Food Is Medicine – Nutrition, Diet and Lifestyle for Pets
A well-balanced diet is paramount for keeping our pets healthy, because good nutrition means more vital years for them. If we can create as natural a diet as possible for our cats and dogs – one that is very close to the diet that was eaten by their ancestors in the wild – they will be healthy, strong and fit.
In order to achieve this, a good balance of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vegetables, herbage, organic fibre and water, and sources of natural minerals and vitamins, is essential. Pet food should always be fresh and of high quality, and free-range or organic wherever possible.
Good nutrition is a key part of creating an optimum level of health for our pets, and as every animal is unique in its breed and type it is important that we assess a cat or dog’s nutritional needs individually. We are the guardians of the animals that come into our care, and we owe it to them to provide the very best we can afford.
This section of the book is designed to help pet guardians make informed choices about their pets’ nutrition, and to show how all the different ways of feeding have an important role to play. Whether you currently feed your pets with food that is home-cooked, raw, dried or canned (or both), no single way of feeding is the only way. An animal that eats well can live a long and active life, but one that consumes a poor diet can suffer health complaints.
The more we include natural foods and herbage in our pets’ diets, the more they will thrive. They will have increased energy, a shiny coat, bright eyes, and a strong immune system. They will be alert and visibly happy and will enjoy their food more.
‘AWARENESS’ IS THE KEY TO GOOD PET HEALTH
Today there are numerous major pet health concerns manifesting as food sensitivities and allergies. There are hidden, toxic ingredients in some brands of pet food – including additives, colours, genetically modified substances and preservatives – and these can build up in the bodies of our beloved pets and cause them harm.
Animals that are fed cheap, processed pet foods can develop all sorts of ailments, including skin problems such as eczema, pruritis (itching), constipation, diarrhoea, wind, lethargy, and kidney and immune problems, to name but a few. It is equally important for me in my animal practice to test environmental and topical allergens and assess their impact on pets in today’s modern world.
Dr Rohini and I believe that diet is key to an animal’s wellness and longevity. Every cell in an animal’s body needs fuel, and this comes from food and water, which is converted into energy. More than ever, it is important to create optimum health levels in the body by eating healthy food, and so the nutritional support we give our pets is vital.
Any nutritional improvements you can make to your pet’s diet, however small, will enhance their overall health. Even if you are on a tight budget, you can feed some highly nutritious, reasonably priced storecupboard foods – I am going to ‘bark’ and ‘meow’ on about these later! In this chapter, I am going to share with you my tried-and-tasted, healthy home-cooked treats and meals, which are easy to prepare and will help supplement your pet’s diet.
As a pet guardian with 35 years’ experience of feeding my own cats and dogs – and in the last 16 years or so working in private practice with rescued animals, seniors and fussy eaters – I know how difficult it can be to weigh up time, money and the practicalities of introducing new foods to achieve a more natural, healthy diet. I realize, especially, how convenient it is to buy ready-made pet food at the supermarket, along with the rest of the family food shopping.
If you are feeding your pet canned food and biscuits, buy the highest quality you can afford. Economy ranges and supermarket own-brand varieties contain very few natural nutrients because the food is often cooked at a high temperature in order to preserve it for a longer shelf life, often destroying vital vitamins and minerals in the process. The manufacturers then replace these lost nutrients with synthetic and fortified ones.
Animal protein should be sourced from organic or free-range livestock that have had an opportunity to live part of the year outside, and graze freely. Many of the cheaper brands of pet food use factory-farmed animal derivatives that are not even fit for the human food chain. Some of these are contaminated with antibiotics, growth hormones and diseased parts; there is more on this below.
However, you should try not to change your pet’s diet radically overnight. It is best to continue with your current feeding programme and slowly cut back on the quantities; this will allow you to introduce new foods bit by bit. It is important to monitor your pet’s weight when you are offering new foods, so you can adjust quantities accordingly.
If you are in any doubt, see a veterinarian first, preferably one who practises integrative (conventional and complementary) medicine and specializes in natural food diets. A wide range of chronic conditions in cats and dogs respond favourably to food and nutritional changes.
THE NATURAL DIET FOR CATS AND DOGS
Let us now take a look at how history has shaped the way we feed our pet cats and dogs. At the beginning of the 20th century most domestic cats and dogs ate a near-natural diet. They hunted rabbits and small rodents, scavenged birds’ eggs from nests, and were given scraps from their guardian’s table – the remains of the Sunday roast, leftover soups and casseroles, bones, and cooked and raw vegetables.
Back then, pet guardians themselves were not eating processed foods; instead, the emphasis was on simple, home-cooked meals made with freshly harvested root vegetables, salads and legumes, and locally reared farm animals. Butchers were only too pleased to donate large meaty bones to locally employed hunting dogs and sight hounds, as well as working farm Border Collies and even smaller breeds such as Jack Russell Terriers and Dachshunds. These dogs were lean and healthy and mainly earned their keep as working animals in the local community.
Cats too, the respected mice and rat catchers, would linger around the butcher’s in the hope of a chicken wing, liver or carcass. With very few cars on the roads, domestic and feral farm cats wandered freely outdoors, day and night, hunting for prey. As natural-born hunters cats have an incredible ability to catch and eat their prey and would dine on rabbits, small birds, bats, voles, mice and rats at their leisure.
What went wrong?
If we fast-forward to the last 50 years or so, we see a takeover of our pets’ diet by the pet food industry. After the world-changing events of the Second World War large numbers of people moved from rural communities to live and work in larger towns and cities, and their dogs and cats went with them.
They were valued as companions rather than working animals, and had to adapt to a brand new environment: one in which they could not hunt or self-select their dinner. Sadly, over the years the butcher’s shop all but disappeared from our high streets – in part a result of the dominance of a new type of store: the supermarket.
Pet food manufacturers seized the opportunity to offer cheap pet food for the supermarkets to sell, much of it containing meat protein that was unfit for the human food chain. Livestock feed was often bulked out with grain, some of it genetically modified and grown using pesticides and herbicides for a higher yield. Commercial pet food was cooked at high temperatures, and during the process these chemicals turned into toxins that could be absorbed into the bloodstream, having a detrimental effect on all of the body’s systems.
Gradually, more and more artificial colours, fats, and countless additives were added to pet food, as well as high levels of salt and sugar to make it palatable. It was also loaded with preservatives to help extend its shelf life. Some canned dog and cat food contained as little as 2 per cent meat, and was largely composed of animal derivatives and cereal. Yet demand grew and grew for ready-made pet food: it was cheap and convenient for guardians to buy and dogs and cats were eating it. Manufacturers responded and the pet food industry became a huge international business.
The winds of change
However, over time, thousands of animals started to become unwell, or even died, for no particular reason, and people started to ask questions about the content of commercial pet food. Animal feed manufacturers were governed by far fewer regulations than those that produced food for human consumption, and were therefore able to focus on quantity rather than quality, but gradually veterinarians and the public started to suspect that this wave of ill health might have something to do with the foods that pets were eating.
The list of ingredients on pet food packaging was often vague and guardians began to demand more clarity on the nutritional value and exact content of the food they were buying. Thankfully, this pressure exposed some of the pet food industry’s double standards. In the 1980s a well-known pet food company had to redesign its cat food recipe when cats died after consuming it.
Apparently the product did not contain enough taurine – an amino acid derived from animal protein that cats must eat in order to survive. In this particular brand of cat food the meat content was so low it had to be bulked out with water and cereal, much cheaper components. During the manufacturing process the food was overheated, which damaged and destroyed much of the taurine it contained. Many of the cats that ate this feed eventually died of heart disease, and some were left blind.
More recently, another well-known pet manufacturer actually admitted on prime-time television that it adds red, green and yellow colouring to its dog food pellets – to ‘brighten them up’. These artificial colours are not added to enhance a dog’s nutrition, but for the benefit of its owners, as the pellets look more attractive in their pet’s bowl.
Today, thankfully, the large pet food manufacturers are slowly cleaning up their act, due to public demand for better-quality food. And a small number of independent, family-owned pet food manufacturers who believe our animal companions deserve the equivalent of human-grade food are starting to emerge.
This growing band of ethical and passionate pet food companies are determined to produce high-quality wet and dried food for cats and dogs – made with natural ingredients, few additives and preservatives and no animal derivatives. These products may be more expensive and difficult to source on the high street but I applaud these companies for insisting on using free-range poultry, lamb and rabbit, sourcing the freshest organic vegetables and herbage, and campaigning for better welfare standards for the animals entering the food chain.
But there is still a long, long way to go, and I hope that consumers will continue to put pressure on the leading cheaper brands to improve their ingredients, even if we have to pay more. In the long run it will benefit our pets’ health and their lifespan with us.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A COMPLETE DRY AND WET PET FOOD
Shopping for a complete food for your pet can be quite confusing, as even the packaging can be misleading. With clever advertising and choice of words, even the most unappetizing foods can be made to look good. Manufacturers spend millions every year on product placement, and complete foods are competing against each other in a market that is now worth billions.
But often, pet guardians are led to believe they are buying a quality food when in fact most of the product development budget has been spent on getting the product onto supermarket shelves. I think it is a shame that the higher quality and more expensive pet foods – those that contain natural ingredients, clearly and comprehensively displayed on their packaging, as well as having a code of ethics on animal welfare to match – are not even stocked in supermarkets, because the profit margin is too low for the retailer.
Many pet foods are labelled as containing a balanced mix of nutrients, and some cheaper dried food products state they are a ‘complete balanced food’ and a premium brand. Unfortunately, when you take the food out of the packaging it looks like cardboard and tastes like it. I know this because I have experimented by eating small amounts of it myself! I am interested to see if I can detect certain sugars, salt and flavourings that can be addictive and difficult to wean some cats and dogs away from.
When I read food labels that contain enticing words such as ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’, I am immediately seduced and believe that the food will be good for my pets. These labels are always paired with an image of a beautifully healthy cat or dog, smiling out at me. The product’s delicious-sounding contents are described as juicy, succulent and irresistible, and they almost have me salivating – just as my dogs do when I offer them a home-made sardine fishcake treat (you can find the recipe for this).
Marketing is king in the world of pet food – claims such as ‘premium brand’, ‘complete’ and ‘balanced’ are stated loud and clear on the front of nicely designed bags. Some manufacturers go the extra mile and use an expensive shiny metallic finish to the packaging, to emphasis that their product is the gold standard of pet food. It is not until you read the back of the bag and are presented with a minefield of scientific jargon and an incomprehensible list of food compounds that you wonder what is actually in the food.
On some food packaging a chemical breakdown of the food is given, but not the actual biological ingredients. So you can see the basic protein, carbohydrate, fat and fibre content, but not whether the product contains chicken, wheat, turkey fat or peas. Or sometimes it is a vague list of ingredients and nothing else. You are none the wiser as to what is actually in this bag of food.
Looking closely at pet food packaging
As I write this chapter I have in front of me a leading brand of complete dried dog food that I recently bought at the supermarket. Here is what the label says, word for word: Composition: Cereals, meat and animal derivatives (26 per cent meat, 4 per cent beef), various sugars, vegetable protein extracts, oils and fats, minerals. With colourants, antioxidants and preservatives.
In pre-packaged animal wet and dry foods, the ingredients are listed in descending order, with the largest quantity always shown first. Cereal is first on the list in the food label quoted above, but what percentage is it? Have several different grains been used? Are they genetically modified?
Second on the list is meat and animal derivatives. But what meat is it, exactly, and how is this 26 per cent made up? I am not even sure I know what ‘animal derivatives’ means. Is it animal parts not consumed by humans, like beaks, hooves, feathers, skin and bowels?
Okay, now we come to the 4 per cent beef – but what cut is it? Is it the carcass? It is all too vague. Next up are the ‘various sugars’. We do not know which sugars, though, or the percentage of the ingredients they make up. There are many different sugars used in pet food, among them cane sugar, corn syrup, beet, dextrin, dextrose and so on.
Oils and fats are up next; most of these are by-products collected from various sources, including highly heated corn oils and poultry and beef fat. To prevent these oils turning rancid in the heating process, artificial preservatives are added – despite a growing body of evidence that proves they can be harmful.
When you are buying a complete pet food remember to read the label first. In pre-packaged animal wet and dry food, ingredients are listed in descending order, with the largest quantity always shown first.
What is particularly worrying is that we do not know the long-term implications of feeding a complete food. There has not been any in-depth research into the effects of these cheaper processed foods. So if we give it to our pets on average twice a day, for 365 days a year, how will we know what effect it will have on their health?
Dr Rohini and I have examined a lot of wet-food packaging in an attempt to glean what exactly is in the product. We have seen that many brands contain a large percentage of moisture to bulk out the food content. The processors’ rationale is simple: water is cheap and easy to source, and so the technique of adding water and additives is applied to a vast array of wet pet foods. Indeed, almost any low-grade, mass-produced processed meat product will have been treated this way.
Plant proteins are cheaper than good quality meat proteins so pet food companies make a higher profit margin through using grains such as soy, wheat and corn. Many of these low-grade grains are not fit for human consumption as they have been sprayed with pesticides to prevent them from going mouldy – they are only used for animal feed.
In any medium-sized UK supermarket you will find eight or more aisles stocked with everything for your household, from food and drink to cleaning materials. On average one aisle is devoted to animal feed – dry and wet food and pet treats. Most supermarkets only stock their own brand of pet food, and the cheaper versions of other brands. It is very rare to find a superior, high-quality pet food or a brand that is wholly organic, unless you are buying online or at a pet store.
On average there is a mark-up of up to 1,000 per cent on own-brand supermarket pet foods. The bottom line for a retail store is sales revenue – space is tight for any supermarket so to devote one eighth of their space to pet food must mean they are making a great deal of money, surely?
I completely understand that it is convenient to buy everything under one roof, including pet food; however, I am uncomfortable with the quality of some of the food being fed to our canine and feline friends, much of which could be detrimental to their health.
Pet food shops and online retailers
As I explained earlier, many of the supermarkets find it hard to stock the more expensive, higher quality pet food brands, due to the very small profit margin they will make on them. But I love the fact that we have choice in this area, and my allegiance lies with the pet food shops – which stock so many more brands.
They will happily order specialized and prescriptive foods for you and often have detailed product factsheets with a breakdown of all the ingredients, whether they are human-grade or not, and the manufacturer’s code of ethics.
The more spacious outlets have freezers stocked with frozen complete raw foods, and meat such as minced (ground) beef (handy if you are preparing raw food yourself; more on this later). It is in your interest to know that your pet is being fed a wholesome, ethically derived and nutritious diet and is not eating ingredients that are unfit for human consumption.
It is true that it can be more expensive to feed your pet in this way; however, I value the fact that human-grade ingredients have been sourced and that animal welfare standards have been adhered to. If we as consumers can demonstrate how much this means to the health of our pets, perhaps it will provide enough pressure for the cheaper brands to change their ways for the better.
When sourcing high-quality dry food check the order of the ingredients on the label, and the percentages of any named proteins – for example, chicken. It is not good enough for a manufacturer merely to list these as ‘animal protein’, so write to them to ask for a detailed product factsheet.
SHARING YOUR FOOD KNOWLEDGE WITH YOUR VET
Some conventional vets recommend commercial pet foods because they are led to believe that all dietary needs can be met in a dried biscuit. At most vet schools pet food manufacturers will often sponsor the nutrition seminars and a sales representative will perform a very slick presentation on the pros of offering a complete dried food. They will often claim that it is as good or better than a home-cooked diet, or raw food.
I know this because four of my graduates from the Diploma in Animal Healing at The Healing Animals Organisation are veterinarians and all expressed concern at how little is taught at vet school about real food compounds; they told me that the bias is towards dried food above everything else.
They were delighted to learn so much more about home-cooked diets on my course. I teach that particular vegetables and culinary herbs can be used as part of a balanced diet, and that all animals are unique and have individual tastes and needs – not all ‘paws’ fit one type of food.
When buying prescriptive pet food from your veterinarian, compare the prices with online suppliers, who may be cheaper.
My vet students witnessed the animal guests on the course self-selecting certain culinary herbs, cooked and raw vegetables, animal protein, eggs and plant material and it was an eye-opener for them. But I think what really impressed them was the opportunity to talk with pet guardians face to face. Having been given some new ideas about food the vets loved sharing the simple and quick ways of enhancing an animal’s diet – not by making radical changes to it but by adding healthy, real food snacks and meals made from storecupboard ingredients.
An example would be adding a can of sardines – full of omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, potassium, vitamins B12, A, D, E and K6 – a couple of times a week. (Buy these in sunflower oil, tomato sauce or spring water, but steer clear of brine, as it has salt added). Or cutting down on the amount of dried food (especially if it is being fed 365 days a year) and maybe including one or two free-range eggs a week, plus some lightly cooked peas and carrots to increase the amount of roughage.
Some of the guardians were thrilled to have validated their love of preparing a fresh, home-cooked diet for their cats and dogs, and appreciated being encouraged to include free-range chicken, lightly cooked vegetables, cooked organic pulses, basmati rice and a sprinkling of unsalted ground-down nuts as a treat.
At last, these guardians had something in common to discuss with a vet – real food. They did not feel intimidated by scientific jargon, just encouraged and empowered as responsible pet guardians who know that nutritious food is the basis of good health for any animal.
Case study: adding real food to a dog’s diet
In my practice I see many dogs that are seemingly uninterested in food. On one occasion I had a vet referral to see a beautiful Labradoodle called Boris. Pam, Boris’s guardian, was worried her dog was showing signs of lethargy and boredom. He remained in his bed for long periods of time and sometimes seemed uninterested in going for a walk; he also often picked at his food, leaving it until the next day to finish it.
Boris’s veterinarian had given him a thorough check over and physically he was fine. But Pam told me she felt Boris had ‘lost his joie de vivre’. Boris and Pam came to my clinic, and after a lengthy consultation that explored everything from his medical history and day-to-day life to his canine buddies and other environmental factors, we moved on to the subject of diet.
Pam was feeding Boris a complete dried food, with freeze-dried potato and dried carrot as treats. Sometimes he would have a dog treat – a dry, bone-shaped kibble, primarily made of cereal. Pam was worried that Boris was leaving the dried food uneaten and was upset when one day he raided the waste bin and ate the remains of the Sunday roast chicken carcass: bones and all! She was confused by all the conflicting advice she had read on the internet about what to feed dogs and what not to. In the end, tired and fed up, she stuck with a recommended dry food and dry treats to be on the safe side.
In a food consultation I always have to hand a variety of real foods for pets to self-select. Pam was convinced I would not be able to entice Boris into eating anything. With a dog like Boris, who had been on dried foods for all of his four years, it is important not to change the diet radically and only slowly introduce new foods.
When doing this, each food type needs to be placed in a bowl and offered one at a time. Foods should not be mixed together, and likes and dislikes should be noted. (If foods were mixed up, tastes and smells could mask a particular food a pet does not like or need, and we would never know what was working.)
Offer new foods on a self-selection basis only: do not mix foods together. Offer individual items on a plate, one at a time, until you feel comfortable that your pet likes them. Then you can mix some of them together, e.g. vegetables.
For Boris I had several ceramic plates containing minute quantities of real food for him to try. First up was a bite-sized piece of cooked organic chicken breast, minus the skin. Boris sniffed the plate and then tucked in to the chicken, looking up at Pam for more. Then followed a sliver of hard-boiled egg (at this early stage raw egg could have upset his tummy).
Pam looked on, astonished, as Boris licked the plate clean. She muttered something about never having tried any of these foods, and how terrible she felt that she had denied Boris the right to eat something real and tasty. I assured her that she did not need to feel guilty, and now was as good a time as any to make some healthy changes.
It suddenly dawned on Pam why Boris had stolen the cooked chicken carcass from the bin. In the wild he would have hunted prey such as rabbits or wildfowl and stolen eggs from birds’ nests. Okay, so in the natural world Boris would be eating raw proteins and not cooked, but it was lovely to see Pam witnessing a different perspective – Boris and putting his needs first. She also saw how, as a guardian, she could help give back to Boris some wholesome natural foods to create vitality and wellness.
Boris then wolfed down a small portion of lightly steamed vegetables – two florets of broccoli, a small potato, some diced carrot and a small handful of peas. Suddenly, Pam had a lightbulb moment. She could see a visible difference in Boris’s behaviour; he appeared to grow in stature, and became inquisitive and interested in all the tastes and smells as he licked his lips in anticipation of the next tasty morsel. Pam began to think that it might have been the old, boring dried food that had been causing his depression.
By this stage Boris was wagging his tail; his eyes were sparkling with delight and he was alert – suddenly there was something more interesting for him to focus on. He sat bolt upright, patiently observing the various plates and giving Pam a ‘what’s next?’ look. As Boris was eating minute portions of food I decided to continue with the food testing.
The organic chicken breast I had fed him had been poached in water the night before and left to cool. After setting the meat aside, I had tipped the resulting broth into a cup. Chicken broth is of great benefit to cats and dogs as it contains important vitamins and minerals. It is a great comfort to senior animals in particular, and those from rescue centres who need an extra boost of nutrients to support their immune system. I offered Boris a quarter of a cupful of the broth, and he lapped it up and licked the bowl clean.
Avoid feeding cooked chicken bones to cats or dogs as they can splinter and cause damage to the oesophagus and the lining of the stomach.
Pam asked me if she could use a cooked chicken carcass to make a broth for Boris. The answer was ‘yes’ – this is a very economical way of using up any remnants of meat left on the bones, including organs and gristle (the tough, elastic tissue attached to bone). All of this contains vitamin D and calcium, which are important nutrients for pets. Here is how to make the broth:
Make your own
Chicken broth for cats and dogs
- Place a cooked chicken carcass in a large, lidded saucepan and add 550ml (1 pint) of water. Bring to the boil and then turn off the heat and leave to cool, preferably overnight, with the lid on.
- Remove the chicken carcass and then strain the liquid (broth) into a glass container with a lid. Keep refrigerated and use within three days.
Extras: add vegetables such as carrots, green beans, courgettes (zucchini), potato, broccoli (florets and stalks) to the broth. When cooked, they will soften nicely and add fibre to your pet’s diet.
Please note that cold chicken broth should not be used as a substitute for water. It is important to have fresh drinking water available at all times.
As I was writing up the food notes for Boris, Pam mentioned that she had noticed he was drinking quite a lot of water at home. I explained that as Boris was eating dried food, which has less moisture, it can increase thirst. In the natural world prey such as rodents and wildfowl are made up of at least 70 per cent water and cats and dogs would reabsorb this liquid through eating them.
Pour the chicken broth into ice cube trays and place in the freezer. In the summer months, dogs and cats (especially seniors and those in rehabilitation) can enjoy licking this nutritious, cool snack.
Pam and I discussed the ways in which real food can be incorporated into a dried-food diet. It is important not to cut out dried food entirely, but instead to reduce it by a small amount and replace it with, say, a small handful of fresh-cooked chicken and some lightly steamed vegetables (more if your dog is a large or giant breed). Over a period of weeks, gradually increase the amount of cooked real food and continue decreasing the dried food element. I suggested Pam had a go at making the K9/Feline Nature’s Own Hotpot.
Pam was very eager to get started, but I reminded her that she needed to take things slowly and introduce new foods one at a time, as Boris might experience an upset tummy while he was adjusting to real food. If this happens when you try this food exercise with your pet, do not be alarmed and dismiss the exercise entirely. Just go back to the original diet you were feeding and start again slowly.
I also advised Pam to keep an eye on Boris’s faeces while he was undergoing the change in diet: stools can loosen when softer cooked proteins and vegetable matter are eaten, and harden when raw bones are consumed. This is perfectly normal as it takes time for the digestive system to settle into a new routine.
Offer dogs both raw and lightly steamed vegetables. Some breeds will ignore raw vegetables and prefer to eat them cooked, and vice versa. Raw vegetables and fruit sometimes appear as undigested matter in a pet’s faeces – this is perfectly normal. Include lightly cooked vegetables to add fibre to the diet, and to help the body absorb the raw foods more easily.
For Pam, a whole new world has opened up when it comes to feeding Boris. She has decided to cut back on the quantity of dried food she is feeding and supplement it with natural foods. She admits she does not cook much at home, but when she does she enjoys it. I am thrilled that she is taking this step; she is a busy lady but she feels confident that she will be able to build this into her schedule.
As for Boris, the proof has been in the eating, as he is now self-selecting a variety of new foods offered to him. Pam is also cooking some of my recipes and Boris is happily eating them too. A few weeks after the consultation Pam reported that Boris is a changed dog. He has more energy and enthusiasm, eats with gusto and looks for his lead every day, to go for a walk.
Keep a food journal to record which foods your pet eats and when. Include any that are left uneaten. Offer two new foods a couple times a week and increase slowly.
When cats and dogs come to my clinic for a consultation and they self-select a range of my home-cooked foods and treats, I also like to find out what kind of foods guardians are eating. This will determine how far they are willing to go when it comes to adding real foods to their pets’ diet. We all lead busy lives, and what we are prepared to do has to fit in with our lifestyle.
STORECUPBOARD SUPERFOODS FOR PETS
When it comes to buying food and other items for my household, I shop at the supermarket like everyone else – I buy organic fruit and vegetables from there, along with grains, herbs, spices and so on. What I particularly like about food shopping today is that I can also purchase many of the ‘storecupboard superfoods’ I use to supplement my pets’ diet. For example, I buy cans of own-brand sardines in sunflower oil, free-range eggs, basmati rice, frozen peas, beautiful bunches of organic carrots, sweet potatoes and courgettes (zucchini).
These days it is becoming expensive to feed ourselves, let alone our pets, but introducing some of these superfoods and my home-made meals and treats (see the recipes in Chapters 2 and 3) to your pet’s diet can help you reduce your overall pet food bill. In my household there is a menagerie of animals to feed, and I want them to have the very best food I can afford. I may not buy an own-brand complete food from my supermarket, but I thank them for stocking natural foods I can use to feed both myself and my pets.
The superfoods shopping checklist
I love preparing and cooking the freshest ingredients I can lay my hands on, creating tasty meals that are wholesome, nutritious and economical. My animals have to fit in with my lifestyle, as I am not going to spend every waking hour making pet food. Equally I am not going to palm them off by giving them a commercial complete food twice a day when I know they will benefit from all the goodness contained in real food.
So I have devised a food plan that enables me to prepare and cook for myself and for my pets at the same time. While you are shopping for yourself and your family, use the following checklist to stock up on healthy food items to make pet meals and treats:
At the supermarket
- Fresh vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, green beans, Brussels sprouts, courgettes (zucchini), sweet potatoes, butternut squash, spinach.
- Free-range eggs.
- Free-range chicken.
- Minced (ground) beef and lamb.
- Fresh fish such as cod, salmon, mackerel.
- Canned fish such as sardines and mackerel (buy these in sunflower oil, tomato sauce or spring water, but steer clear of brine as it has added salt).
- Basmati rice, pulses.
- Organic plain yoghurt.
- Natural, unsalted nuts and seeds. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds will need to be ground with a pestle and mortar before being added to food.
- Frozen foods such as peas, prawns and fish.
At your local butcher
I buy free-range meat from my butcher (who also gives me free of charge the chicken carcasses I use to make the broth recipe). Ask your butcher if you can have any unwanted fresh chicken carcasses. My three dogs – a large Boxer cross Bull Mastiff, a Norfolk Terrier cross and a Border Terrier cross – are fed raw free-range chicken wings and thighs, chicken breast and leg meat and venison; they also chew on large, raw, meaty lamb bones, which are a good source of calcium and help keep their teeth clean.
Avoid feeding cooked animal skin or trimmed fat, and crusts of bread or pizza – all of which have no nutritional value.
I supplement the meat element with my chicken broth. I make a big pot twice a week, throwing in a range of seasonal vegetables and a handful or two of basmati rice. All the goodness is sealed into the broth, which lives in a large glass container with a Tupperware lid in the fridge for up to three days – or I freeze it in smaller containers and use it as and when I need it.
In the summer months my dogs sometimes have lightly cooked chicken, beef, salmon and trout, as when the weather is hot raw food may go off more quickly. When I am busy I supplement this with smaller quantities of canned fish such as pilchards, sardines or tuna in sunflower oil, which contain omega fatty acids noted for their anti-inflammatory properties. I also offer them my home-made herb-infused oils.
Forty per cent of a dog’s diet should be free-range or organic meat and fish and the remaining 60 per cent should be made up of vegetables – lightly cooked and raw – grains, unsalted ground-down nuts and seeds, and fruit.
My dogs are companion animals and do not work for a living like their ancestors did a few hundred years ago, so I go easy on feeding them organ meat. For centuries, kidney, liver, heart, tripe, etc., were the main protein source for most working dogs and all are well-known ‘heating’ foods that give the body an extra boost of energy and nutrients. But with many of our pooches leading a more sedate lifestyle these days I recommend a small quantity of organ meat just once a week.
A couple of times a week my dogs love to have a free-range egg or two. One of them, Lily, has a sensitive tummy and she prefers her eggs hard-boiled or scrambled; the other two love to eat them raw. Take a look at my egg recipes.
Feed dogs twice a day. Many dogs can become overweight if fed once a day as the body’s metabolic rate can slow down to compensate for the lack of food.
Twice a month I bake a large batch of tasty and nutritious dog treats. They take just 35 minutes to prepare and cook, and can be cut into squares and frozen. There is a range of recipes for you to choose from in Chapter 2. These healthy snacks are a great training aid for positive reinforcement work, too. You can also try treats such as raw whole carrots, pieces of apple and banana, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and ground-down nuts and seeds.
From time to time I feed my Woof Berry and Yoghurt treats, which consist of natural organic yoghurt, blackberries and mashed ripe banana: live natural yoghurt helps restore the gut’s natural flora and is great during and after a course of antibiotics.
Dr Rohini and I see a number of dogs and cats that may be suffering from sensitivities to certain foods. Quite often pets have been eating a particular type of food for a very long time and some of the biological compounds they contain can overload the body. For example, the high percentage of grain cereals in foods, along with a lack of high-quality animal protein and sufficient amino acids from animal sources, are factors in the increase in skin problems. Many pet foods contain a high proportion of cereal, which is used to bulk it out, hence the increase in food allergies in some breeds.
Food allergies are simply defined as an immune system reaction caused by the ingestion of particular food substances. They can cause a wide range of symptoms in animals, and veterinary experts estimate that 15 per cent of all allergic skin disease in dogs and cats may be caused by food hypersensitivity.
This hypersensitivity appears to be the second most common cause of pruritis (itchy skin) skin disease in cats and the third most common cause in dogs. There does not appear to be any sex or breed predisposition, although in my practice I see a lot of German Shepherd Dogs and West Highland Terriers with food allergies.
Food allergies do not just affect the skin – they can also affect the gastrointestinal system and occasionally the nervous system. Typical skin symptoms include severe pruritis, hair loss, redness, skin infections and ear infections. Gastrointestinal signs include vomiting, diarrhoea (sometimes bloody) and straining and increased frequency of bowel movements. Rarely, seizures have been associated with food hypersensitivity. Food allergies have also been associated with hyperactivity, depression, irritability, arthritis and joint pain, asthma, chronic bronchitis, hypoglycaemia and sinusitis.
How to detect food allergies
If your pet has any of the above symptoms, and you think they could be food-related, check with your veterinarian first. Sometimes you can figure it out just by doing a bit of simple detective work. Check when the itching or other symptoms began to show up. Was it right after you changed your dog or cat foods? Go back to feeding the former food and if the symptoms clear up, you have your answer.
Food trials are the easiest way to figure out food allergies. I usually recommend a food elimination diet in the first instance. To do this, limit your pet to one protein source and one carbohydrate source to which they have previously had little or no exposure. For example, if your pet is on a basic dog or cat food that contains wheat, cereal and beef as its main ingredients you may want to choose either a home-made diet of fish and rice (a higher ratio of protein) or one of the prepared hypoallergenic diets of fish and rice.
One has to be patient as it can take many months to see a change: there have been reports of food elimination trials in which symptoms took six months to improve. In my practice, though, I usually see improvements within a fortnight. Once you have realized that your pet is sensitive to a particular pet food, it is then important to know which food is causing the allergy. Is it the carbohydrate source – such as wheat or cereal – or the protein source such as beef, chicken or fish? Or could it be something else, like flavourings, preservatives or artificial colours? All of these are possible culprits.
You can simply add one food source back in at a time, which is commonly known as a food provocation trial. For instance, if you add back wheat and the symptoms reoccur, you know that wheat is the offending allergen. The most common food allergens for pets include beef, chicken, pork, wheat, corn, soya beans, eggs and dairy products. (These foods are usually very cheap cuts of meat and dairy products packed with antibiotics that have suppressed the animal’s immune system.)
If you prefer to feed branded pet food, experiment by changing over to a different brand, keeping a note of all the different ingredients and chemicals that are in the product. Some people choose to cook a home-made diet for their pet and detect individual foods to which they are allergic. A recipe that has been very successful for some of my clients, and one you can try, is the K9/Feline Nature’s Own Hotpot (please use only one protein source at a time – i.e. chicken – in the hotpot).
Also be aware that certain toys and snacks, such as bones or other chews, may contain offending substances as well, and therefore need to be removed during food elimination trials. There are blood tests available for food allergies, but there is still some controversy about how reliable these actually are. Food allergies can also mimic other diseases, including other allergies such as inhalant or contact allergies and flea allergies, as well as parasitic infections.
Replace plastic feed and water bowls with ceramic or stainless steel ones, as harmful chemicals can leach from plastics into the drinking water and food our pets consume.
NUTRITION AND DIET FOR DOGS
Dogs are omnivores, with the balance towards being carnivore – in the wild dogs eat meat. When we go back in time and consider the diet of the ancestor of all dogs today – the wolf – we see that they ate deer, wildfowl and rabbit carcasses. This food provided everything the wolf needed to survive, including pre-digested vegetable matter found in the digestive tracts of their prey.
As carnivores, dogs have sharp and jagged teeth that are designed for tearing and ripping up meat. They also have a short and simple digestive tract that allows them easily to digest animal protein and fat and their stomach also contains strong hydrochloric acid, which can break down harmful bacteria and help it to fully digest animal proteins, bones and fat.
Many people ask me about feeding a raw food diet to dogs and I explain that it really depends on the individual animal and whether you as the guardian can commit to preparing the food yourself or buying it pre-prepared and ready to feed. A raw diet may not suit all dogs, as each animal is unique and has individual needs.
The BARF diet
One particular raw feeding practice that has become popular in recent years is the BARF diet (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food). BARF is a phrase coined in 1993 by the Australian veterinary surgeon Ian Billinghurst, who proposed that pet dogs could eat a raw food diet including bones and raw vegetable matter.
The BARF diet is based on the belief that carnivores do not just need to eat meat (in fact, this could potentially be unhealthy, as meat alone does not provide all the vitamins and minerals required). In the wild an animal eats all of its prey, including the organs, muscle meat, bone cartilage and stomach contents. Wild dogs may eat birds’ eggs, berries, herbs and grasses too, and consume plant material to self-medicate.
The BARF diet can be fed to dogs in a number of ways. The purest form is to feed the whole, or part, of an animal – for example an entire chicken. However today it is more convenient for the pet guardian to buy chicken wings, legs and breast meat from the butcher’s or a supermarket. One of the advantages of this way of feeding is that it is ideal for keeping a dog’s teeth clean: chewing meat, sinew and bone provides a natural ‘floss’ for teeth and gums.
If you decide to prepare a raw food diet yourself, vegetable matter can be included to create a balance (see the vegetables listed in the shopping checklist above). Including vegetables in the diet replicates the way in which a wild dog will eat the stomach contents of its prey. You can source raw food in several ways. You can buy meat from your local butcher or, if you do not like the idea of preparing raw meat yourself, or time is a constraint, you can buy frozen, pre-prepared BARF food from specialist suppliers.
There are many online suppliers offering pet foods based on the BARF diet, including www.naturesmenu.co.uk and in the USA, www.bravopetfoods.com and www.primalpetfoods.com. These foods usually come in blocks containing minced (ground) meat that includes bone and cartilage, vegetables and herbage. If you choose to feed these BARF blocks, include some raw meaty bones in the weekly feeding regime, to keep your dog’s teeth and gums clean and healthy.
You can also buy minced (ground) raw meat from pet stores such as Pets at Home in the UK (www.petsathome.com) and www.primalpetfoods.com in the USA. Always buy the best quality food that you can afford and ideally where you know the provenance. Suppliers of good quality meat will be very happy to share their sources with you.
Supplementing a raw diet
There are many nutritional supplements that can be added to a raw diet. However there are two that are commonly believed to be the most important – fish oils such as salmon or krill, and cold-pressed linseed oil.
Fish oils and cold-pressed linseed oil are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E, which have been shown to help boost the immune system, control inflammation, help prevent heart disease and be beneficial in the treatment of cancer, arthritis and renal disease. Dosage depends on the size of your dog – offer 1 teaspoon a day to small breeds, 2 teaspoons to medium breeds and 3 teaspoons to large breeds.
Raw food preparation and hygiene
You will need to make a number of preparations before transferring your dog (or cat) to a raw diet. You will need to buy good-quality storage containers in which to keep your food, and a freezer. A good antibacterial chopping board is essential, as are a meat cleaver (to break up the BARF blocks) or a meat food processor.
Hygiene is an important aspect of raw feeding and food preparation areas should be kept spotlessly clean. Storage containers and bowls must be washed thoroughly after each feed. Even meat intended for human consumption can still carry bacteria, so it is advisable to wash hands and utensils after handling raw meat. Do not refreeze food once it has been defrosted.
CASE STUDY: THE BARF DIET IN PRACTICE
One of my Diploma in Animal Healing students, Lynne, decided to switch the diet of her dog, Millie, from a dried one to a BARF. Here, she tells us how she got on:
‘There are several schools of thought about the best way to transfer your dog from a prepared food diet to a raw one. They range from going “cold turkey” and changing the food overnight, to a steady introduction over a week or so, gradually changing the percentage of one style of feed (dried food, say) to another, such as a home-cooked diet. The latter is the route I chose to take with Millie, who suffered no adverse effects (she does, however, have the constitution of an ox!)
‘The most common advice is to feed around 2 to 3 per cent of your dog’s body weight daily, divided into two meals. However, all dogs are different – they take varying amounts of exercise and have different metabolic rates – so this percentage is just a guide. See the table below for guidelines.’
|Raw, BARF-prepared food feeding guidelines|
|Dog’s weight||Amount of food|
|11kg (25lb)||225–350g (8–12oz) daily, or two meals of 115–175g (4–6oz)|
|22kg (50lb)||450–675g (1–1½lb) daily, or two meals of 225–350g (8–12oz)|
|34kg (75lb)||680–900g (1½—2lb) daily, or two meals of 350–450g (12–16oz)|
|45kg (100lb)||900g—1.3kg (2–3lb) daily, or two meals of 450–675g (1–1½lb)|
‘I started off by feeding Millie 450g (1lb) of meat a day, split into two feeds; however she soon started to gain weight, so I reduced the ration to 280g (10oz). She is currently on 225g (8oz) of meat a day (half the amount I fed her at the outset).’
|Millie’s BARF menu|
|Monday||Free-range egg||Chicken wings|
|Tuesday||Minced (ground) beef||Chicken backs|
|Wednesday||Free-range egg||Turkey necks|
|Thursday||Minced (ground) lamb||Pigs’ trotters|
|Friday||Free-range egg||Chicken wings|
|Saturday||Minced (ground) beef||Lamb breast bones|
|Sunday||Free-range egg||Chicken backs|
|Note: as with any kind of feeding, fresh water should always be available.|
‘I feed Millie the BARF-prepared food and then give her raw, meaty bones twice a week, primarily to clean her teeth. I feed marrow bones and rib bones, and I have just introduced lamb neck bones. I tried chicken wings, too, but she did not get as excited by them as she did the minced (ground) meat, and she also regurgitated them on a number of occasions. I think she ate them too quickly and did not chew them properly.
‘Millie has been on the BARF diet for a number of months now and is thriving. She loves the food (no more lying there and just looking at the bowl). She looks fabulously well, too: her body shape has changed; she has got great muscle tone, and is “solid” but not at all fat. Her teeth have greatly improved, and her coat is beautifully soft.
‘I was feeding her a quality dry food before the change, so I have not noticed a significant difference in the size of her faeces (which is often a pleasant side effect of the change). However, I have noticed that she drinks less water than she used to.
‘Changing to a BARF diet is a little daunting at first – especially handling raw meat (not great if you are a vegetarian). You need to have the belief that you are doing the right thing and that you are feeding your dog a balanced and nutritious diet. It can also be a little frightening if you are not used to feeding your dog bones, especially if they vomit them back up on occasion.
‘However, I would encourage anyone to change to a raw diet. It is feeding your dog as nature intended; it keeps their teeth clean, their immune system strong. For those dogs that suffer allergies associated with eating prepared food, it is a simple way to restore them to full health – there are no additives and preservatives in this diet.’
ENVIRONMENTAL, MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL WELLBEING FOR DOGS
Today, the vast majority of our canine companions live with us in the home (just a small minority of working dogs live in outdoor kennels). In the wild dogs such as wolves look after themselves in a pack – sleeping, hunting and eating together – but our domesticated dogs rely on us for food, shelter, exercise and companionship. It is our responsibility, therefore, to make sure our dogs have everything they need to lead a full and happy life.
My three dogs are part of my family and we welcome the fact that they have always chosen to share our living space. Most of the time they live in a spacious kitchen that is warm, sunny and well ventilated, with non-slip stone tile flooring throughout. They have an assortment of beds, each topped with a 100 per cent cotton duvet cover – these are easier to keep clean and less itchy than synthetic ones, and insects find it difficult to make a home in them.
For most of the day the dogs have access to a large, well-fenced garden covered with grass, shrubs, trees, a vegetable patch and herb gardens, and there is a stone patio where they can explore, play and sunbathe when it is warm and sunny. They have a regular daily routine of exercise, play and walks with me, or my husband when I am abroad working with animals.
Our dogs love to be with us as much as we love to be with them, and they even come away with us when we holiday in the UK. During the week they interact with my clients and their dogs, which enables them to stay socially active.
Not all dogs have had the best start in life. My three are all rescue animals who had issues of abandonment, physical and mental abuse, fear of traffic noise and agoraphobia. Over a period time, through dedication and commitment, we have aided their rehabilitation using healing, herbs, diet and positive-reward dog training.
If you are encountering any difficulties with your dog I thoroughly recommend you read Dr Rohini’s A–Z Common Conditions chapter, which details many of the problems experienced by dogs, including aggression, anxiety, depression, fears and phobias. Your first port of call, though, is always your vet, who will thoroughly check over your pet and rule out any physical conditions.
I would now like to share with you a few of my favourite tips for keeping your dog physically, mentally and emotionally fit: these have helped the hundreds of dogs I have treated at my clinic or in their homes.
Lifestyle tips for dogs
- Keep to a routine: feed your dog twice a day and give at least one good walk daily. If more than one person in the household is training the dog, everyone needs to be singing from the same song sheet or your dog will become confused.
- Positive-reward dog training uses praise and rewards to see what motivates your dog into correctly following a command. (Offering one of my healthy dog biscuits can be really useful in one-on-one reward training (see recipes in Chapter 2).
- Offer a natural treat once in a while: a 100 per cent deer-antler dog chew (ethically sourced) is unprocessed, has no smell and is a great teeth cleaner. It will keep your dog amused for hours.
- Buy a Kong rubber dog toy, which is designed to be filled with your pet’s favourite healthy treats. Many of my clients make my Woof Berry and Yoghurt dog treats Liver Cake K9 bake or any of the dog biscuits featured in Chapter 2 for use with this toy. I recommend the medium or large Kong as dogs find it hard to lick the inside of the small version. The toys are available in the UK from leading pet shops and amazon.co.uk and in the USA from www.amazon.com.
- Dogs are social animals and they love to engage in the daily household activities and interact with us. If your dog(s) live inside, place comfy beds close to regular guardian activity, like the heart of the kitchen. Dogs that are isolated or shut away for long periods of time will develop insecurities, depression and behavioural issues.
- Invest in an orthopaedic or memory foam bed: seniors with joint problems, stiffness or muscular problems will find this invaluable. Although they are quite expensive, it is worth it in the long run for your pet’s comfort and wellbeing. The beds are available in the UK from leading pet shops, www.amazon.co.uk and www.petsathome.com and in the USA from www.amazon.com and www.k9ballistics.com.
- Larger breeds of dog and seniors suffering from stiffness, arthritis and hip dysplasia really benefit from a ramp to get in and out of a vehicle. Source one that is anti-slip and preferably coated with rubber matting (many of my clients struggle to lift their dogs and consequently hurt themselves). Dog ramps are available in the UK from www.petplanet.co.uk and www.petsathome.com and in the USA from www.amazon.com and www.drsfostersmith.com.
- Fresh, plain water must be available at all times. If you ever have to add anything to water, such as remedies or medication, always offer it in a separate bowl so your pet can choose.
- Position comfortable bedding inside the house, near a window, so dogs can lie on it in full sunlight if they so wish, and absorb natural vitamin D from the sun’s rays. Always have other bedding available if they want to retire elsewhere, especially when it is hot. If the weather is sunny and you have a secure garden place bedding outside, too, so your dog can relax in the sunlight; make sure there is a shaded area he or she can retire to.
- If you have laminate flooring, place rugs or runners on it, to encourage dogs to walk with ease. Dogs can become unsteady and slip on uncovered laminate flooring, leading to uncertainty and a lack of confidence.
- Have a CD of soft, relaxing music or a classical music radio station playing while you are out of the house. Alternatively, leave the TV on at a low volume. Many dogs love to watch TV, and some eventually doze off, just like us!
- Whatever the size of your garden, allow your dog to have access to sensory stimulation. Plant culinary herbs (in preparation for making some of the lovely pet treats featured in Chapters 2 and 3). Dogs have millions of smell receptors and love to spend time sniffing the air, the ground and the plants around them. Allow grasses like couch grass, or long blades of grass turf, to grow so dogs can chew on these and absorb the nutritional and health properties of chlorophyll in the tips of the plant.
- Plant a small rose bush with budding blooms – dogs love to smell the aroma of roses as it is relaxing and calming.
- Some dogs that live alone with a guardian can benefit from the presence of a canine friend in the household: they can provide friendship, confidence and comfort to each other. If it is not feasible to have another dog, some dogs enjoy the company of a cat. Read Chapter 11: Give a Pet a Home, as many rescue centres will have established whether or not a particular dog can live with another dog or cat.
NUTRITION AND DIET FOR CATS
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they must eat meat as part of their overall diet. There are two main nutrients that cats need to survive – taurine and arachidonic acid – and these are found only in animal tissue. Taurine is an essential amino acid and arachidonic acid is an essential fatty acid; both are found in high quantities in meat and are practically non-existent in plant-based foods.
Cats require these food compounds in order to function properly. Taurine and arachidonic acid provide energy and are vital for growth and development; they are essential for healthy eyes and a fully functioning heart, producing new antibodies, hormones and tissues and helping form bile salts that aid the digestion of fats.
Taurine is found in animal flesh such as chicken, turkey, wildfowl, rabbit, lamb and beef, and to a lesser degree in fish and eggs. Even feral cats that live outdoors are not able to make taurine themselves, and need to source it from the prey they catch, such as mice, rats, other small rodents, rabbits, insects and small reptiles.
Another source of taurine is organ meat such as heart, liver and kidney. Feed this in small amounts, varying it weekly. Offer it raw or lightly poached in water (retain the liquid broth and offer that separately).
Cats are very different from dogs and must never be fed wet or dried dog food as it does not contain the level of protein they require. Nor must they have a vegetarian or vegan diet, as they will become very deficient in taurine, which could lead to blindness and death. In some cases cats existing on the cheaper processed brands of cat food exhibit signs of depression, lethargy, shortness of breath, a dull coat and a compromised immune system.
A few high-quality wet and dried food manufacturers offer high meat content in their products and a precise listing of natural ingredients. In the UK, try Lily’s Kitchen, Applaws, Nature Diet, Nature Menu and Orijen. In the USA, try Taste of the Wild, Blue Buffalo, Orijen, Halo, Honest Kitchen, Canine Caviar and EVO Wild Craving.
In the wild cats hunt mice, small birds and rabbits, and will eat the stomach contents of their prey. I have witnessed my own cat, Rosie, hunting for food in a nearby field. She once killed a rabbit and dragged it back to our home before eating it whole, including the meat, the carcass, the liver, heart and muscle and bones. She even ate the stomach contents, which were full of natural fibre and roughage, including partially digested grasses, herbage, seeds, fruit and grains.
I felt terribly sad for this dear rabbit, but in the wild cats hunt for prey every day to survive; nature has provided everything a cat requires in its diet to stay healthy and alive. Some domestic and feral cats will even forage for fruit and nuts, and steal eggs from nesting birds to eat.
Sixty per cent of a cat’s diet should be free-range or organic meat and fish, and the remaining 40 per cent should be made up of vegetables – lightly steamed or boiled (and/or pureed raw) – plus seeds and nuts ground to a powder. Some breeds will ignore raw vegetables and prefer to eat them cooked, and vice versa.
Some cats love a varied diet and wherever possible it is good to offer foods that they can self-select. As cats can be fussy eaters, it is good to vary the types of food you offer, and experiment with different preparation techniques. Try lightly cooked and/or pureed raw vegetables, fruit, grains (cooked brown rice and pulses), nuts (ground down to powder), and eggs (lightly scrambled, hard-boiled or raw) a couple of times a week – some cats like the egg yolk and white blended together.
You could also try a probiotic like live, plain yoghurt to help the gut flora: this is great during and after a course of antibiotics, which destroy both harmful and beneficial bacteria in the gut. Always offer your cat fresh water. If you are worried about the quality of your tap water, offer filtered or natural mineral water.
When giving prescriptive pills to cats that are suspicious of medicine, try wrapping them in a small amount of Dairylea soft processed cheese, available in the UK (or Velveeta in the USA). Cats seem to love this cheese and tend not to spit out the secret medicine concealed within it!
The importance of Vitamin D
All animals need sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, including us. Today, many indoor pets do not receive enough sunlight to create the vitamin D they need for healthy bones and a strong immune system. I have encountered hundreds of cats at rescue centres and on home visits and observed that, when the sun is shining brightly, they always try to find a spot near a window to absorb its rays. Many of the cats I treat at rescue centres position themselves in the sun when I give healing to them.
I teach animal healing in Japan and in the capital city, Tokyo, many cats live in high-rise apartment blocks. It is crucial that these cats, and other housebound cats around the world, have access to large, sun-facing windows, ideally without coverings, so they get the benefit of the sunlight that penetrates the room during the day. I have observed how many cats will follow the sun’s rays from window to window, thus giving themselves the option of sitting in full sunlight or not.
A sun-facing window is essential for creating the purrfect suntrap for house cats. Position furniture so cats can access the sun more readily if they need to climb onto a table, sofa or window ledge.
Adding natural food to your cat’s diet
If you are feeding your cat a complete wet or dried food (or both), why not offer some nutritious natural foods too? You will be amazed at how much your cat enjoys trying something new. Very gradually, introduce some home-cooked (or raw) foods, and decrease the amount of processed foods – take it slowly and be patient with your cat’s food choices.
Some cats like to eat pureed vegetable matter. Put lightly cooked vegetables, along with a little of the cooking water, in a blender and liquidize. Pureed vegetables are great for all cats, including seniors that have had teeth removed, fussy eaters or those recovering from surgery.
I will never forget the time I gave Oliver, my beautiful long-haired cat, a permanent home. The staff at the local RSPCA rescue centre, where he had been living for over a year, told me he loved sachet wet food and dry food twice a day, so I had my work cut out with his diet, as I was keen to offer him my home-cooked and raw recipes. I had to take a step back and assess Oliver’s needs at that moment. He had to be introduced to new foods one at a time, so I slowly decreased the quantity of his wet and dry food.
When he first came to me, Oliver was obsessed with a leading brand of wet food that was full of sugar, preservatives and animal derivatives. I coined the phrase ‘McDonald’s cat’, to describe him, because it was obvious he had spent a lifetime eating mainly processed food. This became even more evident when the vet showed me the tartar that had built up on his teeth – canned soft foods can stick to teeth and cause plaque.
If cats have been brought up from a young age to eat dry or wet foods they will be more wary about trying new foods offered to them. Quite often, natural foods may have to be disguised and added to some of their usual food in order for them to trust it.
Usually, doing this goes against the grain for me, as I believe animals should be able to self-select natural foods when we offer them. However, every cat is different and Oliver certainly showed me that. It took me almost a year to wean him off a highly processed diet and onto a healthy, balanced diet of home-cooked and raw foods, supplemented by a quality sachet and dried food.
But as I have explained, each cat is individual, and many of my clients worry about how fickle their cats are with food. Oliver was incredibly fussy, yet he was always interested in everything I put in front of him. Even if he sampled a mouthful and left the rest I always observed his likes and dislikes. He has been my greatest teacher in the importance of perseverance – sometimes I would think he did not like a particular food, but he would amaze me by coming back to it a couple of weeks later and eating it.
Cats can be very fussy in their eating habits and it takes perseverance and patience from the guardian. Do not dismiss a food such as lightly cooked chicken if your cat initially shows no interest in it. Offer it again another week. Or try serving it differently: tearing it up into small strips rather than dicing it into chunks, say, or maybe pouring over a little chicken broth to make it more appetizing.
Storecupboard superfoods for cats
Some of my clients do not want to handle raw or cooked animal protein; however they are keen to offer some natural storecupboard superfoods to help supplement the complete dry and wet food they are feeding their cat.
Most cats like to eat canned fish, such as sardines, mackerel or tuna. Buy these in sunflower oil, tomato sauce or spring water, rather than brine, which has salt added. Vary which type you feed, and offer small amounts, starting off with 1 teaspoon per feed time. Decant the contents of the can into a glass container with a close-fitting lid and keep it in the fridge. Use within three days.
Again, when you are introducing new foods, slowly decrease the amount of dried food you are feeding to balance out the diet. One economical, nutritious and tasty dish is my sardine fishcakes. Most cats I know adore this special treat.
When feeding prawns as a snack or treat, source wild prawns from the North Atlantic, and avoid the large farmed prawns from the Far East, which contain antibiotics and preservatives. Defrost frozen prawns at room temperature and wash before feeding.
Feeding dried food
Many clients come to me with concerns about feeding their cat a diet that is made up entirely of dried food. This kind of diet can sometimes be problematic, and there have been cases of kidney- and bladder-related conditions. Always speak to your veterinarian before going ahead, or get a second opinion from a holistic veterinarian specializing in natural food diets for cats.
I would always have a good-quality wet food available in a separate feeding bowl, to increase moisture content (mammals are composed of around 70 per cent water, including the prey cats would hunt in the wild). I would also have my chicken broth on hand, and plenty of fresh, filtered water in a separate bowl. Or I would recommend making a slow switch to a raw food diet.
Supplement your cat’s diet by offering small amounts of my herb-infused food oils. Cats love to self-select catmint, marigold, rosehip and chickweed.
Feeding real wet food
Pet guardians are becomingly increasingly aware of the importance of high-quality wet food in satisfying their cat’s nutritional needs. When they make the switch to a higher-quality brand, though, some find their cats can become really fussy and refuse to eat it. A small band of manufacturers have been seriously listening to guardians and holistic vets and have come up with a ‘halfway house’ quality food to help cats make the transition from processed foods.
This food consists of lightly steamed meat and vegetables sealed in a pouch. It contains a minimum of 70 per cent real meat and is sugar free – processed foods typically contain 4 per cent real meat and are loaded with sugars. Have a look at www.naturesmenu.co.uk or www.primalpetfoods.com.
RAW FOOD FOR CATS
There are also companies who supply complete and balanced raw cat food. This usually comes in frozen blocks containing smaller, ready-made cubes that are easier to serve. The cubes contain minced (ground) meat – which includes bone and cartilage, vegetables and herbage – and are extremely handy if you do not like preparing raw food yourself, or have limited time available.
One particular manufacturer claims to use human-grade meat from ethically assured farms. The meat contains sufficient natural taurine, so it is not necessary to add a synthetic version back in – as is done with cheaper brands of cat food. The food is not processed, either, other than to mix the ingredients together and shape them into more manageable cubes, and it is subjected to safety bacteria tests before it leaves the factory. See www.naturesmenu.co.uk and in the USA, www.bravopetfoods.com and www.primalpetfoods.com.
If you do decide to feed these blocks you may like to include some raw chicken wings in the weekly feeding programme – to keep your cat’s teeth and gums clean and healthy. Some of the feedback I have received from guardians who are feeding a raw diet to their cats reveals that they have observed calmer behaviour, improved appetite, better muscle tone and a reduction in ailments such as skin inflammation, digestive issues and urinary tract infections.
Cats who can be weaned off wet food and onto raw make a better transition than those who go from dry food to raw.
If you are feeding a combination of dried and wet food, add a little of my chicken broth to the dried and slowly increase the lightly cooked cubes mentioned above. There may be periods when your cat will switch back to eating dry for a while, and then seek out what you are eating!
MENTAL, EMOTIONAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL WELLBEING FOR CATS
There are some cats that live indoors 24/7 and are totally reliant on their guardians to service their nutritional and environmental needs. We would all love our cats to roam freely outside, and the majority of them do, but some cannot.
Like us, most of our pets, both dogs and cats, are living a full and long life. Older cats – who I like to refer to as ‘seniors’ – get to a time in their lives when they prefer to stay cosy and warm inside. If they have developed age-related conditions such as failing eyesight, depression or arthritis, they may feel vulnerable and find it hard to get around.
In fact, cats in any age group can find themselves housebound. Some are unable to go outside because they live in high-rise apartment blocks. Others live near busy main roads and could easily get knocked over and killed. Some cats can go outside but choose not to, while others do not like other cats visiting their garden and invading their territory and so prefer to stay indoors. There are also cats that are naturally scared of the outside world, as they have been brought up from birth to remain indoors and have never had an opportunity to go outside.
Whether cats are able to roam freely outside or not it is vital we bring some of the natural world inside to help them feel content and happy, and not stressed or anxious because they cannot go out. It is important that we do not deny our pets positive stimulation: they are entitled to this, as in the wild they would be nourishing themselves by self-selecting plant material, play hunting and exploring the outdoors.
ENVIRONMENTAL ENRICHMENT TIPS FOR CATS
I would like to share with you a few of my favourite tips for keeping your cat physically, mentally and emotionally fit: these have helped the hundreds of cats I have treated at my clinic or at their homes. Now I am going to be honest with you, some of the ideas below can be a bit messy for your home, but the benefits to your cat will be huge, and they will thank you big time!
- Natural, unsprayed fallen tree trunks and large branches from a wood or forest make excellent scratching posts; have a few dotted about the house.
- Make a catnip or valerian cat toy (see Catnip cat toy and Valerian cat toy for instructions).
- Have edible plants dotted around the home, including catnip and wheatgrass.
- Buy a 1m2 roll (24in wide × 64.5in long) of grass turf from a good garden centre and place it in a deep-sided tray. Position near a window to absorb sunlight, and keep it watered. Cats love to roll on the grass, sit in it and even eat it.
- Create a ‘cat snuggle space’ inside your wardrobe, and keep a door open so your cat can access it; also, keep a few drawers open, as cats love to explore and have hiding places.
- Find the right water fountain: cats love to play and drink running water (many cats love to drink and play with a dripping tap in the bathroom or kitchen).
- Position comfortable furniture near a window, so cats can lie on it in full sunlight.
- Have soft, relaxing music or a classical music radio station playing while you are out.
- If you have two cats in the household place three cat litter trays around the home (use natural substrates that are not perfumed).
- Try to keep the space under beds clear, so cats can retreat there as a resting space and play area.
- Plant a small rose bush with budding blooms – cats love to smell the aroma of roses as it is relaxing and calming.
Exercise, agility and games
Play hide-and-seek with your cat. Some cats love to follow you around if you have dried catnip or a catnip plant in your hand If your cat can climb, have a special food treat they love, like Catnip Feline biscuits, and place it somewhere high, or choose a high ledge on a cat tower, so they can use their natural hunting skills to grab, pounce, grasp and chew.
A laser light toy is great fun for you and your cat – I have observed that the ones with a red light are the most attractive to cats. Some of these toys even have a separate button that allows you to have the laser beamed as an image of a mouse or a paw. Be mindful not to shine the light in your cat’s eyes – always beam the light further ahead.