To Raw Or Not To Raw
By Jamie B.
At twelve weeks, Digby weighed less than two pounds. His sister, Hattie, weighed three. But you don't take a scale to the breeder’s home and most of us trust that a vet’s seal of approval of a kitten's health is reliable. Against my better judgment, we brought the small-headed bony Digby home along with Hattie. Digby doesn't really look much like a Ragdoll, but my husband had fallen in love with the little boy.
“I don't know how it's possible, but I think Digby's actually shrinking,” I told my husband. He looked smaller every day despite being a demanding and voracious eater, being fed at least double the recommended daily amount. He was half the size of his sister. We were feeding them good quality grain-free wet food and even providing dry food to help put weight on this sweet boy. He ate with gusto until he stopped. Out of the blue he just stopped eating.
Digby hid himself between two chairs and slept when his normal spot would be snuggled up in my lap. His hair was thin and coarse compared to Hattie's thick luxurious coat. His breathing was shallow and raspy. I was terrified. He saw the vet who couldn't explain what was going on.
I found a better quality food for them and Digby appeared to stop shrinking. Hattie, on the other hand, began vomiting several times per week. Most commercial cat foods contain ingredients that aren't useful to cats and potatoes are often used as a replacement for grains in those foods. Hattie's system doesn't like potatoes and so the search was on for another alternative. Both kittens had loose stools and an ungodly stench filled the house, the likes of which I had never dealt with before. Something had to be done.
As I searched for remedies to the ailments burdening our fur babies, I was bombarded at every turn by discussions about raw food for cats. I dismissed them for days. It seemed counterintuitive to feed sick kittens raw meat. That would have to make things worse. Right? And Ragdolls are just more delicate and probably don't have the same instinct for eating raw meat that the beautiful Bengal might. Right? And it had to be incredibly expensive. Right?
Then two things happened.
First, I learned that commercial cat foods often contain euthanized animals in their ingredients and it's perfectly legal. Images of rigid sickly cat, dog, cow, goat, horse, and cow carcasses being tossed into grinders and baked into morsels for companion animal consumption plagued me.
Second, we decided to bring another Ragdoll boy into our home. Finley is four months younger than Digby and Hattie and exceptionally healthy. Digby was thrilled to have a little brother. I'm sure that seems like a ridiculous thing to do when we already had one very sick kitten, but I was afraid we would lose Digby and didn't want to be without a boy.
The kittens were bonding and a normal person would have been happy about that. Unfortunately, Finley would soon overpower and outweigh Digby. Digby was weak and fragile and Finley often had the upper-hand when they wrestled. I needed to put all of our kittens on a better path. I also needed to persuade my husband to get onboard with the raw food plan. It was harder than I expected.
I hit him with the health benefits, trying to be patient because it took time for me to accept too. He didn't trust it. I hit him with the cost - raw food would cut our cat food bill to 1/3 of what we're paying for wet food. He wasn't convinced - much to my amazement. Finally, I filled him in on the euthanized animal meat in commercial cat foods and Hattie conveniently vomited on the new carpet again. He capitulated - or at least agreed to give it a chance with a small batch of raw food. Joy!
I will not pretend that it was an easy choice. There were still options for wet food that we hadn't tried and the responsibility of feeding raw had me very anxious. I decided to try a four day batch of cat food using a recipe I had found at Feline Nutrition (whose website also provides a calculator to assist in determining requirements - no matter what size batch of food you want to make). If it worked, great. If it didn't, we still had canned food available to give them.
We cut chicken meat. We puréed bones. We added organs, yolks, water, and supplements. And, when it was all made up, we held our breath and gave them each a teaspoon off to the side of their normal wet food - to help them recognize this foreign substance as food.
They sniffed. They ignored. My heart sank. But then our finicky girl, Hattie, began to lap at the new food. When Digby caught sight of what his sister was doing, he followed suit. Finley dove in like he'd been eating raw all his life. I caught my husband’s eye and we mentally high-fived each other. We increased the amount of raw daily until they were exclusively eating that instead of their canned food. Success!
We made another batch. Something went wrong. Digby wouldn't eat it. This couldn't be happening. We finished out the second week with Digby eating canned food. The third batch wasn't appealing to Hattie. I came so close to giving up.
Finally, after much trial and error, we got the recipe dialed in. We felt confident enough to buy a meat grinder, a mountain of food storage containers, and a chest freezer. We have to buy chicken thighs from a particular store or they refuse to eat. We must remember to add a few sardines, which gives them a flavor they enjoy as well as omega 3s. They've been consistently happy at meal time ever since we fixed the glitches in our creation of their new diet.
We now know exactly what our cats are eating because we're making it. There are no non-essential ingredients to their obligate carnivore diet. We can tweak the recipe based on their needs and preferences, sometimes adding a bit of psyllium husk to mediate constipation, for example.
And how is our Ragdoll crew now? Hattie has only gotten sick twice. Finley is growing rapidly and is a rambunctious little beast-boy. And Digby? Digby is still as sweet and affectionate as ever and is currently our heaviest cat! Three gorgeous, healthy, playful fur-babies with silky soft coats that shed less. The stench that had filled our home has disappeared. Bowel movements are small and firm and everyone urinates plenty, which is especially important for male cats. We have three beloved kitties whom we hope to have with us for a good long time to come.
And my husband? He is now an active proponent of raw feeding and has converted people already.
Every two weeks we spend about two hours - start to finish - making ground raw cat food and saving 2/3 of the cost of their former diet.
This is how we do it:
We turn our kitchen into a miniature cat food processing plant. We take sixteen pounds of partially frozen chicken thighs, livers, hearts, and gizzards from our freezer. We've occasionally added beef and, of course, sardines. Eventually, we'll experiment with exotics like rabbit.
We each grab a cutting board and a sharp knife and set about removing skins and bones from the thighs, each put into a separate bowl. This is the most time-consuming part. The thigh muscle is cut into strips that will fit into our grinder on its largest setting to give texture to the meat, sardines, and organs. Half of the skins are included in the food and the other half are tossed out. They are ground on the smallest setting. We keep 3/4 of the bones and grind them on the largest setting first and then the smallest setting, throwing away the other quarter.
Egg yolks are separated from whites and stirred into a sticky yellow goop. Supplements are measured out after consulting Feline Nutrition’s indispensable calculator (you enter the pounds of meat and it gives you the rest of the required amounts for every ingredient! Truly couldn't do this without that calculator). Dry supplements are mixed with water and oil supplements are fed through the grinder with the chicken skins.
We use a giant roasting pan to catch everything as it makes its last trip through the grinder, adding the more fluid ingredients (eggs, water, and supplements) to the ground ones at the very end. Using our sturdiest spoon, the ingredients are thoroughly mixed until we have a chunky soupy mixture that our cats enjoy. We then divide the diet into plastic food storage containers - 1@ 1.25 cup container per meal @3 meals per day feeds all three kittens. Half go into our kitchen freezer and the rest go to the deep freezer. Clean up the dishes and scrub the equipment and surfaces of the kitchen with a bleach mixture. Done! Thaw in warm water and serve.
Would you consider feeding your cat a homemade raw diet? Why or why not?