We have two house cats and one dog. Some of you may have already met Magpie our dog, but the cats have yet to make an appearance – mainly because they have never been to the farm.
Both are about 7 years old now and extremely spoiled. I adopted them from a rescue shelter when they were kittens. Although the cats are my “babies” and I could go on and on about how cute and funny they are, that is not really the subject of this post.
As we hone our sustainability skills and think about the things we regularly purchase now that we may not be able to afford later when we are full-time farmers or that don’t really play into the new “closed-loop” lifestyle we are moving towards, purchased pet food was high on the list. I’ve always fed all of my pets high-end food which is, of course, expensive, making it a good candidate for reassessment.
We discussed the “by-products” of the planned pig and poultry operations and M said we could feed the pets from that. An occasional deer would help too. At first I balked. I thought it was probably fine for the dog, but the cats??? I just couldn’t see it going over very well. In the spirit of being efficient and thrifty I agreed to try and keep an open mind but between you and me – I was skeptical.
Around this same time we were starting to research growing all of our own grains and vegetables to feed our future livestock. I currently purchase locally grown organic feed for our small flock of backyard chickens at home. I sell our surplus eggs to a few friends and always go on and on about how well my girls are treated and fed – only whole grains, kitchen scraps and lots of delicious forages are provided – no nasty chemical/gmo-laden over-processed food goes into those eggs. No siree!
That’s when it hit me. All of these years thinking I was feeding my pets the very best food to suddenly realize I had been feeding them really expensive over-processed crap! I started to read up on it. I never thought about it before but when I read that the pet food industry was born from a need to do something with the waste products from the human food industry, I knew things had to change sooner rather than later.
It turns out the worst thing you can feed your pets is dry food – especially cats. The ancestral diet of muscle, bone and organs was 70% water whereas dry, processed food contains at most 10%. I also read that cats mouths are not designed for drinking water efficiently. In the wild they derive most of their water needs from their prey.
As with anything – the internet is full of info on the raw food diet. I started out with feeding raw meaty bones (NEVER feed an animal cooked bones). Magpie loved the new diet and happily crunched meaty bones at every meal. The cats – well, Harlie would have nothing to do with it. She would just look at me as if saying “Seriously? You’ve GOT to be kidding yourself if you think I’m going to consider THAT THING my dinner”. Siena was totally into it but she wanted to drag her raw chicken wing off to a more private place. More often than not that private place would be my closet or my bathroom. It was pretty easy to get Magpie to stay on a mat at her feed bowl, but the cats – well they just don’t operate that way.
I started chopping the meaty bones into smaller bits with a meat cleaver for the cats. That was a complete pain to do twice a day, plus chickens bits were flying all over the kitchen. There’s also the issue of me being prone to accidents around sharp objects (and I have the scars to prove it!). Magpie was pretty easy because I just had to toss her a few bone-in meaty parts. The hard part was remembering to take it out of the freezer before I went to bed and that didn’t always happen. Needless to say meal times were taking up a lot of time.
I continued my research and checked out a few books from the library. One of them hit the sweet spot for me – Dr. Becker’s Real Food For Healthy Dogs & Cats. It is easy to understand, the recipes aren’t too complicated and it deals with both cats and dogs. I ended up buying my own copy. Dr. Becker’s recipes call for grinding the meat and bone. You can also purchase bone meal to add to ground meat if grinding bones doesn’t work for you but we happen to have a pretty decent meat grinder that can handle it. This sounded like an easier way to manage feeding the cats and the dog without a lot of fuss two times a day.
The dog diet is 75% meat, organs and bone with 25% veggies and fruit. For cats it is 88% meat, organs and bone with 12% veggies. I make large quantities of the raw meat mix and the raw veg mix every couple of weeks or so. I can use the same recipes for both the dog and the cats – I just vary the percentage of meat mix to veg mix when I serve their meals. I freeze the meat and veg mixes in quart-sized containers to make varying the percentages easier and just add things like raw eggs or sardines (to provide them with omega-3 fatty acids) at meal time. I also occasionally add cottage cheese or yogurt and I sprinkle nutritional yeast over the top every other day.
The meat mix includes meaty bone-in parts from various animal as well as kidneys, hearts, gizzards, liver, etc… and I make a vegetable puree with raw vegetables (except for sweet potatoes and squash – I steam those first to make them more digestible) and fruit. The book has a lot of detail about the amounts, types, substitutions, etc… – it is crucial to provide a balanced diet. Just tossing them chicken backs or feeding plain ground meat is not the idea here. You are trying to recreate all of the nutrients they would obtain from a natural prey diet. Adding the fruit and veg provides them with nutrients they would have derived from eating the stomach contents of their prey.
There are lots of recipes for both the meat and veg mixes to mix things up which helps while I still have to shop for organic meaty bits and vegetables. Luckily my local grocer sells organic organ meats, plus we always get the extra offal from our pastured pork provider’s other customers that don’t partake of the “nasty bits”. The last time we took home three hog heads, which in addition to providing us with six delightfully delicious pork cheeks, M yielded at least 16 lbs of extra meat for the dog and cats. Magpie spent several days gnawing at what was left of one of the heads. I composted the other two because I couldn’t bear to stumble upon a bloody hog skull in the yard any longer.
It took Harlie a couple of weeks to switch over to the new diet but I just mixed in her normal canned food and just tapered it off over time. Now she wolfs down her raw food with glee. Magpie & Siena both liked it from the start. In addition to the animals liking it and me having found an easier way to manage it, there have been several other even more important benefits to feeding them a raw diet.
Both Harlie and Siena were a little plump despite my efforts to cut back their serving sizes on the store-bought food and purchasing lower fat versions. Harlie also threw up a lot (not counting hairballs). The vet said some cats just have sensitive stomachs – it was nothing to worry about. They were both a bit lazy too – I figured it was because they were house cats and their age. In less than a month of eating the raw food diet both cats dropped down to a healthier weight and had way more energy. They became playful again and much more social. There is lots of running through the halls and new found interest in their toys. Unfortunately there is also a keen interest in anything we eat. I’m not sure if that is attributable to their taste buds “waking up” from the new diet or if they’ve been closely observing the dog getting leftovers after our meal times.
When I first started feeding Magpie raw meaty bones the plaque that had started to build up on her teeth was completely gone in a week – she had the whitest teeth imaginable. When I switched over to the ground meat and bones recipes I noticed her teeth starting to color up again, so now I give her meaty bones (chicken or turkey drumsticks or backs, lamb necks, etc… every other day to keep her smile brilliant – and Magpie does have a brilliant smile!