Why we hesitate to cook

Or not-cook, as the case may be for those of us feeding raw food.

(Note: I’ve written a companion piece on my worries about feeding commercial raw food, and why I’m taking the risk.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit that over the past forty to fifty years, we’ve been cowed and browbeaten by food advertising. Food companies tell us, over and over again, that cooking is difficult, messy and far too time-consuming for people with busy modern lives. They sell us microwaveable dinners, energy bars, cake mixes and canned spaghetti, all on the premise that they will be delicious, convenient, and (depending on the kind of instant food you get) healthy and nutritious.

Some foods claim to be meal replacements, like energy bars and Slim-Fast shakes, but not one of them has the chutzpah to claim that they should constitute your entire food intake. The foundation for a lot of the food advertising is that home-made is best, but cooking is arcane, difficult. Who has the time and skills to cook these days? And some of you need to eat our food or you’ll get fat (and then who will love you any more?). So use our products, of varying levels of crappiness, to suit your time and energy limits.

But home-made doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. It’s perfectly possible to create a fresh, home-made meal in 25 or so minutes, and the only know-how you need is enough reading ability to follow recipe directions. Steaming vegetables doesn’t take all that long; neither does sauteeing chunks of meat, or drizzling raw salad greens with olive oil and vinegar. People, it’s OK. You have nothing to fear but fear itself—well, that, and accidentally burning your food, but this is where things like digital timers come in handy. What you make will almost assuredly taste better and be much more nutritious than what you can pour out of a box, a jar or a can. (Unless you burn your food. Seriously: timers are your friend. Also, instant-read thermometers.)

I don’t see how, in any way that matters, this is different from food for our pets. I’m not saying that everybody should make their own pet food, because bad home-made pet food is in many ways worse than bad commercial pet food. What I am saying that it’s a perfectly viable and relatively easy option, as long as you do your homework and approach it sensibly. Most people think otherwise, however, because the pet food industry has not only managed to sell us a convenience cobbled together from agricultural leavings, it has actually convinced us that feeding our cats anything else is going to be dangerous. Pet food companies have achieved what food advertising for humans hasn’t quite managed to do yet: they’ve made their food the gold standard against which everything else must be compared. It’s now conventional wisdom that commercial food should be fed as a sole ration to pets; anything else is unhealthy.

Pet food companies have managed to do this in a few ways:

Continue reading “Why we hesitate to cook”

On the Stoicness of Cats

Eric, doing his best Downward Facing Paperweight, a classic kitty yoga pose
Eric, doing Downward Facing Paperweight, a classic Hatha yoga pose

Eric’s still doing great, but I know how to read my Orange Menace, and he’s been in his discomfort pose more times this week than I’ve ever seen him do in his life.

Those of you who’ve had sick cats probably know what I’m talking about. It’s kind of like a breadloaf-with-legs. I associate the breadloaf position (all legs, paws and tail very neatly tucked underneath the body) with a certain sort of smugness with my cats; they seem to do it when they want to chill out without snuggling or sleeping. The breadloaf-with-legs involves a slight elevation, so their haunches are very slightly raised and their paws are visible. It usually indicates imminent horking.

Eric goes into discomfort pose at least three or four times a day now, and it breaks my heart. If I notice, I go over and pet him and give him love, and that seems to help; he gets out of the pose, and meows and purrs and head-butts, and rarely returns into the pose after the affection therapy. I have noticed that he’ll groom the area right over his kidneys right after I’m done petting him, and I wonder if his kidneys are hurting him—they’re about five times the size they should be, and completely riddled with fluid-filled cysts. According to what I’ve read, a lot of the time the polycystic kidneys don’t seem to bother the cats, but they do occasionally cause pain.

Sometimes, I think it’s nausea, and food seems to help—just a couple of mouthfuls of raw or a small spoonful of pulverized winter squash. He’s keeping his weight remarkably well, partly because he’s such a chow hound, and partly because I’m partially hand-feeding him these days, and he loooooooves being hand-fed. I’m going to keep him a healthy weight for as long as humanly possible, and he’s in fighting trim right now: 11 pounds, and all of it Orange Bastard muscle.

But tonight, something happened that has never, and I mean never happened before.

He was chilling in the cat tree and in classic breadloaf formation. I blinked at him affectionately, and he blinked right back, so I went up to him and petted him.

He unfurled, which I expected—and moved back from my hand, which I didn’t. I reached over carefully and scratched his head gently, which he allowed for a few seconds, then he just seemed overwhelmed by the sensation, and jumped up to the tallest platform on the cat tree, where he sprawled after a couple seconds of sniffing. He gave me a look. Not a mean look. An “I’m in pain and not in the mood to be touched” look.

Eric, enjoying some sunshine
Eric, enjoying some sunshine

I help up my finger for him to sniff, which he did, and I respected his wishes; I didn’t touch him. But man, was I ever sad afterwards. I’ve never known this kid to refuse affection. Ever. He’s a love sponge. (Which explains his drooling habit when he’s getting affection—he’s just squeezing out all the excess love he gets through his spit. I just wish his spit didn’t smell like 100% ass-hobo.) He’s my guy. I get to do all kinds of stuff nobody ever could get away with, like dig out his eye boogers, or pet his belly. But tonight, he was in too much discomfort¬† to even let me scritch his forehead. Given how stoic cats are, I can’t help but wonder how much pain the little dude’s in.

I wish I had the kitty equivalent of morphine. I’d give it to him in a heartbeat. With the polycystic kidneys, there’s really no reason not to, and my goal is to keep him happy and comfortable. The pain is one of the biggest obstacles, and it’s only going to get bigger and uglier.

I’ll try not to let this blog become a depressing document of Eric’s slow downhill slide, but I feel like tonight was this weird milestone moment. The initial dip in appetite was the shot across the bow. We’re now engaging the enemy in earnest, and they’re starting to throw grappling hooks. I know we’re going to have to surrender at some point, but by damn, we’re going to put up a magnificent fight, and have fun along the way.

How to waste a perfectly good container of food:

Step 1: Grab a capsule of your boyfriend’s Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acid supplement and squirt it all over your cats’ food.

Step 2: Realize a moment later that it’s LIME-FLAVORED, and the food now smells like a weird combination of lamb, fish oil and citrus freshness.

Step 3: Try to feed to cats anyway.

Step 4:


I gotta get the cats more salmon oil. One that’s not lime-flavored. (Seriously. Lime-flavored EFAs. What. The Fizznuck.)

On Squash, Fermentable Fiber and Feline Kidney Disease

One of the squashes from our garden
One of the squashes from our garden

One of the things I did to modify Eric’s diet after finding out about his polycystic kidneys was to reintroduce squash into his diet. In the past several years, I had dropped feeding vegetables to my cats entirely, largely because I was feeding them whole ground animals and canned Wellness and Evo on the side. I figured that the canned food was providing plenty of vegetable matter. Now that Eric’s sick, however, I’m much more draconian about feeding mostly raw food—partly because it’s better for him, and partly because Eric prefers it over the canned, which is strange because in the past his sole food preference, near as I could tell, was HOORAY FOOD OM NOM NOM NOM.

I added the squash back into Eric’s diet largely because I remembered reading back in the day that squash helps trap nitrogenous waste that would otherwise make it into the bloodstream. Today I went on an article hunt to see whether this had any sort of scientific basis, or if it was one of those raw feeding myths that get passed around because it sounds so damn good.

Assessing the Evidence

Therapeutic use of fiber in chronic kidney disease (or, if you’re old-school, chronic renal failure) is much more well-studied in humans than it is in cats. There seems to be some evidence that the consumption of soluble/fermentable fiber leads to increased excretion of nitrogen via poopin’ vs. peein’, thus lowering the amount of nitrogenous waste circulating in the blood and therefore eliminated by the kidneys. But what about cats?

I’ve found one decently reliable study that specifically looks at cats. It’s by researchers at Iams, so it’s not exactly woo-woo; research from the Iams lab is about as mainstream as it gets. The researchers found that feeding moderately fermentable fiber (mostly beet pulp and fructo-oligosaccharides) to cats decreased serum nitrogenous waste and increased fecal nitrogen excretion. The study proposed the following hypothesis as to why this would happen:

The beneficial bacteria in the cat’s lower intestine feed on the moderately fermentable fiber, creating short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the process. SCFAs not only do all sorts of nifty things, such as keep the intestine cells happy and healthy, they also increase blood flow. The increased blood flow to the intestine results in more urea being circulated to the intestines, and the bacteria, which also produce urease (an enzyme that denatures urea), convert the nitrogenous wastes to carbon dioxide and ammonia, which are then incorporated into the bacteria themselves and then pooped out by the cat, as opposed to circulating to the kidneys to be peed out.

This sounds really good and really plausible, and the results show pretty unequivocally that fermentable fiber helps reduce the urea load in the serum, which means less work for damaged kidneys, but keep these things in mind:

1. This study is really small, involving only sixteen cats.

2. They were fed the diets containing fermentable fiber for relatively short periods of time—two weeks total for with an active waste collection period of eight days.

3. The decreased waste could be due in part to the decrease in protein digestibility. The study noted that the protein digestibility decreased to 87-91% with the fermentable fiber blends.

4. As far as I could tell, they didn’t actually actually draw any blood and run blood panels; they looked at urine and feces only.

So the verdict right now is: it probably does help a little bit, but as with anything scientific, the people in the white coats need to study it more. Given that steamed squash doesn’t contain anything harmful to cats, and given the potential benefits vs. potential dangers (yes, there’s a decrease in protein digestibility from the fiber, but Eric’s getting so much high-quality protein in his food that I’m not worried about marginal decreases at this point), I decided to go ahead and give Eric a heaping tablespoonful of pureed squash per day, which comes to about 10-15% of his total food. I created a mix from a gem squash harvested straight from my garden and organic butternut from the store. He loves it. I don’t need to mix it in with the food; it’s a lurid orange dot amidst the raw rabbit and Nature’s Variety, and he often eats it first. I suppose we’ll find out whether it does anything when we test his blood again in January.

Fiber Content for Various Squash Species

If you’re curious about the fiber content of different species of squash, here’s the information I looked up on the USDA National Nutrient Database per 100 grams of raw squash (unless otherwise noted):

Butternut squash: 2.0 g  (86.41% water)
Acorn squash: 1.5 g (87.78% water)
Generic winter squash: 1.5 g (89.76% water)
Pumpkin: 0.5 g (91.6% water)
Canned pumpkin: 2.9 g (89.97% water)

Canned pumpkin has almost double the fiber content of raw butternut (on a dry matter basis) and six times more than raw pumpkin, which is interesting. It looks like you can get more bang for the buck by feeding canned pumpkin. Eric likes the fresh stuff much better, however, so I’m sticking with it for now.

Eric’s Kidneys

(Note: Parts of this were posted previously to my Livejournal as well. I’m playing catch-up over here to get to Story At Hand, as it were.)

About a month ago, Eric, my little chow hound who’d scarf up stray cornflakes I’d drop on the floor, my little orange dude who’d dive into the trashcan to find choice rancid leftovers, suddenly became fussy over his food. It manifested in the weirdest way, too: he seemed reluctant to chew. He’d nibble and lick very daintily at his food, and then spit out large chunks of it, almost as if chewing hurt his mouth.

Concurrently, I noticed that I was refilling the water dishes a lot more frequently than I ever had. I didn’t think too much about it; Portland was going through a heatwave, and not only were both cats drinking a lot more, water was also evaporating somewhat faster than it normally would.

But that chewing thing, man. That worried me. Eric has always had bad teeth; I’ve often described his breath as “doom and destruction,” and that’s been true ever since he was a little kitten. So I was all “Oh shit he needs another dental” and hauled his furry butt into the vet, even though he’d had an annual exam just a couple weeks before.

Continue reading “Eric’s Kidneys”

Thoughts on risk

(Note: This was originally posted to my Livejournal.)

An explanatory note: For those of you who don’t know already, I feed my cats mostly raw food—some of it home-made, some of it commercial—and supplement my forgetfulness and laziness with canned. (Canned is also good for trips out of town when the only available cat-sitters are squicked by feeding raw meat.) The bulk of their raw diet used to consist of ground rabbit (bones inclusive) supplemented with raw chicken liver; rabbit is far too low in fat and fat-soluble vitamins by itself to be a good, balanced diet for cats. I used to do another version, whereby I buy many pounds of whole meat and organs, cut them up so they’re about as big as my thumb, and then feed them to the cats with an accompanying calcium supplement (usually a commercial calcium carbonate supplement, but sometimes I’d use chicken necks rolled around in canned food). And then law school happened, and I gave up on the chunks o’ meat meals because they became far too time-intensive to prepare.

So! To get to my thoughts proper: Continue reading “Thoughts on risk”