What are the benefits of raw cat food? A vet answers

A kitten enjoying a plate of raw cat food
(Image credit: Getty)

Raw cat food is discussed a lot these days, and hearing about it may have sparked your interest. After all, feeding our feline friends the best cat food, whether that be the best dry cat foods or the best wet cat food, is one of the ways we care for them as pet parents. Raw feeding champions claim several benefits from the best raw cat food, including better skin and haircoat to fewer behavioral problems. You may also have heard some of the counter-arguments for feeding raw, including the spread of disease and nutritional deficiencies. 

Raw feeding advocates often center their argument around cats being hunters. Over millions of years of evolution, cats have only had their food cooked for them in very recent history. It stands to reason that they're perfectly capable of digesting and using nutrients from raw food. In fact, raw feeders say that they get even more nutrients out of it. They say there are significant benefits to raw cat food: cats are healthier with fewer medical issues and a glossier coat. They also say that -fed cats have a better appetite and more energy. 

On the other hand, a group of people are speaking out against raw. They say that raw diets are not correctly balanced, leading to nutritional problems like deficiencies. They also point out that cooking was developed to kill bacteria and parasites. So, our pets are much more likely to get and spread disease if they’re eating raw food. Although many of these diseases may only affect cats, some can pass to their human owners, too. An example of this is an outbreak of tuberculosis (TB) linked to a raw diet*.

It is undoubtedly clear that raw feeding is a bit of a minefield, and it's not always obvious what is an opinion and what is a fact. We're going to wade in and try to sort it out.

The benefits of raw cat food: The case for

Raw food is more natural than dry or wet cat food

There's no denying that it's very natural for cats to eat raw food. One look at a cat's teeth shows us that they've got the necessary equipment in their mouths to catch, kill, and eat small animal prey. So, feeding them what they’re designed to eat makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, why fight millennia of evolution? Many people get a lot of satisfaction from feeding biologically-appropriate diets, and it’s easy to see why. We don’t know what cats ‘think’ about cat food and whether it's okay for their mental health to be fed kibble. However, the term ‘natural’ does not always mean ‘better’, and our domesticated, well-fed cats live considerably longer than their counterparts out in the wild!

Cats being fed raw food tend to do smaller, less smelly poop

It’s often suggested that cats fed a raw diet poop less. This is thought to be because the food is more digestible. They ‘process’ more of the food going in, which means that less comes back out again. Poos from pets fed a raw meat diet are often small, dry, crumbly, and less smelly - which is especially handy if you can't stand the smell of cat poop. A study in 2002  found that kittens fed a raw food diet (in this case, ground-up rabbit) had much better stools than the group who weren’t fed raw. Another study on African Wildcats showed that kibble diets did indeed cause more faecal output. However, it also concluded that the diets were not different enough to mean that these cats couldn't be fed kibble.

Raw food diets mean cats are less hungry and beg less

Protein is very filling, and raw meat is almost entirely protein. So, feeding a raw meat diet means that your cats get more protein and feel more satisfied. This is great for greedy cats who are prone to piling on the pounds or those that pester their owners for extra scraps. Less hunger could also mean less obesity. Obesity affects around 50% of cats and is a serious welfare problem. Having said that, restricting your podgy puss’s diet can be done by having some willpower on their behalf, so this isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

Cats on a raw food diet have better skin/coat/energy levels

Advocates for raw cat food say there are a range of benefits, from better energy levels to curing cancer. And the problem with most of these benefits is that they’re hard to measure and subjective. So far, there's not a lot of evidence to back up that any of these benefits are actually true – and naysayers say that a change to any high-quality diet would have the same effect. It's certainly true that for pets with allergies, a change of diet would improve their skin if the new diet didn't contain any allergens so that probably accounts for some of the subjective improvements.

The ingredients in a raw food diet are better for your cat’s teeth

Advocates of raw feeding say that the bones in the diet keep cat's teeth healthier. It does appear to be true that chomping down on the bones in a raw food diet keeps cats' teeth clean of plaque and tartar. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that cleaner teeth doesn’t necessarily mean healthier teeth, as it's disease beneath the gum line that is considered important. It’s also worth considering that bones in any diet could actually cause damage to your cat's teeth rather than being purely beneficial. Nevertheless, cats' teeth are usually cleaner and less foul-smelling if they eat a raw diet.

Cats on a raw food diet have fewer urinary problems

One of the main diseases we see in cats is urinary disease, from cystitis and urinary tract infections in cats to bladder stones, crystals, and blocked bladders. Evidence is mounting that dry cat food contributes to urinary disease. Cats are descended from desert-dwelling creatures, and they don't have much of a thirst drive. Instead, they tend to get most of their water from their diet. Prey is around 75%-80% water, so dry diets, at 10% water, don't meet this need, and cats would have to drink more water to stay optimally hydrated. Raw diets provide much more water and, therefore, may help to stave off cystitis in susceptible cats. Of course, this is also true of wet cat food diets. There’s currently no evidence for or against this benefit of raw cat food, but it does make sense that it could help.

raw cat food

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Raw cat food: The case against

Raw food can be unbalanced, meaning cats don’t get the nutrition they need

It may seem crazy that cats eating what they're naturally designed to eat could lead them to have unbalanced nutrition. Still, the truth is that raw diets have caused nutritional deficiencies for pets in the past. The difficulty in balancing a raw diet comes from the lack of consistency. Because one liver or one meat type is not nutritionally the same as the next, even if you carefully balance a diet, the balance will be undone when you have a new carcass. One study in 2002 fed one group of growing kittens ground-up rabbit and another group regular cat food. All was well until one kitten in the rabbit-fed group died a few months later.

Investigation showed severe heart disease caused by a taurine deficiency which affected 70% of the cats in the rabbit-fed group. Despite there being lots of taurine in the rabbit diet, it seems the cats could not access it - it was not bioavailable. This shows just how difficult it can be to balance a diet, even when that diet is ‘natural’ or what a cat is ‘supposed’ to eat.

Raw food can be contaminated with harmful bacterial pathogens

Did you ever wonder why we humans learned to cook our food? Well, have you ever suffered from ‘barbecue belly’ after eating undercooked chicken? Raw food contains bacteria, and many of these bacteria are pathogenic, which means they cause disease. Many studies have sampled raw food diets and confirmed that they fall below the threshold levels of pathogenic bacteria for human food. Some of the bacteria found were even antibiotic-resistant. It’s true that cats have the digestive system to cope with higher bacteria levels than we do, but it doesn't mean they definitely won’t fall ill. And even if they don’t, the humans preparing and feeding their food can fall ill through contact with their food, or even their mouth or face after they’ve eaten. 

Worryingly, cats can also shed the bacteria in their faeces and saliva. So, even though they aren’t ill themselves, they’re inadvertently spreading antibiotic-resistant pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella and E.coli around the house. This can cause severe disease for humans, especially in homes with young children, the elderly, or immunocompromised people.

There are other illnesses you and your cat could get from raw food

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii can be passed from animals to humans and cause miscarriages, abortions, and other illnesses in adults. Raw fed cats have a greater presence of toxoplasma, and humans in the household can also catch it from contact with raw cat food. The previously mentioned tuberculosis outbreak was traced to a brand of raw pet food that used venison. It's rare for tuberculosis to transmit from cat to human, but it is possible. In addition, cats that get TB are often euthanized - in the recent outbreak, 83% of the cats were euthanized due to the severe nature of their illness and the risk of passing it to their owners.

There are other risks from raw food

It's not just the risk of catching parasites or bacterial infections; raw cat diets pose another risk too. They often contain pieces of bone, which is important for providing nutrients like calcium. These bone pieces can vary in size and cause problems to your cat's health. As previously mentioned, bone particles could damage or fracture your cat’s teeth, causing pain and leaving them open to infection. Larger bone pieces might cause a blockage in your cat’s gut, whereas smaller, sharp pieces could irritate or damage the gut lining.

Raw cat food: The verdict

Unfortunately, most of the ‘benefits’ of raw cat food have not been proven. Or they are benefits that actually could be attributed to any high-quality wet food diet, rather than being unique to raw food. This, along with the fact that there is growing evidence of the risks, means that vets tend to advise against feeding your cat raw food. This might change as more studies are completed and as raw food companies work out ways to make their food safer, but in the meantime, we recommend staying clear. This is especially true if you have vulnerable or immunocompromised people in the house. The elderly, the very young, or people with chronic health conditions are most at risk since Salmonella or E.coli can be serious or even fatal in these people.

How can I feed a raw diet to my cat safely?

If you decide you want to give raw feeding a go, you can do a few things to mitigate some of the raw feeding risks.

As we’ve seen, many raw diets are not correctly balanced for nutrients - and even if they are, a lack of feeding trials means that the diet may have nutrients that aren’t bioavailable to the cat. The problem is that we don’t know that until cats start to suffer problems. So, to try to reduce the risk, you should ensure that any diet you do buy comes from a large, well-known company that has formulated the diet to be complete and balanced. If you can find a company that has done or is doing feeding trials to prove their diet is safe - even better. Another way to mitigate the risk of unbalanced raw nutrition is not to feed it at every meal but to alternate it with your cat's regular diet. This allows them to get any vitamins or minerals they're missing from their kibble or wet food. Do bear in mind, though, that cats can be fussy and may not take to having their food alternated like this.

Safe storage and handling of raw food are essential to minimize the risk of you, your family, or your cats becoming ill. Most raw food is sent frozen, so it’s best to have a dedicated freezer for the food so that any salmonella or other contamination doesn’t pass to your food. Remember, freezers don't kill all bacteria - they just slow it down. You'll also need to defrost it - usually at fridge temperature - and again, we recommend a covered container separate from your own refrigerated items. Your cat should have a dedicated bowl, and any fork or spoon you use for portioning their food should be separate from your own. You should also have a good cleaning regime - the fork and bowl should be cleaned in very hot soapy water and food-safe, pet-safe sanitizer after each feed - remember that many sanitizers need to stay in contact with the dish for several minutes to work effectively. You will also need to wash your hands well after handling the food.

Lastly, don’t forget that people in the house - or people your cat comes into contact with outside - will need to be religious about washing their hands if you feed your cat raw. Your cat will spread bacteria from the meat over their coat when grooming, which can quickly transfer to hands when they're being petted. Children and elderly relatives should be particularly careful about touching the cat.

*Tuberculosis due to Mycobacterium bovis in pet cats associated with feeding a commercial raw food diet

After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands. She quickly developed a love of consulting and helping clients with medical problems such as dermatology, behaviour and nutrition - anything that involved helping clients understand their pets better. Jo started writing about pet health in 2017, realising that it meant she could help even more pet parents. Since then, she has written for countless online and print publications and is a regular contributor for Edition Dog Magazine. Jo now lives in the Channel Islands with her husband Ian and terrier Pixie, and they are expecting their first child very soon.