Deciding on food for your cat has never been the most difficult choice; pick a brand, then decide between dry food or wet food. But with the emergence of raw food diets in recent years, things have gotten a little more complicated.
Raw pet food sales have been steadily growing over the past few years despite serious health warnings and many discussions concerning safety issues. Both supporters and adversaries make some compelling arguments for their case.
What is a raw diet?
A raw diet is a home-cooked or commercially produced diet that consists exclusively of organic food that has not been processed or cooked. It almost always includes raw animal meat that has not been pre-heated before consumption. This can be any part of an animal: organs, tissue, and even bones.
Humans mostly cook their animal-sourced foods in order to kill all the micro-organisms and increase shelf life. This process removes many of the vital minerals and vitamins, which then have to be re-added in order to make the food nutritious.
The problem with this processing is that the additives are often very hard or impossible to digest for cats, leading to fewer nutrients being absorbed in the intestines. Some food experts have also suggested that large amounts of additives could contribute to various gastrointestinal issues.
The case for raw food
1. Cats’ digestive systems are better suited to raw diets
One of the most compelling arguments for raw food is that cats in the wild have been exclusively eating live prey for many thousands of years.
It would only seem logical that their entire digestive system has evolved (or was designed, if you believe in God) to absorb the optimal amount of nutrients from these unprocessed foods. Which in turn would lead to a healthier cat. Indeed, cats on raw diets do seem to look somewhat healthier and are less likely to become obese.
2. It’s what they were meant to eat
One could also argue that if cats have been eating this way for many thousands of years, their brains would probably get a certain satisfaction from digging into a bowl of tasty raw meat. Behavioral patterns needed for survival are ingrained deeply into the limbic part of the brain, a part that animals (and humans!) have very little control over.
And speaking from personal experience, I have noticed in the past that my owns cats seem to get more satisfaction from eating food that contains real unprocessed meat.
The case against raw food
1. Risk of food poisoning and other safety issues
One of the more compelling arguments against these diets is the potential health risks involved with consuming unprocessed food. Raw food has been linked to gastroenteritis, dental fractures, and infections. Let’s have a look at what the scientific community says about raw food:
At this time, there are no scientific studies showing any health benefits of RMBD. However, numerous studies show that there are health risks for an animal eating an RMBD, ranging from nutritional deficiencies or toxicities, risks from ingestion of bones, and hyperthyroidism. In addition to these risks, recent scientific studies have shown that nearly all RMBD (whether commercial or home-made) are contaminated with bacteria, as with any type of unprocessed raw meat.Cummings school of veterinary medicine – Link to pdf
Food poisoning from E. Coli, Legionella, Salmonella, and other harmful bacteria poses a serious risk. Not only to your cat but also to you and the people living in your house. It has been shown in multiple scientific studies that cats eating raw meat can spread harmful diseases through their feces in all the places that they frequent.
Bones pose another potential threat to felines: small and sharp fragments can cause internal bleeding, infections, obstructions, and other injuries when moving through the digestive system.
2. Meat is more expensive than kibble
For those who are on a budget, one of the more important aspects of raw diets is the costs involved. Depending on the quality of the meat that you buy, it can get a lot more expensive than packaged foods. However, nutrients are more densely packed in raw food, meaning you will actually need less volume.
3. You have to commit
If you have been feeding cats raw meat and end up deciding that you won’t go back to your commercial cat food, you may perhaps find that your cat is not as eager to switch back as you are. And can you blame her? After eating chicken and beef for a few weeks, commercial kibble probably isn’t quite as tasty as the real stuff.
4. It’s not easy to compose a balanced raw diet
In addition to numerous other potential downsides, there are potential nutritional concerns associated with feeding raw. A large percentage of raw diets (including those commercially produced and sold) are excessive or highly deficient in one or multiple essential nutrients. Most commonly seen are phosphorus and calcium imbalances, which can be highly detrimental when given to cats with chronic kidney disease. It is also common for raw diets to be too high in fat.
One common myth says that adding chicken necks or eggshells to food can solve nutritional imbalances, but this is blatantly false. This can be disastrous especially in young, growing kittens, and can result in fractured bones.
Processed foods, on the other hand, almost always have their nutrients in roughly the right proportions. To make a raw diet work as good, you will have to let it be balanced by an experienced vet or food expert. This could add significant extra costs.
5. No proven benefits?
At the moment of writing, there are currently no known scientific studies that have proven the benefits of raw diets. There are testimonials that raw food may contribute to a healthy & shiny coat and better stool, which is suspected to be the case because they are often high in fat.
In conclusion, the potential benefits to your cat’s health are not to be underestimated, but there are certainly a number of serious disadvantages to raw diets. It is a decision you should carefully weigh.
Frequently asked questions
Grains are sometimes regarded as an unhealthy material that’s used as cheap filler by cat food companies to make more money. This is not true. Grains like oats, corns, and wheat contain many vitamins, proteins, and minerals that your cat is 100% able to digest. As stated in this memo from Tufts, grains can absolutely be part of a high-quality diet.
Want to read more about the supposed benefits of grain-free cat food? We explored what is myth and fact in our article on grain-free cat food: good or bad?
So what is your opinion on raw diets? Do the pros outweight the cons? Let us know in the comments!