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.

Shining light into dark corners

Thanks to a regular site visitor for alerting me to an upcoming documentary set to run on CBC this month. It’s called “Pet Food: A Dog’s Breakfast,” and a glance at the preview online looks more than a little promising. Tell your dog- and cat-loving friends to watch. Tell your vet too.

For those wondering, CBC is Canada’s national public broadcaster. The documentary was produced in conjunction with Yap Films, an independent, owner-run production company. It’s wonderful to see more light tossed into the gloomy, secretive quarters of the pet food industry, isn’t it?

We’re all waking up at last.

Eight strikes against fishy feeding

In the last few months, my email inbox has been full of inquiries from people asking about feeding fish to cats. To my mind, there are just too many arguments against feeding fish regularly to make it a safe, healthy choice as a staple of a cat’s diet.

As a treat once in a great while? Maybe. If you must. But know a few things first.

There are a number of problems–some well established facts and others that are somewhat open to question–that make feeding fish regularly, whether raw or cooked, pretty gosh darn inadvisable. At least from the digging I’ve done. The problems stem both from what’s in fish and what’s not in fish.

So far, I count eight distinct ‘strikes’ against the idea of feeding fish, raw or cooked, to cats.

Strike One: Low calcium levels.

Whole fish, even with bone, is far too low in calcium for a cat. Remember: if you’re making homemade cat food, one of the most important things to get right is the ratio of calcium to phosphorus. You have some wiggle room here, but not much. A whole ground fish would be low in calcium. And while the high phosphorus is not good for any cat, elevated phosphorus levels are something you most definitely wouldn’t want to feed a cat that is suffering from any kind of kidney problem.

Strike Two: Thiamin destruction.

Raw fish contains high amounts of an enzyme called thiaminase–an enzyme that destroys Vitamin B-1 (thiamin). A thiamin-deficient diet can lead to neurological problems and seizures in cats. No good.

Strike Three: Urinary tract problems.

Fish, with its high magnesium content, can contribute to a type of urinary tract problem in cats.

(While I’m on urinary troubles, let me interject something here. Curiously, the discovery some time back of magnesium as a culprit in feline urinary tract disorders was accompanied by the development of specialized ‘urinary tract’ formula foods. The idea with these foods was to add acid to the food, reasoning that magnesium crystals develop in alkaline, not acid urine. The problem is, cats whose urinary tract acid is too high are prone to another type of crystal–calcium oxylate. Just another reason it’s best to feed a cat a diet that nature intended. As Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins points out in her book, the rise of urinary tract diseases in the cat coincided exactly with the increasing use of dry kibble to feed cats. But I digress.)

Strike Four: Addiction.

Heaven knows, cats absolutely adore the taste of fish. Anyone who’s ever opened up a can of fish within a 12-city-block radius of any hungry feline knows that. But you can quickly end up with a ‘fish addict’ on your hands. And the last thing you need is a cat on a hunger strike refusing to eat anything but an inferior fish diet.

Strike Five: Heavy metals.

There is a great deal of persuasive research suggesting that predatory fish (those at the very top of the food chain and the same ones often found in pet food or used as ‘treats’ for cats) have extremely high levels of heavy metals such as mercury–in addition to pesticides and other toxins. A 2004 study published in Acta Neuropatholgica discovered neurological disturbances in young kittens fed tuna daily that contained the US FDA-approved level of mercury (0.5 ppm).

Strike Six: Possible link to hyperthyroidism.

A US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study in 2007 revealed a disturbing link between feline hyperthyroidism and the chemicals in fire retardants–that mimic thyroid hormones–and cats’ consumption of fish. In the study, cats eating canned fish were exposed to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) that were five times higher than cats eating poultry or beef canned foods.

Strike Seven: Vitamin E depletion.

Felines love tuna, but eating it long term can deplete a cat’s stores of vitamin E and create conditions that lead to an extraordinarily painful condition called steatitis, with symptoms such as hypersensitivity to touch and loss of appetite. Huuuuuge bummer for the cat and for you. You’ll find tuna in lots of cat foods for the very reason that it’s tasty to cats and draws them to the food. But it has nothing to do with healthy, safe, or necessary nutrition for cats.

Strike Eight? Allergenic.

Fish are allergenic. To my mind, it just makes little sense to feed something that is more likely to create a allergic reaction than something that isn’t.

Dr. Jean Hofve wisely advises against feeding fish and suggests that it be reserved as a very occasional and special treat–certainly no more than once a week.

If you’re really anxious to give your cat a treat once in awhile, go for something like small bits of dehydrated chicken liver or freeze-dried chicken hearts. But skip the fish. Feed something with fur or feathers, not fins. It’s kinder to–and safer for–your carnivore.

Parade passes by (an opportunity)

“These meals may also have contaminants and food-borne bacteria or toxins.”

This comes from an article that appeared in this weekend’s Parade magazine by a veterinarian titled, “The Right Food for Your Pet.”

For a brief moment when I first scanned the article, my heart skipped a beat. How terrific, I thought, that an article by a veterinarian in a mainstream, widely read publication was drawing attention to the problem with so many commercial pet foods and the contaminants and toxins found far too often in them.

That’s what I get for scanning an article before I permit my heart to leap. No, sadly, the author was instead referring to the ostensible disadvantages and dangers of homemade pet food in a pretty unfortunate article ostensibly designed to dole out sound advice on what to feed “Fido and Fluffy.”

Say what? With all the pet food recalls over the years for aflatoxin–never mind the latest appalling situation with the record recall this year–we’re being warned off of making our own food? Isn’t it about time to teach us how to do it safely?

“Cooking for a pet requires knowledge beyond boiling chicken and rice.” Well, um, yeah, but not much more knowledge. Come on. This isn’t rocket science. Reverse engineer a mouse and serve it. Lots of people have been doing it with great success for a long time. During that same long time, tens of thousands of cats and dogs have succumbed to needless diseases from eating steady diets of inferior commercial food.

What a shame that the author didn’t use her bully pulpit to speak out on the folly of feeding dry food to cats and dogs. The article begins with an admonition to steer clear of homemade diets (“Stick With Store-Bought” reads the subheading) and then goes on to “weigh” the pros and cons of wet vs. dry. Dry food’s advantages are explained: it’s economical, convenient, and requires no refrigeration. The only thing going against it, apparently, is that it has “less palatability.”

No mention of the overwhelming evidence that dry food contributes to inflammatory bowel disease, urinary tract disorders, diabetes, and obesity. None.

  • Dry food is a completely upside-down diet for a cat. A cat needs high (animal-based) protein, low or no carbohydrate, and plenty of moisture. Dry food is low in animal-based protein, extraordinarily high in carbohydrates, and is moisture-depleted.

The other warning about making homemade food — “few have been tested for performance over long periods of time.” Really? As opposed to the obscenely short (and often inhumane) feeding trials that allow a manufacturer to slap an AAFCO label on a can or bag and imply that the food is nutritionally complete? If you dig around on my website, you’ll find that I take no comfort in AAFCO. (That’s the Association of American Feed Control Officials).

It’s important to understand what AAFCO is and what it isn’t. A pet food can carry the AAFCO claim if it, or a member of its related family of products, has been tested on a small population of animals for six months and has been shown to provide adequate nutrition. We ought not to confuse this with the notion that it means the food is truly health-building and health-sustaining for life. If a can or bag is labeled as meeting AAFCO standards, all that means is that animals don’t DIE when fed only that food for six months and don’t lose more than 15 percent of body weight. So as long as the animal is alive, hasn’t lost 15 percent of their body weight, and a minimal blood test reveals that a handful of values are in an acceptable range, the food gets the AAFCO seal. Moreover, only eight animals need to participate in the feeding trial, and only six need to complete the 26-week trial.

The diet being tested fails if any animal shows clinical or pathological signs of nutritional deficiency or excess. Specific minimum values for the blood tests are given, and applied to the average result of all participating animals that finished the trial.

Remember, the rules for AAFCO are that if one particular product in a manufacturer’s line was tested and found to meet the AAFCO standard, the company can include this same statement on other products in the same family. So when you see an AAFCO statement on a pet food label, you have no way of knowing if that specific product was actually tested in a food trial. Moreover, the AAFCO protocols include blood tests that screen only four different blood values at the beginning and end of the food trial: RBC, hemoglobin, packed cell volume, and serum albumin. Even the basic veterinary blood profile screens for at least 25 values.

So please, Parade, don’t worry that the homemade diet that I serve and that tens of thousands of others serve “hasn’t been tested for performance for long periods of time” by the pet food companies or AAFCO.

Mother Nature did that for us.

The must-read for your (and your vet’s) fall reading list

There aren’t any excuses left for veterinarians that continue to advocate, sell, or look the other way about dry food for cats.

For years now, while a number of nutrition-savvy vets have ‘gotten it’ about the folly of feeding meat-flavored cereal to obligate carnivores, for the most part, the only easily accessible published information out there about why and how it is cats do infinitely better on a quality canned food or a balanced raw diet has been on websites like mine, Michelle Bernard’s, Feline Future’s, and the terrific site run by Dr. Lisa Pierson.

My gratitude for those people is immeasurable. Without them, and without early support from Lee Ellis and the wonderful crowd on the Yahoo Feline IBD e-group, I’d likely never have seen the light about what a ridiculous and dangerous idea making dry food the staple of a cat’s diet is. Without Michelle Bernard’s book–which I still consider an absolute ‘must-have’ for anyone with a cat–I’m not sure I would have had the courage to strike out on my own making cat food. Which means that without her book, my cat Duke would likely be gone by now. Or at least gravely ill. Instead, we just recently celebrated his 13th birthday. (True confession: he got whipped cream. Oh, c’mon, it was just one day.)

True, there have been scores of scientific papers and studies done by pet food industry researchers and veterinarians on cats as carnivores, but some of the pet food industry research seems to be held tight like some kind of state secret. And while there have been notable papers out there — such as Deborah Zoran’s groundbreaking 2002 JAVMA article and Dr. Deborah Greco’s comments on the ‘Catkins’ diet–it seems that even that work hadn’t really grabbed the attention of the mainstream veterinary community in a way to create the sea change we need.

It’s astonished me more and more each year, as the evidence mounts about how upside-down so many of the pet foods sold for cats are, that the aisles of the pet food superstores are packed to the rafters with dry food and nearly every veterinary clinic I walk in or hear about still carries incredibly low-grade, species-inappropriate dry food.

What’s it going to take? While more and more lay people have taken it on themselves to learn about nutrition — a task thankfully made easier by the Internet — it’s still hard to walk into a vet’s office and have The Conversation about diet with a kibble-peddling veterinarian. And if you say, “well, I read about it online . . . ” it’s not unusual to be met with blank stares, rolling eyes, and maybe even a stern lecture about being cautious about anything that comes from the Internet.

Well, maybe what it takes is the book published this summer by Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, “Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer and Stronger Life.” Have you read this book?

I was lucky enough to see the book just before publication, and as good as I thought it was then, I’m even more impressed now that the book is out. It’s one of the most practical guides to living with cats out on the overcrowded “pet care” shelves at bookstores today. Not only does this highly-credentialed and compassionate veterinarian cover all the basics about dealing with all the issues that arise in living with a cat from kittenhood through the senior years, but it also gives the reader one-stop shopping for some long overdue, sane advice from a veterinarian about:

  • the myth that dry food cleans a cat’s teeth;
  • vaccinations, and the discovery that vaccinating annually may be dangerous and entirely unnecessary;
  • the latest treatment for chronic renal failure (hint: um, it’s not about protein starvation!) ;
  • and nutrition (hint: quit being so gosh darn scared about raw diets.)

And that’s just for starters.

Really, you gotta get this book. And if your vet hasn’t read it, ask why.

Catnutrition.org upgrade 4.7

Faithful regulars to catnutrition.org must be rolling their eyes. Within the past month, they’ll have seen yet another overhaul of the site.

I thought I was so very clever a few months back, opting to re-do the site on my own using iWeb, the web design program that comes with Apple’s iLife suite. I love my Apple. I love Apple programs. I live for iTunes. But let me tell you, using iWeb to re-do a site like mine? Baaaaad idea.

It backfired horribly, taking what was a more-or-less navigable site that loaded relatively quickly and inexplicably turning small photos into grotesquely oversized files, hence rendering the site virtually out of reach for anyone with less than a high-speed connection. The whole thing ground to a near complete halt.

Oh, and never mind that it became impossible to print the pages.I love you Apple, I do, but iWeb truly bites for anything but the simplest sites.

But still, Macs rule.

So along came Epiphanio Sanchez, a terrific human being I met last summer at a retreat. Epiphanio is an artist, musician, graphic designer, life coach, and yogi. And an awesome web guy. He runs Pearl Planet Design. I did what I said I’d never do — pay someone to professionally re-do the entiresite. And it’s paid off immensely, at least psychically. Not having to fight with iWeb or Dreamweaver or fill-in-the-blank web design program to update the site. And he very patiently, just today in fact, walked me through the ABCs of html so I can easily update the site myself. I don’t recall when I’ve worked with someone more patient, kind-hearted, reliable, and enjoyable.

Hand-coded HTML. Wow. I get it. I might even be able to learn this.For those of you frustrated with the site’s slowness in loading and other bugs these past months, thanks for being so patient. And Epiphanio? You rock my world.The educational website on cat nutrition that I’ve run for coming up on five years now has always been a labor of love. And as the site got more popular and site visitors increased, I have remained true to my word to never accept advertising. Not to boast, but catnutrition.org has a high rank on Google, and more than a few folks told me I could recoup my costs pretty quickly if I just started letting ads on to my site. But eeew! After all those years and all those email answers explaining why most commercial pet food is dreadful I’m going to let ads for dry indoor-formula food appear on my site? Not so much.

Nettie ponders web design options.

And I never will. But this latest upgrade has been entirely an out-of-pocket expense. Worth it, mind you, but out of pocket nonetheless. And I’m not living off any trust fund here. So after much consideration, I created an option for people to donate some money to help begin to offset the cost of hiring a web designer, maintaining the site, and periodically paying for more bandwidth. If the site has helped you and you’re of a mind to pay it forward, I’m much obliged. It feels a little funny to me asking people for money.

Still . . . I’ve had nice offers over the years from people asking how they could say thanks.

The greatest and most meaningful payback I can get is knowing that more people are feeding their cats like the carnivores they are, and giving them the best shot at a life that isn’t plagued with the multiple diseases that far too many of our beloved housecats are enduring as a result of feeding a diet that has no relationship to what it is Mother Nature built them to eat. Knowing that along with the other noisy voices out there — Michelle Bernard, Dr. Lisa Pierson, Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, and the wonderful folks at Feline Outreach — the site has had something small to do with the awakening on pet food? That’s a heckuva nice feeling. I’m very proud to be a little voice in their chorus for sanity.

So thanks for bearing with these website renovations. And an extra big thanks if you opt to financially help offset the cost.

But mostly? Please, feed well.

Why are vets still peddling junk food?

One of the most articulate and professionally credentialed veterinary voices today on the root causes of the latest pet food recall, Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, made quite a splash in Canada in June when the California-based veterinarian spoke to a Toronto gathering.

Have a listen and a read. Dr. Hodgkins is speaking out a great deal on the folly of putting faith in labels that make claims about foods being 100 percent nutritionally complete, and gaining long overdue attention for the myth that the feeding trials used to determine minimum requirements are meaningful. Did you know, for example, that feeding trials test maybe eight animals–and a couple are allowed to drop out or die–and continue for perhaps between 10 weeks and six months. Can anyone keep a straight face and say that these kinds of tests really tell pet food companies what a food must contain to sustain the long-term health of an animal?

And you might pay special attention to her comments about the reason that so many vets are reflexively opposed to raw feeding. And why you may see so many rows and rows of bags of dry food for sale at your vet’s office. Sobering stuff.

My vote? Now is the perfect time to speak up and open a dialogue with your own vet about what you feed. As much as I despise what this latest recall has wrought, the silver lining in this cloud is that no vet who’s had his or her head in the sand on diet issues can seriously argue that commercial pet food (including the stuff sold from clinics) is safe and nutritionally complete.

Give your vet a copy of the 2002 article by Dr. Debra Zoran. Suggest s/he have a look at Dr. Hodgkins’s awesome new book. Gently ask for an explanation about why so much dry food is sold in the clinic.

More and more vets are getting on board and recognizing that abdicating nutritional decisionmaking to the pet food companies doesn’t offer their clients what they deserve and are, increasingly, demanding.

Make the demand.