Maybe you've been reading about raw, and you’re feeling excited about the idea of regaining control over what goes into your pet’s food or feeding a fresh, minimally processed diet. But when you mention to your vet you’re thinking of feeding your cat a raw food diet, you’re taken aback when your vet says, “I don’t recommend it, it is dangerous to feed a raw diet.” Then a quick search online reveals that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has a policy on raw or undercooked animal-source protein diets for pets that is essentially an “anti-raw” stance, ostensibly taken out of concern for “public health risks” and the risk to our pets of contracting a foodborne illness. Now you’re concerned!
So what are the raw diet dangers typically cited? Bacteria (especially salmonella), parasites, bones, and nutritional deficiencies. This article addresses these, but focuses primarily on the public health risks. Balancing and properly feeding raw (including bone-in meals) will be covered in more depth in subsequent articles.
Concerned? Good, you should be. Being concerned about these potential problems will help ensure that you feed raw right. As TCS member Carolina states, “The way I see it, raw is the best diet there is, when done right. That includes what I call ‘respecting the meat.’ Know how to buy, handle, store, balance and feed. As long as you know that, it is a safe diet.”
Of course, most of the negative assumptions about raw feeding are directed at homemade raw diets. But for a growing number of pet owners, feeding raw doesn't have to mean preparing homemade food. Interestingly, many vets seem to be unaware of the many commercial raw diet options that now exist in some countries (principally the U.S. and Canada); my vet certainly wasn't. There are frozen raw products bearing AAFCO “Complete and Balanced” statements; commercial supplements that balance raw (or cooked) meat (available in North America and Europe); and there are sterile balanced & complete commercially frozen raw foods, treated with a process that uses almost no heat called High Pressure Pasteurization.
Managing the Risks
In regard to pathogens and their risk to our cats, raw feeders cite the cat’s natural evolutionary defenses. These include highly acidic digestive systems containing an enzyme (lysozyme) that attacks bacteria and other pathogens, and very short digestive tracts. Animal-based meals take on average just 12 hours to pass completely through, giving bacteria little time to proliferate. As scavengers, many stray and feral cats eat garbage or old carcasses to no ill effect, evidence of the strength of these natural defenses.
However, this doesn't address the potentially unnaturally high bacterial loads in mass-produced meats. Cats can and do become sick from contaminants. The good news is that as in people, these are treatable if not self-resolving, and for the most part, problems can be avoided altogether with a little care:
- Know the source of your ingredients
- Portion your meat and freeze it for up to several weeks prior to use.
- Freezing for 24 hours at 0F (-18C) renders T. gondii oocysts (responsible for toxoplasmosis) harmless. The freezer temperature should be monitored with a freezer thermometer.
- Meat supplies in the U.S. are considered free of Trichinosis, formerly a potential issue primarily in pork. For those in other countries where it may be a problem, Trichinella larva can be rendered harmless by freezing meat for 3 weeks. There are resistant strains: they are found in bears, wild boar, arctic fox and the walrus.
- Add probiotics to your cat's diet for enhanced intestinal tract health.
- Use safe-handling, storing, and thawing techniques – the same methods used for handling meat for the family.
- Do not leave any uneaten food out for longer than 30 minutes.
Salmonella is typically the number one concern when someone considers feeding raw. While it is a real concern, perspective is important. Many pets already harbor these bacteria as a part of their normal gastrointestinal flora. A 2002 study used by the AVMA to formulate their policy indicates that 36% of all healthy dogs and 18% of healthy cats are carriers of salmonella, irrespective of the type of food consumed: proper handling of both food AND proper cleaning of the litter box are required with ALL pet diets. You may not be aware of it, but our fruits, vegetables, spices and nuts are subject to recalls from salmonella on a rather frequent basis. Ground annatto, basil, black pepper, chile, packaged sliced fruit, dried egg products, alfalfa sprouts, and tomatoes have all been recalled in the U.S. this year alone (as of April 2014) due to salmonella contamination.
Many people don’t realize that the basic principles of food safety apply to their pets’ foods too -
- Dry food also harbors salmonella, and the FDA and the CDC provide safe handling instructions for canned and dry pet food and treats.
- There have been 128 cases of human salmonellosis associated with handling kibble; to date, none have been reported from feeding raw cat food.
- No matter what food you feed, our cats can naturally harbor and shed salmonella. According to the Natural Institutes of Health, salmonella infection is usually self-limiting, lasting 2–7 days, and the goal of treatment is simply to make you feel better and avoid dehydration.
- Salmonella infection is “rarely seen in cats,” and “most felines will only be carriers of the bacteria and there won’t be any clinical symptoms.” According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, salmonella is a normal part of the gut flora of dogs and cats (and other animals). But kittens and cats with weak immune systems are more susceptible to illness, so be aware of what to look for and do not delay taking your pet to see a vet: Salmonella in Cats at VetInfo.
- Proper food handling and storage reduces the risk of infection to both you and your pet.
- A 2007 study in therapy dogs found that dogs fed raw meat were more likely to shed salmonella than dogs fed other diets, though shedding of salmonella was reported with every type of diet fed. This is consistent with the 2002 study cited by the AVMA.
- The primary point of transference of salmonella from pet to human is feces (if safe food handling practices are implemented). This is equally true no matter what type of diet is fed. So practice safe scooping, and wash your hands after cleaning the litter box.
Safe Handling Practices for Pet Food (Raw or otherwise)This is a representative list of hygienic measures. Please refer to the FDA and the CDC for more complete information.
- When feeding homemade raw food, use only inspected meats suitable for human consumption (e.g. in the U.S. that is the USDA)
- Wash hands after handling any pet food, raw or otherwise
- Regularly wash and disinfect with a mild bleach solution bowls, utensils, food preparation surfaces, and implements
- Avoid cross-contamination by using separate preparation surfaces for different ingredients
- Properly store canned and raw foods in the refrigerator or freezer
- Thaw frozen foods overnight in the refrigerator, not at room temperature
- Do not allow pets to consume raw food products outside of the dish (or areas that can easily be cleaned and disinfected)
- Dispose unconsumed meal portions
- Avoid exposing young children, the elderly, or the ill to raw food ingredients or kibble
Type Risk during preparation Risk of secondary infection from a carrier animal Dry Food + + Canned Food - - Raw Food (Non-HPP treated) + +
Parasites are sometimes mentioned as a concern when feeding raw food to pets. Common parasites include roundworm, tapeworm, and hookworm. These are primarily found in the gastrointestinal tracts of prey species. When feeding raw, we normally do not feed guts to our pets, we purchase “cuts” of meat that do not include the stomach, intestines or colon. As long as we do not feed animal guts to our pets, there is essentially no risk of contracting GI parasites.
While the primary focus of this article is public health risks, and how to properly feed RAW bones to your cat will be addressed in a separate article "Prey Model Raw: the Basics,” feeding bones improperly IS a risk when making homemade cat food. If feeding ground, properly grinding bones presents little risk. But when feeding bone-in meals, two basic principles minimize the potential choking, obstruction, or perforation hazard:
NEVER feed cooked bones, even if ground;
Think “mouse-sized” and feed appropriately sized-bones to your cat (that would naturally eat very small prey animals).
Do your research. Making nutritionally balanced homemade cat food is not rocket science, but it does take time to learn how to do it properly. Ensure that a recipe you choose is based on reliable information. A raw food diet can feel like a lifesaver to someone that has a pet with allergies or IBD, when the fresh food – minimally processed, with no fillers or preservatives – stops an ongoing battle with vomiting or diarrhea. But well-meaning people may feed unbalanced diets out of lack of knowledge.
Feeding a raw diet is not just putting down some raw meat or offering a raw meaty bone to your cat. There are different forms and styles of raw food, and different philosophies of what a “balanced diet” means for our cats. But at the end of the day, whether feeding ground food or prey model raw, our cats have certain nutritional needs, and if we do not meet them, we are doing more harm than good in feeding our cats a homemade diet. The discussion of properly balancing homemade foods will be explored in subsequent articles. But it is essential to understand that there is more to feeding raw than providing meat or a bone-in meal. To learn more, the Raw & Home-Cooked Cat Food Forum of TheCatSite has an excellent collection of resources and experienced members ready to assist you.
Safety is typically the first thing cat owners worry about when considering feeding raw, but by taking what should be considered normal precautions, the potential risk to ourselves and our pets is mitigated. Feeding raw does mean an increased exposure to potential pathogens. Maintaining safe handling practices reduces the risk to a minimum but does not eliminate it. If there are immunocompromised individuals in your household, human or animal, feeding sterile raw (raw treated with HPP) or canned may be a safer option for all involved. As mentioned, there have been many reported cases of human infection with salmonella from handling kibble, so no matter what food you feed your pet, please employ basic hygiene, both in the kitchen and at the litter box!
Written by Laurie Goldstein
Picture by the3cats
Laurie Goldstein is a CFA Charterholder. In addition to her work as an equity analyst, she applies her research skill to all things cat, focusing on nutrition and advocacy for feral cat management via trap-neuter-return (TNR) and educational research on cat predation. Learn more about feral cats on her website http://www.StrayPetAdvocacy.org.
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