Friday, 17 February 2012

Food for felines

What do the Vieuxtemps cats eat?

During the thirty-odd years I have shared my life with cats, ideas about the feline diet have changed enormously.   In the early days I chose to give cheap canned and highly-coloured dry food available at supermarkets, supplemented by treats of cooked meat*, purely out of ignorance and lack of alternatives.  My cats did OK on it, it has to be said, although our first cat developed diabetes and died at the age of nine, and others suffered from cancer.   But the latter probably wasn’t diet-related.
 (*NB it is dangerous to give cats, or dogs, cooked bones as they might shatter and harm the animal.  And did you know that delicatessen sliced meats, although they might seem to be a tasty treat for your pet, usually contain chemicals which aren’t good for them?)

Later a trusted vet suggested Hill’s Science Diet, which was quite new in the UK at the time I believe, so I used that a lot too and the cats did seem to thrive on it.  I remember asking the vet ‘but won’t they get bored eating the same thing day in, day out?’  He replied that most cats in a natural environment have an unvaried diet too.  They will often live in an area with a lot of mice, or a lot of birds, but not usually both.  So I felt OK about giving them only the Hill’s, as directed by the vet.  The dried food was supposed to help with teeth also, although it didn’t seem to work for my cats.
Skovmus in Denmark as a kitten, with litter mates in the background
Then in 1994 we imported our first cat from abroad, Skovmus Felis Jubatus.  In Denmark she had been fed day-old chicks so we continued offering her these as well as leaving down Hill’s for the rest of our cats.  
 Some also enjoyed chicks and some (our Abyssinians) weren’t quite sure what to do with them!  Day-old chicks are very nutritious and the cats eat the whole bird, including the feathers, beak and feet.  They can be quite messy so we always fed these outdoors.  You buy them frozen in trays of fifty for about five pounds.  It made me sad to think these little lives were snuffed out almost before they had begun, and were considered almost worthless.  The reason is that breeders of hens only want the egg-laying females, so the males are killed after being selected by skilled professional ‘chicken sexers’.  Having said that – isn’t an early death better than the life of torture that some battery hens have had to lead?

In 2000 we got our first and only dog, Butz.   We knew nothing about dogs, so did a lot of reading and learning from other dog-owners.  One life-changing book we were given was called ‘Give Your Dog A Bone’ by the Australian veterinarian, Dr Ian Billinghurst.  Its subtitle is ‘The Practical Commonsense Way to Feed Dogs For A Long Healthy Life’.

It is written with humour and good sense, and I recommend it to everyone, including cat owners.  You can visit the author’s website by clicking on the book cover above.

On the other hand, misleading articles like this one make me mad:
It is true that cooked bones can cause damage.  The secret for dogs is RAW meaty bones.

Cats have very different dietary requirements from dogs.  Dogs, like us, are omnivores, so they can thrive by eating a variety of things from vegetables to fish to cheese to beef.  Cats on the other hand are obligate carnivores, meaning they need to live almost entirely off meat.  This is one reason why commercial foods aren’t natural for cats to eat.  Just look at the ingredients!  Some of them contain a high percentage of meat, albeit dried and extruded meat, but many have soya or cereal products as their main ingredient.  Why would cats, the supreme hunters, thrive on such a thing?  I never heard of cats being very good farmers.  But cats’ digestions are quite fussy.  One ingredient they need, which their own bodies cannot produce, is the amino acid taurine.  Lack of taurine might not produce any immediate symptoms in your cat, but the cat will end up going blind after a few years if they lack this essential acid.  Commercial foods nowadays are careful to add taurine to their long list of ingredients.  If you feed your cat mainly raw meat, taurine can be bought as a supplement from a health shop and small amounts can be added.  Obviously in the wild, the cat will eat the whole of its prey including stomach contents which provides a balanced diet, but giving just muscle meat does require care.

What I feed my cats on nowadays is this:

Have a look at the company website by clicking on the image – it contains some useful information.
Prize Choice comes in many varieties, but I try to choose those that are reasonably species-appropriate – namely rabbit, chicken, fish and turkey (though to be honest I can’t imagine even a Norwegian Forest Cat killing a turkey, can you?) I feed it raw daily, giving all the cats as much as they can eat.  I also leave down a bowl of dried food (Iams Hairball at the moment, which seems to enable cats to produce perfect stools; cats need roughage, and if they aren't getting feathers to eat Iams Hairball does give them some alternative fibre) because I like them to be able to snack when I’m out at work, and leaving too much raw meat lying around isn’t good, especially in summer.  Of course, fresh water is available at all times (no milk!)
There is no doubt that dry food is handy for us humans to serve up to our cats.  But by giving them the opportunity to eat raw meat (supplemented by a little taurine) I hope I am helping their health, their teeth and their happiness.  Bob and I are vegetarian, but what with Butz’s chicken wings, we get through an awful lot of raw meat in our household. They seem to be doing alright on it.  Impromptu is seventeen in three months’ time and he loves his minced rabbit!
Premier Vieuxtemps Impromptu - a very elderly gentleman
I'm not formally trained in feline nutrition.  I also have no financial interest in any of the products mentioned above! These are just my honest experiences and personal views after several decades of trying to do the best for my own animals, but I hope if you have a cat or a dog you will consider feeding at least some raw meat.  If you don't believe me and are still using mainly or entirely a commercial dry diet - just read the ingredients on the packet and think again.