By Aly Semigran as seen on PetMD
A cat’s natural instinct—even a friendly, loveable housecat—is to hunt for food. And if left to their own devices out in the wild, cats would find their food in a raw, natural state.
That’s why, with the proper preparation, knowledge, and veterinary guidance, a pet parent can provide their cat with a raw food diet that not only taps into their feline instincts, but keeps them healthy and strong too.
Should Cats Have a Raw Food Diet?
Cats, like dogs, can be fed a raw food diet, and some holistic veterinarians even recommend that pet parents should have this as part of their cat’s lifestyle. In fact, as Jodie Gruenstern, DVM, points out, a raw food diet may be even more important for cats than it is for dogs “because they are stricter carnivores than dogs.”
What Should Be Included in a Raw Food Diet for Cats?
Gruenstern says there are four main components that need to be included in a raw food diet for cats. A balanced raw diet should include flesh, organs, a bone or ground bone and a small amount of vegetation.
In addition, Jill Elliot, DVM, explains that pet parents can also add calcium to a raw-food diet for cats. This can be administered through supplements and small amounts of cat-safe dairy products.”
When planning a raw food diet for cats—whether preparing food at home or purchasing a commercial raw food from the pet store—it’s important to work closely with your veterinarian to ensure that your cat is receiving proper, balanced nutrition, and to decide which supplements need to be included.
You can also choose a commercially prepared raw cat food. These are available at many pet stores and come with a certification from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO certified foods provide complete and balanced nutrition and do not require supplementation. This often takes the guesswork out if you’re considering switching to a raw food diet for cats.
What Are the Benefits of a Raw Food Diet For Cats?
Gruenstern explains that the biggest benefit to a raw food diet for cats is the elimination of starch. Starches and sugars in cat foods may lead to health issues such as diabetes, inflammation, arthritis, urinary tract diseases, and obesity, she says.
Erika Halle, DVM, agrees. “Obesity is still possible with raw food, but much less likely than with processed, high carbohydrate food.”
Cats also need taurine in their diets (about 125 milligrams on average) to achieve maximum heart health. This essential compound is often damaged in the heating process of kibble cat foods. “Raw foods tend not to have this issue,” Halle adds, noting that a high volume of taurine is often found in muscle and heart meat that is often a part of raw food diets.
How Early Can a Cat Be Started on a Raw Food Diet?
As soon as a kitten is weaned from its mother, the feline can begin a raw food diet.
Halle suggests feeding home cooked, dehydrated raw, or canned food until six months, then switching to fresh and frozen raw. “Once the system is mature at six months they are ready to handle a raw diet,” she says.
What Are the Best Foods For a Raw Food Diet?
Variety is an important component of this meal plan for cats. Meats, like ground turkey, are the best option when it comes to a raw food diet for cats, but Gruenstern suggests providing a cat with a variety of meat. “That’s how you’ll minimize the repetition of a deficiency or an excess,” she says.
One of Gruenstern’s preferred raw food meals for a cat is a whole quail, which can be fed half in the morning and then half in the evening. She explains that quail is a good choice for cats because their bones are a safe size and do not present a choking hazard for cats. Cats can also benefit from the oral care that bones—such as quail bones—provide. Of course, pet parents should monitor cats whenever they are eating bones to ensure there are no choking risks.
Judy Morgan, DVM, recommends dark muscle meat from poultry and heart muscles in raw cat diets. She also recommends that pet parents include liver in raw food diets for cats. Both dark meat and heart muscle have high rates of taurine.
Morgan also suggests including whole eggs for the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) found in the yolk, and the protein in the whites. Fish can also be included in a raw food diet for the omega 3 fatty acid content, she adds. According to Morgan, sardines are a good option because they are less likely to have a high concentration of heavy metals.
While veggies aren’t necessary in a raw food diet for cats, some vets like to add them into the food. “A small amount of pumpkin is a nice addition for the fiber it provides,” Morgan says. “A small amount of kelp will provide sodium and iodine. I also like to add about five percent ground veggies, which can include kale, carrots, zucchini, and parsley.”
However, whatever meats and veggies you do decide to include in your cat’s diet, Gruenstern recommends adding a veterinary-recommended calcium source as well as freeze dried organs (including brain, spleen, kidney, liver, heart, and gizzards) to fill in any nutritional gaps.
Commercial Raw Foods for Cats: What to Look For
Commercial raw foods for cats are prepared foods you’ll find in stores, often found in a frozen or freeze-dried form. But, labels are important when it comes to deciding which raw food is best for your cat.
“A few of the main differences among commercial raw diets is whether or not they’re high-pressure pasteurized, and whether or not they have synthetic vitamins and minerals,” explains Gruenstern. “In general, there’s lots of commercial raw diets that have attained the AAFCO certification [showing] they’re balanced in a variety of ways, just like kibble or canned food.”
Finding a high-pressure pasteurized food is important because the pasteurization process destroys any pathogenic bacteria, says Gruenstern. This is especially important for cats that suffer from immune disorders such as feline leukemia or have been treated with steroids, which can weaken the immune system.
Gruenster adds that most healthy cats are prime candidates for commercial raw pet foods, though she warns that pet parents should avoid foods with synthetic vitamins and minerals, since the concentrated vitamin form in synthetics may cause a toxicity in cats. “A toxicity occurs when high doses of [synthetic] vitamins are taken over a prolonged period of time,” adds Scerba.
Raw Food for Cats: Home Preparation Tips and Safety Guidelines
If preparing raw food for cats at home—whether feeding whole prey and parts or grinding the meats—pet parents need to take more precautions and steps to ensure the cat’s safety, as well as their own.
“If you are making your own food, the meats should be purchased frozen, then thawed before serving or partially thawed before grinding and refreezing,” says Halle.
“If raw diets are not formulated to be balanced properly, there can be nutritional deficiencies,” Halle notes. “And if the food is not handled appropriately there is a risk of foodborne illnesses like salmonella.”
Still, both Elliot and Gruenstern note that salmonella poisoning from handling raw foods for cats is very rare, and that as long as pet parents are taking all the proper steps (washing their hands, disinfecting surfaces and utensils, buying foods from a reputable source) they shouldn’t experience this problem.
Just be sure to wash out bowls after every feeding and don’t forget to refrigerate and put away any raw food after mealtime.