What Vets Need to Know About 3 Unconventional Diets for Cats

What Vets Need to Know About 3 Unconventional Diets for Cats

An onboard veterinary nutritionist explores the associated risks and potential benefits of unconventional feeding practices

Unconventional cat diets and eating practices are becoming more and more common. Results of a 2020 study show that while 90% of pet cats are offered conventional commercial food, only 32% of these felines are exclusively fed conventional food. As the most popular unconventional diets, 53% of cats were given raw food and 46% of cats were given home-prepared food.1

That’s why Martha G. Cline, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition), argued that veterinary professionals should understand the risks and benefits associated with unconventional diets. She reviewed the nutritional adequacy of 3 popular diets and provided clinical recommendations during her session presented at the 2022 Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey.2

1. Vegan and vegetarian diets

Cline began her review of vegan and vegetarian diets by referring to a study whose results showed that all commercially available vegetarian diets for cats were deficient in at least 1 amino acid, and all were deficient in taurine.3 She added that this same study found that 13 of 24 dog diets and foods did not meet the current labeling requirements of the Association of American Feed Control Officers, casting doubt on the accuracy of the labels.3

Looking at what it would take to formulate a nutritionally adequate vegan or vegetarian diet, Cline said, “So, is it possible to formulate a vegan or vegetarian diet for a cat? Yes, you can absolutely do that. The fact that they eat it could be another problem. She later added, “…on the rare occasion that you have a client who is interested in this…I would communicate this to them…emphasizing that are obligate carnivores, [and] really, the literature does not support that we actually have even good quality products available for these cats.

2. Diets prepared at home

Cline said the desire for home-prepared diets (HPDs) can be driven by customer sentiment, such as avoiding additives and preservatives, strengthening the human-animal bond by cooking for their pet, or simply wanting control. total on the nutrition of their animal. A veterinarian may also recommend an HPD due to comorbidities such as chronic kidney disease or inflammatory bowel disease.

“A home-prepared diet can absolutely provide complete and balanced nutrition when formulated and prepared correctly,” Cline said. The problem, she says, is that customers have many resources for HBD recipes (eg, online, books, magazines) that vary wildly in safety and nutritional adequacy. “They can be written by people who have no training in nutrition,” Cline said. “My favorite is the big game breeder in Georgia who worked as a…secretary at a law firm, but in his spare time wrote diets for Great Danes.”2 She also cited a study that looked at 114 home-prepared diets available online, and all of them contained nutrient deficiencies, including those written by veterinarians.4

Cline recommended that GPs consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist when formulating diets for their clients. Follow-up visits should assess diet adherence and check for nutritional imbalances.

3. Raw meat diets

Cline explained that raw meat diets (RMBDs), both commercial and home-prepared, can be nutritionally adequate when formulated correctly. She said the danger of RMBDs stems from antibiotic resistance and the potential presence of zoonotic pathogens leading to human and animal disease.

On antibiotic resistance, she referred to a CDC study of 14 commercially available raw food products in Europe, the results of which revealed that 100% of the samples carried enterococci resistant to erythromycin, streptomycin, chloramphenicol and tetracycline.5 “The really big concern, and the reason this study was done, is that these CDC researchers have concluded that raw pet foods may be a sentinel for emerging antibiotic resistance,” Cline said.

Another study analyzing 35 frozen RMBDs for cats and dogs revealed the presence of the following zoonotic pathogens, as a percentage of affected products6:

  1. Escherichia coli serotype O157:H7: 23%
  2. extended-spectrum beta-lactamase producers E.coli: 80%
  3. Listeria monocytogenes 54%
  4. other Listeria species: 43%
  5. Salmonella species: 20%
  6. Sarcocystis cruzi: 11% p
  7. S tenelle: 11%
  8. Toxoplasma gondii: 6%

Cline advises that in addition to assessing the nutritional adequacy of RMBDs, they should also inform pet owners of these possible risks. Potential vectors of exposure to pathogens include food utensils and bowls, litter boxes, feces, the food itself, and cats with bacteria present in the mouth or on the coat. The elderly, young, pregnant, breastfeeding and immunocompromised are particularly at risk, she said.


  1. Dodd S, Cave N, Abood S, Shoveller AK, Adolphe J, Verbrugghe A. An observational study of pet feeding practices and their evolution between 2008 and 2018. Vet Rec. 2020;186(19):643. doi:10.1136/vr.105828
  2. Cline, MG. Unconventional diets… for cats! Presented to: Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference; October 10-12, 2022: Atlantic City, New Jersey. www.dvm360.com/2022-acvc-proceedings
  3. Kanakubo K, Fascetti AJ, Larsen JA. Evaluation of protein and amino acid concentrations and adequacy of labeling of commercial vegetarian diets formulated for dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2015;247(4):385-392. doi:10.2460/javma.247.4.385
  4. Wilson SA, Villaverde C, Fascetti AJ, Larsen JA. Assessing the nutritional adequacy of home-prepared maintenance cat food recipes. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2019;254(10):1172-1179. doi:10.2460/javma.254.10.1172
  5. Freitas AR, Finisterra L, Tedim AP, et al. Linezolid and multidrug-resistant enterococci in raw commercial dog food, Europe, 2019-2020. Urgent disinfection. 2021;27(8):2221-2224. doi:10.3201/eid2708.204933
  6. van Bree FPJ, Bokken GCAM, Minor R, et al. Zoonotic bacteria and parasites found in raw meat diets for cats and dogs. Vet Rec. 2018;182(2):50. doi:10.1136/vr.104535

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