For more than two decades now, conscientious cat owners have been unwittingly treating their cats as though they were small dogs. This was an easy mistake. The cat followed the dog into favor as an “underfoot” pet in the home, thereby inheriting many of the pet-care habits owners had established already for their canine family members.
Adding to the problem, veterinarians and major pet-care product companies entirely failed to recognize the implications of carnivore/omnivore distinctions as they encouraged and supported the cat’s newfound status as a kept pet. Most particularly, the foods that had been developed already for dogs in the second half of the twentieth century seemed easily adapted for the cat.
Even though good research done decades earlier proved the very special nutritional needs and limitations of the cat compared to the dog, the companies that geared up to make cat foods did not understand how profound these differences really were. They believed that these differences could be addressed with minor changes to vitamin/mineral supplements added to the same basic dry canine diet. Pet nutrition scientists ignored the very different ways in which the cat processed and used energy nutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) com- pared with the omnivorous dog. For a few years, this disregard seemed harmless.
Cats did not find most dog foods very palatable at first. Ingenious inventors devised additives for pet foods that would make them tasty for almost any cat, much as the breakfast cereal companies had done when they sugarcoated their products to make children clamor for them in the grocery store aisles.
Cats came to accept these makeshift diets, and their convenience and short-term adequacy “proven” in limited, six-month feeding trials seemed to satisfy owners and veterinarians. Everyone seemed happy with this new arrangement in which the carnivorous cat gobbled down the foods originally designed for the omnivorous dog.
Slowly but surely, problems began to arise. Veterinarians began to recognize cases of a mysterious and frighteningly common bladder disease, especially in neutered male cats. Scientists studied this problem and declared it to be the result of an unfortunate narrowing of the urethra in these altered male cats. These experts also blamed the sedentary lifestyle and inadequate water consumption of the increasingly indoor pet cat.
Some nutritionists insisted that this problem was also related to minerals in the diet of these cats and a strange shift in the urine acid levels of affected cats. Even though this theory pointed to the truth that the food was at fault, not the cat, still no one thought to stop feeding cereal to cats. Instead, the industry devised yet more additives for the existing flawed diets to try to correct the problem with these cats.
Unfortunately, bladder disease in many cats was not controlled with these dietary additives, and a large number of pets either died of the disease or were subjected to a very mutilating and painful surgery to save their lives. During this frustrating period of research and new product development, no one came forward with the now-obvious solution to the problem.
Some years after the first observations of the urinary tract problem in commercial-food-fed cats, veterinarians started noticing that more and more of their feline patients were obese, and an alarming number were becoming uncontrollably diabetic. The blame was placed on the new sedentary couch- potato lifestyle of the cat. According to the popular theory of that time, house cats didn’t exercise, were bored with indoor life, had nothing to do but eat all day, became lazy and unmotivated, and obesity naturally resulted. It was the cat’s fault, again.
In an effort to save the cat from itself, pet food company nutritionists once again modified the formulas of their diets, took fat out, added cellulose (indigestible, completely non-nutritious fiber) to diets designed for an omnivore or herbivore rather than a carnivore, and insisted that owners feed smaller
portions to their already nutrient-starved cats. Despite the superficial logic of such an approach, it failed to work to reduce the incidence of obesity or diabetes. The cats got fatter, they developed diabetes in increasing numbers, and their diabetes proved far more difficult to control than the similar type of adult-onset diabetes seen in humans or dogs.
Bladder problems, obesity, and diabetes are not the only chronic diseases that have become epidemic among cats. Today, veterinarians are presented with more and more cats with symptoms of allergic disease than ever before. Skin rashes and self-mutilation from intensely itchy skin, chronic ear infections, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease are on the rise. These are all signs of an immune system out of control, which has turned on itself. Unfortunately, the widespread use of steroid medications, prescribed to quiet these signs of allergic distress, can cause disease in the cat that is as severe as the original allergy.
Once again, pet food companies have came up with newer, much more expensive cereal-based diets with “designer” ingredients to solve the problem. Nonetheless, the problems persist, few cats improve, and the cat’s “faulty” immune system gets the blame. Each time a new disease syndrome is recognized, the pet-care industry’s response is the same.
Despite the dramatic increases in diagnosed chronic disease in cats, few individuals have stepped back and asked the obvious questions: “Why is a healthy, previously well-adapted species developing these problems now? Is it possible there is something fundamentally flawed with our basic care of these cats? Are we making things worse by adding more and more unnatural substances to the cat’s diet to patch problems of our own making? Is it the cat’s fault, or ours?”
The answer to all of these questions is clear. In attempting to make life more healthful for our pet cats, we have been putting the wrong fuel into their internal engines, with disastrous results.
While our cats may be protected better from early death due to trauma and infectious disease in the comfort of their new home-based lifestyle, they are now suffering from often lethal dietary diseases. Making matters worse, those diseases have always been treated by mainstream veterinary medicine with even more inappropriate dietary “solutions” that lead to even more disease and suffering. For the cat, this has become the ultimate vicious cycle.
The cat’s natural diet is high in protein and low in carbohydrate, with moderate amounts of animal fat. Today’s dry cat foods have high levels of processed carbohydrate, low levels of fat, and modest levels of often low-quality protein, much of which may come from vegetable matter like gluten and soy. The damage caused by such an upside down diet for such a specialized animal cannot be overstated. Such an obvious mistake has created nearly all of the important medical conditions of cats today.
The diet of the feral top predator will contain almost no carbohydrate, usually less than 2 percent by weight. This small amount of carbohydrate will come from seeds and grasses, plus a small amount of muscle glucose consumed with the prey. On the other hand, dry cat foods contain between 25 and 50 percent carbohydrates from cereal grains like corn, rice, or starchy vegetables like potatoes. These types of ingredients are very high in carbohydrate to begin with, and they break down into sugar during the process of turning them into kibble. The cat consuming dry cat food is eating the kitty equivalent of sugarcoated breakfast cereal.
Dry cat foods are harmful for another reason. Cats are descended from desert predators, and they drink little free water naturally. Most of their water for survival comes from the foods they eat. When we feed dry, starchy kibble to a cat, we promote a constant state of subclinical dehydration, because the cat’s thirst drive does not compensate for the low water content of the diet. This dehydration contributes to bladder disease and kidney disease, at the very least. Certainly, constant dehydration is an unnatural physical stress on our cats. Most important, it is an unnecessary stress.
We all know that a steady diet of such junk food would be harmful to humans. For an obligatory carnivore like the cat, the result is disastrous. Fortunately, the solution is clear and easy. We need simply stop feeding our cats unnatural foods meant more for fattening cattle than nourishing a top predator. Many canned pet foods, although flawed in some ways, still provide far superior nutrition compared to dry foods, even the so-called premium brands.
Another alternative that appeals to many pet owners today is a raw meat-based diet. Raw meat is the natural food of the cat, and is really the “gold standard” of diets for any obligatory carnivore. We will discuss in the succeeding chapters how to choose the best canned cat foods, and how to safely feed raw meat to your cat.
By doing something this simple and obvious, we can cause changes in the health of our cats that are nothing short of miraculous.