Obesity and behavioral problems are common in cats, and are often tied to not only how much they eat, but how they are fed, according to a 2020 study. One of the key principles the researchers recommend following when feeding cats is emulating how wild cats eat. This includes a heavy emphasis on meat and fiber and less on carbohydrates.
This article defines what a natural diet can look like for cats and how cat owners can support it.
Defining a Natural Diet for Cats
Cats are obligate carnivores; their gastrointestinal tracts and metabolisms have adapted to eating meat. Because of this, cats require high-protein diets. Beyond a large amount of protein, cats also require fiber, which can come from high-quality protein sources like cooked poultry, beef, and fish. While cats do require carbohydrates in their diet, they need fewer carbs than their canine counterparts.
Fulfilling Your Cat’s Natural Instinct To Hunt for Food
Both domestic house cats and cats living freely outdoors are highly skilled predators. Hunting is part of their natural instinct, so supporting this at home is vital to a cat’s well-being. Here are some ways you can support your cat’s natural desire to hunt:
A cat’s predatory instinct doesn't ever go away, so it’s important to provide enrichment opportunities to tap into these instincts. You can do this by providing outdoor spaces — like catios — that allow your cat to watch what’s happening without being directly involved. Other enrichment items can include vertical spaces, like perches and cat towers that look out a window.
Food puzzles can be especially beneficial for cats to support their hunting instinct. There are food puzzle toys you can purchase online, or you can simply hide your cat’s favorite treats in strategic places around your home that you know your cat will find in a timely manner. If you take this route, just be cautious if you hide treats in a basement or area prone to mice, ants, or other home-invading critters.
Playtime Before Mealtime
To help fulfill your cat’s predatory instinct, make playtime before mealtime a regular occurrence in your house. This practice helps establish a hunt-then-eat pattern. The added exercise can also be a great way to support a schedule with your cat because, like many pets, cats are creatures of habit and thrive with a routine.
Cats Are Natural Hunters, but Keep a Close Eye on What They Hunt
If your house cat roams outside, watch what they’re hunting. If you live in a more rural or forested area, your cat may hunt all sorts of things: birds, small mammals, and even reptiles. Unfortunately, the assumption that a well-fed cat doesn’t hunt is a myth. There is an innate instinct that takes over and can cause your sweet, cuddly feline friend to tap into their lizard brain.
Beyond threatening wildlife, cats can also put themselves in danger by getting their paws on an animal with a disease. Mice are one of the most common perpetrators who can carry diseases that can be transferred to cats. Some diseases include fleas, Bartonella, internal parasites like toxoplasmosis, and cat scratch fever.
Lastly, if your cat is roaming outside and hunting, there is a chance — especially in larger cities — that they can get into pesticides used to kill mice or rats. These chemicals can make your cat very ill. If your cat loves the outdoors, keep an eye on them and ensure they are up to date on their vaccines.
Foods To Avoid To Ensure a Natural Diet for Your Cat
Beyond supporting a cat’s diet instinctually through hunting behavior, the actual ingredients in their food are deeply important to supporting a cat’s natural way of eating. Avoid things like processed ingredients, fillers, lots of carbs, and dairy.
Similar to the effect processed foods have on humans, they also can negatively impact cats. The issue with processed foods is that they aggravate chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation in cats can cause ailments like diabetes, arthritis, kidney disease, heart disease, and even cancer. Because processed foods have a wide range of side effects, it’s best to keep them out of your cat’s diet as much as possible.
When evaluating cat food to support your feline friend’s natural diet, avoiding fillers like soy, wheat, and corn is best. Many big-name pet food brands use starchy fillers in cat foods to enhance flavor or provide bulk. But, as mentioned before, too many carbohydrates are not great for cats. Not only this, but soy, corn, and wheat fillers all have the potential to cause allergies or sensitivities in your cat. Food allergies could appear in your cat as chronic, excessive itching with subsequent hair loss, gastrointestinal upset like vomiting or diarrhea, or itching around the rectum.
Foods High in Carbohydrates
Domestic and wild cats need carbohydrates in their diets, but in limited amounts. A low-carb diet for cats contains about 10% to 15% carbohydrates, and is similar to what they’d consume in the wild. Experts recommend that no more than 30% of your cat’s diet comes from carbohydrates.
Most cats are lactose intolerant, so their digestive systems can’t process dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt. Dairy is not toxic to cats, but eating too much of it can lead to stomach upset. Additionally, dairy simply doesn’t provide the necessary nutrients cats require, so it is essentially just unnecessary calories, which can lead to weight gain.
Benefits of a Natural Diet
Whether your cat is still a kitten in their prime growing years or a senior cat set in their ways, a natural diet free of harmful preservatives can help support digestion, better overall wellness, and reduce the risk of other health issues. Let's dive into these benefits in greater detail.
Digestive issues are common among cats, but the specific GI problems vary greatly from cat to cat. GI issues can include acute gastroenteritis, colitis, diarrhea, and constipation, just to name a few. Even the mildest of digestive upsets can impact your cat’s quality of life. One way to support their digestive health is to feed them a natural diet without excessive carbohydrates or processed fillers.
If your cat has a particularly finicky stomach, you can consider cat food with added probiotics — or offer small amounts of human food that can soothe their stomach (like cucumbers).
Regulated Energy Levels
Humans feel better when we eat nourishing foods that don’t upset our stomachs. The same goes for our feline friends. A clean, balanced diet filled with high-quality ingredients that include essential enzymes, fatty acids, and essential amino acids will keep your cat energized.
Reduced Risk of Health Issues
One of the largest health issues house cats face is obesity. In fact, in North America, almost 60% of all domestic cats are overweight. Further, obesity can shorten a cat’s life and increase their chances of developing other diseases.
Most often, obesity in cats results from diet, activity level, or both. One way to address diet is to switch to a diet rich in quality natural ingredients, like high-quality animal protein (think muscle meat and organ meat rather than bone meals and meat by-products). Additionally, a balanced diet for cats should have limited amounts of healthy carbs and vegetables. Like humans, a healthy body weight can often decrease the risk of other health issues like diabetes, heart disease, and joint diseases.
Best Practices for Supporting a Natural Diet for Your Cat
Here are some best practices you can implement to make the transition to natural foods smoother — for you and your cat.
Opt for Wet Food (Or Add Extra Hydration to Dry Food)
Wet food is often a great choice for cats because it has a much higher water content, which is great for a cat’s digestion. Additionally, wet food can be more tasty and enticing if you have a picky eater on your hands. One thing to keep in mind: Commercial wet cat food can still have a sneakily high amount of fillers and additives, so be sure to check the label before purchasing.
If you prefer a dry food for convenience, we recommend adding additional hydration on top of their food – which can come in the form of water or added hydration boosters like bone broth or Instant Goat’s Milk that add both moisture and other healthy benefits into their diet.
Understand That Nutritional Requirements Vary Over Time
Another thing to remember when supporting your cat’s natural diet is the nutritional variations required throughout your cat’s life stages. For example, a kitten requires different nutrients than an adult cat, such as the amount of calcium. Kittens require more calcium in their diet since they are still growing and their bones are forming.
When it comes to older cats who are less active, they typically don’t need as calorie-dense diets as middle-aged active cats. When in doubt about your cat’s nutritional needs across their lifespan, check in with your vet or veterinary nutritionist, who can guide you toward an age-appropriate diet for your cat.
Avoid Free Feeding
As mentioned above, obesity in house cats is a real issue. Another cause of obesity is free feeding. This is the practice of leaving dry food out at all hours of the day, which allows your cat to graze. This may sound like a good idea in theory, but in practice, free feeding makes it harder to monitor your cat’s food intake — and in some cases, can cause a slower metabolism. Instead of free feeding, try to feed your cat twice per day, and be sure to discard any unfinished food.
Look for a Quality Human Grade Cat Food
The last tip to support your cat’s natural diet is to switch them to human grade cat or kitten food. A high-quality human grade cat food (like that offered by The Honest Kitchen) is the cleanest, most nutrient-dense ready-made cat food option available.
The standards for human grade cat food production are extremely high; to even call a pet food “human grade,” the food needs to be made in a facility for human food and meet the same standards as food manufactured for human consumption at every stage of the process.
Support Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs With the Honest Kitchen
At The Honest Kitchen, we put feline health and nutrition at the forefront of all of our cat foods. Our human grade cat food line includes wet, dry and dehydrated cat food as well as an array of treats, toppers and hydration supplements. There's an option for even the pickiest cats! Explore The Honest Kitchen today.