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Feeding Your Cat: Home-Prepared Versus Commercial Diets

While most veterinary nutritionists agree that cats have different dietary needs from dogs and other domestic pets, they often disagree on the best way to provide an all-inclusive diet. "It is possible to prepare cat foods in the home that are complete and balanced, providing all the nutrients that your cat needs," says Francis Kallfelz, DVM, a veterinary nutritionist at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Yet in these times of take out and fast food, most of us do not have the time to prepare our own meals, much less those of our cats.

Personal feeding preferences

You can make your choice for how and what to feed your pet more confidently if you are aware of your cat's fundamental nutritional needs. Meals can be selected from an endless variety of commercial products or those prepared at home. Holistic veterinarians describe the foods hunted by ancestral cats in the wild as natural foods. Donald Strombeck, DVM, a professor emeritus of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the author of Home Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative, believes that restoring your cat to an all natural diet comparable to the one it foraged for in its ancestry will help to improve its natural biochemical reactions and strenghten its present day immune system.

Kallfelz, however, disagrees. He does not believe that cats were being fed better diets in the 1950s - when commercially prepared cat food was a novelty - than they are today. Nor does he think that commercially prepared foods are the cause of a greater incidence of disease problems today than 50 years ago. "Most veterinarians would agree that cats, in general, have significantly greater life spans today than they did in the mid-twentieth century," he says. "While the elimination of many contagious diseases has most certainly contributed to increased longevity and quality of life, so has the improvement in nutrition. Based on significant amounts of research, the cat foods of today do a much better job of meeting the nutrient needs of cats than they did in the middle of the last century."

Learning about nutrition

Although some veterinarians may have learned what they know about feeding pets from literature provided by pet food companies, Kallfelz says that today all veterinary colleges are providing training in nutrition for veterinary students as a standard part of the curriculum. "The American College of Veterinary Nutrition, one of some 20 specialty boards recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association, has been a great stimulus in improving the nutritional knowledge of graduate veterinarians," he explains.

For example, today's veterinarians know a lot more about the importance of amino acids such as taurine. In addition, Kallfelz says research has shown that while cats are carnivores, this is not why they need more protein in their diet. Instead, they need more protein, than, for example, dogs because they cannot control the rate of protein turnover that most other species can. "The protein requirements of cats can, with the possible exception of taurine, be met by appropriate mixtures of vegetable protein sources. The carnivorous nature of cats does, however, relate to their need for dietary sources of vitamin A, arachidonic acid, and taurine."

Kallfelz says that he believes that "most pet food companies are very objective in the research-based information they provide to veterinarians." It is in their best interests to be as objective as possible. In addition, he says, commercially prepared cat foods are designed to give cats the correct balance of nutrients and calories. "It's important to buy foods that are guaranteed to meet the requirements for the life stage of your cat," he says, adding that foods without this guarantee may not provide appropriate amounts of all essential nutrients.

Commercial versus home-prepared foods

Pet food manufacturers have given intense study to cat food development in the past decades, Kallfelz says. As a result, commercial foods have become the most convenient and popular choice for feeding pets.

Supermarket shelves bulge with pet foods that are quality tested in laboratories in veterinary colleges and processing plants. According to the Federal Trade Commission, pet food manufacturers are required to label their products so that purchasers can "determine the nature and composition of the product and the purpose for which it is suitable." A sub-committee of the National Research Council has established all basic nutritional requirements for cats, and the Association of American Feed Control Officials has recommended regulatory standards that are used by commercial pet food manufacturers.

"Formulating complete and balanced diets for cats requires detailed knowledge of their nutritional requirements as well as the nutrient content of the food items that one wishes to use in preparing their diets," says Kallfelz. "It is not unreasonable to assume that only individuals with special knowledge of feline nutrition are able to do this appropriately. Certainly most cat owners could obtain such knowledge, but most do not have the time or the interest to do so."

However, according to Strombeck, "The pet-owning population fed their animals home prepared diets 40 to 50 years ago before commercial foods became popular. Their pets had fewer or no problems with disease or nutritional deficiencies. Many cats hunted to meet their nutritional needs and did not develop the problems that occur with commercial pet foods. People who live with pets are very knowledgeable and are insulted if told they are not competent to prepare a diet for their pet." Strombeck, a practicing small animal medicine clinician for 40 years, says he has observed that medical problems could disappear when pets are fed home-prepared foods and that these same troubles will return when commercial foods are used.

Yet in Kallfelz's experience, many of the nutritional problems he has dealt with occurred in cats fed home-prepared diets. These problems have included thiamine deficiency, vitamin E deficiency, taurine deficiency, calcium deficiency, and vitamin A toxicity. While a few nutritional diseases have been discovered in cats fed commercial foods, Kallfelz says they were all the result of previously unrecognized problems and once discovered, were rapidly addressed by the pet food industry.

Some cat owners choose home prepared diets because of their concern regarding cat foods such as animal by-products and artificial fat preservatives. Such concerns are generally unfounded. Animal by-products, consisting of organ meats, such as kidney and liver, can be very good sources of protein and other nutrients. Most pet food companies will only accept such ingredients from well-known producers of human foods where the quality of such ingredients is assured. Further, at the levels used in cat foods, artificial preservatives are not harmful. Rather, they ensure the freshness of the food and may provide other benefits such as protection against some forms of cancer.

While feeding home prepared foods is perfectly acceptable as long as the foods are prepared with the appropriate knowledge, Kallfelz says most of us will rely on commercial cat foods recommended by our veterinarians. "I believe that this approach will result in a long and happy life for our feline companions."

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2002-2004.
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