Cat food: are you killing your cat with kindness?


Like most people who care about their animals, I stopped feeding the mainstream commercial foods to my cats some years ago. Reading the back of a tin of Whiskas was like reading a poison list. Why does the food need 'taste-enhancers, smell-enhancers, appetite stimulants, preservatives, colourings'? If it is good, then the cat will want to eat it without all these things. On top of that, addictive chemicals are added so that the cat will only eat that product, blackmailing the owner into continuing to buy something that is packed with poison. More and more cats have irritable bowel problems, or develop alarming allergies to food dyes or preservatives, involving the owner in long-term worry, cost and complex care regimes to keep the cat alive and well. Not so long ago there was a huge scandal in the USA involving the preservative Ethoxyquin, which is used in nearly all commercial non-natural foods: controlled laboratory tests showed that its use in the long-term caused liver damage. Nowadays, to avoid the stigma attached to this chemical, it is labeled 'EC permitted anti-oxidant'. Check your packaging: it's all over the place. This chemical is not 'permitted' in any human food product.

So people who care about their cats' well-being started looking for alternatives without all this crap put in, and companies began to spring up to supply that need. They were so successful that other non-natural companies started to get the message, and now Science Plan produce 'Nature's Best'. If that is Nature's Best, then what is all the other stuff: Nature's cast-offs?

For some time I have been concerned about the trends in natural feeding, and the companies that are jumping on the bandwagon and cashing in on owners' anxieties about giving their cats 'the best'. For the most part these manufacturers are genuine and have the best interests of the animals at heart, but at worst they are simply ignorant, and have no idea of the complex nutritional needs of the cat.

In particular, all of these companies offer
cooked food. The big selling point is usually that nothing is added. This is where the problems arise as cooking destroys vitamins and minerals that are present in raw food - which is what a cat would eat in the wild. Cats cannot cook, so giving them cooked food is not a good diet. It is very worrying how many breeders and other people feed their cats a ‘natural’ diet of all-cooked food, which in the long term will kill the cat. I’m afraid I believe that if you’re going to care for your animals, and particularly if you’re going to breed them, you have no right to be ignorant about things like this.

What is a natural diet?

The people who make Burns (biscuits) and Denes (tins and biscuits), two of the very first natural foods on the market researched what their cats ate and needed: they followed them around the garden and the countryside where they lived to see what they browsed on. The looked at the vitamin balance in the foods that a cat would eat if it didn't have a human can-opener to hand. In order words they looked at the small animals that cats would catch and eat raw, which parts of the animal the cat would eat - including things like feathers, fur and bones - and which parts they would leave. The cat doesn't just eat the meat, it usually ingests bones and all sorts of stuff that we would probably chuck out as rubbish.

What seems to have escaped everyone's notice is the basic fact that the natural diet for a cat is a
RAW one: as soon as you cook anything, you destroy most of what is good about it. We all know this! Why do you think we are told that raw carrots are so much better for us than cooked ones? Why is nearly everything better for us raw? It is because nearly all naturally occurring vitamins are destroyed by heat, and Taurine is completely destroyed by heating (and is absolutely essential for cats, as its lack causes congestive heart-failure over time).

If you really want to feed your cat naturally the best way of doing it is to stock your garden with mice, voles, small defenceless birds, rabbits and even the occasional rat, and let the cat(s) have free access. Fortunately most of us are too squeamish for that (and frankly it is a health hazard, and you'd probably have the RSPCA on you for cruelty to the food animals!). However you can see the logic behind understanding the nutritional needs of an animal that is by its nature a hunter and killer.
A big note here: giving your cats raw red meat is not bad for them on the whole, but it's a much richer diet than they should have. In the wild your cat would NOT bring down a cow, sheep, goat etc. It might get a bit of the meat if the animal died some other way, but the correct diet for a cat is a white-meat one. Offal - liver and kidney - should form only a tiny proportion of the diet, as overdosing on Vitamin A (found in these organs) can be extremely dangerous.

Many of you may have discovered
Almo, the expensive and undoubtedly delicious little tins of almost pure cooked chicken breast that you can buy for your cats. Oh yes, it's so tempting! But Almo know what they're doing: this food is marketed as a TREAT or complementary food - in other words they know that it's not sufficient to keep a cat alive, and they do not claim that it does. Nevertheless many people who believe they are doing the best for their cats feed them only Almo. Interestingly several supermarkets have also picked up on this idea of 'pure, natural' foods with nothing added, but every single one marks the tin with the words 'complementary food'. If you don't know what that means, it means something that you can give in addition to another food that is a complete diet: this is not sufficient to keep your cat alive. Applaws is a British version of this food, and is likewise only a complementary food.

If you feed your cat only on this food, sooner or later it will develop vitamin-deficiency related illnesses (such as rickets), and if you are unlucky enough to get past that without realising what you're doing wrong, it will die from congestive heart failure because of the lack of taurine. Vitamin deficiencies take a long time to develop to the extent that you will notice a deterioration in your cats health, but remember that something that has been wrong for a long time has a very serious long-term effect, and by the time you discover the problem it may be too late to correct it, leaving your cat permanently harmed, probably with a shortened life, or possibly dead.

A food that gives me concern in
Nature's Menu. This apparently has a 60% meat content, which is great. Loads of cats love it, and it's often very good with cats who have sensitive tummies, or kittens who are difficult to wean. Unfortunately it's not raw meat, it is cooked. And it's cooked in the sachet with 'nothing added'. In other words, put some lovely nutritious food into a sachet, seal the sachet, and then heat it to destroy the vitamins and minerals, then sell it. 'Nothing added' means that this food is positively dangerous if it's all you are feeding. Quite apart from the content, it worries me that so many cat foods are eaten by licking them. Cats have a jaw-full of fangs and sharp teeth, and they should be biting and tearing meat, and crunching up bones. Squidgy food is not natural.

Don’t misunderstand this: I’m not saying ‘don’t buy this food’ or don’t feed it. I am saying use them judiciously and thoughtfully, as supplements to a normal diet that does have a correct nutritional balance.

I recently had a heart-breaking e-mail from a breeder who believed she had been doing the very best for her beloved cats by feeding them on the best cooked meat, chicken, beef, lamb etc. in other words the home-made equivalent of Almo/Applaws or Nature's Menu. She had a litter of kittens where one broke its leg from a minor fall - something that was unusual in itself. Imagine her horror when her vet told her the poor kitten had rickets (caused solely by a vitamin deficiency), and that the whole household was suffering from vitamin deficiency. He told her that she must feed her cats ONLY on commercial packaged food, as that was the only way to give them the correct vitamin balance in their diet.

Like many of us, this poor lady believed she was doing the best for her cats by avoiding commercial, additive-filled foods, and feeding her cats on food that she could have eaten herself. What is sad is that many of us are doing this by buying natural foods that have been made by people with absolutely no knowledge about nutrition, and we trust them because it is commercially produced.

Vitamin deficiencies take quite a while to show: it can be months or even years, and aren't usually the first thing a vet thinks of when diagnosing a sick animal. Would you think to blame your cats' diet if it got ill? How often does your vet ask you what your animal has been eating when you take it in because it is unwell? Try doing an internet search on Feline Nutrition and see what you come up with.

I suspect that the only reason these foods have not yet given rise to lawsuits and dead cats is because a) they haven't been around very long, so the vitamin deficiencies aren't showing yet - some can take years to develop - and b) most of us are sensible enough not to feed only one food, and most of our cats are sensible enough to demand different types of food. However, the tale of the breeder who was killing her cats with kindness is surely not isolated, and is going to become more common unless we stop letting the food manufacturers think for us, and start thinking for ourselves. You can improve these foods by getting vitamin supplements from your vet (and make sure they include Taurine) and adding them to the food yourself, or you can talk to the food manufacturers and tell them about your concerns, and
stop buying the food until they address the issue.

Natural foods that have a correct vitamin balance and are safe for your cats:
  • Burns
  • Denes
  • James Wellbeloved (owned now by Royal Canin)
  • Science Plan Nature's Best
  • Nutro
  • Orijen
(Please send me more foods for this list)