Homemade food can be one of the best things you can do for your cat. It can also be one of the worst.
Compared to well over a decade ago when I first began looking into this whole "raw feeding" thing, there are now plenty of good recipes available from different sources online and elsewhere to use as a foundation for building a nutritional program for cats. (There are also some really stinky recipes out there! Those haven't disappeared.)
What the good recipes share is an honest effort to re-create and approximate - to the best of a human's limited ability - the nutritional composition of a cat's natural prey, which, just for starters, comes with sufficient calcium (bone) to balance out the phosphorus in the meat. They include biologically available sources of Essential Fatty Acids, ample taurine and other amino acids, and organ meats (or a decent substitute) to supply ingredients that mimic the content profile of, for example, a mouse.
As Dr. Jean Hofve says, however, once a cat caregiver has started feeding a home-prepared raw diet, there is a risk they become tempted to simplify or change the recipe - skipping ingredients altogether because they're not on hand.
Over time, "recipe drift" can create serious downstream health problems for cats.
It's not necessary to have a degree in veterinary nutrition to educate yourself on the WHYs of some of the ingredients that are necessary in a balanced and complete diet for cats.
One of the most heartbreaking stories I've heard came from a woman who was mystified by why her cat had become so fragile and sick despite years and years of feeding a homemade raw diet. When I asked her to share the recipe she'd been working with, it sure seemed to me like an adequate one.
After a few more emails she mentioned, almost in passing, that she had read an article once that said that bone matter in raw cat food was potentially irritating to a cat's digestive system and she also thought it was a hassle cleaning up bone bits from her grinder. So for ease of food preparation and to simplify matters she began removing all the bone from the meat. To make matters worse, she didn't seek out an alternate source of calcium to include in the diet. For more than four years, her cat had been eating a home-prepared raw meat-based diet that had dangerously low levels of calcium - and without a dietary source of sufficient calcium, her cat's body began to rob calcium from the cat's own bones (osteoporosis).
Her vet, on learning she'd been making her own cat food for years, chastised her for doing something so "dangerous and silly" and, I'm guessing, saw this case as another piece of damning evidence against homemade diets for cats.
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This is not to say that any of us know with 100 percent certainty that a particular recipe is truly perfect for our cat. As much faith I have in the recipe I've been using for nearly 12 years and the research on which it's based, I doubt that it's as good as what Mother Nature herself created for a cat. Ironically, or not, the more years I have under my belt of successfully feeding a homemade diet, the more I'm wary of human hubris.
The more I know, the more I appreciate how much I still don't know.
Who really knows what's lost - nutritionally and otherwise - when a cat doesn't kill and eat fresh prey? Can we be absolutely certain that there isn't some valuable micronutrient, some mineral, some missing piece of the puzzle from an ingredient that isn't measured by or included in the roadmaps used to create a recipe?
I've wondered lately, for example, whether the relatively "bloodless" meats many people buy from the grocery store aren't depriving our cats of sufficient iron in their diets. Two people using the exact same recipe but using meats from entirely different sources that raise and feed the animals wildly different diets really are not feeding the 'same' food at all. You "can" skip adding liver to the diet and, theoretically, substitute the missing Vitamin A and D with store-bought Vitamin supplements, but who really knows what else is in liver that's nourishing for cats?
We do the best that we can - and keep our minds and eyes open to new bits of science or other evidence to suggest that it may be prudent to adjust a recipe, to add or subtract the amount of a particular ingredient.
Long-term feeding of a diet that is missing a conspicuous and known ingredient in a cat diet can put our beloved carnivores at risk. So please mindful of the folly of recipe drift.
And? Never forget the most critical ingredients in your cat's well-being: at least a few moments each day acknowledging their sheer awesomeness and showering them with some unabashed love.
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