Feeding raw food to cats is a trend that is increasing globally. In the clinic I see more and more people who feed their cats this way. Whether this is a good thing is open to debate, but pet owners taking time to educate themselves about nutrition can only be a good thing.
Raw feeding is a topic of fierce debate amongst vets and also for pet owners. Some say raw food is much better, others think it’s a terrible idea. Read on to discover who is right and if you should feed your cat raw food.
What Is Raw Feeding?
When we talk about feeding cats raw food, it’s important to define exactly what we’re talking about. Raw feeding in its simplest definition is feeding your cat a diet which hasn’t been heat treated (cooked). Raw foods can be prepared at home or bought from a commercial company.
From here on in I’ll use the terms “raw feeding” for food which isn’t cooked and “cooked food” for commercially prepared cooked food. “Cooked food” covers kibble and wet food.
Here’s a video on how raw food is manufactured:
Pros And Cons Of Raw Feeding
- High quality raw foods usually have healthier macronutrient ratios. They are high in protein and low in carbs. This is exactly what cats digestive systems are designed for.
- Raw feeding is more “natural”. Cats only started to eat kibbled food very recently. Throughout domestication their diet was almost entirely raw meat.
- Better for teeth. Eating bones is good for teeth. A study in 2017 found improved dental health in pets which ate bones compared to those who ate only kibble.
- Cats like eating raw food! In general most cats will readily eat raw meat and really enjoy it. Feeding a variety of things to nibble and chew is fun!
- Some people say that cats on a raw food diet stay a healthier weight than those on kibble.
- Many owners report that their cat’s skin and coat improve when fed a raw diet instead of kibble.
- Some people say that when fed raw food, cats have less smelly and easier to clean up poops.
Protein And Carbohydrates
I think this is the area that raw foods often beat cooked diets. Protein and carbohydrates are the most important nutrients in a cat’s diet. They’re both macronutrients, which means they are some of the main nutrients found in food.
Protein is a key part of a cat’s diet. Most (but not all) of this protein needs to be in the form of animal protein. A protein level of 40% is needed to maintain muscle mass. Unfortunately, a lot of commercially available cooked foods are below this level.
Cats are obligate carnivores, this means that they need to eat meat. Cats cannot produce taurine or arachidonic acid. These are two of the essential building blocks of protein which are only found in meat. Dogs and humans can make these for themselves, but cats can’t. That’s why they need to eat meat.
- Like with cooked foods, the quality of raw foods available varies. The best quality raw foods can be very nutritious, lower quality raw food can be very poor quality.
- Some raw foods are not nutritionally balanced, and must not be fed on their own.
- Home-made raw diets are almost impossible to get the right levels of minerals and vitamins. Home-made diets need to have vitamins and minerals added (and there’s still no guarantee that the balance is right).
- Bacterial contamination is inevitable in raw meat. This can have serious impacts on people as well as cats.
- In rare cases greedy cats can eat pieces of bone which are too large and cause blockages. This only applies to poor quality raw foods.
Nutrients And “Balance”
A “balanced” diet means that all the essential vitamins and minerals are present in amounts that are healthy for cats to eat. If you feed a balanced diet you can know your cat is getting all the vitamins and minerals they need.
Unfortunately, lots of raw foods for cats are not balanced.
One study of 36 different brands of raw food found that only 22% had the required levels of calcium, phosphorus, zinc and copper. Out of these, only 14% had enough calcium for growth.
If you do want to feed a raw food this really shows the importance of doing research and choosing the right one. The best raw foods are nutritionally balanced and full of healthy nutrients.
Does Every Meal Need To Be Balanced?
People don’t eat a balanced diet with every meal or even every day. It is still possible to be healthy as long as overall your diet is balanced. So it should be the same for cats, right?
Unfortunately, there is no evidence about how important consistent balance is.
What we can say though, is that there are times when being consistent is more important to cats than to adult humans. Kittens are much more sensitive to nutrient imbalances. Take extra care with kittens to get the right food for them to set them up for life.
Cats grow up much faster than people. It takes a human about 18 years to grow to physical maturity. Cats can grow to their full size in around a year. So for a growing kitten, a week without a critical nutrient is much worse than the same thing for a growing human.
One of the big points of debate over raw feeding cats is about bacteria. Raw meat is inevitably contaminated by bacteria during the butchering process. Chicken is usually even more contaminated because bacteria can spread throughout the meat.
The FDA did a study on over a thousand samples of pet food. Some samples were raw foods, others were conventional foods. They found that 23% of the raw food contained Salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes. Only 0.2% of cooked samples were contaminated.
Cats are less prone to these diseases than humans. This is because the time it takes for food to pass all the way through their intestines is less than in humans.
People who feed their cats raw food can be at risk of catching these diseases, particularly if hygiene isn’t good. Contamination can happen when defrosting frozen meat, handling it, handling the bowls that cats have eaten from and even directly from your cat.There is one disease which is rare, but very serious.
There is some evidence of a link between feeding cats raw meat and tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is a fatal disease which can cause very serious illness in people as well as cats. Tuberculosis is hard to treat in people and can even kill.
What’s The Evidence?
In short, at the moment there isn’t any real evidence for whether raw is better than cooked food. It might be that in the future when more studies have been done that we find that one is definitely better than the other. At the moment, we can only use the evidence we have and our best guesses.
The main evidence on the topic comes from big pet food companies which produce conventional cooked food. Conventional pet food companies have a head start on raw food companies and bigger research budgets.
This means the evidence isn’t balanced.
Most evidence for raw food is based upon personal testimony. Unfortunately, this is not a substitute for scientific evidence. We have to be careful to avoid taking personal testimony at face value, we need more scientific studies to be confident. This isn’t saying that cooked is better than raw, just that the evidence isn’t available.
The other problem with the science on raw food is that a lot of the studies are based on dogs, not cats. This is a problem across the whole of veterinary medicine. Some things that are true for dogs are true for cats. But cats aren’t small dogs and not all evidence from dogs applies.
Responsible Raw Feeding
If you do choose to feed your cat a raw diet there are a few important things to consider.
Not All Raw Diets Are Created Equally.
As is often the case, quality varies greatly between brands. It is important to do your research when choosing a raw food to feed to your cat.
For those living in Europe, you can choose a brand which is a member of the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association. These companies follow a strict set of rules to ensure their products are as balanced and safe as possible.
Avoid Preparing Your Cat’s Food Yourself
Home-prepared raw diets are almost never properly balanced. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend preparing a diet for your cat at home. This is true for both raw and cooked diets.
While the pet food industry has a bit of a PR problem, as long as you choose which brand to feed carefully, it will be the best option for your cat.
If You Must Prepare Food Yourself…
If you insist on preparing your cat’s food yourself, you need to add vitamins and minerals to try to keep things balanced.
Homemade raw diets really aren’t suitable for kittens, so if you’re going to do it, only do it for healthy adult cats.
Hygiene Is Critical
- Wash your hands with hot water and soap after handling raw food, food packaging or your cat.
- Immediately wash and disinfect anything that has touched, or could have been touched by raw food.
- Dispose of uneaten raw food as soon as your cat has finished eating – do not leave it out.
- Clean and disinfect the area where your cat eats as soon as they have finished eating
- When defrosting raw food use an airtight container and defrost in the fridge or microwave. Never defrost at room temperature.
- Never refreeze thawed food.
Raw feeding is not right for all people
Certain groups of people are more likely to get infections. If you, or anyone in your family is young, old, pregnant or immunocompromised (YOPI) then it is safer not to feed raw food to your cat.
Lots of cats do well on raw diets. Most days in the clinic I’ll meet cats who eat raw food and are very healthy. But lots of cats do well on cooked diets too.
I think the thing that matters most isn’t whether a food is cooked or raw. What matters is how high quality it is. The best raw foods are probably better than a lot of cooked foods. But equally, the best cooked foods are better than a lot of raw foods!
Whatever food you choose to feed your cat, make sure to do your research and feed the highest quality food you can afford.
Raw feeding is not a religion! It’s not all or nothing, you can feed a mix of raw and cooked if you choose to. The important thing is to be consistent. Rapid change in a diet can cause upset tummies.
Every cat is different, and so is every household. It is important to make a decision on whether to feed a raw food based on your (and your cat’s) specific circumstances.For further information on how to choose a cat food see our article on that topic here.