Raw Feeding Cats & Ferrets

Cats and ferrets are both true, obligate carnivores. Their ancestral diet is high in protein, fat, and moisture, and very low in carbohydrates. Yet, the complete opposite of that – kibble – is what most pet cats and ferrets are fed. This diet can cause health complications over your pet’s lifetime, including urinary stones from the lack of dietary moisture, obesity from the high amount of carbohydrates, renal disease, periodontal disease, or insulinoma. Cats and ferrets can benefit greatly from raw diets.

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Credit: @rawfedferrets on Instagram

Cats and ferrets can be notoriously hard to switch to raw. They tend to get so used to eating kibble that they will reject anything else, even canned food or other brands of kibble. Adults that are older than 2 years are typically the hardest to switch, while young animals, who have not had as much time to imprint on kibble, will typically be easier to switch. (But remember, every cat or ferret is different!)

There are many commercial raw foods available for cats from brands like Rad Cat or Primal. If you decide to feed a homemade diet, you need to make sure it is balanced to prevent nutrient deficiencies.

Your pet should eat about 2-4% of its adult body weight. This is just a guideline; your pet may need more or less than this based on their activity level, metabolism, etc.

Transitioning to raw

It is best to stop free feeding if you are currently doing so. Start feeding your pet multiple times a day, but do not leave the food out. Allow your pet to eat as much of the meal as they want, then take up any leftovers after about 20 to 30 minutes. This will help get your pet used to a feeding routine, which is necessary when feeding a raw diet; you should not leave raw meat out all day. Raw meals should be stored in the fridge or freezer when not being eaten.

You’re probably going to have to entice your pet to try raw. Once they understand that raw is actually edible, they should start catching on (although it might be slowly). You can do this by offering ground meat – if they reject that, offer ground meat mixed with something yummy like raw egg or fish oil. You can also try mixing that with some warm water to make it into a mushier consistency, similar to pudding.

Another thing you can try is making “soup”.

Recipe for “soup”
8oz muscle meat (red meat is best)
One half chicken liver (or 1 oz other liver)
2 chicken hearts (or 1 oz other heart)
1/2 tsp eggshell powder (or bone meal supplement – follow dosage directions)

“Soup” should be blended into a – you guessed it – soup-like consistency. Once you get your pet to start eating this soupy mixture, gradually make the soup into more of a pudding consistency, then try to graduate to feeding regular ground meats, then chunks of meat, then larger chunks, etc. This may take some time, so be patient!

This can be fed over a longer period of time than just simply ground meat, since it includes a source of calcium, vitamin A, and other essential nutrients that won’t be found in high enough levels in regular ground meat. However, it is not a complete and balanced diet by itself; it should just be used as a transition to a balanced raw diet.

Kittens and kits can be weaned straight to raw; there is no need to wean them to dry or canned food first.

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Kitten chowing down on some raw food. Credit: Taylor Beecher

Remember, you should not use “tough love” to get a cat or ferret to eat. Fasting cats or ferrets can cause health complications. If your pet isn’t eating, you may need to take a step back and offer them something they will actually eat, then continue the switch more gradually than before.

Feeding homemade raw

There are some important guidelines to follow when feeding a homemade raw diet to ensure your pet doesn’t develop nutrient deficiencies.

There are some recipes that you can follow on Feline-Nutrition.org and CatInfo.org, or you can follow the “prey model” guidelines:

80-85% muscle meats (including heart)

The majority of the diet should consist of boneless muscle meats. This includes things like ground meats from the grocery store, poultry breast, heart meats, or poultry gizzards. Heart meat is a great choice – it is cheap to buy, nutrient dense, and contains lots of taurine, which is a very important amino acid for cats and ferrets.

5-10% bone content

Bone content is the main source of calcium in a raw diet. Some good raw meaty bone options for cats and ferrets include chicken necks or wings, duck necks or wings, quail, rabbit, and cornish hen.

Click here for an article that lists the bone content percentage in many raw meaty bones and explains how to calculate bone content in a raw diet.

Keep in mind that your pet may not take to consuming whole bones right away. You can’t feed a raw diet without a source of calcium without your pet experiencing negative health consequences. So if your pet is refusing to eat whole raw meaty bones, you will need to grind the bones or utilize a different source of calcium, such as eggshell powder, bone meal, or a calcium supplement.

5% liver, 5% other secreting organ meat

Liver is an important source of vitamin A and minerals in a raw diet. Beef liver is nutrient dense and typically easy to source. Chicken livers are also easy to find, but not as nutrient dense as beef liver.

Other secreting organ meats include kidney, spleen, and pancreas. You won’t find this at your typical grocery store; you may need to pay a visit to an ethnic market in your area, or find a local raw feeding co-op or supplier. If you cannot find any other organ meats, you can use liver for the entire 10% organ portion of the diet.

Without organ meats, the diet must be heavily supplemented in order to be adequately balanced. If you cannot feed any organ meats for whatever reason, it is best to feed a commercial raw diet.

Variety

Rensta_988426149828229220A variety of different protein sources is necessary for a diet to be balanced – we recommend at least 3, but the more variety the better. Although chicken might be the easiest to source and cheapest to buy, a diet of only chicken will result in nutrient deficiencies.

Fish or fish oil

Omega 3 fatty acids must be supplemented. Meats, especially conventionally farmed / factory farmed meats, contain a high amount of omega 6 fatty acids. It is important to the health of your pet to have a balanced omega 3 : omega 6 ratio. To achieve this, you must include fish oil or whole fish in your pet’s diet. It doesn’t just help balance the diet, but also comes with a number of health benefits for cats and ferrets. We recommend Bonnie and Clyde fish oil because it contains sufficient vitamin E, which is an antioxidant that can counteract fish oil’s oxidizing nature, and since prey model diets can sometimes be low in vitamin E, the extra boost is a good idea.

If you don’t feed fish oil, feeding whole fish is a great alternative. Choose a fish low in mercury and high in omega 3s. Sardines, herring, capelin, smelt, and mackerel are good choices.

Don’t feed too much fish, though: a diet that contains too much fish has the potential to cause a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency due to an enzyme raw fish contains called thiaminase that splits thiamine and renders it unavailable for metabolism.

Other additions

Raw eggs are great sources of vitamins and minerals, and many pets love them, making them a good addition to a raw diet.

Plant matter isn’t necessary in cat or ferret diets. If you choose to feed plant matter, stick with mostly leafy greens like parsley, mustards, collards, kale, and beet greens. These greens, as well as squashes like pumpkin, may help increase fiber in the diet and improve stool quality if your pet is having digestive issues. I wouldn’t recommend feeding any more than 5% plant matter.

Whole prey

Feeding whole prey items to your cat or ferret is very nutritious and rewarding. Consuming whole prey comes with the benefits of microminerals in fur and feathers and the mental stimulation and exercise of chewing the meal.

Whole frozen rats and mice can be found at most pet stores or reptile supply companies. Whole chicks, quail, and rabbit may be available at reptile supply companies too, or your local raw feeding supplier may have them in stock. You can also check for local farmers or breeders that might be able to sell you whole prey animals.

Be sure to freeze whole prey animals for at least 24 hours and/or remove the guts and intestines in order to prevent your pet from getting internal parasites.

Wild felines commonly consume insects as part of their diet too. Crickets, mealworms, dubia roaches, and other edible insects are available at most pet stores and would make a very nutritious and crunchy addition to your pet’s diet.

Other resources

CatCentric.org

CatInfo.org

Feline-Nutrition.org

Rethinking the Ferret Diet by Susan Brown DVM

Holistic Ferret forum

American Ferret Association: Raw Diets

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3 comments

  1. We do a cat rescue and follow a mostly raw food feeding program, using enzymes to manage the kibble treat-time… The usual digestive ‘fur balls’ events do not happen when these enzymes are in their system… big benefit and confirmation that the nutrients are reaching them so that the problem of undigested carbs and fur from grooming are not happening….. yay

    As for the sourcing, we found a small meat packing house about 10 miles further outside the city than we are (about 30 miles outside Cinci) and they grind beef heart, kidney, spleen and tongue for 50cents a pound… also liver, sliced scraps separate, same price… both frozen, which freezing (3 days solid) we do anyway with meats to eliminate parasites which you might care to discuss… We like the small local venue since it’s more likely that those cows spent at least a good part of their lives on grass and pasture… so exciting to think that such a great idea as pastured is so available…. agreed?

    Like

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