The Feeding of an Obligate Carnivore

Catherine and I have been cat owners for only about six months. We’d both grown up as dog people, but the rules at our condominium complex are written in such a way as to specifically exclude dog ownership, and my wife fell for a hard luck story she saw on Craigslist. We’d planned to take possession of a young mother cat, named Juniper because that is where she was found (and what she’d been eating) by the people who cared for her through her pregnancy. We ended up taking Juniper and one of her kittens, whom we named Ivy due to her love of climbing things.

To ease the transition of the cats as we moved them into their new home, we originally began feeding them what their previous caretaker had fed them. Specifically, Friskies and Meow Mix. However, Catherine had been reading a lot of cat nutrition before we took possession of the cats, and her own background in Zoology made her a bit uncomfortable with the ingredients list on the cans. There was an awful lot of vegetable matter in the food, and what protein there was often came from sources like ‘chicken by-product meal’ and ‘animal digest’. In other words, plenty of roughage that a cat wouldn’t eat in the wild, and what protein there was, tended to be poor quality.

Yet, we fed the cats on it for several weeks. Their world had just changed drastically, and a change in food, we felt was unreasonable. Which is when we discovered what I consider the most disgusting part of this ‘food’. It smells the same exiting the cat, as it does exiting the can. Aside from being a terrible realization (the litter box is in my office, the cats are tidy), it mostly went to show that there was really very little in this food that the cat was actually able to derive nutritional value from! It’s basically what would happen if you ate nothing by white rice at every meal. You’d feel full, certainly, but you’d have little energy, and you’d gain very little nutrition from your diet.

Why is most of this food so poor quality? Simply because the core ingredients: corn, soy, and animal by-products, are the by-products of the food system that feeds us. Incidentally, this is also why, why JD Roth of The Simple Dollar was asked to weigh in on a book that made the claim that pets were a Sustainability nightmare, he argued against the points in the book. We’re feeding our pets industrial waste, so while there is a bit of a loss (packaging, shipping, etc) it’s probably better than simply shipping that stuff to the dump.

He is right, to a point, but I still believe that there is no excuse to feel your pets in a way that completely ignores their need for balanced nutrition. With dogs, this industrial waste food is a little better. Dogs are at least omnivores, they can glean nutritional value from corn (though Soy should still be avoided). Catherine’s dog, who has lived with her parents for 5+ years now, subsisted for some time on rice and green beans. Admittedly the limited diet was at least in part because of other problems, but it was still (with a bit of protein from time to time) nutritionally sufficient.

With cats, it’s different. Cat nutrition is not particularly hard, they don’t need a whole lot of food every day, but the nature of a cat’s diet should be very different from a dog’s. First off, feeding your cat dry food is probably a bad idea. Our cats are drinkers, and will drink from a free cup or bowl if is available, however not every cat is. Cats in the wild drink very little free water, taking in almost all of their liquid from the food that they eat. If your cat is eating dry food, and they don’t drink water freely on their own, they can develop problems like kidney stones.

There are quality brands of wet and dry cat food. Some people really like the Natural Balance brand. Our cats didn’t care for it, and I felt the green pea content was simply too high. A can smelt mostly of green pea when opened. The brand we settled on was Evo from Innova, which are completely grain free and the cat foods are generally 90% or more meat. We do keep around a bit of their dry formula as well. Our elder cat still loves dry food, though she only gets it very rarely (or when she figures out how to open the cupboard where she knows it’s kept). Evo is expensive, for cat food, costing about $1.90 on the higher end per day for a cat just shy of 10 pounds.

While we do still occasionally feed Evo, and plan to move the cats back onto an Evo diet for a few weeks this summer when we’ll be out of town, usually we try to follow a more traditional model of feeding our cats. Historically, people who kept cats fed them bits of meat and bone, or simply let them free feed. I’m not advocating free feeding, due to the effects that roaming cats can have on biodiversity in a region. Our cats only go outside when on a leash.

Our feeding strategy begins with cornish game hens, one hen per week feeds two cats, and adding additional meat (we use a mix of beef, chicken and pork, mostly chicken) as well as added liver. The game hens are important, since they contain the bone (and hence calcium) which is key to the cat’s bowel health. Without enough bone (or egg shell), a cat will likely have very runny bowel movements, which is uncomfortable for the cat, and likely going to make a huge mess out of your litter box. Plus, bone is very filling for the cat, so they typically seem far more sated when they’ve had bone. Note: It is extremely important that this bone not be cooked. Cooked bone is not pliable, and could really hurt your cat when they try to eat it.

We feed our cats about 5 ounces of food a day each. This translates to 35 ounces of meat per cat per week, or 70 ounces for the both of them. We typically prepare 2 weeks worth at a time, though we’re considering upping this to four. We have a good sized freezer, allowing us to stock up on meat when it goes on sale.

Our makeup for preparing one week (for two cats) looks about as follows:

  • One 23 1/3 oz Cornish Game Hen (If the hen is bigger or smaller, we just modify the values below)
  • 3.5 oz Liver (chicken or beef)
  • 3.5 oz other secreting organ (kidneys are great)
  • 40 oz other meat (we do a mix of 2 parts beef, 2 parts pork, 1 part thigh meat chicken, 1 part breast meat chicken)

If you’re having trouble finding ‘secreting organs’, then you can simply replace it with liver, but you’ll want to occasionally feed a can of quality commercial food to ensure that your cats are getting all their necessary vitamins. I always start by breaking down the chicken. I always start by cutting off the breasts the same way you’d be breaking down your thanksgiving turkey, then removing the wings. I then remove the legs, cutting them in half, the cutting the torso in half, back to front. I then break the halves of the chicken into four pieces, leaving me with fourteen bony pieces of various sizes to split between two cats. For breaking down the torso, I suggest a good pair of kitchen shears, they make the job go much faster. Some weeks we will also add in a can of sardines (water packed), breaking the fish between a few meals and feeding them whole to the cats, the oil in the fish helping with coat health.

I then break down the rest of the meat into half to one ounce pieces, which we mix together and break down into bags. We place three meals for each cat into plastic bags, then proceed to freeze all but what we need for that day and the next. We’ve found that three meals is a good compromise for us between going through bags too quickly, and minimizing the amount of raw meat in our fridge, since cats are very sensitive to food that isn’t quite fresh.

This was a difficult process when we first began it. It would take hours, and we’d be exhausting by the time it was done. Now, we can do two weeks in about two hours, and the cats clearly prefer the raw meet diet. They seem to have more energy than they used to, and they’ve been on a full meat diet for several months with seemingly excellent health.

They don’t drink a lot of water from the bowl we leave out, but the litter box contains a good number of urine clumps when we scoop. They don’t poop as much as they used to, but their bowl movements tend to be smaller and more solid, suggesting that they are able to process nearly all of what they’re eating. And as the person who has to sit five feet away from the cats when they are defecating, the near lack of odor is definitely preferred.

The raw diet is also supposed to promote tooth health, since chewing on the bones and connective tissue should clear plaque from their teeth. I’m not sure I noticed bad breath from our cats before, so I can’t say that this has improved that, but the fact that they do chew their food now does make me think there is something too that. Before, with the traditional ‘pat&eacute’ that most cat food is in, our cats would literally just lap up their dinner without doing any chewing. I’m positive that that didn’t help their oral health, even if I’m not sure about the raw diet helping.

Converting the cats was surprisingly easy. At first, we tried to mix the raw meat in with cans of Evo. The younger cat got it immediately, the elder cat tended to just lick off the paté and walk away. We eventually tried just giving her the meat and not providing any Evo, and she seemed to catch on pretty fast. Once we had them eating meat, we started working in bone. This wasn’t really a problem, except that Ivy, the younger cat, had a bit of trouble with the larger leg bones when she was still really young (mind you, she’s still under a year old). She’d gnaw off the ends of the bone, get a bit of the marrow from inside, but would ultimately leave some behind.

We occasionally introduce new meats to the cats. We tried duck, but the bones were too substantial to replace the cornish game hens at this point (the cats are both still pretty young), and we might try a bit of rabbit from the local farmer’s market. Ultimately, we find it easier to feed just the trinity of beef, chicken and pork. They’re the easiest to get. The cheapest. And our cats don’t always respond well to new meat. We are also considering moving toward the ‘prey model’ or feeding, where we’d buy freeze dried mice, like you’d feed to pet snakes or something, and feed those directly. The nice thing about that approach is that the meals are already balanced for necessary nutrition, however, we have no idea if it would work for our cats, and we don’t have a local pet store where we can buy a few mice to try to feed. Plus, our cats play with felt mice, and I definitely don’t want them playing with their food.

We’ve been happy raw feeders for the last six months or so. And our cats have been very happy with the change. Cost wise, I believe it saves us a bit of money off the high-end cat food we were feeding before, and breaking down the meat goes smoother every time we do it. It’s been absolutely worth it for us, and our cats definitely seem healthier than on the grocery-store cat food, and to a far lesser extent the high end commercial cat food.