Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
DON’T FEED AN ANEMIC HUMMINGBIRD A STEAK
Even if the exact food an animal would eat in the wild cannot be given, the foods we feed our pets should approximate the nutrient components of the wild diet.
APANDA WITH A HEART CONDITION EATS A MAIN COURSE OF BAMboo, and a sniffling anteater feeds his cold with ants. As omnivores, we can choose between a triple cheeseburger and a Waldorf salad, but an omnivore diet is not optional for some animals, such as cats.
I have this discussion countless times a week with owners and veterinarians whose cat is refusing to eat a recently prescribed (not by me!) kibble kidney diet and is wasting away. Worried owners are told to resist offering foods the cat prefers because that food contains “too much” protein. This scenario makes me very sad. Not only are we offering a low moisture content food (dry kibble) to an animal in need of hydration, but we also shortchange them of the protein they require.
Low-protein diets mean high-carbohydrate diets. A high-carbohydrate diet is not going to help a cat’s body to heal itself. Sick animals still need to eat the food that is meant for their species. The workload for an already dysfunctional kidney will not be reduced by reducing protein levels below what’s required to support a healthy body.
The kidneys do help process protein. And it may seem logical that the kidneys’ workload is proportional to the amount of protein ingested. We could surmise that if protein is decreased, the kidney won’t have to work so hard. But by that logic, water should also be decreased, as water regulation is another of the kidney’s jobs. We could then suggest that if we decrease water in the diet, the kidneys will have less to do. We know this is certainly not true and that proper hydration is essential in kidney disease.
A hardworking kidney is not a bad thing. It is shown that protein entering the kidney’s blood circulation stimulates the kidney tubule cells to open up and start working. Cats, as obligate carnivores (they must eat meat), have a mechanism to metabolize and excrete high levels of protein. If the feline body does not have a lot of protein in the diet, the body, being efficient, will shut down these systems. Tubules can become dormant, because they’re waiting for work.
When protein is present, more kidney tubules open up and they work harder. Circulation through the kidney increases in order to perform that duty. This is the principle behind giving extra fluids to kidney disease patients—to increase circulation and increase function of the kidneys. Considering kidney activity in this way, feeding a lowered protein level only perpetuates a cycle of kidney shutdown in the carnivore.
The second reason to rethink protein levels in patients with kidney disease is that feline diets are, on average, already too low in protein. These low protein levels mean that before we start lowering protein, about 70% of the food is already not protein. In the wild the proportions would be more like 70% protein and 30% fat and a little carb. Low-protein food may be creating part of the problem in the first place. Exacerbating the problem with even less protein seems disastrous.
There are researchers who claim that low-protein diets improve kidney blood values, and researchers who say they do not. Unfortunately, funding for studies often comes from the company that has the most to gain by a specific outcome. Sometimes the answer is not so black and white.
More compelling to me than data from laboratories is my personal experience with real animals diagnosed with kidney disease. I started out in my medical career as all vets did, prescribing the prescription kidney diets. The cats’ prognoses were poor, and their renal failure and muscle wasting progressed as expected.
Now, on a sensible moist diet, my kidney patients live longer than expected (often by many years), have more energy, keep weight on, sport shiny hair coats, and maintain better appetites than they did on their low-protein prescription diets. I am glad I don’t prescribe low-protein diets anymore. My patients love their food and are all the better for their delicious, appropriate diet.
I prescribe herbal tonics and supplements to support kidney function. Kidney dysfunction can cause elevated levels of phosphorus in the blood, making an animal feel ill. There are several supplements (aluminum hydroxide and Epakitin are the most common) that can bind the phosphorus in the GI tract before it is absorbed. Phosphorus comes in many foods, from plant to animal matter, so it is simpler to bind it in the GI tract than to avoid it. However, eating fewer grains helps because phosphorus content in many grains is high.
Iron, raspberry, and parsley help replenish red blood cells if anemia plays a role in that patient. Omega-3 fatty acids (algae DHA and fish oils), selected probiotics (Azodyl), dandelion, aloe, burdock, rehmannia, astragalus, and coenzyme Q10 are all possible supplements used to support a healthy kidney.
Supplements are harder to give to cats than to dogs. They are more suspicious and harder to pill. The first line of defense against disease in a cat is to feed them well. Don’t make them waste away with a poor diet that they hate. Let them eat with gusto. Proper nutrition will give the body a better chance of healing. Some vets attribute inappetence, or lack of appetite, to kidney disease’s inevitable progression. This can be true. But often the diet is wrong and the cat doesn’t want it.
Ariel the cat was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and subsequent kidney disease. Her owner was told to expect this to significantly affect her longevity. She was an eight-year-old cat when she was diagnosed. I saw her after she had been on prednisone for over two years for her IBD and dry kibble kidney diet. She had intermittent loose stool, chronic vomiting, and gastrointestinal issues. After we got her off a carbohydrate-rich (corn and wheat) diet, the kidney disease did not get worse, as her owner had been told it would. She stopped vomiting.
We weaned her off prednisone. She received periodic acupuncture, probiotics, and vitamin B12 injections. With her food options improved—she was given canned food and no grains—and the integrative treatments, blood work showed that her kidney disease remained stable for many years. She had no more gastrointestinal signs and lived well until the ripe old age of twenty!
Animals with significant kidney disease can benefit from subcutaneous fluids (just under the skin). Owners can easily be taught how to administer these at home to decrease stress to the cat. I also recommend that owners weigh their cats weekly (a baby scale works well at home).
If your cat or dog does become so ill that it is not interested in eating and is losing weight, ask your vet about assist-feeding.
Cats need assist-feeding more often than dogs, but it may come in handy for either animal. Remember that dogs can go without food for several days, but cats can become severely ill if they don’t eat every day.
Collect everything you need before you start.
If you have to leave in the middle to get something, the cat will think you are finished and try to leave the area.
Don’t choose your cat’s favorite food for assist-feeding.
If you do, the cat may associate that food with the illness and may stop eating it.
Items You’ll Need
Towels, sheets, bibs
Food that is blended enough to fit through a syringe
Water and wet towel (for cleaning up)
Dry towel to wrap the cat in or use as a bib
Use the same words every time you assist-feed, such as “It’s time to eat,” “Open,” “Almost done,” and “All done.” The pet will then learn what to expect during this procedure.
Lift the side of the lip and go between the teeth at the side of the mouth—there’s a gap between the long canine teeth and the premolars. Point the syringe straight across the tongue from the side of the mouth. Squirt a small amount at a time across the tongue. The syringe should be pointed side to side, from one cheek to the other—not directly down the throat. The pet will stay relaxed swallowing this way. Wait until the pet swallows the food and then repeat.
Each mouthful can be 1–3 ccs at a time. A cat’s stomach can tolerate 10–45 ccs per meal. Work up to a full meal per feeding over a couple of days. It is crucial not to feed too much or too fast because it may cause vomiting. And then you have to start all over again, and maybe have made things worse.
Assist-feeding should typically be done three to six times a day.
Getting a little bit of food into the stomach may jump-start the hunger mechanism. After the first 5 to 10 ccs of assist feeding, offer warm food in a bowl (adding some hot water to canned food) to see if your cat will eat voluntarily.
PRETTY IN PINK
All species, including zoo animals, are healthier when fed an appropriate diet based on their evolution. Successful reproduction is an easy way to judge how well zoo diets and husbandry are working, because nutritional deficiencies compromise reproduction. Those deficiencies may also be responsible for underlying health problems. The animals may seem properly nourished on the surface, but underlying imbalances inhibit breeding success. Because a majority of our pets are neutered and don’t breed, this important sign of a nutritional deficit is often lacking.
The vibrant coloring in a male flamingo attracts the female flamingo. If the color isn’t flamboyantly pinkalicious, the female just won’t be attracted. This color is directly related to the fat-soluble pigments of carotenoids in their foods. Carotenoids are rich in antioxidants and may be helpful in the general longevity of the birds. A zoo where I worked had trouble getting the supplies for the exact flamingo diet mix. Their color started to fade. Patrons began to wonder if they were sick. Luckily, within a week of correcting the diet, the flamingos pinked up. The appropriate, color-making food may be linked to other underlying body functions that we haven’t yet discovered.
Arthritis is a condition that is considered the norm for older animals. Most vets don’t question why; we just treat the signs. Early in my acupuncture career, I was asked to treat some camels with arthritis. As the months went on, I heard more and more instances of camels in other zoos needing treatments for arthritis. The camels I treated had responded well to the acupuncture and the word had spread. I received emails from many other zoos asking about our successes and how to treat their ailing population. I wondered why there were so many camels with arthritis in zoos. We discussed substrates, climates, and exercise, and then I looked into their diet.
This was over twelve years ago—basically pre-Google. I was researching old texts that I found in zoo libraries. I read that “without enough salt in their diets, camels develop arthritic joints.” There was no other comment as to the correct amount of salt for them. So the search to find out was on.
I spoke to keepers and vets in several zoos around the world that had camels. Most of the camels in question were provided with salt blocks. It had always been assumed that they absorbed what they needed from licking the block, but clearly it was worth checking into.
Further research finally gave me a startling answer. Camels need over eight times the amount of salt that cattle and sheep require. An adult camel should have more than one kilogram (kg) of salt per week in their food. A salt lick is not adequate. In a camel’s natural habitat, the plants contain a high percentage of salt. In addition, a camel is not adapted to assimilate their salt requirement merely from a salt lick.
Why their bodies need salt to keep the arthritis—and possibly other conditions—at bay is still unclear. But without the required amount, painful joints appear. With enough salt, arthritis signs decrease. Zoos began increasing the salt in camels’ diet, and the arthritis diminished. I consult with zoos worldwide about this issue. It is gratifying to know that this crippling condition can be ameliorated by a simple correction in diet.
Zoo and wildlife nutrition can provide valuable information for our pet food solutions.
Most animals are resilient enough to make do with suboptimal foods for a while, but adverse health signs manifest if the food remains inappropriate. It is in the interest of zoos to maintain healthy, active animals for several reasons, including the fact that lethargic animals do not attract as many visitors.
Many years ago, a zoo obtained a group of wolves from another zoo that had been feeding them only animal carcasses. The zoo “improved” their nutrition by combining a kibble dog food mixed in with raw ground meat. The wolves developed lethargy, ear infections, skin and hair coat issues, and loose stool. In a zoo animal, it is considered unusual to see these problems, so the diet was reformulated to help solve the medical problem. Once returned to a balanced raw food (meat, bones, and organs) diet, the wolves’ health rebounded. I see exactly these positive changes in dogs when I put them on balanced diets with appropriate foods, too.
At one time our zoo storks were producing offspring with soft beaks and poor bone density. This sign of a calcium deficiency made no sense because the parents were feeding the chicks well, with their regular diet (they eat, then vomit up the food for their chicks). But someone found out that in the wild, stork parents changed food to an almost exclusively frog diet during chick-rearing. Frogs, as the zoo nutritionists describe them, are mostly bones with skin, providing a higher percentage of calcium for the chicks. When zoos increased the amount of calcium in the parent storks’ diet, the chicks thrived.
I worked in the late 1980s at a zoo where the nutritionists were establishing baseline data on gorillas. The zoo’s gorillas were suffering from many of the human maladies that were unheard-of in the wild—obesity, heart attacks, high cholesterol, and strokes. Zoo gorilla diets were based on the human version of a primate diet. As soon as meat and eggs were removed from the gorillas’ diet, fiber was added, and their habitats were altered to allow more exercise, these problems disappeared.
Poison dart frogs, lethal in the wild, lose their poison in captivity. They produce poison from components in their diets that are difficult to replicate in most zoos.
Even if we can’t provide the exact food an animal would eat in the wild, we should try to maintain the nutrient components of the food they are accustomed to eating. At least with our pets, we have many options for good nutrition.
Koalas only eat eucalyptus, and hummingbirds drink mostly nectar. When these animals are sick, they need that food even more. It is their true comfort food. Diet changes in sick animals should be geared toward meeting the animals’ evolutionary needs. We’re not going to feed a koala a bowl of chicken soup for the flu, or a hummingbird a steak. Even if it’s anemic.