Don't "Just Do It"
By Christie Keith
Natural diet is a feeding plan formulated to mimic or reproduce the diet on which a species evolved. There are many recipes and feeding plans that are based on this approach to feeding pet dogs and cats, and several, including those by vets Richard Pitcairn and Ian Billinghurst, are extremely popular among holistically oriented pet owners.
But many people have adopted a diet that is considerably more casual than that - a diet I call the "whatever" diet.
The "whatever" diet is a thrown-together diet loosely based on a recipe or feeding plan that someone else came up with, with whatever variations appeal to the pet owner. The justification for this diet is usually something like, "Dogs and cats thrived for centuries on the leftovers of their owners' diets and what they could hunt up or scavenge on the farm. We don't need a degree in nutrition to feed ourselves; why have we let the pet food companies scare us into thinking you need one to feed your pets?"
There is of course some truth in that. But there are also some misconceptions.
In today's world, it's not safe to let your dogs and cats hunt and scavenge for themselves. What we feed them is what they get, and unlike us, they can't satisfy a sudden craving for some broccoli with a quick trip to the market. Day after day, for their entire lives, they make do on what we put in their bowls. Those dogs and cats in the "good old days" caught rodents, raided henhouses, ate dead animals in the forest, raided compost heaps, gardens, and grain stores, and in general, had many opportunities to fill the nutritional gaps left by their owners.
Dogs have a somewhat less specific need for certain nutrients, but felines have a very narrow range of nutritional need. In both cases, the most crucial balance is the calcium/phosphorus ratio, with accompanying levels of certain vitamins and minerals that allow the body to utilize those nutrients. If that ratio is not right, the dog and cat will leech calcium from their very bones, in a condition that can be fatal and irreversible.
The common practice of feeding meat without bones (or bone meal) is nutritionally disastrous for dogs and cats. The correct proportion of meat to bones or bone meal is also poorly understood by many people, and their reliance on recommendations made by people who themselves don't know what they are doing makes the problem worse.
A homemade diet can be the best or the worst thing you can feed your pet. If you are going to feed homemade, do it right. Use a recipe or feeding plan based on sound nutritional principles, which has been used by many people over a long period of time. I faithfully weighed and measured every bite I gave my dogs and cats for over ten years before I felt comfortable enough modifying their diets. For cats I still feel best feeding a very precise recipe.
Most feeding plans, whether Wendy Volhard's or Billinghurst's or Pitcairn's, are designed with a certain amount of variety and flexibility in them. It's best to adhere to the diet as written, rather than using it as a loose guide, as so many folks do. This way, you will cover the bases nutritionally.
I got an email some time ago from someone whose had one kitten die and another who was near death, from feeding a diet based on a recipe she had picked up off someone's web site. She couldn't find the bone meal the recipe called for in the store, so she left it out. When I looked at the diet, I saw that it said "optional" before listing the supplements. "Supplements" can indeed be "optional," but bone meal in a recipe is NOT a supplement; it is part of the diet itself.
There are far too many people giving eggs and meat to their pets without providing a balance to all the phosphorus they contain. Meat contains no calcium, and lots of phosphorus; bones contain lots of calcium. Eggs contain lots of phosphorus; the shells contain calcium. That is nature's balance. If we feed meat without bones or eggs without shells, or aren't sure of the correct ratios of those things to feed, we must use something to replace them. It is a common and tragic mistake to give a diet far too high in phosphorus to cats and dogs. (This is also common in human diets in the developed world, and a virtual epidemic of bone disease is the result, particularly in women, whose requirements for calcium are both greater and more specific than for men.)
Another common mistake is adding dairy to the food to provide calcium. While dairy products can be a good source of calcium, in general they contain phosphorus also. While they themselves are usually balanced (excluding cottage cheese, which is high in phosphorus), this means they don't have enough calcium in them to balance the phosphorus in the meat, too. Even an animal (or human) getting abundant calcium in their diet cannot use it if the phosphorus and other ratios are incorrect. This is not something your pet can fix for themselves; it is the owner's responsibility to know what they are doing.
If you cannot follow a tested recipe, it would be better to use a commercial diet. Don't make your dog or cat the victim of your own ignorance or carelessness. It's one thing to make that mistake on yourself; you, after all, can be overwhelmed with a need for a big green salad and go out and get one. Your cat and dog can't do that. There are some raw commercial diets to which you can add your own fresh, raw foods, such as Grandad's Pet Foods or Natural Diet Foundation from Wendy Volhard, or prepared raw foods diets such as Aunt Jeni's Home Made 4 Life. These are alternatives for those who don't with to prepare foods themselves, but would like the benefits of a fresh, home-prepared diet. There are also freeze-dried diets such as Archetype from Wysong, made with raw ingredients but packaged like a kibble. (I have no commercial interest in any of these companies, and am just mentioning them as a resource.)
I have fed homemade since 1986, and I know that sometimes it can be difficult. Pitcairn has several simple recipes in his book Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, including some that are quick and basic, for occasional feeding. He has others that are meant to supplement a commercial diet, and some very simple recipes that can be fed every day. Take your responsibilities seriously, and follow the recipes. If you adopt a feeding plan such as Billinghurst's Give Your Dog a Bone, READ THE WHOLE BOOK, not just someone's summary of it on an email list, message board, or the web. Understand the details of what he is advocating, not just the general idea.
Canine and feline diets, like those of all predatory carnivores, are among nature's most precise and specific diets. Big cats and canids die and become ill in captivity all over the world, because their keepers cannot get their diets right. Don't make your cats and dogs the victims of the same problem. Unlike those trying to raise an endangered rare wild cat in captivity, we DO know what comprises a balanced diet for our cats and dogs. Don't turn your back on that information. Use it.