If you’ve been scared off commercial pet foods because of all the pet food recalls and want to feed your dog or cat human-grade foods, be aware that animal nutritionists are not in agreement as to the best natural diet for pets and you might have to do a little bit of experimenting. Here are some of their thoughts.
Cooked grains, a controversial food because the wild progenitors of dogs and cats did not eat them, should be considered an optional addition to your animal’s diet. Some believe that over a lifetime, the amount of enzymes needed to digest and utilize grain carbohydrates is prohibitive, and an animal can eventually suffer from pancreatic problems. Others, like veterinarian Richard Pitcairn, see no problem with adding grains to the diet. Holistic nutritionist Celeste Yarnall uses the more easily digested grains barley and oatmeal, and suggests substituting starchy vegetables like yams and potatoes for grains. Herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy, on the other hand, uses grains in all her recipes, and recommends them highly for their nutritive value.
Kymythy Schultze, breeder and nutritionist, believes that dogs and cats have no nutritional need for grain and that they can get all their energy needs supplied by fats and proteins. She claims that grains can lead to yeast growth in the body and cause mucus, allergies, ear infections, skin problems, bloating, joint problems, malabsorption, and digestive problems.
A “bone of contention” among alternative pet nutrition practitioners, some believe that they’re are vital to the health of an animal, contributing calcium, reducing tartar, and exercising the mouth, while others think they can do harm by splintering in the stomach and causing internal bleeding. All who recommend bones, however, stress that they should be raw, because cooked bones are more likely to splinter and cause problems. Bone enthusiasts range from Ian Billinghurst, D.V.M., and his BARF (bones and raw foods) diet to the less convinced, like cat fancier Pat Lazarus, who advises against them (with the exception of raw chicken necks).
Diseases like salmonella and Escherichia coli can be found in raw meat, but it’s the rare pet who is a victim because their systems are more acidic and can handle it, according to Pat Lazarus. However, she advises against feeding raw rabbit or raw pork, which do contain dangerous parasites (pork is much too fatty anyway). As carnivores, cats and dogs have a metabolism that can tolerate bacteria which would make a human quite ill. In fact, dogs can handle meat that has gone “gamy” without ill effects.
The great thing about raw foods is the presence of natural enzymes, which are necessary to regulate virtually every metabolic process in the body. While commercial pet food manufacturers claim that they supplement their cooked food with amino acids and other supplements, these tend to be the cheap, synthetic kind, definitely inferior in quality.
Organic meat is best, but it tends to be expensive. If you feed your animal supermarket meats, it will still be a great improvement over commercial cooked pet foods. Cat breeder and nutritionist Celeste Yarnall recommends sterilizing meats in distilled water and a few drops of standardized extract of grapefruit seed, but others see no need for this precaution.
Dairy is a no-no for Kymythy Schultze because it’s unnatural for any animal to consume milk products after weaning. Milk contains foreign hormones and lactose, which are difficult for cats and dogs to digest. It is also mucus forming. Other nutritionists see nothing wrong with dairy if it’s in the form of raw milk, particularly raw goat’s milk. Cat breeder Anitra Frazier feeds her cats half and half as a treat. Others, like Pat Lazarus, recommend the use of plain yogurt because of its beneficial enzymes.
Some holistic vets, nutritionists, and breeders believe that nutritional, brewer’s, or torula yeast, while rich in proteins, B-complex vitamins, and trace minerals, are unnatural for dogs and cats. After all, they would not encounter yeast in the wild, and indeed, some cats and dogs are allergic or at least intolerant of yeast. But the fact is that yeast, because it’s cheap to produce, is used extensively in products like pet vitamins and natural flea repellents, and it’s difficult to avoid.
Celeste Yarnall discourages the use of yeast, citing studies that seem to indicate that the DNA and RNA in yeast don’t break down completely in the intestines and can cause adverse autoimmune reactions and even weaken organs. Also, its high phosphorus content can lead to a calcium imbalance. Most dogs with skin allergies have been found to be allergic to yeast. Herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy believes it’s downright unhealthful. But others, like Richard Pitcairn and Anitra Frazier, swear by it and believe the allergy scare is greatly exaggerated. So observe your animal and judge for yourself if he might have a problem with yeast.
What are the symptoms of an allergy? They’re different in dogs and cats. Dogs typically suffer from itchy skin eruptions (near the base of the tail is common), inflamed ears, excessive licking of the front paws, digestive upsets such as gurgling, gas, and diarrhea, inflammation of the toes, and an irritated anus and/or genitals with “scooting” of the rear on the floor.
Cats can also have skin eruptions, but they are more likely to develop bladder inflammations (cystitis) and digestive problems. Their skin problems are characterized by stinging or biting sensations that cause them to jump around, lick, and pull their hair out in clumps.
Typical allergens besides yeast are beef, chicken, corn, soy, wheat, milk, cheese, eggs, nuts, fruits, tomatoes, carrots, and spices and additives.
Richard Pitcairn recommends that if you suspect that your cat or dog has a food allergy, feed her a simple diet of brown rice or millet, raw lamb or turkey, and vegetable oil, with vitamin C, a multivitamin, and bone meal. Use filtered or spring water, and keep your animal on the regimen for at least two months. Then if the problem disappears, reintroduce the omitted foods one at a time to determine which are causing symptoms.
In the area of food preferences, if your animal simply doesn’t like to eat something, work around it by preparing it in a way that he does like, or mix little bits of organ meat in with the rest of his food until he learns to tolerate it. If your cat insists on eating canned cat food, buy her the best quality canned food you can afford, but mix in a little bit of natural food. Some nutritionists insist that you force your animals to eat a natural diet right away, even if it means fasting them for days until they’re so hungry they’ll eat anything put in front of them. I’m too softhearted to do that. I think easy and gradual is the way to go.