FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Raw Diets

August 20, 2019

Most supposed benefits of raw diets have not been supported by scientific research.  Typically, raw diet benefits are promoted by individuals on the internet that do not have a background in feline nutrition or veterinary medicine.  Their “evidence” is generally circumstantial and based on personal experience which may or may not be true.  Unfortunately, many of the pro-raw diet claims draw on your emotions and counter-establishment mentalities more than research and science.  On the other hand, the risks of raw diets are well documented and are especially a concern for humans who are pregnant, immunocompromised, are young or are elderly. Some concerns include:

• Many raw diets are nutritionally unbalanced and contain nutrient deficiencies.  They are not formulated to be “complete and balanced” and have not undergone AAFCO feeding trials to determine nutritional completeness.

• Raw diets tend to be contaminated with pathogens (bacteria, parasites) that may cause your cat to become ill. These pathogens (i.e. Salmonella, E. coli. Listeria, Campylobacter) may also pose a health risk to humans. Commercial diets may also be contaminated; however, raw diets are far more likely to be contaminated with pathogens. The FDA warns that “feeding raw foods to pets increases the risk that both the pet and the people around the pet will encounter bacteria that cause foodborne illness, particularly if the products are not carefully handled and fed.”

• Raw diets can result in significant illness. Some argue that cats can “handle” the bacteria from these diets and it does not affect them. Unfortunately, this is not true and cats can become very unwell from consuming a contaminated raw diet. The real concern for pets consuming raw diets is they can and will shed these organisms into the environment, which poses health risks to other pets and humans in the household. It has been documented that the same organisms found in raw diets are shed by pets eating the diet and spread to humans in the household. Pets who shed these organisms are also healthy (they do not show signs that they are unwell). Additionally, bones in the raw diet may result in tooth fractures or damage to the digestive tract.

“Benefits” of a raw diet have not been proven.

The websites that promote and sell raw diets look and sound amazing. Sadly, most of their claims are not true or are unproven. Some myths include:

Myth #1: Raw diets provide enzymes that are destroyed by the cooking process of commercial diets. There is no scientific proof of this “benefit.” Most enzymes are inactivated or broken down by the stomach contents after consumption. The GI tract & pancreas make all of the enzymes a cat requires for digestion.

Myth #2: Raw diets preserve nutrients (i.e. amino acids, vitamins) that are lost in processed commercial diets due to the cooking process. Generally, pet food companies are aware of the nutrient profile changes that occur during the cooking process and will supplement what is potentially lost. The cooking process also allows some nutrients to become available that would normally not be present if the food was eaten raw. I often joke that fire was a major contribution to human evolution, especially in regards to food consumption (i.e. fire killed parasites, increased digestibility, decreased the amount of energy needed to chew and digest food). I do not see the need to go back to the times when food was not cooked.

Myth #3: Raw diets provide everything a cat needs while commercial diets use ingredients like grains as cheap fillers. These claims are marketing and have no scientific basis to back them up (see my previous blog about grain-free diets and other marketing trends). Cats needs nutrients, not ingredients. To illustrate this point, one study took whole rabbits, ground them up and fed them to cats. Even though the diet had adequate taurine levels when analyzed, a number of cats were taurine deficient and developed heart disease. Just because a nutrient is in adequate levels does not mean that nutrient will be absorbed and be available to the cat. In summary, the whole-rabbit raw diet contained the taurine the cats needed but the cats could not use the taurine and they became deficient.

Myth #4: Raw diets provide benefits that prevent diseases such as food allergies, chronic digestive issues, arthritis, chronic skin/coat issues, diabetes, urinary tract disease and cancer. Raw diets also improve the immune system and dental health. Most of these claims are anecdotal and not supported by scientific research. I often tell clients that if I could recommend a diet that would treat all of the above conditions, I would happily sell raw diets. Many studies have shown the contrary to this claim and have documented nutritional deficiencies and toxicities.

Myth #5: Freezing raw diets kills bacteria / Cats can “handle” the bacteria in raw diets. Freezing does nothing to kill the pathogenic bacteria found in raw diets and bacteria can easily survive the freezing process. There is also a concern for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these diets that come from livestock. Recently, a commercial raw diet has been linked to the spread of tuberculosis in the UK, causing significant disease in cats.

Myth #6: The big pet food companies recall their diets just as much as raw diets. There are some commercial diet recalls; however, saying they are equal is very misleading. Raw diets are frequently recalled for pathogen contamination and the rate of recall is significantly higher for raw diets. There is not an equal risk of danger feeding a raw diet compared to a traditional commercial cat food. Commercial cat diets are safe and recalled less often than raw diets.

Myth #7: Raw diets are similar to what cats would eat in the wild. Many cat owners want a diet to represent what cats were eating “back in the day” such as rabbits, mice, rats and birds. On the surface, this seems reasonable until we compare their environments from then to now. A cat’s diet in the past was for survival and reproduction, with cats living only a few years. The modern-day cat lives 15+ years, resides primarily inside, is spayed or neutered and vaccinated against infectious diseases.

There is overwhelming scientific data about the risks of feeding your cat a raw diet.

For those that still want to feed their cat a raw diet, there are some precautions you should take:

1. Separation – Keep raw diets separate from other food. Clearly label raw diets as such.

2. Cross contamination – Separate utensils, plates, cutting boards, bowls, etc. should only be used for preparing & serving raw diets. They should be washed immediately after use with soap and water. They should not be used to prepare food for human consumption.

3. Wash your hands – Wash with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer after handling the raw diet. Do this often.

4. Discard uneaten food quickly – Do not let raw diets “sit out” as bacteria can grow quickly on raw diets at room temperature.

5. Bowls – Choose a stainless-steel bowl as they are easy to disinfect and harder to damage.

6. Disinfect – All bowls/plates that come in contact with raw diets should be disinfected regularly.

7. Kisses – Do not allow your cat to kiss or lick your face after eating a raw diet.

8. Safety – Children, elderly or the immunocompromised should not be handling raw diets.

I’ve blogged about a number of “Food For Thought” topics recently. All of these ideas boil down to the following concepts. When it comes to feeding our cats, we draw on our own personal experience. Currently, we are experiencing the human trend for more natural or organic food. Cat owners feel in control when choosing their cat’s food. Cat owners feel empowered by selecting their cat’s diet and potentially having a role in their cat’s health and well-being. As cats become part of our family, the emotional, social, and cultural ties we place on our own diet begin to extend to the diets we choose for our cats. It is very difficult to put the above aside and listen to a veterinary professional diet recommendation when we are essentially attached to specific ideas about diet.

The FDA, AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) all recommend against feeding a raw diet to your cat.

At the end of the day, due to all of the safety concerns and the fact that the proposed “benefits” of feeding your cat a raw diet have not been scientifically researched and validated, we cannot recommend a raw diet at this time. To our knowledge, most, if not all, veterinary nutritionists do not recommend feeding a raw diet to your cat as well.

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