Feeding raw meat to cats is a topic which sparks fierce debate among cat lovers. Many swear by it while others believe it is a danger that is not worth the potential risks to cats and their human family. There is a growing cynicism towards commercial diets, with one expert feline veterinarian, Dr Richard Malik offering his own opinion in this article.
Most Australian veterinarians are happy for cats to eat raw diets, as long as they are balanced and complete. Veterinarians in other countries seem a little more reluctant. I always recommend a conversation with your cat’s veterinarian to provide the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of raw food. Also, do your research, and make a note of any questions or concerns you have.
Immunocompromised cats are at higher risk of foodborne illnesses. Therefore it is essential to let your veterinarian know before you switch a cat with underlying health conditions to a raw diet.
What are the risks of feeding your cat a raw diet?
There are several possible risks which include bacterial contamination, parasites, internal damage and inadequate or too many nutrients.
All meat will have some bacteria in it; however, high levels and certain strains of bacteria can result in sickness. Common pathogens include salmonella, e-Coli, listeria, Clostridium, and Campylobacter.
Cats have a shorter gastrointestinal tract; this means meat passes through the cat faster. Also, cats secrete high levels of stomach acid in their stomach which breaks down the protein and kills bacteria. However, there will always be risks of bacterial contamination in all types of food, including meat and fresh fruit and vegetables. Taking precautions, which are listed further down this article will help reduce the chances of your cat becoming sick from eating raw meat.
Toxoplasmosis Gondii is an intracellular parasite which infects multiple warm-blooded mammals. Cats are the definitive host, meaning that the parasite can only reproduce in the cat. Cats become infected either by consuming prey or meat which contain the cysts of the parasite or by ingesting cysts which pass out of the cat via the feces. Infection in cats usually causes no symptoms at all; however, the concern with this particular parasite is the ability to cause congenital disabilities to unborn human babies if the mother becomes infected during pregnancy.
Freezing at -12 for two days kills toxoplasmosis cysts. If you are planning to become pregnant or are pregnant, ask your doctor or obstetrician for a blood test to look for antibodies which indicate previous exposure to the parasite. If you haven’t, then please take extra precautions when feeding your cat raw meat, which may include having somebody else prepare the food if possible.
Trichinosis is a parasitic roundworm which infects cats when they eat meat infected with cysts containing the larvae of the parasite. Most cases of infection occur from eating raw pork or hunting wild animals such as rodents. Modern farming practices have mostly eliminated this parasite from pork.
Freezing meat for at least 24 hours can kill most parasites. When defrosting, remove from the freezer and refrigerate until thawed through. Never defrost meat at room temperature.
Damage from bones:
Fractured teeth, perforation of the gastrointestinal tract and gastrointestinal obstruction can occur in cats who consume bones. To reduce the risk, only feed non-weight bearing bones which should always be raw. Never feed cooked bones. Chicken necks and wing tips are the most suitable bones for cats.
An essential amino acid found in seafood, meat (mainly muscle meat, including the heart), eggs and brewers yeast. Cooking meat destroys taurine and mincing/griding; it can reduce levels; this is due to oxidation. Some pet owners supplement a raw diet with additional taurine. The average-sized cat requires around 250 mg taurine per day. Any excess taurine will be excreted in the urine. Diets low in taurine can lead to dilated cardiomyopathy and retinal degeneration.
Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism:
Homemade diets which are high in potassium and low in calcium can lead to hyperparathyroidism, particularly in growing kittens. Calcium is an essential mineral responsible for building and maintaining bone and teeth, vascular dilation and contraction, the transmission of nerve impulses, muscle function, blood clotting and enzyme function. The bones store most of the calcium in the cat’s body. In the wild, cats would obtain calcium from eating the bones of their prey. Commercial cat foods should have enough calcium to meet your cat’s dietary needs.
A cat fed on a raw diet only is not getting this calcium and will need supplementation which is where it gets a little tricky. Phosphorous is another mineral which is stored in the bones and is responsible for bone strength, repair, and maintenance of tissues and is an integral structural component of DNA and RNA. The recommended calcium to phosphorous (Ca:P) level is approximately 1.2:1. So 1.2 units of calcium for every 1 unit of phosphorous. If phosphorous levels are higher, calcium absorption can become impaired. Meat contains high levels of phosphorous but low levels of calcium, so a cat fed raw meat only without bones (or supplementation) can develop low calcium levels. There are several options here to meet the 1.2:1 ratio your cat requires, you can add raw bones to your cat’s diet, bonemeal, supplement with calcium or add ground up eggshells to your cat’s food.
Vitamin A toxicosis:
High levels of vitamin A are toxic to the liver, the primary storage site of the vitamin. Diets high in vitamin A are usually due to ingestion of large quantities of liver. Hypervitaminosis A can lead to the following:
- Excess bone formation (exostosis), particularly in adult cats. The cervical/thoracic spine and joints are particularly affected. Over a prolonged period, complete fusion of the spine can develop.
- Loose teeth, gum problems and abnormalities with bone growth in kittens and the bones can easily fracture.
- Vitamin A supplemented during pregnancy can result in cleft palate.
Vitamin E deficiency:
A fat-soluble vitamin which is known for its antioxidant properties, protecting cells from free radicals. Other roles it plays including boosting the immune system, reduces inflammation. Vitamin E can be found in meat; however diets high in fish can result in vitamin E deficiency.
Omega fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat which
It is possible to purchase supplements from pet suppliers which can be used for cats on a raw food diet. I advise avoiding any supplements which have come from China.
Yellow fat disease:
Also called steatitis, yellow fat disease is a painful condition caused by inflammation and yellowing of the fat tissue induced by feeding a diet in unsaturated fatty acids and deficient in vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant. When there is an overabundance of saturated fatty acids, damage occurs to the body fat, resulting in painful inflammation.
Benefits of a raw diet
Increased water intake:
Raw food is much closer to your cat’s natural diet. Today’s cats evolved from desert-dwelling felines who obtained most of their fluids via their prey. The average prey animal would be made up of approximately 70% water compared to dry food which is about 10% water. Cats often don’t make up for this imbalance by drinking more water, which can lead to concentrated urine, that promotes the formation of urinary crystals. Male cats are especially vulnerable as they have a narrower urethra, the tube which carries urine from the bladder out of the body. The narrow urethra in males can become easily blocked by tiny crystals or stones, which makes urination difficult or impossible. This is a life-threatening condition which requires urgent veterinary care.
Improved dental hygiene:
Cats need to work at chewing meat, and during this process, plaque is removed from the teeth. If not regularly removed, plaque hardens into tartar and leads to gum disease.
Dry diets are high in carbohydrates; these are stored as fat in the cat’s body. Cats need a high protein diet, not carbs. Obesity is a growing problem in cats with more than 50% of cats in Australia, UK and the US now being overweight. There are substantial health risks associated with this.
Not all, but a high number of cats prefer the taste and texture of a raw diet to commercial dry or canned foods.
What kind of raw food can I give my cat?
There are lots of types of meat you can give to your cat; I like to include cheap cuts of steak including chuck steak and round steak. Ideally, the meat should be free-range, organic and free of chemicals. As already stated, I always recommend feeding human grade meat to cats. Avoid feeding the same type of meat all the time as this is more likely to result in a nutritional deficiency. When feeding raw meat, you are unlikely to provide a nutritionally adequate balance with every meal. So one meal may be mostly muscle, another mostly offal or bones. Over a few days, it should all balance out.
Types of raw meat suitable for cats:
- Raw chicken breast or thighs.
- Raw chunks of steak. The cheaper cuts are chewier, and your cat has to work harder to chew it, which is good for the teeth and gums.
- Beef or lamb heart and kidney.
- Beef or lamb liver can be fed to cats but only in small quantities. Liver contains high levels of vitamin A and too much can lead to vitamin A toxicosis.
- Rabbit cut up into chunks.
- Turkey breast, wings and legs, cut into chunks.
It is perfectly fine to give your cat cooked meat; some pet owners prefer this. Don’t ever give cooked bones, they are too brittle and can splinter. As has already been mentioned, cooking destroys taurine, which is essential for your cat’s health. If you do decide to cook your cat’s meat, it will need supplementation with taurine.
Chicken necks or wings are great for your cat’s dental hygiene. There is more information on feeding cats bones here.
Please don’t use your cat as a waste disposal unit, if the meat has expired, don’t give it to your cat. Meat which has gone off won’t necessarily smell or look off. Always check the use by date.
Can I feed my cat kangaroo meat?
Kangaroo is excellent for cats; it is low in fat. Freeze meat in small portions for at least two days and defrost in the fridge before use. Again, I always recommend buying human grade meat, and this includes kangaroo.
What kind of meats aren’t suitable for cats?
Processed (deli) meats such as salami, ham, turkey lunch meat, which contain high amounts of preservatives and have way too much salt.
I am going to add fish to this list, while it is okay to give a small amount of fish to your cat, it should be a sometimes food, and not a regular part of his diet. Many fish contain high levels of mercury and low in vitamin E, which over time can result in a painful condition known as yellow fat disease.
What age should you start feeding your cat raw meat?
You can introduce your cat to raw meat as soon as he starts weaning from his mother.
How to reduce the risks
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I am not a huge fan of raw pet food. The standards aren’t as high as with meat for human consumption and contamination may be a bigger issue. I always feed human-grade meat.
Most cases of foodborne illness come from improper handling and storage of meat in the home. Take care when buying, transporting, storing and processing raw meat.
- Avoid game (wild-caught meat): Some wild-caught meats such as kangaroo and rabbit can be contaminated with lead fragments, which is extremely toxic to cats.
- Mincemeat at home: Ground/minced meat can harbour more bacteria. Bacteria present on the surface of the meat are ground into the meat as it is minced, and can rapidly multiply. If you do want to give your cat minced meat, I would suggest buying steak and mincing it yourself at home and give it to your cat immediately.
- Don’t rinse meat: People are in the habit of rinsing meat, mainly raw chicken before processing; however, this is not a safe practice. Rinsing spreads bacteria to nearby surfaces. Instead, dab the chicken with a dry paper towel.
- Buy human-grade meat: Find a good quality butcher to supply your meat. Never buy meat if the packaging is bulging.
- Wash your hands: ALWAYS wash your hands with hot, soapy water before and after handling raw meat.
- Leave food out for 20 minutes: Bacteria quickly multiply in a warm environment, so remove and dispose of any uneaten meat after 20 minutes.
- Don’t prepare raw meat and fruit/vegetables on the same board: Have separate boards for raw meat and other food such as fruit and vegetables.
- Washing up: Wash your cat’s food bowl, chopping board and other utensils in hot, soapy water or better still, the dishwasher.
- Storage: Never store cooked and raw meat on the same plate. Store raw meat on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so it can’t drip juices onto prepared meat. Always ensure raw meat is adequately wrapped in the fridge to avoid cross-contamination.
- Temperature: Store raw meat below 5C.
- Follow use-by dates: Always feed before the use by date, and check with your butcher how long the meat can be refrigerated. As a rule, store chicken or mince for 1-2 days, and beef for three days (unless a use-by date stipulates otherwise).
- Large batches of food: Freeze into smaller portions.
- Defrosting meat: Place in the refrigerator the night before to slowly defrost. Never defrost meat at room temperature.
If you are going to switch your cat to a raw-only diet, do your research. There is a lot to learn about feline nutrition if you are going to get this right. The purpose of this article was more to discuss feeding your cat raw meat a few times a week, not to switch his diet completely. There are a lot of good reasons to switch to raw; however, if you can’t do it properly, you take the risk of making your cat very sick from several diseases which can develop due to a nutritionally incomplete diet.
Many people have switched to raw only; I am not one of them. My cats eat a mix of raw chicken necks, raw chunks of steak, canned cat food and dry food (note: none have underlying medical conditions). The necks and raw meat help to keep the cat’s teeth clean, and they enjoy a good gnaw, plus it provides variety; however, muscle and necks aren’t nutritionally complete on their own, therefore for me, I will continue to feed commercial cat food in addition to raw.
The links below provide information which is for and against feeding raw.