In recent years there has been a trend towards feeding raw food to dogs, rather than the commercially processed food that most pet owners are used to. This fashion is now spreading into the cat world. Some owners are preparing their own raw diets, and there are also an increasing number of companies selling ready-prepared raw food for cats. So a raw diet is far easier to adapt to, at least for the owners, than it was in the past. So should you switch your cat to a raw diet? What are the advantages, and are there any disadvantages? And how should you go about it if you decide that you wish to do this?
Advocates of a raw diet for cats claim that it is much more natural, and therefore healthier for cats. They point out that cats are hunters, and have been eating raw food for generations, catching their own in our barns, woods, and outbuildings. Owners who try a raw diet sometimes claim that their cat's appetite is better on raw food, and also report improvements in health and coat condition. Proponents of raw food also claim that the food is of a higher quality than commercial cat food, as it contains more meat and fewer additives. Also, if the owner makes it up themselves, they know exactly what is going into the food.
All of the above sounds really convincing, but many people, including a number of vets, claim that it is too simplistic and only a part of the story. Firstly, 'natural' does not necessarily mean good. In the wild, cats often pick up parasites and other diseases from the food they catch and eat, and they also die at a much younger age than our cared-for moggies today.
Also, if you are preparing a raw food diet yourself, your cat may be missing out on some essential nutrients, unless you know a great deal about cat nutrition. Some experts claim that for a raw diet to contain everything a cat needs, it would need to include all the pieces of the dead animal, including the heart, liver, bones etc. And feeding bones to cats, unless they are very finely ground, can put them at risk of internal damage.
Additionally, you need to be exceptionally careful with handling raw meat, as it is easy for it to become contaminated unless it is very carefully prepared and stored. If eggs are part of the mix, as they often are, particularly in home prepared raw diets, you need to be aware of the risk of salmonella – a small risk, it is true, but one which is there nevertheless. You also need to make sure that there are no chunks of bone present which could splinter and hurt your cat. And raw meat can harbour organisms which cause disease in both cats and humans!
Finally, there is no actual scientific evidence that raw food is better for cats than carefully prepared commercial food, the formulae of which have been based on careful research over many years.
Nevertheless, you may decide that you wish to try a raw food diet for your cat. If you do, there are a few other things you need to bear in mind...
Some owners claim that their cats love raw food, that they took to it instantly, and prefer it to anything else. But all cats are different, and this was not my experience. All my cats absolutely refused to touch the raw food I gave them! Recommendations are that you mix in a little with their usual food, and gradually increase the amount of raw food that they are being given. It made no difference to my cats; they steadfastly refused to touch the raw food, no matter what I did with it. So it may be the cats themselves who make the decision as to whether or not you switch to this diet, as is so often the case.
Of course, we are all very careful with our cats' food anyway. But if feeding raw meat, you have to be exceptionally careful. It should be kept frozen until you need to use it, and you will need a contingency plan in the event of a power cut or the freezer breaking down. When defrosted, the raw meat should be kept in the fridge, on a shelf below all other foodstuffs, so that juices from the raw meat cannot contaminate any other food. However, cats do not like cold food, so you may need to bring their food up to room temperature before you feed them. And of course you should wash your hands after handling raw meat, and never re-freeze meat which has been thawed.
All of this takes quite a lot of time and effort, so you need to make sure you are able to take it on before you switch your cat to this diet. It will all be a little easier if you buy one of the commercially prepared raw diets rather than making your own, as these are usually delivered frozen, and can be put straight in your freezer. But the same hygiene principles will apply.
Although cats eat raw meat in the wild, there is no actual evidence that this is good for them. There is little scientific evidence to back up raw food diets, and quite a lot of evidence to show that unless you are very careful, raw food can be dangerous to your cat, and even to you and your family. Of course, every owner needs to decide for themselves. But if you do decide to feed your cat raw food, do it very carefully, pay scrupulous attention to hygiene, and find out as much as you can about cat nutrition. That way it should do your cat no harm. You yourself will have to decide if it is actually doing any good.