Monday, November 2, 2009 1:36 PM

Is Raw Food the Best Diet for Cats?

If you have done any research into alternatives to commercially prepared cat food, then you have probably heard of the BARF diet. Alternately described as "biologically appropriate raw food" or "bones and raw food", this diet has been touted as the most natural diet for cats. The idea is based upon the notion that in the wild, cats (and dogs) tend to eat live prey, i.e., mostly meat. Any grains or vegetables they consume are incidental, for the most part comprising the contents of the prey's digestive tract. Since much of this type of diet consists of eating small bones or actively gnawing meat off of larger ones, bones are prominently featured, unlike in other diets.

Dr. Ian Billinghurst, an Australian, is credited with first promoting this type of diet. He claimed that the wild ancestors of domesticated dogs ate raw prey and therefore this was the most natural and healthful diet for dogs. According to Wikipedia, the BARF acronym was not coined by Billinghurst, but by Debra Tripp. It originally meant,"born again raw feeders". After meeting Billinghurst at a seminar, she supposedly gave him permission to use the acronym as he saw fit. He thanked her, and the rest is history, as they say.

Naturally, this regimen has proponents and detractors. Those who favor its positive effect on animals point to the well-known Pottenger studies on cats. Between 1932 and 1942, Dr. Francis Pottenger fed one group of cats cooked food, and another raw food. Those in the first group showed signs of decreased immune function and various diseases that the raw food group did not. It took three generations of raw-food dining to bring that group's immune systems back up to snuff.

Pottenger's study was a long one, and involved nearly one thousand cats. Lest you think him an admirer of felines, know that these were lab cats that he was using for other, unrelated research. He wanted them to live longer and healthier in order to validate his results. Also, despite the claim often made that the cooked diet was well-balanced, this time frame was long before commercial cat diets and therefore any real research on feline nutrition, particularly the roles of proteins and the amino acid taurine. Despite these caveats, it does seem to show that raw food is beneficial to cats.

Tomorrow we'll take a look at the pros and cons of the bones and raw food diet.
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Amanda has worked with animals for many years and has always had cats in her life. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two excellent cats.
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