Feeding an all home cooked diet without supplementation is dangerous for your cat!
You may be surprised to read this on my blog if you know much about my philosophy surrounding food. I’m certainly not suggesting that a 100% processed commercial diet is the best, but to support the statement about cooked food and cats we need to go back a few decades. What follows is a lesson in cat health, war, and the pet food industry.
Our story begins at the time of World War I. Here in the US, food was being rationed to help supply the troops. This included meat which made it difficult for pet owners to feed their pets primarily table scraps as had been the practice before this. Enter Mark Morris, DVM. This veterinarian was the founder of Hill’s Science Diet and the initiator of the first prescription diets. He also was the one who figured out that you could create a canned, processed diet for pets (dogs, primarily) using parts of meat that were less desirable to humans (without making them look at the pieces used). Now, at this time the “meat by-products” used were mostly trimming scraps and were relatively healthy, especially since he intended this diet to be a temporary measure that would only hold until the war ended. The vast majority of this food produced were canned meat diets.
Turns out people really liked the convenience of just opening a can to feed their pet, so the processed food movement became more than just a wartime effort and carried forward. More diets were produced and cats were included at this point. Things went really well for quite some time. Then World War II happened and the pet food industry had to adapt again. This time the desirable and rationed item was metal. Because most processed foods were canned at the time, this meant that the industry needed to radically shift their operation to spare metal for the war effort. Dry foods already existed, but now they became more numerous and were the primary foods offered. Foods were still very much meat based at the time.
Once the war was over, it turned out that many people really liked the convenience of just having a bag of dry nuggets to feed instead of having to open cans all the time. So once again, things shifted. True, canned food became less costly again as metal resources were freed up, but it was this progression of wars that led to processed food, then to dry food becoming so popular. Not science or nutrition principles, but rationing and convenience.
Now people really wanted dry foods, and companies were scrambling to make the best, cheapest dry foods. Up until this point, meat is still the major ingredient, and few major health problems were seen as a result of these major dietary shifts. The 1950’s is when the story starts to change. Modern extruding technology (the machines that make the little dry kibbles we know today) was introduced in the 1950’s.
In a race to the bottom to produce the best, crispiest kibble at the least cost, pet food manufacturers started changing their recipes to include less and less meat and more grain. Grain is the part of pet food that becomes crispy and crunchy when you cook it. So we have a gradual shift to a highly cooked, grain based kibble. By the 1970’s even super premium dry foods were primarily grain based, and this is when we started seeing a problem.
All of a sudden, a mysterious epidemic of cats experiencing a particular heart disease (dilatative cardiomyopathy) and sudden blindness related to retinal degeneration happened. This went on until the late 1980’s. It took about a decade for veterinarians and researchers to finally discover what was going wrong with these cats.
It turns out both the heart and the vision problems were related to severe insufficiency of the amino acid taurine in cats’ diets. You may know the concept of an essential amino acid. Many species have an amino acid. or several of them, that they cannot create from protein building block. As long as we get enough of it in our diet, things are fine. All the other amino acids can be created in the body by breaking down other amino acids and building the particular one that we need. What was discovered in the 1980’s was that taurine, a heat-sensitive amino acid, was an essential amino acid for cats. If they didn’t get enough their heart muscle and their retinas paid the price.
What had happened over time in pet food was a shift to an all cooked diet (some percentage of taurine lost, but enough retained to prevent problems), then a shift to a cooked grain based diet with little meat. This caused the percentage loss of taurine to be disastrous since there was much less taurine in the food to begin with.
After a decade of cats dying of nutritional disease from eating processed foods, we had solved the puzzle and started adding massive amounts of taurine into food. That’s right, not necessarily more meat, just more taurine so that there would still be plenty after some is lost to heat degradation. After all, the profit margin must be maintained! At this point in the evolution of pet food, we do have plenty of super premium foods that are grain free and meat based, even with starchy vegetables added to give it a crispy texture.
The moral of this story is that cats do best on a raw, meat based diet. This shouldn’t be surprising since they are obligate carnivores and do not have the same shared history of co-evolution that dogs have with us. Even when they started to domesticate themselves (which is a fascinating story for another day), they still largely subsisted on a prey based diet for quite some time.
The absolute best diet for a cat is raw food, and the next best is a canned or home cooked diet that is meat based. If you choose to cook for your cat at home, you must add a balancing supplement not only to balance vitamins and minerals, but also to add enough taurine after cooking that your cat won’t suffer from taurine deficiency.
If you’re interested in more on this subject, check out the studies done by Francis Pottenger, who experimented with cats and raw v. cooked diets. He had some interesting findings, including that cats fed cooked diets developed more degenerative disease and became “lazy”. Interesting that we often think of laziness as simply being an inherently feline trait, perhaps it’s more to do with what we’re feeding them.
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