Should You Feed Your Cat a Raw Diet?

What you need to know about raw food diets for cats

Cat eating raw food diet
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Are raw food diets good for cats? Everyone knows that proper nutrition is essential to a cat's well-being. Choosing a cat food can be overwhelming, especially when we have to worry about commercial pet food recalls. Many owners choose to feed home-prepared diets so they know exactly what is in the cat food. For some, this means home-cooked food. For others, it means a raw diet.

What is a Raw Diet for Cats?

Feeding a raw diet to cats means feeding uncooked animal muscle meat, organ meat, and bones.

This type of food is sometimes called the BARF diet, which stands for "bones and raw food" or " biologically-appropriate raw food." The ideal raw diet is prepared based on a carefully designed recipe. Many cat owners choose to prepare these diets themselves, but commercial forms are also available. If you choose to feed your cat a raw diet, it should be one that has been determined complete and balanced by a veterinary nutritionist. 

Why Consider a Raw Diet?

Felines are obligate carnivores. In short, this means they must eat meat to survive. Cats do not actually need vegetables and carbohydrates in their diets. In fact, they can only tolerate carbohydrates in small amounts. Instead, cats thrive on high-protein, high-moisture diets rich in substances only found in meat. This includes amino acids like taurine, fatty acids, and other essential vitamins and minerals.

Supporters of raw food diets believe that cooking meat alters or decreases these vital substances.

They advocate for a biologically-appropriate diet that closely mimics what a cat would eat in the wild. In general, small wild cats hunt and eat rodents and other small mammals, birds, fish, insects, and even reptiles. When it comes to feeding your own cat raw food, the idea is to create a diet that is similar.

There is much controversy revolving around raw food diets for pets. Those who support raw food diets have much to say about the health benefits: coats are shinier, teeth stay cleaner, obesity is prevented, and overall health is better. While these claims tend to ring true, the opposition has valid concerns about the safety of raw food diets.​

Are Raw Food Diets Safe for Cats?

It is important to know that feeding raw food to your cat comes with some risks. Raw food may contain pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli that can lead to serious life-threatening infections. Cooking food removes most of these pathogens, which is why we humans tend to cook our food.

Cats often digest raw foods better than humans because they have shorter, more acidic digestive tracts. Many pathogens will pass through a cat without causing any issues. However, not all cats can tolerate raw food.

Perhaps the greatest risk of feeding and handling raw meat comes down to cross-contamination. Feeding your cat a raw food diet can expose you and other people in your home to dangerous pathogens. Pathogens can remain on preparation surfaces, food dishes, in cat fecal matter, and even on your cat (especially around the face).

Raw diets should not be fed to cats living in homes with immune-compromised individuals. They should also be avoided in households with young children and/or elderly people.

While it's impossible to eliminate all risk, there are some ways to try to be safer when feeding a raw food diet to your cat:

  • Prepare the food in a contained area of the home; clean and sanitize thoroughly when done (use a 1:32 bleach to water solution if possible)
  • Wear gloves when handling raw meat
  • Handle food frozen when possible
  • Use meat ingredients from a reliable source
  • Feed your cat in an area that is easy to clean (no carpeting or upholstery nearby).
  • Sanitize food bowls immediately after feeding (scrub clean, then use a 1:32 bleach to water solution, then rinse and dry bowls)

Bones are another safety concern when it comes to raw food diets.

Small whole bones or pieces of bones can cause complications such as gastrointestinal obstructions, oral injuries, and airway obstructions. If animal bones are included in your cat's raw food diet, they should be ground up thoroughly.

Complete and Balanced Raw Food Diets

One of the biggest mistakes owners make with raw food diets is not making sure the diet is complete and balanced. Some people just feed "all meat and bones" or a wide variety of meats without actually paying attention to the calorie, fat, protein, and nutrient content. Do not assume your cat is getting everything needed for good health by simply feeding "as much meat as desired." Over time, an incomplete diet can lead to serious health problems for your cat.

When developing your cat's raw diet, consult with your veterinarian about recipes that offer complete and balanced nutrition for your cat. Know that many vets will not recommend raw diets due to the risks involved. If you feel strongly about trying a raw diet and your vet is not flexible at all about raw diets, seek out a veterinarian who is experienced with raw diets. Better yet, find a veterinary nutritionist. 

It is essential that you find an expert to help you develop a complete and balanced diet that will truly benefit your cat. Your vet may also recommend special supplements to ensure your cat gets the nutrients needed to stay healthy.

Ingredients used in a raw food diet may include the following:

  • Raw meat from muscles and organs (good sources include poultry, rabbit, and fish)
  • Raw bones, ground
  • Eggs
  • Supplements (required)

You will likely need the following equipment and supplies to prepare the raw diet:

  • Large cutting board that can go in the dishwasher
  • Meat grinder
  • Poultry shears
  • Stainless steel or glass mixing bowls
  • Disposable gloves (latex or nitrile)
  • Storage containers (may people use ice cube trays or small freezer-safe containers
  • Freezer and refrigerator space

Preparing a raw diet at home can be a bit time-consuming, so most owners prefer to make enough to last several weeks and keep it frozen.

If you are not able to take the time to develop recipes and prepare raw food at home, you may wish to try one of the many commercial raw diets available. Raw diet supporters often consider commercial raw diets inferior to those prepared at home. However, they are healthier than feeding kibble.

Commercial raw diets are usually frozen or freeze-dried to minimize pathogens. Remember that safe-handling precautions should still be taken with these diets to prevent cross-contamination. Ask your veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist for help finding the right commercial diet. Make sure it is considered complete and balanced according to AAFCO standards.

If you would like to eliminate the risks associated with raw food but still feed your cat an optimum diet, consider home-cooked cat food. You will still need to find a recipe that is complete and balanced. Or, choose a high-protein wet cat food made with quality ingredients. Note that dry kibble has too many carbohydrates to be considered optimum for cats, but many wet foods are prepared with few carbohydrates or even none at all.

 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.