I didn’t want to eat the cat food, but I felt obliged. A demitasse spoon holding a scoop of tan Deep Water Fish formula rested in a white porcelain ramekin beside a piece of brown kibble. It looked like an amuse-bouche at a five-star feline restaurant. I placed a bit of bread and a cup of herbal tea nearby to serve as a chaser.
The previous day I’d tried — and failed — to persuade my cat to sample homemade cat food made laboriously from fresh ingredients. She turned up her nose, and now I wanted to know what made the canned stuff so much better.
Numerous websites explain how to make pet food from scratch, and for a while I’d been tempted to try it. My slinky, panther-like Kali adores her stinky California Natural wet food and pellets of dry, protein-rich EVO — she purrs like a chainsaw when we fill her bowl — but both are on the pricey end of the spectrum.
Cats’ nutritional needs are vastly different from ours, so I wanted to make sure I included the right mix of proteins, fats and carbs. I downloaded a 16-page PDF called “Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs,” written by vets and featuring a diagram of a cat’s digestive tract. From it, I learned there are 10 amino acids kitties can’t synthesize themselves and need to get from their chow. They also have weak thirst drives and, just like humans, require plenty of omega-3 fatty acids.
Now, I needed recipes. At healthyreci pesforpets.com, I found one for Potatoes au Feline, which looked too carb-heavy to be healthy. I couldn’t figure out how a cat would eat a fried chicken drumstick coated in sardine paste, and the Meat Majesty, a mix of four types of commercial wet food with a bit of dry, seemed like the feline version of a 1950s Campbell’s soup casserole.
Vetlord.org, a holistic veterinarian’s blog, provided general information on how to mix proteins and carbs into a well-balanced meal. Using its guidelines, I came up with my own recipe and bought the ingredients — mostly the same local, all-natural things I eat myself. For $24.48, I had enough stuff to make about 20 servings of wet food and two months’ worth of cat treats, with some meat and eggs left over.
In the kitchen, I hard-boiled eggs, browned ground beef and cooked carrots until just tender. Ground in the blender with a few other ingredients, this would be my wet food.
Meanwhile, I made a sticky mix of tuna, whole-wheat flour and buttermilk powder, following a cracker recipe I’d found on e-healthypetfood.com. The instructions were misleading, calling for so much liquid that the result was more batter than dough. I corrected the error with additional flour that masked the flavor of the fish, rolled the dough in marble-sized balls, and baked them golden brown.
Three hours later came the moment of truth: Tuna treats in hand, I went to find the cat. She slunk over and ate them, but without her trademark mealtime purr. Then I placed a dollop of wet food in her bowl. She sniffed once, twice … and walked away. For the next half hour I watched, hoping she’d relent and dive in, but no dice. She wouldn’t even eat her regular dry food while my mixture was in the same bowl.
The next morning, I vowed to find out why — with a taste test. After some puttering and procrastinating, I got down to business with the fishy wet food. (The chicken and venison flavors sounded more palatable, but I was loath to open a new can.)
The paste had a strong, off-putting smell of herring, but I popped it in my mouth. The texture was a bit gritty, perhaps from ground fish bones, and the taste reminded me of the cod liver oil I was forced to take as a child.
By contrast, my homemade food may have looked like vomit, but it smelled sweet and vegetal. Although it included eggs, ground beef and cottage cheese, it tasted mainly of carrots and spinach. The stuff would have made a perfectly passable baby food. With added salt and some garlic or onion — which are dangerous to cats — I could have called it a pâté.
I moved on to dry food. The round pellets of EVO also smelled of herring — apparently a cheap, healthy source of pet protein. A single tidbit crunched pleasantly, and the flavor was mild at first, but then came a burst of mouth-coating fishiness. I took a sip of tea and ran for an apple.
My homemade tuna-laced bits were much more tolerable, but far from delicious — although my husband ate a few dipped in mayonnaise.
My unscientific conclusion: For cats, who can’t read labels or identify dangers by name, smell is crucial. Things that smell like fish are good. Things that barely smell: Who knows?
Luckily for Kali, I have no more desire to experiment with homemade pet food. Not only did she shun my concoctions, but they took hours to make and ended up costing almost twice as much as her fancy store-bought food, which rings up at just under 50 cents per day for wet and dry.
After I scraped the homemade wet food out of her bowl and replaced it with a wedge of Deep Water Fish, augmented with a heaping tablespoon of crunchy, stinky kibble, I swear I could hear her purring with relief.
Anybody want some pâté?
Every cat’s palate is different, so in addition to giving homemade pet food to my cat, I provided baggies to a few coworkers. Here’s how some of their cats reacted:
“Every time [Tito] comes into the house through his cat door … he makes a beeline for his kibble dish, which is always full. I mean, he’s running for it. This time, I switched out the Iams with the [homemade wet food]. He acted like it wasn’t even there, like he didn’t see it. Total denial … Next I tried the snacks. Put one in the palm of my hand. He smelled each of my fingers with curiosity but didn’t even smell the food. In his cat brain, it simply wasn’t there.”
“Molly, our black, fat cat, sniffed the tuna treats and gave them a courtesy lick, but wasn’t really interested. When I put an ice-cream-scoop size of wet food on a plate, she was interested. She sniffed and licked around its edges and then went for it and ate maybe eight to 10 bites … before leaving (about a normal snack for her).
“Our other cat, a skinny gray named Tenbrooks, wasn’t interested in either … She’s a particularly finicky cat, so this is no commentary on the deliciousness of your cat food.”
“I poured the wet food for Olive. She looked at me forlornly and conveyed, ‘How could you do this to me?’ So I poured the dry food. I don’t think she even recognized it as something edible. I think we might have found Olive’s diet secret … Wally wouldn’t try it, either. What can I say? I thought it looked good.”
“It appears my cats are creatures of habit. Or maybe they just really, really like their canned Wellness Chicken and Herring. They refused to eat the new wet food, and Minx and Rosie wouldn’t even eat Wellness that was on the same dish with it. (I offered yours alone first, then both together.)
“However, Max, my older cat who has some experience outdoors, may be a more adventurous eater. He took a nibble of the wet food. He also seems to like the dry food, which is not surprising, because he’ll eat pretzels and anything else crunchy.”
“Tuna treats: Buddy looooooved them. But he loooooves all food. I think it’s because he was a stray and probably had to eat some pretty crappy stuff. Sturgis was a big fan. Pepper loved them. Bunny didn’t really care about them: gave them a sniff and walked away. She’s not a big eater, really. Stoli kinda licked one and didn’t eat it. He’s not a big foodie, either.
“The beefy, veggie mix: Buddy would eat a bucketful. He had seconds. He’s a real fan of wet food of any variety, so it wasn’t too surprising. Sturgis ate it and seemed to enjoy it. Pepper ran over to it, which is saying a lot because she’s semiparalyzed. Bunny sniffed it a little and didn’t have any. Stoli remained napping on the bed.”