Feline Health

What to Do When Your Cat Is Not Using the Litter Box

Guest Post by Daniela Caride

Your cat may not be using the litter box for many reasons. If you have ruled out diseases by taking your cat to the vet, you should go over this list I came up with. Your cat might be unhappy with one or some of those issues.


Too few boxes

The ideal number of litter boxes in a home is at least the number of cats + 1. If you have two cats, you should have at least 3 litter boxes.

With four cats at home, I keep five litter boxes in the house. I have one in each floor, and two in the basement, the biggest room. It works well for us, even though I would like to have one more. I just can’t seem to find the right place for it (handy for the cats and hidden from visitors).

Box is in the wrong place

The litter box should be in a quiet place — away from the furnace and any other machines that emit noises. Cats don’t like to be surprised while in the bathroom. The box should also be in a place easily accessible for your cat. If it’s too difficult to reach the box, he may not make it there on time, especially if your cat is older and arthritic.

If you have several cats, a lower-ranking cat may have trouble accessing the litter boxes. If he’s trapped by other cats on his way to the loo, he may choose to pee somewhere else, given the circumstances.

Box is hooded

Most cats don’t enjoy hooded litter boxes. They trap the pee and poop odor inside, make it darker and much more difficult or even impossible to escape if another cat blocks the door.

Photo by Daniela Caride

My litter boxes are tall, clear plastic storage containers without the lid. I bought them at Target and drilled a hole in the side of each box (This one might do the trick). This way, my cats can easily access it from a door, see if any other cat approaches and escape from the top if necessary. Since the walls are clear, my cats can see better inside (more light). The fact I don’t cover them help ventilate any scents from a previous visit to the bathroom, so the cats don’t get overwhelmed.

Box is too dirty

If you buy clumping litter, scoop the litter box at least once a day and change the whole content every couple of months. Some people rotate litter boxes every six months so one box can “breathe” (they let the pee scents dissipate) while the cat uses the other one.

If the litter you use does not clump, change to clumping litter. If you can’t, scoop at least once a day and change the litter at least every week.

Box is too clean

If you clean your cat box with harsh-smelling chemicals such as bleach, your cat may avoid the place. Cats are very sensitive to smells.

Unwanted liners

Some cats hate the feel or the crackling sounds of plastic liners — or both.

Wrong litter

Cats can be fussy about litter. Some types of pine litter don’t absorb the smell of pee, which may disgust your cat and make him look for another bathroom. Some clay litters have a strong perfume smell to please humans. But they might displease your cat. I use World’s Best Extra Strength made out of corn, and we’re all very happy (cats and humans).

Litter is not deep enough or too deep

Figure out how much litter your cat wants in the litter box. My cats hate it when I don’t pour enough litter, and they find themselves scratching the bottom of the box to cover their poop. They leave the thing uncovered and vanish. I have to put up with the perfume.

Animosity between cats in the house

If you have cats who don’t like each other, increase the number of litter boxes in your house. Again, make sure they are uncovered and made of clear plastic, so they can see when another cat approaches and can escape safely and quickly. If your cat feels unsafe in the box, he will look for another place to relieve himself.

Daniela Caride is the publisher of The Daily Tail (http://www.TheDailyTail.com), a participatory blog about pets with stories, tips, and reviews. She lives with three cats, Crosby, Gaijin and Phoenix, three dogs, Frieda, Geppetto and Lola, and her husband, Martin, in Cambridge, MA

Some Startling New Thoughts on Cats and Hairballs

Guest post by Fern Slack, DVM

It is always the case that we vets deal with the same problems at home that we counsel our clients about.  And not always terribly well.  I’m certainly no exception.  Years ago, I had a long-haired cat who threw up hairballs frequently, but unlike most hairball-barfing cats, she did not just hack up the offending wad and then go about her business as though nothing had happened.  Nope, she would obviously feel ill for minutes to hours afterward.  And probably beforehand, too, had I had the vision to see it.

I tried all the time-honored remedies that I prescribed every day for my patients.  I dosed her with various brands of flavored petroleum jelly.  I fed her diets purporting to help with hairballs by the inclusion of extra fiber.  I brushed her constantly, which fortunately she loved.  None of these things helped.  Eventually I shaved her, leaving the adorable puffs on her legs and tail that made her look like a fat little old lady in tight leotard and legwarmers.  As long as I did this three or four times a year, there were no more hairballs.  Oddly enough, however, she continued to have vomiting episodes, albeit less frequently, and minus the hair.  Diagnostics revealed inflammatory bowel disease, and eventually my poor sweet girl succumbed to intestinal lymphoma.

While rooming with a brilliant feline practitioner at a medical conference shortly after, still grieving, I confessed my frustration with the seemingly insignificant problem of hairballs.  Her answer blew me away.  There is no such thing as “just a hairball,” she says to me.  Think about it.  Cats developed stringent grooming behaviors in the course of evolution because grooming is a positive survival factor, probably through  controlling parasitism  and other diseases.  So they are going to ingest a lot of hair.  Does vomiting as a daily method for expelling this hair seem evolutionarily sound?  Stomach acid hurts the esophagus and teeth, and frequent vomiting upsets the electrolyte balance.    While vomiting as an emergency mechanism to rid oneself of the occasional nastiness seems reasonable, it seems unlikely that the daily vomiting of hairballs is the “normal” thing that the medical community has assumed it to be.

I’m hooked.  Go on, I say.  She continues.

Why would we think that “lubrication” of the gut with petroleum products would help?  A cat is not a car.  And in no way could a cat have naturally evolved to require the dosing with “lubricants” to survive or to thrive.  Likewise, cats in the wild would never eat a “high-fiber” diet, and so would seem unlikely to benefit from one.  On the contrary, it would appear logical that a cat would thrive better on what a cat has been evolved to eat – namely a mouse or a reasonable facsimile thereof – and that feeding a cat something wildly different from the diet it has evolved on is more likely to result in harm than in good.

No, she says, I think it likely that a “hairball,” far from normal, is probably a common early symptom of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.  Impaired motility of the gut would account for the balling up of hair that should pass right through, if stomach-emptying time is the 0.2 – 2 hours it is reported to be in a normal cat.  A cat shouldn’t be able to swallow enough hair fast enough to outrace normal stomach emptying time.

This is making sense to me.  Particularly as I just lost my own cat to this.  And as I think back, I realize that “hairballs” have been in the histories of a disproportionate number of the patients I’ve treated with IBD and lymphoma.

She tells me that she’s been changing her patients over to low-fiber diets (grain-free and low carbohydrate) for a while now, and she’s seeing a precipitous drop in the whole “hairball” thing.  I can see the long-term implications of this line of reasoning:  if cat food containing an unnaturally high level of fiber and carbohydrates is associated with an increased incidence of  impaired GI motility and vomiting, and if cats fed this way are at higher risk to develop IBD and lymphoma, then a drop in hairball vomiting might mean that a cat has a lower risk of these two nasty diseases.  Sounds as though a grain-free diet might be a better way to go.

This all made sense to me.  No science to it back then, but neither was there any to support the idea that hairballs are normal.  No one had at that time asked if a carbohydrate-based diet could possibly have long-term negative consequences for cats.

Well, they have now.   Every day, there’s more scientific evidence that these “mere” hairballs we see so often may respond, not to grease and not to fiber, not to brushing and not to shaving, but to feeding a diet that looks like what a cat was evolved to eat.

In the intervening years, I’ve changed my own cats over to grain-free, low-carb canned foods, and I’ve seen nary a hairball from anyone for a very long time.   In my esteemed colleague’s footsteps, I’ve been changing my patients over to these same diets.   I hear about fewer hairballs, and my patients  are slimmer, fitter, and healthier in many ways.  Is this a panacea?  Of course not.  There’s no one cure for everything.  But I now have serious trouble believing that a feline diet in which the calories are derived primarily from carbohydrates, which are much cheaper than proteins, is beneficial to anything other than the manufacturer’s bottom line.

So next time someone tells you that malt-flavored grease, fiber additives, brushing or shaving are the only ways to help with those annoying hairballs, think again.  Hairballs may be more than just a stinky mess for you to clean up.  They might well be a sign that your cat has a real health problem, and should see the veterinarian.  And your cat might be telling you that her gut would be happier with “mouse” than with breakfast cereal.

Dr. Slack graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia, and has been working exclusively with cats since 1993. She is the owner of Uniquely Cats Veterinary Center in Boulder, CO.

How to Care for Your Older Cat

Peaches and Peonies by B.E. Kazmarski

In honor of Peaches, animal artist Bernadette Kazmarski’s cat who is turning 20 years old on May 1, a number of blogs are participating in the birthday celebration by posting articles about living with and caring for older cats.

Cats are living longer and healthier lives, thanks to improved veterinary care, better nutrition, and the fact that most pet cats are indoor cats; but even at that, not many live to the ripe old age of 20.   The definition of an older cat is usually preceded by the term “senior” or “geriatric.”  Cats are considered senior between the ages of 11 and 14, and geriatric over the age of 15.  The following provides some pointers to help you keep your older cat happy and healthy.

Regular veterinary care

This is important at any age, but becomes particularly important as cats age.   Typically, veterinarians recommend annual visits for healthy cats up to age 6 or 7, and bi-annual visits after that.  I explained in a previous post  what a senior cat wellness visit entails and why it’s so important.

Behavior and environment

Environmental needs may change as cats age.  Cats often loose some mobility as osteoarthritis, a common ailment in older cats, begins to set in.  It becomes important to make sure that they have easy access to the litter box.  Some litter boxes may be too high for older cats to get in and out of comfortably.  Make sure that beds are easy to access – if kitty can no longer jump up on beds or other favorite sleeping spots, consider getting a ramp or steps to make it easier for her.

Watch for subtle behavior changes such as increased vocalization, problems with elimination, or changes in routine.  They may be indicators of medical problems and may require veterinary attention.

Diet

As cats become older, they’re typically less playful and less mobile, and weight gain can become a problem.   Don’t turn to senior diets – while they are marketed as “light” and lower in calories, they are high in carbohydrates and contraindicated for cats, who are obligate carnivores.   I previously wrote about weight management for senior cats.  There is no reason to change a cat’s diet as she gets older.  If you feed a healthy raw or grain-free canned diet, only minor adjustments in quantity should be required to keep your cat healthy through her senior and geriatric years.

Oral health

Bi-annual vet exams should include a thorough examination of your cat’s teeth and mouth.  Good dental health is one of the most important health issues for cats, especially as they get older.  Dental disease not only causes pain and decreases quality of life, but it can result in damage to other organs such as kidneys and heart.

Parasites

Depending on your cat’s lifestyle (indoor vs. outdoor), regular fecal examinations are recommended.  Discuss parasite control with your veterinarian, but be aware that many of the leading flea and tick control products are pesticides.  Look for natural alternatives instead.

Vaccinations

Work in partnership with your veterinarian to evaluate risk, and determine whether there is a need for continued vaccinations.   Consider blood tests in lieu of vaccinations to determine protection levels.  For a comprehensive overview of feline vaccinations, click here.

Life with an older cat is a joy that is to be savored, and following these guidelines should help you keep your feline companion happy and healthy well into her golden years.

Happy Birthday, Peaches!

Feline Vaccinations: Walking Through the Minefield

Little cat at the veterinary - getting a vaccine

Guest Post by Fern Slack, DVM

Vaccination against debilitating and fatal diseases has vastly improved the well-being of humanity.  It’s difficult now for us to imagine a world with widespread polio, kids dying daily of whooping cough, or smallpox decimating whole cities.  Without our indispensable vaccination programs, such diseases would re-emerge quickly.   It does not follow, however, that an individual will achieve better health through more frequent vaccination, nor will the population as a whole.  Neither does it follow that the best vaccine plan for a child in, say, South Africa would be the same as for a child in Canada.

Likewise, there is no single vaccine protocol that is right for all cats.  Every cat has different risk factors.  And while many mistakenly believe that vaccinations are entirely safe, and entirely effective, neither is true.  There is always a risk of adverse events associated with vaccination, which must be balanced against the benefit, if any, from a vaccine for your cat.  Yet the serious and often fatal diseases we fight with vaccines are still out there.

The Diseases Most Cats Should Be Protected Against

Panleukopenia (“Feline distemper”) used to be a common veterinary hospital visitor, highly contagious and commonly fatal. The virus is a resilient organism which can sneak into your house on your clothes or shoes.  Indoor cats must therefore be protected.

The “distemper” combination vaccine includes antigens for Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis and Calici virus.  While rarely fatal, both diseases cause much easily preventable suffering.

Indoor cats must also be protected against Rabies.  It is contagious to humans, and is nearly 100% fatal if not treated immediately.  Cats are very susceptible to it.  Vaccination laws are strong, as they should be, to protect the citizenry.  Fortunately, there is a feline vaccine available that utilizes a unique technology which delivers excellent protection with minimal inflammation.  If other, unnecessary vaccines are eliminated, the repeated administration of such a relatively innocuous one can be better tolerated.

Only these two vaccines, the Rabies and the Panleukopenia /Calicivirus / Viral Rhinotracheitis combination, are recommended by the American Association  of Feline Practitioners for all cats, including those living completely indoors.

Other Available Vaccines

Feline Leukemia (FeLV):  The FeLV vaccine is worthwhile, but only for cats who spend time outside or have other lifestyle factors that put them at risk, such as living with another cat who has the Feline Leukemia virus.  Even then, the level of protection against a strong challenge in a vaccinated cat is far from perfect.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV):   FIV is not a significant risk for most cats, because contagion nearly always requires a bite wound.  It should be used only for cats at demonstrable risk, such as outdoor cats who fight.  This vaccination induces antibodies that can’t be differentiated from those produced by actual infection, so a vaccinated cat will always test positive, complicating identification of cats who actually have the disease.  This is not a vaccine to be used lightly.

Chlamydophila felis:   A nearly useless vaccine which is included as a fourth ingredient in many of the commercially available “distemper” vaccines.   The addition distracts the cat’s immune system from the other three, much more important antigens, while engendering nearly no effective protection itself.  Unless there is a specific, test-confirmed need for it, this should not be used.

Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP):  There is no measurable benefit from this vaccine for almost any pet cat, but it still poses all the risks of the “good vaccines”.  Avoid this one entirely.

Serious Risks Associated With Vaccination

Vaccine-Associated Fibrosarcomas:  Also known as injection site sarcomas, these are very malignant cancers which arise at the site of an injection.  The incidence is estimated at between 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 vaccinations.  These tumors must be treated extremely radically.  For this reason, some vets now administer feline vaccines as far down the legs as possible, and sometimes even in the tail.   Should tumors occur, amputation of a limb can save the cat’s life.

Inflammatory Insults:  Much worse and probably more common is the danger deriving from repeated inflammatory insults.  Many leading scientists now believe that vaccinations induce systemic inflammatory responses, which can lead to chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, pancreatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as hyperthyroidism and numerous others.  The actual risk for a given cat is likely to be closely proportional to how many vaccines he receives over his life.

Anaphylactic Reactions:  True anaphylaxis is quite rare, but does happen.  Even with immediate treatment, death may ensue.

Vaccination can cause many lesser problems such as itching, hives, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, and local hair loss, to name a few.  Most of these are transitory, and are not serious health risks.

Protection With Minimal Vaccination

Where possible, I recommend replacing annual or triannual vaccination with annual blood tests, also known as titer tests, which measure antibody levels.  If the titer is insufficient, and if there are no contraindications, I may recommend revaccination.  There are admittedly flaws in the concept of titering.  Most importantly, we don’t accurately know what level of antibody is protective.  Our evidence comes more from experience than from studies.  But that is changing, and hopefully there will be more reliable evidence to work with in the future.

Panleukopenia vaccinations induce an enduring immunity in most cats.  Many will carry a protective level of antibody for most of their adult life after only kitten shots and one adult injection.  Repeated vaccinations are usually not needed.  Some Panleukopenia vaccines are approved for 3-year intervals, but even that is more than is needed for most cats.  Titering is an excellent alternative for this disease.

There are titer tests available for Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis and Calicivirus also; single-ingredient vaccines can be given should your cat pass one titer and fail another.  Some of these can also be given as drops into the eyes and/or nose.  The lack of a “shot” reduces the risk of an injection site sarcoma.

The Best Of Both Worlds

Indisputably, every vaccination is an inflammatory event, and all inflammatory events have a systemic component, ripples from the stone thrown in the pond.  These insults may be small, but they add up, and so vaccinations should be kept as few as possible.  But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; a choice to avoid vaccines entirely leaves your cat at risk for some pretty horrible  awful diseases.  Vaccines are not all good or all bad.  They are tools to be used with good judgment for the right purposes.  The best vaccine plan for your cat will balance on the tightrope between disease risk and vaccine risk.   A good feline vet will take the time to learn about your cat’s lifestyle and history, and then help you learn about the risks and benefits of the vaccination choices to be made for your cat.

 Dr. Slack graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia, and has been working exclusively with cats since 1993. She is the owner of Uniquely Cats Veterinary Center in Boulder, CO.

 

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How to Read a Pet Food Label

pet-food-label

I’ve previously written about the foods I recommend based on what an obligate carnivore like the cat needs to thrive. In general, the progression from most desirable to least desirable is a raw food diet (either commercial or homemade), a home cooked whole food diet, grain-free canned food, and, if cost is a consideration, any canned food.  I do not recommend any dry food for cats (read The Truth About Dry Cat Food for more  on why this dry food is not a good choice). But even within these parameters, the available options can be overwhelming.  Pet food labels should be a useful tool to help pet owners decide which foods to select. Unfortunately, unless you know how to interpret the often confusing information on the labels, they may only add to the confusion.

Pet food packaging is all about marketing

Pet food packaging is all about marketing. Our pets couldn’t care less what container their food comes in, or whether it has cute pictures of kittens and puppies on it.  They don’t care about pretty label and brand colors, but you can bet that pet food companies spend major marketing dollars on determining which colors appeal to pet owners. Don’t let  pet foods labelled as “natural” mislead you – just because the label has the word “natural” and pictures of wholesome vegetables and grains on it does not necessarily make it so. The only way you can be sure to understand what’s in a food is by reading the label.  Here are some things to look for:

Ingredients 

Pet food manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order; in other words, the most predominant ingredient has to be listed first. Look for meat based proteins as the main ingredient. Avoid anything that lists corn or soy and their by-products – these two ingredients are some of the prime culprits for causing allergies in pets. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a food is good for your pet because it lists ingredients such as peas, carrots, cranberries, blueberries and the like. Pets don’t really need these ingredients to thrive, but they make for good marketing to the pet’s human. They can be a source of antioxidants and vitamins, but in many foods, the amounts are not significant enough to make a difference.

Guaranteed Analysis

Manufacturers are required to list basic nutrient percentages on the label. Typically, this portion of the label will list crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, moisture, and ash content. Note that there is no listing for carbohydrates on food labels, which is a very important consideration when it comes to feeding cats, who are obligate carnivores. However, it is not difficult to calculate approximate carbohydrate contents. Simply add all of the listed nutrients and subtract the total from 100% – this will give you a fairly accurate number.

AAFCO Statement

This is probably the most misunderstood item on pet food labels.  AAFCO, the American Association of Feed Control Officials, is the organization which is charged with establishing and enforcing animal feed requirements across all fifty state governments. Its primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of feed for human food producing livestock. The AAFCO statement on most pet food labels indicates that the food has been tested and approved as “complete and balanced for the life of a pet.”  This is sadly misleading. The tests are conducted on very small groups of animals and for very short periods of time. The only real long-term tests of pet food happen when pet owners feed these diets to their own pets!

Just like selecting food for yourself and your human family members, choosing healthy food for your pets comes down to educating yourself, reading labels, and not falling for marketing hype. Your pets will thank you for it.

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Easter Safety Tips for Pets

As you get ready to celebrate Easter with family and friends, keep the following precautions in mind to ensure that your furry family members stay safe and healthy.

Chocolate:  Chocolate is toxic for pets, especially dogs.  Even small amounts of chocolate can be extremely dangerous.  The toxic component in chocolate, theobromine, can cause vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, seizures and an abnormally elevated heart rate.  Different types of chocolate contain varying levels of theobromine.  Dark chocolate contains the highest amounts and is therefore the most toxic to dogs.  Early symptoms of chocolate toxicity are vomiting, diarrhea and trembling.

Easter Lilies:  Easter Lilies are deadly for cats, so make sure you keep them completely out of cats’ reach.  Other potentially poisonous flowers may include tulips, calla lilies, daisies, crysanthemums and baby’s breath. 

Easter Grass:  Easter grass can be life-threatening for cats if ingested.  The material can wrap itself around your cat’s intestines and cut off circulation, requiring immediate medical intervention.  Look for safer alternatives to Easter grass, such as tissue paper.

Sugar Substitutes:  Xylitol, a popular sugar substitute used in sugar-free candy and in anything from sugarless gum to toothpaste is highly toxic to pets.  It causes a rapid drop in blood sugar and can lead to seizures and liver failure.

All it takes is a little common sense, and your entire family can enjoy a safe and happy Easter celebration.

How to Make Your Cat’s Trip to the Vet Less Stressful

cat-in-carrier

Most cats hate going to the vet’s.  What’s to like?  They’ll get stuck in a carrier, then they’ll get poked and prodded and stuck with needles.  Taking a cat to the vet can also be stressful for the cat’s human – none of us want our kitties to be scared and stressed, and what’s even worse is that, in the case of a vet visit, in the cat’s mind, we’re the ones who are putting them through this ordeal!  The ideal solution for many cats is a vet who makes housecalls (to find one in your area, visit the website of the American Association of Housecall and Mobile Veterinarians).  If that’s not an option, make sure that the vet you take your cat to is cat friendly.

You can make the actual trip to the vet’s office less stressful by following these tips:

Make sure the carrier is big enough for your cat to be able to stand up and turn around.  Carriers that allow access from the front and the top make getting your cat in and out of the carrier easier than carriers that only open in the front.

Get cats used to the carrier.  Keep the carrier out and open in a place where your cats can easily access it.   Some cats will actually like to use the carrier as a periodic sleeping place.

Get your cat used to car travel.  If feasible, take your cat on short rides in the car and offer rewards after the trip.  This may help create a positive association with travel, and that way, your cat won’t expect a vet visit at the end of each trip.

Use a calming/pheromone spray such as Comfort Zone with Feliway in the carrier on a regular basis, and also prior to placing kitty in it for transport.

Withhold food prior to transport.  This may help prevent motion sickness, and may also make cats more receptive to treats at the vet’s office, thus creating a somewhat more positive association.

Put a piece of clothing with your scent on it in the carrier prior to transport.  The familiar scent may help comfort your cat.

Cover the carrier with a blanket or towel while in the car – this may make some cats feel safer during transport.

Unfortunately, unless you have a very mellow cat, kitty may still hold a grudge for a little while after returning from one of these, in your cat’s mind completely unnecessary, outings.  Thankfully, our cats do forgive us quickly and all is forgotten – until the next vet visit!

Raw Food for Cats: Separating Myth from Fact

raw-food-for-cats

We know from human nutrition that the less processed our foods are, the healthier they are for us.  This is no different when it comes to feline nutrition.  Cats are obligate carnivores and as such need animal-based proteins to thrive.  They cannot get enough nutritional support from plant-based proteins such as grains and vegetables, because, unlike humans and dogs, they lack the specific enzyme that processes plant-based proteins metabolically.

Commercial pet foods are highly processed and most are too high in carbohydrates for cats, leading to all kinds of health problems.  Dry food in particular can be the source of many of the degenerative diseases we see in cats, ranging from allergies to intestinal problems to diabetes and urinary tract issues.  While a quality grain-free canned diet may be a better choice, the meat in those diets has to be cooked.  Cooking degrades the nutrients, leading to loss of enzymes, vitamins and minerals.  To make up for this, pet food manufacturers must add in supplements to make up for these losses.  Supplementation is not always exact, and depending on the manufacturer, may be done with synthetic rather than natural supplements.

There are numerous benefits from feeding a raw diet to your cat, including improved digestion, reduced stool odor and volume, increased energy, ability to maintain ideal weight, better dental health, and better urinary tract health.  With the numerous pet food recalls over the past several years, raw feeding has gained wider attention.  Embraced for decades by holistically oriented pet parents and holistic veterinarians, it is becoming more mainstream as pet parents look for alternatives to feeding commercial pet foods.  But many pet owners are still leery of the idea of feeding raw meat to their pets, and myths about raw feeding abound.  This article will help sort through the myths and facts surrounding raw feeding.

Myth:  Cats need dry food to keep their teeth clean.

Fact:  Dry kibble does not clean your cat’s teeth.  Most cats don’t chew their kibble long enough for any of the scraping action that is the theory behind this myth to kick in.  Some pet food manufacturers offer a “dental diet” that is made up of larger than normal sized kibble to encourage chewing, but in my years at veterinary practices, I’ve seen many cats swallow even those larger size pieces whole.  Additionally, dry food leaves a carbohydrate residue in the cat’s mouth that actually encourages growth of tartar and plaque.

Myth:  It’s dangerous to feed raw meat because it contains bacteria.

Fact:  Cats have highly acidic digestive tracts, which makes them pathogen resistant.  Their digestive tracts are also much shorter than humans – food passes through their digestive system in about 12 hours, compared to two or three times as much for humans.  This doesn’t give bacteria enough time to proliferate in their system.   As long as you use safe handling procedures with raw meat, the risk to your cat is minimal.  In fact, the emphasis on safe handling that you’ll hear from most proponents of raw feeding is for the humans in the household, not for the cat.

Caution:  this applies to healthy cats.  Bacterial resistance in cats with an already compromised immune system may be diminished.

Myth:  Raw feeding is complicated and requires grinding of meat, bones and a lot of preparation time.

Fact:  Raw feeding doesn’t have to be complicated.  While some cat owners want to make their own raw foods, there are many companies that offer frozen raw food that is already nutritionally balanced. You can find my recommendations here.  It really comes down to thaw and feed – no more effort than opening a can!

Myth:  It’s dangerous to feed raw meet because it may contain parasites.

FactReputable raw food producers source their meat from reputable farmers and test for pathogens and parasites.  Of course, there is no way to be 100% sure, but then, neither is there a 100% guarantee that commercially prepared foods are going to be free of toxins, pathogens or other contamination, as the 2007 pet food recall showed us in such tragic proportions.  Do your research and find out where the company you’re buying from sources their ingredients.  Reputable manufacturers will be happy to answer your questions.

Myth:  Raw diets are not complete and balanced.

Fact:  That depends on the diet you choose to feed.  Some raw diets are balanced and include proper levels of supplements, others will require adding a good vitamin and mineral supplement.  The reality is that no one food can be nutritionally complete.  True nutrition comes from a varied, whole foods diet.  This is why it’s a good idea to mix and rotate different meats and maybe even different manufacturers.

Photo by Kevin N. Murphy, Flickr Creative Commons

Pet-Friendly Cleaning Tips

Did you know that many commercial cleaning products can be extremely toxic, and even deadly, to your pets?  Cats are especially susceptible since they groom themselves by licking and as a result ingest anything that comes in contact with their feet or fur.

Dangers of Chemical-based Household Cleaners

Many household cleaners contain contain hazardous ingredients such as organic solvents and petroleum based chemicals which can release volatile organic compounds  into your indoor air. Some ingredients in household cleaners are known to cause cancer in animals and are suspected human carcinogens. Inappropriate use, storage and disposal of these hazardous household substances may impact your personal health and the health of our environment.  Lysol, Pine-sol and other products containing phenols are deadly to cats as they can cause serious liver damage.  Chlorox bleach, especially when concentrated, can cause chemical burns when it comes in contact with sensitive pet paws.

Non-toxic Cleaning Products

With the wide variety of naturally based and non-toxic cleaners available, there is no need to continue to use unsafe, toxic products.  Brands such as Seventh Generation and Method offer every type of cleaner imaginable and are available in all major grocery stores.  If you have cats, try to steer clear of natural products containing essential oils.  Even though many manufacturers of essential oils claim that they are safe to use around cats, this is not always the case.  Tea tree oil in particular can be deadly to cats.

Some of the safest and least expensive cleaners are baking soda and white distilled vinegar.  Some suggestions for use are:

Baking Soda:

  • Pour a layer in the litterbox before adding fresh litter to quell odors.
  • Add 1/2 cup to the laundry to freshen pet bedding.
  • Use as an abrasive cleaner for sinks, bowls, and non-porous surfaces.

White Distilled Vinegar:

  • Use to disinfect feeding dishes, the litterbox, and non-porous toys.
  • Add 1 cup to the wash cycle to freshen and soften pet bedding.
  • Apply a diluted solution (one part vinegar and one part water) to help remove the appearance and odor of urine stains from carpets.
  • Baking soda and white vinegar combined make a great non-toxic drain cleaner – pour some baking soda down the drain, follow with a cup or so of vinegar.  The mixture will foam, and the foaming action will clear your drain.  Repeat if necessary.  For tough drains, follow with hot water.

If your pet does come into contact with toxic chemicals, contact the Animal Poison Control Center for help.

Photo source: Miele USA website

Feline Life Stage Guidelines

The American Association of Feline Practitioners and the American Animal Hospital Association released the Feline Life Stage Guidelines, a 12-page document designed to promote important information regarding wellness care for cats.  The guidelines have been developed in response to statistics that show that while cats outnumber dogs as pets, they receive significantly less veterinary care.  Studies have also shown that many cat owners are unaware of their cats’ medical needs, citing an inability to recognize signs of illness or injury. 

The guidelines address wellness exams, recommending annual visits for healthy cats under 7 years of age, and twice yearly visits for cats 7 or older.  They address a lenghty list of items that should be covered in an annual or bi-annual exam, including looking at behavior and environment, medical and surgical history, elimination, nutrition and weight management, dental health, parasite control, diagnostic testing, and vaccinations.

The guidelines also address how to overcome barriers to veterinary visits.  Many pet owners perceive cats as being self-sufficient because they hide any discomfort, pain or illness so well.  There can also be a lot of stress associated with getting kitty to the vet – many pet parents don’t want to be the “bad guy” by putting their cat in a carrier and taking him to the vet’s.  Recommendations include ways to reduce the stress of transport, making cat and cat parent comfortable at the clinic, and keeping the clinic environment as calm and stress free as possible.  (For more on how to tell whether a vet clinic knows how to accommodate cats’ unique needs, read Is Your Vet Cat-Friendly.)

There is only one area where the guidelines fall short, and that’s nutrition.  I would have liked to have seen a firmer stand on what constitutes good nutrition for cats.  With statements such as “both canned and dry foods have been found to support health during all life stages”, “satisfactory diets for cats contain all the required nutrients in proper balance, are palatable and digestible, and are free of spoilage and contaminants. The specific source of nutrients in feline diets is irrelevant when these criteria are satisfied” do not make me feel comfortable that there has been much progress when it comes to educating veterinarians about nutrition.  The guidelines cite evidence-based studies for the effects of feeding canned vs. dry food (including contribution to dental health) and state that based on the available data, specific recommendations in favor of any of these practices cannot be made.  I supsect that most of these studies have been funded by major pet food manufacturers.  Thankfully, many veterinarians are starting to see evidence that their feline patients who are fed grain-free, canned diets or raw diets have fewer degenerative health issues, maintain their weight, have healthier teeth and gums and fewer allergies and intestinal problems, and are recommending these diets to their patients. 

However, aside from the section about nutrition, the Feline Lifestage Guidelines are an important step towards getting cats the care they deserve.  Ultimately, cats and their parents will benefit from these guidelines.

Benefits of Digestive Enzymes for Pets

I previously wrote about how to choose healthy foods for your pet.  In the article, I said that I was not a proponent of a raw food diet, because I felt that the risks outweighed the benefits.  However, I have since come to the conclusion that feeding raw food is truly the healthiest way to feed our pets.  We know from human nutrition that the less processed our foods are, the better for us, and the same holds true for our pets.  Additionally, cats are carnivores, and as such, they are designed to eat raw meat.   That being said, some pets, especially cats, can be difficult to transition to raw food .  For those pets, the the next best thing for achieving the same results you get from raw feeding may be supplementing your pet’s diet with digestive enzymes.

The reason raw food is so good for our pets is because it still contains all the digestive enzymes.  When food is processed and cooked, enzymes are destroyed.   Enzymes aid in food absorption by breaking food down into simple, soluble substances that the body can absorb.  Enzymes are important building blocks for a multitude of metabolic functions and can help the body fight the degnerative processes that come with aging, aid in better absoprtion of vitamins and minerals, and help build a healthy immune system.  Enzyme deficiency can show itself in poor haircoat, allergies, intestinal problems, and voluminous stools, often with the fat still clearly visible. 

If you’re not able to feed raw, you may want to consider supplementing your pet’s diet with digestive enzymes.  There are numerous products on the market.  One I like is Dr. Goodpet’s Feline Digestive Enzymes.  In addition to enzymes, it also contains probiotics.  It also has absolutely no scent or flavor, which can be an issue with cats.  Amber readily accepted it on the very first try and has been taking it for the last few weeks.  The most noticeable difference so far has been a marked decrease in the size and the smell of her stools. 

The research, and testimonials, for the benefits of digestive enzymes, are convincing.  Like pets on raw diets, enzyme supplementation can help your pets  look and feel great.  Pets on a raw diet tend to have glossy coats, clear ears and eyes, and better teeth.  They maintain their ideal weight.   They don’t have allergies or intestinal problems.   If you’re not able to feed raw, enzyme supplementation can help you achieve the same results.

As a side note, I wanted to test the benefits of digestive enzymes for myself, so I began taking them right along with Amber (not the feline version, though!  I choose a product designed for humans, Enzymedica Digest).  While I can’t say that my coat has gotten glossier, I’ve definitely noticed an improvement with my digestion!  I’ve also noticed that I don’t get hungry as quickly as I used to in between meals.   My – completely unscientific – assumption is that it may be due to the fact that my body is absorbing nutrients better as a result of the added enzymes.

Please note:  if your cat is diabetic or immuno-suppressed, digestive enzymes may be contra-indicated.  Check with your veterinarian before changing your cat’s diet or adding supplements.