At RAWR, a raw cat food store in Uptown Oakland, owner Sabrina Simmons feeds sustainably raised, raw, whole chickens — skin, bones, and all — into a meat grinder. She adds extra organ meat, raw egg yolks, and vitamin supplements, and freezes and packages the mixture. The finished product looks not unlike steak tartare.
Simmons, who opened her shop last summer after running RAWR as a wholesale and delivery business for two years, is one of a growing number of pet lovers who tout the health benefits of an all-raw-meat diet. But the success of the business can also be attributed to its ties to the broader slow food movement. Now, more than ever, food-conscious types are buying their produce at farmers' markets in order to support small-scale, local farms, and sustainably sourced meat from whole-animal butcher shops that are committed to putting every part of a pig or a cow to good use. Why would it be any different with what they feed Fido or Felix?
"That's how it is with people," Simmons said. "You eat good food and you're going to feel better."
The origins of RAWR are deeply personal for Simmons, who adopted a kitten named Milton in 2003 that had severe digestive problems — he'd throw up, constantly had diarrhea, and always seemed hungry, Simmons recalled. Frustrated with "crazy expensive" prescription diets that weren't working, she began making her own cat food. According to Simmons, once she switched Milton over to a diet consisting of raw meat, his ailments disappeared in a matter of weeks. Soon, friends were asking her to make homemade food for their pets, and before she knew it she had written a 36-page business plan with the help of the Oakland-based Women's Initiative.
Now, RAWR offers frozen cat meals made from one of three whole, bone-in animals: chicken, duck, or rabbit. The store also produces a line of dehydrated treats with whimsical names like Foie de Canard (whole duck livers) and Air of the Hare (rabbit lungs). According to Simmons, these are a big hit at Oakland's Cat Town Cafe, where cat lovers can procure the RAWR treats from a dispenser while they frolic with the cafe's feline tenants.
Of course, there is an expense attached to supporting smaller, more conscientious agricultural operations. Simmons estimates that a customer might spend $3 to $4 a day on RAWR meals — quite a bit more than he or she would spend on the standard dried "kibble" diet, but not much more expensive than high-end canned pet food, Simmons said.
As is the case with slow food for humans, the entire process of serving a RAWR meal takes a little bit more time, as well. Cat owners need to get used to providing enough time for the meals to defrost, and they need space to store the food.
There's no general consensus in the veterinary community on the safety and efficacy of a raw diet for dogs and cats; in fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association's official policy discourages people from feeding their pets meat that hasn't first been cooked or pasteurized, mainly for fear of spreading salmonella and other foodborne pathogens.
But supporters of the raw diet cite their use of locally sourced, non-factory meat, as well as at least one famous study from the 1930s, which showed that cats that were fed a raw-meat diet were healthier than ones that were fed cooked meat.
The main line of reasoning is that, biologically speaking, domestic cats are not so different from lions, tigers, and the other big cats that live in the wild. Many of the raw pet food purveyors play up the big cat connection, which, apart from its scientific merits, makes for good marketing: RAWR's website, in fact, is EatLikeALion.com. One of the company's promotional videos features a number of eminently cuddly kittens stalking their "prey." It's cute.
Mostly, though, Simmons stresses how much research she puts into calibrating the nutritional content of each meal. She adds psyllium husks to aid the cat's digestion. She adds kelp to provide needed iodine. Periodically, she sends batches of each cat meal variety to a nutrition lab to make sure everything is up to snuff.
In some respects, RAWR meals may be healthier, and more carefully sourced than what the cat owners themselves eat. The meals are made with Mary's and Rocky Jr. free-range chickens and Liberty Ducks from the same Sonoma County farm that supplies restaurants like Commis and Chez Panisse. As Simmons noted, "Could you cook my food and eat it? Yes. But by law, I have to tell you that you should not."