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What do I need to know to make my own cat food?

What do I need to know to make my own cat food?
Tips to make your cat's food. (Ian Cotta Fotografia / Getty Images)

There’s no shortage of recipes online and in cookbooks for homemade dog food, but what about the family cat?

Homemade cat food is a much trickier proposition. Recipes and resources are harder to come by, and some authorities disagree about what cats can, or cannot, consume.

Dr. Andrea Tasi, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, has specialized in cats for almost her entire 30-year career.

Her practice, Just Cats, Naturally, based in northern Virginia, uses homeopathy, nutritional therapy and behavior- and environmental-related techniques. She believes that switching a cat from processed foods to a raw or partially cooked diet is natural and might even improve its health.

Before changing diets, consult with your veterinarian about your cat’s specific nutritional and dietary needs.


Below is a Q&A with Times Test Kitchen director Noelle Carter and Dr. Tasi, edited for length and clarity:

Homemade dog food books are a dime a dozen, but it’s hard to find cookbooks that focus on cat food, let alone recipes or even consistent advice.

I think it’s a fool’s errand to look for consistency. If you polled 30 vets and asked them what you should feed a cat, you’re going to get a lot of different answers.

I think you have to go back to the basics and ask what veterinarians are taught in school about animal nutrition. And the answer is next to nothing. …

Most vets believe that pet food companies make good products and have pet health at interest. They’ve done the research, they know what to do, and they know what’s best. And I bought it, hook, line and sinker. I no longer believe that.

Why?

I’ve fed my cats exactly as I was taught. Now mind you, I’m not doing scientific research here, but over the years when I’ve fed my cats processed foods, every single cat I owned developed some sort of chronic illness. And these cats, they’re all unrelated, so what’s the common denominator? What I’m feeding them.

A cat in its natural existence eats mice, birds, small rodents, small mammals, insects, reptiles. Yeah, they might nibble on a few blades of grass here or there, but it’s a carnivorous diet. And who can argue with that?

Have you ever seen a cat pick on an ear of corn? No.

Dr. Andrea Tasi

What about high-end “balanced nutrition” brands we find in gourmet markets or even veterinary offices?

All dry foods are grain-based. Have you ever seen a cat pick on an ear of corn? No. So I began recommending canned food, and I very quickly began seeing the merits of leaving behind dry food. But then I began to realize that even canned food is highly processed due to the nature of canning (high-pressure-heat cooking). One consistent piece of nutritional advice you’ll get as a human is to eat less processed food.

So our cats should be eating meat?

You can’t just use meat. If we’re making a homemade cat food, our goal has to be working with a recipe that re-creates the nutritional status of a mouse. A mouse is the perfect cat food. When cats eat mice, they don’t eat filet o’ mouse. They eat all the mouse parts. And all these different parts and organs contain different nutrients.

It sounds as though homemade cat food is a lot more complicated than buying ground chicken at the supermarket.

If you’re interested in feeding your cats home-prepared food, you have to go into this extremely carefully and you have to spend a lot of time learning. This is not easy. For people who want to feed their cats less-processed foods, I don’t think they should be making their own food [as the] first step.

If you are going to feed an animal a raw, meat-based diet, you can’t just grind up raw chicken breast. That’s not a whole animal. You need calcium from bones. You need amino acids present in organs. You need fatty organs like the liver, because that has iron. It’s not just a matter of “Let’s buy some chicken and feed it to our cats.”

If someone were interested in making homemade food, where would they begin?

If you want to do this, start with pre-prepared [frozen raw] food. That’s how I did it, and once I got my cats transitioned to it I realized that (a) I like to cook, (b) I can cook and (c) I’ve got the kitchen and the time, so let’s start making my own. It’s less expensive and I have more control over the chain of ingredients.

If you’re interested in feeding your cats home-prepared food, you have to go into this extremely carefully and you have to spend a lot of time learning."

Dr. Andrea Tasi

What kinds of meat can we feed our cats?

Any kind of meat is OK: beef, pork, chicken, turkey. With fish, it should never be fed raw. There is something present in fish that can antagonize vitamin E usage. Cats aren’t supposed to eat fish anyway. Cats evolved as a desert predator, and their ancestor is the African wildcat. That said, if I had some cooked fish, I would give my cats a couple of bites. But it’s not species-correct for cats to have a fish-heavy diet, and I don’t recommend it.

A lot of people are concerned about raw versus cooked. Does the diet have to be raw, and should I have safety concerns?

This is very, very controversial. Most veterinarians and the American Veterinary Medical Assn. have issued a position against raw diets because they feel food safety is so significant. I can say that in 15 years of dealing with animals eating raw food diets, I have seen one household where two cats got sick. That’s it.

Before you begin, visit Dr. Lisa Pierson’s website, catinfo.org. She’s a very conventional vet and a pioneer. Where her original cat diet relied predominantly on raw meat, she now advocates partial cooking of chicken pieces to lessen the possibility of bacterial contamination.

And when we’re talking about feeding anything raw, or partially cooked, the only safe way to do this is with whole cuts of meat or animal. You cannot use ground meat. If you have a piece of chicken, salmonella is not on the inside of the flesh, it’s on the surface. When I would make my own food out of whole chicken quarters, I dipped them in boiling water for a minute. That’s lightly cooking the skin and, hopefully, sanitizing the outside.

When I see cats on a properly balanced raw meat or lightly cooked diet, they are completely different animals than cats on commercial diets.

Dr. Andrea Tasi

Is there anything I should avoid?

Yes. Garlic and onions — anything in that family can cause anemia in cats. And don’t feed them cooked bones.

Why cooked bones?

Animals were not designed to eat cooked bones. Cooked bones splinter and can cause perforations. Cats were designed to eat bone, but they were designed to eat raw bones from small animals. So no cooked bones.

For someone not ready to make their own food, are there commercial raw foods or alternatives you would recommend?

The very best way to start is to turn to some of the companies that are making good pre-pasteurized, balanced, frozen, raw food diets. The brands I’m most familiar with are Rad Cat, and then there’s an East Coast company called Aunt Jeni’s. And Nature’s Variety makes raw foods as well [sold under the brand name Instinct]. In some cases, [brands] do high-pressure pasteurization (HPP). They do HPP for their chicken- and turkey-based foods because of the risk of salmonella.

There’s also an intermediate genre with freeze-dried foods. And many vets feel more comfortable recommending freeze-drying because the process mitigates the chance of pathogen transmission through the food.

For more information, Dr. Tasi recommends catinfo.org and catnutrition.org, which also include recipes.

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