If you're feeding raw or are considering the option, you need to make sure the cat's diet is complete and balanced. If you're feeding homemade raw, using a nutritionally balanced recipe is key. Take a few minutes to read our discussion of finding the right recipe for feeding homemade raw.
A balanced recipe is important for many reasons, a critical one being calcium content. It often leads to questions about how to use bones or bone alternatives in the cat's diet. This short guide explores the issues of calcium and how to incorporate it into a homemade diet. Coming up with your own recipe for feeding raw is very challenging, not only in regards to calcium, and should not be attempted by anyone who is not a cat nutrition expert. For almost everyone else, feeding raw means either sticking to known complete & balanced recipes, following the prey model raw proportion guidelines, or consulting with a pet nutritionist for a tailor-made diet.
What is Calcium and Why is it So Important?Calcium is one of the most important minerals for a mammal’s body. Many of us are familiar with calcium as a key nutrient in fighting the onset of osteoporosis and indeed it does have a key role in building bones and teeth. But calcium is also crucial for various physiological processes in body cells, including helping to clot blood, send and receive nerve signals, make your muscles work properly, and perhaps most importantly, keep a normal heartbeat. Calcium works together with numerous nutrients, notably phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamin D. When it comes to calcium, dietary considerations take into account not only the actual amount of calcium in the diet, but also the critical balance between calcium and phosphorus, known as the “calcium-to-phosphorus ratio” Ca: P.
The all-too-common practice of feeding meat without bones (or an alternate source of calcium) is nutritionally disastrous. If the Ca: P ratio is not right, the cat will leech calcium from their very bones, resulting in a condition that can become fatal and irreversible. Do not try to guess your way around adding bones to your cat's homemade raw diet, whether feeding ground or not. Stick to a known recipe - properly balanced recipes (or prey model raw feeding guidelines) will clearly address this critical relationship, defining how to determine the amount of bone to use. Otherwise, take time to learn more about the types of calcium and how to balance them within a recipe. If in doubt, consult a pet nutritionist.
Feeding BonesOwners who feed prey model raw, i.e. do not grind the ingredients, feed their cats fresh whole bones inside their "meat" packages. Only smaller bones are appropriate for a cat, similar to those one might find in a rat or a bird. The bones are served in their natural state, forcing the cat to chew the meat (or meat and skin) and break down the bone inside it. Larger bones are not suitable for cats, so should not be used in prey model (non-ground) feeding. Examples of appropriate bone-in meals for cats include rabbit, quail, pheasant, dove (if you can source it), Cornish hen, chicken ribs and the two smaller pieces of a chicken wing. This will be discussed in more detail in an article featuring prey model raw feeding.
Many veterinarians warn against feeding bones to cats. It is a risk that should be acknowledged. Experienced feeders of raw claim they rarely see any issues with bones getting lodged in a cat's mouth or throat, and that when that does happen, the cat usually manages to expel the bone pieces on her own. The risk is considered minimal, as long as the right kind of bone is served. According to owners who feed raw, the benefits of feeding raw bones the right way - mostly improved dental health - outweigh the associated risks.
Never feed cooked bones. Cooked bones are dangerous, regardless of their size. Fresh bones are soft and flexible. Cooked bones are brittle and shatter and can cause internal damage.
Alternative Sources of CalciumRaw bones are considered to be the best source for calcium in a healthy cat's homemade diet. You may find recipes that use alternative sources of calcium, either for variety's sake or intended for cats with specific health issues. Here are some alternative sources, based on a discussion about bone alternatives held in our Raw & Home-cooked cat food forum. Note that replacing any part in your recipe should be done with caution as ratios and quantities may be different compared to the original recipe. Either find a reputable pet nutritionist to work with, or a recipe that is based on the replacement. Still not sure? Post your question in the Raw & Home-cooked cat food forum.
Bone meal - Authors of recipes often provide instructions on how to use bone meal instead of fresh bone. But due to bone meal being made from older animals, typically raised in less-than-ideal farming environments, TCS members do not recommend using bone meal as a bone alternative. Toxins can be concentrated in bone and the marrow. Even though human grade supplements must meet certain standards for the allowance of heavy metals in supplements, given the high heat to which the minerals and marrow are subjected, there are superior options.
MCHA (Microcrystalline Calcium Hydroxyapatite) - this is simply freeze-dried bovine bone derived from younger animals raised in Australia or New Zealand, which have more stringent herd and farm standards.
Eggshell powder - eggshell is composed principally of calcium carbonate, yet contains the proper proportion of magnesium and a similar trace mineral composition to bones. Given fresh bone contains a high level of phosphorus in addition to calcium, but eggshell contains only trace amounts of phosphorus, eggshell is considered more suitable for cats with renal issues.
In SummaryBones are the main source of calcium in most homemade raw diets for cats, but there are alternative ways of supplementing the food with calcium. Calcium is essential to a cat's health and a calcium-deficient diet can be extremely dangerous to your cat's health, and potentially fatal. The wrong balance of calcium-to-phosphorus can be critical as well, so ensure you're feeding a balanced and complete diet, including supplementation if required. Follow an established recipe or the prey model raw feeding guidelines, and don't make substitutions unless you are absolutely sure of the nutritional implications of the changes you are making. When in doubt, consult with a pet nutritionist.
If you have more questions about feeding a homemade diet, raw or cooked, please post in our Raw & Home-Cooked Cat Food forum.
Written by Laurie GoldsteinLaurie 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.