by Tony McReynolds
Advice to clients who are thinking about feeding their cats a homemade diet: think twice before downloading that cat food recipe—even if a veterinarian wrote it.
A new study from researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), found that most cat food recipes found online are unlikely to provide cats all their essential nutrients. Some even call for ingredients potentially toxic to cats.
Researchers evaluated 114 recipes written by both laypeople and veterinarians from online sources and books. Most of the recipes were difficult to follow—40% didn’t provide feeding instructions, and the rest lacked detail or were otherwise unclear.
“Only 94 recipes provided enough information for computer nutritional analysis and of those, none provided all the essential nutrients to meet the National Research Council’s recommended allowances for adult cats,” said lead author Jennifer A. Larsen, DVM, PhD, DAVCN, a veterinary nutritionist with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
And that includes the ones written by veterinarians.
Granted, the recipes written by veterinarians had fewer deficiencies in essential nutrients: Most recipes were lacking concentrations of three or more nutrients, with some lacking adequate amounts of up to 19 essential nutrients. And many had severe deficiencies, providing less than 50% of the recommend allowances of several essential nutrients, including choline, iron, zinc, thiamin, vitamin E, and manganese.
That doesn’t mean homemade cat food diets are bad.
“There are a variety of reasons owners use home-prepared diets,” Larsen told NEWStat. “Sometimes it’s personal preference [e.g., the owner might be a vegan]or a distrust of commercial products, or the cat refuses to eat appropriate commercial products.”
She says the health of the cat can also be a factor: “For many of our cases with more than one disease condition, there may not be a commercial option that incorporates all of the strategies we need.”
Larsen acknowledges that the owner may not even necessarily want to make homemade cat food, but may not have a choice. Especially when it might be the best way to meet the cat’s nutritional needs.
Some owners are interested in making their own cat food because they believe it’s cheaper than buying premade cat food, but Larsen says that that’s not necessarily true. “Homemade diets often cost more.” And, Larsen says, people don’t always consider the food storage and time resources necessary to make cat food at home.
“The exact cost depends, of course, on the exact ingredients used and which commercial products you are comparing,” Larsen adds.
Will these online recipes actively harm cats? That depends on a number of factors, such as feeding instructions (or lack thereof), how long the cat’s been on the diet, the health of the cat, and the degree of the recipe’s nutritional deficiency. Here’s a sample of the study’s findings:
Some recipes called for raw animal products without mentioning potential risks of bacterial contamination
Some recipes included bones but failed to mention the importance of grinding them to prevent gastrointestinal tears
Alarmingly, 7% of the recipes called for ingredients that are potentially toxic to cats, including onions, leeks, garlic, or garlic powder
Larsen says that if cat owners want to feed their cats a homemade diet, following a nutritionally sound recipe is vital: “I recommend a consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist for a customized formulation.” (See also the 2010 AAHA Nutritional Assessment Guidelines for Dogs and Cats)
This isn’t the first time Larsen and her colleagues have tackled the problem of nutritionally inadequate online pet food recipes. A 2013 study she coauthored found that, of 200 recipes for homemade dog food, only 5 met the nutritional requirement profiles established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials.
Larsen is serious about raising awareness of the potential dangers of generic homemade pet food recipes: “Our goal is to help guide informed decisionmaking for owners when choosing appropriate dietary choices for their pets.”