No Wonder You’re Confused!

More two decades of running this crazy little website has brought in thousands of questions and comments from many smart, concerned, and discerning site visitors. Since I began using social media as another way of getting the word out, however, the volume of questions has skyrocketed. I can often refer folks to an exist FAQ or page on the website. But I’m seeing that even that sometimes doesn’t get at the real heart of the matter or answer the more fundamental questions that underpin the messages filling up my inbox each day.

As the speed of information-sharing moves into hyperdrive, emails and social media messages are taking on a more desperate tone. Committed cat caregivers have a serious case of Conflicting Information Fatigue. I’m at a loss to give consistently satisfying answers – not only because of the limits of my knowledge, but because there are lots of voices out there that offer up advice that contradicts mine.

Commiserating with my dear friend Terri Grow helped put all of this into a sharper focus. It goes like this: there are now scores of seemingly authoritative sources out there with wildly differing perspectives on the issue of feeding cats; even the most shrewd and critically-thinking of caregivers couldn’t be anything but baffled. First there’s the confusion growing out of whether it’s a good idea to feed raw food at all:

  • The American Veterinary Medical Association, the association representing more than 84,000 veterinarians, published in August 2012 an official policy discouraging raw feeding.
  • Most vets don’t want to defy the organization that represents them or risk losing the respect of their colleagues, so when a client shows up and asks about raw feeding, the likelihood seems high that they’ll default to discouraging it.
  • The new response offered by many mainstream vets about home-prepared diets, if a client is insistent on this option, is to advise that the client find a professional veterinary nutritionist to formulate a diet.

Further complicating all this? Another layer of confusion. Recipes for homemade food are all over the map in terms of ingredients. I had the opportunity this past week to look over about half a dozen recipes prepared by professional veterinary nutritionists for their cat clients and found myself puzzled (understatement) to see that they almost invariably included ingredients that cannot be reconciled with the science and accumulated wisdom and knowledge on feline nutrition that’s been published by leading lights in that same field.

  • Most conspicuous were ingredients that provide virtually no biologically available nutrition to carnivores – ingredients that can aggravate or trigger gastrointestinal disorders (examples include kale, spinach, cauliflower, green beans, lentils, chard, and split peas).
  • Head-scratching were suggestions for ingredient substitutes that made no sense; one recipe, for example, included fish oil – presumably as a source of Essential Fatty Acids – but noted that flax seed oil was an acceptable substitute. Except it’s actually not – since cats cannot derive what’s needed EFA-wise from plant-based (i.e., flax seed) sources.
  • Worse were ingredients like garlic that we know to actually have properties that are toxic to cats if dosages are too high.
  • Troubling, too, were vague measurements listed for ingredients (add a dash of kelp . . . ) that supply critical nutrients which we know cats are extremely sensitive to – and for which either too much or too little can be detrimental.

So. AVMA doesn’t want you feeding raw. Your vet may not want you to either. But then the cooked recipe you get from a vet can’t be reconciled with what you know about a cat’s biology from the literature published by the veterinary scientist professionals. Whaaa

None of all that even touches on the scores of recipes floating around on the Internet by lay people (and indeed, this website falls squarely into that category) whom you don’t know whether to trust. It’s not like there’s an Arbiter of Raw Truth Committee to turn to for a verified due diligence check on which are good and which are bad.

Throw in the marketing machine of the pet food industry with its dire warnings about the dangers of home-prepared, and especially raw, diets and you’re awash in conspicuous and subliminal messaging that scares the crap out of you when you consider doing it yourself. It doesn’t help that even among the raw feeding world, there’s an unhealthy dose of unhelpful snarking, name-calling, and sometimes distasteful finger-pointing injected into what should be civilized debate. Who wants to join that club?

You don’t know who to believe and your head spins faster than Linda’s Blair’s in The Excorcist.

Grains are healthy. Grains are deadly. Grinding is sensible. Grinders are bad. Vegetables are healthy. Vegetables kill your cat. You’re gonna die of salmonella. Raw meat cures. Raw meat kills. Beware of raw. Embrace raw. Be afraid. Vets know best. Vets know nothing about nutrition. Do it my way and only my way.

No wonder so many astute people are stumped. I thought it was a pain in the gluteus 20 ago when I first began the dizzying work sorting out fact from fiction and deciding whether and how to feed a raw diet to my critters. The information explosion, heightened by intra-raw-feeding-world sniping, since then made it worse.

If your head is spinning? Congratulations – you’re human.

With all the usual caveats about how I know that there are many successful ways to feed raw food to cats and with the reminder that I’m not a veterinarian, here are five principles that this lay person uses to guide herself through this confounding thicket.

  1. Assemble as many original-source facts as you can. Get your hands on the best original and unbiased sources of information on cat nutrition. Use that as your center of decision-making gravity. When you’re looking at a recipe or a food ingredient label, reference that unbiased information as a sanity check on whether a particular formulation makes sense.
  2. Think critically. Critically evaluate any emphatic, sweeping – and often emotionally manipulative – assertion about cat diets that leaves no apparent room for examination or questions. Examples include: “Homemade diets are unbalanced”; “All commercial cat food is junk,” “Every cat does best on a raw diet,” “Vets always know best.” It’s not that there aren’t some emphatic statements that are untrue – but be a little suspicious at first and investigate for yourself.
  3. Make decisions based on information, not on fear. Take a few breaths, get yourself quiet and smooth inside, and select a diet for your cat that rests on a solid foundation of reliable information. Be wary of anyone who pushes you to make a decision that rests solely on fear.
  4. Follow the money. Pulling the money thread to discover who benefits financially from giving out advice helps put some of the confusing information into clear perspective.
  5. Trust time. I feel better using a recipe that’s stood the test of time. One of the tipping points for me in favor of the diet recipe developed by Natascha Wille many years ago was that she and others I knew had used it for years with great success. I liked that I could trace the rationale for every ingredient to a source about cat biology that I trusted.

Wait. There’s a sixth principle too. Keep your good humor. When you’re elbow deep in mind-numbing nutrient tables and just spent the last six hours hunting down that one solitary reference to how much taurine is supposedly in a mouse but you can’t find it and your life is passing you by and you’re ready to abandon all hope and fill the stupid gravity feeder with neon-colored kibble because what the hell at least it’s pretty? Go watch a Simon’s Cat video or listen to a Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner audio about the 2000-year old man. Take a few breaths.

Then hug your cat.

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