Cats are carnivores, and certainly don’t cook their own food in the wild. So why don’t more owners feed their cats raw meat? Are there reasons not to, and what are they? Or is a raw meat diet better for a cat?
Can cats eat raw meat, and is raw meat good for cats? Raw meat can be the ideal cat food, but it can also cause severe health effects. Nutritionally speaking, common raw meats like chicken provide cats with the right balance of protein and fat, and contain micronutrients like taurine which cats need to survive. However, meats prepared for human consumption aren’t always safe to eat unless cooked because of bacteria (like E-coli) or parasites like worms and their eggs. These dangers of raw meat apply both to your health and that of your cat. Feeding cats raw meat that’s as fresh as possible, or that has been canned specifically for cats, is better but still not entirely safe. Consult your vet before changing your cat’s diet.
The guide below first looks at what makes raw meat good for cats—its nutritional suitability. It will then look at what makes raw meat bad for cats and for you (germs, parasites and bone pieces). It’s possible to avoid these issues, though, if you know how…
Is It Safe to Feed Cats Raw Meat?
Raw food for cats can be safe provided that it’s done correctly. It can also go badly wrong.
To start with the obvious, wild cats eat nothing but raw meat. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that they need to eat meat to survive. Their digestive systems aren’t set up to digest large amounts of fiber and carbohydrate like ours are. Rather, they prefer the high protein and high fat content of meat. And since wild cats can’t cook their meat, they have to eat that meat raw.
Is Raw Meat Nutritionally Suitable for Cats?
Raw meat is broadly speaking nutritionally suitable. It can be more nutritionally suitable than tinned cat food.
The exact nutritional content of raw meat varies based on several factors including the animal it came from, where the cut of meat was taken from on the animal, and whether other things like fur or bones are included in the meal. Despite that meat generally has a high moisture content of between 50-75%, contains 20-40% protein, and 0-40% fat. These don’t add up because the numbers vary, but common meats like chicken are nutritionally suitable for your cat.
However, there are several mitigating factors to consider. If you only feed your cat one kind of meat, it may not have the precise right minerals and vitamins that your cat needs. Wild cats aren’t renowned for a varied diet, but this is nevertheless a potential issue. There are also different cuts of meat, some of which are lean and some of which are fatty. Not every piece of meat is perfect for a cat. But if you feed your cat several different kinds of meat, and a few different kinds of cut, then it would average out to a nutritionally suitable diet.
Can Raw Meat Make Cats Sick?
Feeding your cat raw meat could make it sick, although if prepared, stored and offered correctly it shouldn’t. Before you change anything about your pet’s life, it’s your responsibility to ensure that those changes are safe, so here are all the drawbacks you could expect to encounter.
Can Cats Catch Bacteria from Raw Meat (& Can Cats Get Salmonella?)
Raw meat bought from a store contains bacteria. The amount and type of bacteria can vary, but no meat is entirely sterile.
The reason for this is the way that the meat is processed, packaged and sold. Depending on where you live in the world, meat packing plants near you will have different standards and ways of packaging their meat. In the U.S., chlorine washing meat before it is sold is common; however, no matter what way meat is processed, it cannot be made perfectly free of bacteria or parasites.
When the meat is first processed and sold, it will have little bacteria on it. But as it reaches its sell-by and use-by dates, more and more bacteria grow on the meat. That’s why meat should be stored in the fridge, as the cold temperature stops the bacteria from reproducing quickly.
Either way, this means that the meat you feed your cat will at least have trace amounts of bacteria on it. If your cat eats its meal quickly, there won’t be enough bacteria on it to cause it ill health. It is possible for cats to develop salmonellosis, i.e. salmonella poisoning, and this will cause diarrhea and vomiting.
How Come Wild Cats Can Eat Raw Meat, Then…?
That’s a good question! To understand why, you have to understand how the body works.
Meat is muscle tissue with higher or lower amounts of fatty tissue in it. Muscle tissue is kept sterile, meaning there is no bacteria in it. That’s because animals have immune systems like we do, and fight away any bacteria they detect. An animal must keep certain parts of its body entirely sterile at all times, like the liver, kidneys, heart and muscles so that they can function properly. The same applies to your body, and that’s why infections can become serious health issues.
Cats don’t scavenge for food. When a cat needs a meal, it will go out and hunt and kill its prey fresh. It therefore eats the muscle tissue (meat) of its prey almost as soon as it’s exposed to the air. While it isn’t perfectly sterile, since the air contains floating bacteria, these bacteria don’t have time to grow and flourish on the meat and cause gastrointestinal distress when eaten.
That’s entirely unlike how meat is processed for supermarkets. Raw chicken, for example, is around five days old by the time it’s processed and ready for sale. It can then sit on the shelf for days, and in your fridge for longer. Tiny particles of contaminants still on the chicken can, by then, cause lots of bacterial growth.
Can Cats Catch Parasites from Raw Meat?
Parasites aren’t the same thing as bacteria. Parasites are tiny living creatures like worms that can live in meat and be passed on to the animal that eats it. Some of these parasites can be quite large, and some quite small; your cat can become infected from eating worms, their larvae or their eggs. There are several common parasites that may be found in meat. These include giardia, cryptosporidium (crypto), cyclospora, toxoplasma gondii and more.
These can be found in meat bought from supermarkets, from farms, or any source. They are killed when the meat is cooked, which is why cases are not more common, but they are still alive in meat eaten raw. Your cat can catch any of them depending on what’s in the meat you feed it.
Parasites can lead to issues with your cat’s digestive system, including:
- Weight loss. Parasites take a portion of the nutrients from the food that your cat eats. Your cat therefore wouldn’t take in all the energy from the food it ate, and could consequently lose weight.
- Diarrhea and vomiting. Your cat’s stomach and/or gut can become inflammed, leading to diarrhea and vomiting. There may be visible parasites in whatever your cat produces.
- Bloody stool, or mucosal stool. Because parasites can damage and inflame the lining of the gut, this can affect the quality of your cat’s stool. As well as being watery, it could also be bloody or covered in mucus.
Cases of worms can be fixed entirely with anthelmintics (worming tablets). Living parasites cannot be found in cooked, tinned cat food.
Bone Pieces Can Hurt Your Cat
This may not apply, depending on what kind of raw meat you want to feed your cat. But if you feed it meat with bones in, then these could hurt your cat. Small bones are a particular problem; these can be sharp, and can get stuck in your cat’s gums. Hard bones can also damage your cat’s teeth.
If this is a concern, you can feed your cat cuts of raw meat instead.
Is Your Kitchen Clean? (How to Prepare Raw Meat)
You also have to consider whether feeding your cat a raw meat diet is safe for you.
Raw meat is the #1 contaminant in your kitchen. It’s even advised not to wash something like raw chicken lest any drops of bacteria-laden water contaminate the area around your sink. Cooking meat all the way through kills any bacteria and parasites in it, but of course you’re planning on feeding your cat raw food, so that safeguard isn’t in place.
That means you will have to handle raw chicken and put it somewhere for your cat to eat. There are a few issues with this approach with regard to your safety:
- You have to handle the meat to put it in your cat’s bowl. You have to wash your hands afterwards, but you could contaminate the tap in turning it on, or get germ-filled water on your drying rack.
- Your cat may drag the meal from its bowl, especially if you feed it a large hunk of meat like a chicken leg. This would get the floor dirty.
- If you’re feeding your cat on the floor, that’s just the right level for crawling babies or doddling toddlers to access.
- Any food your cat doesn’t eat will have to be cleared away, meaning you will have to wash your hands again if you touch it.
- Any bacteria on the raw meat will transfer to the bowl. You should clean it after use.
You won’t have these problems if you feed your cat food from a tin. You also won’t have them if you just cook the meat! Cooking meat for cats is the same as cooking it for yourself.
How to Safely Feed Your Cat a Raw Meat Diet
Despite all of that, it is possible to feed your cat raw meat. You just have to do safely: both safely for your cat and safely for your family. If you do, then you’ll be giving your cat the ideal diet that its body requires.
What Raw Meats Can Cats Eat?
Not all meats were made equal. Some are more nutritious than others, while some pose unique dangers that others don’t. You therefore have to carefully choose the kind of raw meat you feed your cat, as well as choosing how to feed it.
- Can cats eat raw chicken? Raw chicken is fine so long as you can be sure it doesn’t harbor bacteria. The fresher the meat, then, the better: hypothetically it is best to feed your cat chicken that you have just killed and prepared yourself, although few people do this for obvious reasons. Otherwise, be careful of store-bought raw meat. Raw chicken is also better than cooked chicken in that cooked chicken bones splinter easily and can hurt your cat, while raw bones won’t.
- Can cats eat raw beef? Raw beef is similar to raw chicken in that it’s nutritionally suitable, and your cat will like it. Avoid meats that are highly processed, e.g. mince or burgers. Fresh, raw and unprocessed meat is always better.
- Can cats eat raw fish? Fish is fine as a snack, but should not be fed regularly. There are two reasons why. The first is that fish is high in fatty acids, so can lead to vitamin E deficiency in cats in high quantities. The second is that fish can contain lots of mercury, which builds up in your cat’s system if you continually feed it fish. Enzymes in raw fish can also destroy vitamin B in your cat’s system. It’s therefore best to feed other kinds of raw meat instead.
- Can cats eat raw pork? Pork used to contain lots of parasites. At one point, it was practically a sure thing that you/your cat could catch something from eating raw pork. Trichinosis—caused by Trichinella spiralis worms—were commonly found in pork, and it had to be cooked well done to kill them. Today, these worms are far less common, but the USDA still recommend cooking whole cuts of pork thoroughly. It’s therefore best to feed other kinds of raw meat instead.
- Can cats eat deli meat? Deli meat is fine for cats. That includes cured meat, i.e. meat that isn’t raw per se, but also isn’t cooked.
These issues are less prevalent with canned raw meat. That’s because manufacturers are careful to use clean cuts, and to ensure there are no parasites in there that could infest your cat. They expect that the meat won’t be cooked before being served so they have to be careful in that regard. But supermarkets don’t expect you to eat their meat raw, so don’t take as many precautions.
Get Meat That’s As Fresh As Possible
The fresher the meat, the better. If you have a farm near you, then getting meat from there that’s as fresh as possible would be ideal. If you can’t do that, then buy meat that’s as far away from its use-by date as possible. That at least means that any bacteria on there hasn’t had time to grow.
What’s far better than that, though, is to feed your cat raw meat that was canned especially for pets.
Can You Buy Tins of Raw Meat for Cats?
What’s far better than buying and handling raw meat is to buy tins of raw cat food. These are canned in such a way so as to kill any bacteria inside, but not cook the meat. These vary a lot in price, quality, texture and ingredients, but the point is the same: giving cats raw meat instead of cooked meat.
If you do want to go down this route, it has several advantages. These are:
- You don’t have to handle the raw meat, or at least not as much. You can scoop out the tin and put it in the bin/recycling. While you should still wash your hands afterwards, your countertops and fridge stay clean.
- The tins stay fresh for a long time. You therefore don’t have to constantly go out and buy more.
- They are made by a manufacturer that has a vested in providing a suitable diet for your cat.
There may be more or fewer brands available depending on where you live. Shop around to see what’s available near you. If you get the choice, pick one that doesn’t contain grains, and only contains raw meats.
Should You Feed Your Cats Raw Meat…? Consult a Vet!
You should talk to a vet before you make any kind of change to your cat’s diet. This should be something you normalize when it comes to caring for your cat. A vet’s advice is invaluable and could make your cat’s quality of life significantly higher.
Besides that, cats have sensitive stomachs. They are susceptible to any kind of change whether that change is a positive one or not. When fed new foods, cats are liable to vomit or experience diarrhea, and the advice of a vet may help during the transition. A good formula to follow is the ’80/20′ rule, which is as follows:
- In the first week, feed your cat 80% old food and 20% new food. The best way to do this is by mixing the new food with the old one, rather than feeding 4 old meals to every 1 new one.
- In the second week, feed your cat 60% old food and 40% new food.
- In the third week, feed your cat 40% old food and 60% new food.
- In the fourth week, feed your cat 20% old food and 80% new food.
- In the fifth week, feed your cat nothing but new food.
This will ease the switch from one food to another. If it doesn’t work for you, then again, talk to a vet for more advice.