Nature's Variety Instinct raw cat foods get pretty close to your cat's ancestral diet -- without the mess and hassle of concocting your own homemade raw food.
Very close to a cat's wild diet. Veterinarian Lisa Pierson -- a tough critic of commercial cat foods, who makes her own homemade raw food for her cats -- recommends a handful of commercial raw cat foods, including Nature's Variety Instinct.
Another top expert gives Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Chicken Formula a perfect 5-paw rating. The medallions are formed from two types of poultry (turkey and chicken), organ meats (liver and heart) and ground chicken bone -- all foods cats evolved to eat in the wild. (It's suitable for dogs, too.)
Nature's Variety Instinct adds a small amount -- less than 5 percent -- of fruits and vegetables as natural sources of vitamins and minerals. It adds no artificial nutrients.
Cat owners rave about it. Several say their older cats are playing like kittens again, and their sickly cats with irritable bowel disease or diabetes have returned to health after switching to Nature's Variety Instinct raw food. One says her newly adopted cat "went from a skinny cat with a dry brittle coat on kibble at the shelter to a full healthy weight with an amazing silky coat in a matter of days" on Nature's Variety Instinct raw. Some owners say their cats wouldn't eat it, but others preach patience -- transitioning a cat from dry or canned to raw food can take a while.
High-pressure pasteurization kills harmful bacteria without cooking. Nature's Variety recalled its Instinct Raw Chicken Formula in 2010 for possible salmonella contamination. The company now uses high-pressure pasteurization to kill harmful bacteria in all of its raw frozen diets without cooking, and it tests for bacteria before releasing the food for sale.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) cautions against feeding pets raw animal protein, because it could have harmful germs. But they say pasteurized raw food is OK. "The primary concern we have about raw animal-source proteins is the bacterial contamination issue," AVMA says. "Cooking, pasteurization, irradiation or other methods that successfully eliminate pathogens would render the food products safer and minimize the public health risk and be acceptable."
One pet food reviewer notes that Nature's Variety Instinct raw foods are made in Nebraska, using all USDA-approved ingredients (except lamb from New Zealand and rabbit from China) and no genetically modified ingredients. Nature's Variety says its rabbit comes "from a trusted supplier in China," which is regularly inspected by its own Ph.D food scientist with extra testing at an independent U.S. lab, and it has inspected the Chinese facility.
Cats eat less, so you might actually spend less. Reviews say cats need to eat less to maintain weight when fed a raw diet, so it can actually cost less than some premium canned foods. For example, Nature's Variety's online feeding guide says an 8-pound cat would generally eat 3 ounces of raw food per day (three medallions), at a cost of $1 a day with the chicken formula. By comparison, Halo -- maker of Best Reviewed pick Halo Spot's Stew Wholesome Chicken Recipe (Est. $1.60 for a 5.5-oz. can) -- says an 8-pound cat would generally need to eat 8 ounces of its canned food daily, adding up to $2.33 per day. Most other premium grain-free brands estimate a 5.5-ounce can per day for an 8-pound cat, costing about $1.50 per day.
Nature's Variety Instinct's chicken variety is the cheapest; pricier options include rabbit, lamb, venison, organic chicken, beef, and duck. You can also buy several of the flavors as patties, bite-sized pieces or bulk "chubs" (packaged like a roll of sausage or pack of hamburger).
It's easy to buy Nature's Variety Instinct raw foods locally, because big chain stores like Petco and Petland carry them. Nature's Logic (Est. $18 for a 3-lb. bag) can also be found at pet shops, though not the big chains. But Feline's Pride, another well-regarded maker of frozen raw foods, is largely mail-order, with a few small resellers scattered throughout the country. While Feline's Pride food is well-priced on a per-pound basis (Est. $4 per pound and up for chicken), packing, handling and shipping charges are substantial.
Susan Thixton reviews many cat food brands, including Nature's Variety. She rates each brand -- and its individual flavors of food -- based largely on the quality of its ingredients and food safety.
Review: Nature's Variety Cat Food, Susan Thixton, As of January 2014
AVMA cautions against feeding pets raw animal protein -- but in this FAQ, it says raw foods that have been pasteurized to kill harmful germs are fine.
Review: Raw Pet Foods and the AVMA's Policy: FAQ, American Veterinary Medical Association, Not Dated
For her own cats, veterinarian Lisa Pierson makes her own raw cat food. But she also recommends a few raw commercial foods -- including Nature's Variety. Her website provides a wealth of information on raw diets and feline nutrition in general.
Review: Commercial Foods, Lisa A. Pierson, DVM, Updated February 2013
This website lists cat foods -- canned, dry, raw and treats -- that are suitable for cats with irritable bowel disease (IBD). Nature's Variety Instinct raw foods make the list.
Review: Raw Food Products, Editors of IBDKitties.net, Not Dated
Nature's Variety Instinct Raw is easily one of the favorite foods of cat owners on this website, earning a nearly perfect 4.8 rating with more than 100 reviews posted. Only a few say their cats don't like it.
Review: Nature's Variety Grain-Free Instinct Frozen Raw Food, Contributors to OnlyNaturalPet.com, As of January 2014