Finicky facts, finicky fibs

Cats have gotten a bad rap, and I intend to set the record straight. How often are we treated to such observations as, “Wingnut is such a finicky eater!” or its variant, “Mr. Muffin is so fussy!”?

It just ain’t so.

The notion that house cats are fickle has been propagated by pet-food manufacturers anxious to cover their own sins. This chicanery first impressed me following my next-to-last visit to Wal-Mart, some six or eight years ago.

I don’t recall what drew me into the Smiley Kingdom, but as I cruised the pet department and saw my veterinarian-recommended brand available at a substantial discount, I bought a dozen cans.

Back home, I shelved the new cans among the older ones on hand and proceeded with normal feeding. It took me a couple of days to realize that our felines had suddenly become “finicky” and wouldn’t eat the self-same flavor varieties they had happily consumed before. Then I realized that it was only the new ones they eschewed. On closer examination, I discovered that what was in the new cans was visibly different from the stuff (bearing the same varietal name) in the old ones, containing more liquid and clearly identifiable animal parts. (Veins and arteries floated like macaroni in the mix.)

My budding suspicion deepened sometime later, when I heard a report that Wal-Mart had been marketing 2 pounds, 8 ounces of coffee in a 3-pound-size can. The cans were accurately labeled in tiny print, so there was no overt consumer fraud. But to the average shopper zipping down the aisle, the appearance and price surely suggested a big bargain on a “3 pound” can.

Such tactics are possible because Wal-Mart is enormous and can demand special packaging from suppliers who seem all too happy to custom-tailor their products. Are pet-food manufacturers likely to be any less obliging?

I solved the immediate problem by swearing off Wal-Mart (for multiple reasons, including community survival, bioregionalism and slave labor in China, in addition to the feline affront). This essay, however, is not about Wal-Mart or finicky consumers — it’s about unfinicky cats.

Cats are carnivores, and I value them dearly for their rodenticidal proclivities — not to mention the endearing companionship they provide. Rodent damage has cost me sorely, as it costs all of us in the course of large-scale food-and-fiber production. Yes, we inhabit an imperfect world in which my cat habit supports a meat industry I disdain, but vegetarian cat food is a hard sell with my crowd, and I accept their druthers.

It was mice, though, that settled my thinking about the falsity of the fickleness fib. Over the past three decades, my cat companions have consistently shown a great fondness for rodents. Girl cats tend to be better mousers than boys (with rare exceptions), but both sexes consume the furry little critters with gusto. Clearly, they never met a mouse they didn’t like — and I’ve never seen a feline suddenly turn finicky when faced with a fresh mousy morsel.

Why, then, does manufactured cat food vary so much in catstronomic acceptability? Obviously it must be the ingredients. Most of what’s in pet food consists of byproducts of the human-food industry. Like all commodities, these byproducts wobble in price, and even the best-intentioned kibble-maker must make constant decisions concerning availability and cost. The simple fact that consumers expect to pay about the same price for the same brand, week after week, imposes a powerful market incentive to juggle ingredients.

And for the less well-intentioned, there are darker options: One reads of shocked pet owners finding dog tags and bits of flea collar in cans containing the ground-up carcasses of euthanized strays — a dismal byproduct of our never-ending excess of companion animals. And livestock turned “deadstock” on brutal industrial farms end up in pet food after hours or days on the factory floor.

But rather than admit to shoddy quality control, petvertisers prefer to cast aspersions on the noble cat. Felines, after all, can’t verbalize their perceptions and are left to assume (correctly) that the human sense of smell must simply be pathetic. Else how could we possibly try to feed our buddies stuff that wouldn’t turn the head of a half-starved dog?

As Shakespeare observed, “The fault, dear Bootsy, is not in your stars, but in ourselves, that you are underwhelmed.”

Et tu, Bootsy?

[C.L. Bothwell III is the author of The Icarus Glitch: Another Duck Soup Reader and the editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal Heartstone.]

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