Finally, I found some free moments to formulate feline feeding fundamentals. OK – enough of searching for “f” words. When I graduated from veterinary school in 1980 I had worked at clinics for 20 years and never thought anything wrong with feeding processed dry or canned food to cats. Certainly my one nutrition class did nothing to educate me differently. That first year out (1980) we were seeing many cats who became blind or developed enlarged hearts and were finally told that it was because of a lack of taurine (an essential amino acid for cats) in cat food. The pet food industry had basically relabeled dog food as cat food, so the protein levels, therefore the taurine, was way too low. I was telling every cat client to add clam juice to their diet.
At that time, I did not even think to research the best diet for cats, or to wonder why it was best for people to eat a variety of foods, yet we fed the same thing day in and day out to cats. I never wondered why cats on dry food drank “normally” while cats on canned foods often worried their owners because they did not drink “enough”. When a client got me interested in homeopathy and a cat with bladder problems was able to stop three years of antibiotics after one homeopathic medicine, I became interested in general holistic approaches, reading Dr. Pitcairn and Anitra Frazier’s books (I still recommend them among many other great ones).
Those books and other holistic veterinarians I was beginning to meet (the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association started in 1982) shifted how I thought about health for animals. No longer was I content to eliminate the current illness. I now wanted to build health. I was also learning about health for people and one keystone was nutrition. I saw that no one agreed on the healthiest food for people or for animals and that each opinion had a lot of research and anecdotes behind it. As I shifted Beasley (my cat at that time) from dry to wet and included some fresh meat at times, I saw his health improve including a dramatic decrease in his thirst.
Several of us homeopathic veterinarians realized that many of the minor problems of cats resolved after their health improved, often with merely better nutrition. We formulated a list of Early Warning Signs of Internal Imbalance including vomiting hairballs, drinking water, black crud in the corner of the eye, tear drainage, tarter, red gum at the tooth edge, behavior problems and many more. These were all commonly accepted as “normal” cat issues. They disappeared with improved health. I noticed that when Beasley came home from boarding at the vet clinic he would be drinking water for about a week, less and less each day. They had instructions to not feed dry food at all (and I know the techs were following that because they knew Beasley and I was their boss, too). The stress of being in a noisy vet clinic made him less healthy, so he began to drink, even though not on dry food.
Fast forward to 35 years later and I am a passionate advocate of feeding fresh foods to all species for health of all life, including our planet. The biggest challenge for most people was mine too – how can a fresh diet be complete and balanced? Hmm…are processed diets complete and balanced? Do people eat complete and balanced diets? Only if they ate only Ensure daily (and nothing else) and no one thinks that is healthy. At first we holistic vets merely tried to replace processed food ingredients with fresh ones in the same proportions. Then we realized that many of those foods (like rice) were not part of the natural diet of cats. We thought more about feline anatomy and saw that big chunks of meat, and even meaty bones, were the natural food – not ground up mixtures. We thought more about how to duplicate a mouse and a bird. Did cats strike a match and build a fire to cook their prey? Did they pull out a knife and remove the bones? They have ripping and tearing teeth, jaws that move up and down, not side to side and no digestive enzymes. Unlike people, the purpose of the cat’s mouth is to kill and tear small enough to swallow. The food sits for many hours in the high acid stomach. There is a very short intestinal tract, so the nutrients from the vegetables that were already chewed and partly digested by the prey could be absorbed.
As more veterinarians became trained in holistic approaches, and more people began to feed fresh food on their own, many became very positional about their combination of ingredients being the only way to feed cats.
- Cats are obligate carnivores so feed only meat.
- I am a vegan and my cat is healthy as one, too.
- Cat food has rice, so they need rice and grains which saves me money.
- Meat must be raw.
- Meat for some Chinese medicine conditions should be cooked.
- Vegetables should be cooked/raw/not there at all.
- Meat should be in big chunks.
- Feeding bones will kill your cat.
- Feeding meaty bones keeps the teeth clean.
- Supplements are/are not needed.
- Cats nibble all day in the wild so need to have dry food out free choice.
And the list of opinions goes on. Each of these staunch positions has healthy cats eating their way, so which way is right? This would be like asking what diet is right for people – vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, traditional Weston Price, fast food, organic, local/sustainable, etc. Each one has healthy and ill people. After about 20 years I realized there was no ONE right answer. Every person and every animal is unique. Randy Wysong said this decades ago, it just took me awhile to appreciate it. He says in Rationale for Animal Nutrition that scientists do not, and really cannot, know what nutrients we, or our cats, require. We would have to know the differing composition of each food (and where it is raised, and how would affect this), the way each nutrient is processed by the body (and each body is unique) so there is no way to have a “complete and balanced” diet. There is no one “right” diet.
I always talk about nutrition in my speeches, classes and with my clients. Most who switch to feeding fresh food report a glowing hair coat within days, clean teeth within months, and fewer of the Early Warning Signs. Some report no improvements at all. Some cats won’t eat anything new. Some cats vomit new foods and attempts at different feeding schedules. Over time I have seen that most cats fed a fresh food diet live a longer (20-38) and healthier life. I have also seen a very few who ate dry food free choice living past 20, so regardless of my opinion as to what is best, I know that each cat (and person) has their “best” diet and can do OK even on less than best.
Once our cats are eating fresh food, there is no need to “supplement” or “cover your bases” by feeding some processed foods. If you become ill and do not have fresh food and friends cannot get the frozen raw, then ok to feed processed. Consider it emergency rations only. Yes, there are good, caring, reliable cat food companies out there, but you just never know when they change hands, or when one of their ingredients is not good and they are lacking the vitality of fresh foods.
Feeding fresh foods purchased directly from local farms is the best for your cat and the environment. You drive there with your own containers (my farm has the meat in plastic, so that is some trash generated) and drive home. Ingredients were not shipped to the factory from afar (often abroad), processed (using energy and workers driving to work), packaged (with components shipped from elsewhere that often end up in the trash), then sent out again to your store.
To help the planet and your cat’s health, and often to even save money (my cat’s food costs 50% less than high quality canned), buy local ingredients for your whole family including the cat.