Raw Food Diet for Cats: Everything You Need to Know

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  • Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.

A cat’s diet and health are intrinsically connected. If left on their own, cats instinctually hunt for food in its raw, natural state. But does that mean you should only be feeding your cat freshly dead rodents and birds?

Some cat owners say yes. (Well, maybe not rodents, but yes to raw food.) Making your own raw cat food gives you the most control over what goes into your cat’s food, allowing you to select the meats and supplements you use. Homemade raw cat food meals can sometimes be less expensive than canned diets.

Before we dive in, it’s important to point out that the American Veterinarian Medical Association (AVMA) discourages the feeding of any animal-sourced protein that has not first been processed to eliminate pathogens. This is due to the risk of possible illness to cats and dogs as well as humans.

So where does that bring us? If you’re interested in feeding your cat raw food, the very first thing you need to do discuss your cat’s diet with your veterinarian.

But if you have access to fresh meat and are prepared to create a gourmet diet for your feline, a raw food diet might be on the menu.

Jennifer Coates, DVM, who serves on the advisory board for Cat Life Today, tells Rover that any home-prepared diet—including raw—needs to use recipes designed by a veterinary nutritionist familiar with the special needs your cat may have. As you make the switch to raw food, your vet may recommend more frequent check-ups to evaluate your pet’s health, nutritional adequacy, and safety of the diet.

Do cats perform well on raw food diets?

Cats are carnivores, meaning that they need a meat-based diet to live.

“Cats adapt well to raw food diets that are fresh meat-based with minimal carbs,” says Jim D. Carlson, DVM CVA CVTP, a holistic veterinarian and owner of Riverside Animal Clinic & Holistic Center in McHenry, IL. “A raw food diet reduces the risk of diabetes, obesity, and other inflammatory problems.”

Cats have some non-negotiables when it comes to any diet, processed or homemade. “Cats need very high amounts of protein, fat, and… taurine,” Dr. Carlson explains. Taurine is an amino acid that is necessary for the heart. “Cats also need calcium to regulate calcium and sodium channels involved in muscle contraction and bone health.”

What should be in a raw food diet for cats?

Cats are carnivores. They need animal proteins and animal-based fats to thrive.

With that in mind, your cat’s raw food should be made up of flesh, organs, a bone or ground bone and a small amount of vegetation. Grain shouldn’t be a main source of protein or included in the diet.

Cats can eat any kind of meat: chicken, rabbit, duck, turkey, pheasant, etc., and need organs and bones in their diet to provide vital nutrients.

When you’re just starting out, it’s often better to provide a commercially prepared raw food that follows the AAFCO guidelines and requires no additional supplements.

If you’re determined to make your own raw food for your cat, make sure to run the recipes by your veterinarian before committing to them.

Raw food diet for cats

Is it safe for cat owners to prep their own raw food for their cat?

While a raw diet of tasty meat may seem like a perfect option for your health-conscious kitty, they are associated with an increased safety risk and require a commitment from you.

Raw, meat-based diets may contain parasites and bacteria that can be spread from cat to human. According to The Washington Post, there are a lot of microbes present in our farming systems. Unlike when an animal is hunting in the wild, there are many opportunities for bacteria to contaminate meat between the time an animal is slaughtered and when it reaches our kitchens.

Be prepared to handle raw meat with proper care and clean all surfaces and utensils, even the litter box, with an antibacterial detergent or bleach.

Additionally, raw diets don’t contain preservatives to keep the food fresh. You’ll need to make your cat’s food every day or, at most, every couple of days. Make sure the food doesn’t sit out for more than a few minutes at a time.

If you decide to feed a raw diet to your cat, be vigilant with kitchen and hand hygiene. “Raw foods, including those that are commercially prepared, are also much more likely to be contaminated with potentially dangerous bacteria like salmonella, campylobacter, listeria, E. coli, and other pathogens,” Dr. Coates says.

These bacteria pose a risk to cats but also to people who might come in contact with contaminated surfaces, utensils, bowls, and other objects in the home.

How can you be sure raw food covers your cat’s nutrition needs?

“Nutrition, including determining how many calories a pet should be taking in, is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor,” Dr. Coates explains. Even if you’re following a recipe to the letter and feeding the prescribed amount, adjustments may need to be made.

“With raw diets, it is very hard to feed a diet that is completely balanced and contains all the needed vitamins and minerals for your pet to stay healthy,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, a small animal and exotic veterinarian in east Texas and a veterinary consultant for doglab.com.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in May evaluated the nutritional adequacy of home-prepared diets. It found that a large portion of the recipes for cats lacked the recommended essential nutrients.

One meal won’t be a big problem, but a whole diet switch can be a problem. “If a pet eats a diet that is lacking in the essential nutrients for a long period of time, they can have major medical problems due to this deficiency,” Dr. Sara Ochoa explains.

Consult a veterinarian before starting a raw diet. They can help you develop a meal plan that provides the appropriate nutrients for your cat, taking into account your pet’s lifestyle, age, activity level, and other relevant factors.

How should you start your cat’s raw diet?

To get your feline’s system used to their new raw diet, try using raw food as a treat and then expand the raw diet slowly.

“Commercially prepared diets restrict the biodiversity of the intestinal microenvironment to accept a variety of foods,” says Dr. Carlson. Essentially, on a biological level, your cat won’t be used to their new food and it’ll take time for their bodies to adjust. “By slowly introducing raw foods and good probiotics, the microbiome will expand and allow more variety of foods to be eaten without an upset stomach.”

Additionally, even high-quality meat may need extra supplementation in order to cover all of your cat’s nutritional needs.  “These vitamins are typically sold at local pet stores and online and are not usually very expensive,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa.

How to make sure your cat is doing well on a raw food diet

Dr. Sara Ochoa recommends keeping an extra eye on your cat. If your cat is adjusting well, they’ll have a good appetite, normal stools, healthy coat, and enjoying their regular activity.

Keep an extra eye on their litter box, too; cats eating a raw food should create very small, compact litter. If your cat isn’t adjusting to their raw food, they might experience vomiting, diarrhea, and refusing to eat.

If you see diarrhea or soft stools, talk to your veterinarian about adjusting the diet to introduce the raw food more slowly, adjusting portions or adding additional supplements, says Dr. Carlson.

Hungry cat waits for dinner

What about companies that make raw food and deliver it?

“Most raw diets on the market today have no studies or clinical trials to prove they are safe and nutritious for the long term health of your pet,” warns Dr. Yolanda Ochoa, regional veterinary director of FetchMyVet. But if you do decide to try a raw food diet, she recommends that you make sure the company has an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal at the very least.

Admittedly, some foods labeled as raw may not truly qualify. According to the AAFCO, “The majority of complete pet food products are not truly raw. They have been heat-treated during manufacturing to prevent microbial contamination.”

Raw Cat Food Delivery

There are several raw food companies on the market. We recommend researching each company’s food and discussing with your vet before making a decision.

Bottom line

With the right preparation and veterinary guidance, a cat parent can provide their cat with a raw food diet that taps into their feline instincts but keeps them healthy and strong too. But it also comes with health risks for you, your family, and your feline friend.

The most important thing to do is speak with your veterinarian about your interest in a raw diet and if it would benefit your cat. Then, your vet can help you develop a diet plan for you and your cat.

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