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What are the benefits of raw cat food?

raw cat food
(Image credit: Getty images)

Raw cat food is something that is discussed a lot. Hearing about it may have sparked your interest - after all feeding the best cat food, whether that be the best dry cat foods or the best wet cat food, to our cats is one of the ways we like to be good pet owners. Raw feeding champions claim a number of benefits, from 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 the fact that cats are 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 utilizing raw food - and raw feeders say that they get more nutrients out of it. They say there are big benefits to raw cat food - cats are healthier, with fewer medical issues and a shinier coat. They also say that the raw-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 properly balanced, leaving cats with nutritional problems. They also point out that cooking developed as a way of killing bacteria and parasites - 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 - such as an outbreak of tuberculosis (TB) linked to a raw diet*.

What is certainly clear is that raw feeding is a bit of a minefield, and it’s not always clear what is opinion and what is 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 the teeth of a cat shows us that they’ve got the necessary equipment to catch, kill, and eat small animal prey. So, feeding them what they’re designed to eat makes sense - 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 their diet, and if it’s okay for their mental health to be fed kibble. However, it’s worth mentioning here that ‘Natural’ is not always better - and our domesticated, well-fed cats live considerably longer than their wild counterparts!

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

It’s often discussed 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, so less comes back out again. Poos from pets fed a raw meat diet are often small, dry, crumbly, and less smelly - which can be handy if you just can’t stand that smell. A study in 2002  found that kittens fed a raw food diet (in this case, ground up rabbit) had much better stools than their counterparts. Another study on African Wildcats showed that kibble diets did indeed cause more faecal output, although 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 completely protein. So, feeding a raw meat diet means that your cats are getting more protein, and will feel full. This is great for greedy cats or those that pester their owners for scraps. Less hunger potentially also means less obesity - which affects around 50% of cats, and is a serious welfare problem. Having said that, restricting diet can be done by having some willpower on your cat’s 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 - they can be subjective. So far, there’s not a lot of evidence 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 cat’s 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 gumline that is considered important. Nevertheless, cat’s 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, and 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. Raw diets provide much more water, and therefore may help to stave off cystitis in susceptible cats - although 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 makes sense that it may 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, but the truth is that raw diets have caused nutritional deficiencies for pets in the past. The difficulty is in balancing a raw diet - because one liver and one meat type is not the same as the next, nutritionally. So even if you spend a long time carefully balancing a diet, the next day the balance will be undone, because you’ll have a new carcass that’s nutritionally different to the last one. One study in 2002 fed one group of growing kittens ground-up rabbit, and another group normal cat food. All was well, until a few months later when one kitten in the group being fed rabbit died. Investigation showed severe heart disease caused by a taurine deficiency, and it affected 70% of the cats in the rabbit group. Despite there being lots of taurine in the rabbit diet, it seems the cats could not access it - it was not bioavailable. This goes to show just how difficult it can be to balance a diet - even when that diet is ‘natural’.

Raw food can be contaminated with harmful bacterial pathogens

Did you ever wonder why humans learned to cook our food? Have you ever suffered from ‘barbecue belly’ after eating insufficiently-cooked 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. And some of the bacteria found were antibiotic-resistant. It’s true that cats have the digestion to cope with higher levels of bacteria than we do, but it doesn’t mean they 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. 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 in the house - especially in homes with young children, 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 can cause miscarriages, abortions, and illness in adults. Raw fed cats have greater presence of toxoplasma, and humans in the household can also catch it from contact with their food. As already discussed, the outbreak of tuberculosis 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 recommended to be euthanized - in the recent outbreak, 83% of the cats were euthanized due to the severe nature of their illness and the risk of them passing it on to their owners.

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. 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 immunocompromised people in the house - the elderly, the very young, or people with chronic health conditions - as infection with Salmonella or E.coli can be serious and even fatal in these people.

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

If you do decide you want to give raw feeding a go, there are a few things you can do 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, but we don’t know that until cats start to suffer problems. 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 normal diet so that they can 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 is essential to minimize the risk of you, your family, or your cats becoming ill. Most raw food is sent frozen. It’s best to have a dedicated freezer for the food so that any salmonella or other contamination doesn’t get 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 they groom, and this can easily 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