Kibble Cat to Carnivore
From a kibble eating cat to a full blown carnivore, my cat Tonks has been on quite the journey! It's been a pretty steady one, with just a couple set backs, and it's been oh so very rewarding. So settle in while I tell you the tale of how and why we made the switch.
First, a foundation for this post: cats are obligate carnivores. Obligate carnivores eat meat and only meat; their digestive systems are not designed to break down anything other than animal protein, and all the bits attached to that animal protein. But most cats don’t eat meat and only meat. Even the most expensive, highest protein kibbles contain lots of other ingredients, such as starches in the form of grains and/or vegetables. Starch, while absolutely necessary for the extrusion process, cannot be digested and broken down for nutrients by cats at all, so their bodies have to work extra hard to pass it completely. I learned this fairly recently, and while I previously knew that cats are carnivores, but I thought they were akin to dogs: carnivores who can function like omnivores if necessary by having evolved the ability to digest vegetable starch and proteins. So, my cat ate kibble. But as I learned more about feline biology and nutrition, I was pushed towards a more species appropriate diet. If you’re interested in learning more about all that, I highly recommend you read “Cat Sense” by John Bradshaw. It’s a super informative book without being too technical.
On to our personal story… Tonks is an indoor cat. She comes outside with us on a lead to hang in the garden and on hikes, but a huntress she is not. For the first couple of years of her life, she ate primarily kibble. We started with Taste of the Wild with Earthborn canned food as a topper or treat. Then, when I learned she would benefit from a higher percentage of meat protein we moved to Acana kibble and added Lotus and Hound & Gatos canned food, as well as Primal raw food to her diet. Then we cut the kibble and she ate a mixture of raw and canned food. And after about 8 months we reached our long term goal of having her eat exclusively raw food. It took a significant amount of time and conviction to completely change her diet so we took baby steps. It wasn't completely smooth sailing, but it went prett darn well and it was so worth it. But why did we make the big switch? Here’s why:
Cats are obligate carnivores. I know, we already talked about this, so I won’t repeat myself, but basically, we just didn’t see the value of feeding Tonks a bunch of ingredients that wouldn’t be nourishing her.
Cats need a high moisture content in their food. They’re designed to eat fresh prey, which is very high in moisture, so they’re not designed to drink a whole lot. Household cats will adapt to this, and drink more water since they’re not getting it in their food. Tonks adapted, but I could tell by her litter box that she was in a pretty constant state of mild dehydration anyway, as most non hunting non meat eating cats are.
Most importantly though, I learned that cats do not naturally want to eat dry food, in fact, at first glance they don’t even recognize that it is food. To deal with this, kibbles have what are called “palatants” added to it. The extruded pieces are coated with these chemicals, pyrophosphates, so that the scent entices the cat to try the food. From there a dependency pathway in the brain is created to keep her coming back to eat more. While palatants might not be overtly detrimental, I just didn’t feel comfortable with having to trick Tonks into eating. I wanted her to genuinely enjoy her meals, which she does now. Very loudly. My apologies to the rest of our household. It is worth noting here that palatants are the reason it is so difficult to switch a cat’s food. They imprint onto the specific chemical makeup of the palatant at a young age, so newly introduced palatants don’t smell or taste like food to them. Because of this, cats get a bad rap for being “picky” when in reality they’re just chemically conditioned to only eat a very specific food.
With these reasons in mind, and with nearly a full bag of kibble left, I started weaning Tonks off of dry food. But, as she started eating more and more raw, we encountered a side effect we had not anticipated: vomit of the projectile variety. Clearly, a gentle transition was out of the question. But I was confused, she had eaten a mix of dry, canned, and raw previously with no issues. Well, after some research and a conversation with our veterinarian, I learned that the pH of her stomach had started dropping to accommodate the increased amount of raw food, and it became unable to digest the starches in the dry food. (This is not an issue that happens to all pets switching to raw. In fact, lots of them can do just fine on a long term diet consisting of raw and kibble together. But this was not the case for Tonks.) So I donated the remainder of the bag to a well deserving kitty, and Tonks was left to go cold turkey. The yelling commenced immediately. She missed the comfort of her kibble dish, and her brain craved the chemical palatant. But we persevered. Today the kibble has been long forgotten and we have a much happier, healthier cat. How can I tell she’s healthier? Basically, her litter box. Cats have a reputation for their boxes stinking up the house, so we hide them away, as far from our living spaces as possible. Tonks’ was no exception, but now, it most certainly is. She only poops once, maybe twice, a day. It’s a small, well formed, nearly odorless poop due to the acid bath her food takes in her stomach before it reaches her intestines where it is super efficiently and nearly completely absorbed as nutrients. When I realized that this was our new normal litter box, I basically jumped for joy. Besides her litter box, her coat is shinier, she’s more playful, her teeth are beautiful, and she is simply thriving. I think my favorite part of Tonks’ new diet though, is the variety I’m able to provide for her. We all know that switching between dry foods can be tough on a pet’s digestive system, so you have to do it gradually over time, and even that doesn’t always make the transition easy. But now, since I’m not dealing with the long list of ingredients you find listed on bags of kibble, I can switch it up for her daily if I want. She eats such a nice array of foods now, from fresh meat to tripe to whole fish, so she’s always genuinely excited to dig in. You can find a more detailed description of what and how I feed her here if you’re interested.
And finally, if you’re curious about how you can enhance your cat’s diet, you can find me at Divide Feed all day Mondays, Tuesdays, & Wednesdays; or you can fill out the contact form on my home page for a free email consultation.
Originally Posted, by me, on Divide Feed's blog in 2018. Linked here.