Dry food and vets

It gets a little easy sometimes to feel like those of us who have been preaching from our bully pulpits all these years on the dangers of dry food as a staple of a cat’s diet can finally kick back and relax and shut up for awhile. I’d like to think that with all the overwhelming evidence, including in mainstream veterinary scientific journals, that dry food exacerbates or causes disease in cats, the number of people and vets implying that dry food is still an ‘acceptable’ choice for the long-term health of a cat would dissipate.It’s striking to me that despite all these efforts by so many determined and smart people, it’s still the rule–not the exception–to visit a veterinary clinic and see dry food for sale. It’s like visiting a cardiologist and finding that the doctor is selling bags of “prescription Big Macs With Extra Cheese (sensitive heart formula)” from the waiting room reception area.

I cannot get my brain around this one.

I realize that the sale of prescription food brings in needed revenue to vet clinics, but really, is there no other way to raise cash in a vet clinic? We cat people are a little crazy, after all: we spend $20 on a $1 feather toy for our cats. How about we get vet clinics to start selling overpriced pet toys to make up for the revenue they’d lose if they gave up selling dry food? Our animals would sure be a lot healthier.

I’m not against vets getting paid for what they do. I’m very much in favor of good health care providers earning the living they deserve. It’s hard and very demanding work.

But bankrolling financial success by selling products that make animals ill is over the line. And yet that’s what’s happening every day. And when vets sell these products, it sends the message that it must be okay. And soon e-groups around the globe are repeating bad advice. And the cycle continues.

After all the years I’ve been running my website on cat nutrition, reading and answering emails, and poring over whatever books or articles I can get my hands on related to cat nutrition, there are times that I sense a definite shift in the “collective consciousness” on the issue. But that sense starts to fade when I visit a veterinary office and still see rows and rows of dry food, or visit some informational websites or online e-groups on cat health and read that there is still ‘debate’ on the possible value of dry food.

I get exceptionally discouraged to see well-meaning ‘advisers’ on online egroups, under the guise of staying ‘open-minded,’ implying that dry food is safe for cats. I can’t judge these people too harshly, though, since that view is validated by the very purported expert class–veterinarians–that they understandably look to for guidance.

Getting the word out broadly on why dry food is a bad idea is what’s required if we’re going to break the endless cycle of cats becoming ill from diabetes, obesity, IBD, and urinary tract infections that are all at least somewhat strongly related to diet. (On that, by the way, have a look at Lynette’s recent wonderful blog entry listing reasons on why not to feed dry food.)

It’s a delicate and tricky position that I’m in–trying as a lay person to inform and educate caregivers on at LEAST why it’s critical to stop feeding an exclusive diet of dry food while sensitively trying to explain that their vet might just possibly be wrong on this aspect of their animal’s health. It’s tricky terrain to navigate.

Are there plenty of good reasons why vets might be wrong? Yes, but that doesn’t make them less wrong on the nutrition score.

Hundreds if not thousands of communications I’ve seen over the years, through my own website and from years of co-moderating a Yahoo group dedicated to help people with IBD cats leaves me with the very clear impression that the bulk of vets remain strongly resistant to taking a fresh look at the way we’re feeding these obligate carnivores.

Cereal-packed dry food makes absolutely no sense as a staple of a diet for carnivores, and while my site has a lot of information about raw feeding (because it’s what I do and what has worked for me), I make it as clear as I can on my page on diabetes, obesity, and FAQs that if people can’t or don’t want to feed raw, then at least feed canned food with as few grains as possible.

And the good news is that there are a handful of good companies out there now selling premade raw food that’s well suited to cats. I’m a big believer in a safe, balanced, raw meat based diet for cats, and my site is full of information on how one might proceed with that kind of a diet. Best of all, my site is not the only one out there. I’m in very good company these days with people much smarter than I am who are getting the word out on cat nutrition.

Nettie the Wondercat

I view vets as a powerful potential ally in this David versus Goliath-esque effort to shift the status quo on how we feed our cats. But for that shift to happen means many vets are going to have to start asking questions and seeking out informed and unbiased information on nutrition. The information they need to become savvy guides for their clients is not readily available or conspicuous in veterinary education, near as I can conclude. If it were, then there would be many fewer bags of dry food in vet clinics.  The shift also requires demand from the ground up — from the consumers of information those paying for cat food who can encourage, if not demand, sane choices.

I understand and am extremely sympathetic to how much harder a vet has it than a human physician–a veterinarian is expected to know how to treat all kinds of species and handle clients who can barely be bothered filling up a gravity feeder with Crappy Meat Flavored Cereal Mix much less pay attention to why canned is better than dry. But the fact is that vets are on the front line: they are the first line of defense against the dominant paradigm that currently implies, “Dry food is fine, it’s nutritionally complete, and it’s a perfectly fine diet for cats.” It may be a lot of work and very overwhelming to make education on nutrition a part of a short veterinary appointment, but being overwhelmed doesn’t justify, in my mind, practicing substandard medicine.

Diet is a very big thing to get wrong, after all.

Vets are who people turn to first when they’re looking for guidance on how to feed their animals. And it’s exasperating for me and so many others to see that despite the overwhelming data to the contrary about dry food, most vet clinics are still selling and therefore implicitly endorsing dry food. That’s an awfully strong message that’s being sent and, I’d argue, one that harms cats.

There is a spectrum out there and indeed, I talk about that same spectrum on my site. But dry food is clearly at the lowest end of the spectrum and I cannot and won’t ever say it’s okay to exclusively feed dry food to cats. There is at least one grain-free dry food out there now, but that still doesn’t take care of the other key issue for these carnivores, which is that they need to get their moisture with their food since their low thirst drive means that even with supplemental water drinking, a dry-fed cat has about half the moisture intake overall as a cat on canned (or raw) food. The downstream consequences for that in a cat are well known.

Until dry food stops being an acceptable choice to endorse in a vet clinic, the people who look to the veterinary community won’t start getting the message and making healthier choices.

I think that caring vets really want to do what’s best. I also think the odds are stacked against them right now. So my “job,” as I see it, is to join the chorus of voices that can give their clients as much information as possible so that they can ask the hard questions and press the outer edges of the envelope.

Until vets disentangle the knot between financial health of their practice from dependence on the sale of dry food, this problem will remain with us.

And I’ll stay politely noisy as long as I need to.

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