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Cats: Raw food diets for cats

Why feed raw?

As most cat owners know, cats are obligate carnivores. That means that they have to eat fish and meat, or their health suffers. And, whether we like it or not, cats are designed to kill and eat their prey, tearing through flesh and crushing bones. And what do we give them to eat? Often a poor substitute, like dry biscuits or canned food, neither of which are much like real meat, nor do they require cats to use their teeth in the way they were designed to be used. 

For a long time we were told that dry food would help keep our cats' teeth clean. Now we know this is probably not true because, when cats bite on a piece of dry food, it usually shatters at the tip of the tooth rather than having any abrasive effect along the tooth as a whole. Furthermore, many cats simply swallow dry biscuits whole! There are now dental biscuits, and time will tell if they are more effective at helping cats keep their teeth clean than are conventional biscuits.

A further problem with dry food is that it lacks moisture. This lack can cause problems for cats, because they are animals evolved to derive most of their water intake from prey. Commercial cat foods also tend to contain grains and cereals, especially dry foods. Some even contain soy as a cheap form of protein. None of these vegetable-based foods are appropriate for a carnivorous animal like the cat, certainly not in the amounts found in most commercial cat food. It's true a cat in the wild might consume some form of grain, seed or vegetable matter if it eats the stomach contents of its prey, but the amount would be very small, and in any case, cats do not always consume the stomach of their prey. Commercial cat foods are popular because they are easy to use, and there are some better quality commercial wet foods around, but evidence suggests that it's time to return to a more natural way of feeding our cats.


I have ten cats, mostly Persians, kept indoors or confined to a cat run, with not much chance of mousing. I  hadn’t thought that a raw meat and bones diet would be practical with so many cats, but I had tried years of feeding dry food, and it didn’t seem to suit my cats. A few of them had urinary tract problems, some had tummy upsets, and most had dental problems, so I decided that a change of diet was called for. I did a lot of research online and joined a couple of raw or natural feeding groups. Armed with some of my newfound knowledge, I set about assembling a raw ‘recipe’, convinced that my cats wouldn’t be able to resist it. I brought a meat grinder, some bone-in chicken thighs and a whole range of supplements to add to the final mix. Once I had assembled all the ingredients, along with chopping boards, knives, kitchen scissors and reams of paper towel, the cats had realised that there was something exciting happening on the food front, and were firmly glued to the other side of the door! After I had been grinding for over an hour, the kitchen looked like an abattoir. When I opened the door, several expectant furry bodies fell into the room. I dished up several plates of this meat (which quite frankly looked revolting) to a curious group of cats.  The look on their faces is not something I'll forget in a hurry – cats can, and do show utter contempt! There was almost a mass walkout. So I removed the disgusting mess from their plates and replaced it with their usual food. It was back to the drawing board!

Introducing New Foods Slowly

Obviously, overcome by enthusiasm, I'd broken the golden rule, which is that new foods should be introduced slowly! There are more high meat content and no grain/cereal content wet foods available now, and they can provide an intermediate step between dry and raw food. So I gradually increased the amount of wet food the cats were having, while decreasing the biscuits, until they were eating wet food only.  The next step was to introduce raw food again, so I worked on the same principle of moving slowly, just placing a few small pieces of raw meat on their plates alongside the wet food. Every day I would try different muscle meats, like lamb, chicken, rabbit, beef, duck and turkey. I introduced organ meat in the same way. 

Heart is hugely popular with my cats. If you buy whole hearts from the butcher, they can be cut into pieces with kitchen shears, although at least one supermarket chain offers chopped heart in packs if you’re feeling squeamish! Hearts are particularly high in taurine, an essential amino acid for cats.

It's important to introduce several different meats right at the beginning just to make sure your cat doesn’t become so attached to one type of meat that it won't eat any others. A cat that gets too fussy tends not to eat a nutritionally balanced diet, so do persevere. You may find that a type of meat your cat previously refused, becomes its absolute favourite a few months down the line. You can slowly graduate to larger chunks so that your cats have more opportunity to chew and tear their food and exercise their jaws.

Adding Calcium

Once the cats were enjoying the raw meat, I needed to introduce a source of calcium. Bones are the obvious choice. A cat in the wild eats its entire prey including bones. But I didn’t think my cats were quite ready for whole bones yet, so it was back to the meat grinder again. After I had got the cats used to raw meat, they were quite happy to accept minced up bones. However, though the old-fashioned hand grinders are very efficient for grinding bones, they can be hard work, especially if you are grinding a large batch. There are electric grinders which can be used for mincing bones, though they are really only designed for mincing meat.

An alternative to all this work is to buy packs of frozen minced meat and bones specifically for pets, and there are a few suppliers of this type of pet food – some already have organ meats included but some don’t, so you would still need to add organ meats to those that don't. A further option is to buy ready-minced meat from the supermarket or butcher and either add bone meal or finely ground eggshells (the grinding can be done in a coffee bean grinder) for the calcium source. Minced meats are very handy as a standby because they are convenient and can be defrosted fairly quickly.  They don't have teeth cleaning benefits, but they are handy in emergencies as a ‘natural’ convenience food.

Introducing Bones and Whole Parts

Several of my cats had already had dental procedures, including teeth removal, some when they were quite young. My ultimate aim was to have them chewing, crunching and eating bone, to help keep their remaining teeth clean, so I started to introduce whole cuts including the bone, like chicken drumsticks, thighs, wings and bone-in breast. It took the cats a while to realise that they had to work to get the meat off the bones, but once they got the idea, several were able to strip the meat off the bone, even if they weren’t yet able to actually consume the bone. Chicken wings and necks in particular are good for keeping teeth clean – they act as a sort of natural floss. Wings are however a bit daunting to give whole as a cat's first bone. It is easy to cut them into three parts across their natural joints, or you could try the smaller poussin, quail or guinea fowl. Other easy first bones are rib bones from a bone-in chicken breast or poussin. These bones have lots of juicy meat around them. Even cats with few or no teeth can strip meat from the bone.

My 19-year-old cat Elsa, had just 3 teeth but she could still strip the meat from a drumstick in no time at all. It was lovely to see her working at it, holding it down with one paw, and pulling and tearing the meat off!  She has been known to tackle a meaty bone not yet defrosted that I've been unwise enough to leave out on the worktop! Several of my cats can now consume an entire chicken wing, and some can tackle the thighbones of smaller chickens like poussins. Those that can’t actually manage to crunch and consume bones, have to be provided with their calcium in the form of minced up bones, although letting them try and work the meat off the bone is good for their jaw and shoulder strength.

A high quality, non-processed diet like this shouldn’t need supplements, but any processing can reduce taurine, so minced meats may need supplementation. Supplements should also be built into the diet gradually otherwise tummy upsets can occur. A lot also depends on the quality of the meat, for example, how it has been raised, whether it has been frozen, so it makes sense to try and feed fresh, organic/free range meats if possible. Traditional butcher shops are a good place to buy your meat and butchers are usually very happy to talk to you about how and where the meat is raised. My cats can definitely tell the difference between organic and non-organic, judging by the way they respond to my offerings.

Feeding Whole Prey

If you have a strong stomach and would like to feed your cats something even closer to nature, then frozen mice and day old chicks are available both online and at reptile shops. These can be fed whole, fur, feathers, bones and internal organs. The first time I offered a mouse to my cats I expected one of my younger moggies to be the first to try it, but in fact it was my 14 yr old Persian, Suzie, who surprised me by scoffing it down in seconds! Several of my cats will eat mice and day old chicks now, but be warned, it can be messy!

It may seem like more work to feed cats this way, and yes, it takes a bit more effort than opening a can or tipping a scoop of dry biscuits onto the plate, but it's no more effort than putting together a meal for yourself and your family – and there's no cooking involved! My cats do look better on their new diet. I’ve noticed that their coats are glossier, they are more alert and have more energy. There have been no further digestive upsets, or urinary tract problems, and I’m hopeful that, in time, their teeth will benefit too. 

Article by Gillian Harvey

Further Reading

Lynn Curtis (2011) Feline Nutrition: Nutrition for the Optimum Health and Longevity of your Cat. Createspace Independent: A very useful short guide to feline nutrition

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