What is your cat eating?

You may be surprised if you really look at the contents of food packages...

Nagoya City University Medical school in Japan has just completed studies to determine the toxicology of BHA, BHT, Ethoxyquin and Propyl Gallate—the preservatives most commonly used in pet foods. Preservative is necessary to stabilise the fat content in the food as otherwise it would go rancid very quickly. The following is an overview of the findings—keep an eye out for them on cat and dog food and dietary supplement labels, as they are extremely widely used, Ethoxyquin being the commonest.

  • Ethoxyquin often listed as simply "E" on pet food labels, has been found to be highly carcinogenic especially concerning kidneys, bladder, colon and stomach.
  • BHA has been found to cause squamous cell carcinomas - an extremely fast growing carcinoma. It has also been found to enhance stomach and bladder carcinogenesis. Known to cause liver and kidney dysfunction.
  • BHT was found to promote bladder and thyroid carcinogenesis. Known to cause liver and kidney dysfunction
  • Propyl Gallate responsible for inducing stomach enlargement and is toxic to cells, causing the destruction of red blood cells

It is NOT NECESSARY to preserve food with these chemicals! There are plenty of natural alternatives, including vitamin C and Rosemary oil which do not have harmful side effects. The reason they are not used is a) cost and b) they do not give as long a shelf life as the artificial chemicals. If in doubt, check the shelf life of your packet.

If you see food sold in giant sacks, be suspicious. It is possible to get naturally preserved food in extra large sacks, but remember this is only for people with a lot of animals, and not for the ordinary pet owner, who may end up feeding the cat rancid food before they are halfway down the sack.

Unfortunately food labelling laws for pet foods are comparatively lax, and the manufacturers do not always have to state the preservative they have used. The dangers of Ethoxyquin have been known and documented for some time, and were particularly well-publicised in the USA where pet owners created a lobby group to make people aware that Ethoxyquin was being used in Hills Science Diet in spite of the published research indicating its side-effects. The manufacturers found that they could avoid listing it on the ingredients by asking the meat supplier to add the preservative as the manufacturer only has to list the ingredients they have added themselves. Hill's Science Plan is still preserved with Ethoxyquin.

The UK is governed by EU law on food labelling, so manufacturers only have to state whether they have used a preservative, not what it was. Ethoxyquin is usually described as 'EC permitted antioxidant' on labels. Alternatives to these chemicals include Vitamins E, D and C. The disadvantage in using these natural preservatives over the artificial ones is the shorter shelf-life of the product. Never forget that pet-food manufacturers are in it for the money.

'Natural' Feeding

My first interest in ‘natural’ feeding arose about 12 years ago, when I began to wonder why vets thought a 7-year-old cat was elderly. My mother’s Siamese used to live into their 20s (if they survived the traffic), and to me a 7-year-old was a mere babe. What was different? Well the main difference Icould see was the way they were fed. Since the 60s and the era of lites and offal(yes, I’m that old!) cat food in tins has become big business. Even more dramatic has been the very rapid introduction of ‘kibble’ (as the Americans call it) or cat biscuits, which are virtually the only thing most cats will eat, and fill the shelves of pet shops with astonishing variety.

I’ve been interested to see the recent proliferation of so-called ‘natural’ foods coming on the market, in tune with the increasing anxiety of owners about what they themselves are eating (organic and non-GM took off at the same time).

But I, and many other breeders and owners, were worrying about what we were putting down our cats throats years back. Why were their kidneys packing up at 7? The kidneys are there to clean poisons out of the blood, and these are passed out of the system in the urine. If the kidneys are wearing out early, then one reason for that, I theorised, was that the cats must be having to process much more poison than they used to.

Yes, pedigree cats, Siamese included, are more inbred and weaker as a breed for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is our tendency to breed from weak animals instead of being brutally pragmatic about it, and only using the tough ones. We fall in love with the little one that we had to nurse from birth, and end up keeping her. Bad idea! We also live in a way which means that cats who would have died in another era, are happily going on and giving the breed a bad name for being weak and sickly. in the 1930s breeding cats were kept outside in barns or stables in all weathers, so those that were weak died from chest infections during the winter. Central heating in a house was almost unknown, so even those allowed indoors as pets had to be a lot tougher than todays cats, coddled almost to death by their doting, sentimental owners—and I admit that I
am one of them.

My first attempt to find out about what my cats were eating was, I must admit, a bit horrifying. I joined a list consisting mainly of Americans concerned with holistic care for their cats. You have to take some of these things with a pinch of salt: one lady bred mice, and her cats only ate these mice. In order to feed them, she would shut one of the cats in the bathroom with a live mouse, and the cat would catch, kill and eat it. One UK member of the list remarked that in this country she’d probably be had up for cruelty to mice by the RSPCA! Anyway, that may sound ‘natural’, but it was far from it. These cats never went out of doors, so had no access to grasses, herbs, or other natural things to eat. Some were neutered (not natural, no matter how necessary or convenient it is), and they lived very un-natural lives.

This reminded me of a comment made by a friend at university regarding the ‘authentic music’ movement that was in full swing at the time. We had just heard a concert of immaculate Bach, played on reproductions of early instruments by a very erudite Dutch ensemble. As we left the concert hall, my friend commented that Bach never heard anything like that! His musicians had probably arrived at the concert hall half cut, after a night of heavy drinking. At least half of them were probably sick with some disgusting illness, the organist would have ridden 50 miles on a donkey in filthy weather that day to reach the church where the music was to be performed, and quite possibly the instruments required for the piece weren’t available, so others might have been substituted. He painted an entertaining picture, which cast the ‘authentic’ movement in a new light for me. He was right, Bach probably never heard anything as immaculate as we had just heard.

The same is true of natural feeding. If your cat is not leading a natural life, then you cannot possibly feed him a natural diet, because it won’t meet his needs. What you can do however, is attempt to limit the amount of garbage that he gets which would never appear in nature!
Which reminds me of the packaging of a sachet food which mine quite like. It advertises itself as being ‘as nature intended—cooked in the sachet so the goodness is sealed in.’ Since when did mother nature cook her food before delivering it to her animals? Yes, it annoyed me. The other thing that annoyed me was that this food presented itself as a) really good for your cat and b) all your cat needs for a healthy life. Has nobody told these fools that cooking destroys almost all vitamins? Worst of all, it completely destroys Taurine, an essential nutrient for cats: without it they develop congestive heart failure, which will kill them, yet a whole host of new, cooked, premium content, ‘natural’ foods do not replace the things they have destroyed by cooking.

One of the first biscuit foods to be fully ‘natural’ was Burns. Not many people have come across this: it was created by a vet who researched what her cat ate when it wandered around the country browsing greens, and was also based on the nutritional needs of every cat in terms of bulk, protein, vitamins etc. Instead of being preserved with ethoxyquin, which is the standard preservative for pet foods, it uses Rosemary oil, natural and harmless.

Let me tell you quickly about Ethoxyquin. It is used because it is a) cheap and b) gives foods a really long shelf life. It has also been proved, in veterinary studies, to cause long-term liver damage. There was such an outcry in the USA about its use in Science Plan, that the manufacturers exploited a little known loophole in the law about what they have to list on their packaging. Apparently they only have to list what they put in themselves. So they went to their meat supplier and had them add the ethoxyquin, so now it no longer has to be listed. In the UK, ethoxyquin is rarely listed by name, since it comes under the heading ‘EC permitted antioxidant’. If you see this title beware: it is Ethoxyquin, and it’s poisonous.

So are you dragging out all those packages, sachets and sacks to see what is in the food your darling eats in the evening? I hope so! If your biscuits are available in giant ‘breeder’ sacks, then get suspicious—this is a sign that the contents have an unnaturally long shelf life, and that means Ethoxyquin.

You might be really energetic and start looking up all those chemical names on the internet—you could, on the other hand, just find a food that doesn’t have a list of chemicals longer than the dictionary! Do you remember those ‘Nine out of Ten cats....’ adverts? I do, and now I know why those cats won’t eat any other food! The food in question has colourings, taste-enhancers, smell-enhancers, preservative, caffeine (to stimulate the appetite) and that is addictive. Why? Because if you look at the actual food content—or even look at the food as you fork it out of the tin—you’ll see that there’s very little actual meat in it! I loved Jamie Oliver showing those primary school children what chicken by-products were and that they were what they were eating. Well, that’s what’s in the cat food. What on earth is a ‘meat derivative’? Why can’t the cats just have real meat?

Some people who liked the look of Burns food, and attempted to switch their cats to it, found that the cats wouldn’t touch it. As far as the cats were concerned, it had no taste or smell. So nine out of ten cats have had their taste buds wrecked by eating the feline culinary equivalent of madras curry all their lives.

I started asking around at shows what breeders were feeding their cats, and they fell into two categories: there were those who reared their kittens on raw meat and foods without additives (those kittens looked twice the size of others), and those who didn’t seem to know what they fed their cats—perhaps they just gave them a bowl of kitten IAMS. The first group were able to put their queens on show as soon as they were allowed to within the 14-week rule, and they looked terrific. The second group might have to wait 8-10 months for their queen to regain condition after rearing a litter of kittens, and they didn’t seem to think that was abnormal, nor did they think scrawny kittens were anything to be embarrassed about, they thought they were ‘sweet’.

One breeder told me that she fed her cats on ‘anything and everything’ as if it was a virtue. Perhaps in her mind it was, since she was aiming to avoid the pickiness that is unfortunately all too common in pedigree cats. However, my (silent) response was, ‘don’t you care about what you’re putting into your cats then?’

Well, I
have to confess that, despite all this evangelising, I spent several years taking the best-looking tin off the supermarket shelf, and wondering what all these mad natural feeding people were fussing about. My cats looked great, they were healthy, their coats were glossy, and they were too young for me to be worrying about kidney failure (fortunately). That is, until Boogie.

Boogie was a blue Burmese, and she began to develop serious skin problems. It began around her ears, and she would scratch at the skin of her ears and the nearly bare patch in front of them until the delicate skin bled. There were sores, and bumps like red angry spots. I was beside myself. My vet, fortunately was more with-it than me. He diagnosed a food-dye allergy—quite well reported in the veterinary literature. I reined back on certain foods, and the condition improved, only to worsen again. It seemed that Boogie had developed a sensitivity that was now reacting to all dyes. I didn’t have any choice. Because all my cats ate together, I had to go all-natural. There were some early foods on the market, so I didn’t have to start making food myself. Burns was available, Denes had just brought out their tinned range, and it was quickly followed by James Wellbeloved, all foods which I still use.

Boogie improved immediately, and never had another problem. That would have been enough to convert me probably, but something else happened which was a real eye-opener, and to be honest, quite frightening.

I had had a litter of Burmese kittens just before I changed my food regime. It was my first litter of Burmese, and I was concerned when they came to 12 weeks because they were so babyish and un-co-ordinated, despite seeming healthy and tubby. I was quite glad of the ruling from the GCCF that said they should not leave home until 12 weeks (it was a few years back before the 13-week rule was brought in), but even at that age I felt they were barely ready to leave home. However all went well, and shortly after they left, I changed to natural feeding because of Boogie. The Burmese queen, in the fullness of time, went to the same stud she had visited before, and produced another lovely litter. These ones, however, were reared on the natural diet, and it was this that really opened my eyes.

The only thing different about this litter was their food, everything else was just the same as the previous litter. I have always been a great one for weighing, so I have proof of what I saw:

These kittens were more than twice the size of the previous litter by the time they left.
They were agile and active like squirrels by the time they were 7 weeks old, and driving me completely mad (in the nicest possible way).
They were easily mature enough to have left home at 9 weeks if I had wanted to kick them out at that age.

I sat down and looked at my kittens, and worried, quite seriously, about the bad start that I had given to all my previous litters.

I have never looked back, and fortunately neither has the pet-food industry. Brands are now using natural ingredients, particularly preservatives, as a marketing boost, and owners are buying the better foods. However there is still a very low meat content in many of the foods, and some—which blatantly appear to be natural, by having pictures of natural ingredients and good ‘country’ images on their packaging—still hide their ‘EC permitted antioxidants’ in the small print.

The biggest danger in this explosion of natural foods is from the ignorant manufacturers, who are often small businesses starting up and jumping on the bandwagon—or as I just mistyped, the BADwagon! At least two apparently really good foods—one a lovely little tin with irresistible shredded cooked chicken in it, the other a sachet that I have mentioned above, do not replace the vitamins etc that are destroyed by heat. I have spoken to both, and both responded that they had had the food tested and there was nothing bad in it. They didn’t want to know when I pointed out that actually there wasn’t very much good either!

There are now several versions of the shredded chicken-breast food, and all now label their tins 'complementary' foods - in other words, they are not sufficient to keep a cat alive, they are extra or 'treat' foods. Unfortunately that word is in tiny print on the back of the tin. The ignorance of those who have jumped on the 'natural' bandwagon without appropriate qualifications is going to harm your cats. They are not interested in the lack of Taurine or other vitamins in the food, only in their sales figures. The cats like the food, of course, so people think, 'this is great, this is natural' and buy it by the case-load.

I dread the day, a few years down the line, when all those cats whose owners tried to do the best for them, are faced with a cat dying of congestive heart failure, or some relatively minor illness made fatal by vitamin deficiency. I hope when that time comes that the owners will get together and sue the food manufacturers, because they HAVE BEEN WARNED - I know, because I phoned them and warned them myself.

So change to a natural diet—but don’t be ignorant. You may think ‘it certainly can’t do any harm’, but it could: not all natural foods have the correct nutritional balance unless it is put back in after cooking, and nobody is doing anything about it!

I first wrote this page several years ago, and since then have found a really good supplier of raw rabbit, which is minced with the bone in. Raw is undoubtedly the best way to feed your cat, though it can be difficult to transition, and it’s not as convenient as tins or sachets. It also requires quite a large freezer! I get mine from David at www.woldsway.co.uk, and you can take this as an endorsement of his farmed rabbit. There are quite a lot of sources of wild rabbit (and David sells it too), but the seller has no control over what those rabbits have eaten, or what chemical pesticides etc they have been exposed to. I have tried both, and found that on the wild rabbit my girls’ coats were dull, but on the farmed they looked far better. I also suspect the farmed is safer because it has a higher fat content, and all mammals need fat in order to absorb protein (which may explain the dull coat), so I use the farmed rabbit. Raw meat diets have cured many apparently intractable cases of IBS in cats, which is another reason to try it for your cats!

Another good source of organic and human-grade meat-based foods is Lily’s kitchen (
http://www.lilyskitchen.co.uk/). I have tried this, but didn’t pursue it because the food is cooked, and frankly I reckoned the raw was just better and I had no need to feed cooked food. The cats prefer the rabbit too.

I am not formally keeping a list of foods, partly because there are just SO MANY out there now, but I hope this will encourage you to look a bit further than your supermarket shelves!