Cats are one of nature's most majestic predators. If you've ever watched them stalking a bird, or a mouse, or a bug, or a particularly interesting bit of fuzz, or your toes under the covers, or seemingly nothing at all, you know how powerful they can be. They're sleek, they're focused, they're accurate, and they're shockingly effective.
At least, that is, when they aren't in playtime mode, just hunting for the joy of hunting, and they aren't making mistakes, slipping on the hardwood, sliding into walls, or missing the mark entirely.
Alright, so our fur babies aren't always the ferocious predators they were when they first evolved. But that's okay! We love them and pamper them just the same. They no longer need to hunt for their very survival every day.
Of course, this really makes you think. Are they losing out or missing something?
As it stands right now, our fur babies don't need to hunt for food, but that doesn't mean they're satisfied with what they get. When we buy food off the shelves, whether it's dry food or canned wet food, we do our best to make sure they're getting what they need.
The trouble is, all too often, these foods aren't quite right. They may have fillers in them that your cat can't quite digest or that they digest but aren't really very healthy for them. That's not even considering the issues with contaminated foods or foods where the manufacturers cut corners. We're talking about the higher-quality foods here.
In fact, two of the most common diseases our feline friends suffer from today are linked to their diets.
Obesity. It's easy to over-feed and over-eat, and cats – who aren't used to the fillers and additives in the foods, the caloric density, and the ingredients themselves – put on more weight than they would in nature. Moreover, without needing to hunt for it, they don't necessarily burn as many of those calories, so they build up and lead to an overweight feline. Sadly, as funny and adorable as a chonker is, it's not healthy or good for them.
Diabetes mellitus. Diabetes is a problem with processing blood sugar, and it's an epidemic amongst many different species, including both people and cats. Cats are obligate carnivores – they have to eat meat to survive – and that means they're more susceptible to fillers and carbohydrates in their food causing problems with insulin, leading to diabetes.
Since these diseases are so tied to diet and they're so common, vets and scientists have been spending a lot of time studying how cats eat naturally to see if there are ways we can improve their diets to help eliminate the risk of these diseases.
"Carbohydrate levels in commercial diets are often much too high. Cats have not evolved to digest high amounts of starches, only obtaining a small amount of partially digested matter from the stomach contents of their prey. They have insufficient enzymes in their saliva and pancreas glands to process these complex sugars, and will often overeat, leading to a multitude of problems." – NP Vet Group.
What Natural Feeding Isn't
Natural feeding is a response to the artificial diets we've been feeding cats as a society for decades, but there can be some misconceptions around the name. So, first, let's talk a bit about what natural feeding isn't before we get into what it is.
Some people think that natural feeding involves buying prey animals to let your cat hunt and eat on their own. People buy "pinkies" for snakes and lizards, after all. Isn't it the same sort of thing for cats?
Well, not really. For one thing, pinkies – which are baby mice, named such because they don't even have fur yet – are already dead. Cats hunt things that are alive and moving and aren't going to put much effort into or have much interest in already dead food. They'll eat it if they have to, but it's not the kind of natural hunting you might think of when you think of a cat stalking prey.
There are also the ethical considerations. Most people don't think twice about the source of the ingredients in their cat's food, but when you're buying animals to feed to your cat, the abstraction is removed, and you see it in front of you, and it might not feel very good. Of course, imposing human ethics on nature isn't always a good idea. That's how you end up with bad cat parents forcing their felines to go vegan, and that's a terrible idea.
Fortunately, natural feeding doesn't actually involve hunting at all. It's all about what you feed, not how you feed.
Besides, natural hunting for cats is also full of risks.
Prey can fight back. Birds have beaks and talons, rodents can bite and scratch, and insects can sting. Every hunt is a risk, and cats in the wild are routinely injured in the hunt. Even small injuries can result in infections as well. Obviously, we don't want that for our domestic felines.
Prey can carry diseases and parasites. While you wouldn't get this if you were buying food-bred prey animals for your cat, cats in the wild are always at risk of eating something that gives them worms, fleas, or another disease.
Luckily, this isn't what we mean when we talk about natural feeding at all.
Natural feeding also doesn’t automatically mean raw feeding, though it is an option. We’ll get into that more later.
How Natural Feeding for Cats Works
Natural feeding is all about coming up with a diet that most closely mimics what a cat needs to be healthy, based on two things: habits and content.
Habits mean how they eat. We humans tend to eat 2-3 big meals in a day, or one big meal and snacks throughout the day. That's not necessarily natural; as hunter-gatherers, we likely foraged and ate small amounts throughout the day, with "big meals" being a rarity.
While cats often live in colonies, they are solo hunters, and they are used to having a warm meal.
They also tend to hunt whenever the opportunity strikes, and since their prey is small, they frequently need to hunt multiple times in a day. Hunts also fail, and the prey gets away. Combined, this means that cats are similar in that they would eat smaller, more frequent meals than we people usually give them.
Content means what they eat. Cats, being obligate carnivores, get all the nutrients they need from a combination of protein and fat – that is to say, meat. Very little of what they eat involves carbohydrates or dietary fiber, and while they'll certainly chew on grass and plants for both flavor and digestive purposes, it's a very small part of their diet.
"One study looked at how feral cats get their food. It showed that a "typical" feral cat will kill and eat approximately nine mice throughout the day, with a number of unsuccessful hunts scattered in as well. Another paper revealed that feral cats got 52% of their calories from protein and 46% from fat, which only leaves 2% available to come from carbohydrates.
So, left to their own devices, cats will eat multiple small meals throughout the day that are high in protein, high in fat, and low in carbohydrates. But that's not all. These cats have to work to get their food. Their behavior is characterized by periods of rest broken up by short bursts of relatively intense activity." - PetMD.
Another part of feeding, water consumption. While cats in the wild get most of their water content from the food they eat, when they do drink, they naturally avoid stagnant water to avoid illness. The moving water that they choose is not confined to a small bowl, which for some cats can cause whisker fatigue.
So, natural feeding means feeding your cat smaller, more frequent meals and making sure the food they eat is nutritionally balanced for their needs. You want a food that's high in protein, moderately high in fat, and very low in carbohydrates.
You have two options here: you can make your own cat food, or you can buy a food designed with natural feeding in mind. Even "good" commercial cat foods tend to be higher in carbohydrates than a cat should really have, though, so it can be tricky to find something good for your furry friend. Wet food is also preferable because cats get a lot of their water requirements from it and might not drink enough if they primarily eat kibble and dry foods.
Key Takeaways for Naturally Feeding Your Cat
Provide smaller, more frequent meals
Feed a high meat-based protein, moderate fat, and low carbohydrate food
Serve the meal slightly warmed
Have a good play session before each meal
Provide a water fountain for fresh moving water
Building a Healthy Natural Feeding Meal
Odds are you have a job and maybe a family to tend to, so becoming a servant to your cat (well more than you already are) can be a challenge.
If you have the time and financial means you may want to consider switching from a traditional canned wet food to a raw or homemade diet. Natural feeding isn’t an all or nothing concept, you can always make small changes to your feeding process.
Given a cat’s need for a high protein diet, I don’t recommend feeding dry food, though it can be a great option to use as a treat since it’s lower in calories compared to traditional treats.
Raw and Homemade Diets
Unsurprisingly, a lot goes into a healthy diet for your fur baby. Unfortunately, many people think meat is meat and assume a ground chicken, turkey, or beef from the grocery store is going to be good enough. Even store-bought fish isn't good enough on its own.
"Many people mistake raw pet meats and minces available from their supermarket or pet shop as being a complete food. This is often not the case, with many just being minced muscle meat only, severely lacking in the important minerals and vitamins required to keep a cat healthy. This puts your cat at risk of developing nutritional diseases. Some pet minces also contain sulphur-based preservatives, which not only have been linked to asthma in cats but also inactivate some important B vitamins. Fish also contains some enzymes which can reduce the availability of essential thiamine in the diet." – NP Vet Group.
So, what do you do?
Rotate through different meats throughout the week. Chicken and fish are both good options and for a third, you might consider locating a source of something like rabbit or even a "pest" meat like possum or a rodent. If you can't find it, that's fine, but you'll want to keep to a lower amount of beef or pork than you would the meats your cat would be more likely to encounter in the wild.
See if you can source whole meats instead of just muscle meats.A working relationship with a butcher can be great here. Your goal would be to get ground meat that has calcium from ground bones in it and nutrient-rich marrow as well. You won't find this for human consumption, though.
Get your cat started on raw "meaty bones" occasionally.The two most common and useful here are chicken wings and chicken necks. The bones are just the right size that your cat can strip the meat off them without risking hurting themselves chewing on the bones, and raw bones aren't as splintery or prone to danger as cooked bones.
Add in some organ meat from time to time.Heart meat is great for cats – it's high in taurine, a nutrient cats need to live. Liver, meanwhile, can be dangerous in high amounts, so only give your cat a little bit at a time.
Make your cat food regularly. Keeping it frozen for too long reduces its nutrient profile, particularly in vitamins.
Don't leave food out for long. Meat goes bad, obviously, and you don't want to have a bowl of rotting meat sitting around.
Avoid meats with preservatives, especially if you're starting with ground meats or minces. It can be worthwhile to invest in a food processor or meat grinder yourself instead.
Add in supplements or meal completers. It’s incredibly important to ensure your kitty is getting all of the nutrients necessary to keep their body operating in optimal form, so if their raw diet is lacking in any area, be sure to supplement their food. Some common supplements include, vitamin E, fiber, omega 3, and taurine.
WARNING: Feeding a raw diet can introduce harmful bacteria into your household including, but not limited to salmonella and listeria. If you opt to feed a raw diet to your kitty, ensure you practice impeccable food safety practices when handling all meat. You’ll also want to ensure you only purchase high quality, fresh meat, as bacteria and germs can flourish in uncooked meat.
Commercially Prepared Diets
I’m including this section, because as I noted above, a natural diet doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
If you’re currently feeding dry only, add wet food into the mix, or if you can, transition primarily or fully to wet food.
Canned wet foods come in many different levels of quality, so before picking one it’s important to read the label. Remember you’re looking for a wet food that is primarily animal protein based, which means at the very least, the first ingredient should be an animal source.
There are also some freshly prepared cooked options available through mail order. These meals are a great alternative if you don’t have time to make a homemade diet as they already include the necessary nutrients to ensure your kitty is getting a balanced diet.
Fresh meals also tend to be made in small batches right here in the US but be sure to learn about the quality and source of the ingredients.
Above all, though, make sure you talk to a vet about this potential dietary shift. Some cats, especially older cats with health issues or a predilection for them, may need special care when shifting to a natural feeding diet. Others may need special supplements or medications to help keep them healthy, particularly those who normally eat special formulated foods.
Natural feeding can be a great way to keep a cat happier and healthier and give them a longer and more fulfilling life. So, if you're interested in learning more about natural feeding diets, there are plenty of resources available. And if you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer (https://www.amazon.com/author/kmariealto), and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 45K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).