Monday, May 28, 2012

Frequently asked questions about the Whole Prey Feline Diet

When I chat with people about how and what I feed my cats, I get some pretty common responses and questions. Here are just a few.

1. "eww, gross!"
Not exactly a question, I know.  And, in response: Yes, if you want to think about it that way. I think that the way cat food is manufactured is far more disgusting in that it offers unnatural food sources that make our pets ill. Cheap or expensive, all manufactured cat foods are worthy of some scrutiny.  If this sounds "too gross" then please at least read some labels.  And please don't be distracted by the "no grains" campaigns.  Replacing "grain based ingredients" with potatoes is really not fixing anything. Other things that are simply not cat food include: Cranberries, carrots, celery, rice, peas, corn, tomato, kelp, vegetable gum... need I go on?

I recommend the book: Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine by Marion Nestle for a real eye opener about the pet food industry and a thorough raking over of the behind-the-scenes truth about the pet food recalls of 2007 ...and... why that was not a particularly unique disaster.

2. "Do you give them live mice?"
I don't feed live prey. The animals I use for feed have been humanely euthanized with CO2, then flash frozen for preservation. I order them from companies like Layne Labs, who ship them to me well packaged with dry ice. I keep them in the provided ziplock bags in a freezer dedicated to my pets' needs. Each day, I thaw a single meal, in a plastic container in the fridge, overnight. If I don't manage to do that step, I can thaw them more quickly in cool water (never microwave or cook in any way). However, prey thawing in a bowl of water is susceptible to theft by my cats. They really don't much care how frozen they are and will go ahead and munch on them like a Mouse Pop.

3. "Do you skin it and gut it?"
No, I do defniitely do not. Cats can and will eat the WHOLE prey animal. If it's particularly large, I may halve it and make two meals - one heads, one tails - otherwise they would leave some leftovers and, well, these are not the kind of leftovers I like to find left on my kitchen floor

I don't generally split one animal between my two cats, though.  If I did that regularly, I would want to be careful to swap who gets heads vs tails over a couple days. Different nutrients exist in different parts of the animal, so a "balanced diet" includes both ends, and multiple prey species, over time.

That said, I have noticed that when prey is plentiful (read that "when I overfeed") they will select a preferred end of the body. Apparently, cats share an opinion with zombies that Brains Are Yummy. Heads always go down first: a crunchy, skin coated snack with a soft middle. Mmmmmm....brains.

4. "What about salmonella? That could kill your cat!"
Salmonella is a far bigger concern for humans than for cats. Of course, if your cat gets a major dose of it, he could have symptoms and could, conceivably, be killed by that (at least that's what he scardy-vets like to say). However, healthy prey animals with normal amounts of salmonella, a naturally occurring enterobacteria, will coast through a cat's digestive system with no issues.

In fact, the cat's intestinal tract is far shorter than ours - which is what allows for these types of pathogens to pass unnoticed.

Again, they are built for this diet. They are obligate carnivores with bodies designed to eat whole, freshly killed, small animals. If you have an outdoor cat, he probably munches on various prey he finds and also ingests salmonella - and even if you feed only processed pet foods, your pets probably have salmonella in their systems at any given point. Think about it...they lick their butts, folks.

Note: If there is someone in your household with immunity concerns, including those who are very young or old, pets may introduce salmonella to them. Any pets can do this, really, though some sources seem to feel that raw fed (or actively hunting) pets would be more dangerous carriers.

Unfortunately, raw fed pets are typically excluded from roles as therapy animals because of this concern. I imagine that also should eliminate birds, turtles, lizards and other pets known to have salmonella in their systems, but I don't know if this is as actively prohibited as raw fed carnivores. For now, these "properly fed" pets are the subject of some apparently fear-driven discrimination in this area.

Of course, pets not fed raw but who find prey animals, possibly even animals already sick or dead, may be at least as likely to carry pathogens dangerous to any weak or ill humans they come in contact with.

I'd love to see a study if anyone knows of one.  I can certainly contribute that raw and whole prey feeding has never caused illness in me or my other pets.

5. "Is that expensive to buy?"
Perhaps, compared to some of the more inexpensive foods on the market. It can depend on the whole prey source's pricing, including shipping, and your available freezer space (in larger quantities the price w/shipping tends to go down).

I choose my sources based on a variety of concerns, only one of them being price. I appreciate a good reputation, location (if they are closer to me, the frozen delivery spends less time in transit), and the overall prices of animals with shipping. Generally, for me, it works out to be about $1.80 per day per cat.

Assuming you are individually purchasing a "higher end" wet food for your cat, and feeding one 5.5 oz can per day, your cost is probably about $1.75 per day. Dry food is probably less expensive, but far more dangerous

- let's look at a sample. Wellness brand dry cat food suggests, for cats the weight of mine, about 3/4 cup per day. It's a little rough to estimate how many of these servings is in a bag because the bag content is listed by weight and the feeding guidelines are by volume. Wellness is pretty dense, so it may be a fair guess that a 5lb bag has about 12 of these 3/4 cup servings. At $25 a bag, that would be about $2.08 per serving. Note: If someone uses a brand like wellness and can do the 'real" measurements and offer us all a more accurate price per 3/4 cup serving - I would be grateful for the input!  However it adds up, though, it doesn't make up for the dry food issues.  Cats are meant to eat most of their water intake and dry feeding causes organ damage over time.

I also recently picked up a bag of Stella and Chewy's for Dogs frozen raw patties for my rescue dog, Saffie, while just getting her introduced to better food.  Once I work with this brand a bit I will update - But I picked up the larger pack, which is 6 lbs, with 12 patties - I am to feed her 1/2 patty a day.  At about $25 a bag for this item, I find that to be a little over a dollar a day for a 7.5 lb dog - which isn't half bad when you think on the prices of canned food.

Stella and Chewy's also has a raw cat diet which many people may find more acceptable to buy, store, and handle than whole prey.  If you pick up the freeze dried instead of the frozen raw, I would suggest checking for any instructions on re-hydrating...because cats are not built for dry foods, and surely this would be preferable to feeding them the dried meat.

Expensive, of course, is both subjective and relative. When I needed to buy special prescription food to prevent more urinary tract crystals in my "susceptible" cat (after more than $2K in vet bills to save him), THAT was expensive. When "Seven" later had renal failure and needed ongoing tests and prescription foods and meds, THAT was TERRIBLY expensive. When I was un or under employed, everything was expensive.

Another aspect of expense is one you can take a look at now, without even beginning a raw or whole feeding program. Consider the quantity you are feeding. If it exceeds the guidelines on the package, you're already spending too much - and your cat's body is probably paying the price if he's not managing to burn off all the calories he takes in. Tip: Your bored housecat is probably not burning as many calories as he eats, and is probably eating more food (and more often) than he needs to, just out of boredom.   Cut the food back, give him more exercise.  But that, I sense, is a good subject for a whole 'nuther article!

6. "How can you be sure the nutrition is right? Don't cat food manufacturers add supplements to cat food?"
Yes, they do add nutrients. In fact, it's required that they add certain vital nutrients.

Vitamins and minerals are added to processed cat foods help make up for the fact that the food has a significant amount of fillers and for the losses of nutrients in processing the food.

In particular, cats do not produce enough taurine by themselves to maintain that essential amino acid's required levels for health. This may be due to their Obligate Carnivore nature: because taurine is nutritionally available in freshly killed animals - but not in fruits, vegetables, grains, ...nor in cooked (or otherwise decayed) animals.  Given the intended diet, it was probably never necessary for the obligate carnivore body to produce all of the taurine needed. Because they don't create enough themselves, they absolutely require this be in adequate supply their food.

Exposure of meat to high temperatures (i.e. cooking) destroys available taurine. Bio-available taurine exists in raw, fresh animal flesh in differing amounts based on the species, age, body part and health of the prey. If you are feeding raw and want to ensure there is enough taurine, you can supplement using the powder in taurine pills from the health food store. I would suggest discussing this with a pet nutritionist* but when I do add taurine, I add about 100-300mg per day. If the cat consumes more taurine than he needs, his body just flushes it out - unless there is a quite large overdose which may cause stomach upset or other symptoms. Lack of sufficient dietary taurine for cats results in terrible problems including blindness and heart failure.

So, Yes - Because processed pet food manufacturers are not providing the cat's true natural diet, nutrients must be added. By the way - That means those cans of tuna your cat loves are NOT providing the needed taurine within whatever portion of their diet that tuna makes up. Same goes for cooked chicken and other "people" foods. Of course, sharing a bite with your loved one is generally no big problem - but people food should never be a significant percentage of your cat's diet.

Comparative Nutritionist Dr. Cheryl L. Morris of Evolve Animal Services has shared with me some of her thoughts on the nutritional content of whole prey as provided in typically raised feeder animals. As is true for humans, our pets would most likely be better fed on naturally (maybe even wild) raised animal meats, however there are greater concerns about parasites with wild animals.

Per Dr. Morris in her correspondence with me about my blog and specifically about my own feeding practices: "... although places like (reputable prey sellers) do provide safe sources, I don't necessarily believe those sources are the best nutrient-wise. I wish that the rodent diets (that the rodent's eat) provided more fresh foods, greens and forages in order to lean up the prey and put the profiles in a more "natural" place. Again, that research has not been conducted...() For now, your best bet is to get your prey from places like that but I wouldn't stop there. You need to provide a variety. Chicks, quail, rodents and fish can all be rotated in a successful diet. Your calcium and phosphorus levels will be fine but I do think there MAY be some nutrient deficiencies in the whole prey model that can be corrected pretty easy. 1/4 of a general human multivitamin (...) given 3 x week would correct the vitamins that appear to be low. I say "appear" because again, the research is lacking and vitamin research is very expensive. In all honesty, if you are rotating whole prey, you are likely providing everything...the problem is that we just can't be 100% certain yet. We correct this at the zoo by including a complete raw diet along with the whole prey to make sure all the nutrients are covered. If you include whole prey fish there is a need to supplement vitamin E and thiamin due to the losses that occur if the fish has been previously frozen..."

So bear in mind that rodents and birds raised in cages or pens, who do not run, dig, forage, and eat a varied and natural diet are probably lacking in some nutrient levels. The article here: A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef describes known deficiencies in grain fed vs grass fed cattle, which can be reasonably transferred to assumptions about other types of prey.

My final FAQ for today is not so much a question as a statement that I often hear:

7. "My cat only eats a little at a time so that would never work for him. I can't even feed him wet food because he won't finish it."
Cats are not, by nature, grazing animals. They are built to hunt, catch, kill and eat prey. They generally eat it before it "goes bad", and before other animals can steal their prey from them. My cats typically eat ONE meal a day. I often do offer bites in the evening as training treats, but other than that - the next meal is tomorrow's breakfast and they are just fine until then

Some may prefer to feed 2x a day, but be careful not to overfeed. If the cat is not eating everything offered, you're probably overfeeding.

Boredom and Overfeeding are probably the real reasons that many cats act like "grazers". The excessive "flavoring" pet food manufacturers add to their foods to win over your cat's palate are another piece of the puzzle. Just like us (I was going to say "kids", but let's face it... "us" is also perfectly accurate) - cats will tend to favor a food that tastes "super". Kids so often want processed Chicken McNuggets with Dipping Sauce instead of a nice piece of fresh grilled chicken breast with no skin. They choose french fries with ketchup over broccoli and cauliflower. If you tend to cater to their taste buds, it's going to be awfully hard to get them to eat more healthy choices with less dramatic flavors.

Processed-then-fried chicken bits in sugary sauce with deep fried potato strings... in more sugary sauce... are designed to excite the taste buds, but that doesn't mean they are better for you.

So, first I would say to you - Please help your cat learn to eat like a cat.

Cat's shouldn't eat little baked biscuits, period.

They also should not be eating dehydrated meals (unless it is being rehydrated before serving) because they do not have the natural drive to drink water required to balance that. They are not scavengers, they are obligate carnivores.  While a wild dog may find some dried up jerky in a leftover carcass, this is not the native cat's diet.

Instead, dry food causes all sorts of internal problems for them. Ones with lethal consequences.

Also - Cat's don't need to eat all day long.

If your cat doesn't eat all his WET food in one sitting, pick it up and put it away in the fridge. Though I personally don't recommend keeping opened wet food more than a few (3-4) days in your refrigerator, it won't hurt them to eat it later on - even cooled from being in the fridge.  For heaven's sake, my cats eat mice still frozen!  (and they have SPARKLING clean teeth)

Then, don't offer more until the next morning (or you could try it at the other end of the day - morning vs night - to see if they are hungrier then). Do not just open another can because Fluffy doesn't want it after it's been open. That finickiness is, in these cases, about preference, not need.

Note: Don't starve your cat. If your cat won't eat normal, healthy food then there may be another issue - possibly calling for a trip to the vet. But be realistic about what constitutes starvation. A healthy cat can certainly last (or "fast") a day without food and no have medical issues as a result - and most of our overweight cats would do well to actually get properly hungry before they eat instead of just eating for entertainment.

Be strong, don't fuss, expect your cat to grow up and act like a cat and you may be surprised how well he will step up.

Even with a processed food from a can or a prey animal already euthanized, you can whet your cat's appetite by preceding his meal with an energetic play routine. Chasing a toy on a string is a classic predator activity. If he was really hunting, he may catch and kill the prey he's chasing. Once he's done that, it would be time to eat...and eat it all until filled.

Playtime before mealtime will whet your cat's appetite better than all the concentrated flavoring additives in the world. For professional assistance with dietary planning and food transitioning for your cat (and other pets) you may always do well to consult a qualified pet nutritionist such as Dr Cheryl Morris of Evolve Animal Services, whose qualifications are, in part, listed below.

That's it for today's FAQ list.  If YOU have questions or comments, please let me know and I will update this list as needed.

Dr. Cheryl Morris holds a PhD in Nutritional Sciences, is a staff nutritionist at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and also operates a pet nutrition consultancy - Evolve Animal Services. Please consider contacting her directly for a nutritional consultation on your pet's specific dietary needs.  

Her input for this article is greatly appreciated, and please be assured that any misinformation that may be contained in my recap of her conversation with me are MY errors and not hers.  

Further information is available at the websites linked to in my articles, and in the books mentioned.  

I am not a seller of animal foods nor affiliated with any of the companies I mention here.  Please feel free to browse their websites and review their products for yourself.

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And, finally....
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