Virtually all cat owners have come into contact with the term 'BARF', but many animal lovers are not really sure what to make of this unknown quantity. What actually is 'BARF', why is 'biologically appropriate raw food' meant to be so healthy for cats and what are the advantages and disadvantages of this feeding method?
BARF – Biologically Appropriate Raw Food for Cats
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What is BARF?
The term 'BARF' describes so-called 'biologically appropriate raw food'. This feeding method is appropriate for the key reason that cats are carnivorous by nature. Raw food gives them just that – lots of fresh meat. In contrast to cooking your own cat food, BARF portions are given out raw and are not cooked or seared beforehand. However, this has also led to criticism of raw food, which is mostly unhealthy for humans and can lead to stomach upsets and intolerances. Does the same not also apply for cats?
Why is raw food suitable for cats?
Although domestic cats have now been with us for thousands of years, industrial prepared food is still new. In 1958, Mars brought out the first canned cat food, which is still known to this day as 'Whiskas'. Twenty years later followed the matching dry food from the same brand. In the 70s, Hills developed the Prescription Diet Feline, whilst since 1990 there have also been diet foods to combat diseases. However, cats have not physically adapted to food from practical cans, pouches and dry food sachets, with evolution on a physical level taking place over a long period of time across many generations. Even nowadays, many cats still catch birds and small rodents if they don't subsist solely on food they have caught themselves, as is the case on many farms. Consequently, the cat's digestive tract has still not got used to living comfortably with humans and the prepared food that comes with this. Deep down, cats are still all-out hunters – this applies to their behaviour and especially to their organs, which match those of wild small cats!
As a result, the ideal food portion for a domestic cat even today is similar in composition to the average mouse. It has even now been scientifically proven that cats prefer food made up of 50 to 60 percent protein, 20 to 30 percent fat and three to eight percent carbohydrates.
But what's the situation with bacteria and parasites such as worms that can potentially be found in meat? As natural hunters, cats are fully adapted to consuming raw meat. After all, it's rare to come across perfectly conserved ready-to-eat food outdoors, and mice automatically come 'raw'. The cat's stomach bacteria are therefore very aggressive, meaning that they are nowhere near as susceptible to food poisoning as we humans.
Raw meat is thus less suitable for human consumption, but it does make a highly appropriate form of nutrition for hunter cats! BARF is one of the oldest feeding methods with good reason, but this doesn't mean it is free of risks.
Raw food done right
In order for your cat to receive everything it needs to stay healthy, the raw portion must be of an appropriate composition. Even outdoors, cats don't just subsist on their prey's muscle meat, since they also require offal such as heart, liver and lungs, as well as part of the bones and fur to provide calcium and fibre. In plain terms, this means that BARF shouldn't just be made up of muscle meat. Cat owners who wish to feed their cat a BARF diet should familiarise themselves beforehand, precisely calculate their cat's needs regarding nutrients, vitamins, protein and carbohydrates and adapt the recipe accordingly. The BARF portion for each cat can vary depending on age, breed, gender and pre-existing conditions. For this reason, BARF is also highly adaptable, with proponents knowing exactly what their cat's food contains! BARF enthusiasts generally work with fresh meat and offal, natural or artificial minerals and vitamin supplements and sometimes small quantities of fruit and vegetables too. These fibre portions help to regulate cats' digestion.
So-called online 'BARF calculators' help to calculate the ingredients and nutrients that cats need. There are now numerous compositions on the subject, which extensively cover the area of raw food and offer advice. Unfortunately BARF is less well-known amongst vets. However, your trusted vet can advise you regarding potential diseases and your cat's subsequent nutritional requirements.
BARF? Of course!
A special characteristic of raw food is an incredibly natural type of supplementation. Instead of mixing artificially manufactured additives like calcium and vitamin A with meat and offal, the proponents of 'natural' raw food instead choose finely ground eggshells and cod-liver oil. Beer yeast is used instead of vitamin B powder, as wheat germ oil provides vitamin E. Magnesium is added through dried algae called spirulina rather than magnesium gluconate. Seaweed meal provides iodine.
Nevertheless, even with 'naturally' supplemented raw portions it is important to be aware of your cat's exact needs! For instance, cats with struvite stones should not receive any magnesium supplements, whilst the right balance of calcium and phosphorous is incredibly important for all cats. The amino acid taurine is essential, since cats cannot produce this themselves from nutrient components... Whilst water-soluble vitamins are removed from the body, over-provision of fat-soluble vitamins can slowly poison them.
As you can see, extensive research and well thought-out preparation are essential to meet all the cat's needs. It's not impossible! Researching recipes, buying fresh meat, chopping ingredients, thoroughly mixing them, packing portions and storing them in the freezer is of course a huge amount of work and certainly not for everyone. Even if precise research regarding your cat's food doesn't light your candle, calculating ingredients leads to more questions than answers, exactly weighing out ingredients and supplements isn't your thing or you just just don't have time for raw food, you don't necessarily have to refrain from BARF entirely.
So-called 'convenience BARF products' give cat owners who don't have much free time or knowledge of cat nutrition the chance to still feed their cats appropriately. A few years ago, raw products for cats were exclusively available online or through local butcher's shops, but large food manufacturers have now latched onto the trend. 'Ready BARF products' are devised based on cats' needs for raw meat and required nutrients, then frozen in portions. Cat lovers can then defrost and feed them to their pets. For cat owners critical of BARF that want to offer their cats tasty food, there are some exclusive recipes bound to make the mouth water: game ragu with broccoli and potatoes – that sounds like just the ticket for a delicious meal for your four-legged friend!
There are ready-made supplements for cat owners who prefer to lend a hand and choose the meat for their pets themselves. These supplements contain all necessary vitamins and minerals and simply need to be mixed with fresh meat and offal. Your cat's appropriate food is ready – with no weighing at all and minimal time investment!
Advantages and Disadvantages
As is the case with feeding prepared foods and the criticism that food manufacturers must face regarding rotten meat and impurities, raw food is also not without risks. Raw meat too can be impure due to pathogens and worm eggs. The cat's aggressive stomach acid can defend against many things, but there is still a risk amongst young, older or sick animals. Those who exclusively use meat suitable for human consumption for raw food can rest safe in the knowledge that it has been investigated for diseases and parasites. However, if you don't produce meat and supplements yourself, you are dependent on third parties. Human beings make mistakes, and so can the bio-butcher round the corner.
If you feed your cat a BARF diet, you should be aware that you are taking on a big responsibility. If you aren't prepared to familiarise yourself with this area, respect the importance of quality raw ingredients and carefully prepare meals, using ready-food is the best and safest option. If the cat owner is responsible and creates their cats' BARF meals with love and attention, raw food is definitely an appropriate nutritional method for almost any cat!