How Healthy Is Commercial Cat Food

and What Is the Alternative?

by Joelle Steele

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What do you feed your cat? Cat food? Of course. Most of us feed our cats commercially prepared foods specially formulated to meet their nutritional needs. But, sometimes commercial food products have things in them that we don't want our cats to have such as colorings and preservatives. In some cases, our cats may have negative or allergic reactions to such additives or even to the foods themselves. Those reactions may manifest as skin conditions, obesity, nervous disorders, colitis, feline urinary syndrome, etc. Or, they may exacerbate an already existing medical condition.

I was concerned about the information I was hearing about cat food. I wanted to eliminate all the preservatives and colorants found in commercial cat food. I decided to investigate various kinds of feline diets.


I started by investigating vegetarian diets for cats because I had been a vegetarian for 22 years, a vegan for nine of those years. I came across a book by Barbara Lynn Peden called "Dogs and Cats Go Vegetarian," in which Peden described her worldwide research into the feasibility of non-flesh feline diets and the discoveries she made which resulted in her belief that complete vegan diets were possible for cats. But other experts clearly opposed a strictly vegetarian diet for cats.

According to Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, in his book, Dr. Pitcairn's "Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats" (co-authored with Susan Hubble Pitcairn), "Cats cannot convert the carotene found in vegetables to vitamin A, as can humans and dogs, and so they require a preformed source. They also need a preformed source of arachidonic acid. Both of these requirements are well-supplied by supplementing the diet with cod-liver oil. In addition, felines require an amino acid, taurine, in amounts not present in plant sources."

Vegetarian diets weren't looking so good, and Pitcairn's statement certainly made a strong case for feeding a nutritionally balanced commercial cat food. But what do you get when you buy cat food?


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not dictate any mandatory inspection of the ingredients used in the manufacture of cat food. Some states oversee the canning process for bacteriological safety though this offers no assurance of the safety of dry foods, and all but a couple states allow the use of "4-D" food sources in cat foods. The "D"s are dead, dying, disabled or diseased (most often cancerous) animal tissues which are "slaughterhouse wastes" because they are considered unfit for human consumption.

In his book, Pitcairn quoted federal meat inspector P.F. McGargle, DVM: "Feeding slaughterhouse wastes to animals increases their chance of getting cancer and other degenerative diseases. Those wastes can include moldy, rancid, or spoiled processed meats, as well as tissues too severely riddled with cancer to be eaten by people." McGargle's statements are reinforced by Jim Mason's and Peter Singer's book Animal Factories in which they stated that 15 million pounds of cancerous tissues were produced each year.

Does it all end up in pet food? Hopefully not, and not all cat food manufacturers use 4-D sources.


When eating animal products there are always man-made risks. Eating high on the food chain can be very hazardous to every living being since the birds, fish, and mammals eaten by both people and cats alike contain pesticide residues, in addition to other chemicals and drugs, some of which are known carcinogens or suspected carcinogens. Fish can be among the most hazardous since they have such long food chains themselves and can therefore accumulate higher levels of toxins in their tissues (such as DDT, mercury, and PCBs) than are found in the waters surrounding them. For that reason, eating fish caught in supposedly non-polluted waters may insure that the water is safe, but the same is not necessarily true of the fish.

As for the so-called "healthy" farm animals which are later turned into cat food, they are regularly administered large doses of hormones to stimulate their growth. Cats are extremely sensitive to these hormones, and according to Pitcairn, the chemicals which are used to fatten steers and caponize chickens are considered toxic to cats, even at very low levels.

What else is in commercial cat food?


There are many chemicals in commercial cat foods, even the ones that say they are "all natural." BHT is a preservative that has been associated with liver, metabolic, and fetal disorders. Propyl gallate is a suspected cause of liver damage. Some of the coal tar derivative dyes used to make food look good to humans but which are not even visible to cats, include FD and C Red No. 40 which is a possible carcinogen. Other dyes used in cat food have not even been fully tested. Sodium nitrate, when used in food, can produce carcinogenic nitrosamines. Dr. Pitcairn points out that lead levels in cat food have been found ranging from 0.9 to 7.0 parts per million. Six ounces daily of such foods would be potentially toxic for human children. What effect might it have on smaller life forms such as cats?


If hunting in the wild, vegetarian diets, and commercial pet foods are out, what's left? Well, there's still good old-fashioned home cooking. That will eliminate some of the non-government controlled chemicals that get into cat food but are banned for human consumption. But, the safety of animal flesh for consumption is still a problem. Many humans still eat meat and other animal flesh that is dyed (dead flesh is actually a grayish color, not the juicy reds you see in the packages at the store), and that contains preservatives, hormones, and traces of assorted chemicals and pesticide residues. For those who are vegetarians, most commercially produced eggs and milk products contain the same. For vegans, who do not eat any animal flesh or animal products such as eggs or milk, the risk is decreased considerably, but their diets, though very healthy for them, are still not suitable to the nutritional needs of cats.

But home cooking was looking better all the time in comparison to the alternatives.


Most cats have been known to be more than just a little bit finicky at some time. If making a change in cat foot brands makes your cat turn up his nose, he will probably demonstrate a similar behavior when you first try to introduce him to homemade cat food. But by mixing a little of the fresh stuff in with kibble or canned food will make the change more palatable for both of you.

I tried to feed my cats a vegan diet using Peden's product, Vegecat, but they turned up their noses at it, despite weeks of trying to get them to eat it. So I decided to pursue the homemade diet, and I have been feeding it to my cats for several years. I spent a lot of time studying nutritional needs of domestic cats and coming up with the dietary requirements for their optimum health.

When I first wrote this article, I felt that it was unlikely that I would ever willingly go back to feeding my cats commercial cat food, since they were free from the chemicals I was most concerned about, flesh products aside, that is. But I did in 2008. In late 2015, my cat 14 year-old T'ai started having digestive problems. His blood work was normal but he couldn't keep anything down and he was losing weight, was cold, and stopped grooming himself. I tried cooking for him again, but it was hard for me, so I turned to every expensive gluten-free and grain-free, supposedly better-for-your-cat food I could find. None of them helped him in the least. In the end, I tried Purina's Beyond products, and he had no problem with that food. He has gone from an emaciated 7 pounds to his normal 12 pounds, and is back to normal in all ways.


While not everyone will jump at the idea of cooking for their cat, it is worth a try, especially if you have a cat who is allergic to or sensitive to the ingredients in commercial cat food. I've cooked for my cats for nine years, and two were raised from kittens on my special cat diets. To learn more about how you can cook for your cat, you can purchase my booklet, "Cooking for Fluffy," which contains complete instructions for creating nutritious meals for your cat.

Afterthought: It is important to go to a veterinarian if your cat is having any kind of digestive problems. A change of diet is not always the answer. And no diet that works for one cat will work for every other cat.

This article last updated: 06/21/2016.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.