Supper? Photo by Helen Ratcliff
How we love to exchange kitty eating habits in the cat food section at the supermarket. I have just been sharing thoughts and advice with a lady who is the proud owner of a rescued Maine Coon female. She was describing a 'larger than life' (6.5kilos) cat with extraordinary food specifications. "Aren't they fussy and dont we spoil them." Yes, thats a comment frequently heard by all us cat owners. There are always little tips about weekly fresh fish or chicken treats... And... the cost to keep them accustomed to their needs. But, we love our cats and continue to stroke their egos.
So... there I am sifting through the brands and new 'hand made' products, with beautiful, earthy packaging, when it occurs to me that this is nonsense. Cats are obligate carnivores, they just want meat and this has me asking myself, why do they put vegetables and herbs in cat food? Cats aren't interested in herbs (unless it is catnip), this is clearly to benefit the human consumer. Ok, so possibly this is about adding vitamins and minerals, however, I believe it is more about the brands competing for the most interesting recipes and colourful aesthetics. This is not related to the health of the cat but the health of the brand and how it shines on the supermarket shelf.
Well, that got me thinking all the more and I decided to do some research on the matter... Cats have been around for thousands of years, yet it wasn't until 1837, that the idea of cat food being a saleable product came to the fore. Previously, tamed cats were considered self reliant on feeding themselves, i.e. hunting and killing mice or rats to sustain their wellbeing. Then, an observing French writer, acknowledged, that cats that were not given food (scraps), were feeble and untamed in their appearance. Although, at that time, it was widely understood that a hungry cat would hunt further. The writer suggested that a well - fed and nourished cat would be more awake, diligent and agile. The fitter the cat, the more successful the hunt. An alert and 'full' cat would then satisfy his natural taste and instinct. (1)
In 1844, Another French writer expanded on this idea... As a rule, in the country, no care was taken to feed the resident cat. But, when the cat was hungry it would raid the pantry, more so than go out to hunt and catch a mouse. A cat prefers to catch a mouse through instinct and attraction - not by need through hunger. So... to neglect a cat, was to render him useless and harmful, while with a few scraps properly given, say, twice a day, the cat will never do any damage (steeling from the pantry) and will serve you greater - keeping the home free of vermin. He then went on to explain that cats take mice more for amusement than to eat. "A good cat takes many, and eats few." (2)
By 1876, Gordon Stables emphasised the need to give cats food. To make a cat more successful as a vermin - killer, she needs to be given her own dish of food each day, then, without delay, remove the dish when she has finished. An attempt at disciplining the moggy. Furthermore, he suggested giving her porridge and milk for breakfast or broken bread, steeped in milk, with a little sugar. This was deemed an excellent breakfast for puss. (Otto, one of my cats, loves porridge). Then, for supper, she must have an allowance of flesh. Boiled lights are better than horse meat, but occasionally, let her have a piece of fish. To that end, teach your cat to wait patiently until she is served - a spoilt cat is as disagreeable as a spoilt child! Sadly, my cats bang on their food cupboard until I give in... so much for discipline. Also, if you want your cat to to be nice and clean, treat her to a square inch of fresh butter. (Otto was caught licking my freshly opened butter the other day - I was not happy) - Butter acts as a gentle laxative for cat. Grease combining in her mouth, with alkalinity of saliva, forms a kind of natural 'cat soap' and she will commence washing herself. If you wish to have your cat presented at her best (for guests arriving), using a sponge, dab bits of fresh cream on her coat and she will clean it off, and then, be beautifully conditioned.
Too much fleshy meat, especially liver, can induce a troublesome diarrhoea - do not give too many titbits from the table and, above all else, never neglect to give your cat her two regular meals. (3)
During the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, meat for cats and dogs, in London, was sold from 'hand - carts' by intinerant (travelling) traders, known as 'Cats Meat Men'.(4) Frequently, this would have been horse meat, a staple diet for domestic pets, at that time. The meat would have been boiled before consumption. Interesting how it has crept back in to our freezer sections.... and begs another question - is horse meat used in our pet products? Although, personally, I do not eat cat food. Morally, my conscience would decline on purchasing cat food which had horse meat in its ingredients... sorry, puds!
In the wild, a cat's diet would consist of small rodents, rabbits, birds and insects, taking most of their moisture from the rodents. A mouse contains 65 - 70% moisture. On this diet, a cat would obtain 2% of its calories from carbohydrates. That is all a cat needs because they have a physiological decrease in the ability to utilise carbohydrates. So, why do certain brands bulk out cat food, especially dried, with corn, wheat and rice? Most dried cat food contains 50% carbohydrate - that is enough to turn your cat in to an obese monster and could ultimately be fatal. Also, cats have evolved to take the moisture they need from their meat and dried food can leave puss detrimentally dehydrated. This can also accelerate diabetes. Clearly we are all told to leave a bowl of fresh water out daily, but cats really do prefer to take moisture from their food. On occasion, my moggies love a bowl of (lactose - free) milk. The creamier the better.
Otto and Jaffa love their milk...
Then, there is the matter of the essential part of a cats diet, protein. So, forgetting the herbs, vegetables, corn, wheat, rice, colourings and flavourings, I suggest looking for named meat, fish and poultry. These are the basic nutritional ingredients that puss needs. However, a balanced diet would also contain taurine, which is an essential amino acid and certain other vitamins, minerals, enzymes and fatty acids. Yet, there can be downsides to too much of any one thing. Cats need variation, it's not just about them being fussy. My Mother use to boil up (daily) fresh liver or cod for the cats. They would then wash it all down with a bowl of full cream milk. They all lived long, healthy lives, but became accustomed to fresh food rather than 'tinned' cat food. Hence, my Mother had to commit to this for the duration of the cats' life. When her life was busy, she would try to feed something more convenient, but the cats would just throw it up! Apparently, those fed exclusively on liver can develop vitamin A toxicity, too much fresh water fish can induce a thiamine deficiency and exclusively meat diets may contain excessive protein and phosphorus - whilst being deficient in calcium, vitamin E and minerals such as copper, zinc and potassium. Energy density must also be maintained relative to the other nutrients. Studies have shown that cats eat what they require to receive their nutritional needs. So, it pays to spend a little more on the brand, checking ingredients for essentials. Cheaper brands tend to bulk the food out and the cats need more of it to feel satisfied. That said, my cats throw up or walk away. They seem to know what their faves look like. Not sure how, but they recognise packaging and how fully stocked up the cupboard is. The more stocked, the more fussy they become. This is called 'cat manipulation'. They are far from stupid and embrace the skills learnt from their ancestors of the 19th century. May be I was wrong, perhaps brands do package for cat consumers.
Whilst researching this essay, I stumbled across something very interesting. It is regarding Otto's behaviour. He has always been a little fickle, but as he has become older, in some ways there is a fragility in his movement and eating habits which have given rise for concern. Sometimes, its like there is a link missing, from brain to muscle. He stands motionless, as if thinking about where to place his foot... This can be quite irritating, especially when he is settling down on your lap - it can take a good while. On occasion, it is like he forgets where he started... like I said, a missing link. He also can appear quite untamed, physically. If I do not brush him, he has the appearance of a small, wild, wolf. Furthermore, he throws up alot and I worry that he is not getting nourishment. Well... I believe I may have found the reason, purely by accident. It could be a lack of vitamin D and possibly vitamin B1. Less sunshine in the winter can cause strange behaviour in animals (like humans), And, lacking in these vitamins can cause the above mentioned behaviour... neurological impairments, altered reflexes, unconditioned coat (tufts), slightly under weight appeareance and pathological changes in nervous system... that explains alot. Perhaps mackeral is on the menu tonight. Another observation, recently, is his new desire to lap up porridge and eggs. I call these comfort foods - Otto, it would seem, is seeking out nourishment to settle his stomach and possibly the feeling of being hugged... awe!
Jaffa, his brother, loves a slice of tongue, fresh prawns, raw steak and petit filous. Hmmph... spoiled? I am afraid so. Oh, and copious amounts of cuddles...
Something which also came to light recently, was the way that Otto and Jaffa run out to the garden, after the rain. I have noticed how they love a graze on grass, especially when the grass is wet. I realised that this could be a way of hydrating, naturally. But, it does beg yet another question. Why do cats eat grass? We, cat people, have all pondered on various theories, but with the knowledge that cats are unable to digest vegetation, what could be the answer? I believe it is to do with moisture. However, cats are generally sick after grazing, which suggests grass is a natural remedy for cleansing. Fur and bones (from rodents) stay in the stomach of a cat. Also, when grooming, the little spikes on the tongue, grab the loose fur and the fur is swallowed. The grass wraps around the stomach contents and the cat regurgitates the parcel up. Together with these benefits, grass provides small traces of vitamins A and D, aiding recovery for sick cats. Grass can also relieve stomach pain, skin diseases, infection and ulcers. Jaffa was bitten by a strange cat recently, and thereafter, he slept for four days - only waking from time to time for a small pot of (spoon fed) Petit filous. Once the abscess erupted (sorry), I bathed the area with sterile water and savlon, in between growls of dismay, where upon he would stagger outside to eat some grass. This was repeated continuously, until his wound healed.
So... our feline friends are fussy about what they eat, but with good reason. They are intelligent animals that have evolved to understand what their body requires. They would prefer an easy existence and will sooner raid the larder than allow nature to take its course. However, when the chips (mice, fish, steaks) are down, you can be sure that they will go forth and kill... You have to take your hat off to our obligate, manipulative, spoilt, little carnivores. They are in tune with their wild side, yet know how to make a home a home...
1 - Mauny de Mornay, Livre de L'eleveur et du proprietaire d'animaux domestiques, 1837
2 - Nicolas jean Baptiste Boyard, Manuel du bouvier et Zoophile ou l'art d'elever de soigner les animaux, 1844
3 - Gordon Stables, 'Cats'. 1876
4 - 'Cats Meat Man' C. 1901. Museum of London (retrieved October 02, 2012)