Recipe: Feline Nutrition's Easy Raw Cat Food

Recipe: Feline Nutrition's Easy Raw Cat Food

Making raw cat food at home isn't hard to do at all, anyone can do it. Once you make your own, you will realize that raw cat food isn't complicated. It helps to know how ground raw diets are made, because commercially made frozen foods are made in much the same way, just on a larger scale. Taking the mystery out of what you feed your cats is important. While your cats benefit from the nutritionally better food, the benefit to you in terms of peace of mind shouldn't be overlooked.
What does a homemade ground raw meat diet consist of? Most importantly, it is more than just meat. Ground raw meat diets for cats consist of meat, organs, bone, fat, egg yolks, water and supplements. All of these are necessary to make the diet balanced. The goal is to mimic the natural prey-based diet of cats. Notice the lack of any carbohydrate-based ingredients. These are not needed in the diet of an obligate carnivore.
Making your own raw meat diet gives you the most control over what goes into your cat's food, allowing you to select the meats and supplements you use. Contrary to what many people think, homemade raw diets are usually less expensive than canned diets. The supplemented, ground diet can be the basis of your cat's healthy diet. To round out the diet, we recommend varying the meats you feed and adding in whole meats, with and without bones, to provide dental benefits and psychological stimulation.
Depending on your available freezer space and the number of cats you are preparing food for, you should only have to make food every two to four weeks. Once you do it a few times, you'll realize how easy it is. You can easily make 15 pounds of food in about an hour and a half, including clean-up. Following is an overview of what equipment you'll need to get started, what meats and supplements you'll need, a recipe to follow, recipe variations, average costs and some helpful tips.
Please note that raw meat diets can have many positive health benefits, even for cats with medical conditions. But, if your cat is ill, you should consult with a veterinarian before you change your cat's diet. This recipe may not be suitable for cats that have chronic kidney disease or other medical issues.
Grinder. You will need a grinder that can handle bones. Lower-end meat grinders usually can't, so choose the most powerful grinder your budget will allow. The more powerful the grinder, the larger the bones you can grind. Also, the more powerful machines can grind much more quickly, which can make a big difference if you are making large quantities. Please note that the higher end models can be quite heavy. Grinder parts must be hand-washed; do not put them in the dishwasher. Make sure the grinder you get has a reverse function, not all of them do. Keep in mind that it is frequently skin, sinew and cartilage, not bone, that cause jams in grinders.
At the lower end of grinders that can handle bones up to the size of chicken thigh bones is the Waring Pro MG855. You would not be able to do anything larger than a chicken thigh bone on this model, but it will get the job done. Slightly more powerful is the STX-1800 MG Magnum which can handle thigh and most chicken leg bones. The popular Tasin TS-108 is mid-size grinder with a solid reputation for dependability and power for its size. On the higher end, there is the Westin 22 Commercial Meat Grinder, which states that it can handle bones for pet food and will make short work of even chicken leg quarters and most turkey bones. It is also quieter than smaller grinders.
A very sharp knife. Keep your knife sharp. You are more likely to cut yourself with a dull blade than a sharp one.
Poultry shears. Very handy.
Meat cleaver. You may not need a meat cleaver if you are starting with parts, but it's a must if you are working from a whole carcass.
Set of mixing bowls. Preferably stainless steel bowls. You'll need at least three: a small one to mix the eggs and supplements, a medium one to use under the grinder outlet and a large one that's at least 8 quarts, for mixing it all up.
Plastic or glass freezable containers and labels. Or use freezer Ziploc® type plastic bags.
Ear plugs. Grinders are loud. Or you can use ear buds and listen to music.
Latex or nitrile gloves. Gloves make it easier to reduce the possibility of contaminating other surfaces. Keep a few pair handy so you can don new ones rather than trying to put used ones back on.
Newspaper, paper or plastic to cover your work surface. Makes clean up much easier.
Kitchen scale. Some scales have a weight limit of 5 pounds. Be sure to get a kitchen scale that can handle at least 10 pounds.
Large cutting board. Make sure it will fit in the dishwasher.
Freezer space. You'll need to have enough space to store what you make.
Meat and Eggs
Try to get the best quality and the freshest meat you can. Cats may refuse meat if it's not fresh. The recipe calls for chicken hearts, which can be difficult to source. Hare Today sells chicken hearts at a very good price. They are often available at Asian supermarkets, so try checking ethnic food stores in your area or ask your butcher if he can get them for you. Try to use the real organs if at all possible; hearts are a major source for taurine – an absolutely essential amino acid.
If you have ample freezer space you can also try buying in bulk direct from farms or butchers in your area.
Supplements are not optional. These supplements are required. Skipping supplements or letting your recipe "drift" can have serious health consequences for your cat. There are different recipes that call for slightly different supplements, but they cover the same basic needs of the cat. What these supplements make up for is the fact that we aren't feeding cats the whole prey diet they would get in the wild. People have used recipes such as the one below for years without any deficiencies showing up. It is always a good idea to vary the meats you feed, not only for variety for your cat, but also to cover any unknown gaps in the nutrient profile of a particular meat. There may be an as yet unidentified essential micro-nutrient in one kind of meat and not another.
All of these supplements are available from Whole Foods, and most are available at health food stores or online.
Note: You may also use a premixed supplement instead of these individual supplements. Make sure that is it intended specifically for use with raw meat and that it's not just a general nutritional supplement. Also note that most come in different versions depending on whether you are using meat with bone or meat without bone. Some brands are Alnutrin, TCfeline and Feline's Pride Raw Made Easy. Please see the Easy Raw Diet Feeding page for links and additional resources.
Here are the supplements you'll need:
Taurine – Use powdered taurine. It comes in 500 mg capsules. You can also buy loose powder taurine online.
Wild Salmon Oil or Wild Caught Small Fish Oil – Some cats don't like the taste of salmon oil. Get capsules, not a liquid in a bottle. Once opened, the liquid can go rancid quickly. It's okay to drop the whole capsule into the grinder, the gelatin capsule is edible. This oil replaces the Omega acids that would usually be in the eyes and brains of the animal eaten. Do not use cod liver oil as it can be high in vitamin A which is toxic in large amounts.
Vitamin E – Get the dry form in capsules, it's much easier than using the liquid capsules. If you can't find the dry form, you will need to pierce the capsules and squeeze the liquid out.
Vitamin B Complex – Get capsules with powdered content.
Lite Salt – Make sure it contains iodine. If Lite Salt is unavailable, use regular iodized table salt, but half the amount the recipe calls for.
Psyllium Husk Powder – An optional ingredient that may be helpful when first feeding a raw diet. This adds fiber with minimal carbohydrates. If your cats have been eating dry food for a long time, they may have lost elasticity in their bowels and may benefit from fiber in their food. Also, some cats may have constipation issues when initially fed a raw diet, so adding fiber in the beginning is a good idea. You can omit it later as your cats adjust to the new diet.
Recipe Using Chicken Thighs with Bone
4.5 pounds (about 2 kg) chicken thighs with bone. Remove about 20 to 25% of the bone from the total amount of meat used. For example, if you use ten thighs, then take out the bone from two of them. This keeps the calcium/phosphorus ratio correct. Remove the skin from half of the thighs. If your cats are chubby you can remove all of the skin before weighing it. Don't remove the fat from the meat. Weigh the meat after you have removed these skin and bone amounts. You should purchase about 5 pounds (about 2.3 kg) to start with.
7 ounces (200 grams) raw chicken liver
14 ounces (400 grams) raw chicken heart. If you can't source chicken heart, then substitute with 4000 mg Taurine. If you do omit raw heart, remember to make up the missing 14 ounces of heart with additional chicken thigh meat.
8 ounces (.24 liter) water. Use bottled spring water, not tap water which can have too many chemicals.
4 raw egg yolks
2000 mg Taurine. This is in addition to the taurine you may have added if you didn't use hearts. Taurine is water soluble so you don't have to worry about your cat getting too much.
4000 mg wild salmon or wild caught small fish oil
200 mg Vitamin B Complex
200 IU Vitamin E
1 ½ teaspoons (8.4 grams) Lite Iodized Salt
4 teaspoons (8 grams) Psyllium Husk Powder (optional)
Since it is always hard to buy exactly the amount of chicken thighs the recipe asks for, we have a handy Recipe Calculator/Recipe Calculator Metric to figure out the proportions of all the ingredients based on how much meat you start with. Enter the weight of the meat with bone after you have removed the extra bone and half of the skin and the calculator will figure out how much of all the other ingredients you need. Round off the supplement amounts as necessary.
Putting It All Together
Be organized, it will save a lot of time. Cover your work surface with paper or plastic. Set up your grinder, cutting board, tools, supplements and bowls. Oh, and it's probably a good idea to put your four-footed "helpers" in another room at this point, especially if you're going to use the meat cleaver.
Put your gloves on. Remove the skin from half of the chicken thighs, or from all of them if your cats are chubby. Don't remove the fat. Remove the bone from 20-25% of the thighs. Next, weigh out what you will need (image A). Rinse the meat with water to help remove any surface bacteria. At this point, either weigh out exactly the amount the recipe calls for (4.5 pounds) and follow the amounts given in the recipe for the other ingredients or weigh how much meat with bone you have, enter it into the calculator, and then use the amounts shown in the calculator for the rest of the ingredients. If you do use the calculator, you will have to round off the supplements to the nearest capsule. This is okay, it will all even out over the batches you make.
In a small mixing bowl, open up the supplement capsules and discard the empty gelatin caps (image B). Leave the fish oil capsules, these you add later when grinding.
Add the egg yolks and water to the bowl, and whisk until mixed (image C). Use a fork if you don't have a whisk. Don't add the psyllium yet. This is your "slurry" mixture.
Weigh out the liver and heart; remember to add in an equivalent weight of additional chicken meat if you aren't using heart (image D).
Chunk up meat from the thighs. Cut the meat from the side of the thigh with the most meat, and then cut it into roughly ½ inch pieces. Start with smaller chunks if your cats are still getting used to eating meat pieces. You don't have to be very precise; it's okay if some pieces are larger and some smaller (image E).
Put your ear plugs in now. Set your medium bowl under the grinder outlet. Start feeding the thighs through the grinder. You may need to trim meat off the bone to fit it through the tube. Add the liver, heart and fish oil capsules at intervals to the grinder. You can add the entire fish oil capsule, the gelatin capsule is edible (image F). Tip: if you don't have a bowl that fits well under the grinder outlet, set the grinder at the edge of the sink and put a larger bowl in the sink itself, below the outlet. This also works great if you are making an extra-large batch and are using oversize bowls.
When it's all ground, transfer it to a large bowl if it isn't already in one, add the slurry mixture, the chunked meat and the psyllium husk, and mix thoroughly (image G). Don't overfill the bowl; you need room to mix it all thoroughly without it overflowing. Using too small of a bowl at this point just makes it difficult to mix. You can use a large plastic tub for this step if that is easier.
Portion out the mixture into glass or plastic containers or freezer Ziploc®-type bags, label them, and freeze (image H). You can refrigerate any portion that you are going to use the same day or the next.
Serving variation: Place the mix into ice cube trays and freeze (image I).
Pop them out after a few hours and you've made your own nuggets (image J). These can be really handy as they thaw more quickly than a larger container. They also come out to a mostly uniform size of about 1¼ ounces, so portioning is easier.
Remember to hand wash your grinder parts; don't put them in the dishwasher.
The approximate ingredient cost for this recipe breaks down as follows:
$1.86 for the supplements
$9.95 for the chicken thighs (5 pounds at $1.99/lb)
$3.00 for the chicken hearts (at $2.99/lb from Hare Today, plus a bit for the shipping)
$1.22 for the liver (at $2.79/lb)
$1.26 for the eggs (at $3.79/dozen)
This works out to about $2.66 a pound, since this recipe makes about 6.5 pounds of food. The chicken thighs can also frequently be purchased at less than $1.99 a pound, which can bring the cost down substantially. For example, if you can get the thighs for $.99 a pound or are using whole chickens at this price, your cost per pound of finished raw food is about $1.89. On a daily basis, if your cat eats 5 ounces per day, this would be 83 cents and 59 cents per day for the two price-per-pound examples. This compares very favorably to canned food, especially when you consider that there are no fillers, by-products or carbs.
Whole Chicken Version
You can start with a whole chicken as purchased from a store or butcher. This would be a dressed chicken without head, feet, entrails or feathers. Remove the neck and the backbone to reduce the bone content a bit. You will need a grinder capable of grinding the larger bones in the carcass. If a packet of organs is included, then add them to the grind.
Turkey Version
Use turkey thighs if you can. Don't use only turkey necks or wings as the bone to meat ratio and thus the calcium to phosphorus ratio would be off. You can start with a whole turkey; just keep the percentage of bone, by weight, at around 7 to 10%. You can use chicken livers and hearts if you can't get adequate quantities of turkey liver/hearts. Follow the rest of the recipe as shown.
Duck, Pheasant, Quail or Cornish Hen
Use the same recipe as above when grinding a whole, dressed bird. Again, it's okay to use chicken hearts and liver. If you have them, include the organs that came with the bird in the total weight of liver and heart.
A kitty favorite! Follow the instructions above if you are using a dressed rabbit, i.e. no head, entrails, fur, feet, etc., or if using rabbit parts.
Fish as the basis of a raw diet is not recommended. Avoid top-of-the-food-chain fish such as tuna altogether as they are much more likely to be contaminated with PCBs or heavy metals than short-lived fish lower on the food chain. Feeding water-packed sardines once a week can provide extra omega fatty acids. For variety, you can also occasionally add a can of wild-caught salmon to the ground recipe.
Pre-Ground Frozen Meats
This means pre-ground, unsupplemented meat/bone/organ grinds specifically intended for use as a raw pet food, not grocery-store boneless ground meat. Thaw the meat in the fridge. You can add the supplements as soon as it's thawed enough to mix; it doesn't have to be completely thawed. It's okay to re-freeze after mixing; since the meat was originally frozen immediately after grinding, it didn't sit around growing bacteria. Using pre-ground is a real time saver. Just add in the slurry mixture and portion out, and then freeze. There is approximately 5.8 pounds of meat in the chicken thigh recipe, including the meat, bone, and organs. If you are supplementing a five pound tube of meat/bone/organ grind, you will need to reduce the supplements by 15%. Or, you can increase the total amount of meat to 5.8 pounds by adding some chunked meat.
Using Meat without Bone
Some people want to use a recipe that does not include bone. We highly recommend that you grind your own from whole cuts of meat or purchase boneless ground meats specifically made for raw feeding pets.
You might ask, "Why can't I just get ground meat from the grocery store?" Ground meat from a grocery store has the potential to have higher levels of pathogens. When meat is ground it greatly increases the surface area where bacteria can multiply. It also spreads any bacteria present on the outside of the meat throughout the mix. Meat ground for human consumption is often not handled with the same care as meat used for raw diets. Commercial raw diet makers maintain very high standards and the meat is immediately frozen after grinding to keep bacteria from multiplying. Grocery store ground meat is intended to be thoroughly cooked. In fact, they are counting on the fact that you will cook it. We are not saying that all grocery ground meat is bad, just that the potential for trouble is higher. Keep in mind that raw meat itself is not dangerous, fresh meat is pretty much pathogen-free. Pathogens can get introduced onto the meat – and are only on the outside of the cut – during slaughter and handling.
Please note: Raw bone is more than just a calcium source. Using a calcium supplement is inferior to using real bone. We strongly recommend using the recipe with real bone for long-term raw feeding.
If you are using boneless meat, you will need to add a calcium source, since meat contains very little. You will want to add about 1000 to 1200 mg of calcium per pound of meat. The three basic ways to add calcium are: bone meal powder, MCHA (microcrystalline hydroxyapatite) or eggshell powder. Because bone meal powder and MCHA also contain phosphorus and can throw off the calcium to phosphorus ratios, which are important, we recommend using eggshell powder.
Eggshells are usually about 97% calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is 40% elemental calcium, which is what we measure. One teaspoon of eggshell powder contains about 1800 to 2200 mg of elemental calcium. You should add about ½ teaspoon per one pound of meat and organs. Eggshell calcium has the advantage that it is very low in phosphorus, so it can be added in amounts that will balance the phosphorus content of the meat. It also avoids the use of bovine bone and concerns about lead, mercury and prions.
You can purchase eggshell calcium or make your own. If you buy it, make sure it is pure eggshells with nothing else added. To make your own, follow these steps:
Remove any egg white from the shells but leave the membrane as it contains valuable nutrients. Dry them by baking at 300°F for 10 minutes. Grind them in a clean coffee grinder or food processor. Wait for 10 minutes before opening the grinder to let the powder settle and avoid a cloud of powder coming out. One large egg will make about one teaspoon of powder. Store the powder in an air-tight glass jar.
Make the following adjustments to the recipe when using boneless meat:
Use 3 pounds raw muscle meat (boneless chicken or turkey thigh meat with half of the skin removed, or boneless rabbit) instead of the 4.4 pounds chicken thighs with bone. Add in 2¼ teaspoons eggshell powder (this recipe contains about 4.5 pounds of meat/organs/yolks).
Follow the rest of the recipe as it is, including adding the hearts, liver, raw egg yolks, water and supplements.
Ideally, cats want their food at "mouse body" temperature. The best way to accomplish this is to put thawed or partially thawed food in a Ziploc-type baggie. Squeeze as much air out as you can and then place the baggie in a bowl of warm water for five minutes or so. This warms it up without cooking it. It's best not to microwave it, since this does cook it. To serve, cut off the corner of the baggie with scissors and pour or squeeze it onto their plate. Serving the food cold can cause stomach upset, and your cat may throw it up.
Cats usually prefer to eat off a plate, rather than a bowl. For feeding raw food, glass or metal is preferred because they won't get bacteria-harboring scratches the way plastic will. A low sided Pyrex baking dish or pie plate works great; they are heavy enough not to move around as the cat eats and they usually come with covers for refrigerating leftovers. Some people like to use paper plates for easier clean up.
How Much to Feed
Generally, for adult cats you should feed 2 to 4% of ideal body weight per day. For example: for a 10 pound cat at 3%, this would work out to 4.8 ounces a day. When starting out feeding a raw diet, try the middle percentage of 3% and monitor your cat closely to see if she gains or loses weight, then adjust the amount you feed up or down accordingly. Cats will vary in how much they will want to eat in a day; one day they're ravenous and the next they're leaving food on the plate. This is normal. Feed at regular mealtimes; twice a day is fine, but you can do it in three or four meals if you want. Kittens can require twice as much food per pound of body weight as adult cats, as they are growing, not just maintaining their weight. Kittens should also be fed at least every four to six hours.
Calculate how much to feed your adult cat using our handy How Much to Feed Calculator/How Much to Feed Calculator Metric.
If your cat is overweight, try feeding the amount they would need for their ideal weight, not the weight they are now. They will then lose weight slowly down to their ideal.
Get a good scale to keep accurate track of your cats' weights, even if they are not overweight. Health-O-Meter makes a good baby scale that works well for cats. It features a very useful averaging function that will get an accurate weight even on a squirming cat, and a zero-out function that allows you to get a weight even if you have to wrap the cat in a towel or put her in a carrier to weigh her.
Feeding a Raw Diet is Easy
Making your own cat food is easy. Once you do it a few times, it gets even easier. Most people end up feeding a combination of homemade, commercially made raw diets and whole meats. This is actually preferred, variety is important, both in the types of meat and the different recipes. This variety helps to even out the nutrients provided. Including whole meat chunks, both with and without small bones and as big as your cats will tackle, is also recommended.
Once you have made the raw diet yourself, you will gain a better understanding of how commercial raw foods are made, as the process is nearly identical. Take a look at "A Visit to a Raw Food Company" for a peek at how one manufacturer does it. Raw foods are very different from processed, cooked foods and much simpler to put together.
And, yes, it's okay if kitty wants to lick the bowl.
Margaret Gates is the founder of the Feline Nutrition Foundation. Contributors to the recipe formulation and this article include Feline Nutrition Advisory Board members Marta Kaspar of Alternative Nutrition and Mimi Stein of the Furry Foodie line of raw pet food products.
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