Is it safe to feed my cat raw meat, or should we cook the meat first? Or should we stick exclusively to factory produced cat food instead?
You can feed cats raw meat, they're obligate carnivores after all, but human processed meats can introduce other bacterias and contaminates into meat that might not be there otherwise. If you want to do this, which I can understand, then you should introduce the raw meats carefully into their diet and only from a source that you trust, such as local butcher who is following good practices (if they save bones for dogs, it's probably a good sign).
While you're doing this, monitor your cat carefully and if there is anything happening that concerns you such as unusual stool, vomiting, etc. then stop immediately and potentially take him/her into a vet for a check up.
As an aside, there are some really good food products for cats that don't have as much (or little) filling in them. Spend some time reading the labels and look for products that are all meat or very, very high meat volume. Your cats will appreciate it. :)
Can cats safely eat raw meat?
No. Raw meat is a terrible idea for domesticated cats.
All it takes is one serving with Salmonella or E. coli to infect your cat. Once infected or simply inoculated and carrying the diseases, your cat can also infect your family (see below for more information on Salmonella & E. coli and what to look for in your cat if it has been infected).
Either cook the meats you are serving your cat or stick to commercially available cat food. Yes, cats are "obligate carnivores" (meaning that they need, or, are "obliged" to eat only meat)
While they may consume small amounts of plant material, they lack the physiology required for the efficient digestion of vegetable matter and, in fact, some carnivorous mammals eat vegetation specifically as an emetic. For instance, felids including the domestic cat are obligate carnivores requiring a diet of primarily animal flesh and organs.
...however, domesticated pets are quite different from undomesticated felines. Your house cat has very different nutritional needs and considerations from a wild feline.
an enzyme in raw fish destroys thiamine, which is an essential B vitamin for your cat. A lack of thiamine can cause serious neurological problems and lead to convulsions and coma.
Liver is fine in very small amounts, but is also a terrible idea as a regular source of food:
eating too much liver can cause vitamin A toxicity. This is a serious condition that can affect your cat's bones. Symptoms include deformed bones, bone growths on the elbows and spine, and osteoporosis. Vitamin A toxicity can also cause death.
should we stick exclusively to factory-produced catfood?
Yes. Stick to commercially available food which has been approved by the AAFCO. In particular research and look for foods which have passed the AAFCO feeding tests as well as the formulation tests. Feeding tests actually involve feeding the formula and analyzing the nutrient absorbtion.
AAFCO uses two methods to evaluate the nutritional adequacy of adult cat foods: formulation and feeding test.
The formulation method involves doing a nutritional analysis of ingredients and comparing it with AAFCO nutrient profiles for a cat’s particular life stage. “That diet doesn’t have to be fed to any live animal before it’s sold,” Larsen says.
The feeding test method evaluates the digestibility and absorption of nutrients in live animals. “I strongly prefer foods that have been through AAFCO feeding tests,” Larsen says.
Although adult cat foods may contain a wide range of ingredients, Larsen says your focus should be on nutrients.
Mindy Bough, CVT, senior director of client services for the Midwest Office of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), agrees. “The presence of one or two ingredients may make the food appear healthy, but it’s the balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals that make a healthy cat food," Bough says.
When evaluating percentages of nutrients, keep in mind that these are measured on a “dry matter basis.” For this reason, a dry cat food may appear to have more protein than a wet food, for instance, but only because it contains less water.
See also this article for more information on a nutritionally balanced diet adequate for your cat and common mistakes (e.g. remember to make sure your cat always has water available!)
should we cook the meat first?
Yes, if you are going to feed your cat meats, you should cook them first. No matter what you feed your cats though, the most important thing is that they get a balanced diet sufficient to their lifestyle (particularly the amount of exercise they get) and health profile (which your vet can diagnose).
an unbalanced raw diet of high quality fresh meat is in my professional opinion a greater risk to your dog or cat than cheap processed pet food.
If you do want to prepare food for your cat, I strongly recommend you at the very least read Waltham's pocketbook guide for "Essential Nutrition For Cats And Dogs." For a comprehensive overview of the vitamin and minerals needed, see The National Research Council's "Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats." It is an expensive book, but an overview of the nutritional requirements is available by consulting the charts starting on page 13 of the AAFCO's article, "AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles."
Regarding the dangers and inherently unsafe practice of feeding your cat raw food, it is a very good idea to know what to look out for if you decide to make a habit of this.
Along with causing gastroenteritis and septicemia in cats, salmonellosis is a zoonotic bacterial disease, meaning it can be transmitted to humans.
The severity of the disease will often determine the signs and symptoms that are overtly present in the cats. Symptoms commonly seen in cats with salmonellosis include:
Fever, shock, lethargy, diarrhea, vomiting, anorexia, weight loss, dehydration, skin disease, mucus in stool, abnormally fast heart rate, swollen lymph nodes, abnormal vaginal discharge
Chronic forms of salmonellosis may exhibit some of these same symptoms; however, they will be more severe. These include symptoms:
Fever, weight loss, loss of blood, non-intestinal infections, diarrhea that comes and goes with no logical explanation, which may last up to three or four weeks, or longer
From the Center for Disease Control:
Salmonella infection has not declined in 15 years
Reducing Salmonella infection is difficult because
- It is found in many different types of foods: meats, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and even processed foods such as peanut butter.
- Contamination can occur anywhere: from fields where food is grown to cutting boards in kitchens.
- What we eat and how we eat have changed: foods coming from one central location are widely distributed, meaning that sickness can spread quickly; we eat more meals outside the home; and more foods and ingredients come from all over the world.
- Some policies and procedures that can make a difference in reducing contamination take years to put into place.
*These contaminated ingredients or single foods (belonging to one food category) were associated with 1/3 of the Salmonella outbreaks.
†Other includes: Sprouts, leafy greens, roots, fish, grains-beans, shellfish, oil-sugar, and dairy.
Though it is generally seen only in kittens, cats can also get Colibacillosis from Escherichia coli (commonly known as E. coli) in raw meats. Like Salmonella, E. coli is also zoonotic and can be passed from animals to humans.
How is E. coli O157:H7 spread? Outbreaks often are caused by food that has gotten the bacteria, E. coli, in it. Bacteria can get accidentally mixed into ground beef before packaging. Eating undercooked meat can spread the bacteria, even though the meat looks and smells normal. E. coli can also live on cows’ udders. It may get into milk that is not pasteurized.
"Cats can eat raw meat and not get sick" is not the same as "cats can eat raw meat and will never get sick from it".
People also can eat raw meat and not get sick, however all it takes is one contaminated piece of meat - which you would not be able to tell until after you've eaten it - to ruin your week, or worse.
"My brother's wife's uncle's friend's cousin's wife's son once gave their cat raw beef and she was just fine!" is not objective evidence.
Raw meat diet poses risk to health, regardless of human or feline. If you want to keep your pets from getting sick, cook the meat first. Salmonella infections, among others, can be deadly.