It All Starts with Food
Beside my computer right now is a 13.2-ounce can of Ken-L Ration Grand Recipe dog food with “homestyle chunks in sauce.” I chose it at random this morning at the local supermarket, along with a few other kinds of dog and cat food that we’ll get to in a minute. Have you ever stopped to read the ingredients on the food you give your pet? Let’s give it a whirl with Ken-L Ration, as common a brand as you can find.
The first ingredient listed for any food, as you may know, is the weightiest one. The first ingredient in Grand Recipe is “water sufficient for processing.” Just how much water are we talking about here? The answer appears on another part of the label called “guaranteed analysis”: moisture is listed as constituting 82.0 percent of the contents. So a good part of this can will simply be passed by your dog as urine or will serve to dilute the potency of his stomach’s acids needed to help digest the meat. Hearty chunks indeed!
The second ingredient is “poultry byproducts.” Uh-oh. “Poultry byproducts” are not simply the parts of the chicken you’d rather leave on the platter as it goes around the family dinner table. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an independent group that issues guidelines approved by the Food and Drug Administration, poultry byproducts “must consist of non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably in good factory practice.” So this product may include chicken heads and feet, and viscera—an inclusive term that refers not only to intestines but to any internal organs, such as the heart and lungs, thorax and abdomen. I don’t know whether any of those parts might be in this or any other can of Grand Recipe; the can label does not specify the nature of the poultry byproducts included, nor is it required to do so. But the term is hardly cause for celebration. The reference to fecal matter in the AAFCO guidelines sounds more reassuring until I start to wonder how even a slaughterhouse determined to observe “good factory practices” could remove all or even any of the fecal matter from each of the thousands of chickens being slaughtered and processed at its plant each day. (Now there would be a job!) And what about that other assurance, that the byproducts must consist of “non-rendered clean parts of the carcass.” Just what is rendering anyway?
More on that below.
Next on the ingredient list of Grand Recipe we come to soybean meal. Sounds vaguely healthy, doesn’t it? Sort of … vegetarian? Not remotely. Soybeans are not easily digestible by dogs, so much of their protein is wasted, especially when they’re exposed to high heat and processing, as nearly all pet foods are. Worse, certain breeds tend to be allergic to soy protein, including Akitas, Dobermans, German shepherds and Labrador retrievers. “Soybean meal,” however, isn’t even straight soybeans. After most of the oil—the part that’s somewhat beneficial for people, if not for pets—is removed from soybeans, the husks that remain are ground up as “soybean meal.”
Wheat flour, the third ingredient in Grand Recipe, might seem less disconcerting than soybean meal. In itself it’s not a problem. Unfortunately, AAFCO allows wheat flour to include “the tail of the mill,” a quaint phrase that means anything swept up from the wheat mill floor at the end of the week.
Finally, with the fourth ingredient, we get substance: meat. Here at last are those hearty chunks, in whatever modest percentage of Grand Recipe that remains after water, byproducts, and meal. Though about that word “meat”: What does it mean? According to AAFCO, meat can be derived from any skeletal muscle of any slaughtered animal. It can come from the tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus, and it can include fat or skin. “If it bears a name descriptive of its kind,” AAFCO’s guideline goes on to say of meat, “it must correspond thereto.”
Since the Ken-L Ration label does not specify which kind of meat is contained in Grand Recipe, your guess is as good as mine. For that matter, your guess is as good as AAFCO’s, because this group’s only job is to declare what should be stated on pet food labels.*1 Each state has an agricultural department or office of state chemist that may enforce AAFCO guidelines—or not. The FDA helps AAFCO draft its guidelines, but does nothing to enforce them. Indeed, the FDA takes no action on pet food matters unless a claim is made on a label that may be fraudulent, such as that a cat food may help feline lower urinary tract disease (formerly known as feline urological syndrome) when it does no such thing. There is, in other words, no federal agency that polices the pet food industry at all, and at best a patchwork of state regulators who may, from time to time, make inquiries. Unfortunately for your dog or cat, the pet food industry pretty much regulates itself.
For starters, let’s consider the basic appeal of almost any pet food: meat or fish. We like to think that commercial brands contain at least some decent cuts of one or the other. The truth is they contain none. Any cuts fit for human consumption are consumed by humans: they’re too valuable not to be. Only the heads, feet, and various organs are set aside for pet food. And that’s the best of what’s in commercial pet food.
Fish parts, at least, are free of hormones, drugs, and disease—though they may contain high levels of mercury or some other toxin that makes them unfit for human consumption. More troubling, however, is the livestock fated to end up as pet food.
The poisoning of pet food meat begins with the hormones fed to livestock to make them grow faster, so they can be slaughtered that much sooner. People who eat hormone-fattened meat are, in my opinion, taking a certain health risk. But at least they’re eating choice cuts, and their diets are varied. Pets who eat hormone-injected, ground-up and processed meat byproducts every day are definitely at greater risk. As Richard and Susan Pitcairn observe in Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, laboratory animals have developed cancers when fed proportionately as many hormones as livestock is.
The daily feed of livestock is also laced with “maintenance doses” of antibiotics intended to prevent disease. As likely, these drugs instill toxicity that increases cancer risks, both in the livestock and the pets that feed on processed meat. Industry guidelines direct farmers to wean their livestock from antibiotics thirty days before slaughter; ostensibly, that’s enough time for the antibiotics to work their way out of the animals’ systems. But is it? My own sense is that it’s unlikely a powerful antibiotic will be flushed out entirely in that time. And again, a pet fed the same diet of antibiotic-laced substandard meat every day is at far greater risk of cancer than a person eating choice cuts on an occasional basis.
These guidelines, such as they are, ignore a whole other category of livestock: the direly sick animals who collapse from one disease or another and, as a result, never reach the slaughterhouse. These animals are deemed unfit for human consumption, killed, and sent off to “rendering” plants which supply meat protein used in pet food.
Nine years ago, as a result of her own dogs’ illness, Ann Martin found herself thrust into an investigation she’d never considered pursuing: determining the role that rendering plants play in the composition of pet food. Her book Food Pets Die For is to the pet food industry what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is to the petrochemical industry. (In fact, that comparison is made in the book’s introduction by Dr. Michael Fox, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States; I just heartily echo his view.) In her native Ontario, Martin discovered that rendering—at its best, the boiling of any animal substances discarded by slaughterhouses as unfit for human consumption—is an established, if little-publicized industry, and that “rendered” animal substances go directly into livestock and pet feed. These substances may include “4-D” meat: meat from dead animals, dying animals, and diseased and disabled animals. (To that I add a fifth D for “drugged.”) These 4-D carcasses may have cancerous tumors, worm-infested organs, and the like—basically, anything and everything goes in the pot. Worse, Martin found, rendering plants happily accept road-kill, dead zoo animals, and, most appallingly, euthanized pets from animal shelters and veterinary clinics.
Shocked by the standards she found in Canada, Martin sent a questionnaire to the state governments of all fifty of the United States, asking, among other things, if state laws allow euthanized pets to be rendered, and if rendered material is freely used for livestock and pet feed. Twenty states replied blithely that no laws forbid the rendering of euthanized pets or their use in pet food. The remaining thirty states did not reply, suggesting their standards are just as lax. “Finding companion pets eating dead cats and dogs objectionable is more than just aesthetics,” Martin writes. “Safety is at stake.”
Indeed it is, since most pets are euthanized with sodium pentobarbital, which medical authorities acknowledge may be dangerous or deadly, even absorbed indirectly after some days or weeks, by healthy cats and dogs. Just how significant is this unpublicized aspect of the commercial pet food chain? Martin found that the main rendering plant in Quebec was rendering 11 tons of dogs and cats per week. On March 11, 1997, the New York Times reported that the city of Los Angeles sends two hundred tons of euthanized cats and dogs to a company called West Coast Rendering every month. Most veterinarians Martin spoke with had no idea that the pets they euthanized were ending up at rendering plants; they assumed that the services they paid to remove the animals were cremating them. When Martin explained the situation, all switched to a reputable cremater. In other parts of Canada, however, and throughout the United States, the rendering continues, apparently without the awareness of nearly any veterinarians.
A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about the sad fate of two circus elephants so maltreated that they died of tuberculosis during the circus’s run. The story was tragic, but so, too, was the following detail mentioned in passing about one of the elephants: “Workers used a forklift to put the animal’s body on a truck for transport to the San Bernardino State Diagnostic Lab. A necropsy showed that 80 percent of Joyce’s lung tissue was infected either with cancer or tuberculosis. The body was taken to a rendering factory to be processed into animal food.”
Take Purina’s Moist & Meaty, another brand I picked up this morning at the supermarket. Dogs love the “chopped burgers,” declares the package, because “real beef is our #1 ingredient.” Beef is listed first—whatever “beef” means to Purina—so that it is, ostensibly, the heaviest ingredient in the recipe. But look at what’s second: high-fructose corn syrup.*2 Corn syrup is not only useless to pets, it’s actually harmful, overstimulating the production of insulin and potentially causing diabetes or other diseases. The “burgers” loaded with it are sickeningly sweet, and have nothing to do with the ground chuck we associate with the words “burgers.” Perhaps Purina should advertise these “chopped burgers” as Moist & Meaty Sugar Burgers!
Let’s look at one other dog food I bought this morning: Ken-L Ration’s Gravy Train. Dry “kibbles” are reputed to have more protein than either semi-moist “burgers” or canned “wet” food. The moisture content of Gravy Train, for starters, is “not more than 10 percent,” which sounds impressive: the remaining 90 percent, one would guess, must contain protein. In fact, we can determine exactly how much protein this remaining “dry weight” contains by a simple equation. All we have to do is divide the dry weight into the “crude protein” figure listed in the same place on the label. When we do that, it turns out that our can of Grand Recipe, despite its high water content, actually has more “crude protein” than Gravy Train. So the canned food actually beats the kibble! But remember, “crude protein” may contain such ingredients as chicken feathers and beaks. The “crude protein” constitutes some, if not most, of the protein. So all you’re getting is more of what you didn’t want in the first place. Lose-lose.
Cat food, too, appears as kibble or “wet” food (also as clear-packaged semi-moist chow, in the case of Tender Vittles, though the word “burgers” is omitted because, presumably, it sounds unfeline) and contains many of the same dubious ingredients: digests, byproducts, and meals. On a can of Friskies “mixed grill formula” I bought this morning along with those other tasty provisions is the especially unimpressive mention of bonemeal. What bones? What meal? Who knows? AAFCO’s guidelines define “meat and bonemeal” as “the rendered product from mammal tissues, including bone, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents, except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices.” As Ann Martin observes, however, even this modest requirement seems unlikely to be met at the rendering plant. How easy is it for a renderer, after all, to remove those offending parts from every animal he throws into the pot? In fact, Martin’s investigation led her to believe not only that whole pets are rendered but that some of their collars and tags are thrown in, too!
For cats, all this rendered and highly processed meat, even if not of dreadful or dangerous quality, poses a special concern. Cats need a certain amount of taurine, an amino acid, to avoid retinal atrophy and a heart disease called cardiomyopathy; they can only absorb it from meat. In recent years, many pet food manufacturers have begun adding taurine after a disturbing incidence of these diseases in cats. Of course, if there was enough unadulterated healthy meat in their products to begin with, adding taurine would be unnecessary. Cats, as Ann Martin observes, also tend to suffer from excess levels of iodine from the commercial foods they’re given. Too much iodine can lead to hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) in cats.*3 (It can also lead to hypothyroidism—an underactive thyroid—in dogs.) And lower feline urinary tract disease has also been linked to the high levels of ash, phosphorous, and magnesium in commercial pet food.
The roll call of ingredients of all mainstream pet foods ends in a jumble of nearly unpronounceable chemicals used as preservatives, and a smattering of colors with numbers. Packaged food for people has preservations too, of course, but not, for example, propyl gallate, which some doctors believe causes liver damage. Sodium carboxymethyl-cellulose is an edible plastic filler that used to be put in thick shakes at some fast-food franchises to make them thicker, until the FDA outlawed it—for human consumption. It’s still in some pet foods, along with ingredients like cellulose gum and guar gum—all used to bind beak bits, ground bones, and other ingredients into chunks, “burgers,” or kibble. BHA and BHT are still almost universally used; both are suspected carcinogens. (Foods for people contain BHA and BHT too, but in minute quantities; and again, people don’t eat the same food at every meal.) One of my favorites is potassium sorbate, a preservative used to preserve the things that weren’t preserved before they went in! And then, on my package of Purina Moist & Meaty, is ethoxyquin, currently the most notorious preservative of the bunch.
Ethoxyquin, also used in many “better brand” foods, was concocted in the 1950s by Monsanto, originally as a rubber stabilizer. It is, in fact, the major preservative in tires, keeping the rubber in them from oxidizing. As a synthetic antioxidant, it works the same magic in food, too, keeping fats from turning rancid so that the food is more or less edible forever. It’s used in most farm feeds, especially for poultry, which is to say that people, not just pets, absorb it. But only in pet foods is it used directly. And as the Animal Protection Institute of America (APIA) observes in a recent investigative report on pet foods, ethoxyquin has been associated with a staggering array of medical complications, including infertility, neonatal illness and death, skin and hair coat problems, immune disorders, thyroid, pancreas, and liver dysfunction, and behavioral disorders. I know of three academic studies—by researchers in Australia, Norway, and Mexico—that found strong links between ethoxyquin and various ill effects in laboratory rats or chickens, including significant degradation of livers and kidneys. Bad stuff. Moreover, as the APIA observes, ethoxyquin need only be listed on a label if the pet food manufacturer was the one who put it in the product. When it enters the pet food chain at the slaughterhouse or rendering plant, it need not be listed. And over the years, its use has increased.
“The FDA kept allowing more usage in pet foods because it was more concerned about the animals that were part of the human food chain,” the report states. Now neither the FDA nor the consumer has the means to measure whether even those lower standards are being met. “There is absolutely no way of knowing if the pet food companies are complying with the law or not.”
Also near the bottom of most pet food ingredient lists are a number of colors, usually accompanied by numbers. These, of course, are artificial dyes. Ken-L Ration’s Grand Recipe has Red 3, Purina’s Moist & Meaty has Red 40, while Ken-L Ration’s Gravy Train sweeps the derby with Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, and Blue 2—what a beautiful pageant! Unfortunately, all are inorganic and toxic. Since neither dogs nor cats perceive color nearly as well as we do, why do the pet food makers bother? To impress you! After all, you wouldn’t buy Moist & Meaty if it looked naturally gray rather than sirloin-fresh red.
Synthetic flavorings, on the other hand, are only for pets. Phosphoric acid, for one, tingles animals’ tongues and so acts as an artificial appetite stimulator, especially in cats. Beef digest, poultry digest, salt, and sugar are all also used to perk up tasteless food. Barely a nutrient among them.
Imagine waking up in the morning and coming down to the kitchen to make yourself breakfast. You take some soybean grits, mix them with some tainted cattle-meat meal, throw in a few beaks and feathers, smother your concoction with processed sugar syrup and chemicals, then sprinkle on a few preservatives and dyes. Pressure-cook the hell out of it, let it cool—and dig in!
What if you were told that this is exactly what you’d eat at every meal for the rest of your life? Is it any wonder our pets have degenerative diseases? That so many get cancer? That so many die before their time?
Even if these foods were as hearty as advertised, even if the meat was real meat, the vitamins not destroyed when added back in, the color and taste untampered with, would it seem beneficial for a pet to eat the same meal day after day, year after year? Due to our own laziness as owners, we’ve bought the idea that a bowl of “complete and balanced nutrition” is best for a pet, so we can feel we’re filling his dietary needs simply by filling the bowl with the same food every day. In fact, no animal in the wild typically eats meals of “complete and balanced nutrition” every day. And so, over the course of history, surviving species have developed internal systems that work best when not fed ingredients considered to be “complete and balanced” at every meal. Cats and dogs, in order to adapt to domestication as they have, likely no longer have such internal systems. But that’s not to say they’re the healthier for it.
Because the food most pets eat is so unhealthy, the toll it takes is that much worse. Every day, a pet living on most commercial-brand foods absorbs not the “complete and balanced nutrition” intended for him but a host of toxins that his body must struggle to expel. The more toxins he absorbs, the more his body needs real nutrition to help his immune system do its job. Then comes the catch-22. His body can’t use these inorganic substances, so it tries to void them. If it succeeds, they take a variety of forms that seem symptomatic of disease: as mucus, flaky skin, diarrhea, and the rest. On come the drugs, to tamp them back down: the cough suppressants to stop that route of expulsion, the antiseborrheic shampoos to stop the flaky skin discharges, the Imodium to stop the mucous-laden stool. When the immune system gives up, blocked by drugs or simply exhausted by the shortage of enzymes and vitamins it needs, the toxins begin to reside in bodily tissues, precipitating more severe disease.
Think about that a minute, and then gauge your reaction. Chances are, the notion of feeding a pet “real food” seems peculiar to you, or foolish, or just plain wrong. Chicken stew for your Afghan, madam? A T-bone steak for that hungry-looking Lab? The vegetarian plate for Miss Fifi today? Yes, it does sound odd. And yet what could be more natural than an animal eating … food?
There’s a lack of logic here, and it isn’t accidental. Over the decades, the pet food industry has grown to be a powerful force in America’s economy. We’ve been taught by it to believe that pet food comes out of a can or package—period. Advertising leads us to believe that the only question before us is which well-known commercial brand to choose over the others. Supermarkets reinforce the perception by offering the major brands—all highly processed, low-quality fare—and nothing else. Even the few newer brands of relatively good-quality prepackaged pet food are almost never found at mainstream markets. Partly that’s because major brands monopolize shelf space. Partly it’s because small manufacturers can’t afford to supply the chain stores: pet food is too heavy in bulk, and has too narrow a profit margin, to be transported in anything less than huge volumes, thanks to the way the majors have defined the business (low-quality food at low cost). As for finding fresh pet food at the market—forget it. There is no such thing. Though in one sense, none need be added: the fresh food you buy at the market for yourself is the food you should give your pet, too.
The pet food industry appears to be a cynical one, focused mainly on the corporate profits its prepackaged product lines bring. The very idea of animals eating fresh food is, to put it mildly, not one it seems to encourage. But it’s not the only culprit in the Great Pet Food Conspiracy. Another is AAFCO, with its standard that all of a pet’s dietary needs—proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals—be present in every meal. AAFCO means, of course, to aid pets by assuring they get the nutrients they need. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect. The quality of nutrients isn’t there in prepackaged foods to begin with, since oversight is nill. The food that isn’t nutritious but appears to be thus becomes a pet’s in complete meal day after day after day. And the pet food industry gets to sell the greatest possible volume, can by can and box by box, with the least real variety.
AAFCO’s guidelines are misleading us when they suggest that standard pet food can fill a pet’s dietary needs, but also its fundamental premise is wrong. There is no such thing as a meal providing “complete and balanced nutrition,” either for pets or for people, because the nutritional needs counteract one another. Mix proteins and fats in the same meal, for example, and the oils from the fats coat the walls of the stomach, keeping the stomach’s acids from breaking down the proteins so that they can be used by the body. The way a pet should eat is the way we too should eat, ingesting different food types from meal to meal. If the foods are healthy in their own different ways, they supply complete nutrition in the aggregate, with the nutrition of one food not blocking out that of another.
In their own way, that’s how dogs in the wild ate, too, a long, long time ago. Like wolves, wild dogs would hunt down their prey in packs. But unless they were starving, they wouldn’t eat the dead animal in its entirety at once. Instead, they’d open its belly and eat the contents, along with the internal organs, then bury the carcass. A few days later, when they grew hungry again, they’d dig up those parts and have another full meal: leg of lamb, loin of pork, or whatever other savory haunches they’d hunted. The time between courses enabled the dogs to digest these very different kinds of nutrition without having them block each other out. (The meat of their prey contained fat, but in a raw, natural form that did not get processed in the stomach and thus did not block the digestion of protein.) And because the carcass had been buried in warm earth, it would have fermented by the time they dug it up, which would have increased its enzyme content and thus made it more nutritious. Today, the only vestige of that behavior—and diet—is a dog’s instinct to bury a bone.
If dogs survived well enough in the wild, they also seemed to cope as pets in more recent centuries, before prepackaged pet food. So, for that matter, did cats. And yet the conventional wisdom among most veterinarians remains that pets should never eat table food. Pets in nature ate table food; they just didn’t have tables!
The foolishness about table food underscores a larger point: that veterinary schools are the third culprit in the Great Pet Food Conspiracy. When I was in veterinary school, the whole issue of animal food was addressed only as one of percentages: what percentage of a pet’s (unvarying) meal should be protein, carbohydrates, fats, and so forth. Quantities were stressed; quality was all but ignored. Switching my brother’s dog Leigh from Gaines Burgers to a macrobiotic diet was the first step we took toward questioning our teachers’ approach.*4 Soon enough, I realized that the ideal diet for a pet was the polar opposite of what he gets in a can or box. It’s what he ate in the wild! After centuries of domestication, of course, dogs and cats have evolved into tamer creatures incapable of hunting as they once did, much less eating their prey, and their systems have changed accordingly. But with a little experimentation, I found I could give my pets a diet ideally suited to their present-day constitution. And it sure didn’t come out of a can.
When I tell an owner that a change of diet can affect her pet’s health in a matter of days, the first reaction is usually delight, sometimes even exhilaration. Toss out the prepackaged food, I say. Soon, symptoms you’ve grown all too accustomed to—or tried in vain to dispel with antibiotics—may improve dramatically. Everything from skin irritations and dull, matted fur to bad breath and digestive problems to lethargy and lack of appetite can be alleviated. All you have to do, I add, is to start preparing your pet’s meals yourself.
At that, the owner swallows nervously. A guilty look comes over her face. I know what she’s thinking. Cook for my pet? When I (a) don’t even have time to cook for myself, or (b) already cook dinner for my spouse and children as it is, or (c) don’t know how to cook at all? Let’s face it: the fourth culprit in the Great Pet Food Conspiracy is probably you.
Feeding your pet from a can or box is easy, quick, and seemingly cheap: the reasons the pet food industry rose up in the first place. And cooking or preparing for your pet may seem like one extra burden you don’t need in your life. But it can be easier than you think, certainly easier than it appears from the few available holistic pet care books that list dozens of complex recipes and all but order you to become your pet’s haut chef de cuisine. Consider what I do for my pets every Sunday morning.
First, I take a raw free-range chicken and put it in a pot of good water (i.e., purified water!). I throw in a little sliced garlic and a pinch of salt, boil the water, then let it simmer for perhaps fifty minutes. (That’s for a bird of about two and a half to three pounds.) Then I take the chicken out and put in about a pound of organic brown rice, cooking it on low heat for an hour or so, or millet for about half that time. (For both brown rice and millet, figure two and a half cups of water to one cup of grain.) Just before the grains are done, I put in a 12-ounce bag of frozen vegetables. Suffused with the taste of chicken, the cooked grains and vegetables will be especially appealing to my crew. Meanwhile, I will have removed the chicken meat from the carcass and added it back into the mixture. Refrigerated in plastic containers, the grain-and-vegetable mix and the rest of the chicken will last my (mostly small) pets several days if interspersed with two or three other home-cooked meals. When I use an especially big turkey that yields more containers than I can use in a week or so, I’ll just freeze the rest.
Simple as that recipe is, it raises complex issues. Not forgetting that the recipe is simple, let’s consider them one by one.
First of all, the food is cooked, not raw. But if we’re trying to put our pets on a more natural diet, how does cooked food square with that scene of wild dogs of yore, eating freshly killed prey? Strangely enough, it does. The animals brought down by wild dogs were herbivores—deer, for example—who ate grains and berries. When a wild dog tore open a deer’s belly, the food he found inside was already chewed, further decomposed by saliva, stomach acids, and enzymes, then heated to about 102 degrees Fahrenheit by the stomach’s natural warmth. It was, as a result, processed enough to be considered cooked.
Ah, you say, but when the wild dogs finished what was in the deer’s belly and moved on to the deer itself, the deer was raw meat. So why cook the chicken?
The issue of raw-meat feedings to pets is a contentious one among holistic veterinarians. It’s true that raw meats do accord with pets’ natural diets and supply, among other nutrients, the amino acid taurine, found only in flesh-based protein. My hesitation is that I don’t trust the meat. The E. coli outbreak that led to a huge federal recall of frozen hamburger patties in 1997, the widespread incidences before that of salmonella in chicken—these were, I feel, only the latest indications that our meat is unsafe. So I cook my pets’ meat as a rule. Then, to compensate for what has been destroyed by cooking, I add specific supplements and enzymes. If you have a source you trust, though, you might give organic raw meat a try—as I did, sort of by accident.
I kept my own pets away from raw chicken when I first began cooking for them, even though I used only free-range chicken. Then one evening I had to rush out on an emergency call and left a nearly defrosted raw chicken on the kitchen counter. I came back to find parts of a picked-clean carcass on the floor, with five very self-satisfied dogs and cats munching on chicken bones in the living room. I was sure that if the meat didn’t poison them, they’d choke on the bones. Guess what? They were fine.
For a while I continued to play it safe, cooking the chicken and putting the carcasses in garbage bins with locking lids. When my crew figured out how to unlock the bins and had several more bone fests without incident, I began to relax. And the day my golden retriever Daniel dragged a dead wild boar out of the Westchester woods (I swear it was a boar; it was big, black and white, and hairy) and polished it off, bones and all, without getting sick, I officially changed my position.
Though not, I have to say, without regrets. The fact is that I’m a vegetarian myself, and have been for more than twenty years, for all the obvious reasons. I hate the inhumane ways animals are raised for slaughter. I’m sickened that they’re slaughtered at all when we have so much other food to eat. It depresses me to think of how much river water is diverted, at great expense, to irrigate grazing lands for cattle and cows (not to mention the very real environmental hazard of methane gas being emitted as a waste product from millions of cows). And as a doctor, I understand the ways in which red meat especially can constrict human blood vessels with fat and cholesterol, in bodies likely never intended to consume meat at all.
That’s the vegetarian view. As a veterinarian, however, I know that both dogs and cats were meant to eat meat in the wild, and that as modified as their systems are by the modern world, they do still need meat, raw or cooked. They aren’t merely drawn to it by their biological instincts as a fun food choice. Specifically, they need more protein and calcium than a vegetarian diet can provide—which is also to say more protein and calcium than humans need. Because dogs and cats are carnivores.
If I’d had any doubts that pets should eat meat, they were dispelled some time ago by a visit from several vegans. Vegetarians in the extreme, vegans will not touch any products connected in any way with living creatures. So no dairy products for them, not even yogurt; no soups or sauces made with chicken or beef bouillon; and no fish (or caviar!). The vegans arrived at my clinic one day with their eight-and-a-half-year-old shepherd mix, named—guess what?—Vegan. And of course Vegan had been raised on a strict vegan diet. Unfortunately, she was dying of mammary cancer. I asked the vegans exactly what they were feeding Vegan, and to me it sounded great. But in addition to her cancer, Vegan the dog was acting so aggressively—lunging at me with intent to kill, or at least bite—that the diet appeared to have damaged her emotional state as well as her physical being. “Your diet sounds great,” I said, “but something’s wrong here, because if it was properly balanced for Vegan, I don’t think she’d be dying or trying to kill me.”
I tested Vegan’s blood for its immune protein content, and was shocked by how high it was. You might think, when a disease like cancer takes hold, that protein levels in the blood would drop, but that’s not the case. The protein level goes up because the body’s immune system, working improperly, doesn’t efficiently use these immune proteins. Since the body isn’t using protein as it should, the immune system begins to drain protein from the muscles instead. Diseases like cancer and AIDS are typically “wasting diseases” because as the body saps the muscles of protein, the muscles waste away. It helps, at least, to give a wasting-disease patient red meat, because it contains protein that the body can recognize and use, thus allaying the wasting process. “If this dog doesn’t get some meat as soon as possible,” I told the vegans, “she will die.”
But the vegans wouldn’t permit that. Their only concession was to allow injections of specifically isolated, naturally occurring immunological protein from healthy donor dogs. Vegan wouldn’t actually be eating the protein, they rationalized, and another animal was not being killed to produce them. They left as a group by car for Florida, and called me a day or two later from Virginia: Vegan had gotten really weak. “Come on, guys,” I pleaded with them. “Give this dog some protein.” At last, they bought her a can of red-meat dog food—and Vegan roused herself to attack it. Still, the protein came too late. Within another day, Vegan was dead.
• • •
On the issue of raw food for pets, I’ve recently gone from wary endorsement to real enthusiasm. I’ve been inspired by its benefits as shown in the work of animal health advocate (and former Miss Rheingold!) Celeste Yarnall (author of Natural Cat Care and Natural Dog Care). And seeing the effects that an increase in raw food has on animals has led me to increase the amount of it for my pets as well as in my own diet. One day, I fully expect all the members of my household to be living exclusively on raw foods.
My cats will go for raw food as much as the dogs do, by the way—and even organic red meat (though they still prefer cooked food). I also let them have the bones, which they adore. I know this violates a cardinal rule of conventional pet care, and I realize that some pets have gotten bones stuck in their throats or stomachs, so I won’t promise you that bones are safe for your pet. The fact is, though, that over many years, neither my dogs nor my cats have ever had a problem with poultry bones, raw or cooked. (Many veterinarians caution that cooked bones are more dangerous than raw ones because the heating process has made them more likely to splinter; it hasn’t happened at my house but to be safe, I advise owners to stick to raw bones.) I do see animals who have gastroenteritis as a result of bone eating—intestinal inflammations that brought on vomiting and diarrhea. But in my house, my small dogs get bones, mostly cooked, from organic chicken, lamb chops, and even huge turkeys, at least twice weekly, and I can’t recall a single bone-swallowing incident. And think about it: Have animals in the wild, including poultry predators like wolves and wild dogs, ever seemed troubled by bones? Nature just wouldn’t be designed that way. To be sure, wild dogs had stronger jaws than domesticated dogs do, and more muscular stomachs, and more powerful hydrochloric acid to help in the digestion of troublesome bones. But especially as pets become healthier on good diets, they seem to grow more capable of handling bones, too.
Raw fish poses another dilemma that gets judged either way. Many holistic veterinarians now recommend raw fish as well as meat, both to provide nutrition and to serve as a measure of prevention against degenerative diseases like cancer. I don’t believe that a raw-food diet is nearly as effective against cancer as certain colleagues of mine do, though I occasionally recommend it in addition to other measures when a sick animal might benefit from the quick jolt its protein can provide. With my own pets, I steer clear of raw fish out of fear that it may contain toxins. But I do serve cooked fish on occasion, and as it happens, my dogs like it as much as my cats do. I’m actually more surprised that cats like fish than that dogs do, given how much they fear being immersed in water. Did cats in Egypt hang out by the shores of the Nile, waiting for fishermen to go through their nets? Or did their fish craving come later, when they hung out as alleycats by nineteenth-century fish markets? Or do they just embody Oriental souls who as human beings liked sushi? Whatever the reason, they adore any fish I give them.
I feed my pets a wide variety of raw vegetables, which contain important enzymes lost during the cooking process. These range from alfalfa sprouts to zucchini, and include asparagus, carrots, and even lettuce (though tomatoes aren’t usually a hit). I feed them fruits, too, including grapes, peaches, plums, and bananas. I once had a cat named Sparsely Populated who loved cantaloupe and had an absolutely uncanny affinity for it. I have a house with a long front lawn, and Sparsely would be in the woods at the end of it. I’d take a cantaloupe out of the refrigerator and start slicing it—with the windows closed. As I looked out the window, Sparsely’s head would instantly go up. He couldn’t smell it, he couldn’t see it, but still he’d zoom home to get some! This cat would kill for cantaloupe; cooked winter squash, too.
In fact, both my dogs and cats happily dine on a far wider range of real food than I ever imagined when I threw out the Gaines Burgers those many years ago. Yesterday, I took two organic potatoes, diced them up, and simmered them in a skillet with some olive oil and water. Then I put in a lamb burger and some broccoli, and just before they were done, I added a few pieces of organic cheese. Admittedly, that took twenty minutes. But it was a one-pan dish that required no more than a bit of slicing and stirring, and both my dogs and my cats loved it. Other nights I’ll cook some yellow squash and mushrooms, or scrambled eggs with leftover chicken and rice. Or pasta! Pasta in a pesto sauce with broccoli rabe is their new fixation. Tonight, as I was working on this chapter, I gave my dog Clayton my leftover sautéed garlic veggies over chopped lettuce salad and watched him lick the bowl clean. Is that sort of cooking such a sacrifice, really, for the joy and good health it brings?
Dairy products I serve somewhat sparingly to my pets because they’re mucus-forming (as they are in people), but my pets love them, so I include them in moderation. Almost any hard or semisoft cheese will be happily received; just stay with the blander choices (no Stilton, even for English breeds!) and avoid soft cheeses like Brie, which have too much cream in them. For that matter, stay away from cream or half-and-half altogether. But you might try a little cottage cheese, an easily digestible source of good nutrition, and also yogurt. The fruit-laced yogurts usually find takers, but if not, you can almost always get a dog or cat to eat plain yogurt. Just as it helps us by providing friendly bacteria for our digestive tracts, so it helps pets, especially those with gas or diarrhea, and should definitely be given in conjunction with—and especially after giving—antibiotics for digestive support. (Acidophilus, available in pill, powder, and liquid form at your local health food store, also helps digestive problems; administer just one pill or its equivalent each week. See Chapter Seven for more on diarrhea.)
Eggs, by the way, are fine, too, once or twice a week. (I’d strongly suggest you only use organic eggs.) Some health food advocates suggest pets be fed raw yolks. (The white must be cooked, as it contains a substance called avidin, which destroys the B vitamin biotin.) But I prefer to give my own animals cooked eggs. They all love omelettes. Sunday morning, I’ll sauté some vegetables and tuck them in, along with a helping of the brown-rice-and-chicken combo, add a couple of pieces of organic cheese, and voilà. With pets, as with people, just avoid having eggs on too regular a basis.
Some of these foods, admittedly, are less than ideally healthy, and purists may grumble. But they’re also the foods my pets happen to like! And to me, one of the fundamentals of life is to enjoy what one eats. For that matter, my old dog Danny was just wild about pizza. Once in a while—not often enough to bring on the food police, I promise!—I would stop off as we were driving to get a couple of slices, one for me, one for Danny. Pizza certainly seemed to have no ill effects on him: he lived nineteen years, a remarkable life span for a golden retriever.
To almost any sautéed dish, garlic is a healthy and tasty addition. Plus, it makes the kitchen smell great! I try to add some, minced, to any cooked meal I make for my crew, figuring roughly a half clove for each ten pounds of pet. Most dogs and cats like garlic as much as people do, so it’s hardly a tough sell. But garlic is also useful, along with yogurt containing lactobacillus acidophilus, in addressing digestive tract problems. And it’s a very effective natural antidote to fleas. Just as we exude garlic through our skin the morning after a garlicky meal, so do pets. Fleas, fortunately, appear to hate the smell and taste of garlic, and tend to stay away from a pet who’s been eating garlic on a daily basis as summer unfolds. (See Chapter Seven for a fuller discussion of garlic as a flea fighter.) And, of course, a garlic-rich pet is great for repelling vampires.
The real-food choices for your pet are nearly as wide-ranging as they are for you, assuming you’re the sort of person who makes a habit of eating healthy foods. Indeed, they may seem too wide-ranging. So here’s a simple equation to help in the menu writing. Generally (which is to say, don’t feel you have to abide by this every day), I recommend that a dog’s meals be approximately one-quarter meat, two-quarters grain, and one-quarter vegetables, while a cat’s meals be roughly one-third to one-half meat, with grains and vegetables constituting the rest. (For either dogs or cats, a little dairy goes a long way.) Individual animals will have different likes and dislikes, as we do, but basically you can feed your dog and cat the same meal in those different ratios. Don’t worry too much about each meal’s menu. Lamb or turkey, rice or pasta—any good food will be good for your pet as long as it’s of satisfactory quality.
Easy as it is to give your pet real food, it may be harder to make him eat it. Both dogs and cats can become so accustomed to prepackaged food—in part because of artificial flavorings that cause their tongues to tingle, whetting their appetites; in part just out of habit—that a bowl of fresh food can be thoroughly off-putting. Or if they do eat it, real food may provoke some initial sickness, as their bodies react to the change by expelling toxins as healing occurs. In either case, a few commonsense recommendations can ease the transition.
One approach is to mix in a bit of the new with the old. I’ve known pets who could never quite bring themselves to abandon their commercial-brand fare altogether, and insisted, as the ratios of new and old were gradually changed to favor the new, on having just a dollop of the old spooned in for old times’ sake. That’s fine. Other pets, cats especially, make the switch but still need to hear the sound of a can opener opening a can of their old food, and perhaps to have its aroma in the air. That’s fine, too. Even if you open and discard a small can of Friskies every day while your cat eats healthier food, what are you losing? Fifty cents a day? And you’re certainly not throwing out food that would help the world’s hungry people. With my own cats, I find that just turning on the electric can opener for a few seconds does the trick.
Another approach, cold as it may sound, is to let a pet who’s refusing real food go without—for two or three days, maybe longer. Fasting is another controversial food issue with pets (and you thought feeding your pet was dull). My own strong belief is that unless a pet is quite old or suffering from a degenerative disease like cancer, fasting is a natural way for him to clean out his system, regain his health, and marshal new energy—along with an appetite. For Arnold Ehret, my nineteenth-century hero, only fasting made possible the thorough expulsion of toxins and the restoration of radiant health. So it does for animals, and indeed the fasting process for them is more natural than most of us realize. When an animal in the wild gets sick, what does he do? He goes into isolation—to fast, until he regains his health by repelling his toxins. The time he goes without food doesn’t do him harm. Quite the opposite. As with a human being during a fast, the animal draws sustenance from bodily fats in which many cellular toxins are stored, and by using those cells and flushing out the toxins, he reaches a higher state of health than he had before he got sick. Cats, even more than dogs, have extraordinary powers of self-sustenance without food. Locked inadvertently in closets for weeks, they’ve been known to jump out with no less energy—indeed, with far more—than when they were locked in. Yet in our society, when a pet refuses to eat for a day or two, we rush him to the clinic, where he’s promptly force-fed. In doing so, we ignore his own instincts, and potentially worsen his condition.
A caveat on fasting for animals, however. Animals in the wild can fast as long as they need to; their immune systems are strong and can withstand it. Domesticated pets may survive an inadvertent fast of days or longer. But because their immune systems are likely debilitated, they also may not. So fasting as a means to induce a pet to change its diet or improve its health should be monitored, and not allowed to go on for more than a week. During the first day or two, you can serve him a reduced amount of his old food, perhaps with real food mixed in. For the next few days, put out no food but be sure he drinks liquids: steam-distilled water, or a chicken or beef broth (if from a good source), and also fresh-squeezed vegetable juices (carrot is the most popular) or even fruit juices. Then, to break the fast, ease him onto modest amounts of fresh foods for a couple of days before moving him to full portions. But not even all holistic veterinarians agree on this regimen; some insist that a pet should fast for no more than twenty-four hours. Again, common sense applies. See how your pet does in twenty-four hours. If he’s lethargic or seems to be in pain, abandon the fast; if he doesn’t eat, bring him into a clinic.
I don’t do that much fasting in my practice, only because so many of the pets I see are too weak and debilitated to withstand it, and because I’ve had such success with my program of supplements and homeopathic and herbal remedies.*5 But occasionally it seems the right choice, not so much for dietary reasons as to help the body regain health. I fasted a five-week-old kitten once that had chronic diarrhea. Another veterinarian had put it on Kaopectate with a bland diet, antibiotics, and then Lomotil, an almost narcotic suppressor intended to stop the intestines’ reflex action. And that didn’t work either. When I told the owner to put his cat on a fast even after homeopathics failed, he balked: the cat was so young and thin already. What he didn’t understand was that the food going in was sustaining the diarrhea. It’s called the gastrocolic reflex: the stomach fills, the colon empties. After a three-and-a-half day fast, the cat was able to hold down bland food; the fast had stopped his intestinal reflex and broken the cycle.
At home, I fast my own pets one or two days a month, not to adjust them to a healthy diet, which they already eat and love, but just to clear out their systems a bit. I’ll give them dinner Sunday night, then nothing except water until Tuesday morning. By Monday night, they’re zipping around like loose electrons. By Tuesday, they’re thrilled to eat, but the energy they’ve gained stays with them for weeks. Fasting for pets is a personal decision, but you should certainly consider trying a one-or two-day fast every few weeks and see how your pet responds.
The new prepackaged foods are mostly produced by small companies. (One can only assume that the large pet food companies have chosen not to produce healthy products because good food costs more.) They’re hard to find at supermarkets, though some of the sleeker new markets carry them. And if you live in or near even a small American city, you may be within driving distance of one of the natural pet food stores that have sprung up in the last few years, or the good pet foods and related pet health-care products now available at most health food stores—cheering signs that the lousy major-brand fare may not dominate the market forever.
This may come as a surprise, but the good new choices I’m alluding to here do not include several brands promoted aggressively in recent years as ideal pet foods. Iams and Science Diet, to name just two, may be better than some brands, but they’re not nearly as noble as their packaging suggests. Iams’ Original Formula for cats claims on its front side to contain “high quality chicken,” yet lists as its first, chief ingredient “chicken byproduct meal.” Though “chicken” is the second ingredient listed, several byproducts, digests, and meals follow. Science Diet’s dog food for large breeds includes front-of-package claims that it “promotes healthy skin & coat,” and “builds strong bones and teeth,” yet its first ingredients, in the order in which they appear, are: “Ground corn, poultry byproduct meal, corn gluten meal, dried beet pulp, animal fat….” And what does this brand of Science Diet add to preserve its animal fat? Ethoxyquin.
The better new brands tell you without qualification which kind of meat they contain, for starters. Here’s how Innova’s ingredient list for dog food begins: “Turkey, chicken, chicken meal, whole ground barley, whole ground brown rice, whole steamed potatoes, ground white rice….” Doesn’t that sound like food you could eat? “Whole raw apples … whole steamed carrots, cottage cheese, sunflower oil, alfalfa sprouts, whole eggs, whole clove garlic….” I’m getting hungry just typing the list out! In both its dog and cat food brands, Innova also includes natural probiotics that promote good health, including acidophilus, and vitamins E, C, and A, as well as selenium, zinc, and manganese, all good antioxidants. And what it doesn’t have is just as crucial: no artificial colors or preservatives. Dr. Wendell O. Belfield, a prominent holistic veterinarian, helped Innova shape its recipes and product lines, including California Natural, as did one of his most respected colleagues, Dr. Larry Chaulk. Now this is pet food.
On my short list of other first-rate brands, I include Solid Gold, Natural Life, Wysong’s, Cornucopia, Precise, PetGuard, and Abady. All use chunks of real meat, lots of whole (not processed) grains, essential vitamins and minerals, and no preservatives. But with pet food, as with vitamins, the newest and highest standard of excellence is being set by my brother Bob. Call me biased, subjective, a shameless family shill—I don’t mind. The fact is that Bob—Dr. Bob, that is—has just come out with the first-ever wholly organic food for dogs and cats. Together with his wife, Susan, he’s worked up recipes for pets that are so natural, with such good real food, that the results are more nutritional than what most Americans eat for dinner every night. Dr. Bob’s Earth Animal food, as it’s called, contains free-range, organic chicken meat (with no byproducts or meals), whole organic grains (brown rice, millet, and oatmeal), a full complement of uncooked vegetables with loads of chlorophyll and active enzymes, vitamins and minerals from natural sources only, and friendly bacteria for healthy digestion. All of this makes Dr. Bob’s more expensive than the low-grade commercial brands—but a lot more reasonable than stinting on pet food and then having to pay for veterinary care when your pet’s health deteriorates from malnutrition.
In my practice, and whenever I give lectures on animal care, two questions inevitably come up by the time I’ve finished describing what good pet food is and isn’t. One is: How much should my dog weigh? The other question is: How much of the good food should I feed my pet?
The truth is, I’d rather be hit with the first question than the second. The answer is that there is no easy answer, since even dogs of the same breed vary so much. How much should you feed your pet? It depends! On weight, metabolism, temperament, breed. And probably the weather, too. I’ll never forget the elderly little lady who came into my clinic one day with a grossly fat beagle. This twenty-one-pound dog literally left a trail on the floor with her wet stomach. When I pointed out that the dog was obese, her owner uttered the two statements classic in these cases: “Well, you told me to feed her a can a day” and “But she only weighs twenty-one pounds!” Of course, this “standard” amount of food was a meaningless recommendation; the dog’s appearance was the telling factor, as anyone but her owner could plainly see. In fact, the dog should have weighed fifteen pounds. From that incident, I learned my lesson: I never tell owners how much their pets should weigh, but describe how they should look. What the beagle owner had to do, as I gently told her, was trust her eyes, then cut her dog down to half a can a day.
For puppies and kittens, I generally advise two to three feedings a day, with the food left out for twenty minutes each meal, then withdrawn. (Most pets will finish a meal in far less time than that.) Good water should be left out all day, but ideally should be removed a half hour before meal time, and not put down again until an hour after the pet has eaten. That’s because water tends to dilute the concentration of stomach acids needed for the initial digestion of protein. At six months, I’ll drop a healthy puppy or kitten down to two meals a day. If the pet is a finicky eater, however, I’ll recommend leaving the food out; of all the sins we can commit against our pets, leaving food out has to be one of the most trifling, and with cats may actually be advisable. Dogs whose owners leave food out all day seem no worse off for that; nor do cats.
And, of course, when my dogs and cats do convene for dinner, I also insist on a full report of what they’ve done all day. What’s dinner, after all, without civilized conversation?
Every day, beside the bowl of food, you also put down a bowl of water. Chances are, it’s tap water.
Worrying about the ill effects of tap water in the U.S. might seem more a preoccupation for Chicken Little than for the rest of us. Unless we’re in restaurants where the waiters intimidate us into ordering bottles of Pellegrino, many of us drink tap water without any seeming harm. New York tap water, indeed, is reputedly as clean and sparkling as any water in the world. Why worry about it for our pets?
Unfortunately, our faith in tap water is direly misplaced. I call it the silent killer, and by that I mean for pets and people. No matter how pure the mountain stream and how clean the reservoir, by the time tap water reaches your sink, it’s filled with chemicals like Strontium 90, and heavy metals like lead and cadmium, the products not only of groundwater pollution here and there but of the pervasive pollution by acid rain. In the Smith Ridge office, before I had a water filtration system, I steam-distilled several gallons of water for our own and our patients’ consumption—only to be shocked by the result the next morning upon cleaning the distiller: brown sludge. Now imagine that residue collecting over time in your pet’s body. The results may include arthritis, spondylosis, and cancer.
If you do nothing else as a result of picking up this book, put your pet on a healthy diet and buy a water-purifying system for your home. Bottled water can be healthy, but I prefer a good home filtration system. Go with the system: it’s one of the best investments in your future, and that of your pet, you’ll ever make.
At the risk of sounding paranoid, I have to add that the milk you give your cat is likely no better than the tap water you give your dog. The biological function of cow’s milk is, after all, to help turn a calf into a heifer, which means putting several hundred pounds on the animal in its first six months of life. So cow’s milk is chock-full of natural growth hormones, protein, and food factors to accomplish that. In both cats and dogs, this overabundance of proteins can react badly with proteins in the body, bringing on allergies or asthma.
For your cat’s health, switch to goat’s milk or soy milk, perhaps gradually by mixing a small portion of either with cow’s milk, then changing the proportions as your cat gets used to the new taste. Better yet, strike milk from your cat’s diet altogether. My cats almost never get milk. They don’t seem to miss it, and I think they’re fitter and healthier for not having it at all.