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Feeding Cats Raw Meat

Feeding cats raw meatAnother topic which frequently sparks fierce debate is the feeding of raw meat to cats. Some people swear by it, others believe it is a danger that is not worth the potential risks. I don't know if this argument will ever be solved, but as pet owners it is up to us to do the research and come up with an informed decision. I do think overall there is a growing cynicism towards commercial diets, with one feline veterinarian, Dr Richard Malik (whom I respect greatly) offering his own opinion in this article.

My own cats are fed canned food, dry food, raw meat and chicken necks. A varied diet, some commercial, some raw, different types makes for cats who aren't fussy, have all their nutritional needs met and I know they're getting the best of everything. I don't feel confident enough to switch to a completely raw diet, but do think there are benefits to feeding my cats raw meat several times a week. In addition to that, they are given dry food to graze on as well as some canned food.

I have found that every veterinarian I have spoken to in Australia has been happy for me to feed raw meat to my cats, however veterinarians in other countries seem a little more reluctant. I do think it is advisable to speak to your own veterinarian for his opinion first, he can explain the pros and cons, as well as doing your own research. It has been said that cats in poor health from cancer or diseases which may weaken the immune system are more vulnerable to food borne illness than cats in good health. Again, speak to your veterinarian, as he knows your cat's health status.

What are the risks of feeding your cat a raw diet?

There are three major issues at play here, bacterial contamination, parasites and feeding your cat an unbalanced diet, both of which can be potentially life-threatening. Many people don't realise that commercial pet foods can also become contaminated with disease-causing bacteria, it is not the exclusive domain of raw meat.

Food poisoning:

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 and campylobacter.

Cats have a shorter gastrointestinal tract, this means meat passes through the cat faster. In addition, 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.

Campylobacter jejuni
Campylobacter jejuni

Parasites:

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 are passed via the feces. Infection in cats usually causes no symptoms at all, however the concern with this particular parasite is the ability to cause birth defects to unborn human babies if the mother becomes infected  during pregnancy.

Toxoplasmosis cysts in meat can be killed by freezing at -12 for two days. If you are planning to become pregnant or are pregnant, ask your doctor or obstetrician for a blood test to determine if you have been exposed to this parasite. If you haven't, then please take extra precautions when feeding your cat raw meat. This 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.

Most parasites can be killed by freezing the meat for at least 24 hours prior to feeding to your cat. When defrosting, remove from the freezer and refrigerate until thawed through. Never defrost meat at room temperature.

Insufficient nutrients:

Taurine is an essential amino acid found in seafood, meat (particularly 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.

Calcium is an essential mineral responsible for building and maintaining bone and teeth, vascular dilation and contraction, transmission of nerve impulses, muscle function, blood clotting and enzyme function. Most of the calcium in the cat's body is stored in the bones. 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. This 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 diet.

Vitamin E is 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.

What are the benefits of feeding raw meat to a cat?

Hydration: A raw diet 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 approximately 10% water. Cats often don't make up for this imbalance by drinking more water. This can lead to very concentrated levels of urine, which can result in the formation of urinary crystals or stones. 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, making urination difficult or impossible. This is a life threatening condition which requires urgent veterinary care.

Dental care: Cats need to really 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.

Weight maintenance: 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 huge health risks associated with this.

What kind of raw food can I give my cat?

There's 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 the course of a few days, it should all balance out.

Some of which include:

  • 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, in fact 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 to be supplemented 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 great for cats, it is low in fat. This meat should be frozen in small portions for at least two days and allow the meat to defrost in the fridge. 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 shouldn't be fed to cats. These meats 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.

Reducing the risks when feeding raw food to your cat:

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 food bourne illness come from improper handling and storage of meat in the home. Proper care must be taken when buying, transporting, storing and processing raw meat.

  • Some wild caught meats such as kangaroo and rabbit may also be contaminated with lead fragments, which is extremely toxic to cats.
  • 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.
  • Many people are in the habit of rinsing meat, particularly raw chicken prior to processing. It is now established that this is not a safe practice. Rinsing spreads bacteria to nearby surfaces. Instead, dab the chicken with a dry paper towel.
  • Find a good quality butcher to supply your meat. Never buy meat if the packaging is bulging.
  • ALWAYS wash your hands with hot, soapy water before and after handling raw meat.
  • Bacteria quickly multiply in a warm environment, so remove and dispose of any uneaten meat after 20 minutes.
  • Wash your cat's food bowl with hot soapy water after every meal.
  • Never store cooked and raw meat on the same plate.

Summary:

If you are going to switch your cat to a raw only diet, then I urge you to 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 completely switch his diet. 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 a number of diseases which can develop due to a nutritionally incomplete diet. Many people have switched to raw only, I myself am not one of them, yet. Maybe in the future I will. Right now, my cats are given a mix of raw chicken necks, raw chunks of steak, canned cat food and biscuits. The necks and raw meat help to keep the cat's teeth clean, they enjoy eating it and it provides variety. But I also realise that just muscle and necks aren't nutritionally balanced just on their own.