10 Cheap Ways to Improve Your Cat's Diet
Feeding our pets fresh foods has some great benefits. But feeding an entirely raw diet isn't in everyone's budget. Unless you've become savvy at making your own food or have found inexpensive raw meat snacks, it's hard to know what options are available. With a little knowledge and an open mind, it's easy to start incorporating healthier foods, without breaking the bank!
Just like humans, our pets need fresh foods. Yet commercials, magazine advertisements and nearly every shelf at big box stores promotes almost entirely processed pet foods.
We have been convinced as a culture to believe that our carnivorous pets can thrive solely on processed kibble and canned foods. But, just like humans, they thrive on fresh foods. Even a small amount can make a big difference.
I want to share with you some ways we've improved own cat's diet (works for dogs too). If you want to get your pet on entirely raw food, it'll almost always cost more than kibble. But, the cost is often a lot less than people think. Not to mention, there are ways to incorporate healthy part-time options while saving money.
We feed our cats a raw food diet with a variety of proteins, snacks and broths. This is what works for us and how we feel our cats are healthiest. I always encourage anyone wanting to improve their cat's diet to consider multiple resources and always visit the vet if your cat needs medical attention.
Get to know your cat's "normal". Understand their bathroom habits, know what their poop looks like, how often they urinate. This will give you a basis for comparison anytime you make a change.
1. Provide fresh, filtered water
When we adopted Mikita, he was recovering from urinary issues, which included blood in his urine. (Stress in cats tends to manifest in the bladder. Being in a shelter, moving, new guests, home renovations etc, can be stressful on a cat). We had a couple follow up urinalysis to determine a game plan. Mikita had an elevated pH along with some concerning crystals in his urine, I looked at every aspect of his diet. I learned that providing filtered water was healthier for him and for us! We were able to get his bladder situation under control with a raw diet and filtered water. Beware of bottled water. It's often too alkaline for cats.
Neutral is 7.0. > 7.0 is alkaline and < 7.0 is acidic.
A cats naturally acidic urine (approx pH 6.0-6.5) is easily affected by food, stress, water etc.
If your sink or refrigerator doesn't have a filter, pick up a filtered pitcher to store in the fridge. This Brita pitcher is the one we bought. Consider ditching bottled water for yourself and buy a reusable water bottle. Save money and the earth!
2. Wash all bowls daily
We feed raw food to our cats so naturally, we wash our bowls after each meal. But, kibble fed cat bowls are often left out and refilled. Whether your cat is eating wet or dry food, the bowls should be washed daily. Cats mouths are in their bowl multiple times a day, introducing bacteria and allowing it to grow. Take it a step further and create mealtimes. Pick up the bowl, wash it and put it away until the next meal. Getting a kibble fed cat on a feeding schedule will help you keep track of what they eat and create a more "food curious" cat. A cat that has mealtimes is more interested in trying new foods when offered.
3. Add water or broth to your cat's meals
Cats, by nature are desert animals. They don't have a thirst drive like humans and dogs. A water bowl typically can't make up for the water they are missing when eating dry kibble food.
NOTE: Kibble is approximately 10% moisture and wet food is 70% moisture. That's a huge difference!
Don't underestimate the importance of hydration. A cat's bladder and kidneys need water to keep things flowing. If you can't feed raw, at least feed canned. It's not always necessary, but we like to add a small splash of water or broth to some of their raw meals. Providing a water fountain is another enticing option for cats.
If you can't feed canned or raw for each meal, providing wet food snacks with added water or broth (chicken, turkey, beef etc) is a fantastic way to sneak in some extra hydration. Make sure that any broth you make or buy is safe for cats. Dr. Becker shares her recipe in a YouTube video! Want to know more about why dry food is so detrimental? Dr. Lisa A Pierson, DVM explains here.
4. Ditch the tuna!
Fish is not the best source of nutrition for cats. Somehow we've been convinced (probably by cartoons and marketing), that fish is the natural and healthy diet of cats. In some parts of the world, cats are catching fish, but for the most part, it comes in a can, far from the sea. Not to mention fish is often addictive and full of toxins. Yikes!
Tuna, along with other large fish, generally contain high levels of mercury. Not to mention, processing fish to create fish meal often require toxic preservatives like ethoxyquin. Pet food companies may not be adding ethoxyquin themselves, but the raw materials might have it added early on to prevent it from going rancid. Unless the packaging specifically states that it's ethoxyquin-free, there's no way to know. It doesn't seem worth the risk.
So, what to feed instead? Feed cat foods without fish. For snacks, offer smaller fish, like sardines packed in water. This is a great occasional treat and provides healthy omega-3s without the level of toxins found in large fish. You can find these in the grocery store as human food. Krill oil is another great option for adding some extra omega-3s to the diet. These are both great options for healthy fur and skin.
The exception: When I am transitioning a foster cat to a raw diet, I'll feed them whatever they like at first. I work towards getting them off the fish and onto healthier foods. If you want to know more about why feeding fish to cats isn't a good idea, check out this article by Dr. Karen Becker.
5. Cook a whole chicken
Making a whole chicken with the intent of using the entire bird is very cost effective and great for healthy snacks! Freeze the strained broth in an ice cube tray. Put the cooked bones back in the pot, add water, apple cider vinegar and cook them for 20+ hours. Voila! Bone broth! Lots of minerals and nutrients. Freeze the bone broth in ice cube trays. You can also purchase bone broth made especially for pets in the freezer section from boutique pet supply shops.
Although not a balanced meal, cooked chicken, chicken broth and bone broth is great for snacks and HYDRATION. Our cats love lapping up some broth. Make sure broth doesn't contain any harmful additions like onions. I basically used Dr. Becker's recipe. Check out how I made it here!
6. Feed a raw diet part time
If you can't afford to feed raw full time, feed it part time! Some fresh food is better than none. Serving a commercially prepared raw food a few times a week is a great way to keep costs down. If you're already feeding canned, look into some raw brands and pricing. Many pet parents don't realize that commercially produced raw diets are comparable in price to some canned foods.
If your vet pushes prescription diets and you'd like to provide better foods, find a new vet! Or ask your vet if they can help guide you in finding a less processed solution. The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association has a directory of vets who are generally more aligned with fresh food nutrition. Become an informed pet parent and do a lot of research yourself. That way you can ask your vet specific questions and feel more confident about your decisions.
If you're up for it, do some research and learn how to make homemade cat food. The Animal Diet Formulator has software available to create balanced recipes. There is also the option for custom diets as well as a few recipes that can be purchased individually. Although Darwin's Pet Food is our favorite commercially made raw diet, (yes, we are a Darwin's partner and we LOVE them) we also have a full list of other brands we've tried in M&D's Favorites.
Keep in mind, transitioning cats to a raw diet may take time, creativity and patience. Don't put a bowl of raw food down and expect the average cat to eat it. (The exception is usually kittens. They're ravenous little fur sharks ready to eat all the meat you give them!) Most cats need to be introduced to fresh foods slowly. If you're interested in transitioning your cat to a raw diet, check out my Transition Guide.
7. Introduce raw meat snacks!
No matter what types of raw meat you introduce, always keep in mind that many cats fear change. Some are cautiously curious and some dive right in. You know your cat best. If they don't like diet changes, you'll need to move slow and introduce tiny amounts of raw in creative ways. Keep in mind, a cat who knows a bowl of kibble is waiting for them in the other room is less likely to try something new. Create mealtimes and remove the bowl of kibble when mealtime is over, to prevent all day snacking.
Offering chunks of meat is great for variety, jaw exercise, nutrition and hydration. Raw is not "all or nothing." Many people feed raw part time if they can't do it full time.
Where to buy: If you have a local farm or butcher that carries high quality organic local meats, great! Buying organic from a grocery store or from a trusted online source is an option too. If you're still concerned about bacteria, take a look at this article from Feline Nutrition Foundation which answers a lot of bacteria related questions!
Some people purchase non-organic from their regular grocery store. This feels a little riskier to me as most of these meats are refrigerated for several days, rather than being immediately frozen. Extended refrigeration allows for extra bacteria to grow. I'm kind of torn here, so I tend to avoid this option.
Make sure the meats are fresh, not sitting in a refrigerator case for days.
Your cat should NEVER eat old meat.
Always freeze meat for a minimum of 24 hours. This deems certain potential parasites inactive.
How we offer raw meat to our cats
Raw or cooked boneless (never feed cooked bones!) meat can be offered in large chunks or diced small. Dicing meat and putting a little under a spoonful of canned food may encourage your cat to try it. Or, add a splash of bone broth! Increase the chunk size until they are excited to eat it plain! Here's how we prep our raw meat snacks.
Chicken gizzards - Tough muscle meat. Great for jaw exercise! They're cheap and often available at the butcher. I cut these into small pieces and hand feed for snack time.
Chicken hearts - High in taurine which is an essential amino acid for cats. Feed a couple a week or a couple a day. Do some research to figure out what's best for your cat. Great article on chicken hearts from Feline Nutrition Foundation.
Chicken livers - These are great to add to heart or gizzard. Feeding too much liver might cause diarrhea so approach slowly and a little at a time. I've never gone wrong when I start small. Doing some of your own research will help you become confident.
Venison chunks - Venison isn't exactly budget meat, but offering some venison for snacks helps with providing variety. We buy ours from Hare Today. Remember, cats who eat the same proteins everyday are at risk for developing allergies.
Beef chunks - I like to buy a hunk of beef from the butcher freezer. I'll defrost partially, cut into pieces and re-freeze so I can easily break off some snacks. Avoid pre ground meats from the grocery store as there is a lot more room for contamination. Although cats are equipped to process more pathogens than humans, pre ground muscle meats feel risky to me.
Other muscle meat to try:
Check out the selection at Hare Today!
8. Add a probiotic and maybe some coconut oil too!
Probiotics are all the rage! So, naturally there are high quality probiotics and cheap probiotics. A high quality probiotic has more beneficial bacteria to do their job of restoring gut microbes. A healthy gut is part of a strong immune system. There is still some disagreement in the medical world on how effective probiotics are, but I have found them to be really helpful in my experience with our resident and foster cats.
Several vets I've gone to are in favor of a good probiotic supplement when needed. From GI issues and illness as well as transitioning cats to a healthier diet, I'm always grabbing these probiotics because they are so effective.
Cats also benefit from the probiotics in goats milk. There are a few brands who package goats milk specifically for cats and dogs. We like Answers goat milk. Check the freezer section of your local pet supply boutique. We like to freeze ours in an ice cube tray, defrosting only as we need it.
What happens to the good bacteria? Processed foods and antibiotics strip our guts of naturally occurring good bacteria. A cat's gastrointestinal is an ecosystem. So is ours. It needs good foods to foster good microbes. We can either make our cat's GI a healthy terrarium or a garbage dump. Know what I'm sayin? Stomach upset, allergies, and many other health issues can be traced back to gut health. Probiotics are great, but don't expect them to fix a bad situation on their own. It's just one piece to the puzzle. Healing the gut can take time and patience but it is worth it!
There are many reasons for chronic stomach upset. I always go back to processed foods because there's so much mystery. Glyphosate is a toxic weed killer used on crops. Because processed pet foods use a lot of carbohydrates, cats and dogs are often ingesting a lot of glyphosate. Our veterinarian Dr. Royal does an amazing job explaining it on a the Awesome Woo Woo Holistic Vet Advice radio show. Constant GI upset is cause for concern. As always, take your cat to the vet when necessary!
Organic virgin cold pressed coconut oil is a natural anti-fungal. It's great for their overall immune system and ours. It's healthy for their coat and can help minimize hairballs. We give about 1/4 tsp to each cat a couple time a week. If you want to know more about coconut oil, this is a great article from Modern Cat, and so is this one from Dr. Karen Becker!
9. Provide a digestive enzyme
Digestive problems (diarrhea, constipation, vomiting etc) are not normal and addressing it with your vet is really important. But, sometimes a digestive enzyme can be part of the solution. A digestive enzyme helps break down foods so your cat can get the most nutritional value out of it. This in turn can help with GI issues. Some vets disagree with the effectiveness of digestive enzymes because the body already produces these enzymes. The problem is, most people feed processed cat foods (kibble and canned). Poor quality foods make a poor quality ecosystem.
Here's an example. Since processed cat foods often contain carbohydrates and cats hardly produce amylase (the enzyme to break down carbs), a digestive enzyme can be helpful. When transitioning a foster cat to a raw diet, I often use digestive enzymes. These are the Digestive Enzymes I use and here's an article from Dr. Becker going into more detail.
10. Cut back on your own meat consumption
This one tends to throw people for a loop but meat is a big expense. Not to mention it's bad for the environment and humans don't need it. Our carnivorous cats and dogs do. On average, Americans eat over 200 lbs of meat per year. When you stop to think about it, that's a lot! Instead of "Meatless Mondays", consider "Meatless Most Days" or "Meatless All Days". I realize this is a personal choice and a tough topic to discuss, but many people are looking for kinder alternatives and this is definitely one of them.
Fun fact: All plants have protein! Plant protein is great for humans, but not so great for cats. We have been using The Blue Zones Kitchen and Vegan Soul Kitchen cook books to help us eat more plant based meals. They've both been extremely helpful and delicious! By eating less meat or no meat and cutting back or eliminating other animal products, you can provide more for your pet, save money and help the planet at the same time!
You can do this!
On a limited budget, it is absolutely possible to improve your cat's diet. With a little bit of research, a will to learn and consistent efforts, you will up your cat parent game in no time! If you can't offer as many improvements now as you'd like, make it a goal to provide what you can now and add more in the future. Your cats will thank you!
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