Many experts say it's best to feed cats a raw diet, similar to what they'd eat in the wild. But whipping up a homemade raw dinner for your cat can be a messy process, and it's important to get all of the components (meat, bone, organs) in the right proportions for balanced nutrition. Or, experts say, you could just buy a bag of Nature's Variety Instinct raw cat food. It's all-natural, complete and balanced, and conveniently pre-portioned in 1-ounce medallions to make raw feeding easy and mess-free.
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 all raw frozen diets without cooking, and it tests for bacteria before releasing the food for sale.
The American Veterinary Medical Association 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," is regularly inspected by its own Ph.D. food scientist with extra testing at an independent U.S. lab, and Nature's Variety 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. Pierson says her cats usually eat 4 to 6 ounces of homemade raw food per day (it costs her less than $1 per cat, homemade); feeding that much Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Chicken Formula would cost $1.33 to $2 a day.
Here's how premium canned stacks up. Halo -- maker of 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, like Wellness, estimate a 5.5-ounce can per day for an 8-pound cat, costing about $1.50 per day.
Nature's Variety's other raw flavors cost more. Chicken is the cheapest, followed by rabbit, lamb, venison, organic chicken, bison and beef, all the way up to $40 for 3 pounds of duck medallions. You can also buy several of the flavors as patties or bulk "chubs" (packaged like a roll of sausage or pack of hamburger), but owners say they like the smaller medallions for cats -- they just thaw out a few medallions and breakfast (or dinner) is served.
Another raw diet, Feline's Pride Gourmet Chicken (*Est. $30 for 5 lb.), comes in 2.5-pound tubs. Like Nature's Variety, you can also get bigger bulk amounts and pricier flavors. But in these smallest sizes, Nature's Variety costs a bit less.
Another important point: These foods must be kept frozen, so if you order them through the mail, expect to pay an extra $10 to $13 surcharge on top of regular or express shipping charges. It's easy to buy Nature's Variety Instinct raw foods locally, because big chain stores like Petco and Petland carry them. Feline's Pride is largely mail-order, with a few small resellers scattered throughout the country.
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.
Excellent 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, Updated May 2011
Excellent The 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
Excellent 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, Not Dated
Good Nature's Variety Instinct Raw is one of the few cat foods to earn a "Superior" rating on this website. A panel of veterinarians, nutritionists and the website's own staff say its chicken, ground bone and other ingredients are ideal for cats.
Review: Comparison Center: Compare Your Pet's Food, Editors of 1800PetMeds.com, Not Dated
Good 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
Fair 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 October 2012