Category Archives: cat food

Remembering Shelby Gomas

A little under two months ago, word reached me that Shelby Gomas – the founder of Feline’s Pride – passed away. I’ve wanted to write something, say something, for the longest time, but I’ve been without words.

The words came, clumsily, this morning, when my husband and I were making cat food and we ran out of enough glass jars to put the food in. We looked at each other and agreed, “Yup, we’re going to have to use the Shelby containers.”

The Shelby containers. Shorthand for the square plastic storage boxes we’d accumulated dozens of over the years from purchases of Feline’s Pride food – known affectionately in our house as “Uncle Shlebee’s food.” (Long story.)

When I went into the basement pantry to retrieve them, I spied the tall stack of plastic containers that had once protected pound after pound of frozen, healthy, magnificent raw food I’d gladly fed our critters. My heart sunk a little knowing I couldn’t email Shelby and share my goofy little story about how he’d come to mind this cold January day. He’d have laughed if I’d written, “Hey Shelby! When I see stacks of petroleum-based food storage units, I think of you!”

Shelby hatched the idea of Feline’s Pride a few years back after I ran into him on the Feline IBD Yahoo e-group. He’d seen firsthand how a carefully prepared, correctly served raw meat based diet was the healthiest thing for carnivores and launched his company, selling about the only pre-made raw cat food I ever felt comfortable buying. Shelby “got it” about what was truly appropriate for carnivores, and didn’t fall prey to the common folly that other raw cat food manufacturers did – which was to toss in all kinds of healthy-sounding – but entirely species-inappropriate – ingredients like blueberries and flax seed and potatoes.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to see more companies elbowing their way into the business of making healthy, fresh, cat food. But I will always hold out immense respect for those that shy away from adding what amounts to filler – under the anthropomorphic fantasy that what’s very healthy for humans is appropriate for small cats – even though it’s tempting and easy to market such formulas.

Shelby was special. He was very funny. He adored his animals. And he saw every cat who ate the food he made as an adoptee.

Having been a homemade cat food advocate for a long time, I never felt comfortable serving any food I hadn’t made myself. But when Feline’s Pride came along, I started supplementing the food I made with orders from Shelby. Anyone who knows me – and what a fussbudget I am about what goes into my cat’s food and my innate suspicion about anything anyone else prepares – knows that I must have had a very high degree of trust to serve someone else’s food.

The cardboard boxes with the food inside almost invariably arrived with special gifts for the cats — homemade catnip toys and sometimes even a personal note of affection for Duke and Nettie. For about a year there, I found myself getting ‘lazy’ and just buying Feline’s Pride. I put my grinder away, and was frankly grateful as life and my job got more busy that I was able to buy and confidently serve cat food that was as good as anything I could make at home.

I went back to making my own food all of the time in the middle of 2010, in part because – frankly – I missed doing it. And because after losing Duke earlier in the year, I wanted to return to the labor of love that began because of Duke.

It’s staggering to think of how much love-charged water has passed under the bridge since a handful of us first started waking up to the the importance of reexamining the whole paradigm of feeding small cats. The founder and moderator of the Feline IBD e-group, Lee Ellis, started her own pet sitting service, and continues to share the word with her clients about the benefits and wisdom of a healthy diet. One of the godmothers of raw feeding, my first mentor, Michelle Bernard, has taken her knowledge and insight on healthy feeding for cats and become a vigorous advocate for healthy raw diets for her beloved dogs.

Natascha Wille of the Raw Meat Cat Food Company (formerly Feline Future) remains, after over 15 years, an articulate and insightful advocate for raw feeding. Then there’s wonderful Margaret Gates, who launched an amazing movement and site with the Feline Nutrition Education Society – and some of the best ‘educational commercials’ online sharing the important message about raw feeding – without ever getting preachy or so weird no one will watch. It’s an amazing site.

And Dr. Lisa Pierson – who I am honored to count as a friend – has a recently revamped website on cat care that knocks it out of the ballpark when it comes to one-stop shopping for thoughtful, sound, advice on every aspect of cat health, including nutrition.

Then? Then there was Shelby. An upstart if there ever was one. His vision and passion – much more than his business sense (I’m guessing) – were what kept him going, but bless him for that. He always put cats first. And talk about someone with a heart always in the right place.

Thank you, Shelby, for making such a difference when you were here. Thank you for all the meals that my cats enjoyed because you made them when I was too busy. Thank you for sharing your deep passion and love for our animal companions. If I had a hat on just now, I’d “doff it” to you.

You’re missed.

You were appreciated.

And there are many cats thriving and well today because of your dedication.

For all that, we are ever grateful.

The growing chorus of voices for sane feeding

I’m obviously not much of a devoted blogger, given that it’s been well over a year since I last posted.  There are a few very good-new items, however, that I’ve had the best of intentions about sharing for months now, so here goes.

On the cat nutrition front?  It’s been a year of progress. A passionate and devoted advocate for healthy feeding, Margaret Gates, launched an absolutely amazing and comprehensive website that I strongly urge anyone with a cat to spend plenty of quality time surfing.  The Feline Nutrition Education Society (FNES) website represents one of the most user-friendly, information-packed, and impressive efforts to bring together the collective wisdom on raw feeding I’ve ever seen.  I’m honored that Margaret includes me as one of the many voices of FNES, as it’s a true privilege to be associated with the chorus of voices that are dedicated to educating cat caregivers about the wisdom of feeding cats as carnivores.

Meanwhile, my good friends at PetSage, a holistic pet supply store in Alexandria, Virginia, continue bravely at the forefront of educating anyone who will listen about healthy feeding of companion animals.  Earlier this month, they sponsored a booth at the two-day National Capital Cat Show in Chantilly, Virginia – the classiest booth at the show – to highlight the latest in feline nutrition and well-being. Dr. Andrea Tasi, an amazing veterinarian and one of the most articulate spokespersons for healthy feeding, spent one of the days with the great PetSage staff at the booth talking to scores of cat show attendees about why she uses and recommends a carnivore diet for her own cats and the patients she tends to as part of her feline-only house call practice.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when PetSage asked me to participate in the second day of this event, offering a lay person’s perspective on carnivore nutrition and explaining how easy it really is these days to prepare a homemade raw diet or use one of the growing number of premade options on the market today.  I was astonished at the level of interest in raw feeding at the show and realized that slowly but surely, more and more devoted cat caregivers are coming around to seeing the common sense that underpins feeding cats as carnivores.  Kudos and thanks to the pioneers at PetSage for sponsoring the booth and spreading the word in such a positive, upbeat, and sensibly persuasive way to more and more people.

If you ever find yourself in Alexandria, Virginia, do yourself a favor and stop by PetSage.  It’s a beautiful, large store run by a staff consisting of some of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met.  Plus which, the store is home to three of the coolest cats ever- Dempsey, Ripken, and Diva.

Finally? Speaking of cool cats, Duke – the mascot and inspiration for catnutrition.org – just celebrated his 15th birthday.  This handsome furry orange cat-man has eaten nothing but grain-free, vegetable-free raw food for a full decade and he’s going strong.  Attaboy Duke.  His adopted sister, Nettie the Wondercat, will turn 14 next month and I credit raw feeding, Dr. Tasi’s homepathy, and Nettie’s steadfast spirit to the health she enjoys.  She’s had her health challenges for the past 18 months, but the little upstart is sassy as ever and keeping all of us on our toes.

So? Hats off to FNES.  Buckets of praise and gratitude to the awesome founder and staff of PetSage.  Happy Birthday, Duke. Attagirl Nettie.

Happy birthday, Duke

Duke, the magnificent cat-beast who jump started my passion about feline nutrition, turned 14 years old this month. He’s eaten nothing but grain-free, vegetable-free raw food for a full eight years now. (Well, okay, he’s stolen some cooked chicken off our plates now and again.) His blooming good health is, to my mind, testimony to the ‘miracles’ that can happen when a carnivore eats like a carnivore. The first six years of his life were, for him, a struggle with cramping, diarrhea, and all of the misery that comes from inflammatory bowel disease. His story is discussed in more detail on my website, so I won’t belabor the details here. I’ll only say that seeing that happy, healthy, and energetic boy-cat running around our house and demanding and eating his meals with enthusiasm and gusto fills me with gratitude that I caught on when I did to feeding cats properly.

I get a lot of emails from people worried about taking the first steps toward raw feeding. I remember that same feeling of trepidation: “What am I doing? Am I going to kill my cat here?” Although I was lucky to have a handful of raw feeding mentors in my corner, it still felt like a risky proposition: to feed my beloved, already sick cat something that didn’t have a reassuring label indicating “nutritional completeness” on it.

Time, and results, shifted everything. My biggest concern now is running out of raw cat food and having to serve something that someone I don’t know has prepared. It’s been years since I’ve visited a pet supply store except to stock up on cat litter. And cringe as I walk by aisles of dry food.

And speaking of that, I made a recent, wonderful excursion with a friend to a local holistic pet supply store. It’s called Pet Sage. I’ve heard great things about this store for years, but since I’ve generally had little need for visiting places like that, I postponed a visit. Besides, I know myself, and I know how cranky I get walking around stores and seeing all kinds of ridiculous things for sale. I was, however, intrigued about a visit there given that the store had, courageously, opted to stop offering many of the dry foods it previously sold.

That’s huge! Honestly, my heart swelled to the size of South Dakota hearing that. And you should see the selection of amazing, truly healthy cat (and dog) foods they sell. What a relief to be able to walk into a store and see fresh food for cats and dogs in freezers rather than aisle after aisle of species-inappropriate meat-flavored cereal.

I left a retail store, for the first time in eight years, buying some food for my own cats. I picked up some Bravo ground rabbit and used it to make up a batch of food at home. To my surprise, since my cats have been distinctly disinterested in rabbit for some time, they dug in.

So? Happy birthday, Duke.

And eight paws up to Pet Sage. May you be the leading edge of a new trend.

Birthday Boy

Birthday Boy

Getting real about food safety squabbles

Big thanks to Rebekah, a website visitor, for the tip on a story from earlier this week about that big outbreak of salmonella that grabbed so much attention in 2006 and 2007.

Before I get to that, recall that for years, many of us opting for home-prepared raw meat diets for our cats and dogs listened to stern admonitions about the risks of raw feeding from a spectrum ranging from well-meaning veterinarians to less honorably-motivated marketers of many commercial pet foods. Given the presumably well-known risk to humans from eating raw meat, that’s a pretty easy sell: everyone knows that humans ingesting raw meat are taking a chance, especially given the grisly conditions at factory farms.

I recall vividly that in 2000, during an exchange with a leading figure at a major veterinary school about the value of feeding a raw diet to cats suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, an exasperating debate erupted between us about food safety. He indicated that no veterinary school could, in good conscience, implicitly or explicitly endorse raw feeding not only because of the risks posed to the animals from salmonella but because of the “very real risk to humans” handling the raw meat.

(It was never clear to me how humans handling raw meat intended for a cat’s consumption were at any higher risk than humans handling raw meat prior to cooking it for their own consumption. Not to be snarky, but I never suggested humans eat the raw food they were preparing for their cats, but okay.)

Implicit in this admonishment, I realized as I dove headfirst into the world of raw feeding, was the notion that commercial pet foods were somehow ‘safer.’ Free of dangerous pathogens. More sterile. Layer on top of that the strawman arguments about how homemade food has the ‘potential’ to be unbalanced (well, d’uh), and the be-really-wary-of-raw gang seemed to have their rationale all sewn up. “Stick with tested commercial formulas backed by years of quality research and it’s healthier for the animals and safer for humans.”

  • The massive pet food recall of 2007 quickly began to unravel the threads stitching up that rationale: There’s no need to belabor the details of that horrific episode here, except to remind readers that the Big Lie that big-name pet food companies exercise careful control over the ingredients that go into their products became harder to escape.

So what now?

The results of a just-released investigation by the US Centers for Disease Control, conducted jointly with the FDA, on the 2006-2007 salmonella outbreak in the US that sickened 70 people across the US, identified the source of these human infections.

Where did it come from?

Dry dog food.

Many have been quick to warn warn about the risk of feeding fresh meats that are stored in freezers but don’t think twice about selling bags of (potentially contaminated) dry food with no admonition about the real dangers associated with deadly bacterial overgrowth on those products. This latest CDC revelation notwithstanding, remember that the bacterial count on dry food can be very high and the danger of toxic levels of aflatoxin contaminating dry food is always present. Many dry pet foods are drenched in fatty flavor enhancers that provide an ideal medium for the growth of bacteria and fungus. And those bags of food are generally stored at room temperature and go unconsumed for weeks or months.

I’ll repeat what I’ve said on my website: No food you feed your cat is entirely without risk. Respect those risks and take steps to minimize them. It’s not that hard: use fresh meat from the highest quality source you can find, don’t leave it sitting out for ages, and don’t eat it yourself. Leave the raw meat eating to the obligate carnivores. Oh, and wash your hands for pete’s sake.

Whatever you do, don’t buy into the notion for a second that dry food is clean, pathogen-free, and therefore safer for you and your cat. Especially now.

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.