If it were fending for itself in the wild, a cat’s diet would consist mainly of small rodents such as mice, voles, and shrews – plus the odd bird. Cats are obligate carnivores which basically means they are obliged to eat protein obtained from meat to survive.
Today’s cats can and will eat many types of food but the safest diet to offer them is a high-quality, protein-based, commercial cat food. You can feed cats homemade food but must ensure it contains a balance of all the vitamins and minerals they require to stay healthy.
A quick history of the cat diet
Early cats lived around farms where grain was stored because these were places of temptation for rodents. Cats had a ready supply of prey and people were happy that cats kept rodent numbers down.
Then cats became purely pets who were not expected to hunt their own dinner. Before commercial cat food became available, people fed cats offcuts of fat and gristle and table scraps.
James Spratt is accredited with inventing dog food in 1860 but food specifically for cats came along a little later. By the 1930s canned cat food was gaining popularity. Today there are hundreds of sachets, cans and dry food varieties on the market.
Can my cat eat that?
We’re often asked if cats can eat specific foods. Here are answers to the most popular ‘Can my cat eat that?’ questions:
Cats and milk have a long association and many people like to offer it to them as a treat.
Though kittens can drink milk until they are weaned, as soon as they stop suckling, they lose their ability to digest a sugar within it known as lactose.
If weaned kittens or adult cats drink milk, the lactose content can cause digestive upset, resulting in vomiting and diarrhea. Their reaction can depend on the amount they consume.
Cats are naturally lactose intolerant because they stop producing the enzyme lactase that breaks down lactose as they mature. To be safe, it’s best not to offer them any milk.
Chocolate can be deadly to cats if they eat enough of it. They aren’t generally attracted to chocolate but can be persuaded to eat it by well-meaning owners thinking it’s OK as a little treat.
The culprit in chocolate is theobromine, a naturally occurring ingredient in cocoa beans. Humans can metabolize it but cats can’t. If a cat eats chocolate, the theobromine content can result in sickness, diarrhea, increased, heart rate, seizure, coma, and death.
Dark chocolate is worse than milk chocolate as it has a higher cocoa content. Just 1 ounce (28 g) of dark chocolate contains approximately 200 mg of theobromine and 1 ounce of milk chocolate contains about 60 mg.
It only takes 144 mg of theobromine for an 8-pound cat to suffer severe or life-threatening symptoms, the amount in 2.4 oz (68 g) of milk, or just 0.7 ounces (20 g) of dark chocolate.
Basically, it’s best to avoid giving cats anything that contains some form of cocoa bean.
A cat can get away with eating a little dog food now and then but it should not have it in place of a balanced cat-friendly diet. In a multi-pet household, it’s not uncommon for a cat to eat dog food now and then.
Cats and dogs have different nutritional requirements therefore dog food is not suitable for a cat long-term. If you run out of cat food, one portion of dog food won’t harm it.
Cats can eat small amounts of cheese without ill-effect. It does contain lactose but far less than milk. If you give your cat cheese and it invokes a bout of vomiting and diarrhea, don’t give it cheese again.
If you find cheese is an ideal way of getting your cat to swallow medication, I wouldn’t fret about continuing. Hard cheese like cheddar has the lowest lactose content therefore is the best choice.
Bananas aren’t harmful to cats but they are not a food they would naturally eat. They can be a good source of vitamins but bananas do not contain anything that can’t be obtained from a balanced diet specifically prepared for cats.
If your cat likes banana, a small piece is unlikely to cause any harm but in reality, you are far better offering it a protein-based treat such as a morsel of chicken or turkey.
The biggest problem with giving cats fruit such as banana is it’s high in natural sugars which are likely to add to dental decay problems which cats are prone to as their teeth are notoriously difficult to clean.
A small amount of rice can be offered to cats with digestive issues. They should generally eat bland food at such times and a little white rice mixed with white fish is an ideal plain diet. Ensure the rice is thoroughly cooked so your cat can easily digest it.
Cats can also eat brown rice though it needs to be cooked longer than white. That said, neither type of rice holds any nutritional value for cats, it isn’t something they would naturally eat and so is best excluded from the daily diet of a healthy cat.
While cats, don’t need vegetables in their diet, they can eat carrots as a treat but they must be cooked thoroughly. Small chunks of raw carrot are a choking hazard as cats tend to gulp food down without chewing it.
Although carrots are healthy enough for cats to eat, they are not so easy on their teeth. Like other vegetables, carrots have a natural sugar content which, over time, can lead to tooth decay in cats.
Many cats love eggs and they can quite safely eat them as long as they are thoroughly cooked. Eggs are a super source of protein and amino acids for cats, easily digestible, and perfect to aid muscle maintenance.
Serve your cat eggs either hard-boiled or scrambled but never with a runny yolk and certainly not raw.
If a cat eats a raw egg, it can be at risk of contracting salmonella, E-coli, or similar bacteria. Having had a cat that contracted Salmonella, I can tell you these pathogens are dangerous and life-threatening.
Though eggs are considered a superfood, close to nutritionally complete, they are not the perfect daily meal for a cat. Cats should have proper cat food and the occasional egg as a treat, maybe 2 to 3 times per week.
Occasionally cats can have egg allergies so start with a small serving and watch for any adverse reactions such as vomiting and diarrhea before offering a full portion.
Cats can eat raw meat, chicken included. Their natural diet was, after all, freshly caught rodents and birds. There are, however, risks involved with giving cats raw chicken which you need to take into consideration.
- You must know the source. Your raw chicken must be from a disease-free bird and be very fresh.
- Clean off surface bacteria. Thoroughly wash raw chicken before offering it to your cat.
- Avoid minced raw chicken. It’s impossible to wash surface bacteria from mince as it has been thoroughly mixed in. It is also unlikely to be as fresh.
- Remove all bones. Though raw bones are safer than cooked bones because they are not as brittle, chicken bones can still splinter into needle-like shards and cause untold damage to a cat’s innards.
Preparing your own raw chicken can be tricky so if you really want to try raw feeding, you might prefer to buy good quality frozen raw cat food to store in your freezer and safely defrost as you need it.
Cats don’t need carbohydrates such as bread in their daily diet. Yes, they can eat it and it won’t cause any harm in small amounts, but it’s not advisable to give it to them regularly.
What cats should eat
There are five components of a healthy cat diet:
- Protein from meat and fish
- Fats naturally present in meat and fish
- Fatty acids including omega-3 and omega-6
- Vitamins A, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid), B12 (cobalamin), D, E, K, choline & inositol, niacin
- Minerals including calcium, chloride, iron, magnesium, potassium, and sodium
- Plenty of fresh water
You’ll notice carbohydrates are not on the list. They are not a natural component of a cat’s diet though some foods do include them. Pregnant and nursing cats are sometimes given extra carbohydrates for energy.
How to give a cat all it needs
By far the easiest way to ensure a cat get a well-balanced, healthy diet is to buy good-quality ready made cat food.
This generally comes in 3 forms:
- Frozen raw
Not all cat food is created equal. Look for high protein, grain free varieties. If you choose kibble, size matters. Larger pieces help to keep an adult cats teeth clean.
Bear in mind that kibble is high-calorie so be sure to give your cat the manufacturers recommended portion for its weight. This will be surprisingly lower in quantity than wet food.
Making your own cat food
This can be very satisfying as you know exactly what your cat is eating. Once you find a recipe that contains the correct balance of protein, vitamins and minerals you’re away.
Of course, cats are notoriously picky so you may have to play around with allowed added ingredients to suit your cat’s tastes.
Making sure vitamins and minerals are provided
Make sure you vary the meat you give your cat as different types have different levels of vitamins. A good variety will provide a balance of vitamins.
A variety of meats will provide enough vitamin A, some B vitamins, and vitamin K.
Salmon, tuna, and egg yolk contain vitamin D so providing a little of any one of these each day will add that vitamin. Cats don’t manufacture their own vitamin D in the sun like we do.
Vitamin E is present in animal fat so including some fatty meat will make sure your cat gets some of its vitamin E requirement.
Fish, beef, poultry, and egg provide niacin, choline & inositol.
Homemade cat food can be deficient in calcium because of the lack of crushed bones. The ideal calcium supplement is eggshell powder.
You can make your own, if you have a regular supply of eggshells, by thoroughly rinsing them, baking them for 10 minutes at 300⁰ F, and then grinding them down to a powder. Then add about half a teaspoon per pound of meat.
Supplementing homemade cat food
Because homemade cat food does not contain all the elements of prey that would naturally provide a cat a fully balanced diet, the following supplements are recommended:
What can cats eat? – Conclusion
The best food for cats to eat is a good quality protein-rich cat food. You can make cat food at home but it is essential to follow a balanced recipe and use the recommended supplements.
Cats definitely should not eat chocolate, and really don’t need to eat many other foods designed for human consumption including cheese, bananas, carrots, and bread.
Your cat’s diet really is the key to a healthy, happy and long life – make it count!