Raw Food Diet for Cats: A Natural Solution

What you need to know about raw food diets for cats

Cat eating raw food diet
Adam Drobiec / EyeEm / Getty Images

If you've followed my articles on Tips for Choosing Cat Foods and Understanding Cat Food Labels, you may have come to the conclusion that there is no perfect commercial food for your cat. Indeed, because of the heat processing necessary to meet government standards, even the best of these cook out some of the nutrients. What is a concerned cat owner to do, then?

Why Consider a Raw Food Diet?  

The simplest answer is, "Because it closely approximates the diet cats would get in the wild; the diet to which their physiology is naturally attuned." Cats eat a varied diet in the wild, including organs, brains, and occasionally, stomach and intestine contents:

  • mice and other rodents
  • small mammals
  • birds
  • fish
  • snakes and other reptiles
  • insects

However, for various reasons most feline caregivers do not have the resources, nor the time to offer live prey to their cats; others may feel squeamish at doing so (although frozen baby mice warmed to room temperature may afford a rare treat.) Enter the raw food diet, which most closely approximates the diet of felines in the wild.

An oft-cited study was done by Francis M. Pottenger, which left little doubt to the importance of enzyme-rich raw foods for cats.

Pottenger's Cats

Toward the middle of the 20th century, Dr. Francis M. Pottenger, Jr., drawing on the experiments of Weston Price in his treatments of respiratory disease, conducted a study on the effects of heat-processed foods on cats. His study was prompted by the poor health of cats he was using for adrenal studies; cats who were fed cooked meat scraps. As neighbors to his clinic in Monrovia, CA, kept donating cats for his study, his supply of cooked meat dwindled, and he found a source for raw meat scraps from a local meat packing plant.

Dr. Pottenger observed within a few months that the cats receiving the raw meat scraps were in noticeably better health; thus his feeding study was born.

The controlled feeding experiment took place over ten years, between 1932 and 1942, and over 900 cats were eventually included. The optimum diet consisted of 1/3 raw milk, cod liver oil, and 2/3 raw meat, with one group receiving cooked food instead of raw.

The findings were astounding. Within a few generations, the cats receiving cooked food exhibited:

  • facial deformities: narrowed faces, crowded jaws, frail bones and weakened ligaments
  • an excess of parasites
  • all manners of disease
  • female cats became more aggressive while males became docile
  • difficulty with pregnancy, and after three generations, pregnancy failed
  • kittens born of these pregnancies often did not survive to adulthood
  • kittens showed skeletal deformities and organ malfunctions

Clearly, there was a direct link between the cooking of meat and the resultant evidence of malnutrition in Pottenger's cats.

 Is raw meat safe for my cats?

There are mixed reactions to this question. Certainly pet food companies will tell you of the dangers inherent in feeding raw meat to pets, such as salmonella, e coli (a zoonose), listeria, and other bacteria. Some veterinarians also take this stance. On the other hand, the "Raw, Meaty Bones" diet was developed by a veterinarian, and respected veterinarian Dr. Lisa A. Pierson advocates raw diets for cats.

While cats' stomachs are said to be more acidic than ours, and while cats often eat day-old carcasses in the wild with no ill effects, human-induced bacterial contaminants in processed meats can be problematical. However, thousands of people are successfully feeding their cats and dogs raw food diets, by taking certain precautions:

  •  Buy from a trusted butcher instead of commercially-packed meat in supermarkets
  • Use the meat immediately, or freeze the meat mixture in individual serving-sized packets for future use. (Freezing also destroys many bacteria.)
  • Add priobiotics to the mix, for enhanced intestinal tract health (available in health food stores and online pet supplies stores)
  • Use safe food handling techniques - clean and sterilize all equipment, including cutting boards and food dishes after each use-  (I use a hand-held steam cleaner from Bissell, for the cutting board)
  • Always take up and discard any uneaten food after thirty minutes
  • Consult with your own veterinarian before offering a raw meat diet to an immunocompromised cat

Bones and Raw Food

It is difficult to trace the origin of the "BARF" diet, although it is possible the Pottenger study may have been an influence, in part. The BARF diet has been around for awhile, and first became popular among dog owners and breeders.

It is also sometimes called the "Biologically Appropriate Raw Food" diet. Proponents of the BARF diet suggest giving cats raw, meaty neck bones or wing tips in sections, either whole, or ground. The BARF diet has also evolved into other raw food diets which are more attuned to cats' particular needs. There are a number of variations of these diets, but the  essential basics remain the same:

  1. raw muscle meat, along with organ meat from the same source, i.e., chicken, beef, lamb
  2. raw bones (neck and back bones in poultry), either ground or whole
  3. added supplements, including, but not limited to cod liver oil, fatty acids, enzymes, and taurine

Some raw food proponents also add other ingredients:

  • fresh, raw vegetables, including broccoli, carrots, squash, and potatoes
  • raw fruits (apples, cranberries, and bananas are frequently mentioned)
  • grain, such as barley, oats, or brown rice (whole, ground, or sprouted)

Purists argue that these added ingredients are not necessary, and that they do not represent the kinds of food a cat will seek out in the wild.  On the other hand stories abound on the Cats Forum of cats eating and apparently enjoying things like corn-on-the-cob, canteloup, and grapes. The fact is that corn is one of the known food allergens for cats, and should be avoided at any cost. Note: Since this article was first written, grain in cat food has come into disfavor for most feline nutrition experts, especially for diabetic cats.

I personally have made it a policy to feed only grain-free foods to my own cats, both in the dry and canned varieties.

Since many people simply have neither the time nor the resources for preparing a raw food diet for their cats "from scratch," several companies offer powdered supplements which, when added to raw meat, organ meat, and water, provide a nutritionally complete raw food diet. Although a bit more expensive than some of the premium cat foods, these supplements are convenient, and go a long way in ensuring optimum health for your kitty. My own Top Picks for raw diet supplements are shown in this article.

When Your Time is Limited

Commercial raw meat frozen and freeze-dried diets are also available. They are great timesavers. You only have to defrost the frozen foods, warm slightly to take off the chill, and serve.

The freeze-dried diets are reconstituted with warm water and dinner is served.

It's Your Decision

As in all such issues dealing with cats, the bottom line is always that it is a personal decision, and you need to determine what is best for your own cat. I've given you several pros and cons here, along with some resources for forming your own opinion. As always, here's to good health and long, happy lives for your kitties and mine.