Back before pet foods became commercialized, people primarily fed dogs cheap horse meat and table scraps. Royal dogs didn't actually fare all that well. Prince Albert's greyhound, Eos, was fed only pate de foie gras and fresh unsalted butter. Clearly that wasn't a suitable diet for dogs, as Eos died suddenly, no doubt from the canine equivalent of gout. Prince Albert preferred to blame it on a scullery maid who gave Eos salted butter one day.
Commercial pet foods came along in the mid-19th century, accompanying the rise in status of the dog as a family pet. A little over 100 years later, pet food companies had all but done away with home feeding of pets. They performed or financed all of the research into pet nutrition and funded the teaching of nutrition at veterinary schools, emphasizing the importance of a steady commercial diet with little variety. There's no doubt that some of the commercial foods available today are way better for pets than a steady diet of foie gras or table scraps (especially given today's high-fat human diets).
But in the wake of last month's massive pet food recall, with hundreds and ultimately perhaps even thousands of cats and dogs sick or dead from contaminated pet food, people are returning to homemade diets. Despite the dire warnings of pet food manufacturers, it is possible to make a nutritious food for cats and dogs at home. They do have special needs--they won't thrive on Mickey D's or the leftovers from your local taco joint--but mixing up your own dog or cat food according to a veterinary nutritionist-approved recipe gives you the satisfaction of knowing exactly where your pet's food came from and what's in it.
Here's one of the most important things you need to know if you're planning to make food for your cat:
Cats are obligate carnivores. That means they must have meat in their diet. Even if your kitty likes to nibble grass, she can't survive on a vegetarian diet.
Here are some good resources for homemade cat and dog food:
The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care, C.J. Puotinen
The Nature of Animal Healing, Martin Goldstein, DVM
Natural Cat Care, Celeste Yarnall
Natural Dog Care, Celeste Yarnall
Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, 3rd edition, Richard Pitcairn, DVM
Keep Your Cat Healthy the Natural Way by Pat Lazarus
Real Food for Dogs, Arden Moore
Whole Pet Diet, Andi Brown
Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative, Donald Strombeck, DVM, Ph.D.
8 Weeks To A Healthy Dog, Shawn Messonnier, DVM
These aren't in any particular order. They're either written by people I know and trust or they're recommended by people I know and trust.
You can also have your pet food recipe evaluated by the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, for a fee. Your veterinarian must refer you; you can't just send them a sample and a check.
If you'd still prefer to feed your pet a commercial diet, take a look at my MSNBC article on what to know about choosing a pet food. I say in the article that pet food labels are easily manipulated, but I'll say it again here. It's good if some kind of named meat (chicken, turkey, lamb) is the first ingredient and it's good for a food to list other meat or dairy proteins later on the label (chicken meal, chicken livers, eggs, cheese, fish meal, etc.), but if the food also contains several mentions of grains--for instance, wheat, wheat middlings, wheat meal or rice, rice bran, and some other form of rice--then more than likely the food contains more grain than meat and isn't a high-quality choice.
Finally, the most important information on the pet food label is the manufacturer's contact information. Write or call and ask whatever you want to know about the food (see my article for suggestions). If you don't like the answers you get, try another company and another until you get answers that satisfy you. Your pet's health and longevity are at stake.