Why is a Raw Diet appropriate for Cats?
Cats have evolved from desert wildcats and their physiology has changed little over time. Cats are obligate or true carnivores meaning they get their nutrition from animal tissue versus plants. They require 0% – 5% plant matter in their diet which comes primarily from the prey they eat rather than eating it directly. There are significant differences in cats versus dogs or humans. Cats have no carbohydrate requirements in their diet. Their bodies don’t convert plant matter to nutrients the way dogs or poeple can. Take a look at a cat’s teeth and you’ll see they’re meant to tear their food rather then chew it.
A diet rich in bio-available meat, organs and fat is key to their long-term health. Because they are obligate carnivores they have lost the ability to synthesize certain nutrients and consequently they must get these amino acids, vitamins and minerals from their diet. For instance, taurine and arginine are not synthesized by cats but are available in raw meats and organs. This is a significant difference between cats and dogs who are able to tolerate a higher level of plants and carbohydrates and do synthesize some amino acids (e.g. amylase).
Cats also benefit from the high fat available in the animal tissue. It’s helpful in providing increased energy, nutrient utilization and regulation of their metabolism. Plus it just makes food taste better, naturally!
The Importance of Water
As desert animals cats receive intracellular moisture from the prey they eat which results in cats having a very low thirst drive. The typical prey animal (e.g. mouse) is about 70% moisture. The typical dry diet is around 10% moisture. Getting their moisture through a raw diet rather than just from a fresh water source helps their digestive system work more effectively in flushing out toxins.
Cats do not have the enzyme, amylase, in their bodies, unlike dogs, which does not allow them to digest carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are then turned into fat in their bodies and without sufficient moisture in their diets toxins can build up which over-burdens their system. A raw diet is high in protein, high in moisture and low in carbohydrates making it the optimum diet for cats.
Of course, fresh water should always be available for your cat. Preferably in multiple locations and away from their food. Cats don’t typically like to drink where they eat.
Getting Started – Slowly!
Here’s the fun part and patience is definitely a virtue when introducing a raw diet to most cats. Cats imprint on their food at a very young age including food texture and even shape, flavor and smell. The more limited your cat’s diet when they were a kitten the more challenging the transition might be. So introducing a raw diet as early on in their life is best. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to convert an adult or even a senior cat to the a raw diet. It just takes a little patience and a few tricks!
If your cat is free-feeder try and convert them back to twice/day for an adult cat. You can slowly transition them by limiting their access to their dry food or let them “hunt it” in the house utilizing a treat toy.
Choosing your protein!
Here’s where you need to make a decision starting out on a single 100% meat proteins plus supplements or a complete and balanced diet. Some cats don’t tolerate any vegetables well or have some digestive or other health concerns that might make a 100% meat protein diet more appropriate. Regardless your cat should be slowly introduced to one protein and then, eventually, introduced to many different proteins to receive optimal nutrition from their diet.
Some cats, like dogs, can benefit from additional supplements in their diet even while on a raw diet. The more varied the diet the less necessary it is to add them to the diet but there are a few which are very beneficial.
- Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) – Typically found in grass-fed animals since the EFA’s are in the plant matter they digest. While most of our proteins are from grass-fed animals, it is still beneficial to add this to the diet. Cod liver is rich in omega-3’s and in Vitamin’s A & D (which cats must get from their diet, they need it directly from the animal source and cannot convert it from another source).
- Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics – Very helpful in transitioning to a new diet and in the absorption of vitamins and minerals as well as strengthening the immune system. Assisting their digestive system results in improved breath, digestion and stool quality. Going slowly is key and the digestive enzymes can help aid in the transition to raw food. Going too fast may upset your cat’s stomach and you don’t want them to associate this new food with any bad feelings. The digestive enzymes can help the digestion process for your cat.
- Vitamin/Mineral Supplement – As a precaution and to provide the necessary trace minerals in the diet a low-dose supplement can be added to the diet. Particularly if you’re feeding a single-source 100% protein diet. A separate Taurine supplement (approximately 500mg per day) can be added to prevent any deficiencies. It’s water-soluble so any extra will be flushed out with the urine.
Introducing Your Cat to a Raw Diet
Remember, to go slowly and make sure your cat never goes without food for more than 24 hours or even 12 hours for an obese cat without consulting your veterinarian. If not a very serious condition, hepatic lipidosis (when fat begins to accumulate in the liver), can occur. Don’t be discouraged by the transition process. You might have to throw away a few teaspoonful of food in the process but know that you on the way in giving your cat the best possible diet.
- First, choose your cat’s favorite meat protein then try one of the following methods.
- Make sure the food is warm (just like their prey would be) but not cooked. Placing the food in a bag sitting in warm water works well.
- Convert your cat to a wet, canned, diet first and then slowly introduce the raw food mixed into their favorite canned food. Use a very small amount and go very slowly mixing it together at each meal. Be warned this may take you months with a particularly stubborn cat but typically they will begin to prefer the raw food over the canned. An alternative is to not mix them together but use the raw as an “appetizer” on the same plate as their regular canned food. Then begin to convert over to 100% raw.
- Use some freeze-dried 100% treats sprinkled on their food to introduce them to raw – this is a great way to make the food even more palatable for them.
- You can also heat their food, in the beginning only, in order to get them to eat it initially. Parboiling the food in a plastic bag in boiling water for a minute or so or lighting cooking it, without butter or oil, can get them to take to the food. Don’t cook it all the way through – go for medium rare. Use this method only in the transition process as cooking does reduce the nutritional quality of the food but can be helpful for some cats in accepting the food.
- Another way to bring the food to room temperature more quickly is to set the plate of food over a bowl of hot/warm water. This helps take the “chill” out and many cats respond to warmer foods.
- Some cats prefer to “hunt” their food so placing their new raw diet in a surprise location in your home where they typically don’t eat has been effective in transitioning some cats.
- Don’t forget giving your cat raw meaty bones too. Chicken wings and necks are great for them. They can digest the meat and bones too. Just make sure they eat them in their designated location and don’t hide them in the house!
For Additional Information on Cat Nutrition and Raw Diets see the following resources:
- catinfo.org: Common Sense. Healthy Cats. Hosted by Dr. Lisa Pierson, veterinarian and feline nutrition advocate
- catnutrition.org: Hosted by Anne Jablonski, feline health advocate
- rawfedkitty.org: Hosted by the Feline Nutrition Education Society
- Natural Nutrition for Cats by Kymythy Schultze, C.N., C.N.C.
- Your Cat: Simple Secrets to a Longer Life by Elizabeth Hodgkins, D.V.M., Esq., and founder of yourdiabeticcat.com.
- The Natural Cat: The Comprehensive Guide to Optimum Care by Anitra Frazier with Norma Eckroate.
- Raising Cats Naturally: How to Care For Your Cat the Way Nature Intended by Michelle Bernard.
- The Household Carnivore: How To Feed Your Cat a Raw Diet by Susan Collins.