Health Topics

A Raw Nerve:

Dispelling the myths of raw food diets.

By Christina McRae, DVM

(This article was originally published in the July/August 2011 Issue of Pets Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.)

The latest fad in pet food these days seems to be raw diets. Proponents of raw food diets claim that heat processing of foods destroys nutrients that are essential to the health and well-being of pets, and that a diet resembling what cats would eat in the wild is a healthier, more balanced way of eating. While there are certainly some cats that do well on raw diets and a couple of raw diet products that are excellent, there are a lot of mis-conceptions and misunderstandings regarding raw food and feeding, some of which can be dangerous. As a veterinarian, I have an obligation to point out some of the major risks and myths associated with feeding raw food to your cat.

Myth 1:

My cat is healthier since I started feeding him a raw diet.

Fact: Some cats do better on raw diets than others. Many cats that improve when they are switched to raw food have been on lesser quality commercial diets in the first place, so any improvement in diet would result in a healthier cat. Many cats, in fact, are fed dry food only, so by switching to raw, the moisture content of the food will increase dramatically and this alone could account for a cat feeling and looking better.

Myth 2

Raw diets are better because they are more like what a cat would eat in the wild.

Fact: Cats in the wild kill their prey and eat it immediately. They do not raise it in a high-density environment, slaughter it in a large group, process it in a plant, ship it, butcher it, wrap it, display it in the store, carry it home in a bag in a warm car and keep it in the fridge or freezer for a week before they eat it. Every step in the handling of food from the farm to the table or cat food dish is an opportunity for bacterial contamination of food ingredients. You wouldn't eat raw meat, and neither would I, so I'm not going to feed it to my cat.

Myth 3

Cats digestive systems are more resistant to bacteria than humans.

Fact: Cats do get food-borne illness just like humans do. Your cat can get extremely sick from Salmonella or Campylobacter. They can get enterotoxigenic E. coli as well. They can get mild self-limiting food poisoning too. How many times does your cat have a soft stool in the litter box or vomit without a hairball and you dismiss it as a minor problem? This too, could be the sign of food-borne illness. Parasite diseases, such as trichinosis, toxoplasmosis and others, are also a risk of eating raw or undercooked meat. The risks to your cat's health are obvious, but be aware that there are many studies that show pets fed raw diets have a significantly higher risk of spreading Salmonella or enterotoxigenic E. coli to the humans they are living with. This is a major concern where there are young children or adults with comprimised immune systems in the home, as these bacteria can be life threatening to these individuals. Are you willing to take that risk?

Myth 4

Raw diets are more balanced.

Fact: Most raw diets are not, in fact, a complete or balanced diet at all. The pet food manufacturers rely on the fact that eating a variety of different raw diets on a daily basis will provide balanced nutrition over time. This is fine, as this is what we as humans do. But many pet owners feed only one or two flavours of food to their cats, as cats will definitely show their preference for taste or texture. Premium commercial diets are made to be complete and balanced so that every meal the cat eats is complete and balanced.

Myth 5:

Cooking food destroys the nutrients/enzymes in the food.

Fact: Premium commercial diets are tested for nutritional value after heat processing. The manufacturer adjusts any nutrients that are altered or decreased by cooking so that the final product is nutritionally complete. As for enzymes naturally present in the food, these are naturally destroyed by the acids in the stomach after ingestion, and so are only valuable to the pet as a source of protein. Many raw diets are deficient in trace elements and often contain ingredients that are not biologically available when eaten in an unprocessed form.

As you can see, nutrition is not a simple matter. There is more to it than reading a label or list of ingredients. Most cat owners want to take good care of their cat, and a healthy diet is a very important part of that. When it comes to pet nutrition, the best advice I can give you is to ask your veterinarian. Veterinarians have spent six or more years in university studying science and medicine, including physiology, chemistry and nutrition, and see hundreds or even thousands of pets each year. Vets are probably the best resource to help you weed through all the information and misinformation available from advertising, pet food stores and the Internet. Your vet can advise you on what to look for in a pet food, and how to avoid becoming a victim of pet food marketing, gimmicks or fads. Don't be afraid to ask - our patients sometimes bite, but we don't!

Dr. McRae is a 1990 graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College. She opened King Street Cat Hospital in Whitby, Ont, in 1995.