking questions. I have a current vet who claims he even got a masters in nutrition and still says cats and dogs needs to eat carbs and grains…like how??!! So now I don’t want to ask him any more questions about diet because he recommends stuff like pedigree and iams. It’s gross to me.
        Thank you, again, Dr. Fern!

  2. my sister doesn’t listen to me that she feeds her two cats way too much, she feeds them 3 sometimes 4 times daily . and worse of all the cats will wake her up in the middle of the night and she will FEED them!! i tell her that’s not normal, no one wakes up in the middle of the night to feed a cat!! she leaves dry food down constantly and one of her cats is constantly eating, you can’t walk into the kitchen without him asking to be fed. she thinks if she does’t feed them that they’ll starve and she’s neglecting them. i always tell her she’s feeding them too much but she doesn’t listen.

    • I think two cans of cat food per day is plenty. I feed my cat breakfast, dinner and a midnight snack and he is very content.

      Maybe you can approach your sister like this. Tell her feeding a cat too much can lead to all kinds of health problems. I am sure you want the cat around a long time don’ t you.?

      • Since calorie counts vary widely between brands, you can’t determine how much is the right amount by how many cans of food per day you feed. You are correct that overfeeding leads to obesity and all the health issues that come with that.

  3. Hi Ingrid,

    I am wondering if you’ve ever heard of a cat having an abundance of yeast/candida after being on a raw food diet. I was adding in a small amount of organic pureed veggies per meal for fiber. We finally did the allergy panel and discovered the meat was a sensitivity for my kitten, but his breath never smelled before nor did he have any other symptoms of issues with yeast. Apparently now he has quite an issue with it and will have to go on a routine of supplements to rid him of it. Thank you!

      • Sorry, didn’t mean to mislead you. It was conjecture on my part. He didn’t have a yeast infection when he started on the raw diet. I’m trying to understand how this happened. The first things I thought of were environmental or diet related. I don’t have any idea what environmental factors could be involved, if any. Thank you.

        • Which meat is your kitty sensitive to? The first step is to remove the particular meat from their diet. Sometimes food sensitivities can result from not adding variety to your kitties diet. So if you’re only feeding chicken, your kitty could develop a sensitivity to chicken. A good varied diet for a cat should involve three types of animal protein…personally, I feed mine as many varieties as I can afford…usually venison, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and occasionally quail, or rabbit.
          As far as the candida…that can be caused by a few things. If you feed a treat or food containing grains or fruit (even very occasionally), if you feed fruit at all (I know you said you fed pureed veggies, but didn’t mention fruit), if you feed any type of cow dairy products (it’s surprisingly common for people to give their kitties tiny bites of cheese for treats). One of my kitties had problems with candida and the issue resolved when adding a probiotic and digestive enzyme to her diet for a few months. I still feed probiotics and digestive enzymes once a week. Usually, I rotate between Naturvet Digestive Enzymes Plus Probiotics for Pets (this is by far the least expensive), Mercola Digestive Enzymes for Pets, and Honest Kitchen Pro Bloom Dehydrated Goats Milk with Probiotics.

          • Thank you Alyssa and Ingrid. I have the panel showing ALL his sensitivities and they are many…many! I admit I am confused about the diet variety thing. I often hear that this is what upsets a kitten’s stomach – too much variety – and yet you both suggest it. It’s a bit too late for variety to prevent any sensitivities. It seems as though he was born with them…he’s just 5 1/2 months old. Some of the sensitivities on the panel have never been fed to him so I think he may just be a sensitive kitty in general. Lamb and Duck seem to be the most favorable meats and since I’ve had the information I’ve been feeding Nature’s Variety LID Duck and Lamb. Those came as recommended based on the panel results. There are a lot of veggies he shouldn’t have, all grains (which he never got anyway), fish, oils, grasses, pollen, insects, trees. I’ve never fed him fruits nor fish. Beardsley has been on digestive enzymes since before the results came in. The test results are quite daunting but I am committed to getting him “clean” and his body functioning properly no matter what it takes. I see the vet (holistic) on Friday to get started on the program to eliminate the yeast. I really appreciate your feedback. Thank you!

          • Once a sensitivity exists, it’s best to figure out what works and stick with that, Melissa. Nature’s Variety LID is a great line. The digestive enzymes should also help. Let us know what your vet recommends!

  4. So is feeing my cat a mixture of dry food with tuna or a mixture of fry food with WHISKERS wet meat chunks bad for her?
    Should I be not give her any dry food at all?

  5. I love your analogy to breakfast cereal because dry food and cereal are made through the same process called extrusion. Great piece.

  6. Hi Ingrid. Im having some trouble switching one of my cats to a raw foods diet. We are giving them beef for now. My male cat merlin is loving it. My female cat akira is not. She will only it the meat if we put a power of dry food on it. We are trying to wean them off dry, and trying to give them less tuna, but that seems to be all she wants. Is was mixing the meat with wet food but she changed her mind about that. What should i do? Thanks, Marty

  7. I have to add to my previous post that I purchased a brand of cat food that the cat did fair on and believe it or not it had carrots, peas and green beans in it.. We are saying goodbye to that brand.

  8. This is a great article. I have an 11 y.o cat with IBD. I’ve done many different “grain” free foods trying to find something that will agree with him. I’ve had him for 8 years and I’ve never seen a solid stool from him. A couple of posts ago I discovered Ziwi Peak. I thought I’d try it since it has limited ingredients. No vegetables or fillers. Since I usually feed chicken I thought I’d try a meat that they don’t eat so I bought the venison. My cats love it.. and Simon is doing much better, starting to put some weight back on. There are only 4 suppliers and this food is very expensive. Venison is on back order everywhere so I ordered rabbit/lamb, beef, venison/fish.. Not sure how he will do with the fish part but we will see.

  9. Thanks Ingrid for the great post. I have a kitty that might have food allergies and the vet started him on some pricey food. I am hoping this helps with his itching and licking. She has ruled out many other things.

  10. Excellent article from the vet Ingrid, I hope you will continue to post articles from vets regarding the proper nutrition for cats, or as Jackson Galaxy says, “bio appropriate” foods. I work out of various Petco’s in NYC and I am always amazed at the following: people who have e.g. snakes, lizards or other reptiles as pets, they will ask, “Where are the live feeder mice? Where are the feeder fish or live crickets”, etc. Rarely does anyone ask or buy the processed cubes for their scaley pet but when it comes to feeding cats or dogs, customers come looking for the bags of ” cereal”. Sad, sad….there is still a lot of work to do to change this, specifically where cats are concerned. Thanks Ingrid!

    • Thank you, Lisa, for your kind words about the article. I like Jackson’s “bio-appropriate” reference. I think of this as the Evolutionary Model of Feline Nutrition.

      • Thank *you* Dr. Crist, more vets such as yourself need this kind of platform to educate people about feline nutrition. Another irony I have noticed: if a bag of kibble on a store shelf is found to have a hole in it, the bag is pulled immediately and deemed defective and not for sale. Moisture in the air can cause bacteria growth, mycotoxins and the oils in the kibble can become rancid and yet people who use those dry kibble feeder jugs don’t think twice about filling up the container with kibble, sometimes a full weeks’ worth. While the free-fed cat eats the kibble that gradually dispenses into the bowl portion of the container, the kibble itself in those feeders is not protected by any sealed or air-tight measures.

  11. Hi Ingrid! I was wondering what food to feed Rajah? I feed him wellness grain free dry, but I want to get him to eat healthier. I’m on a fixed income as you know. What kind of food do you recommend? I want him to live a long, healthy life. Thanks!

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