Before Kibble. The Surprising History of What Cats Ate Before Cat Food


Cats have undergone a major dietary shift in a relatively short span of time. As recently as a few hundred years ago, domestic cats lived outdoors and hunted small prey to survive. With the rise of commercial cat food in the mid-1800s, cats transitioned from hunters to domesticated pets relying on manufactured food. While early commercial cat foods mimicked the whole prey diets cats evolved to eat, today’s mass-produced options are heavily processed. Understanding the natural diet of cats provides insight into what they thrive on and informs decisions about which foods are healthiest. This article will explore the history behind commercial cat food and developments in feline nutrition.

The Diet of Wild Cats

In their natural habitat, cats are obligate carnivores that prey on small animals such as rodents, birds, reptiles and insects to meet their nutritional needs [1]. Cats have evolved as skilled hunters with quick reflexes, keen senses and sharp teeth and claws to capture and kill prey.

A cat’s diet in the wild consists primarily of small rodents such as mice, rats, voles and chipmunks. Rodents provide cats with high levels of protein and fat to fuel their energetic hunting lifestyle. Birds are another common prey for cats, providing nutrients from meat and bones.

Reptiles like lizards and snakes supplement the diet of wild cats as well. The proportion of different types of prey in a cat’s diet varies based on habitat and availability. But small rodents tend to be their primary target due to abundance and ease of capture [2].

Cats use their excellent stealth abilities, sharp vision and hearing to quietly stalk their prey before pouncing to deliver a lethal bite. They have an instinct to hunt even when satiated because the unpredictable nature of catching prey requires constant honing of their skills.

Early Domestication

Cats are believed to have first been domesticated over 10,000 years ago in the Near East, as early humans transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settling in agricultural communities. As humans began storing grains, it attracted rodents, which in turn attracted wild cats that were willing to live near humans and hunt the rodents. These wild cats were the ancestors of the domestic cat. They lived in a commensal relationship with humans, meaning they benefited from living near human settlements as a source of food. According to archaeological evidence, domestication occurred in ancient Egypt around 4,000 years ago [1].

In these early domestic settings, cats were still left to hunt and scavenge for their own food. They supplemented their diet by hunting rodents around human homes and settlements. They also lived off scraps and leftovers from human food preparation and waste. The close contact with humans led to the taming and domestication of cats over time. While dogs were actively domesticated by humans to serve purposes like hunting, herding, and security, cats largely domesticated themselves by adapting to live in proximity to humans and their agricultural stores. So early domestic cats maintained a diet similar to wild cats, focused on hunting rodents and opportunistically scavenging human food scraps.

19th Century Developments

19th century cookbooks began including recipes for cat food made from ingredients like meat broths and table scraps. According to “Did Victorian Cats Eat Kibble?”, one 19th century cookbook stated that cat food “may be bread, milk or potatoes mashed up in milk, or preferably in gravy; but meat of some kind she ought to have once a day at least.” Cats were still expected to hunt mice and other rodents during this time, but were sometimes supplemented with food made at home from ingredients at hand.

As cats transitioned more from barn cats to house pets in the Victorian era, cookbooks began providing recipes for homemade cat food using broth, milk, bread, table scraps and meat. While eating mice and hunting was still part of a house cat’s life, feeding them became more of a regular practice and recipes reflected that in cookbooks of the time.

Early Commercial Cat Food

The first commercial cat food is believed to have been created by James Spratt in England in the 1860s, starting with dog biscuits and later expanding to include food for cats[1]. Early commercial cat food often contained horse meat and fish meal as the main ingredients[2]. Canned cat food was introduced in the 1920s, allowing the incorporation of meat and fish ingredients into moist food products. Companies like Friskies and Ken-L-Ration began selling canned horse meat and fish based cat food in the 1920s and 1930s[3]. The increasing availability of commercial cat food containing meat meal and canned fish and meat enabled more cats to be fed diets akin to what they naturally ate in the wild.

Post-WWII Growth

The pet food industry saw enormous growth after World War II. With post-war prosperity rising in the 1950s, many families could afford to bring pets into their homes. Major brands like Purina capitalized on this growing market for pet food.

In the 1950s, Purina released the first dry, extruded cat food called Cat Chow. Dry kibble offered convenience and affordability, quickly dominating the emerging cat food market. By providing extended shelf-life without refrigeration, dry food allowed mass market distribution on a national scale. 1

New formulations also focused on the unique nutritional needs of cats. In 1964, the National Research Council established the first nutrient profiles for cat foods. Pet food companies began designing specialized diets to address health conditions like urinary tract disease. This allowed further expansion of the cat food market beyond just general nutrition. 1

Specialized Cat Food

The 1950s saw the beginnings of greater brand differentiation and product specialization in the cat food market.1 Companies like Purina, Quaker Oats, and Ralston-Purina started producing niche products targeted at cats with specific health conditions or dietary requirements.

One major development was the increased focus on prescription diets for cats with medical issues like diabetes, kidney disease, urinary problems, and allergies. These therapeutic foods contained ingredients tailored to the health needs of sick cats. For example, Purina introduced Prescription Diet k/d for kidney disease in 1957.2

Brands also began marketing cat food formulated for different life stages, from kitten to senior. They promoted the idea that cats have unique nutritional requirements that change as they age. This further segmented the market into products like Kitten Chow and Senior Cat Food.

Increased understanding of feline nutrition led to cat foods designed for indoor vs. outdoor cats. Indoor formulas focused on lower calories and reduced hairballs, while active outdoor formulas had more protein. Overall, companies tried appealing to cat owners’ desires for a customized diet.

The specialized cat food market continued expanding in the 1970s and beyond. Brands introduced grain-free, raw meat, organic, natural, and other niche products to capture health-conscious consumers. This growing variety enabled pet owners to choose foods aligned with their cat’s specific dietary needs and their own nutritional philosophies.

Homemade and Raw Diets

In recent years there has been a growing movement towards homemade or raw food diets for cats. Some pet owners choose to make their cat’s food at home for greater control over ingredients and to avoid processed commercial foods. According to, proponents of homemade diets claim benefits such as healthier skin and coat, improved digestion, better weight control, increased energy, and reduced allergies. Home cooked meals may contain ingredients like cooked meats, rice, vegetables, supplements, and oils.

The raw food diet takes homemade cat food a step further by eliminating any cooking. As explained by, raw diets try to mimic the natural diet cats would eat in the wild, with raw meat, bones, and organs making up the majority of food. Supporters believe the uncooked food is more nutritious and easier to digest. However, preparing a balanced homemade or raw diet requires research to meet all of a cat’s nutritional needs.

The Ideal Cat Diet

The ideal diet for cats should include both wet and dry food in moderation. Wet or canned food provides a high level of protein as well as much-needed moisture for cats. Dry food can help clean teeth and provide texture. About 25-30% of the diet should come from high-quality canned foods according to Cornell University. Increased moisture can help urinary tract health.

A high amount of animal-derived proteins is key. Cats are obligate carnivores and need a meat-based diet, specifically animal proteins like chicken, tuna, beef, and lamb. At least 25% of caloric intake should come from protein according to veterinary guidelines.

Treats and supplements should be limited to no more than 10-15% of total calories per day. Look for treats made of high-quality ingredients and meat proteins. Supplements may be recommended in specific cases like urinary or joint health but are unnecessary for most cats.


Throughout history, cats ate a variety of foods based on availability and circumstance. Wild cats subsisted on small prey while early domesticated cats relied on scraps and hunting. The 19th century saw cats eating table scraps, meat, and milk, while early commercial cat food took off in the postwar period. Today’s commercial cat foods are highly processed and specialized but can have health benefits and risks compared to homemade and raw diets.

For cat owners, the ideal diet focuses on meat-based proteins with limited grains and fillers. Canned or raw commercial cat food can provide balanced nutrition, but homemade cooked or raw diets require care to avoid deficiencies. There is no definitive perfect diet, but owners should research options, experiment to find what their cat thrives on, and stick to vet recommendations. The priority should be keeping cats at a healthy weight and energy level. With care and awareness, owners can choose a diet adapted to their cat’s needs.

In closing, cats are adaptable predators who have survived on diverse diets. By learning from their natural history and evaluating modern options, we can provide our feline companions with nutritional foods they enjoy and thrive on. With an open but careful approach, cat owners can make informed diet decisions to benefit their cats’ long-term health.

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