A note about Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Grain-Free Diets

There’s been building panic about grain-free diets causing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in cats, resulting in vets pressuring clients to switch cats back to diets that contain grain, and it is absolutely driving me up the wall because my own vet is starting to do it to me. It’s especially aggravating because it a) misrepresents the science and b) flattens the topic into insensibility.

Spoiler alert: grains in their diets are not magically protecting kitties from dilated cardiomyopathy. That makes absolutely zero sense because cats have eaten negligible amounts of grain throughout their evolutionary history. There are other factors at play, and the two big ones are probably: 1) the cats are being fed unbalanced diets, or 2) because they’re being given diets high in legumes—technically pulses, which are the edible seeds of legumes. Think beans, peas, and lentils.

The Deal with Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Diet: What Cat Studies Show

So first of all: dilated cardiomyopathy. It’s a heart disease that causes the walls of the heart chambers to stretch, making them thin and fragile. In cats, it’s frequently caused by insufficient quantities of dietary taurine. Cat food manufacturers have known this for a very long time now and have supplemented accordingly.

However, the grain-free dog food crisis has—very understandably!—made people twitchy, and researchers have begun to look into how grain-free diets might affect cats. I’ve been able to find one cat-specific study in PubMed: “Dilated cardiomyopathy in cats: survey of veterinary cardiologists and retrospective evaluation of a possible association with diet.” ONE study. One. It’s a survey of feline cardiologists, and here’s a quick summary of what they found:

  • The sample size is very small: 52 cardiologists were surveyed, covering 37 total cats with dilated cardiomyopathy
  • 20 of 37 cats ate a low pea/lentil diet, 14 ate a high pea/lentil diet, 3 had incomplete diet information
  • After adjusting for other variables, the cats eating high pea/lentil diets but who subsequently switched to low pea/lentil diets lived significantly longer

I don’t have access to the full study, so it’s unclear whether the survey asked whether the diets were home-made vs. commercial, which brands they were, whether they were wet or dry formulations, and whether the cats surveyed suffered from other risk factors, but one of the takeaways certainly seems to strongly imply that diets high in pulses are implicated in higher risk in dilated cardiomyopathy, and switching to diets low in pulses improved mortality rates.

This isn’t new. We’ve known since 1995 that soybean protein results in lower taurine levels in plasma for cats. In fact, when I first started hearing rumblings of this in 2018, my immediate thought was “man I bet it’s the legume content fucking with taurine absorption.” I’ve had that link in my Long Guide for as long as I’ve had this website, so since 2009. To this day, I don’t feed significant portions of food to my cats if legumes appear high on the list, or if more than one species is listed. If the canned food lists “pea protein,” I straight-up don’t bother to buy it—it’s the main reason why I don’t feed Merrick.

But it’s also super important to recognize the limitations of this study! Among many other things:

  • The sample size is tiny.
  • We don’t know what the confounding factors are.
  • Studies in dogs indicate that taurine deficiency/malabsorption may not be the main culprit, and that some of these diets may contain unnamed cardiotoxic compounds that may also cause DCM.
  • It may also be the case that pet food manufacturers suck and either didn’t formulate the food properly, or did formulate the food properly but aren’t manufacturing them to standard.

But whatever the reason, it’s becoming quite clear that at least with dog food, and somewhat likely with cat food, that foods high in pulses are a bad idea.

Bean (and Pea, and Lentil) Counting: Dry Food

Here’s the thing about grain-free dry food: you need a binder of some kind in order to make kibble work. Not only is it essential for physical integrity, it’s needed in order to facilitate the correct sort of crunch. As a bonus, the cat food manufacturer gets to bump up their protein content; it’s not that different from adding corn gluten meal to a formulation. Additionally, and big caveat here that this is pure speculation and should absolutely be taken with a grain of salt, but fresh meat ingredients (i.e. without the word “meal” appended to them) are weighed on a wet weight basis, whereas beans and lentils come in dried form. What might end up happening is that once everything is cooked down, the pulses probably make up a much more significant portion of the protein than their positions in the ingredient listing suggest, potentially outweighing the fresh meat ingredients when all is said and done.

If you look at many of the top grain-free dry food brands, you’ll see tons of leguminous ingredients. Some examples:

Orijen has at least six different ingredients that are either whole pulses or derived from pulses. The culprits are listed right after the meat proteins—that’s pretty high on the list! These are the pulses they use in their formulations, appearing in different places and in different combinations depending on the flavor: Whole Red Lentils, Whole Pinto Beans, Whole Peas, Whole Green Lentils, Whole Chickpeas, Whole Navy Beans, Lentil Fiber, Pea Starch, Whole Yellow Peas.

Wellness CORE uses peas and pea protein, generally listed somewhere between third and fifth position in the ingredient list depending on formulation, which, man that is extremely high on the ingredient list.

Petcurean GO! uses an assortment pulses starting anywhere from 3rd to 11th position, depending on formulation: Peas, Lentils, Pea Flour, Chickpeas, Pea Fiber.

Purina Beyond uses Pea Starch, Pea Protein, and Pea Fiber, starting as early as second position in some of the formulations. Ugh.

Purina ONE uses Pea Starch, Pea Protein, and our old friends, Soybean Meal and Soy Protein Concentrate, starting as early as third position.

American Journey, the house brand for Chewy, uses Pea Protein, Peas, and Pea Fiber.

Blue Buffalo Wilderness uses Pea Protein, which is listed as high as third position, as well as Peas and Pea Fiber.

Crave uses Pea Protein and Split Peas, again listed as high as third position.

Taste of the Wild uses Peas (second in the ingredient list for at least one formulation) and Pea Protein.

Dr. Elsey’s CleanProtein, which I feed Beckett as very small part of a diet that’s mostly wet food, uses dried chickpeas in either seventh or eighth position, with the exception of the chicken flavor, which has no pulses at all, or honestly any discernible source of starch, which is a bit weird and makes me wonder if it’s a label fuck-up. They claim that 90% of the protein comes from animal sources, but a) there’s no practical way of verifying that, and b) that says absolutely nothing about their starches. Going forward, I’m gonna feed Beckett only the chicken flavor if I can possibly help it. To be clear: I’m only comfortable feeding this to Beckett because, again, the vast majority of his food comes from wet food that’s largely free of pulses.

Look, I could go on, but it’s really clear at this point that pet food manufacturers swapped out one source of starch for another to make their kibble, potentially with disastrous results. In my last blog post I was like, oh man, I think I was wrong about dry food sucking for cats. You know what? I retract that. Dry food still sucks for cats, and grain-free dry food is potentially dangerous because so much of it depends on pulses to make the kibble, well, kibble-y.

Wet Food Still Sucks Less, More News at 11

Now, what about wet food? No surprise here: it’s much, MUCH easier to find formulations that are free of pulses, because structural integrity isn’t a concern. My quick and extremely unscientific survey shows me that pate-style foods are somewhat less likely to contain pulses than the minced/bits styles—I discovered that the Wellness Minced and Gravies formulations, which I feed to my cats on a rotating basis (about 20% of their diet), contain dried ground peas. Ugh. Once I finish up what I have, I’m gonna either ratchet it down to 10% or drop it entirely.

Beware the Potato?

Foods high in potato have been implicated in the DCM cases for dogs, but it’s unclear what effect, if any, they have on cats. I’m curious to see whether there’s some kind of connection. Nothing I’m feeding contains any significant quantity of potato, so the question is moot for me, but it is an important component for several grain-free dry food formulations.

Keep Calm and Feed Your Cats Sensibly

Why are vets banging on about switching cats to diets containing grain instead of focusing on a different and, in my opinion, better guideline, which is “avoid feeding cats pulses”? Because it’s a way easier message to sell, even if it’s incomplete at best and incorrect at worst.

Look, I get why they’re doing it; many people don’t know what pulses are, and saying “feed grain-based food” is way easier than giving cat caretakers a list that says “no soy, peas, lentils, beans, or chickpeas.” And for real: good luck finding grain-free dry that doesn’t contain any of those things. I have found exactly one, and it’s expensive.

It’s also difficult to talk to people, especially people without science literacy, about things like confounding factors, and uncertainty, and the limits of extrapolating research largely conducted on dogs to cats—but it’s also on vets to engage at a more detailed level with customers who are more interested in digging deeper into the science.

So what are some sensible approaches to feeding your cats, given this information?

  • If you’re only feeding grain-free dry, seriously think about switching to something else, unless your grain-free dry contains no pulses.
  • If you’re feeding a mix of dry and wet grain-free foods, check your ingredient lists for pulses and weed out as much as you can.
  • If you’re feeding a home-made diet, whether cooked or raw, please, for the love of God, make sure that you’re following a reputable recipe, or, if you’re going off-road, please crunch the numbers on what you’re making. The USDA National Nutrient Database exists and is your friend, though you’ll have to find bone-in data separately if you’re feeding that. Supplement with taurine pills if you need to.
  • As always: feed as wide a variety a diet as you can at all stand, with as much wet food as possible. I’m on the very far edge of feeding a wide variety of food; about 40% of my cats’ diet is home-made raw, and the remaining 60% is rotated between four different brands, with three to four different flavors within those brands. It’s a bit nuts! But look, pet food manufacturers fuck up and cut corners all the time; I’m counting on the fact that they won’t all fuck up at the same time, on all of their flavors.

Most of all, don’t freak out if you find that you’ve been feeding your cats food containing pulses. There are so many different factors here, from your cat’s biology to how the ingredients were processed to how big a portion the pulses are as an overall portion of the diet. This is not an acute emergency; assuming your cat doesn’t congenitally have DCM, this is, by and large, a problem caused by chronic malnutrition and which is honestly extremely addressable with diet and supplementation, assuming no health crisis is nigh. I, for one, am not especially worried about my cats. Once my old food runs out, I’m going to make a few small tweaks. Don’t make any rash decisions!

And as always: when in doubt, listen to your vet, not some stranger on the Internet, no matter how strong their opinions may be. I’m frustrated with mine right now, but hopefully yours is willing to talk to you reasonably and in detail about what’s going on.

New Year, New Kitten—and Some Thoughts on Dry Food

So the boyfriend and I did a thing whereby we paid a ridiculous sum of money for a purebred baby cat who wouldn’t make me sneeze (vs. Callisto, who is one of those magical one-in-a-hundred cats who are naturally low in Fel-D1 oh my god I got so lucky with her), and we couldn’t be more in love with this ridiculous floof. Dear terribly neglected cat blog, please meet Beckett, the nonsense floof who stole our hearts and a not-insignificant number of crinkly foil balls.

And with the nonsense floof came dry food, because that’s what the breeder raised him on. High-quality, grain-free dry, but, y’know, dry.

I’m not a cat food purist by any means. No food is infinitely worse than low-quality food, and I have kick-started the appetites of sick and dying cats with Fancy Feast  many a time and have not regretted a moment of it.  But I have balked at feeding any dry food ever since my initial terrible experiences in the early 2000s. Yet here I was with a kitten who got occasional bits of wet food as treats but who was used to largely eating kibble, and who was reluctant to move straightaway to a high-moisture diet.

So I did what I usually do, which was research the hell out of the high-quality, high-protein dry foods on the market, and I finally settled on a few criteria:

  • No less than 66% fat and protein content on a dry matter basis, based on the Guaranteed Analysis numbers. For the average dry food with less than 10% moisture, that means at least 60% combined fat and protein. Anything below that is a non-starter for me and what I’m willing to feed my cats.
  • Grain-free, which honestly is a necessity given my first criteria, because of how starch-dense grains are.
  • The first five ingredients should be meat or animal fats—exceptions made for brands that list only one or two animal ingredients and one source of starch, and that still meet the Guaranteed Analysis numbers.
  • A reasonably good reputation—no recall scandals in the past five years, and generally well-regarded and well-reviewed.

I finally settled on these dry foods to feed Beckett as I transitioned him to a high-moisture only diet, all of them contingent on me being able to get samples (or cheap 12-ounce packets) from my local pet stores:


OK reputation, good ingredient list, and the guaranteed analysis numbers meet my requirements (40% protein, 20% fat, 10% moisture), plus they have super-convenient 12-oz. packages for $5 each.

Conclusion: I tried both the Six Fish and Cat & Kitten formulas, and Beckett cheerfully ate them most of the time, though he occasionally turned his nose up at the Six Fish for no reason I could discern. Fuckin’ kittens. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Petcurean Go! Fit + Free chicken, Turkey and Duck

OK reputation, ingredients looked great, and the guaranteed analysis numbers exceeded my requirements (46% protein, 18% fat, 10% moisture). Teeny kibbles, the likes of which I haven’t seen since Science Diet, and which the kitten pretty much swallows whole, with barely a perfunctory crunch

Conclusion: Beckett looooves this one. Loves. Part of the reason why he doesn’t chew this is because he’s too busy enthusiastically scarfing it down.

Wellness Core Original

Look, I know, Wellness isn’t the best these days, and they had not one, but two recalls in 2017, but their Core formulations seduced me with their numbers (45% protein, 18% fat, 10% moisture), and I’ve been feeding their canned food for as long as I’ve had cats, and their free samples are everywhere.  I know. I KNOW. Damn you, capitalism and your fiendish ability to cultivate consumer loyalty!

Conclusion: Hilariously, this is the food that Beckett is least excited about. He’ll maybe take a nibble, but I need to mix it in with other stuff to really get him to eat any significant amount.

Their wickedly expensive line of Signature Selects cans, on the other hand—he’ll inhale a couple of those flavors, especially the Skipjack Tuna and Salmon dinner.

Fuckin’. Kittens.

First Mate Pacific Ocean Fish Meal with Blueberries

It still irritates me that pet food companies advertise things like blueberries on their packaging, as if blueberries were a sensible or desirable thing to feed your cat. F’real, y’all, I’d be much more excited to see something like “Pacific Ocean Fish Meal with Egg Yolk”, but I’m probably not the average consumer.

That said, my local pet store loves, and I mean L O V E S First Mate, and push samples at me constantly, so I figured, what the hell, let’s give this a shot! The numbers meet my requirements (42% protein, 18% fat, 10% moisture), and their reputation seems fine.

Conclusion: Beckett likes this OK! This is the most OK food!

There were a couple more brands I didn’t try that met my requirements. I was especially intrigued by Evo, for example, which has the highest protein I’ve seen in a kibble (50% protein, 22% fat, 10% moisture), but I couldn’t find a reasonably small bag for me to try on Beckett. And I’m hoping to taper him off all dry food in the next month or so—he’s down to 1/8 cup per day now, and he’s growing fast and eating more and more wet food (home-made raw and canned) all the time.

But here’s the thing that pleasantly surprised me: dry food has come a long way. Hell, even Purina has a grain-free line out, and even though the ingredients and numbers don’t look especially great, it blows the numbers for the other grocery store brands out of the water.  Beckett doesn’t even have the signature dry food poops I remember from days of yore from my own cats and from volunteering at the Humane Society—the ones you can smell from a whole floor away.

The low moisture content of dry food will prevent me from ever feeding it as the sole ration for any cat I’m the caretaker for, plus too much dry food gives Callisto the runs (which I confirmed this time around when I was a leetle bit too generous with the treats, driven by her I’m-devastated-because-I’m-not-getting-the-tasty-kitten-kibble expression). However, they suck a whole lot less than they used to, and I’ll probably continue to dole out kibble as occasional snacks even after Beckett is completely switched over to wet.

Aw hell, why even pretend I’m here to talk about cat food any more? Here, have some photos of my adorable hypoallergenic fuzzbutt, with bonus adorable boyfriend.

That awkward moment when you realize that feeding a raw diet makes you happy about some strange things.

And the FedEx man knocked, and lo, verily, were there not only 36 pounds of still-frozen ground raw rabbit in the styrofoam-lined box, there were also two gallon-sized freezer bags filled with tiny dead newborn rabbits. And there was much rejoicing in the land. Apartment. Apartment-land.

No, seriously, I’m so happy to get my hands on those popsicles. And my cats will be, too, in a couple days. Those suckers are hard to get ahold of!

In conclusion: Wholefoods4pets is seriously the best, and I weep for you if you haven’t been able to get on their customer list.

Addendum to the last post

So in my last post, I described Callisto’s periodic assplosions as “random.” This is a completely false characterization. They’re not random at all. They’re directly traceable to one cause: the fact that she exhibits Labrador retriever-like tendencies to eat anything and everything that comes across her way. This has included items like curry, pieces of tissue paper and (most alarmingly) kale braised in onion. The most recent escapade: half of a chicken breast fried with copious amounts of garlic powder. My boyfriend and I are much better about keeping food off the tables and counters now, but we screwed up last night.

The results have been predictable.

Kittens, man. I’ve forgotten how they inspire both love and a desire to throttle.

Premium Edge Cat Food Recall

Premium Edge Finicky Adult
Premium Edge Finicky Adult is one of the recalled lines

Premium Edge is voluntarily recalling two different formulas of its dry food for cats: Finicky Adult and Hairball. More details in the press release on their website.

The reason for this recall? Apparently, the cats affected suffered from thiamine deficiency. Pet food recalls are typically driven by contamination with toxins, not nutrient deficiencies, though earlier this year, Nutro had to recall several batches of cat food for sky-high levels of zinc.

Premium Edge’s parent company, Diamond Food, has had problems in the past with aflatoxin contamination in their dog foods; Diamond was also involved in the massive 2007 pet food recall. This review of Premium Edge food has a heart-breaking comment by a person whose cat died eating one of the recalled foods.

This is yet another demonstration that commercial pet food isn’t necessarily safe, much less complete and balanced nutrition for your cat.

For those of you feeling wary about Diamond Pet Food, you can view a fairly comprehensive list of brands they manufacture on their Wikipedia page. Some of them are big-name “natural” brands, like Natural Balance and Canidae.


One of the first things the vet gave me to give to Eric was Renafood, a supplement consisting of various detoxifiers, including beet juice. I’m skeptical that it actually does anything for two main reasons:

1. I feel doubtful about the efficacy of herbal detoxification in general, partly stemming from a skepticism about the quality control and potency of the herbs in any given supplement, and partly stemming from skepticism that herbal detoxification actually works in the way described. I mean, look: my cat’s kidneys are fucked. Thoroughly, utterly fucked. I’m not sure how or why minute amounts of carrot and beet might help him filter waste material more effectively, unless they’re somehow rebuilding his nephrons for him.

2. The logic of some of the claims presented in the Renafood information sheet. So, Renafood contains bovine kidney extract. That extract apparently holds “tissue cell determinants” that will instruct the kidneys to Shape Up, Son. I have no idea what a “tissue cell determinant” is, though I have a very vague memory of learning about cell fate determination—thanks, high school biology! But the information sheet doesn’t give any sort of helpful definition of what these tissue cell determinants do other than talking about something that sort of vaguely sounds like cell fate determination. Quoting from the information sheet:

The bovine kidney PMG extract found in Renafood contains cellular determinants that regulate cell activities. Genetic coding determines the proteins unique to cells in each tissue, gland and organ. Cellular proteins are the foundation of the cell’s nutrition. Similarly, bovine kidney contributes innumerable materials produced in the organ itself, such as acids, enzymes and hormone precursors—each captured and preserved to offer their innate benefits to the corresponding tissues in humans to promote optimal health.

Huh. That sure sounds like a fancy way of saying…nothing much. Prepare for a bulleted list!

  • The first sentence makes an assertion that the cell determinants in Renafood regulate activities, and the next sentence is a more-or-less correct statement about cell fate determination, but doesn’t tell me how Renafood affects the genetic coding of cells.
  • The sentence after that reads like a complete non-sequitur. Cellular proteins may or may not be the foundation of a cell’s nutrition (I don’t know enough about biochemistry to begin unraveling what this deceptively simple sentence means), but how does that relate to the thesis sentence or to the conclusion?
  • Furthermore, what do they mean by “cellular proteins,” especially in this context?
  • The first part of the last sentence is more-or-less true, because it’s essentially talking about the kidney extract providing proteins, fats and vitamins, but you can feed real food (like, oh, I don’t know, fresh kidney) and, if the Renafood claims are true, get the same effect.
  • This information sheet from Standard Process explains what cell determinants do and how they relate to protomorphogens (which is apparently what constitutes the bovine kidney extract in Renafood), but it sounds even more gobbledegooky. The cell determinants in protomorphogens are apparently the mineral templates on which chromosomes are constructed. This is, near as I can determine (and I’ve confirmed this with biochemist friends just to make sure I didn’t miss something about cell biology) complete nonsense. Seriously.
  • I’ve read the info sheet through three times, and I’m still not entirely sure how Renafood keeps cells healthy or helps regenerate cells, because I don’t see how the leap from digestive system to bloodstream to cell division is made—there’s a lot of talk about “affinity” and thermostability and how important cell determinant are, but very little actual science. The most credible-sounding scientific bits aren’t supported by any references, and most importantly, they’re not connected to how the supplement’s supposed to work. Speaking as a former technical writer, this is probably the shoddiest bit of technical writing I’ve ever seen.
  • It doesn’t help that Royal Lee, the founder of Standard Process, has been prosecuted for criminal misbranding. The FDA has in the past characterized him as “probably the largest publisher of unreliable and false nutritional information in the world.” Given how lackadaisical the FDA has been and continues to be about food and drug regulation, these aren’t just fightin’ words, them’s strong fightin’ words.
  • Taken as a whole, it sounds like Standard Prociess is claiming that eating Renafood will somehow stimulate kidney cells to work better through a mysterious process involving “cellular determinants.” If that’s not science-esque, I don’t know what is. (“Science-esque 2: This time, it’s not Science-esque 1!”)

In short: I’m not sure I buy into the idea that this does anything. I’m giving it to Eric right now because he loves it, and it doesn’t contain anything that seems overtly harmful. But my woo-woo meter is on alert, and if you want to save yourself $16, I’d argue that this supplement doesn’t do anything other than provide a nice source of vitamin A and a tasty snack.

Using Nutritional Yeast in Feline Renal Failure Diets

I stopped feeding nutritional yeast a while back, because I was feeding quite a bit of canned food and quite a bit of liver. However, given that liver contains a higher phosphorus-to-B-vitamin ratio, and given the fact that I’m feeding my cats canned food maybe once every ten days now, I’m feeding about twice the nutritional yeast than I normally would, i.e., almost two teaspoons per cat per day.

Several reasons why I’m doing this:

1. Eric’s peeing a whole lot, which means he’s losing a lot of water-soluble vitamins, like B vitamins. Nutritional yeast contains a LOT of B vitamins. Here’s a some relevant information (lifted from Bulkfoods.com); quantities are per heaping tablespoonful, which is close to what I feed total for both cats every day:

Thiamin (B1): 9.6 mg
Riboflavin (B2): 9.6 mg
Niacin: 56 mg
Vitamin B6: 9.6 mg
Folic Acid: 240 mcg
Vitamin B12: 8 mcg
Biotin: 20.8 mcg
Pantothenic Acid: 1.04 mg
Phosphorus: 174.4 mg
Calcium: 11.2 mg

I initially wanted to find a meat-based food source of B vitamins, and what popped to mind immediate was chicken liver. But chicken liver can’t even come close. Here’s the B-vitamin profile for two ounces of liver (approximate 7 grams)—again, I’m approximating how much I’d feed to both cats per day:

Calcium: 5 mg
Phosphorus: 169 mg
Thiamin: 0.174 mg
Riboflavin: 1.013 mg
Niacin: 5.545 mg
Pantothenic acid: 3.553 mg
Vitamin B-6: 0.486 mg
Folate, total: 335 mcg
Folic acid: 0 mcg
Folate, food: 335 mcg
Choline, total: 110.8 mg
Vitamin B-12: 9.45 mcg

So about the same amount of phosphorus between the nutritional yeast and the liver, but except for B-12, folate and pantothenic acid, the nutritional yeast gives more B-complex bang for the buck (and it’s a pretty close match for the B-12). The USDA National Nutrient Database doesn’t give the value for biotin in liver, so I don’t know how that compares in chicken liver vs. nutritional yeast, but I’m feeding egg yolks on a regular basis, so I know the cats are getting plenty of biotin no matter what.

2. Wow. That was a really long point. This second one is much shorter, I promise, and it boils down to this: Both cats really love the taste, but Eric loves it. And I mean, he really, really loves it. More than a fat kid loves cake. And given his depressed appetite, I’m perfectly happy to indulge him in this for as long as he’s around, and as long as it keeps him happy and eating.

3. Again, because of the increased peeing, Eric’s losing more potassium than he should. A heaping tablespoonful of yeast contains 320 mg of potassium and 5.2 mg of sodium. (Chicken liver is pretty good, too, but not quite as good; two ounces contains 131 mg of potassium and 40 mg of sodium.) That’s pretty much perfect: lots of potassium to make up for what he’s losing, and relatively little salt, because cats with chronic kidney disease often have difficulty eliminating sodium, which can sometimes result in high blood pressure.

4. Eric’s phosphorus and calcium levels are normal. I wouldn’t feed this to a cat with elevated phosphorus, or at least, I wouldn’t feed it without a phosphorus binder. I’d go with a B-complex vitamin supplement instead. But I want to keep his nutritional supplementation as food-based as possible for now. Note that this choice is a decision based more on philosophy than science, driven largely by my opinion that food will provide better nutrition than, well, bare, isolated nutrients.

To feed, or not to feed? That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of yeasty misfortune… OK. Right. Sorry about that. At any rate, I’ve heard people express concern about feeding nutritional yeast as a dietary staple, but I have yet to read an explanation that makes sense to me. It’s definitely high in phosphorus, but you can compensate for that in a home-made diet by ensuring you’re providing enough calcium.  There’s some talk about how it’s a cheap by-product of beer brewing, but that’s brewer’s yeast. From what I understand, they’re the same species (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), but nutritional yeast is grown and killed solely as a nutritional supplement and isn’t used for brewing first. (I’ve read conflicting information on this, and will be more than happy to be corrected.)

I’ve read other people expressing concerns about it “fermenting” in the stomach (Feline Future used to claim this, but seems to have backed off since then), which: what? First of all, it’s completely deactivated, which means it’s dead—it can’t reproduce and actually, y’know, ferment. Now, if we’re talking about live yeast, like baker’s yeast or active brewer’s yeast, that would be a different matter entirely; I knew somebody whose dog stole and ate two batches of raw bread dough (labradors, man) and had to be taken to the ER because the bread started expanding in his stomach. So if there’s going to be any fermentation, that means microorganisms acting on the dead yeast as a substrate.

Now, nutritional yeast is pretty high-protein (about 50% of it consists of protein dry weight), and over half of its carbohydrate content is fiber. Protein, as far as I know, generally isn’t fermented; most fermentation tends to happen with carbohydrates. But the amount of digestible carbohydrate in  nutritional yeast is pretty marginal (3.3 g per heaping tablespoon) and the fiber may or may not be fermentable. If the fiber is fermentable, it’ll probably be fermented by bacteria in the colon, not in the stomach because feline stomachs are relatively sterile environments. But fermentation in the colon isn’t necessarily a bad thing—in fact, depending on the degree of fermentability, it could actually be a good thing. (Note to self: find out whether the fiber in nutritional yeast is soluble/insoluble, fermentable/non-fermentable).

However, if somebody has heard any sort of warning about nutritional yeast that’s backed up by something that makes scientific sense, I’m all ears. For now, my Google-fu hasn’t really turned up anything I need to watch out for.

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 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.