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Homemade cat food vs. store bought: Which is best for your cat?

Homemade cat food
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s clear why so many people consider homemade cat food. We often equate food with love, so it’s no surprise that pet owners are passionate about the food they feed their pets. There’s something wholesome about the idea of cooking for your pet the same way you cook for your family. 

But is homemade cat food really the best option for your feline furkid? Many pet owners do not realize how complex the process of creating a nutritionally complete diet can be. Before deciding which option is best for your cat, make sure you understand the risks and benefits of store-bought vs. homemade cat food.

Understanding the basics of feline nutrition

Veterinary nutrition is an incredibly complex topic, but there are some basic facts that pet owners should know when choosing the best cat food for their pet.

The most important fact to consider when feeding your cat is that cats are ‘obligate carnivores’. This means that cats cannot survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet. This is down to an amino acid (a small building block for protein) called taurine, which cannot be found in plants. Whilst dogs and humans can manufacture their own taurine, and therefore can eat a plant-based diet, cats cannot – they must eat taurine in their diet to survive. They’re also poorly adapted to get nutrition from plants – their short gut length and the enzymes available to them just aren’t designed for digesting plant matter. A cat fed a plant-based diet for any length of time will not thrive unless it contains synthetic taurine, and even then this can be poorly absorbed and lead to problems. 

That said, this doesn’t mean that you can put a bowl of meat in front of your cat and call it a day! A meat-only diet also does not satisfy a cat’s unique nutritional needs. Cats need a variety of nutrients only found in the bones, cartilage, skin, and fur of the prey they eat, so a meat-only diet won’t contain everything they need. Even a whole-prey diet can be deficient in taurine - one study had to be stopped after a litter of kittens fed ground rabbit began to die of heart disease related to taurine deficiency. Deficiencies in other nutrients – such as arginine, Vitamin A, or Vitamin D – can have similarly devastating consequences. Cat food must be nutritionally complete and carefully balanced to keep your cat healthy.

Homemade cat food

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to make homemade cat food

While it’s not impossible for a cat to thrive on a homemade diet, it is very difficult to create homemade cat food that is nutritionally complete and balanced. This is why most veterinarians recommend keeping your cat on commercial cat food.

If you search the internet for homemade cat food recipes, you’ll find thousands of results. Unfortunately, most of these recipes have been created by people with little to no knowledge of feline nutrition. One study looked at 119 diets from books or online, and found that none of them provided all of the RDAs for essential nutrients for cats. It’s likely that homemade cat food recipes are almost always unbalanced, leading to a high likelihood of vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, which can have a devastating impact on your cat’s health.

If you’re absolutely set on feeding your cat a homemade diet, then you must consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. A board-certified veterinary nutritionist is a veterinarian who has completed years of additional training in animal nutrition and has been certified to practice as a specialist in this field. 

A veterinary nutritionist will develop an appropriate recipe to meet your cat’s unique nutritional needs. They will also take into account individual factors such as your cat’s age, lifestyle, and overall health. The recipe they create will use ingredients that are readily available in your local area and will usually include supplements to ensure that the diet is complete and balanced.

Once you receive a recipe for homemade cat food from a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, it is very important that you follow it carefully. Each ingredient must be measured and added to the food in the exact quantities stated. Even seemingly harmless changes – like adding extra of your cat’s favorite ingredient or swapping one ingredient for another – can alter the nutrient profile of the diet and lead to problems in the long run. If you are struggling to make the recipe to the exact specifications, you should contact the nutritionist again and ask them to reformulate.

Homemade cat food requires a delicate balance and is often time-consuming to achieve, which is why many pet owners prefer store-bought cat food.

Is store-bought cat food healthy for my cat?

Store-bought cat food has many advantages over homemade cat food. Commercially prepared cat foods are already complete and balanced, which means they contain all of the nutrients your cat needs to thrive. You won’t need to worry about weighing out ingredients or purchasing the appropriate supplements. Each piece of kibble contains the exact same nutrients, meaning your cat cannot pick and choose their favorite bits, unbalancing their diet further. Store-bought cat food is also readily accessible and far more convenient for most pet owners than attempting to adhere to a homemade diet.

Many pet owners worry about whether store-bought cat food is safe and healthy for their cat. The good news is that, with so many products on the market, there are options available that are safe and nutritious for your cat. Learning how to read a pet food label can help alleviate the common concerns about pet food, so you can make better choices for your cat. Although the ingredients list can sound scary (and is a common complaint from those pushing for a more natural diet), it’s not a very good way to assess whether a food is good or not. When choosing a cat food for your cat, make sure you take into account factors such as your cat’s age, current weight, activity level, and health status, and choose a food that will adequately meet these needs.

If you have questions about which commercial diets are best for your cat, your veterinarian is your best resource for product recommendations and nutritional advice. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association also recommends contacting the manufacturer of your cat’s food and asking questions about how it was formulated and produced. This is a great way to ensure that your cat’s food was developed by a veterinary nutritionist and subjected to appropriate quality control during production. Alternatively, the Pet Nutrition Alliance has published the answers they received to some of the WSAVA’s questions here.

All of this will enable you to make an informed decision and choose a diet that best fits your cat’s needs.

Homemade cat food: More difficult than it seems

When it comes to homemade cat food, meeting your cat’s nutritional needs can be tricky. Always consult your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist before starting your cat on a homemade diet. When in doubt, stick with a diet that is already complete and balanced, so you’ll be sure to meet your cat’s unique nutritional needs.  

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Since obtaining her doctorate in veterinary medicine, Dr. Racine has worked exclusively in small animal general practice. Her work has been featured in blog posts, articles, newsletters, journals, and even video scripts.