(Warning: This post contains pictures of raw meat. Squeamish folks take note.)
I just realized it's been a while since I posted a raw feeding update, and now seemed like as good a time as any to write one.
I will start by noting that via my research over the past few months, it has become even more apparent to me that some raw feeders tend to be very...ideological about the whole thing. Lots of these individuals consider commercial food to be, in general, a bad thing. Personally, though, I'm not really a fan of ideological approaches to diet, whether for cats or humans. It seems like the more one venerates ideology, the more one diverges from the scientific and/or pragmatic. And I don't see any point to any kind of dietary regimen unless you're doing it for practical, reality-based reasons.
That said, I definitely think that my and my cats' particular circumstances quite nicely lend themselves to a number of practical, reality-based reasons for feeding raw to whichever cats will actually eat it. I don't claim that what's right for me and my cats is right for every human or every cat, and none of this is meant to be "moralizing". So hopefully it doesn't come across that way; in general I aim to be informative and expository when I write about this stuff, not political and certainly not ideological.
In my last update (way back in August!), I noted that the youngsters were eating about 80% raw / 20% commercial. I've since further reduced the amount of canned and dry commercial food Cora, Brodie, and Shadow are getting, which means they're probably close to 90% raw-fed. Nikki is still on commercial stuff but frankly given her pickiness I'm just glad she hasn't been refusing her wet food lately.
The youngsters still get a little bit of canned commercial food -- maybe 1 ounce each daily, if that. They enjoy it as what amounts to a gravy-like condiment with their raw food. They also get some dry food (EVO or Orijen) as "treats" -- I might toss a few pieces across the floor for them to chase, or into the air, or tie some into a tissue "pinata" hanging from their cat tree, etc. They all love these activities so I figure it's not a big deal, so long as I don't accidentally feed them too much (but that's pretty easy to avoid by measuring out a small quantity of crunchies in the morning for the day's treat allotment).
As for what their raw meals are comprised of, probably the largest percentage of what they eat is chicken, simply because they all love it and it's relatively economical and easy for me to get. Most of the organs (liver, kidney, etc.) they eat are from chicken as well. However, I wouldn't want to feed them JUST chicken, seeing as in the wild cats generally aren't going to get all their sustenance from a single protein source (plus, exposing them to a greater variety of proteins at a younger age can supposedly help prevent them from developing allergies).
Quail is another favorite around here and I am very happy to be able to get whole (aside from heads and feet) quail in six-pack format for a good price locally, seeing as even a smallish cat like Cora can eat pretty much every bone in a quail.
Once in a while I'll get turkey thighs but since the bones are huge it's not really practical to get it all the time. I tried getting turkey necks once but those were ridiculously hard to cut and too massive to serve whole, so I'll probably not get them again.
Lately I've also worked in beef, which everyone also seems to be a fan of -- I figured they should be eating at least one land animal that wasn't a bird. And while I don't feed a lot of seafood, I figure a bit of fish is probably a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids and such, and hence I've included smelt in the past few batches of food I've made. Smelt is a small fish meaning it's less likely to have high levels of pollutants and supposedly it's quite nutritious as well.
As for how I prepare a "batch" of food...usually I dedicate a few afternoon hours once every 2 - 4 weeks to this. The recipe I usually refer to for basic proportions is this one from catnutrition.org but I don't stick absolutely strictly to it. E.g., I ALWAYS add taurine even though I also always add heart meat, and I never grind meat or bones (all the youngsters will happily consume whole bones, so long as they're of an appropriate size).
I start by breaking 2-4 raw chicken eggs into a bowl and mixing this with some vitamin B, vitamin E, and taurine supplement. Then I chop the liver and smelt to a fine mince and mix this with the eggs and supplements. Note that the liver and smelt are the ONLY things I chop finely. Whole smelt are apparently scary -- none of the cats will eat them unless I turn them into unrecognizable mush, so I do, figuring at least that way they get their dose of fishy nutrients. As for the liver, I discovered during my first forays into this endeavor that too much liver in any one meal tends to lead to poopsplosions, and the chopping enables me to better distribute the stuff.
Also, a tip for anyone inclined to try this: liver is MUCH easier to chop when partially frozen. I find it almost impossible to chop when thawed because it's so squishy...the knife just seems to compress and push it around all over the cutting board, which is about as logistically obnoxious as it is disgusting. And it IS disgusting. Thawed liver also smells really wrong and horrible to me -- I know the cats like it but good grief. Part-frozen liver isn't nearly as pungent.
Once the egg-supplement-fish-liver glop is well mixed, I stick that in the fridge. I then get all the "main" meat, wash it (to remove at least some of the surface bacteria) and then cut it up into approximately mouse-sized chunks, bone and all (if applicable -- the beef I get is boneless, but the chicken generally isn't). For the chopping I use a meat cleaver (a fairly cheap one -- I got it for about $8 -- but so far it seems to be working fine) and occasionally kitchen shears if I'm dealing with a ridiculous amount of chicken skin.
The chunked meat all gets put into a huge stainless steel mixing bowl and mixed with the eggy glop. The result is an utterly horrific-looking medley of chunked-up animal parts. The mixed-meat medley is then partitioned into freezable plastic containers and/or zipper-closure freezer bags and put promptly into the freezer.
To serve, I simply take out a container of frozen food, thaw overnight (or all day) in the refrigerator, and present to the kitties at breakfast and dinnertime (they get two main meals a day with some treats in between). At that point it's really no more logistically difficult than giving them canned food, which was a nice discovery!
Below is a picture of the finished product, thawed and ready to serve. Looks pretty vile to me, but the kitties love it! Oh, and the really nasty-looking yellowish stuff is mostly liver, egg yolks, and fish guts:
...and here are the youngsters demonstrating their enthusiasm for this horrid-looking concoction:
As for how much raw food I feed the cats...I've never weighed the portions I give them, I just try and feed them as much as they'll enthusiastically eat in a sitting, and figure if anyone looks like they're gaining or losing an unhealthy amount of weight I can adjust accordingly.
So far Brodie has stayed stable at 14 pounds for the past few months (a good thing -- he was rather waistless for a while there, whereas now he's grown into his mass somewhat), while both Cora and Shadow have gained slightly. They're also all really solid and muscular...especially Shadow, who when I hold him feels like he's filled with bricks!
In terms of general health, as far as I can tell everyone is still doing great. Soft, sleek, shiny coats and bright eyes are the norm around here.
On the gastrointestinal front, initially I was kind of terrified about salmonella (and I am still really anal-retentive-obsessive about cleaning prep surfaces and tools and wearing gloves myself) or other contamination, but so far I've seen no evidence whatsoever that that's happening. Neither Matt nor I nor any of the cats has gotten sick.
In fact, in nearly 4 months of raw feeding we've only had two instances of Feline Regurgitation Theatre -- and I don't mean two per cat, I mean two, period. And I'm not even sure which cat it was (other than "not Nikki", as Nikki was either outside or in a separate room on those occasions), seeing as it happened in the wee hours of the morning both times.
Even when the youngsters eat grass now (I bring them in a little bunch of it every now and then so they get some roughage in their diet, and just because they love it) they don't puke. I suspect the additional fat they're getting the way they eat now has cut WAY down on hairball potential, because this is seriously unprecedented.
As far as things go at the end that doesn't meow, litterbox conditions are about as pleasant as it's possible for litterbox conditions to be. The cats poop maybe once a day, perhaps once every other day, and it barely smells like anything. They pee more than I'm used to cats peeing but that's to be expected given they get a lot more water in their diet by eating raw, and it's also healthy for them to have more dilute urine (less likely to form crystals that way).
On the activity-level front, certainly nobody seems lethargic, and since the weather's finally cooled down, I've been seeing an upsurge in "run maniacally around the house" and "chase my siblings up and down the cat tree" games. So at the very least they're getting what they need to fuel their high-energy antics.
All in all, I would say the raw-feeding experiment I embarked upon back in July 2010 is turning out to be a rousing success. Not only do the cats seem to be thriving, they act like they've just won a free trip to Kitty Disneyland at every mealtime, and it's an utter joy to see them so happy. It seems as if they enjoy the process of eating a lot more, too...when they get a big chunk of bone-in meat, for instance, it's like a combination meal and puzzle game (since they have to turn it around, bite it from odd angles, etc., in order to consume it).
I am also, I should note, spending a heck of a lot less money than I would be to feed them solely high-quality commercial cat food, so it's turning out to be a perfectly feasible endeavor despite my being unemployed. (This is especially relieving seeing as there's really nothing at the grocery store in the cat-food section that Brodie could safely eat, given his problems with corn, etc.).
All that said, there are still some things I worry about, and I definitely want to make sure and get certain lab values checked by the vet the next time everyone goes in for a checkup. I know that it's possible for cats to look and act very healthy right up until it becomes obvious that they are, in fact, very sick, and there are a few nutrient combinations and ratios that can seriously mess things up if they go askew.
The main thing that I am concerned about in this regard is the calcium/phosphorous ratio. Meat contains a fair bit of phosphorous; bone contains both calcium and phosphorous. If a cat eats a diet consisting literally of whole prey (e.g., mice, small birds, lizards, insects) this ratio sort of takes care of itself, but when you're feeding smaller pieces of larger animals (no 15-pound cat in the wild is going to take down a cow!) you're faced with the task of having to cobble together something that hopefully provides the same nutrient balance.
Commercial cat food manufacturers do this by basically starting with rendered protein (which, due to how it has been processed, no longer contains sufficient amounts of nutrients cats need, such as taurine) and supplementing it in precise amounts.
When preparing raw homemade meals for one's cats, you generally aren't using many supplements, but rather trying to balance things on a more "macro" level. It's not impossible to do this, but it does take some vigilance.
I've used a kitchen scale to weigh out liver, for instance, and mix it with appropriate amounts of muscle meat, and in my earliest attempts I actually used bone meal powder rather than whole bone so I could measure more precisely. Now, though, since learning that Cora and Brodie and Shadow actually love crunching small bones, I will do things like try and include a few quail ribs in with each meal for a few days, or alternate one day of no-bone meals with a day of bony meals. I have a rough sense of what the bone-to-meat ratio in a mouse looks like so I just try and get as close to that as I can.
I suspect that, just as with humans, the net nutrient balance they get over time is more important than what they get in a single day. So in the end I guess I'm not THAT worried that I'm screwing this up...I just think it would be good to get levels of various things checked at some point to see if there's anything diet-wise that might need to be adjusted.