Do domestic cats need a varied diet?

Yes, is the answer to the question in the title and I have a study by Dr. John Bradshaw (Cat Sense) which scientifically supports that statement. Perhaps you don’t think you need a study because it’s almost as if common sense dictates that cats like a varied diet but I will tell you about the study in any case! I wonder, though, how many cat caregivers ensure that the domestic cat companion receives a varied diet. I sense that a lot of owners buy a large bag of dry cat food and give it to their cats daily, out of convenience. Perhaps I’m being too negative.

Stray cat scavenging
Stray cat scavenging. Photo in public domain
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Dr. Bradshaw found that stray cats purposefully sought out a varied diet whereas well fed domestic cats did not. This is what he did. He laid out individual pellets of dry cat food on a grid on the ground. There were two brands of dry cat food. He allowed rescued stray cats to forage i.e. scavenge, for these food pellets, one cat at a time.

He recorded the precise order in which each cat picked up and ate the pellets of the two types of food. When there were equal amounts of the two types of food the cats simply roamed over the grid and picked up the pellets, but much more of the food that they preferred.

When one of the types of dry cat food made up 90% of the total amount on the grid, each stray cat stopped grazing indiscriminately after about two minutes and they started to actively seek out the “rarer” food. By this he means the food that was scarce in the grid that he had laid out.

He describes this as a cat’s “primitive nutritional wisdom”. It indicates that these cats deliberately tried to find a variety of foods even when finding that variety was a little bit harder. If they weren’t bothered with variety, they would have simply eaten more of the dry cat food that represented 90% of the total.

So, these cats were looking for a balanced, varied diet and not the food that was the easiest to find. Both foods were identical in terms of nutritional quality.

Cat eating wet cat food
Cat eating wet cat food. Picture in the public domain.

When he performed the same experiment on pet cats that had always had a balanced diet only a few of them responded in the same way. They simply ate the food that they preferred or which was the easiest to find.

He deduced that the desire to seek out a variety of foods, and therefore create a balanced, varied diet, had to be “awakened” by the experience of having to scavenge for a living as occurs with respect to most stray cats.

I take this to mean that there is an inherited programming of domestic cats to seek out a balanced, varied diet in the interest of survival which seems to be dormant in pampered pets. On that basis, it seems sensible for cat caregivers to provide their cat with a variety of foods. What percentage of cat caretakers do this? we don’t know. We need another study! I would have thought about five or six different types of commercially prepared cat food would suffice. I have about five different types of wet cat food and one type of dry cat food which is Hills Dental Care.

Postscript: an interesting aspect of this study is that it highlights the fact that domestic cats that are fed by their owner are scavenging. Every day they scavenge for their food. However, this is an unnatural form of feline behaviour because their wild ancestor rarely scavenges.

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