Alternative diets: Exploring grain free, natural, vegan and vegetarian cat foods

Cats are known to be obligate carnivores and require certain proteins acquired from meat to prevent medical conditions. Prior to domestication, wild cats survived solely on their kills and ate fresh, raw meats. However, over time cat food has evolved to include non meat components such as grains.

More recently, grain free cat foods have become increasingly popular, mirroring trends seen in the human diet. Natural cat foods, and even vegan and vegetarian diets have also come into vogue in recent times. However, the big question being debated by animal lovers around the world is whether these diets are beneficial for our precious felines.

Grain free diets

Is grain free the way to go?

Cats are carnivorous creatures whose diets traditionally consisted of meat and fish. Carnivores process their food much quicker than herbivores, like cows, who absorb their goodness from grass and leaves. Due to this, carnivores have a significantly shorter digestive tract to herbivores. They also have a highly acidic stomach to help burn up parasites and bacteria from raw meats.

Grain inclusive diets have been introduced to the domesticated cat over time. As a result of the introduction of non meat ingredients, such as grains, the gastrointestinal tract of the cat has evolved over time. However, studies suggest that the gastrointestinal tract of the cat has not evolved as quickly as that of the dog, due to cats having been domesticated much later (dogs are thought to have been domesticated around 100,000 years ago, whereas this is thought to have only occurred for cats around 10,000 years ago). Many argue that a purely meat diet is therefore more suitable, as cats are able to process and digest meat proteins more easily than grains.

As cats are carnivorous, they require a diet high in meat protein to absorb amino acids essential for healthy development. Taurine is a type of amino acid found exclusively in meat protein and a deficiency of this in a cat's diet can result in irreversible blindness or cardiovascular disease. Due to their physiological design, diets that exclude grains and are high in meat protein can be largely beneficial for cats.

Quality matters

When choosing either food, grain free or grain inclusive, looking at the nutritional value and quality of the food is imperative. You need to ensure that it is nutritionally balanced to provide your cat with the essential proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals it requires.

The excessive amount of grains found in cheaper "supermarket brands" is often disproportionate to the actual nutritional requirements for your cat. This surplus of grains in budget brands, often referred to as 'fillers', goes undigested and is excreted as fecal matter. An overfeeding of grains and lack of quality meats and fats can cause nutritional deficiencies in cats, which may lead to health and personality disorders.

Some cats will still benefit from a grain inclusive diet however Pet Cirle recommends feeding your cat premium brands that offer maximum absorption rates. Manufacturers such as Royal Canin and Hills Science Diet use grains in their products with great results. This is attributed to their years of research in developing highly nutritious, balanced diets that produce minimal waste.

Natural cat foods

Is there a role for artificial ingredients in pet food?

Artificial preservatives and colourings are commonly used in both human and pet food. They help to improve the appearance of pet food, which is probably of more concern to the pet's owner than the pets themselves, but more importantly keep food fresher for longer and safe for your pet to consume. Artificial preservatives are usually more effective than natural preservatives in this respect.

So should I be worried about artificial preservatives?

Artificial preservatives are compounds that don't exist naturally and a number of those used in pet foods are no longer allowed in human foods. There are claims that artificial preservatives may cause cancerous tumours and some artificial preservatives used in pet foods are also used in toxic substances such as anti-freeze, pesticides and varnishes. However, at present there is insufficient data to prove that the use of artifical preservatives in pet food is detrimental to the long term health or your dog and/or cat.

If you have concerns, there are fortunately a number of natural options available and a growing number of companies are swapping artificial preservatives for their natural equivalents. For example, Canidae commonly use natural vitamins E or A in many of their products and plant extracts like Rosemary are commonly used by Earthborn Holistic.

Vegan and vegetarian diets

It's important to remember that cats are obligate carnivores and need specific proteins that only occur naturally in meats. Due to this essential dietary requirement, vegan or vegetarian diets are generally not recommended for any cat.

Some commercial vegan and vegetarian diets have substituted required meat proteins with synthetic alternatives however there is not enough conclusive data from long term studies to confirm if the nutritional benefits from these diets are adequate.

If you are considering a vegan or vegetarian diet for your cat, it is strongly recommended that you seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian prior to changing your cat's diet.

Take away message

So long as the food you are choosing is nutritionally balanced with high quality ingredients, a natural and/or grain free diet is an excellent alternative for your cat. Be sure to check the ingredients on the back of your bag or tin of food to ensure that the diet is high in meat or fish. Also be weary of low quality foods which replace grains with high starch alternatives, like potatoes, which negates most of the benefits of being grain free.

Posted by Jessica Varley

Owner of a small Chihuahua army and lover of all things pets; when Jess isn't managing her pup Nacho's instagram you can find her writing about all the awesome new products on the Pet Circle website!

TAGScat food, grain free, natural food, vegan cat food, preservatives, canidae

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