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Raw Food Diet for Cats: What Are the Pros & Cons?

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	Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Paola Cuevas

MVZ (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Choosing the right diet for your cat is an incredibly difficult decision. You need to balance your obvious desire to give your cat what’s best with their finicky needs. Time and effort are also big considerations.

Raw pet food is all the rage in some circles, thanks to the worldwide movement in the human marketplace for natural and organic food.

Feeding raw foods to companion pets is controversial, however. Sure, your cats’ wild ancestors ate a raw diet in the wild, but is your domesticated kitty designed for such a diet? Of course, we all want our pets to eat the healthiest and most nutritionally sound diet possible, and since your cat is a natural predator, feeding it raw food seems like a straightforward answer.

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they require a diet composed of mostly animal tissue to thrive, so, on paper, a raw diet should meet your kitty’s nutritional requirements. But does it? Keep reading to find the benefits, drawbacks, and considerations of a raw food diet for cats.

  • Can be easy
  • High-quality nutrition
  • Promotes health
  • Difficulty transitioning
  • Inconvenient preparation and storage
  • Can be expensive


What Is Raw Cat Food?

A raw diet is a broad term for uncooked and unprocessed food derived from raw ingredients. Raw foods use uncooked meat, fish, and organs as the main ingredients in their recipes. Sometimes they include ground bone for calcium. In addition, they often boost the nutritional value by fortifying the recipes with vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure your kitty isn’t missing out on critical nutrients. For food to truly be considered “raw,” it cannot be processed using heat.

The raw food diet may also sometimes be known as a biologically-appropriate raw food (BARF) diet. The ultimate goal of a raw diet is to provide food that resembles a cat’s wild diet as much as possible.

man making raw cat food
Image Credit: stockcreations, Shutterstock

What Are the Different Types of Raw Cat Food?

Raw cat food is available in two primary forms. Some cat parents make their own raw food at home, while others opt for commercially available options.

Homemade raw food allows you to control every aspect of what goes into your cat’s food. But it isn’t as easy to prepare as one might think, as offering the meat alone isn’t going to be a nutritionally complete diet for your kitty. Cats need the perfect balance of fats, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids for a nutritionally complete diet. These nutrients are not available from meat alone. You need to include a combination of meat, internal organs, minerals, supplements, and other ingredients in the perfect amount and proportion to ensure your kitty is getting what it needs to thrive.

As more people are choosing to feed their cats a raw diet, pet food manufacturers are focusing their attention on addressing this growing desire. You may have seen freezers in the pet food aisle of your local supermarket or pet supply store. These commercially available raw foods are typically meant to be just as easy as cracking open a can of processed foods.

Commercially available raw food is typically sold in frozen or freeze-dried formulas. You can find them online or in pet stores. Unfortunately, not all raw foods contain the perfect balance of nutrients that cats need, so you still may need to add supplements to ensure your cat gets everything it needs nutritionally to thrive. Look for a complete and balanced statement on the package if you intend to feed only that specific food as your cat’s complete diet.

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Advantages of Raw Cat Food

Raw cat food diet proponents report a lot of advantages to offering their cats a raw diet over commercially available canned food and kibble.

1. Fewer Processed Ingredients

One of the most significant advantages of a raw food diet is that there are fewer processed ingredients in the recipes.

Proteins and amino acids, nutrients vital to the health of cats, undergo substantial physical changes during the manufacturing process of pet foods. Depending on the type of processing, temperature, and ingredients used in the recipes, these processes can affect protein digestibility and nutrient bioavailability. A raw food diet eliminates the need for these processes, providing a more natural and biologically appropriate diet.

That said, it’s important to note that “raw” is not synonymous with “high quality.” In fact, cooking can improve the nutritional value of some foods. For example, some raw seafood contains an enzyme known as thiaminase that can break down thiamine. Cats that eat a diet made predominantly of raw seafood may be at risk of thiamine deficiency which can lead to seizures or even death. Cooking seafood will break down thiaminase, in theory making the food safer for cats to eat. However, if the fish was kept frozen for a long time, lots of thiamine might already have been lost.

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2. High-Quality Nutrition

When done right, a raw diet is more nutritious for your cat then canned wet food or bags of dry kibble. A raw diet usually contains more natural ingredients without the artificial colors and flavorings contained in other foods. Commercially available raw diets prioritize whole ingredients to balance fats, proteins, and calories with the other nutrients that cats need, without relying on fillers.

Making your cat’s food yourself means you know exactly what’s in it, without question. A homemade raw diet is typically composed of human-grade food. Most people prepare raw food for their cat shop in grocery stores or butcher shops, where higher-quality meat is readily available.

Raw chicken meat on wooden board
Image Credit: atjana Baibakova, Shutterstock
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3. Promotes Healthy Digestion & Stool Quality

For cats with sensitive stomachs, a raw diet can alleviate digestive issues. Cats may have difficulty digesting some of the fillers and supplements included in other commercial foods, but since a raw diet more closely mirrors what they would eat in the wild, raw food is simply more acceptable to your cat’s digestive system.

A cat’s digestive system is designed specifically for a meat-based diet. Their digestive tract is short and acidic, allowing them to process raw food in around 12 hours. This fast turn-around time gives bacteria very little time to grow, which may make cats resistant to food poisoning.

Studies suggest that raw meat-based diets are significantly higher in digestibility for crude protein.

A study from 2002 fed kittens a raw rabbit diet and found that their stool quality was improved after just one week. Cats fed diets comprised of a large amount of carbohydrates often struggle to digest the excess carbs. Since much of what they’re eating isn’t efficiently processed, fecal waste is usually much greater than it should be. A raw diet may eliminate the volume and smell of their waste.

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4. Potential for Increased Skin and Coat Health

Proponents of the raw cat food diet say they notice marked improvements in their cat’s skin and coat health. The coats may become softer and silkier thanks to the essential fatty acids in the raw food diet. The problem with these purported benefits is that they can be challenging to measure and are subjective. There doesn’t appear to be much scientific evidence proving these claims are true. However, raw food advocates are convinced that switching to a raw food diet can make a drastic change in your cat’s health. The most noticeable change will be softer, shinier fur.

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5. Aditional Health Benefits

Othere reported benefits of feeding a raw diet to a cat include that their breath will likely improve too, because chewing meat and bones helps keep teeth clean. In addition to looking healthier, your cat may feel healthier. Since the protein in raw meat is of a higher quality and more easily digestible, your cat may have more energy.

cat reaching dish with raw meat
Image Credit: Nils Jacob, Shutterstock

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Disadvantages of Raw Cat Food

Though there may be advantages to feeding your cat a raw food diet, there are some disadvantages.

1. Potential for Bacterial Contamination

According to the FDA, raw pet food may be more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria than other pet food.

In a study from 2010 through 2012, the Center for Veterinary Medicine screened over 1,000 pet food samples for bacteria known to cause foodborne illnesses. This study looked at 196 raw pet food samples and found harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes in nearly 50 of these samples. This may be a potential health risk for both the pet eating the raw food and the owner handling it.

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2. High Cost

Feeding your pet a raw diet can be very expensive. This is especially true when you first try this diet as you may need to sample many different types of food to see which your cat prefers.

Raw diets are pricier on a “per feeding” basis, especially if you opt for commercially available and ready-to-serve meals. You can save money by making your own raw food, but remember to ensure it is nutritionally complete before feeding it to your pet. A raw diet may also need to have certain supplements added to it, such as taurine. Taurine is an essential amino acid that cats require for the health of their eyes and hearts, but most foods don’t contain enough of it naturally. The supplements your cat needs in its diet can add up fast, too.

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3. Preparation

Feeding your cat a raw diet can require you to handle large quantities of meat that many people find unappetizing. Many pet owners turn their noses up at the thought of dicing up chicken hearts and livers for their cat’s food. Even though organ meat isn’t usually part of an American human’s diet, these contain valuable vitamins and minerals for your cat.

rraw chicken liver
Image Credit: Andrey Starostin, Shutterstock
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4. Storage & Shelf Life

Storing raw food can be tricky. Commercial raw food can be frozen, fresh, or freeze-dried, which will take up a considerable amount of space in your fridge or freezer. Homemade raw food requires you to buy fresh meat and store it properly, which can take up space in your fridge. While canned or dry food lends itself to being stored in a cabinet, you must take extra care with raw food to avoid spoilage and bacterial growth.

Processed cat food has a much longer shelf life than raw food. Thawed raw food will need to be kept in the fridge and consumed within a few days, while kibble can last for weeks or months if stored in a dark, cool place.

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5. Potential for Foreign Bodies

Raw cat food may contain pieces of bone. While bone is essential for providing nutrients like calcium, the size of the bone pieces can vary and may cause problems. Bone particles can damage your kitty’s teeth, leaving them prone to infection. Larger pieces may cause blockages in the intestine and could even perforate the lining.

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6. Difficulty Transitioning

Switching your cat to a raw diet can be incredibly difficult. A cat who has spent their entire life thinking that food only comes in round pellets may have a hard time recognizing a piece of chicken on a bone as something that they should eat. Cats are notoriously picky about food, so there may be a great deal of trial and error involved in finding food that appeals to them. It’s substantially easier to choose food your cat likes when it’s just a simple as picking up a can.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Where does one find raw food?

So, you’ve decided that you’d like to give the raw food diet a chance, but now you’re unsure where to find the right food. If you opt not to make your own, you have plenty of options for commercially-made raw food.

Stella & Chewy is one of the most popular raw brands. Their line-up includes freeze-dried morsels, raw-coated kibble, and pates. Since their inception, Stella & Chewy has expanded beyond raw diets to offer a wider variety of foods to suit different dietary needs and budgets.

Nature’s Variety Instinct is another famous raw food brand. Their meals are freeze-dried for optimal digestion and nutrient absorption and have been designed to be complete and balanced.

cat owner feeding her pet cat
Image Credit: Milles Studio, Shutterstock

Is a raw food diet complete and balanced?

You have probably seen the “complete and balanced” terminology on cat food at your favorite pet store. This means that the food in question meets the required nutrients for your pet’s life stage as determined by the AAFCO. Unfortunately, one of the most significant drawbacks of the raw food diet is that not all commercially available foods are complete and balanced.

If opting for raw food from the store, you’ll need to scour the label for the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement. If there is no mention of the product being complete and balanced, you’ll need to buy a nutritional supplement or vitamin pack to ensure your kitty gets the nutrients and vitamins it needs to thrive.

If opting to make your own raw food, you’ll need to find recipes that include all the essential vitamins and minerals. This may prove very difficult, so you might need to buy a supplement or vitamin pack to ensure you’re checking off all the boxes.

How can I transition to a raw diet?

Transitioning your kitty to a new food, regardless of whether raw or not, shouldn’t happen overnight. Cats are notoriously finicky, and switching an adult cat that’s accustomed to eating only kibble or canned food to a raw diet may prove very challenging.

To help your cat adjust to its new diet, it’s generally recommended to combine 25% of the raw food with 75% of its current food for several days. After your kitty has gotten used to this mixture, increase the percentage of raw food by 25% every three days. Then, once your pet is familiar with the new food, you can fully transition them.

feeding cat
Image Credit: Dora Zett, Shuterstock
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Changing your cat’s food should not be done lightly. Since most cats resist change, you shouldn’t switch to raw food unless you can commit to following through with this diet. It’s important to weigh these pros and cons and evaluate what’s best for you and your cat before making the switch.

If you’re seriously considering switching your cat to a raw food diet, we recommend doing thorough research beforehand. Our blog is an excellent jumping-off point, but there are many other resources out there that you should consult before making the leap into a completely raw diet. When in doubt, make an appointment with your veterinarian and ask for their input and advice.

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Featured image credit: Laura Chouette, Unsplash