"Raising Cats Naturally," Michelle T. Bernard

Pros: Lots of data; great tone; helps you help yourself
Cons: Not for the lazy!
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 6/8/2005
Book available from: Blakkatz Cattery

Recently I found out that what I’d thought were hairball troubles in one of our cats was actually a cough due to allergic asthma. We can’t pill Selene–she’s far too clever–and steroid shots can cause serious problems of their own if used long-term. Our vets made it clear that while a shot could get her out of immediate distress, shots weren’t a long-term solution. I whinged about the problem in my blog, and one of our wonderful readers came to the rescue: he told me that he and his wife dealt with their cats’ allergies by feeding them a raw food diet. He suggested I search the internet for “raw food diet cats” and see what popped up.

The Concept

I read a number of sites. While the exact details out there varied, one constant was this: the idea that dry food does not at all represent the “normal” diet of a cat. And it’s true. For one thing there’s a lot of carbohydrates in dry food, and since when did you see a cat in the wild eating grains? There are other differences as well, some subtle, some not. Before I gave this raw feeding thing a try, though, I wanted as much information as possible. I wanted to make sure, as best as I could, that I was doing the right thing. Eventually the search for more and better information lead me to Michelle Bernard’s book, Raising Cats Naturally: How to care for your cat the way nature intended.

A part of me was leery. To some extent the raw feeding movement is a “fringe” movement just because we’re all so accustomed to the idea that animals need to eat commercially-produced pet foods (which is kind of funny considering they’ve only really been available for a few decades). And like most fringe movements, there are plenty of extremists who, presumably out of frustration at the people who keep telling them they’re being ridiculous, get pretty strident about their beliefs and end up sounding like nuts. I didn’t really know if this book was going to be that kind of strident reactionary writing, or if it was going to be the source of balanced information I was looking for.

In the meantime I talked to my vet about the issue. I half expected her to poo-poo the idea just because supposedly most modern vets do so, but I also have a lot of respect for our current vet and value her opinion, and ultimately felt that she would give me her honest and experienced opinion, not parrot something told to her by a cat food company. Both she and the vet tech we dealt with at our last visit cautioned us not to be overly optimistic, but did say that they’ve known quite a few people who use the raw food diet and who swear by it, and that as long as we planned to be careful and very sanitary about how we carried it out, they didn’t see a problem with it. They did say it could take up to 10 weeks or so to see if it would help, but did believe that it definitely couldn’t hurt. That certainly bolstered my confidence.

The Book

I have been more than pleased with this book. It’s packed full with careful research and data, and utterly fascinating. In fact, I kind of overwhelmed my husband by babbling about the details after he got home from work last night. There are several things about the way in which Michelle wrote this book that particularly please and impress me:

She makes it clear when something is research vs. when something is her opinion or borne from her personal experiences. She carefully footnotes everything, refers to studies, and documents her research. She does give personal opinion statements that aren’t borne up by research, but it’s also clear that these are opinion and she’s very explicit about how she came to her conclusions and why.

She doesn’t stridently insist on being right. She doesn’t come across as being a reactionary, closed-minded extremist at all. In fact she’s very good about presenting information, explaining how she feels about it, but leaving the reader to then draw her own conclusions and come to her own opinions about it all. I didn’t always agree 100% with everything she said, but I never felt that tug of frustration or irritation that I get when I disagree with someone who’s presenting their opinion as though it’s the be-all and end-all of truth; I never felt like she was trying to force me to accept things her way. Instead she makes her arguments and allows you to make up your own mind.

She allows her results to speak for themselves. She doesn’t try to claim that she’s never made mistakes in this endeavor, nor that she has never had health problems with her cats. But she does explain how things have changed for her cats since starting the raw food diet, and how her results differ from those of breeders who don’t use the raw food diet.

She shares the stories of others. She shares plenty of stories from people who had difficulties getting their cats to switch to raw food diets, so you’ll have some idea of when to worry, when not to worry, and what to try if your cats don’t seem to want to make the switch. She also shares the success stories of others–and I must note that she doesn’t include only happy-shiny “my cats got totally better and life is a-okay” stories–so you’ll know what results you might be able to expect from the diet and what some of the limitations of the diet are. It is not a miracle cure for all ills–it’s simply a more nutritionally appropriate diet. That can have a huge effect on an animal’s health, but it can’t take care of everything.

What’s Included

There’s a lot of information in this book. There’s information on various studies that have been conducted, including the original Pottenger feeding study that first really drew a connection between the feeding of cooked food and the presence of systemic malformations and illnesses in cats. There’s a huge amount of information on the how and why of cat nutrition, right down to the differences between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (and why it’s good to have both), and why the sources of omega-3 fatty acids that many pet food supplements use are inappropriate to a cat’s system. There are tables that analyze the nutritional content of various animals and their parts, from rabbit to chicken, turkey to beef. There’s an explanation of the need for bones in a cat’s diet, how raw food affects a cat’s dental health, and the need for various important nutrients such as taurine.

There’s plenty of information on bacteria (how to avoid bacterial problems and how they can affect your cats), there are recipes so that you can prepare your own raw foods for your cats, there are tips on switching your cats over, there’s a list of resources for everything from fresh rabbit to food grinders, and more.

The latter half of the book contains a great deal of information on cat behavior and health in general, and in particular homeopathic veterinary medicine. While I can’t get into the idea of homeopathy even after carefully reading the author’s arguments for it, I strongly respect her ability to, once again, present her ideas in a balanced and well-thought-out manner that evidences careful research and a very reasonable attitude. And despite not being able to get behind homeopathy, I do believe that these chapters contain many other valuable ideas regarding the health and care of cats, and are well worth reading even if you don’t have any interest or belief in homeopathy.

A raw food diet isn’t a miracle cure. It isn’t going to wipe out cancer in your pet or miraculously reverse all illness. For one thing, some effects of malnutrition linger well after a proper diet is restored. But after reading this book I have a strong sense of the arguments involved, feel well-armed with the information I need to do this thing “right”, and believe that there’s at least a decent chance that this will help some of our cats’ problems. They both have systemic issues that sound suspiciously like the problems typically found in cats that have been raised for several generations on commercial cat food (allergies, IBD in one cat, some immune system problems, coat dullness in one cat) and that we’ve found no other way to treat, and certainly as our vet said there shouldn’t be any harm in trying. For anyone looking for a good source of information on cat nutrition–whether or not you’re thinking of switching to a raw food diet–I highly recommend this book.

Added 5/31/2006: It’s been almost exactly a year since we started feeding our cats the raw food diet, and the results have been so startling and positive that we’ve stuck with it with absolutely no reservations. Selene’s allergies are worlds better; even in the height of allergy season she’s down from asthma attacks several times a day to once a week. But surprisingly, that’s far from the only result we’ve seen. Her dry dandruffy coat is all better, totally lush and vibrant. Both cats have more energy. Selene’s mild constipation is gone. Cahlash’s IBS is all but gone, even though it had gotten bad enough to require pills on multiple occasions (nothing like finding blood in the litterbox to scare you half to death). Litterbox odor is nearly a thing of the past, and their teeth are much cleaner. I know this diet isn’t a miracle cure, but sometimes it’s hard not to see it as one.

It can be a bit tough to get through some spots; our cats’ stomachs are a bit finicky, and raw food-barf is particularly nasty to clean up. But it’s absolutely been worth it.

Posted in Cats Tagged with: , ,
3 comments on “"Raising Cats Naturally," Michelle T. Bernard
  1. Heather says:

    While most people prefer to simply feed their animals with store-bought meats, our cats’ finicky stomachs made this impractical. The hands-down best source we’ve found yet for raw cat food components is Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow. They pack things well, and I’ve never had any issue with quality.

  2. Pet Websites says:

    Wow! This is really eye opening information. I always thought that standard dry cat food didn’t really look like something a cat would ordinarily eat (given the choice). Thank you for sharing!

  3. heather says:

    Our cats have been on raw foods for a couple of years now, and they’re definitely the healthier for it. Selene’s asthma is a very rare thing now, and Cahlash’s IBS is almost non-existent. I’m still amazed at the difference it made. It isn’t an option for the faint of heart (it does take effort!), but it’s worthwhile if you’re up for it!

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