(GB) Diet guide for domestic dogs and cats
This diet guide may be freely copied and circulated. Tom Lonsdale Veterinary Surgeon
NSW 2756 E-mail: tom (at) rawmeatybones.com; Australia Web:.rawmeatybones.com January 2006 ©
(Australian College of Veterinary Scientists – Science Week 2007 – Small Animal Medicine Chapter meeting)
Feeding cats for health and longevity – an idiosyncratic perspective#
Richard Malik DVSc MVetClinStud PhD FACVSc FASM
Woodgreen, Wombeyan Caves Road, Via Taralga 2580
While most of what I am going to write is based more on common sense and anecdote
than hard evidence (Stogdale, 2004), many of the contentions herein are supported by
recent scientific papers and clinical review articles (see bibliography). In any event I
think it is timely that more common sense was brought to bear on this issue.
I will draw together historical information about how cats have been fed in Australia
since the 1960s and how and why changes in feeding practices have occurred. I will
provide some comments concerning how cats are currently fed in America, and why this
has changed over the last few years. Finally, I will touch on how “big cats” are fed in
captivity, and provide some recommendations for feeding cats at different life stages, in
an Australian setting. Interestingly, feeding practices appear to have been shifted more
as a result of marketing forces, rather than by the recommendations of veterinarians or
independent feline nutritionists.
My opinion has been formulated on the basis of being a veterinarian for over 25 years,
taking into account the things I have seen and read over that time, and also anecdotal
experience with my cats (n=4) and my friends’ and relations’ cats. They are supported
also by the impressions of my senior colleague Dr Victor Menrath.
How cats have been fed in Australia since the 1960’s
During the 1960s and 1970s cats were fed mostly a mixture of table scraps, cheap raw
beef and offal (mainly raw beef heart and liver). Tinned food was all fish and not
commonly fed. Kittens were recommended to be fed strips of raw beef supplemented by
calcium carbonate powder (“1 teaspoon per pound of beef”) plus liver and vitamin A
weekly. Special recipes were recommended for pregnant and lactating queens (Victor
Menrath, personal communication).
Commercial cat food was introduced before I graduated from vet school in 1981.
Commercial canned cat foods (based on meat, meat by-products, offal and/or fish) and
extruded commercial dry food (kibble) were widely available at supermarkets, pet stores
and other outlets. Indeed, the feeding of these alleged “nutritionally complete” foods
was recommended by my lecturers at The University of Sydney. As well, “pet meat and
pet mince” were available through pet stores and supermarkets. It was inexpensive as it
was typically based on kangaroo meat (preserved with sulphites), or other meat or meat
# The views expressed in this paper are my own and not necessarily those of any of the organisations
with which I am affiliated. I have no financial interest in any pet food manufacturer. Address for
Australian College of Veterinary Scientists – Science Week 2007 – Small Animal Medicine Chapter meeting
by-products unsuitable for human consumption, and this is still the case. It should be
emphasised that then and even now, in NSW at least, there is no legislation as to how
pet food should be constituted, or about its safety or hygiene, there is no requirement to
list all the ingredients, or to state whether or not preservatives have been added (Malik
and Sibraa, 2005). This last statement is remarkable, and surely deserves the attention of
the Australian Veterinary Association and the Australian College of Veterinary
Nutritional diseases referable to feeding diets that were not nutritionally “complete” are
still seen today, but less commonly than they apparently were in the 1960s and 1970s.
These include nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (from feeding diets high in
phosphate and low in calcium to skeletally immature kittens) (Watson, 1983)
hypervitaminosis A (when cats are fed a diet rich in liver) (Seawright et al, 1967),
pansteatitis (from a diet high in polyunsaturated fats without sufficient antioxidants e.g.
certain types of fish) (Watson et al, 1973), thiamine deficiency (from sulphur dioxide
in fresh meat treated with sulphite preservatives, fresh fish containing thiaminases or
meat that had been cooked without addition of supplementary thiamine) (Malik &
Sibraa, 2005). Experimentally, it was known that when cats were fed certain
commercial diets, commercial dog food, or vegetarian diets, they would develop retinal
degeneration due to taurine deficiency (Markwell et al, 1995), but this was on the
whole rare because of the large amount of fresh meat typically fed to cats in Australia.
Commercial foods had well known disease associations, although their documentation
took time to be widely accepted. Historically, and drawing from epidemiologic data
from the USA, there seemed to be an association between feeding commercial cat food
and the development of hyperthyroidism. Anecdotally, Vic Menrath’s experience with
hyperthyroidism in Australia prior to the early 1980s was a single cat with a thyroid
adenoma in 1977; in contrast, a substantial percentage of cats 12 to 15 years-of-age
currently have thyroid nodules and often go on to develop hyperthyroidism. Feeding dry
food was strongly associated with the development of feline idiopathic cystitis (known
also as FUS, FLUTD, interstitial cystitis) and urethral obstruction, especially if the ash
content was poorly constituted (Bartges & Kirt, 2006). As an aside, it has been
concerning for me hear from colleagues at Kasetsaart University about the huge
increase in idiopathic cystitis and urinary obstruction in Thailand since the introduction
there of commercial dry cat food in place of table scraps and other rations based on
meat by-products. In the USA, there is currently a marked increase in the number of
oxalate uroliths being diagnosed in cats, not only in the bladder and urethra, but also in
the ureter(s), and there is a consensus that the prevalence of this type of stone has
increased directly as a result of the widespread use of acidifying dry food diets fed in
supermarkets and veterinary clinics across North America, Ironically, these had been
introduced to “promote lower urinary tract health” (Bartges & Kirt, 2006).
Odontoclastic resorptive lesions on teeth were rarely, if ever, seen in the 1960s and
1970s, but this entity became increasingly prevalent in the mid to late 1980s (Reiter &
Mendoza 2002; Victor Menrath, personal communication). Food allergies manifest as
“miliary dermatitis”, eosinophilic granuloma complex and inflammatory bowel disease
were rarely seen in the 1960s and 1970s except when cats were fed fresh or canned fish;
these entities became much more prevalent when commercial canned and dry food were
introduced (Victor Menrath, personal communication).
Australian College of Veterinary Scientists – Science Week 2007 – Small Animal Medicine Chapter meeting
In Australia, until recently, three manufacturers have dominated the supermarket cat
food market – Walthams/Uncle Bens (owned by the Mars Corporation), Friskies
(Nestle/Purina) and Snappy Tom, the latter using predominantly fish by-products. Also
available is fresh meat from a variety of small manufacturers from at pet stores, “pet
barns” and supermarkets; it is inexpensive, accounting for an important portion of the
market, especially in urban areas.
Few papers from academic veterinarians have provided insightful information
about what cats are fed in Australia since 1980 and the implications of these
feeding practices. Although the market is regularly surveyed by organisations such as
the Pet Information and Advisory Service, this information remains “hard to get” as it
used for marketing purposes and coveted by the organisations that paid for its
In the late 1980s and 1990s, “Premium” pet food (predominantly dry food) and
“Prescription diets” became increasingly available in Australia, and were widely
endorsed and sold by veterinarians. Indeed, initially they were generally only available
through veterinary outlets. Hills (owned by Colgate Palmolive), Iams/Eukanuba and
Walthams/Royal Canin are currently the three main players. Nestle Purina had a
transient presence in the 1990s but failed to gain a significant veterinary market share,
although it has remained successful in the premium supermarket division. These dry
foods generally use high quality animal protein, typically in larger proportions than in
less expensive supermarket brands, and contain also a high fat content. They are
exceedingly palatable, produce a small volume stool and are “addictive” for cats. I
believe that these diets have contributed to obesity in cats in North America and
Australia, as people generally fail to follow the feeding recommendations provided
by manufacturers, or even worse, feed them ad libutum throughout the day. Cats
require only small amounts of these diets for maintenance energy requirements – less
than people are accustomed to feeding based on their experience with supermarket
brands. The ration is consumed so quickly and with so much relish that cats do not seem
satiated. Accordingly, they often “complain” vocally, and through their body language,
that they have not received enough food (the Oliver Twist syndrome). Not surprisingly,
cats become conspicuously obese when fed in this manner, with prominent deposition
of adipose tissue in the inguinal region, about the falciform ligament and in the perirenal
region. Ironically, cats are then “prescribed” a “light” ration that is less calorically
The explosion of knowledge in feline medicine of the 1980s and 1990s resulted in the
discovery of important new disease associations. Dilated cardiomyopathy was shown
largely attributable to feeding diets marginally deficient in taurine (Markwell et al,
1995). Upon reflection, it seems to me that the uncommonness of this type of feline
DCM in Australian cats was likely to be attributable to easy access to fresh meat,
fish and animal by-products (all rich in taurine). More recently, the importance of
the protein content of the diet and its glycaemic index has been shown to be of great
importance in relation to obesity, fat metabolism and the predisposition towards
diabetes mellitus. Professor Jacqueline Rand’s group at the University of Queensland is
at the forefront of this research. Cats that become fat, especially when they are fed a
high carbohydydarate ration (with a high glycaemic index), are at risk for developing
Australian College of Veterinary Scientists – Science Week 2007 – Small Animal Medicine Chapter meeting
insulin resistance, glucose toxicity (a.k.a. Islet exhaustion), “transient” and eventually
permanent diabetes mellitus (Zoran, 2002; Hoenig, 2006; Kirk 2006).
Many authorities believe that the feeding of highly palatable, “addictive”, high fat
“premium” cat foods ad libutum to cats in North America accounts for the high
incidence of feline diabetes there. Likewise, many experts believe that there may be an
association between the feeding of these diets and the sporadic development of hepatic
lipidosis should such cats develop intercurrent disease associated with anorexia, for
example pancreatitis. The increasing prevalence of hepatic lipidosis in Australia (Musca
et al, 2006) seems to parallel, perhaps coincidentally, the penetration of the Australian
cat food market with these US-style diets. In my view, obesity contributes also to
degenerative joint disease, because an athletic animal like the cat which jumps and lands
(often onto hard ground, taking most of the weight into the forelimbs) is at much greater
risk for developing osteoarthritis when overweight. As an aside, apart from feeding cats
less food, the best way to avoid obesity is by giving cats an enriched environment,
including lots of “vertical space” (ladders, stairs, climbing poles, “cat castles”) and by
providing them with a feline companion (which is helpful also for out veterinary
business!). Feeding a “light” commercial diet is in no shape or form the answer to a cat
“It just goes to show that when you try to fly against the face of nature, especially with a creature
that has been resistant to selective change for tens of thousands of years, you can expect trouble.” –
Vic Menrath, the first Australian-trained feline specialist
Re-emergence of the view that ‘natural’ foods are necessary for cats in
In the 1990s, Tom Lonsdale, Breck Muir and a variety of like-minded Australian
colleagues helped remind our profession and the general public that cats were obligate
carnivores, and that they did very well when fed more “natural” food such as chicken
wings, chicken drumsticks, lamb shanks, chunks of uncut red meat, and the like
(Lonsdale 2001). Although there was a strong emphasis on “texture” in relation to
periodontal heath, the raw meaty bones fraternity provided cogent arguments that fresh
meat by-products “on the bone”, and containing skin and connective tissues, were also
an important source of varied micronutrients. Food was eaten slowly and with effort,
rather than being gulped down in a short time. Presumably this would result in a less
extreme post-prandial alkaline tide. There is also much more tenacity about possession
of food when natural diets are provided, and there is no doubt that cats seem more
satisfied at the completion of a “natural meal”. Effort extended in chewing, gnawing
and consuming the ration provides exercise for the gums (and indeed for the whole cat).
Importantly, the natural self-cleaning action of stripping the flesh off the bone reduces
tartar accumulation and promotes good gingival and oral cavity hygiene. Even tearing
apart long strips or chunks of meat can achieve this end. This contention was largely
supported by an independent review of the literature commissioned by the Australian
Veterinary Association (Watson, 1994).
It seems that the influence of this clade of veterinarians had an important impact on pet
food manufacturers, worldwide, – some responded with diets designed to require more
chewing (such as Hills T/D™) or with additional products designed to achieve the same
end (e.g. “Greenies”). Interestingly, there has been a recent trend on the North
American feline literature to re-assert the importance of feeding cats as obligate
carnivores – with a requirement for high protein in the ration. Articles like Debra
Zoran’s excellent reviews in JAVMA and the pink pages of Journal of Feline Medicine
and Surgery on “the carnivore connection” testify to a paradigm shift in our thinking in
relation to feline nutrition. It behoves us to remember Niels Pedersen’s notion that cats
are almost subclinically dehydrated even when fed natural diets; feeding a dry ration to
such a species is in my view looking for trouble, as cats are almost insipiently
dehydrated as a matter of course.
“A senior veterinary representative from a multinational pet food corporation looked at me like I’d
gone insane when I told her I fed my cats a 50% raw meat diet and that I didn’t agree with feeding
dry food to cats. On a canned/raw diet my cats can be fed ad libitum, still retain a trim figure and
barely touch the water bowl – as soon as I give them dry they become insatiated, obese little
monsters that are also desperate to drink out of the toilet.” – Dr Carolyn O’Brien, a registered feline
specialist from the University of Melbourne
“Experience of 40 years of practice and tens of thousands of cats tells me that cats on a basically
raw meat diet live longest. Do I have proof? Of course not.” – Assoc Prof Vic Menrath
The increasing role of multinational pet food manufacturers in nutritional
A little spoken of trend in relation to feline nutrition is the influence of multinational
food corporations on the direction of feline nutritional research. The vast majority of
nutritional studies in cats – and dogs for that matter – are conducted by or funded by
corporations such as Walthams, Nestle Purina, Iams and Hills. Although these studies
are often of the highest standard, and conducted by independent researchers of the first
order, concern must arise as to bias entering the scientific literature when as
manufacturers are setting research agendas. These multinational companies expend
considerable effort in providing nutritional information to veterinary students, the
veterinary profession and new cat owners. In my view the information they present is
often commercially driven but cloaked as scientific dogma. Finally, these companies
employ some of the most qualified veterinary internists in the country to espouse the
virtues of their products. Indeed they are subsidizing this meeting, the proceedings these
notes are printed on, and no doubt the current session!
Thus there is an unfortunate entwining of competing interests – commercial and
academic – which has muddied the evolution of knowledge in relation to feline
nutrition. Most veterinary researchers in academia interested in small animal nutrition or
gastroenterology receive substantial grant support from these manufacturers.
Unfortunately, little money is available to support independent nutritional research, as
this is not a priority area for the Australian Research Council, and such research is
inherently expensive because it requires animals to be housed, fed and maintained for
substantial periods of time. For these reasons, little is being done to compare the
nutritional impact of commercial versus natural diets. Consequently, I challenge a
multinational pet food manufacturer to act as an industry partner for a funded
ARC linkage grant to ascertain the health and longevity benefits of feeding a
hybrid commercial/natural diet in comparison to normal commercial cat food!
While the valuable contribution made by pet food manufacturers to our knowledge of
feline nutrition is acknowledged, it behoves us as professionals to ensure that our
expertise is not compromised by too close an association with bodies with commercial
interests in the outcome of our research. Rigorous independent research is the only way
to ensure this.
Teleology and “big cats”
Finally, we need to think a little about the likely natural diet of cats. Without doubt,
through evolution, cats would have eaten predominantly small mammalian prey, such as
mice, rats, field mice, rabbits and the like. Birds and insects would in some situations be
important food sources also, and they certainly are reported to be present in the stomach
contents of feral cats that are killed by commercial shooters. Fish would not be a natural
food item for small cats (except for the specially adapted fishing cat), and neither would
they likely scavenge larger prey such as the ruminant species. Rabbits would provide
for a large meal, followed by a period of rest for digestion. On the other hand, rodents
and small birds would likely be devoured quickly, with the cat moving soon onto the
next “victim”. Small prey would be almost totally consumed – flesh bones, gut and
ingest. Rabbit would be nearly totally consumed, except for part of the pelt and the
head. In contrast, large cats (lions, tigers, leopard, cheetah etc) generally eat
intermittently, feasting on a large carcass that would provide foods requiring digestion
for a substantial period. They would eat meat, bones, guts and their contents, according
to hierarchal considerations.
In zoological gardens and game parks, attempts to feed large cats artificial man-made
diets have resulted in a variety of disease issues, especially in relation to poor
periodontal health resulting in periodontal disease and palatine erosions. Fitch & Fagan
(1982) conducted a survey which revealed that of 20 cheetahs in a wildlife park fed a
formulated diet, 15 (75%) had perforation of the palate by the penetrating action of the
lower molars. In contradistinction, 39 individuals fed animal carcases lacked the disease
condition. Similar observations have been made by others (Shepherdson et al, 1993;
Phillips 1993). These various authors also commented that cheetahs fed “natural diets’
also seemed behaviourally more content, with less stereotypic behaviours such as
pacing. Or stated another way, feeding of natural food would appear to represent a form
of environmental enrichment. Vosburgh et al (1982) made similar observations in
relation to timber wolves. As a result, it is recommended that “big cats” be fed
predominantly “natural food” (Lindburg, 1988). There is no Science Diet for lions and
tigers, and they don’t seem to need a hairball control diet either!
My recommendations for feeding cats
Having provided all this background, the logical question to ask is – how do I think we
should be feeding our domestic cats? Apart from my experience (described above) my
recommendations have been strongly influenced by the writings of Drs Tom Lonsdale,
Ian Billinghurst, Tom Hungerford, Niels Pedersen, Debra Zoran and Dianne Addie.
1. Kittens should be fed largely commercial premium cat food. A combination of
canned food and dry food is ideal. Commercial dry kitten food is calorically dense
and the best way to get them to grow rapidly. They additionally need to be
introduced to different tastes, flavours and textures1, but changes in the diet should
be gradual. Small meals typically are tolerated much better than large meals. There
is no need to give them milk, but a little milk is acceptable as a treat if they are not
lactose intolerant. Special cat milk is expensive and an indulgence, but I have no
issue with it being given. As well as this, raw food should be introduced several
times a week in place of the normal ration from about 12 weeks of age – to
expose them to the taste and texture of things like chicken wings and lamb cutlets –
but it should make up less than 10% of the total food intake over the course of a
week. Chicken wings should be fed only when very fresh (i.e. the day it is delivered
to the local butcher). Lamb cutlets can be fed raw, or after freezing (to kill
Toxoplasma zoites) and thawing. The critical thing at this age is to give a varied
ration with ideal calcium to phosphate ratio. The small number of Campylobacter
and Salmonella organisms present on chicken skin is well tolerated by the
gastrointestinal tract of kittens and cats, but the owners should wash their hands for
their hygiene after feeding this type of food. Routine anthelmintic dosing for
roundworms and tapeworms is critical at this stage in a cat’s life, and use of a
product that also kills lung worm larvae and fleas has a lot to recommend it.
2. Young adult cats should be fed more natural food, and ideally I would suggest
cats should get approximately 50% of their food from “natural” material that
needs chewing to be ingested. This needs dedicated owners, and the utilisation of
the patio, shower recess, backyard or laundry as a feeding platform.
Dry food should be phased out completely at this stage because (i) it generally
makes cats fat (unless owners feed it according to the manufacturers
recommendations) (ii) it is not natural (iii) it generally has too much processed
carbohydrate and thus an excessively high glycaemic index (iv) it often has too
much fat and excessive content of antioxidants and other artificial chemicals (v) its
use is associated with a higher risk of idiopathic cystitis developing. (vi) the diet has
so many different ingredients that the risk of it containing things to which the cat
can become allergic is higher than for a natural ration. Perhaps a very small amount
of premium dry food can be given occasionally as a treat.
Canned food is fine. I favour meat based food over fish based food, as I think it’s
“more natural”. Allergy to fish in not uncommon in cats with allergic skin disease
and food intolerance. Tuna perhaps can be fed as canned food once or twice a week.
I think the Fancy Feast™ food by Nestle Purina gives excellent variety of flavours
and ingredients and a convenient size. It’s pricey however. . Young adult cats are
active and burn calories rapidly. They need something in the order of 85 to 100
grams of canned food, or more, twice daily i.e. one can of Fancy Feast twice daily.
This can be replaced by a chicken wing, a chicken drumstick, a lamb cutlet, or a
1 Kittens should be introduced to bone gnawing as early as possible after weaning. If they are not introduced to
knawing and chewing during the critical 6 to 14 weeks-of-age developmental stage when their eating habits are
evolving and their peer competition for food is strong, it is much more difficult to succeed in this type of feeding
strategy (Vic Menrath, personal communication)
piece of osso-bucco. Some cats need even more. A lamb shank has enough food to
keep a young adult cat going for 24 hours – if they chew it to the bone.
3. Older cats should be fed like younger cats, but they need less food as they are
less active. Cats older than 10 need about half as much as an active youngster.
Being obese increases arthritis issues and causes a shorter lifespan in most species
where the effect of obesity on lifespan has been well studied (e.g. rat, dog, humans).
So, keep cats lean!
4. Free acess to water is mandatory. Some cats prefer water that is running. Some cats
don’t like chlorine – so fill up the cat bowl with water from the kettle after it has
cooled down (boiling ‘blows off’ much of the chlorine).
5. If cats develop renal insufficiency in their old age, a mixture of natural food (for oral
hygiene) and Prescription canned (eg Hills canned k/d™) and dry renal prescription
diets are ideal, to limit phosphorus retention and to optimise fatty acid balance.
Avoid letting geriatric cats get fat on high fat palatable diets such as Hills Dry k/d or
Royal Canin kidney diet, which are both excellent and palatable for most cats. “Cat
milk” can be useful in older cats with renal insufficiency to get them to drink more,
and canned foods are less dehydrating that dry foods.
Cats fed natural food as a large part of the ration have less tartar, and in my view
periodontal disease progresses more slowly than in cats provided exclusively with a
commercial ration. Even with natural food, cats develop gingival recession as a part of
the aging process, and may still get cervical erosive lesions. Periodic dental attention is
important to prevent oral cavity inflammation, which possibly contributes to an
increased risk for development of cancer and renal disease. This is especially
important as it permits old cats to continue to have health benefits of a natural
diet. Grooming cats on a daily basis with metal comb, especially older cats, is important
as hair causes large bowel issues (predisposing to constipation and even megacolon)
and irritation to the stomach (resulting in vomiting). This is always important, and
increasingly so in the older cat.
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The author wishes to thank Professor Paul Canfield, Dr Doug Bryden and Dr Joanna
White for their comments, suggestions and encouragement. Dr Victor Menrath wrote
me two pages of detailed comments and observations which I have intercalated into this