Purrfect Cuisine: The Ethics of Feeding Our Pets

JenniferPets“We’re a package deal,” My then suitor, now husband announced during the first phone call of our courtship. He was referring to his two cats, Booger and Spudd, a pair of rescued mixed breeds from the same litter whose tabby markings and Abyssinian-like features had won his heart since their kittenhood. When the time came for all of us to reside together, I flung the doors of my tiny studio in Brooklyn, New York, open wide and began the process of making the house a home. My bathroom became “our” bathroom with the addition of the litter box and cat grooming tools. My kitchen became “our” kitchen, complete with cat dishes, and a large bag of kibble hidden on the top of the cabinets. My bed became “our” bed because, in a studio, there are no other options.

My first test as a cat-mama came quickly. Booger had a health crisis shortly after he moved in, and it came to my attention that dry food can cause male cats urinary problems. Thankfully, Booger recovered and I was determined to find a way to do less harm to my animals and all animals with respect to food and healing. Three new books appeared on our bookshelves, Anitra Frazier’s The New Natural Cat, Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, and Dr. Martin Goldstein’s The Nature of Animal Healing. I read them all from cover to cover.

As a vegetarian pet owner, I felt nauseated after reading Pitcairn’s and Goldstein’s exposé of the pet food industry. These “foods” are made from animal parts unfit for human consumption including bones, feathers and beaks, fecal-coated intestines, diseased and drugged factory-farmed animals and, most horrifyingly, euthanized companion animals from shelters. (See the New York Times article “Fear of Disease Prompts New Look at Rendering” by Sandra Blakeslee.) The danger of this food is that the intense heating of the meat scraps necessary to prevent contamination during the rendering process, destroys the nutrients essential to pet health—hence, the ever-growing list of fortified ingredients in commercial pet food.

I talked to my vet about food options, and she encouraged me to consider cooking for my pets. There is a lot of skepticism among the medical community about homemade pet food because dogs and cats have very specific nutritional needs that can be life threatening if unmet. Among the amino acids in question are taurine and arachidonic acid for cats and taurine and L-carnitine for dogs, all of which are readily available in meat. Cats, particularly, do not always absorb these and other nutrients well from vegetable sources. Conventional wisdom suggests that a diet containing mostly meat, balanced with grains and vegetables appropriate to the specific needs of cats and dogs, would be a great way to nourish one’s pets while empowering pet guardians to make environmentally sensitive choices about the kind and quality of the food.

On many levels, however, it isn’t that easy. For starters, what is a “natural diet” for your pets? Cats in the wild eat mice, small birds, and bugs, none of which (except maybe the bugs) are available to me as a personal feline chef. Factor in that a feral cat’s life expectancy is only three years—and that cats are not by nature social or vaccinated or sterile—and suddenly it becomes clear that nothing about the environment of an indoor domesticated cat mimics the great outdoors. The diet and lifestyle of our highly anthropomorphized pets are a culinary world unto their own. While we can certainly abide by the science of canine and feline nutrition, the best delivery method for nourishment is murky and politicized, particularly if you are not, yourself, a meat eater.

Dr. Andrew Weil, a powerful voice for alternative health endorses his own brand of pet food (from which he receives no profit). His quality assurance guarantees are a good checklist for evaluating the efficacy of any commercial pet food:

•    No animal byproducts (slaughterhouse waste products)
•    No added growth hormones
•    No antibiotic-fed protein
•    No factory-farm meat or chicken
•    No meat or chicken meal (rendered ingredients)
•    No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

Of these factors, animal rights activists assert that it is particularly unacceptable to support cruel and inhumane treatment of livestock for the benefit of companion animals. This form of speciesism, perpetrated by factory farming, is particularly unpalatable when colonies of chickens, cows and fish are tortured and killed to nourish cats and dogs. States are slowly beginning to include farm animals in the Animal Welfare Act of 1971, but until all states update their laws, care must be taken to ensure that the commercial pet food you purchase is not supporting the ill treatment of animals less cute and cuddly than yours.

If you want more control over the quality and sustainability of your pets’ food, you might choose to cook for them from organic meats, grains and vegetables available from your local, reliable grocery store. There are several websites that provide recipes for pet foods and the necessary supplements. But you will have to make a vexing decision about how you want to prepare the meat. Doctors Pitcairn and Goldstein advocate for feeding pets raw organic meats known as the BARF (Bones And Raw Food ) diet.

Raw foods allow for pets to absorb taurine and L-carnitine and other nutrients they require straight from the source. They also absorb calcium from chewing on and eating bones. (If you are considering BARF, consult an eco-friendly vet because bones can get caught in and do damage to your pets digestive tract.) Dr. Pitcairn’s slurries of raw meat, grains, raw veggies, fats, supplements and seasoning are quick to prepare and may be as close to nature as you can get in your kitchen. However, you must take precautions when handling raw meat to protect yourself from E. coli and know that you can’t leave this food lying around all day while you’re at work.

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you might not be excited by having to go to the butcher and purchase organic meat for your animals, let alone crush it in your food processor, store it in your glass containers and serve it with your silverware. There is another option: you can choose to have your pets be vegetarian or vegan like you. The science around vegetarian and vegan pet health is relatively new and incomplete, but there is mounting anecdotal evidence that there are many healthy vegan and vegetarian cats and dogs.  Considering how unhealthy most commercial pet food is, a high quality meatless diet fortified with vitamins and enzymes might provide better nutrition than what is commercially available. Still, it is important to note that no meatless diet offers complete nutrition to your pets. You are directly tampering with nature in populations unable to voice their needs.

Understand that vegetarianism is a far cry from your pet’s internal wiring. Switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet requires patience, clinical monitoring and/or intervention and attentiveness to your pet’s quality of life. Dogs have an easier time staying healthy without meat. They are by nature omnivorous and are attracted to a wider variety of foods. Cats are pure carnivores and require consistent supplementation and evaluation of their urinary tract health when making the transition to vegetarianism. James A. Peden has pioneered a line of products developed through years of culling veterinary research (not animal testing) and has written a book, Vegetarian Cats and Dogs, that includes many pet owners’ success stories in transitioning their animals to a vegan lifestyle. Miraculous recoveries, especially from skin disorders, are common when switching to a meatless diet. Nevertheless, the illnesses to which vegetarian and vegan cats and dogs are susceptible are extremely serious: blindness and heart, liver and urinary tract problems. Most of the time, animals suffering nutritional deficiencies are asymptomatic until well into the disease process, making it difficult if not impossible to cure them. Also commercial vegan and vegetarian foods have been known to be nutritionally inadequate, intended to supplement rather than replace meat, so research is required if you are not planning on cooking for your pet.

Whether you choose commercial foods, homemade cooked or raw foods, or vegetarian or vegan fare, the truth is that much of the decision-making happens between your animal and their bowl. There is nothing more wrenching than a pet refuse to eat healthy food. In my household, there have been tears shed over pots of uneaten homemade cat food whose ingredients would rival the purity of Mother Theresa. There have been worrisome glances at Spudd each time my husband calls him the “L.A. weight loss Kitty.” And there have been lackluster showings at the food dish with part or all of servings wasted for reasons I’ll never know. On the other hand, there have been many observable benefits to home cooking: Kitty breath has been minimized, dandruff has disappeared, there is less cat box odor, more playfulness and a closer bond between all of us, as we share the same food. I still wish they’d eat more vegetables and the cats still wish I’d feed them more meat. It is a constant negotiation between my sense of what’s good and right and their nature and good health. Luckily my imperfect decisions are mostly met with love and affection—sounds much like the heart and soul of cat-mothering to me.

Additional resources:
Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative by Donald R. Strombeck
Throw Me a Bone by Cooper Gillespie
The BARF Diet: Raw Feeding for Dogs and Cats Using Evolutionary Principles by Ian Billinghurst
The Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog by Wendy Volhard and Kerry Brown, DVM
The Collins Guide to Dog Nutrition by Donald R. Collins, DVM
PETA: Meatless meals for cats and dogs (factsheet available on: peta.org)
Vegan.org  http://www.vegan.org/going_vegan/veggie_dogs/index.html
AnimalAwareness.org http://www.animalawareness.org/pages/what_petfood.html
Vegetarian Dogs http://www.vegetariandogs.com/
Farm Sanctuary’s Veg for Life campaign: http://www.vegforlife.org/dogscats.htm

Article by By Jennifer Sokolov  Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine

Jennifer Sokolov is a New York-based freelance writer and an accomplished Pilates and IYI-trained Yoga instructor. Jennifer teaches at several New York City studios in addition to her private practice. Prior to her career in bodywork, Jennifer received an MA in dramatic literature and playwriting from the University of Essex in England and worked in publishing in New York City. She is also a professional belly dancer. For more information about Jennifer’s work, visit her website, innerpillar.com

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