The longer I practice veterinary medicine, the more I am convinced of the importance of nutrition in animal health care. Certainly all animals (and people) need an excellent diet to have optimal health, but domestic cats seem to suffer an inordinately high level of ailments with a direct nutritional cause. I would even say that over 75% of the clinical problems in my feline patients could have been prevented with the proper diet. So what’s a “proper” diet for a cat? Contrary to what those Cat Chow commercials would have you believe: it doesn’t come from a bag.
To understand why diet is so important to a cat’s health, we need to look at some history. Cats began their close relationship with humans when agriculture became established in what is now Western Asia, 10,000–12,000 years ago. Stored grains attracted rodents, which in turn encouraged the local wildcats to hang around these early towns and villages. A mutually beneficial relationship developed where people tolerated the presence of these primal cats for vermin control, and cats thrived on the readily available food source. So whereas primal dogs adapted to live with humans eating people’s leftovers, cats have always preferred the rodents and birds that were plentiful in human habitations. Dogs genetically adapted to become much more omnivorous than their wolf ancestors. Cats…not so much. Unlike dogs, cats remain like their wild ancestors: strict carnivores. When we get away from feeding cats what is appropriate for their species, we run into problems.
One of the primary problems with dry cat food (kibble) is that it doesn’t even remotely resemble the natural food of a cat. First of all, it’s dehydrated. A mouse (or sparrow) is approximately 75% moisture, and kibble has less than one tenth of that. A cat eating mostly dehydrated food needs to drink much more water to compensate—but usually doesn’t. The cat’s body then stays in a state of mild dehydration, which leads to the formation of a highly concentrated urine. This can result in the formation of urinary crystals, and sometimes life-threatening urinary tract blockages. Additionally, the cat’s vital organs and body tissues suffer (sometimes for years) from a relative lack of moisture needed to stay healthy.
About 25 years ago, some veterinary clinicians discovered that diabetic cats that were fed diets lower in carbs were easier to regulate. Taking this information a step further, I began recommending diets with virtually no carbs, and found that many diabetic cats could be cured. It turns out that cats are susceptible to type 2 diabetes just like humans, and that the cause is too much highly processed carbohydrates in the diet. The natural diet of a cat has virtually no carbs and certainly no grains, and yet Science Diet Feline Diet lists “whole grain wheat” as ingredient number two, and is over 30% carbs. Not something a cat would ever consume in the wild. High levels of carbs also push cats into a state of long-term systemic inflammation which is the underlying cause of inflammatory bowel disease, cystitis (urinary tract inflammation), gingivitis, asthma, and chronic skin eruptions. (See my previous article “The Cause of All Illness?” at http://animalkindvet.com/illness for further explaination.) It’s sobering to think of the amount of suffering in cats and money spent at veterinary clinics that could be completely avoided by feeding a species-appropriate diet.
Admittedly, you can’t find mouse or sparrow diets at pet stores. You can, however, get close to a cat’s natural choice by selecting diets with the correct amount of moisture, no grains, high protein and low carb levels. Some canned products may fit the bill, but you have to know how to read ingredient labels. Avoid inferior ingredients like “meat by-products,” vegetable oils, artificial flavors and fillers like carrageenan and guar gum. The only cat kibble I recommend for occasional use is Origin, which has under 10% carbs and is made with very good quality ingredients. I recommend adding some warm water to the kibble before feeding to rehydrate it. Even so, Origin is highly processed like all dry foods, and the nutrient quality suffers because of it. (See the “Kibble Conundrum” at http://animalkindvet.com/kibble-conundrum)
My favorite way to feed cats is by using the frozen raw meat diets that are now widely available at most pet stores. My 14- and 15-year-old cats have been on raw meat diets since they were kittens, and they have never been sick a day in their lives. They have clear eyes, beautiful, thick hair coats and healthy teeth and gums. A high percentage of my clients feed these diets to their cats and have similar positive outcomes. Based on my experience over the last 20 years, I would have to say that a high-quality raw meat diet is by far the best health insurance policy you could ever get for you cat.
One of the reasons cats have become so popular as indoor pets in the last 50 years is the
low cost and ease of feeding dry cat kibble. It maybe convenient and affordable…but there is a huge trade-off that most cat owners unfortunately aren’t even aware of.
Dr. Judkins is the owner of Animalkind Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Historic Jacksonville