Avoiding Raw Food in Cats
I have read many things on the Internet suggesting that I should feed my cat raw food. I know my cat’s wild cousins hunt their food, so they eat their food raw. Is it OK for me to feed my cat raw food? Is that better than feeding prepared dry or canned food?
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 ssp. and Listeria monocytogenes. 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?
The CDC estimates that 1.2 million or more cases of food-borne salmonellosis occur in humans in the US annually. Approximately 400 people die each year from the disease. There is some uncertainty as to the total number of cases because milder cases may not be diagnosed.
Symptoms of salmonellosis in humans generally start 12 – 72 hours after exposure and include:
- Diarrhea (often bloody)
- 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 include:
- Diarrhea (often bloody)
What about illness from Listeria food contamination?
Listeriosis is a less well known food-borne illness than salmonellosis. Listeria monocytogenes is actually a leading cause of 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.
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 only 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 1/3 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, should I occasionally choose to 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 by feeding raw cat food you can infect yourself 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, and 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.
Feeding a raw diet to your cat is a questionably sound 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 by Salmonella or Listeria (or both), 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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