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Many cat lovers today feel that the best way to keep your cat healthy is by feeding a diet that is minimally processed – as minimally processed as possible. Kibble or dry food is the most processed food you can buy for your cat. Canned or wet food is less processed and it has the benefit of containing large amounts of moisture which is better for your cat’s digestive system and urinary tract. However, if you want to feed your cat food that is really unprocessed, you can consider feeding him a raw diet.
Why feed raw?
At one time the idea of feeding raw would have seemed outrageous but lots of cat lovers today have chosen raw diets for their cats. Advocates of these diets believe that they are healthier for cats because they are more natural and closer to a cat’s diet in the wild. They say that cooking and processing meat and other ingredients in cat foods causes the loss of nutrients but feeding a raw diet provides the nutrition your cat needs in a natural form. Kibble and even canned foods can contain ingredients that are not normally part of a cat’s diet but feeding raw relies on foods that are a natural part of the cat’s diet. Kibble is low in moisture and high in carbohydrates – both of which can be problematic for cats. Even canned foods can have more carbs than cats can easily digest, especially if they are low quality foods. Both kibble and canned foods can also have preservatives and other ingredients that can lead to problems if fed on a long-term basis.
Some of the benefits of a raw diet for your cat can include:
- Better digestion
- Healthy skin and coat, fewer hairballs, less shedding
- Improved dental health and better breath
- Improved urinary tract health
- Increased energy
- Less stool volume and odor
- Overweight cats can lose weight
With all of these benefits, cat lovers who feed a raw diet say that feeding raw can help cats live a longer, healthier life.
We have to say that the FDA and the AVMA do not like raw pet food diets. One of the primary reasons they oppose these diets is because of the risks to humans. Bacteria such as Salmonella can be transferred from raw foods to humans. It can pose a danger, especially to the elderly, children, and people with a compromised immune system. There is some risk to animals, but healthy animals are not usually at much risk. According to most people who feed their cats a raw diet, if you observe common sense precautions for handling food, you and your family, as well as your pets, should be safe.
Primal Petfoods also has some good safety tips for handling raw foods. They include keeping raw foods away from children, using a stainless steel bowl that is easy to clean and won’t retain bacteria; and using different colored sponges in the kitchen so you have one that is dedicated just for your pet’s bowls. Taking precautions like these can prevent spreading Salmonella and other bacteria.
It’s also important for people who feed a raw diet to their cats to make sure that the diet is balanced. Veterinarians often respond negatively to raw diets because they see pets that are malnourished. Cats may be getting lots of meat but still missing some important nutrients. Good intentions are not enough. You have to make sure that your cat is getting the nutrients he needs in his diet.
Cats are different
If you are familiar with a raw diet for dogs then you should know that there are some differences with a raw diet for cats. Some things you probably already know. For instance, both cats and dogs are carnivores (though dogs are opportunistic and scavenging in their tendencies – some people consider them omnivores), but cats are obligate carnivores. This means that they must eat meat in their diet. Dogs can make certain amino acids in their body, such as taurine, but cats cannot. They have to obtain taurine and other vitamins and fatty acids in their pre-formed state. Dogs and humans can obtain vitamin A from beta-carotene in their diet but cats cannot. Cats have to have vitamin A in its pre-formed state. Cats also have difficulty transforming niacin from the amino acid tryptophan. And they require arginine which comes from animal meat. All of these nutrients come from meat in the cat’s diet.
As for carbohydrates, cats have only one enzyme for digesting them which means they are far less equipped to utilize them than dogs which have evolved some enzymes to digest them.
It’s also important for cats to eat food that is comparatively fresh. If you are familiar with dogs then you know that dogs are not always picky about how fresh their food is. Wolves or feral dogs (or your pet dog, given the chance) will sometimes bury food and return to it later to eat. Compared to humans, dogs have rather weak taste buds but they have strong stomach acids. They also have a very powerful olfactory sense. Things with a strong odor often appeal to them – like ripe or rotting food. Dogs often enjoy eating food that is past its prime. Burying food and eating food that may be slightly rotted actually serves to help partially break it down before a dog starts to digest it. Your cat, on the other hand, probably doesn’t like food that has gone bad. Most cats don’t. Cats can digest food faster than dogs and they don’t need this kind of head start on digestion. It only takes 12-24 hours for your cat to digest food – faster than dogs and much faster than humans. It can sometimes take humans as long as five days to digest food.
There are also some important differences in the stomach and intestines of dogs and cats:
- Cats have a small intestine that is shorter than the dog’s small intestine, even when adjusted for the differences in their sizes.
- Cats have a caecum (the small sac between the small and large intestines) that is slightly less well-developed than the dog’s. The caecum is the beginning of the large intestine.
- Cats and dogs have gastric mucosa that are different.
If you check the Waltham page you will find some good diagrams of the cat and dog gastrointestinal systems, as well as explanations of how food is digested. (Waltham makes pet food but these explanations are still helpful.)
Along with eating fresh food, it’s important for cats to eat every day. Fasting can be harmful for cats. As pet lovers, most of us become concerned when out pets refuse to eat. Dogs usually eat when they get hungry. If a dog goes for more than 24 hours without eating, we start thinking about taking him to the vet. However, if a cat goes 24 hours without eating, the situation can become serious, especially if the cat is overweight or obese. Cats are subject to a condition called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver. The condition is often triggered by a change in diet (though there can be many other causes). Cats that stop eating, whether suddenly or gradually, over the course of several days or weeks, should see a veterinarian. If you are changing your cat’s diet to a raw food diet, some cats can take a while to adjust to the new diet. Many cats will only nibble at some of the raw food at first until they become accustomed to the new diet – or they may refuse it entirely. During this time it’s important to make sure your cat continues to get enough calories and nutrition each day so you may need to supplement the raw diet with canned food for a while.
You can read more about your cat’s nutritional needs here.
The cat’s raw diet
If you have decided to feed your cat a raw diet you have several options which we’ll discuss here. All of them have their advocates. People can be very passionate about their beliefs but, after considering the diets, you should choose what works best for you and your cat.
Raw diets range from pre-mixed where you simply add your own fresh meat to those where you gather all of the ingredients yourself, measure, mix and put everything together for your cat. They all have their pros and cons.
Buying ready-made raw diets
Lots of people like the idea of feeding their cat a raw diet but they don’t have the time to prepare the diet themselves. They don’t have time to shop for ingredients. Or they may have concerns about being able to prepare a well-balanced diet for their cat. A growing segment of the pet food industry is making raw food for cats today specifically for these people.
You can choose from frozen complete diets, frozen ground meat, bone, and organ mixes, and pre-mixed supplements that you add to your own raw meat. You can find national brands as well as products that are available on a regional basis. These diets can make it much easier to feed a raw diet. In most cases all you have to do is thaw the food and serve it to your cat. In some cases some mixing is involve. Do make sure the food is served warm since most cats do not like cold food.
Popular ready-made raw diets for cats include offerings from NomNomNow, Primal, Nature’s Variety, and Bravo, among others.
You should also only buy ground meats and mixes from sources that your trust. Look for companies that have a good reputation with their products and their sanitation. Primal, Bravo, Hare Today and other companies offer meat, bone, and organ grind mixes, along with other products for feeding raw.
Buying a good meat, bone, and organ mix that has already been ground for you and then adding your own supplements can be a better choice for some people. It can be less expensive than buying your own meats. It also saves you the trouble of grinding the meats. (More on grinding later.) You can also buy different kinds of meats that might not be available to you locally.
When you purchase meat, bone, and organ grinds, you must add supplements to them. Otherwise your cat will be eating a diet that is nutritionally deficient which will lead to serious health problems. You can find a number of supplement recipes online which are similar. We have taken this one from the feline-nutrition.org web site.
This recipe is for five pounds of pre-ground meat/bones/organs:
- 8 to 16 oz water, use 16 oz if your cats like it soupier, 8 oz if they like less water
- 4 raw egg yolks
- 4000 mg taurine
- 4000 mg wild salmon or wild caught small fish oil
- 800 IU Vitamin E (use dry form)
- 200 mg Vitamin B Complex
- 1 ½ tsp Lite Iodized Salt
- 4 tsp psyllium husk powder (optional, mostly recommended when your cats are starting out on raw)
Mix thoroughly and add some to the grind that you have prepared to feed your cat.
Veterinarian Lisa Pierson – truly a genius where cats are concerned – uses a similar selection of supplements on her site.
This recipe makes a lot of supplement for your meat/bone/organ grind. You can put some into small containers or plastic bags and freeze right away. Put any of the mixture that you will be using that day or the next in the refrigerator. You can also pour small amounts into an ice try to freeze into cubes. It’s easy to thaw a cube and use as needed.
If you prefer, you can buy pre-mixed supplements. Some pre-mixed supplements are formulated for diets without bones and some aren’t. This means some will contain added calcium. Too much calcium is not good for your cat – it can lead to constipation and other health problems. Make sure you check the supplement to see if it contains added calcium or not. Some supplements that are often recommended include TCFeline (includes several raw food recipes on the site), Alnutrin Supplements, and Wysong.
When feeding your cat a raw diet it’s a good idea to keep in mind the maxim “Balance over time.” Not every meal you feed your cat will be perfectly balanced from a nutritional viewpoint. The meals we eat in our own diets are not perfectly balanced each time we eat. But if you strive to feed your cat healthy, nutritious raw food with good supplements, you can meet his dietary needs. Try to use different meats so you can supply different amino acids. Give your cat whole parts such as chicken wings, necks, and delicious gizzards. Not only will your cat enjoy them but they will provide good chewing exercise, especially if your cat normally eats ground mixes. Eating whole meat parts are also a good way to help your cat keep his teeth clean and his gums and jaws healthy.
Making your own raw meals
If you would rather make your cat’s raw meals yourself, there are several different approaches to feeding a raw diet.
The Whole Prey Model
When I was a kid – years ago – we lived on several acres in the country. My cat, Charlie, had Cat Chow available at all times. (Don’t criticize – at that time Cat Chow was the best food available.) But Charlie was a mighty hunter. He regularly supplemented his diet with birds, squirrels, and rabbits – which he enjoyed bringing back to the house so we could admire him. He was seriously upset if you didn’t praise him for catching his prey. He would disappear with it and eat in private, sulking. Charlie’s hunting and “raw” diet probably contributed to him living 19 years. He was the best friend I ever had.
Most cats today don’t have the option of hunting to obtain their own raw diet. That doesn’t mean that your cat can’t enjoy the same kind of diet that a cat would enjoy if he could hunt for himself. The Whole Prey Model diet (also called the Prey Model Raw diet and similar terms) is based on this idea. This kind of diet reproduces the food a cat would eat in the wild – either by providing whole prey animals in some form or by recreating the same nutrient balance found in those animals.
Fewer people probably feed the whole prey method today than other raw feeding methods but it seems to be gaining in popularity because it is the closest diet to a cat’s natural way of eating. You can purchase frozen dead prey online such as mice, chicks, quail, and rabbits. You can order whole quail and rabbits from Wholefoods4pets.com, for example. You can buy live feeder mice for your cat at pet stores or buy frozen mice and other prey. This method can be emotionally difficult for some owners. Some people find it difficult to handle whole, dead animals even if they are supposed to be food for their cat. Some cats also have difficulty identifying the dead animals as potential food, especially if they have spent a lifetime eating kibble or canned food. However, most people and cats can overcome these difficulties with time.
If this is the kind of diet that you believe is best for your cat, you should not let comments or peer pressure from others dissuade you from feeding it.
The nutrient percentages found in the Whole Prey Model diet are different from those normally used for other raw diets for cats.
There has been a recent increase in feeding unconventional diets, including whole prey diets, to cats. Feeding whole prey mimics the diet of small wild cats, which typically eat rodents, other small mammals, reptiles, and birds (Plantinga et al., 2011). Plantinga et al. (2011) estimated the diet of feral cats expressed on a DM basis would contain 88% OM, 63% CP, 23% fat, and 2.8% nitrogen free extract (NFE; i.e., digestible carbohydrates). This is in contrast to nutrient recommendations for adult domestic cats (CP: minimum 26% DM, and minimum fat: 9% DM; AAFCO, 2012), which are the basis for commercial diet formulations.
DM=dry matter; CP=crude protein
Other raw food diets typically recommend cats have a diet of 80%-87% meat, fat, skin, sinew, connective tissue and heart, 5%-10% edible bone, 3%-5% liver, and 5% other secreting organ.
With Whole Prey Model diets you don’t normally have to worry about these percentages because your cat will be getting the necessary nutrients in the correct amounts because he is eating biologically appropriate food – including feathers, feet, beaks, stomach contents, intestines, and other parts of the animals that might make you cringe. But it’s the natural diet for your cat.
If you are buying whole prey foods online they will likely be delivered frozen and you will probably keep them frozen in your freezer until you need them. Be sure to allow plenty of time for them to thaw before you give them to your cat. Most people recommend letting them thaw slowly in the fridge rather than putting them in the microwave to thaw. You don’t want to accidentally cook a dead mouse. The food does need to be room temperature before you give it to your cat. You can accomplish this by placing the food in a plastic bag and holding it under warm water for a few minutes. Most cats won’t eat food that is too cold.
The Frankenprey diet is becoming a popular feeding method that lies between the Whole Prey Model and feeding your cat all ground foods. With this method, you provide your cat with a variety of animal parts over the course of a certain period of time (such as a week). You keep track of the parts you provide so you can make sure your cat is getting the same parts he would be getting if he were eating whole animals. The meals are usually either all meat or meat, bone, and organ mixed. They are fed as large chunks so the cat has to chew and gnaw to make them into pieces small enough to eat. People who like the Frankenprey diet believe that the chewing, tearing, and gnawing is an important element since it engages the cat, gives psychological satisfaction, and helps with dental health – unlike simply eating raw grinds.
Frankenprey requires less preparation than grinding meats or meats, bone, and organs. Plus, if you are strict about providing all of the different animal parts that are necessary, you shouldn’t have to add supplements to your cat’s diet.
You can see an example of a weekly Frankenprey diet and schedule here. Note that the heading says “Prey Model Raw” but we would consider it a Frankenprey diet since it combines different animal parts from different animals. The menu is for six cats. You can adjust the amounts as needed.
For a diet such as this one, you can easily buy foods in bulk locally and freeze until you need them. If you need more exotic foods you can order online from some of the places already mentioned that have whole animals and parts for raw feeders.
The other popular way to feed your cat a raw diet is by feeding raw meat grinds. This method is popular but it involves a lot more work than the Whole Prey Model diet and the Frankenprey diets. We’ve already discussed raw diets that you can buy ready-made. With these raw grinds, you find and buy the meat or meat, bone, and organs yourself. You also add the supplements to your cat’s diet which you either buy premixed or prepare yourself.
The basic percentages for this kind of diet are:
- 80–85% meat (boneless muscle meat, fat, skin, sinew, tendons, cartilage, soft connective tissue)
- 10% edible bone
- 5-10% organs (with half that amount being liver)
You may buy meat with or without the bone, but bone should make up about 10 percent of the diet. It’s an important source of calcium and trace minerals for your cat.
You don’t have to meet these exact percentages at every meal you prepare for your cat but the diet should balance out to these percentages over several days.
A word about grinders. If you are going to be feeding your cat a raw diet and buying your own meats, buying a meat grinder is usually a good idea. Some people argue against them, saying that a cat’s teeth and jaws should do the grinding, but most people who feed raw grinds recommend a grinder. If you feed a Whole Prey Model diet or the Frankenprey diet, then you might not need a grinder. But if you will be feeding ground meat, you should think about grinding your own. If you are going to buy a grinder, make sure you get one that is capable of grinding bone as well as meat. Your cat will need ground meats that contain ground bone.
You do need to follow certain precautions about using ground meat for cats. Avoid buying ground meat from grocery stores – grind your own. Meat at grocery stores has had lots of time to grow bacteria. It has been ground and refrigerated and then displayed in the meat case. You are better off buying a chunk of meat that has not had as much surface area exposed to bacteria. If you do buy ground meat from the grocery store, make sure it was ground within the last 24 hours. Meats that are ground for pet foods are always frozen immediately to reduce the spread of bacteria.
In addition, it’s better for your cat if you grind the bone with the meat. Ground meat from the grocery store won’t include the bone.
One of the most knowledge cat people on the Internet, veterinarian Lisa Pierson, makes her own raw grinds. According to one article.
She says she hasn’t had issues with bacterial contamination in the six years she has made her own cat food because she is careful: She knows where the meat comes from, she parboils mostly rabbit and bone-in chicken, grinds it herself, and adds minerals like taurine to make sure her cats are eating a balanced diet.
This is the recipe that Dr. Pierson provides in the article:
- 3 pounds of whole fowl or rabbit, including bones, organs, and skin
- 1 cup water
- 2 eggs (use raw yolks, and lightly cook the whites)
- 2000 mg wild salmon oil
- 400 IU vitamin E (powdered E in capsule form works)
- 100 mg vitamin B-complex (start with a smaller amount when beginning a raw meat diet; the vitamin has a strong odor)
- 2000 mg taurine, powdered
- ¾ tsp lite salt with iodine (when using chicken parts)
- Liver (add 4 oz if the meat you are using does not include organs)
- Psyllium (add when first introducing the raw meat diet to your cat. See www.catinfo.org for additional information on this ingredient)
The recipe yields enough food for 10-14 days for the average cat. Dr. Pierson’s web site is:www.catinfo.org.
A word about bones
Some bones are great for cats – and some aren’t. Don’t give your cat cooked bones. Cooking makes bones brittle. Brittle bones break easily. They can puncture your cat’s mouth, esophagus or other parts of the gastrointestinal system. They are dangerous. Most raw bones are great for cats. Raw bones tend to be softer and they are good for your cat to chew, gnaw, and eat.
How much to feed?
If you are wondering how much to feed your cat on a raw food diet, experts suggesting starting at 2-4 percent of your cat’s body weight per day. You can divide this amount up into several small feedings. For example, if your cat weighs 10 pounds, he could require as much as 6.4 ounces of raw food per day. If you divide this among 80 percent animal meat, 10 percent bone, and 10 percent organs you can get a rough idea of what you would need to use in a recipe, plus supplements. Or you can use a recipe like Dr. Pierson’s which already has the amounts worked out. Most people who feed raw will make enough food to last for several days even if they prepare something else so they can alternate the meals.
Once your cat is eating the raw food diet you can assess his condition. Is he gaining or losing weight? You can adjust how much you feed him at that time.
The transition to feeding raw
Often the most difficult part of feeding a raw diet is getting your kitty to try it. Pet food companies work very hard to make kibble and canned food appealing to cats. If your cat has been eating commercial cat food all his life, he may not easily give up eating the food he has always known. It’s usually easiest to start kittens on a raw diet or include some raw food with their cat food so it’s not completely alien to them. Kittens usually adapt to a raw food diet quickly.
Adult cats can be a different matter. Most experts say that the first thing to do is get your cat off kibble, especially if you have been free-feeding your cat http://www.catnutrition.org/faq.html. You can begin to offer your cat some raw food. If your cat refuses it, try transitioning to a good quality canned food as a stepping stone to feeding raw. Of course, some cats also become addicted to canned food, but at least it’s closer to a real food diet.
When your cat is eating canned food (or if your cat starts off eating canned food), you can try sneaking some raw food in with the canned food. Or you can try some bribes such as freeze-dried chicken treats, cooked meats, the probiotic Fortiflora from Purina (which uses the same flavor that makes dry food taste great to cats), Parmesan cheese, liver flakes, or tuna water. Using a few of these bribes can sometimes get a cat to start eating a little raw food.
On the other hand, some adult cats, even older cats, accept a raw diet very quickly. You never know with cats. Some kittens and adult cats will dive into eating raw from the start. They can demand lots of raw food for days and practically gorge themselves before slowing down to a more moderate pace.
We do recommend you go slowly and don’t be discouraged if your cat is not enthusiastic at first. Give your cat time to get used to any new food.
We hope this look at raw diets for cats is helpful to you. Raw diets can be healthy and nutritious as long as you take sensible safety precautions with food handling and understand your cat’s dietary requirements.