Raw Diet

BARF:  To Feed, or Not to Feed.  That is the Question

Submitted to Sphynx Newsletter on January 27, 2009 
Edited for Cat Talk on September 30, 2012 By Judy Webb Gunby
Published with permission from the author.

My husband and I were discussing the word BARF, and I explained to him that it is actually an acronym for biologically appropriate raw food.  He responded by saying that it should, rather, represent the words biologically absorbable raw food.

Immediately, I realized that many believe a raw diet is always the best and most absorbable for felines, and that it is nutritionally complete because of the feline response.   The assumption is, therefore, that it must be good for them.  So, after doing some research on the subject, and realizing that many people are very interested in the subject of feeding raw food (there is much information in cyberspace on the subject), I decided to look to credible past and present research on the subject to find out what just what people are thinking when they prepare and serve raw culinary delights for their kitties.

To begin with, let me say that I feed both raw, and kibble.  I decided to add raw to my feline diet when my general population reached around 10, and my kitties were having outbreaks of upper respiratory disease that would sweep through my entire feline population.  This, of course, necessitated the use of antibiotics more frequently than I was comfortable with, which I personally believe can be detrimental to the immune system (not to mention that overuse of any drug can potentially result in less efficacy of drugs in curing illnesses later).  I would like to add that, since I have been feeding raw food, I have had at least a 75% reduction in URIs in my general population and have found reports of other benefits feeding a raw diet to be utterly true.

I cannot find any credible supportive research which would directly relate the raw diet to the reduction of URIs and other cattery-related problems.  I can only report my own findings in my personal experience.  This only leads me to believe that there is much to be done with regards to the feline diet, as we search for causes of IBD and other gastro-intestinal diseases in our feline populations.  I also believe that something as simple as absorption of nutrients in the feline body when on a raw diet should be investigated as well as kibble and cooked canned diets.

In my opinion, there are some good commercial foods available on the market.  A  lot of science goes into the making of the better kibbles available today.  Many of these recipes and methods of production are scientifically consistent recipes and are, therefore, acceptable as adequate feline diets.  Evidence shows that many cats live long and happy lives in pet homes on these diets.  However, those breeders who choose to offer raw as an alternative to kibble, report that the positive affects on their general cat population cannot be ignored.  Many surmise from the obvious health benefits that returning to an exclusively commercially-prepared kibble would be a detriment to the health of their population.  So most usually do not return to feeding exclusively a commercial diet, but rather decide to feed commercial foods along with raw, as I do.


An interest in feeding a raw diet to domestic cat populations began in the mid-1900s, subsequent to the well-known Pottenger study.  Dr. Francis M. Pottenger, Jr. was a research scientist who used felines as a mechanism to test for human disease of the adrenal glands.  As his numbers increased, it became difficult for him to feed a cooked diet (there were no commercial feline diets on the market at that time), so he decided to feed a raw diet consisting of discarded meat scraps from a local meat packing plant.  The discards included heart, other muscle meat, and bone.  His findings were unanticipated, as he began to notice a stark difference in the general health of his cat population, as they became more robust and their general health markedly improved.  Dr. Pottenger credited his findings to the raw diet.

Dr. Pottenger’s study of the feline raw diet (conducted over a period of 10 years -- from 1932 – 1942) is denoted as a controlled study.  However, by today’s standards, a controlled study involves more stringent criteria than Dr. Pottenger had implemented in this study of over 900 cats.  Therefore, although scientists today may question the credibility of the Pottenger study, advocates of feeding a raw diet refer to the raw diet as proof certain that the benefits of feeding raw to a feline population cannot be refuted.  The findings remain only observational.


We now understand that much of the difference in the health Pottenger observed in his feline population was due, in part, to the taurine content which is found in organ meat and, particularly the heart muscle.  The diet Dr. Pottenger previously fed did not contain enough of this essential amino acid.  Contributing factors to the depletion of taurine, and other nutrients contained in raw food is believed to be the process of cooking meats, known to destroy much of the nutrients we now know to be essential to feline health and vigor.  Commercial diets prepare by cooking, and then use supplements to replace these nutrients, similar to what we do when we pasturize milk, and then re-supplement what has been destroyed in the process.

Some of the health benefits, as argued by raw food advocates, remain unclear.  And although the benefits of feeding a raw diet are clearly observed, the reason for these findings remain somewhat a mystery even today.  In other words, while there seems to be general health benefits in feeding raw, no one seems to understand all the complexities argued.  After all, commercial diets are designed to give our felines all the nutrition they need, and there has been a LOT of science that has gone into the preparation of these diets.

The Center for Companion Animal Health, UC Davis, presented a very good article on the subject regarding bowel issues in felines.  Please see:  Role of Diet in the Health of the Feline Intestinal Tract and in Inflammatory Bowel Disease.  You can pull up a PDF document by going to url:  http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/ccah/local-assets/pdfs/Role_of_diet_feline%20health_Glasgow.pdf .  I encourage everyone that breeds cats to fully investigate the benefits of feeding raw.  This article clearly shows readers the importance of understanding the nutritional needs of felines.

Particularly noteworthy in this article is, when felines that suffer from bowel sensitivity (including loose stools and intermittent diarrhea) are placed on a raw diet exclusively, their symptoms disappear.

Making a determination as to whether or not a raw diet is best for your cats and kittens is something that is clearly an individual choice.  There are many raw diets now on the market that are readily available to the consumer.  Information we now rely on when making choices is based on studies with controlled groups of cats, which incorporate blood work with observations of physical health, together with other methods which would prove a feline’s ability to ABSORB the nutrients in foods; nutrients that adequately compliment one another to aid in the body’s absorption of essential amino acids and other nutritive aspects.

The following excerpts of the referenced article are self-explanatory, and are presented here for those readers that don’t wish to view the article in its entirety.  It is this portion of the research I believe applies to the present controversy involving feeding a raw diet.  Please understand that the felines in the study were fed raw rabbit only.  It was ground whole.


    • Vitamin E levels in our raw rabbit diet were low and this can cause the meat to lose taurine as it is processed and ground.


* * *


    • The most negative aspect of feeding the raw rabbit diet exceeded all of the positive attributes….  The raw rabbit diet should have been balanced, but nevertheless caused severe taurine deficiency over time in all of the cats fed this diet.  Taurine deficiency not only affects the heart, but also the reproductive health of queens and viability of fetuses and kittens.


* * *


    • The results of this study have shed further light on the creation of an optimal natural diet for maintaining feline intestinal health. This represents a step towards the creation of a "gold-standard" diet that may be of benefit for the management of IBD in the cat. The key take-home message for cat owners and breeders is that a natural diet may not always be as healthy as imagined, and that even measuring nutrient values may not predict how a diet will perform after being fed for many months.
    • Furthermore, studies like this suggest that there is still much to be learned about the comparative effects of commercial diets and natural foods on stool quality and general well being. It is clear that the ideal commercial feline diet has yet to be developed for maintaining optimal intestinal health. In addition, caution should be heeded when feeding raw diets due to the potentially fatal consequences described with respect to creating a taurine deficiency.


Article previously cited.

What can we indeed “take home” with this information?  If you have any reservations (and indeed you should) as to whether or not your cats are properly absorbing better-than-adequate nutrients from their raw food, or their kibble, just simply have your cats’ blood tested for taurine and other amino acid levels.  However, if you are feeding kibble, as well as raw, be aware that if your cats’ taurine levels are good, then it may be due to the kibble – not the raw food.

There is, what I have determined to be, a good recipe for raw food found on the website.  I have made this determination because a feline nutritionist endorsed it as a good diet, but simply pointed to the salmon oil as being a potential problem (there can be issues with salmon oil going rancid, and also with possible allergic reactions).  She suggested that instead, we use flaxseed oil.  Many raw diet advocates are using this particular diet because of its reasoning behind using various supplements which aid in the absorption of raw food.  For instance, vitamin E (which has been found to aid in the absorption of taurine), is added, along with other supplements. This recipe is available at http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Raw-Cat-Food.  If you decide you would like to try to make your own raw food, please pay attention to the instructions in their entirety, and read the warnings at the end of the recipe and instructions.  Also note that this site previously bore a disclaimer which stated, in part, “The content on this site is written by a lay person with no veterinary training.”  I cannot find that same disclaimer at this time on the website.

NOTE:  A caveat that all should consider when reviewing their cats’ diets is to consider what our cats are doing at home, based on how they have evolved through time.  My cats eat bugs that get into the house, and when they are outside (I have some rescues that are wild and cannot be kept in the house) they eat rodents inclusive of skin and hair.  But these meats are always fresh.  Cats receive nutrients from all they consume, and have evolved to tolerate various prey.  Cats are not omnivores; rather carnivores.  They require meat, and when they kill in the wild, they go for the gut first and foremost, drinking the blood and eating the organ meat.  They are not opportunistic feeders, and they are willing to travel and hunt for hours for their fresh kill.  We tend to compare our feline companions to our dogs, but medicine and diet have proven this can be a fatal mistake.  A dog will eat carrion.  He has evolved to exist that way.  A cat wants fresh meat, preferring to drink the blood from the gut and leave the rest to the wolves and wild dogs.

Why Raw?

Will my kitty like it?  Will my kitty get sick?  Won't the meat get contaminated?  Do I add any supplements?  What kind of meat do I use?  How often should I feed them?

These are questions that I asked when I first started all my cats and kittens on the raw diet. It can be intimidating at first but once you get into it, you will find that it is more convenient and better both financially and health-wise for your kitty than commerical food.  It is very easy to get discouraged when you first start, so take it slow.  Don't go and buy a grinder and all the supplements yet.  First start with a small amount of chicken or beef cut into cubes to see how your cats like it.  You may have to even mix some with the food you currently feed them.  Some cats may walk away but in time you will likely finding them devour it.

In their natural setting, Cats would consume high levels of protein (meats/organ) and very small amount of carbohydrates and plant-based proteins (grains/vegetables).  They would not be picking berries and grazing in the grass.  They are true carnivores and would be hunting:

  • mice and other rodents
  • small mammals
  • birds
  • fish
  • snakes and other reptiles
  • insects

The protein in commerical food, which is often heavily plant-based, is not equal in quality to the protein in fresh meat.  Because plant proteins are cheaper than meat proteins, pet food companies will have a higher profit margin when using corn, wheat, soy, rice, etc.  Additionally, Taurine, one of the most important amino acids that is present in meat, is missing from plants.  Taurine deficiency will cause blindness and heart problems in cats.

Please keep in mind that when your cat starts eating a more appropriately hydrated diet of raw food, the output of solid waste and odor will decrease significantly.  The urine output however, seems to increase significantly which is a very good thing for bladder health. This is likely because raw food is moist unlike dry kibble.


Raw Recipes


75% Chicken parts with bone
15% Beef
10% Heart & Liver (beef or chicken)

Grind all together.  Grinds a large quanity a time using a high quality meat grinder.  It just depends on how many cats you have and how much you want to make and and store at a time.  Put mixture in small packages and freeze.


Dr. Pierson's Raw Diet - Click here to read more about raw and to learn about her fantastic diet recipe.


Check with your local butcher or meat packing company and ask if they can put something together for you.  Make sure they include plenty of beef heart!