Natural Foods Merchandiser

Is conventional cat-food wisdom all wet?

by Pamela Bond

Cats are famous for being finicky. When you want to play, they want to be alone. When you dish up the same meal they ate eagerly yesterday, they turn up their noses today. When they're thirsty, they won't drink. This difficult behavior is entirely natural. "As a species, they evolved from desert-dwelling wild cats," says Michael Dym, V.M.D., a holistic veterinarian in Marlton, N.J. "In the desert, they have limited water sources, so cats are used to thriving on water extracted from prey."

That's why holistic veterinarians with nutrition know-how recommend feeding felines wet food, which provides cats with more water than they'd get from dry varieties. "When cats eat only dry food, they take in only half the moisture," Dym says. "They become chronically dehydrated because cats won't drink until they're 3 [percent] to 5 percent dehydrated." Dogs, on the other hand, are efficient drinkers and are less sensitive to the lack of fluid in dry food. Constant dehydration may predispose cats to kidney disease, and it contributes to bladder problems in the form of urine sediment and crystal formation.

Into the wild

"Cats are true carnivores," Dym says. "They require a meat-based diet for optimal health. Their natural prey are things like rodents, insects, birds and lizards." The meat in those prey animals consists primarily of water, protein and fat. Meat is 75 percent water and contains only 10 percent carbohydrates, according to Dym. Dry food, on the other hand, is between 35 percent and 50 percent carbs and has half the water of wet food.

"Dry food is highly unnatural for cats," says Richard Pitcairn, D.V.M., Ph.D., a homeopathic veterinarian in Eugene, Ore., and author of Dr. Pitcairn's New Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats (Rodale, 2005). As well as potential bladder and kidney troubles, cats on a dry-food-only diet have dull, lusterless coats. Because they didn't evolve to digest high-carb meals, the dry diet can lead to weight gain and can overload the pancreas, eventually contributing to diabetes.

"Some people think the crunchiness of dry food cleans teeth," Dym says. Not true. The plentiful carbohydrates in dry food break down into glucose or sugar—starting in the mouth. Sugar feeds bacteria that cause tooth decay. "It would be like your dentist telling you to eat dry cereal because it's good for your teeth," Dym explains. "The sugar leads to more wear and tear on teeth."

Even more, dry food simply isn't hard enough to clean teeth. Compare a kitten nibbling on kibble to the way a lion eats prey—it doesn't just eat the flesh; it gnaws on the bones. "Cats do that, too," Pitcairn says. "They turn their mouths to one side and chew on the bone. That's what cleans the teeth. The tool has to be very hard." Pitcairn suggests regularly feeding cats raw—never cooked—quail, pigeon, or chicken bones to help remove food from teeth. If you start doing this when cats are young, they'll chew on bones throughout their lives.

Which wet is best?

It's a rare domestic cat that sustains itself on what it hunts in the wild. Cats usually lope home for a prepared dinner.

The next-best alternative to wild meat is to fix cat food from scratch. Recipes for fresh, homemade meals can be found in Dr. Pitcairn's New Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats or Anitra Frazier's and Norma Eckroate's The Natural Cat (Plume, 2008).

"Not everyone can make cat food with their busy life schedules," Dym admits. "The question then is: What commercial food should you choose?" Experts say that finding a quality brand is tricky because product labels can be a confusing read. "If it has organic ingredients or hormone-free meat or human-grade ingredients, and you can trust the manufacturer, that's some guidance," Pitcairn says. "But if you just look to the label ingredients, it's pretty hard to tell what's good." You may see chemical names that read like Greek. Or you may not be able to deduce from the description exactly what the ingredient is. "Animal digest," anyone? And some unhealthy ingredients, like preservatives, are hidden within others. Still, some general rules apply:

  • Proteins should be high up on the ingredients list. In other words, two out of three of the first few ingredients should be meat—cats' natural diet—not carbohydrates like grains, according to Dym.
  • Make sure no dyes, coloring, or by-products are on the list. "Most by-products are leftovers from the human food industry," Pitcairn says. "They're not the best quality." That means the by-products didn't make the cut for humans because they may be the inedible parts of animals, such as beaks and feathers. Animal digest, for example, is a flavor-enhancer made from heat-treated animal tissues that could include trace amounts of hair, horns, teeth and hooves.
  • Steer clear of suspect preservatives. BHT, BHA and ethoxyquin are potential carcinogens. Unfortunately, you may not see these abbreviations or words on the label. "Manufacturers don't have to put those on the label if a fat in the product has the preservatives in it, and the pet-food company didn't add the preservative separately," says author Frazier, a pet-nutrition expert in New York. "They just list the fat." A mention on the label of natural preservatives, such as vitamin E, vitamin C or rosemary, might mean the product doesn't include the baddies. But it's best to call the manufacturer to make sure.

    Of course, canned cat food often comes with a higher price tag. In which case, one expert recommends alternating types. "You can feed cats both wet and dry food," says Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M., veterinarian in Plano, Texas, and author of The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats (Three Rivers Press, 2001). Apply the same criteria you used for choosing wet food when you pick dry food brands.

    Kitty cuisine goes wild

    Variety is not just the spice of a cat's life; it should be the main course. A lot of people feed their cats the same food for every meal, which can make felines finicky.

    "A cat's natural diet is from a variety of things," says Michael Dym, V.M.D.. "A hunting cat doesn't decide one day to eat only purple finch. It eats what it can catch, which, depending on the day, may be a mole, a bird, a rabbit, or a mouse." Dym recommends feeding cats an assortment of proteins so they don't get hooked on one flavor, become addicted to certain preservatives or suffer a dietary deficiency from any one nutrient.

    To help customers go beyond beef and chicken, cat-food manufacturers are offering products in a wild array of flavors. As an example, Merrick Pet Care presents cats with a protein-packed menu that may well compete with that of a five-star restaurant. Merrick's Southern Delight has chicken, crawfish and catfish. Surf & Turf includes Pacific salmon, New England lobster, crab, shrimp and American beef. Turducken has turkey, chicken and duck. Petguard offers both rabbit and rice, and venison and rice dinners, while Tiki Cat serves human-grade wild salmon, ahi tuna and sardine cutlets to cats that'd rather go fishing. Wysong's new Uncanny not only comes in exotic flavors such as pheasant and fruit, it's packed in a revolutionary pouch instead of a can, which allows the company to make it without heat processing.


    Pamela Bond is a freelance writer in Eldorado Springs, Colo.

    Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 88,90

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