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Natural Diet

Cats Are Not Weasels

By Michelle T. Bernard, Author of Raising Cats Naturally

Because they are so elusive, I do not think anyone truly knows what small wild cats eat on a daily basis. Because they are easier to track and observe, we are aware of how the larger cats like lions, tigers, cheetah, and leopards eat. While we should not model how we feed our cats exactly like a lion or leopard, except for frequency in feeding, we can come pretty close. In fact, we really do feed our cats more like large cats because the meat we use often comes from animals far larger than a small cat would naturally kill.

Zoologists classify animals according to their anatomy and physiology. The order Carnivora (carnivores) contains two "superfamilies" (meaning, a taxonomic category of related organisms ranking below an order or its subdivisions and above a family): Canoidea (which are the dog-like carnivores) and Feloidea (which are the cat-like carnivores).

The Canoidea Superfamily contains seven Families as follows:

  • Family Canidae — wolves, foxes, jackals, etc.
  • Family Ursidae — bears
  • Family Otariidae — sea lions, eared seals, fur seals
  • Family Odobenidae — walrus
  • Family Procyonidae — raccoons, etc.
  • Family Mustelidae — weasels, stoats, polecats, ferrets, mink, marten, fishers, wolverines, badgers, skunks, otters, etc.
  • Family Phocidae — earless seals

Members of the Canoidea Superfamily are primarily medium-sized flesh eaters, canids are more omnivorous than many carnivores, taking as food invertebrates, plant matter, and carrion as well as the prey they kill themselves.1

The Feloidea Superfamily contains four families as follows:

  • Family Viverridae — civets and various other creatures I've never heard of (linsangs, genets, palm civets, toddy cats, binturong, fossas)
  • Family Herpestidae — mongooses, meerkats
  • Family Hyaenidae — hyenas and the aardwolf
  • Family Felidae — cats!

Felids are perhaps the most specialized hunters of the carnivores, relying almost exclusively on prey that they have killed themselves.2 What is thought to be our domestic cat's ancestor (listed under the subfamily Felinae), Felis silvestris libyca is carnivorous, with vegetable foods playing a minor role in the diet. Prey includes a variety of animals, including birds, especially ground-nesting species, reptiles, amphibians, insects, arachnids, and smaller mammals, such as rabbits and hares. The primary prey of African wildcats are rodents. Because they are capable of catching only small prey, they generally need to hunt regularly, perhaps as often as ten or twenty times a day.3 This is one of the things that sets them apart from their larger feline cousins, lions, tigers and leopards who hunt larger prey and eat every few days or so and do consume carrion. Small cats generally only eat fresh kill and hunt frequently.

Our kitties, Felis silvestris are primarily carnivores. They eat a variety of food. Usually, they don't eat organisms larger than a rat or pigeon, but they are capable of catching animals that are almost as large as they are. They tend to avoid organisms with shells, spines or offensive smells.4

Occasionally, cats eat grass in order to clear their stomach of indigestible food, like bones, fur, and feathers. In domestic cats, the large intestine is bigger than it is in wild species. This allows the domestic cat to eat more vegetation.5

In his experiments involving cats, Dr. Price Pottenger noted that the intestinal length of the cats consuming the cooked food diet were, in some cases, almost twice the length of that of the raw-food-fed cats. The intestines of the cooked-fed cats were lacking in elasticity and tone.6 Could it be due to a commercial or cooked-food diet that the large intestine of Felis silvestris is bigger than that of wild species?

I have heard of people comparing domestic cats to members of the Mustelidae Family (weasels, stoats, polecats, ferrets, mink, marten, fishers, wolverines, badgers, skunks, otters). That seems to me like comparing a cat to a dog. Members of the Mustelidae family are carnivores, but they also consume plant matter like berries. The Mustelidae family is the largest group of Carnivora (and perhaps that's where the misunderstanding lies); but quite frankly, I cannot see where or how cats can be compared to weasels, etc. except that they are all carnivores.

We do know that members of the Canoidea Superfamily (such as dogs) have more flexibility in digestion than members of the Feloidea Superfamily (cats). This is probably because canines are not as successful at hunting as cats. If a wolf, weasel, fox or other member of the Canoidea Superfamily is unable to kill or find a carcass to scavenge, then plant matter may very well become the difference between eating and starving. I would think if you dangled in front of a wolverine a dead rabbit in one hand and a bunch of grapes in another (not that I'd want to dangle anything in front of a wolverine), the wolverine would go for the rabbit over the grapes.

Yes, of course many cats will graze on grass, catnip and maybe twigs, but that is probably more due to the need for a cleanse than for sustenance. In addition, the majority of today's cats are weaned as kittens on to carbohydrate-laden dry food. Cats become very stuck on what they are weaned on both in terms of texture and taste. Carbohydrates are probably as addictive to cats as they are to some people. Some of my raw-food weaned cats will eat grass and catnip. Some throw it back up and some pass it out the other end. They have no interest in any vegetables or fruit I consume. The only food of mine that they show any interest in is meat. I expect that is more natural behavior for an obligate carnivore.

In the grand scheme of things, whether or not you chose to feed vegetables to your cat is not that important. A small bit of vegetable matter is probably not going to harm him. What I object to is comparing a cat to a species that is physiologically quite different in an effort to prove a cat needs or naturally consumes any appreciable plant matter in their natural diet. To go to such lengths to prove an ingredient's necessity, which ingredient makes up such a small, insignificant part of the cat's diet is a waste of time and energy.

Another ingredient that some people insist is important is fructooligosaccharides (FOS) or fermentable fiber. Research on fiber, short chain fatty acids (SCFA), FOS and fermentation pertains more to humans and herbivores (who naturally eat food containing high levels of carbohydrates and fiber,) and who have the anatomic ability to digest higher levels of carbohydrates and fiber. Carnivores digest food quite differently than herbivores. Fermentation of fiber by colonic bacteria may yield short chain fatty acids that are an important energy source for cattle and horses but they provide less than five percent of the energy needs of dogs and cats because of the short intestinal tract and relatively fast transit time in those species.7

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Bristol, Langford, UK, the effect of dietary supplementation with FOS was examined. Cats were put into two different groups, one group was fed a regular dry diet and the other group was supplemented with FOS. The conclusions were that there was a wide quantitative variation of the flora of healthy cats was observed, which was no affected by dietary supplementation with FOS.8

In light of the above study, I'm not sure how anyone can say FOS is of any use to a cat. Perhaps cats fed a commercial dry food diet may benefit from FOS, but I see no sense in adding it to a raw food diet in any form. The best thing you can do to help your cat maintain healthy gut flora is to avoid antibiotics!

Practically the whole of the gastrointestinal tract of a carnivore is sterile. The hydrochloric acid in the stomach ensures that most bacteria and other micro-organisms in swallowed food are killed. Those that escape the stomach are rarely able to survive the digestive processes - they are, after all, made of protein. The colon is the exception. This, where no further digestive processes occur, does tend to harbor a variety of organisms which form certain vitamins such as pyridoxine, vitamin B-12, biotin, vitamin K and folic acid but, as these are not absorbed through the wall of the colon, they are of little account. These micro-organisms thrive in an alkaline environment and are of the putrefactive type.9

I am writing this essay only so that whenever someone writes me to ask about including vegetables in a cat's diet, I can point them to this page without having to retype my answers over and over again. I've done the same thing with the great psyllium debate. The most important ingredients in a cat's diet should be those from animal origin. Muscle meat, bone, organ meat, fatty acids and vitamins and amino acids naturally occurring in meat are where the focus should be in designing a cat's diet.

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