Beyond Diet and Vet Care:
Holistic Lifestyle for Dogs and Cats
By Christie Keith
Is there more to holistic animal care than a natural diet and using a holistic vet? You bet.
When I first started with holistic rearing, I was primarily focused on veterinary care. My cats were sick, after all, and that was why I got into it in the first place. For several years I dealt with getting the diet right, educating myself, reading books, going to seminars, talking with people doing the same thing, and taking my pets to the vet. Acupuncture, chiropractic, herbs, and homeopathy became the focus of my efforts at "natural rearing," and they took up most of my attention.
But one day I looked around and realized my animals, knock wood, are healthy. I sit in the holistic pet chat and hear people discuss health problems with their pets which I have never faced. I can't remember what my vet looks like. So I am fortunate to be able to think about providing my cats and dogs with a natural lifestyle to go with their natural diets.
I try hard to give them a diet designed to mimic "prey," but can I mimic the hunt? Do my dogs come even remotely close to getting as much exercise as their wild counterparts? Do they have access to the herbs and wild plants which the coyotes and bobcats do? Do they drink truly clean water, breathe clean air, sleep on a natural surface?
I did not start breeding dogs until I moved to the country, and was able to provide them with as much of a natural environment as possible. I've seen friends raise their puppies in pens made of pressure treated lumber ("arsenic soaked" would be a better description), under nothing but artificial light in the dead of winter, washing their bedding and runs with bleach in the name of disease prevention, weaning puppies at four weeks so they could be ready for their new homes at six or eight weeks.
I see people using methods of training that bear as much relationship to the psychology of the dog as to that of a guppy, owners who refuse to let their cats eat grass because "it makes them vomit," people who cannot or will not allow their animals to have the kinds of experiences and environments in which they evolved.
I made sure my cats had cat trees made of real trees, a varied and ever-changing indoor environment, access to a safe outdoor area, as well as to grasses and plants such as catnip and mint. I made sure they could always get fresh air and sunshine, probably the two most crucial elements of health. I gave them a "multi-level" perspective on the world, lots of opportunities to climb, chase, tumble, and play.
I'm fortunate enough to have nine and a half fenced acres of very natural land, part meadow, part forest. My dogs can browse on blackberries wet with dew, gnaw on the leaves of the yerba santa, and drowse in dappled shade under huge madrones. I can't give them miles of Scottish moors and the Highland Stag to hunt, but I try and keep in mind that they were bred to that life, and reproduce it as best I can. I take them lure coursing, a sport wherein a mechanical lure is used to mimic a jackrabbit, giving sighthounds (and increasingly, other breeds) a chance to chase "prey" humanely.
I try hard to model my training methods on nature, as well. One of the most canine and least human of all the dog's virtues is the way a mother dog can train her pups without necessitating them spending half their adult lives in therapy getting over her "toxic parenting." I've used Carol Lea Benjamin's book Mother Knows Best: The Natural Way to Train Your Dog as my guide for many years, and have had great success in training dogs to share my life comfortably and, as adults, without destroying my furniture, shoes, or sanity. I won't claim my dogs are obedience dogs... and those who know them would laugh if I tried.... but I do claim they are not neurotic, hyperactive, shy, destructive, insecure, or unpredictable.
I believe that, after a natural diet, the best thing you can do for your pets is to give them more exercise, more fresh air and sunshine, and more mental stimulation. Indoor cats in particular need to be kept from boredom, but most dogs (and people, too) would benefit from a minimum of two 15-minute walks a day, in a natural environment. Avoid treated lawns, sprayed gardens, and polluted city streets. Trees, bodies of water, and large plants clean the air, so seek out parks and other natural areas to exercise your pets.
Clean, pure water is a must. I have had spring and pure well water for many years now, but filter systems and bottled water will provide urban and suburban pets with a much higher quality of water than comes out of the tap.
Like feeding a natural diet, it can be difficult and expensive to provide a natural environment. It's been increasingly the focus of my life in recent years, and I recognize that few people, especially non-breeders, will be willing to go to the lengths that I do. However, most of us can give our companion animals a much more natural lifestyle than we think we can. The trick is to ask yourself, "What would nature provide them?" and do your best to recreate it. When you follow the advice to "build a mouse" for your cat's diet, don't forget also to build the mouse hunt.
Copyright 1999 by Christie Keith. All rights reserved.