There is a high level of awareness about the food we (humans) put into our bodies. We read labels at the supermarket. We look at fat and carbohydrates. We’re concerned about where food comes from, and whether it's organically produced. We look at overall health considerations.
As a cat and dog sitter with literally hundreds of customers, I often ask myself why the same consideration is not given to our 4-legged kids.
When it comes to the health of our animal companions, we have no control over genetic predispositions and environmental factors; but diet choices are completely within our control. Feeding a species-appropriate diet is the single most important thing we can do for our 4-legged partners, and pays off in spades over the course of their lifetime. The negative impacts of an inferior, species-inappropriate diet range from a multitude of chronic illnesses, to weight control issues from an excess of grains and fillers, to a poor quality coat, dental problems, urinary issues (which could be life threatening), compromised immune systems… the list goes on and on.
I never paid much attention to what my four-legged friends ate until 2007. I ASSUMED I was giving them “the best” there was (because that’s what the label said!). The past 4 years have been eye-opening for me, and there’s no going back.
Marketing hype and veterinarians with little training in nutrition are of no help to the average consumer. Big Business controls the pet food industry and plays a major part in influencing vets throughout their education. So we need to help ourselves and our companion animals. Knowledge is power.
The best way to think about optimal nutrition for a cat or dog is to look at what a wild feline (yes, a lion or a tiger) or canine (wolf, fox) eats. Domestic animals are not very different than their wild ancestors when it comes to nutrition. Dogs are carnivores. Felines are obligate carnivores and have even stricter requirements for meat than dogs and other animals. While it may be beyond our comfort zone to imagine, wild cats and dogs generally eat rodents, small birds (not chicken or turkey -- but quail and song birds), and rabbit. Rodents, quail, and rabbits are generally comprised of around 80% meat, up to 10% bone, and 10% organs (of which around 5% is the liver). Mirroring that composition to the best of our ability is the most basic rule of optimal nutrition. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but the 80-10-10 rule is the foundation.
Note the absence of carbohydrates (especially grains) in the paragraph above. The production of dry kibble requires around 40% carbohydrate in order to produce the correct consistency. That’s 40% carbs for an animal that should have zero carbs. Is that species-appropriate?
There are no ovens in the wild. Mother Nature does not cook. All food is consumed raw. Now some of you are thinking, what about salmonella? Carnivores have short digestive tracts, which makes them fairly tolerant to bacteria in their food, which is why healthy animals are at very little risk of suffering from salmonella or other threats. Of course you ALWAYS want to consider the sources of food.
Raw feeding is not for everyone. But there is a hierarchy of food choices for cats, which looks something like this (from best to worst):
Raw, whole-prey, ground
Dry food (kibble)
I worry about home-made, cooked diets. Cooking changes the composition of food; vitamins, nutrients, and enzymes are altered or destroyed during the cooking process. So “getting it right” becomes extremely difficult. The positive side of home cooking is that you get to add your own ingredients, and leave out some of the undesirable things that are found in the best of commercial foods. But why cook at all?
Everything about dry kibble is inappropriate to the species. Aside from being cooked at extraordinarily high temperatures, it contains inferior sources of protein, and is way too high in carbohydrates (often grains, which are a huge issue for the feline and sometimes for the canine). There’s nothing redeeming about it, and for cats, its outright dangerous over the long-run. A lot of caregivers think they are feeding “high quality” dry kibble. The reality is that there’s no such thing as quality kibble. Lisa Pierson, DVM, does a great job explaining this on her website http://www.catinfo.org.
So many cats I care for in my pet care business eat dry food for years. Then the heartache comes when these same animals are rushed to the emergency vet for very serious issues such as urinary blockages and diabetes. I hear about these issues all the time.
Unlike dogs, cats have little natural thirst drive. They have evolved to get water from their food. There’s almost no water in kibble (10% of kibble is water vs. around 75-80% water in canned food). A cat that eats a dry diet is chronically dehydrated, and it is impossible for them to make up for the water deficiency no matter how much they drink. If you are lucky enough to live with a cat that gets into their upper teen years, their demise is often from kidney disease. So does a chronic state of dehydration lead to kidney disease in later year? I think so.
There’s the “but dry food is better for the teeth argument”. Watch how the cat or dog's mouth works; they are not chewing the kibble – they are simply shattering it into smaller pieces. The tiny pieces are often lodged in their teeth (think: carbohydrates) which actually CAUSE dental issues. If dry food is so good for teeth, then they should never need a dental cleaning (a surgical procedure), right?
My Pet Peeve (excuse the pun). Why do so many caregivers think their cats need to have food available 24 hours a day? We don’t do this for dogs, and certainly not for people…so why do we do it for cats? Trust me, no cat ever starved to death from not eating for 2-3 hours.
I think I’ve made my point about dry food.
I sincerely hope that raw feeding becomes mainstream some day, but I’m realistic. For most caregivers, the answer is going to be to feed a high-quality commercial canned food. Most times, high-quality is going to come from the smaller (not Big Business) pet food companies (though mergers & acquisitions are in the air).
Learn to read food labels. This is a subject for a future article, but briefly, ingredients are listed in order of weight, so generally speaking, the first few ingredients are the most important. A named meat (i.e., “chicken”, NOT “poultry”) should be the first ingredient. If there are carbohydrates in the food, they should be far down the ingredients list (not one of the first 5 ingredients). Avoid grains, particularly anything with corn or wheat; avoid soy and gluten. Limit fish intake; aside from mercury, pollutants, etc, fish is linked to thyroid disease later in life, and is also a common allergen. Avoid sugars, natural or artificial, and artificial colors.
I am not a veterinarian; I am not a scientist, nor am I formally trained in animal nutrition. I have read a ton on this topic, and it all makes sense to me. For a more technical and complete overview of feline nutrition, here is a good website: http://maxshouse.com/feline_nutrition.htm.
I am owned by four cats. They are raw-fed. They have beautiful coats, clear eyes, high energy, good weight, and nearly odorless litter-boxes. I compare them to cats I watch for my business, and I am proud of my four fabulous felines.