Can a Homemade Raw Diet Offer Complete and Balanced Nutrition?

Q I am interested in feeding my 4-year-old Siamese cat a homemade diet and would like to make this a raw diet, as I have read that it is more natural for cats. Cat foods have so many artificial ingredients, and I am concerned that these additives may be harmful to him. What are your thoughts about these ideas?

A I think it’s great that you are so clearly concerned for the well-being of your baby and that you are willing to take the time and effort to make a homemade diet for him. Given the attention that the quality and safety of human food have received in the media over the past several decades, it is natural for owners to want to feed their cats in a manner consistent with their desire to eat in a healthy manner themselves.

While the concept of wanting to feed your cat a natural, raw diet is understandable, there are a few issues to consider when contemplating this plan, both with respect to your kitty’s well-being and that of his human friends.

The first thing to realize is that cats have very specific nutritional requirements. Their unique evolution as carnivores, for example, has resulted in their inability to synthesize certain amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) that are found in animal products such as meat, eggs and fish.

A failure to provide foods with these essential amino acids will result in nutritional deficiencies that can adversely affect a cat’s health. Perhaps the best known of these essential amino acids is taurine. Cats who eat diets deficient in taurine may suffer from diseases of the heart, eyes and reproductive systems.

Since the discovery of the importance of dietary taurine for cats’ well-being in the late 1980s, virtually all proprietarily available cat foods have sufficient taurine supplementation. Cats also have very specific dietary requirements for other amino acids, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, and a failure to meet these needs can adversely affect their health.

Because of these very specific nutritional requirements, preparation of a homemade diet that is complete and balanced for cats is not a trivial endeavor. While it is, in theory, possible to prepare a nutritionally complete and balanced homemade diet, it is essential that anyone wishing to pursue this option consult very closely with their cat’s veterinarian and/or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

The issue of raw diets for pets has received much attention over the past decade. While the motivation for this is understandable (i.e., cats evolved to eat raw foods), there are a number of concerns regarding this option. The first is that raw foods may contain pathogens (i.e., toxoplasma, salmonella) that can cause disease in cats fed in this manner. This constitutes a health risk for kitties, and although owners may be trying to give their cats “what they have evolved to eat,” they are often unaware of this risk.

The other major issue with feeding raw diets to cats is that their human counterparts may also be infected by the pathogens found in raw foods either during preparation of the diet or by indirect contact with the food on counter and other surfaces or directly from the cat while interacting with him. This risk is particularly true for the very young, the very old and for other immunosuppressed individuals (i.e., those receiving chemotherapy). For these reasons, we do not recommend feeding raw diets to cats.

I hope that this information is helpful. I recommend that you work with your cat’s veterinarian to choose a commercially available food that is appropriate for your kitty’s age and health status (some conditions require specific dietary modifications). By doing this, I think that you are going a long way toward doing what you are trying to do for him … to make him happy and healthy.

—Best regards, Elizabeth