If you’re one of the 35 million cat guardians in the United States, you undoubtedly want to know whether your feline is getting the food it needs for optimal health. For the domestic housecat, the wrong diet can contribute to health problems ranging from kidney disease and diabetes to allergies and cancer. To make the most of its nine lives, your cat requires a diet that strengthens its immune system—and that means the natural foods that closely resemble the diet of its ancestors.
Felis catus has been lounging around since antiquity, living for most of that time on birds, insects, and anything else it could get its claws on—especially small animals that nibbled wild grasses, seeds, and nuts. Bones of small prey cleaned teeth, fur provided fiber, and innards provided moisture and small quantities of grains and berries. It all added up to a wild but well-rounded diet. As cats’ domesticity evolved, so did their food; mice and squirrels were replaced by dry kibble. But, according to Michael Dym, VMD, a homeopathic veterinarian in Morristown, New Jersey, dry food “is not in [cats’] evolutionary diet.” Because feline biology isn’t suited for kibble, many holistic veterinarians believe that dry, processed food is a main cause of illness and premature death in the modern cat.
Cats’ digestive systems are short and acidic, meaning they can handle and process meat, bones, and most bacteria quickly and effectively. But a grain-heavy or purely vegetarian diet spells trouble for a cat’s tiny fermentation system. Carb-rich foods, such as dry grain and plant material, are difficult to digest and cause an imbalance in the normal pH levels of a cat’s urinary system, potentially leading to irritation of the bladder lining and increasing risk for urinary tract infections. Overworked by production of the digestive enzyme amylase, the pancreas becomes stressed; undigested grains and a pH imbalance create toxins in the kidneys and bladder; and the weakened immune system can’t fight off illness.
Dry foods also deprive cats of the moisture they need to digest foods and remain hydrated. “A cat cannot drink enough water to compensate when eating a total dry-food diet,” says Sue Green, co-owner of the Whole Cat in Denver. Many veterinarians agree that drinking a lot of water is usually a sign of a physical imbalance. “In a pure state of health, they should be thirstless,” says Dym.
Dry food may be the preferred option for many feline caregivers, yet in a purr-fect world, cats would eat moist, low-carb diets, with supplements as necessary. Raw food holds sway with many holistic vets, who cite the research of Francis M. Pottenger, MD, and his controlled-feeding study on cats from 1932 to 1942 (see www.price-pottenger.org). While experimenting on the function of cats’ adrenal glands, Pottenger discovered that felines fed a raw-meat diet were much healthier than those given cooked meats, particularly over several generations. Sara Winikoff, DVM, of Rockland Holistic Veterinary Care in Blauvelt, New York, adds that a raw diet “will most likely prevent intestinal cancer, cystitis, and immune-system disorders.”
Raw or cooked, the safest meats for cats are chicken, turkey, and beef. Organ meats are crucial for the vitamins and minerals they offer cats, according to Marty Goldstein, DVM, a Palm Harbor, Florida-based holistic vet.
Vegetables—particularly puréed pumpkin, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, and carrots—supply fiber, vitamins A and C, and water. Vets also recommend salmon or other fish oils for omega-3 fatty acids, plus finely ground eggshells and ground bones for calcium.
A few cat-food cautions: Avoid onions; they destroy red blood cells and cause anemia in cats. Many holistic veterinarians forgo feeding fish to cats because of mercury concerns; fish treats two to three times a week are a better option, says Don Hamilton, DVM, author of Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs (North Atlantic, 1999). And under no circumstances feed your cat chocolate; even a tiny amount can kill. Chocolate contains the chemical theobromine, which is toxic to dogs and cats. Although theobromine levels vary with the type of chocolate, any type or amount ingested by a cat should be treated as life-threatening.
Whether homemade or purchased, a diet that doesn’t meet your cat’s nutritional needs is still a raw deal. Consult with your veterinarian or an animal nutritionist to find a recipe that is suited to your cat and has been used by others with healthy results. And naturally, kitty can’t tell you when it’s hurting, so learn to recognize what’s normal and pay attention to any changes in your cat’s usual habits.
Deborah W. Johnson dedicates this article to her cat, Ninja, who passed away at age 19. Perhaps on a raw diet, he would have lived to be 30.