Is Raw Cat Food Good for Cats?

January 19, 2021
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Feeding raw foods to cats is controversial. The wild ancestors of domestic cats certainly ate raw foods, but does that mean our cats should do the same?

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of raw cat food diets so you can make an informed decision when choosing a healthy food for your cat.

What Is Raw Cat Food?

Raw cat food is just that—unprocessed food made from raw ingredients.

Cats are obligate carnivores that have some unique nutritional needs that can be met by eating a diet composed primarily of animal tissue. Raw cat foods accomplish this by placing uncooked meat, fish, and internal organs at the top of their ingredient lists. Ground bone is often included as a source of calcium and phosphorus. Vitamin and mineral supplements and other ingredients are added to round out the diet and prevent nutritional deficiencies.

Cats require high dietary protein levels because, unlike most animals, they use protein rather than carbohydrates as their primary energy source. Certain amino acids, most notably taurine, as well as arachidonic acid, vitamin A, vitamin D, and many B vitamins, must also be present in sufficient amounts.

Commercial Raw Cat Food vs. Homemade Raw Food for Cats

Raw cat foods come in many different forms. Some pet parents prepare raw foods for their cats at home. Others choose commercially available raw cat food diets, which are usually sold as raw frozen or raw freeze-dried formulas.

Other options are also available, like premixes of vegetables, vitamins, and minerals that you add raw meat to, or there are ready-made, raw pet diets that can be purchased from local butchers. Which option is best?

Homemade Raw Cat Food

Making your cat’s food at home gives you the most control over what they eat, but it isn’t as easy as you might think. Meat alone is not enough!

Cats need the correct balance of amino acids, fats, vitamins, and minerals to thrive. These nutrients are best provided by a combination of meat, internal organs, vitamin and mineral supplements, and other ingredients eaten in just the right amounts and proportions.

To make matters worse, numerous studies have shown that it’s virtually impossible to find nutritionally complete and balanced recipes for homemade pet foods online or in print.

And even if you do start with a good recipe, like one designed by a veterinary nutritionist to meet your cat’s particular needs, it can be hard to stick to it. A paper published in 2014 found that many owners who made their pets’ meals at home eventually strayed from the recipe, which could lead to nutritional deficiencies or excesses over time.

Commercial Raw Cat Food

Commercially prepared raw cat foods take a lot of the guesswork out of feeding raw. Reputable manufacturers follow the guidelines put forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

Make sure that you can find an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy like one of these on the label of any cat food you might purchase:

  • Brand X Cat Food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for adult maintenance, growth and reproduction, or all life stages.

  • Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand X Cat Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for adult maintenance, growth and reproduction, or all life stages.

You can be confident that any cat food, raw or not, that conforms to AAFCO standards will at the very least provide your cat with the basics of good feline nutrition.

Are Raw Cat Food Diets the Same as the BARF Diet for Cats?

The acronym BARF is sometimes used to describe a version of homemade or commercially available raw cat foods. BARF stands for either “biologically appropriate raw foods” or “bones and raw foods.”

BARF proponents often highlight the inclusion of raw bone and internal organs in their foods, rather than simply adding raw meat to other ingredients to create a balanced diet. The pros and cons of BARF and non-BARF raw cat foods are similar.

Is Raw Cat Food Better Than Other Cat Food?

Nutritionally inadequate cat foods are widely available, and this is true for both processed cat food (canned, dry, etc.) and raw cat food diets.

Many of the benefits that are often ascribed to feeding cats a raw diet could be gained simply by switching to any higher-quality, more biologically appropriate cat food.

Here are some factors to consider and how different diets stack up.

Water Content

Cats are meant to get most of their water directly from their food. While dry cat foods are very low in water, canned cat foods can provide just as much, if not more water in comparison to a raw cat food diet.

High-Quality Ingredients and Digestibility

Both raw and cooked food can be made from ingredients of varying quality. Raw isn’t synonymous with “high quality” or “high digestibility.”

In fact, cooking improves the nutritional value of certain foods. For example, many types of raw seafood contain thiaminase, an enzyme that breaks down thiamine. Cats who eat a diet of mainly raw seafood are at risk for thiamine deficiency, which can lead to poor appetite, seizures, and death. Cooking breaks down thiaminase, making these varieties of seafood safe for cats.

Nutritional Value

No scientific study has ever shown that raw cat food diets provide better nutrition than do other types of cat food.

Of course, a high-quality raw diet would be nutritionally superior to a low-quality processed food, but you could achieve similar benefits by switching to a high-quality canned cat food, for example.

Safety Considerations for Raw Cat Food Diets

While some raw cat foods may provide cats with excellent nutrition, they are still not without their drawbacks.

Studies reveal that commercially prepared raw pet foods suffer from increased levels of contamination with potential pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria, and E. Coli in comparison to “regular” pet foods.

The situation isn’t any better for raw diets prepared at home. USDA estimates show that approximately one-quarter of raw chicken parts in human food-production facilities are contaminated with Salmonella and/or Campylobacter bacteria. Toxoplasma gondii and other parasites can also be spread through raw cat foods.

You may have heard that healthy adult cats have innate resistance to foodborne pathogens. While this may be true in some cases, reports of cats developing and even dying from diseases contracted from raw cat food do exist.

People living with a cat who eat raw foods can also be exposed to these pathogens from handling contaminated foods or coming into contact with pathogens in the cat’s feces. The risks posed by raw foods are greatest for people and cats who are very young, very old, or immunocompromised.

How to Prepare Raw Cat Food Safely

If you feel strongly that a raw cat food diet is right for you and your cat, protect all the members of your family by closely following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines for preventing infections associated with the handling of these products:

  • Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds) after handling raw pet food, and after touching surfaces or objects that have come in contact with the raw food. Potential contaminated surfaces include countertops and the inside of refrigerators and microwaves. Potential contaminated objects include kitchen utensils, feeding bowls, and cutting boards.

  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects that come in contact with raw pet food. First wash with hot, soapy water, and then follow with a disinfectant. A solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 quart (4 cups) water is an effective disinfectant. For a larger supply of the disinfectant solution, add ¼ cup bleach to 1 gallon (16 cups) water. You can also run items through the dishwasher after each use to clean and disinfect them.

  • Freeze raw meat and poultry products until you are ready to use them, and thaw them in your refrigerator or microwave, not on your countertop or in your sink.

  • Carefully handle raw and frozen meat and poultry products. Don’t rinse raw meat, poultry, fish, and seafood. Bacteria in the raw juices can splash and spread to other food and surfaces.

  • Keep raw food separate from other food.

  • Immediately cover and refrigerate what your pet doesn’t eat or throw the leftovers out safely.

  • If you’re using raw ingredients to make your own cooked pet food, be sure to cook all food to a proper internal temperature as measured by a food thermometer. Thorough cooking kills Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and other harmful foodborne bacteria.

  • Don’t kiss your pet around its mouth, and don’t let your pet lick your face. This is especially important after your pet has just finished eating raw food.

  • Thoroughly wash your hands after touching or being licked by your pet. If your pet gives you a “kiss,” be sure to also wash your face.

Featured image: iStock.com/Nitiphonphat