When talking about cat food, meat should naturally be the first question. What is meat, and what kind of meat could you feed to your cat in what way as part of his or her diet?
The cat is a “true carnivore”. It relies on nutrients from meat which it cannot obtain from plant source or from synthesis in its own body. Millions of years of evolution have shaped the cat into a supreme predator and carnivore that cannot survive without eating meat. Sometimes, this creates a bit of an ethical dilemma for the cat owner.
Meat is animal flesh that is eaten as food. It refers to skeletal muscle and associated fat and other tissues, but it may also describe other edible tissues such as organ meats. Although the domestic cat is by nature a predator of predominantly rodents, flesh from domestic food animals or from animals harvested in the wild can be used to create a substitute for the cat’s natural diet when it is not possible or desirable to allow the cat to hunt its own food – which applies to nearly every cat kept as a companion.
All meat comes from animals which had to be killed to harvest their muscle, fat, tissues and organs as food. Meat cannot be sourced by avoiding this reality. Some people object to the idea of hunting, but the neatly packaged meat ingredients at the supermarket were acquired by killing an animal as well, and often in a much less humane manner. It is wise, alas not always pleasant, to better understand where the meat for our meals and the meat for food for our cat come from.
When making the choice to home-prepare your cat’s food, you are not only taking the responsibility of its quality into your own hands, but also have an opportunity to take responsibility for the source of the meat you use and what you support with your purchase.
We love and deeply care for our cats. As carnivores, our cats must eat meat and this meat comes from animals that die to feed our cats. When making homemade cat food, our love and care should not extend only to our cats, but also to the animals and to the environment that still our hunger. I feel we should not turn away from the reality that our cat’s food is other animals, but support those who acknowledge that animals raised for meat deserve a good live regardless of how short this may be, and that these animals should be raised in harmony with our environment and in a sustainable way.
10 years ago I started farming in order to raise the meat my cats eat myself. As an animal lover and conservationist I have always opposed the idea of factory farming animals. However, I didn’t just want to criticize an industry, but also walk the walk, so to speak.
This past decade has been an extremely insightful one to me, exposing me to the reality of farming, the regulations of the meat industry, the cultural landscape of small scale farming, sustainable agriculture, the destructive consequences of factory farming, the exploitation of livestock, the cruelty of humans towards animals, the emotional complexity of animals we call livestock, the repeated necessity of death, and the idea of “ethical meat”.
Of course, not every cat owner needs to be a farmer. There are plenty of other people who want to be. But with your choices you can support them.
In a perfect world our cats would hunt their own food either as wild-living cats or contributing members of an agrarian community. But it isn’t so. Instead, the majority of today’s cats and dogs consume the food by-products unfit for human consumption from our over-consuming society. They dispose of vast quantities of food waste which is rendered into scientifically developed pet food. I have no doubt that the industry itself helped create our affection for cats and dogs as part of their strategy to dispose of their waste in the most profitable manner.
Recognizing what pet food really is is the first step. Becoming independent from pet food by making your own cat food is the next. Then, understanding where the meat in the supermarket comes from, and making choices accordingly, gives you a powerful voice as consumer that will shape our world – for better or for worse.
I have a unique insight into the matter of meat, and not only because I have made raw cat food as my profession for nearly 20 years. My husband and I also operate a farm that raises cattle, sheep, and chickens, and my husband hunts for meat for our table and to fill the cat food bowl. How meat is raised, how it is killed, how it is processed, and how to feed it to a cat have become every day events in my life. My husband also works part-time at the local not-for-profit abattoir, where he leads a small team of people that does “red meat slaughter” (that would be animals killed for beef, lamb, and goat), where he spends a whole day out of the week with the federal meat inspector from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. All this gives me great familiarity with the circumstances surrounding, and regulations and legislation concerning the production of food animal.
Despite raising animals for meat, we maintain an untouchable high standard of animal welfare and great ethical consideration for our animals. Keeping a carnivore as a companion, which can ethically and for health reasons not be deprived from eating meat, opens many questions. Defending a love for animals while needing to kill them for food remains a great paradox to many, and something I had good reason to contemplate often in the last 20 years. I arrived at the conclusion that love and ethical treatment for all animals is essential, but that killing them for food is natural. Much more concern should be given to the quality of the life these animals have and how they die, regardless of how long they live.
The unique combination of my first hand experience with raising livestock, using wild game as food, and studying the carnivore cat makes me a great advocate for small scale farming, sustainable farming, local foods, slow foods, heritage breeds, on-farm stress free slaughter, understanding animal behavior, and non-trophy hunting. For animal welfare and environmental reasons alone I am a great opponent of factory farming and all the spin-offs from it, which includes the very profitable commercial pet food industry.
A mouse – the cat’s natural food – can be recreated nutritionally by looking at its nutritional make-up of moisture, protein, fat, fiber, minerals, and vitamins, as well as the proportions of meat to organ meats to skin and to bone, but there is ultimately no other meat like mouse meat, and no use in trying to fine something that is “close” to it. Because we can mimic the nutritional composition of what would be the cat’s natural prey, which is the important part, I recommend choosing a meat based on what your cat likes and does well on, and a meat that is easy for you to use in terms of ethical consideration, availability, cost, and preparation.
I really do not believe that chicken and rabbit are the best meat choices for the cat. Others do and they argue that the cat hunts birds and rabbits “in the wild” and that, therefore, chicken and rabbit are more “natural” choices. I cannot agree. The cat is an opportunistic hunter who will pursue a variety of animals as prey, because their movement trigger’s its hunting drive. Although rodents comprise the largest part of the cat’s diet by default, the cat will equally readily try and catch a rabbit, a bird, snakes, lizards, frogs, insects, and bats. Only because the cat can catch these animals itself does not mean their flesh is more suitable for the cat to eat than flesh from animals the cat would not be able to catch itself like cattle, deer, or sheep.
Most commercial chicken meat at the store is “fryers” which are literally a 5-7 week old fast growing chick of a specific hybrid breed. A chick that young of a non-commercial chicken breeds can still sit in the palm of your hand. That is how small a chick would be naturally. I raise the question if birds of this tender age have sufficient nutrient density in the meat and calcium content in the bones to solely sustain a cat. Commercial meat rabbits are also sold as “fryers” and are 8-12 weeks of age, which also happens to be the usual weaning age for domestic bunnies! Meat rabbits are reared very much like commercial egg laying hens are kept, which raises a huge ethical question in my books!
Meat is harvested either from domestic animals, farmed game, or wild game like:
• cattle (beef and veal)
• sheep (lamb and mutton)
• pigs (pork)
• chickens and turkeys
• ducks and geese
• domestic rabbits
• farmed fish
• farmed deer (venison)
• farmed elk
• farmed reindeer
• farmed bison or buffalo
• farmed quail
• farmed pheasant
• farmed squab
• farmed ostrich
• farmed kangaroo
• wild deer
• wild elk
• wild moose
• wild caribou
• wild boar
• wild rabbit and hare
• wild game birds
• wild game fish
This is an incomplete list, because people around the world eat meat from all sorts of animals. This list represents meats most of us are familiar with and which are more or less available to us. Most of these can be used to feed cats. Some are better than others for that purpose. Some should only be given sparingly. Some are safer when feed cooked.
When feeding a cat and making homemade cat food, meat is the primary and most important ingredient. Special care should be applied when selecting it. The cat is not a scavenger or carrion eater and will likely refuse any food that is not fresh. Therefore, meat used for making cat food must be as fresh as possible (e.g. not spoiled), preferably not previously frozen, and is best used raw. Heat processing of meat will destroy or alter most essential nutrients. Feeding cooked meat long term could, therefore, leads to deficiencies and results in poor health.
One of the most important benefits of making your own cat food is that you have choice and control over this primary ingredient in your cat’s food. Guided by your convictions, lifestyle, or your budget you can choose to support organic farmers, raise your own meat, or take advantage of bargains at the supermarket. It is up to you.
Cuts of meat from the grocery store/ super market
Your typical grocery store or supermarket offers a variety of cuts from chicken, turkey, beef, or lamb that you can either grind or cut into small chunks at home or buy already ground. For many years these meats represented the staple for my own cats, and most often I bought the meats already ground to safe on time and effort. When buying ground meats, make sure they are very fresh. Especially turkey meats develop an off-flavour. Also choose leaner ground meats and avoid regular hamburger and sausage meats.
Organic/ specialty meats from the health food store
Health food stores offer a variety of free range, un-medicated meats like beef, buffalo, venison, chicken, turkey, and even emu. These meats are a great choice for your cat, for sustainable farming, and for the planet, but not affordable for everyone or for those with more than one or two cats.
Specialty meats from the meat packer
You can buy the same meats available at health food stores directly from the meat packer or distributor for half the price! However, be prepared to make a lot of cat food at once, because meat packers only sell in larger quantities.
Meat from farmers
This is a great way to buy the best quality meat for your family and your cat. Buy a half side of beef or lamb, have it cut and wrapped, and stash it in your chest freezer for a year supply of meat for everyone! Chicken and Turkey can be bought this way, too, but still need to be de-boned.
Meat raised on our own farm
Yes … I chose to live in the country, on a small farm, where we can raise our own animals for butcher. It is a lifestyle that takes a lot of work and is not likely one you choose just for your cat (although your cat would probably love it). It made the list, because it is an option. It appears that a number of people in North America are drawn back to the farming tradition … if only as a hobby.
Meat from hunting
Hunting is a highly regulated recreational activity with deep roots and lots of tradition. Today it goes hand in hand with governmental conservation efforts and population control. Hunters cannot go out any time of the year and shoot whatever moves. If your family or a friend hunts, meat from deer, elk, moose, and goat makes great food for your cat. Do not feed meat from predatory animals like bear to your cat to prevent infecting your cat with parasites.
Why not? Thousands of deer, elk, and moose die on our roads from collisions with vehicles every year. If the carcass does not end up in the ditch, it is picked up by the highway maintenance crew and dumped in the woods or carted to the rendering plant. When driving on the road, especially at night, it is not difficult to spot a recent casualty. If you are a practical person why not utilize this resource? To this day I have an agreement with our local highway maintenance crew from whom we received all fresh road kill deer.
Organic vs Supermarket meats
Whether you buy organic, free range, un-medicated, grass-fed, backyard farmed, or factory farmed meat is your choice made based on ethical, environmental, or financial factors.
Organic, free range, un-medicated, grass-fed, or backyard farmed meat will not likely contain residual growth hormones or antibiotics, but will not necessarily be a lower risk for bacterial contamination. However, I would like to urge anyone to support organic, alternative, or backyard farming for reasons of humane treatment of farm animals, sustainability, for the environment, and our future as a whole.
Meat from animals that have been raised outdoors in a natural environment and have been eating grass are healthier. For example, the fatty acid profile of their meat is very different and in favour of a better balance of Omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids when compared with meat from animals that have been “finished” on grain and soy.
If you can not find or afford these meats, however, you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water. Feeding your cat a raw meat homemade diet with meats you purchase at the supermarket is going to be far superior and healthier for your cat and the planet, than sticking to commercial pet food – the majority of which is manufactured using the worst bits and pieces left over from factory farming. Organic commercial kibble or organic canned pet foods are not better, in my opinion, to a raw meat homemade food using FRESH supermarket meat intended for you and your children. I don’t mean to advocate factory farming, but to keep things in perspective. Livestock intended for slaughter must go through a withdrawal period to allow hormones, antibiotics, and other medication to be flushed out of the body. Residuals are, however, a reality with meats from animals treated and raised with medication, antibiotics (often used as growth stimulant), and growth hormones.
Pet food manufacturers are making a killing (no pun intended) by hauling away another industry’s garbage. As long as you are buying commercial pet food, you are supporting factory farming by allowing them to not only make a profit on their products, but also on their by-products (garbage).
If humans ate far less meat, supported humane, sustainable, local farming, and fed more fresh meat to their cats and dogs, we would not spend more money, but eliminate most cruelty to farm animals, protect the environment and our natural resources, and give everyone a better future.
Meat chunks, ground meat, bone-in meats
All meats may be served ground or chopped into small cubes. Some meats can be fed with “bones in”, meaning that they can be ground with the bones, like chicken and rabbit. You will be hard pressed to run a sheep or cow through the counter top grinder, however, and the absent bone content in these meats can be substituted with addition of an edible bone meal or other calcium source. The recipes on this site will outline directions, and when using a TCfeline premix, a bone substitute and calcium supplement is already included. Red meats like beef, lamb, venison and alike should not be avoided for lack of *real* bone. In fact, red meats are far more nutritious for cats than white meats. In addition, not all cats enjoy the gritty texture of meats ground with bone, and may refuse the raw food altogether because of it. Ultimately, feeding a variety of meats to your cat is recommended. This provides stimulation, prevents fixation, and guarantees a well-balanced meal plan.
Leaner meats are preferred over very fatty meats like regular ground hamburger, chicken with skin, or ground lamb. A high fat content in meat disturbs the proper digestion of the food. However, meat that is too lean like skinless breast meat from chicken and turkey is not a good choice for your cat long term either, causing a deficiency in essential fatty acids (Omega 6). Feeding lean meats only for a long period of time may leave your cat being hungry all the time and the fur may no longer be glossy.
If possible, choose liver from the same type of animal as the meat used in preparing your cat’s food, like using chicken liver with chicken meat and beef liver with beef meat. It has been observed that combining different types of meats and livers in the same meal can lead to indigestion. However, if you cannot match up meat and liver, please don’t omit the liver altogether. Liver is an essential part of your cat’s diet. Instead, prepare your cat’s food with miss-match meat and liver. If your cat does not regurgitate her food, it is perfectly safe to continue feeding the miss-matched meal.