Just like the unending (and ever-changing) debates over human food, opinions vary widely on the best diet for your cat or dog. Raw? Kibble? Canned? Homemade? And, also like human diets, a number of Asheville pet professionals say the answer lies in understanding the science behind a body’s needs.
First and foremost is understanding that dogs and cats have very different dietary needs. “Dogs are what we call opportunistic carnivores. Dogs can get some nutrients out of plant-based food; they just don’t do it as well as with meat,” says Jenna Yarosh, owner of Patton Avenue Pet Co. “But, over the years, because they’ve been domesticated by eating scraps, their body has adapted to be able handle some plant matter.”
Cats, she says, “are obligate carnivores. Cat bodies do not process carbohydrates — they poop out carbs. Their digestive tract, their teeth, everything inside of them is designed for meat. When they’re eating a carb diet, they’re not really processing it; it’s just passing through them and putting stress on the body,” she says.
A balanced diet for dogs is “somewhere between 70 percent meat, 20 percent organ meat [and] 10 percent veggies,” says Christy Thompson, a holistic wellness coach for people and pets. “They have to get enough protein, enough vitamins and minerals in the right proportions. They also need bone … it’s got that perfect calcium-phosphorous ratio. It is what their body is programmed for.”
The differences between the two types of pets don’t end with food; proper hydration also needs to be considered. According to Thompson, who was a veterinary technician and a laboratory medical technician before she began her business, My Holistic Transformations, cats have been eating rodents for centuries and are not natural water drinkers. “You got to figure rodents are 70-80 percent moisture,” whereas kibble “is sometimes 4 percent moisture, and so [cats] are in a constant state of low-level dehydration,” she says.
Karel Carnohan, a veterinarian and owner of the Cat Care Clinic of Asheville, breaks it down further. “A mouse is about 60 percent protein, 3-4 percent carbs — that’s what’s in its stomach — and the rest is fat and inert things like minerals,” she says.
Read before you feed
Carnohan encourages owners to inspect the package ingredients before purchasing cat food. “[In] a lot of the foods in the grocery store, like Purina Cat Chow, Whiskas, and Kibbles and Bits, the first six ingredients are corn, wheat, soy protein maybe. So it’s not meat. A very unhealthy diet,” she says.
“The other myth is that dry food is good for their teeth. Well, no, it’s not,” says Carnohan. “That’s like us eating saltwater taffy and saying it’s for our teeth. It doesn’t make sense.”
While she says there is a benefit to crunching something up — “a cat in the wild is going to crunch up the bone” — Carnohan does not think sticking close to a wild diet is critical. “I used to work with wild animals and wild cats. In the wild, cats don’t live that long and don’t have good dental health either. Wild cats live a couple of years if they’re lucky.” Carnohan believes dental treats can be useful, “but the main thing … is keeping their natural systems in balance. Feeding them a healthy high-protein diet is going to keep their pH right. Everything is going to be in more balance than if they’re fed a high-grain, corn-based diet,” she says.
Kristi King, owner of Green Earth Pet Food, a raw food company based in Asheville, began to learn more about pet food back in 1998, when one of her young dogs developed bone cancer that metastasized to the stomach. Her vet suggested she make chicken and rice for the dog because it was easier to digest. Although it was too late to save that dog, the loss propelled her to learn more about pet food. “The more research I did, the more disgusted I was getting,” she says. When she heard about raw food, she decided to give it a try because cooking for her pets was time-consuming.
She became convinced when her 16-year-old cat with kidney problems had drastic improvement. Before eating raw food, the cat “would just lie around. I couldn’t get her to play with toys or anything,” says King. “I started giving her the raw food, and, I’m not kidding, she started running around the house, chasing toys and balls. … She couldn’t even jump up on the bed before.” After the change to raw food, “she was jumping on the bed. She started acting like a kitten. For me, it was like, that’s it. Everyone is going on raw food now, dogs and cats,” says King.
But not everyone is on the raw food bandwagon. Carnohan says there is no scientific proof that raw is better. “The only benefit to a raw food diet that we really know is true is that raw meat is slightly more digestible. Balance that with the risks of salmonella [or] sarcocystis — there are a lot of parasites you can get — why take the chance?” she says.
Science vs. fads
Another veterinarian, Dr. Lea Osborne, who owns The Pet Vet on Patton, finds that people tend to feed their pets the way they feed themselves. “Whatever new phenomenon is sweeping across humans in our nation is sweeping across the dog food bags as well. I try to work within the auspices of what the owner wants for their pet,” says Osborne. “I make recommendations when the pet is not healthy or doing well on its own.”
Osborne does not take a position in the kibble, raw or canned food debate. The so-called “best diet,” she says, doesn’t exist. “The biggest thing is to watch your pet on the food and work with somebody to change it so that it makes your pet appear and be healthy,” she says.
However, giving pets the food that is appropriate for their biology may require some people to put their personal feelings aside. “If you look at science,” says Yarosh, “it all points in one direction: feeding them a biologically appropriate-based diet, which is a meat-based diet. And that’s coming from a lifelong vegetarian.” In her store, she offers good, better and best options. “We don’t buy anything that would be considered bad or OK,” she says.
Yarosh acknowledges that feeding your pets on these foods can cost more. “I spend more on pet food than I did in college, when I just had kibble for my dog,” she says. But she saves on vet bills, she adds, finding she only needs to take her pets for yearly checkups and injuries. “It’s in the quality and longevity of life that I see the value of spending a little bit more on pet food.”
Karel Carnohan, DVM
Lea Osborne, DVM
Laurel Davis, DVM