Getting to the “Raw” “Grains” of the Diet Controversy

Very little is said about feline nutrition that doesn’t draw criticism from somebody.  What people feed their cats is almost as much a source of pride for themselves as it is sustenance for the cat.  Opinions range from the assertion that cats should only eat raw meat, to the laid back view that you can’t go wrong with dry Purina, the occasional can of tuna, and whatever scraps fall from the dinner table.  Regardless of what food you choose for your cat, chances are that you are not lukewarm on this topic.  You have a strong concern for the welfare of your “baby”, you’ve taken the time to do a little research, and you are firm in your belief that you’re giving your cat the right food. That’s great!  The fact that people don’t take their cat’s diet lightly is a true sign of responsible ownership.  However, the questions that remain, especially for new cat owners who want to make the best choice, but are confused by the overwhelming sea of options, are, 1) What food actually is best for cats?  And, 2) What information should be relied upon to answer question #1?

Nature-based Nutrition

On the one hand, there are those who insist that nature knows best.  Generally speaking, I fall into that category.  When I step out of the shower, I slather my body with pure coconut oil, not Aveeno, and certainly not Vaseline Intensive Care!  Likewise, when it comes to the food that I eat (nevermind my weakness for McDonald’s big macs), I usually seek out foods that are minimally processed, with ingredients that I can actually pronounce.  Thus, I sympathize with those who select cat foods containing the few simple ingredients most appropriate for an obligate carnivore, with minimal fillers, no artificial colors or flavors, and certainly no roadkill or diseased, euthanized slaughterhouse animals!

One growing trend with those intentions in mind is the raw meat, or so-called BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods) diet.  I really don’t have enough experience with BARF diets to either recommend or boycott them, although when Suzie was here, I periodically fed her little pieces of raw chicken and giblets.  Boy, she certainly wouldn’t have minded if I had given her nothing else!  She gobbled up those treats like she hadn’t seen a morsel of food in six months!  Raw meat, however, was never a staple in Suzie’s diet.  Once, I attempted to switch her over to a product called Rad Cat, a commercially-produced raw diet for cats (http://www.radfood.com/), but alas, Suzie was unimpressed, so I kept her on her usual diet of Natural Balance grain-free kibble, with occasional canned and raw treats.  She lived for 18 years, with no noticeable health problems until about two weeks prior to her death.

The consensus among veterinarians (at least most that I’ve talked to) seems to be that any benefits of feeding raw foods are heavily outweighed by the risk of the various “cooties” that they might contain, such as salmonella and listeria bacteria.  According to a 2011 article published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3003575/), there are at least some studies giving credence to this concern.  Not all vets are opposed to raw foods, however.  One proponent of raw diets is Dr. Dodds, who, in her blog, discusses her research findings about raw food in dogs (http://drjeandoddspethealthresource.tumblr.com/post/134679160366/raw-diet-bloodwork-dog#.V1SfXpErKwU).  Another proponent is a local feline vet, Dr. Susan Swanson from The Cat Care Clinic in Mahtomedi, MN.  Here is a short video of Dr. Swanson’s suggestions regarding raw diets for cats http://www.holisticcatclinic.com/tag/raw-food/.  The Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition does not condone feeding raw food to cats, but it does point out that a cat’s stomach, being highly acidic, gives it an enhanced ability to break down harmful bacteria (https://www.waltham.com/dyn/_assets/_pdfs/waltham-booklets/Essentialcatanddognutritionbookletelectronicversion.pdf).  If you do decide to go the BARF route, the FDA gives some excellent suggestions on how to mitigate the risk of food-born illnesses when feeding raw food to your pets (http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/AnimalHealthLiteracy/ucm373757.htm).

I personally know at least a few people who claimed that certain health problems in their cats and dogs went away completely when they began feeding them exclusively raw meat.  On the one hand, I see no reason why those people shouldn’t stick with what, in their experience, works best, as long as they’re taking the proper safety precautions.  I would, however, urge them to consider whether the rawness of the food is really what’s doing the trick.  Isn’t it also possible that the food they were eating before they were switched contained an allergen not present in the raw diet?  *shrug* Just something to consider.  To those who profess raw meat as the only healthful option for cats, I would politely reject that argument, based on the sketchy assumptions on which it is made.  The most common one that I hear is that a cat’s health relies on a diet that mimics, as closely as possible, what it would eat if it were living in the wild.

Felines are obligate carnivores, which means they require a diet that largely consists of meat (http://cats.about.com/od/catfoodglossary/g/obligcarnivore.htm).  Domestic, companion cats, however, are not exactly wild carnivores at this stage of their evolution and breeding.  They’ve lived among humans for over 3,000 years, during which time, their systems have likely adapted to eating other foods that are not always raw, or even necessarily meat.  Furthermore, there are plenty of examples to suggest that what animals eat in the wild has less to do with what’s good for them, and more to do with how hungry they are at the time, and what food sources are available.  To illustrate my point, here’s a disturbing YouTube video of a deer eating a bird https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQOQdBLHrLk.  Enjoy!  🙂

An even better example than deer eating birds is the strangely inappropriate cuisine choice among panda bears.  Pandas have scraped by on a bamboo-only diet for centuries, and yet they possess neither the gut flora, nor the enzymes required for digesting it.  They eat close to 30 pounds of bamboo per day, and only digest about 17% of what they consume.  All evidence points to the conclusion that panda bears are carnivores, and yet they will eat little other than bamboo, and they have survived (however as an endangered species), to the present day (http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150519-pandas-not-designed-to-eat-bamboo).

Now, I don’t know if deer gain any nutritional benefit from eating birds, or what would happen to pandas if they were forced to eat meat, but if we’re going with the assumption that a cat’s carnivore instincts will naturally drive him to eat what is healthiest, I know that when cats are left to their own devices, “in the wild”, they often consume foods that are not meat, even when ample small-prey sources are available.  If you’ve ever lived in Hawaii (I have not, but some relatives of mine lived in Maui for several years), then you know that the Hawaiian islands carry an overabundance of feral cats, who, in additional to wreaking havoc on wild bird populations, will clear an avocado tree of its fruit faster than you can say, “Holy hairball!” While toxic to some herbivores such as rabbits and horses, there is no evidence that avocados are harmful to cats, although a diet consisting of nothing else would certainly result in a horrendous case of diarrhea.  Avocado oil is listed as an ingredient in some cat foods, such as AvoDerm (http://www.avodermnatural.com/all-products/cat-foods/wet/chicken-formula), and the fruit itself may offer a good source of B vitamins and potassium (http://drjeandoddspethealthresource.tumblr.com/post/43604617320/avocados-dogs-cats#.V2WMvpErKwU).

If domesticated cats are adapted to safely consume some vegetation, and even draw some nutritional benefits from it, then I have to wonder if the “grain-free” cat food trend (foods that are absent of wheat, corn, soy, oats, barley, or rice) may also be none other than the result of persuasive marketing.  The assumptions behind grain-free seem to be that, 1) An obligate carnivore shouldn’t be eating grains, and 2) Cats are unable to digest grains and are often allergic to them.  Even in my own experience, I’ve noticed a pretty significant reduction in hairball problems when I have fed grain-free foods to my cats, although I can’t say for sure that this was due to the absence of grains, versus the presence of other ingredients common in grain-free recipes (beet pulp, pumpkin puree, and chicory root, to name a few).  How do we know that the overall, improved digestibility of these foods isn’t due to some other factor?  A PetMD article by Dr. Ken Tudor raises the point that grain-free diets tend to be made from better quality ingredients in general than many conventional diets (http://www.petmd.com/blogs/thedailyvet/ktudor/2012/august/is_grain_free_really_the_answer-26668), which could also explain why cats seem to do better on them.

Science-based Nutrition

Plenty of peer-reviewed studies exist to suggest that grains are, in most cases, easily digested by cats, are not common allergens in cats, and may even offer some nutritional benefits (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3775244/). Thus, the foods that contain them are not likely to harm your cat, at least not for the reason that they contain grains.  A common criticism of these “studies,” however, is that they are largely funded by big pet food companies such as Hills, Royal Canin, and Purina (owned, respectively, by parent companies Colegate-Palmolive, Mars Company, and Nestle).  Can we trust what these studies have to say when the companies funding them are the very ones selling us our products?  As a person with no particular love for corporate America, I can definitely understand why people would see that as a conflict of interest.  However, keep in mind that the research method (not the source of funding), is what ultimately determines whether a study gives useful information or biased information (http://physics.ucr.edu/~wudka/Physics7/Notes_www/node6.html).  To ensure that studies are carried out in a manner as free from bias as possible, they have to undergo a rigorous peer-review process before they can be published in any reputable scientific journal (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3474310/). For that reason, I have to believe there is at least some merit to the studies done on pet food.  There is, however, still a bias in the sense that the companies that are selling raw and/or grain free foods aren’t conducting nearly as much research on their products, and we don’t have any way of knowing what the findings would be if they did.  Perhaps the holistic/natural pet food movement is accomplishing wonderful things for our cats, and we just don’t have the research to prove it yet.

The Effect of Diet on Lifespan

After poking around for information on whose cats are living the longest, and what foods might have contributed to such a long life, I’m somewhat baffled by the findings.  Jake Perry (http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-to-raise-a-165-year-old-cat), an 85-year-old plumber from Austin Texas, was the proud owner of, not one, but two cats that were in the Guinness Book of World Records for most years lived.  The first was a Sphynx/Devon mix named Granpa, who lived to the age of 34.  The second, who, to this day, is the reigning champion of longest-lived cats, was a female, spotted tabby named Crème Puff, who lived to age of 38!  What did Mr. Perry feed them?…………*drum roll*…………*wait for it!*………..Commercially-produced dry cat food (the article doesn’t specify the type or brand), along with a daily breakfast of eggs, bacon, broccoli, and coffee.  Coffee!  For realzies??!  I’m sorry, but I can’t bring myself to recommend that you give your cats coffee, or even try it on my own cats, for that matter.  But still, given this gentleman’s track record, you really have to wonder.  Maybe bacon is the reason why Granpa and Crème Puff lived so long.  I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t need no scientific hocus pocus to know that bacon cures everything from plantar warts to whiney attitudes!

The oldest cat that I ever knew was a cat that I grew up with, long before the natural pet food movement became a thing.  She was a raspy-voiced, curmudgeonly gray calico named Shadow.  She lived for 21 years and her diet consisted of both dry and wet Meow Mix, a cheap food laden with artificial everything, and corn as the first ingredient. *shrug* Go figure.

Making a Selection

I’m afraid I’m still in pursuit of that magical recipe that’s going to restore balance to The Force, bring world peace, save the planet, ward off everything from hairballs to kidney disease, and ensure that my cat (and yours!) lives to the age of 107.  If I ever find a food like that, y’all are gonna be the first to know!  Meanwhile, although I won’t tell you what to feed your furry companion, in my recent studies and personal experiences, I’ve managed to draw some basic conclusions about cat food that you might find helpful.  Or not.  In any case, here they are:

1) A food that your cat will eat is more nourishing than a food he will NOT eat.

As they say in the old country, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” Suppose you do discover the Holy Grail of cat diets.  Will it amount to a hill of beans if your cat won’t eat it?  Mind you, there are ways of making an unappetizing dish more appealing to your finicky feline.  I’ve grown rather fond of a product called Liv-a-Littles (https://www.chewy.com/halo-liv-littles-grain-free-100-wild/dp/32776).  It’s a freeze dried meat product that can easily be crushed into a powder and sprinkled over your cat’s food.  I have seen many picky cats devour their food after it’s been dusted with Liv-a-Littles, but alas, some cats are just too smart to be fooled in that fashion.  On that note, find the best quality food that your cat will eat, and go with that.

2) A food that fits your budget is potentially better than one you can’t afford.

Diet is but one component of your cat’s overall health. It’s an important one, no doubt, but there are others to consider as well, such as routine veterinary care.  If you’re spending so much money on food that you can’t afford to take your cat to the vet, then you might do better to downgrade to a food that allows you to put a little money aside for upcoming vet bills, which you very likely will have at some point, regardless of diet.

3) If your cat is healthy and happy on the diet that she’s on, then there’s probably no reason to change it.

At the risk of overdoing the cliches in this article, “If it aint broke, don’t fix it.”  If your cat has clear, bright eyes, a soft, glossy coat, and minimal-to-nonexistent bowel or tummy upsets, then why risk causing a problem that wasn’t already there?  Keeping her food consistent, even if said diet contains such perceivedly sinister ingredients as corn gluten *gasp!*, may nonetheless be healthier for her digestive ecosystem than making an unnecessary change.

4) There is no one-size-fits-all approach to cat food.

Different cats have different genetics, different food preferences, and varying predispositions toward one health condition or another.  A cat that suffers from diabetes may require a different diet than one that suffers from kidney disease, and so on and so forth.  Some cats have guts of steel, as well as rock-solid immune systems, and seem to thrive whether they eat Natural Balance or Hormel Spam.  That being said, a good food is one that meets your cat’s unique requirements, which is something that can only be decided by knowing your cat, experimenting with different foods until you find one that does the trick, and consulting with your veterinarian.

*sigh* And lastly….

5) Raking people over the coals for the food they feed their cats is rude, presumptuous, eliteist, and generally unhelpful.

I could probably write an entire article about some of the mean-spirited behavior that I’ve witnessed in the animal welfare community, particularly online, where people don’t have to worry about standing face-to-face with the complete stranger who they just insulted in a public forum.  By all means, if you have knowledge regarding feline nutrition that you think might be helpful to the person that your comment is aimed, then feel free to share said pearls of wisdom.  But either cite your source (you must have gotten your information from somewhere), or make it clear that your statements are anecdotal, and not rooted in scientific findings.  Regardless of your knowledge, comments like, “If you really cared about your cat, then you wouldn’t feed him Wiskas,” have no place in the civilized world.  And that statement is bullocks to begin with.  What people feed their cats is generally based on their personal level of nutrition knowledge, their budget, the advice that they’ve gotten from their vet, and in some cases, what their cat will even eat.  Please show some respect toward your fellow cat lovers so that we can stay focused on finding the real answers to our questions about nutrition.  Given how much disagreement exists, even among experts who share the same credentials, I highly doubt if those questions are as easy to answer as we would like to think.

Disclaimer:  I am neither a veterinarian, nor a qualified nutrition expert.  This article is for discussion purposes only.  Statements contained therein (particularly those concerning bacon and Spam) should be taken with a huge grain of salt (pun intended).  Please consult your veterinarian before making any changes to your cat’s diet. 

2 thoughts on “Getting to the “Raw” “Grains” of the Diet Controversy

  1. Hey Rachel!  Great article–well written, as usual, and lots of “food for thought.”  You know, I don’t remember giving old Shadow any canned food.  Maybe I’ve forgotten but she subsisted almost entirely on dry Meow Mix.  Anyway I really enjoyed the article and Dad is reading it now.  I think I’m going to start a folder of your blogs.

    Take care, Love,Mumsy

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