Avoiding Raw Food in Cats

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

Is it okay for me to feed my cat raw food? Is that better than feeding prepared dry or canned food?

There are three primary concerns with respect to feeding raw meat to your cat:
1. Infectious disease risks (to pets and owners)  
2. Dietary nutritional imbalance (in pets)
3. Foreign bodies (i.e. pets swallowing bones)

"For humans, the infectious disease risks pose the most threat."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stand united in their position (based on very robust data) that feeding raw food to cats is potentially dangerous to both the cat and to you. The most recent study, conducted from 2011 through 2012, screened commercially-available raw pet foods for bacteria that can cause illness. The raw pet food products were frozen in tube-like packages, made from ground meat or sausage. Nearly 25% of the raw food samples tested positive for harmful bacteria, including Salmonella spp. and Listeria monocytogenes. Campylobacter, Clostridium difficile, C. perfringens, C. botulinum, E. coli, Yersinia enterocolitica and enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus are also of known concern. These bacteria can pose a health risk for the cats who eat the raw food, as well as for the cat owners who handle the food while preparing it.

What kind of illness does Salmonella cause?

Contamination of raw meat with bacteria is common. The CDC estimates that 1.2 million or more cases of food-borne salmonellosis occur in humans in the US annually. There is some uncertainty as to the total number of cases, because milder cases may not be diagnosed. Approximately 400 people die of salmonellosis each year.

Symptoms of salmonellosis in humans generally start 12-72 hours after exposure and include fever, diarrhea (often bloody), nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain.

Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals (chemotherapy, HIV, etc.) are at greater risk for more severe symptoms. Cats can actually carry Salmonella in their intestines without showing signs of illness, thus serving as a reservoir for ongoing exposure to the humans in the household.

In cats, the symptoms of salmonellosis may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (often bloody)
  • Fever
  • Inappetence
  • Lethargy

What about illness from Listeria food contamination?

Listeria monocytogenes is actually a leading cause of human hospitalization and death from food contamination. While it is rarer than salmonellosis, over 90% of people with listeriosis end up in the hospital. In the US annually, the CDC estimates about 1600 cases with about 260 deaths. In the European Union, the numbers are similar. One of the problems with Listeria is that the bacterium is quite hearty, surviving in salty, acidic, and cold environments.

"...over 90% of people with listeriosis end up in the hospital."

Listeriosis particularly targets newborns, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems. The L. monocytogenes bacterium can invade many tissues, including the brain, the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord, the gastrointestinal tract, and the bloodstream. Symptoms depend on which tissues are affected. The time between exposure and illness is about 3 weeks, making it difficult to pinpoint the precise exposure event. Pregnant women may experience non-specific flu-like symptoms. The babies they are carrying, on the other hand, may be born prematurely or even stillborn. Newborns fare the worst with listeriosis, as up to one-third will die despite aggressive treatment. Cats can carry L. monocytogenes without showing any signs, making them a potentially dangerous reservoir.

Is there any way to protect myself and my family if I occasionally offer raw food to my cat?

The best protection against salmonellosis and listeriosis is to avoid the bugs altogether by not feeding raw food to your cat. Be aware that feeding raw cat food can infect you and other people in the household. That said, there are some ways in which you can protect yourself if you do handle raw cat food:

  • Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw cat food.
  • Clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects that come into contact with the raw food.
  • Keep raw food frozen until you are ready to use it, then thaw it in the refrigerator or microwave (not in the sink or on the counter).
  • Keep raw food separate from other food.
  • Cover and refrigerate what your cat does not eat, or discard the leftovers safely.
  • Do not kiss your cat on the face or allow him to lick your face—particularly right after he has eaten raw food.
  • Wash your hands after petting or being licked by your cat.
"Be aware that feeding raw cat food can infect you and other people in the household."

Feeding a raw diet to your cat is a questionable idea from a nutritional perspective as well, due to the difficulty in balancing the ration among macro- and micro-nutrients. Adding to that the fact that nearly a quarter of the commercially available raw cat food diets that were tested by the US FDA were contaminated with Salmonella or Listeria (or both), and it is reasonable to conclude that a commercially prepared, conventional, complete and life-stage balanced ration is a better choice. Your veterinarian can help you to choose the nutrient profile that best fits your cat.

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