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Raw food diets are rooted in the notion that dogs and cats are carnivores who crave protein and evolved to eat meat.

But is meat what they really want to eat?

Maybe only if it tastes good. 

A new study shows that when food is altered to remove the appetizing taste, dogs and cats will pass up the protein in favor of other macronutrients. Specifically, dogs prefer fat, and cats like carbs.

The study sheds new light on what foods best meet the nutritional needs of dogs and cats, and casts doubt on the popular idea that all cats want and need a protein-heavy diet.

“The numbers were much different than what traditional thinking would have expected,” said the study’s corresponding author, Jean Hall, DVM, MS, Ph.D., a professor of physiology in the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University. “Some experts have thought cats need diets that are 40% or 50% protein. Our findings are quite different than the numbers used in marketing and are going to really challenge the pet food industry.”

Not to mention ruffle proponents of raw food diets for pets.

Each day, dogs had an hour to eat all they wanted up to a predetermined caloric intake. That ensured they could get all the calories they needed to maintain weight while meeting their basic metabolic requirements, but no more.

Cats overeating was less of a concern—even when given unlimited access to tasty food, cats tend to self-regulate by adjusting their food intake based on its energy density—so they had 24 hours to hit their caloric threshold.

Researchers found that, on average, the cats chose to get 43% of their calories from carbs and only 30% from protein.

Dogs, however, went for 41% fat and 36% carbs.

Significantly, not a single dog or cat chose to get the highest percentage of their calories from protein.

Age and body mass played a role, which led the researchers to hypothesize that there was a physiological basis for what the animals chose to eat: Younger, leaner cats ate more protein than older, heavier cats; and younger, leaner dogs ate less protein than older, heavier dogs.

Basically, the researchers think that both dogs and cats were instinctively eating what their bodies were telling them they needed most in terms of nutrition.

And it wasn’t protein.

So next time you’re thinking of feeding your pet a raw food dinner, you might want to hold the hamburger.

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