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by Andrea Pring
Reprinted with permission of Animal Wellness Magazine, © 2006,

Imagine you were sick in hospital and the staff fed you nothing but cookies or highly processed meat by-products. It’s unlikely you would recover very quickly, if at all. Sadly, this is exactly what many caregivers are doing when they feed their ailing cats low-end commercial foods. Illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, IBD, and heart problems are often linked to poor diet in the first place, so it follows that a sick cat won’t improve if no changes are made to her food.

Wanted: quality protein

Cats are obligate carnivores. This means they must eat meat to survive. In the wild, a cat’s diet consists mainly of rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. These prey are high in protein with moderate amounts of fat and a small amount of carbohydrate. Although cats may use carbohydrate as an energy source, they are metabolically adapted to utilize only small quantities. However, many poor quality cat foods are made with plant-based carbohydrates and proteins such as grains, which are less bio-available to the animal.

Here’s the problem. Cats continue to use protein for energy production and other metabolic pathways even when it’s in low supply. This means malnutrition can occur very fast in sick cats if their protein needs are not met. “Cats quickly lose weight when ill because they turn muscle into available protein for other biological functions such as maintaining a strong heartbeat,” says naturopathic doctor Dr. Lisa Newman.

“Unfortunately, they begin to use up their own heart muscle if they are not soon fed easily- assimilated animal protein in the form of clean, whole muscle meat.”Hydration is essential

Water is crucial to your cat’s health, especially when she’s ailing. Unfortunately, many cats that eat nothing but dry food are suffering from dehydration. A cat’s thirst response is less sensitive than a dog’s because of her ages-old adaptation to desert living, where water requirements are met primarily from prey consumption.

Cats adjust their water intake to the dry matter rather than the moisture con- tent of their food. This means that a cat consuming nothing but dry food will take in approximately half the water of a cat fed canned food, but will not make up for that lack by drinking more.

A diet high in moisture-rich foods will increase the cat’s water consumption and the volume of urine. Dr. Newman says this is especially important when a cat is ill and doesn’t have the energy or inclination to orally consume water.

The raw food route

If your cat is facing ill health, her treatment plan should include giving her the most nutritionally healthy source of food you can. Many caregivers choose to feed their animals a homemade diet; although it requires some research, it allows you to control ingredient quality and avoid the additives found in low-end commercial foods.

Depending on your cat’s condition, the raw meat and bones diet is one route you can take. It should consist of roughly 80% meat and 20% vegetables with a minimal amount of grains such as millet, barley or oatmeal. Choice raw meats include beef, turkey, quail, rabbit and chicken. Use only quality fresh meat, organic whenever possible. Some people also include ground organs (liver, heart, kidneys etc.) to ensure their cats get a more balanced meal.

This diet should be supplemented with human-grade bone meal to provide the correct balance of vitamins and minerals. Many caregivers prefer to feed raw bones to their cats to provide them with a better balance of calcium and phosphorus, as well as a good dental workout. Raw (not cooked) chicken or turkey necks are great for teeth as they are relatively soft and can be easily masticated.

Michelle Bernard, author of Raising Cats Naturally, has successfully raised four generations of cats on the diet. “Today, I have ten cats, all fed an exclusively homemade raw meat and bone diet,” she says.

Do your research, take your time

It’s important you do your homework thoroughly before embarking on a homemade diet, as your cat needs to receive a balanced calcium:phosphorus ratio, as well as a full complement of all necessary vitamins. Poorly thought-out meals with no proper nutrient balance can cause a whole host of problems and make a sick cat even sicker.

meat on its own does not constitute a balanced diet. If you don’t add the other necessary nutrients, you are likely to create more problems.

A raw diet is not appropriate for every cat. Some may find it difficult to tolerate, especially at first. It’s wise to gently introduce the new food, perhaps by lightly cooking it initially. Always ease your cat into new food regimes by mixing the new food with the old and changing the proportions as the new food is accepted. Be patient. Some cats can be encouraged by drizzling tuna or salmon oil over the new food; the strong flavors are attractive to them.

Premium packaged diets

Most high quality canned or raw frozen foods have the correct balance of vita- mins and minerals already added, so if you don’t have the time or inclination to do your own research, I suggest you feed your cat one of these good quality foods. Avoid low-end products that contain meat by-products or that don’t name whole meats in the ingredient list. The percentage of grains should be small or even absent.

Cats that have a history of obesity, diabetes, bladder, kidney, liver or pancreas problems should never be fed dry or semi-moist food. Purchase good quality wet brands; these have a higher percentage of meat in relation to the other ingredients.

Low appetite?

A poor appetite is one of the first signs of ill health in a cat. Often, the cause may be nothing more than a dental problem. “They can also become toxic from something they have been ingesting, exposed to, or have experienced,” adds Dr. Newman. “Cats easily become emotionally toxic when they experience a divorce in the family, another pet’s death, and so on, and it will first appear as a loss of appetite.”

Some cats with liver disease may need reduced protein, so check with your vet first.

If an overweight cat suddenly stops eating, a serious liver problem called feline hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) may occur in as few as three days. As starvation occurs, the body starts to break down protein for energy; at the same time, fat is sent to the liver for processing. Because there are limited supplies of protein available for metabolising the fat for energy, it is stored instead. The cat’s liver isn’t built to deal with large amounts of fat and the cells become swollen, causing a potentially fatal breakdown. Any cat, fat or thin, that fails to eat within a day should be taken to the veterinarian for examination. Do not wait.

Enticing her to eat

Because ailing cats tend not to eat as much as they should, switching them to a healthier diet can be challenging. Here are some tips to help perk up a finicky appetite.

  • A cat’s appetite can often be stimulated by strong-smelling foods such as fish. Try increasing the palatability of her meals by pouring tuna, salmon, or pilchard juice over the food.

  • “Give the cat a teaspoon of tuna water every few hours, increasing volume and frequency with demand, until the cat is meowing for it,” suggests Dr. Newman. “Then add a teaspoon of baby food meat dinner, high quality canned diet, or pureed home-cooked meat. Chicken and turkey are easy animal proteins to start with.”

  • You can also try warming the food; this releases odors that may encourage eating.

  • Cooking fresh ground lamb may stimulate eating as the meat produces strong odors during the cooking process.

  • Some people advocate adding baby food, but make sure it doesn’t contain onion or onion powder as these are toxic to cats.

  • Hand feeding is another option; once cats have tasted the food, it often encourages them to continue eating.

Before you embark on a new diet for your cat, especially if she has an existing health problem, be sure to first talk to your veterinarian. It’s also important to be patient and take your time when switching her over to a new food. Whatever her condition, however, once she’s eating healthier you’re bound to see some improvement in her well being, and in some cases even a partial or total recovery.

Note: The information provided in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your veterinarian. It should only be used as a basis for discussion when planning the best treatment for your cat. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions carefully and contact him or her immediately if your cat’s condition worsens.

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