There has been a recent surge in pet parents considering raw, “human-grade,” limited ingredient, or freeze-dried food their cats and dogs. Freeze-dried cat food accounts for much less of the total cat food sold when compared to kibble or canned food, but it is a growing category.
Because there are many health risks associated with dietary nutritional deficiencies in cats, many of which are irreversible or untreatable, it is always best to consult with your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist (ACVN diplomates may be found at acvn.org) when choosing an appropriate diet for your cat. Many factors are at play, including age, medical concerns, or medications that your cat may be on.
This article covers the basics of freeze-dried food so you can make an informed decision about your cat’s diet.
What Is Freeze-Dried Cat Food?
Freeze-drying is a technique in which a food is frozen and put in a vacuum so that the water content of will sublimate (go from ice to vapor). The food product is then sealed in air-tight packaging. This removes all moisture from the food, making it more shelf-stable at room temperature for longer periods of time than non-freeze-dried foods.
Freeze-dried cat food is a raw food product, meaning that is has not been cooked or pasteurized with heat. It may be sold on its own as a meal or a treat, or it may be used to coat kibble or mixed with kibble.
How Is Freeze-Dried Cat Food Different From Raw Cat Food?
There are several main differences between unprocessed raw food and freeze-dried cat food:
Moisture is removed from raw foods (freeze-drying process) to create freeze-dried food that is shelf-stable.
Freeze-dried is sold commercially, whereas unprocessed raw foods are typically homemade by pet parents or sold by local pet shops or butcher shops. This means they have undergone no alteration to attempt to decrease the bacterial or parasitic load that can be a problem associated with feeding raw.
Unprocessed raw foods also may not be regulated or nutritionally balanced, unless an owner is specifically working with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to ensure that their pet’s diet is nutritionally complete.
Is Freeze-Dried Cat Food the Same as Dehydrated Cat Food?
Freeze-drying and dehydrating foods are two different techniques that are used to achieve the same goal of removing moisture to achieve a stable shelf life.
While freeze-drying uses cold temperatures to achieve the removal of moisture, dehydration requires low heat. The amount of heat used is not enough to consider the food to be cooked, however.
Freeze-dried foods often contain less moisture than dehydrated foods, so they may have a longer shelf-life, and freeze-dried foods may retain more vitamins than their dehydrated counterparts.
Is Freeze-Dried Raw Cat Food Safe?
There are inherent risks to feeding any sort of raw diet, both to your cat and to the people in your household. Cats and people with immunodeficiencies or other underlying medical conditions, as well as the young and the old, are especially prone to the adverse risks of having raw pet food in the house.
Risk of Bacteria and Parasites
For example, a recent outbreak of tuberculosis in cats and their owners in the United Kingdom was traced back to a commercial raw cat food diet.
Freeze-drying does help to decrease the number of pathogens in raw food, but many of these pathogens can survive freeze-drying, so no raw diet is truly safe, although commercial diets that have been freeze-dried may have a lower contamination amount than non-processed raw foods.
It is also important to note that even if food producers are frequently testing ingredients for contamination, these foods can easily become contaminated after the testing process.
While cats can get sick from eating raw diets, the biggest risk is posed to family members in the household. Normal cat activities such as grooming, playing, and cheek rubbing could cause humans to come into contact with contaminated saliva, not to mention handling the food, food bowls, and feces, which are likely to be contaminated.
Risk of Nutritional Deficiencies
In addition to the risk of pathogens, there is a real risk that both homemade and commercial raw diets may be nutritionally imbalanced.
Unless you are working directly with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to make food for your cat at home, or unless the pet food company directly employs a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, there is a real risk of illness due to nutritional deficiencies or imbalances.
If you do choose to feed your cat raw food, check that it is labeled as a complete and balanced diet, as many freeze-dried products are meant to be food toppers, treats, or fed in conjunction with other foods, and are not meant to be the only source of nutrition.
Risk for Cats or People With Health Conditions
It is not recommended that your cat be fed raw food if they have underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, autoimmune disease, etc., or if there are immune-compromised people in the household, as there is a much higher risk of foodborne illness in these cases.
Is Freeze-Dried Cat Food Better for Cats?
While many people claim that raw food is healthier for cats and helps with disease resolution, there is currently no published, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that raw cat food is overall healthier for cats than commercial cooked dry or wet cat foods.
There is evidence that raw meat, in general, is more digestible than cooked meat, but It is yet to be determined whether this single benefit is worth the risks associated with feeding raw food to cats.
How Do You Prepare Freeze-Dried Cat Food?
While freeze-dried, raw-coated kibble does not have to be rehydrated and is usually fed like normal dry cat food, many freeze-dried products do require rehydration with water or a pet-safe broth. If using a broth, it is best to check with your veterinarian first, as some broths may contain an unhealthy amount of sodium.
Some freeze-dried products recommend using raw goat or cow milk to rehydrate the food, but that is not advised, as dairy can cause significant gastrointestinal upset in cats, and raw milk also has a high risk of pathogen contamination.
Follow Food Safety Guidelines
No matter how the cat food is prepared, it is extremely important to pay attention to food safety guidelines if you choose to feed your cat a raw diet. Wash your hands to avoid infection from Salmonella, E. Coli, or Listeria, which can be contracted simply by touching the raw food, or any surface that the raw food has touched.
All surfaces and objects that come in contact with the food should be cleaned and disinfected.
For more information on food-handling safety, check out the FDA recommendations.
How Do You Store Freeze-Dried Cat Food?
Freeze-dried cat food should be shelf-stable at room temperature. While storage and shelf-life can differ from product to product, most should be refrigerated once opened and should not be left out for more than an hour due to the risk of food poisoning. Remember, when in doubt, throw it out for safety!
Any freeze-dried cat food product should have the expiration date and storage instructions clearly labeled.
Featured image: iStock.com/Valeriya