By Cheryl Lock
If you're interested in helping your pet lead a healthier life, going the natural route is a big step in the right direction. We spoke with Jean Hofve, DVM, staff veterinarian for Only Natural Pet, for some expert tips on how to get started down the all natural path.
Food is the biggest investment you make in your pet’s health — so make it count! Unfortunately, some pet food companies have caught on to consumers’ desires for wholesome, natural food for their pets, so they have created friendly-looking packaging, brand advertising, and new claims on their products, but, in some cases, without improving the ingredients inside, says Dr. Hofve.
Here are a few of the vet's general guidelines to help you choose the best natural pet food:
- Unless a corn ingredient is labeled organic, it’s going to be genetically modified.
- At least two named meats or meat meals should be among the top ingredients in a dry food, and a named meat should be the first ingredient in any other form (canned, raw, dehydrated, frozen).
- Avoid synthetic chemical preservatives like ethyoxyquin, BHT, BHA, propyl gallate and propylene glycol.
- Choose a food that is complete and balanced for all life stages rather than tweaked for a certain lifestage. Foods with more of an emphasis on natural are ususally all life stage.
- For cats in particular, a high-protein, high-moisture diet is crucial to maintain a lifetime of optimal kidney and bladder health, as well as to prevent obesity and the diseases that go with it, like diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis. Try canned, homemade, or raw foods for cats. (But always make a slow and gradual transition to minimize tummy problems.)
- Often, it’s the specialty manufacturers who are doing the best job of finding good quality ingredients and making a healthy natural food for a reasonable price. Choose brands that have put their efforts into making the best food possible.
- Dry and canned pet foods are heavily processed. Consider raw, frozen, or dehydrated diets to get the most natural nutrition.
There is little or no regulation of pet grooming products, says Dr. Hofve, so companies can use perfumes, detergents, and other potentially harmful chemicals. This is especially true of shampoos intended to kill fleas or solve skin problems like flaking or itching. The skin can absorb many of these chemicals, so they get into the blood and put a strain on the liver, which has to break them down, store them, or eliminate them. Natural pet grooming products that use mild ingredients — including safe herbs — are gentler on the skin and less likely to be absorbed and accumulated in the body.
Dr. Hofve warns that there is a big difference between natural and synthetic vitamins. Natural vitamins derived from whole foods are much better absorbed and utilized by the body. Vitamins made in a laboratory are less efficient and may even be harmful to some pets. Many human studies have found unexpected adverse effects from large doses of synthetic vitamins.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, every single registered chemical flea and tick product has been documented to have caused adverse reactions for some pets, says Dr. Hofve. Fortunately, there are natural flea and tick control methods available for our pets, though it does takes vigilance and dedication to make them work. A three-pronged approach will only be successful if applied correctly to the pet, the house/car, and the yard.
A truly healthy pet will be much less susceptible to parasites, so getting the diet in order is paramount. Certain supplements, such as B vitamins, garlic, and yeast are reportedly aversive to flea and tick taste buds. Flea tags are also helpful. Use a flea comb frequently to make sure you’re staying ahead of the game. Frequent bathing with a natural flea-repellent shampoo may be needed for heavy infestations.
Diatomaceous earth, borax, and beneficial nematodes (worms) can be used in the yard, and frequent vacuuming in the house and car will scoop up flea eggs before they can hatch. Keeping a tidy yard and misting your pet with a safe herbal repellent before outdoor excursions will also keep bugs away.
There are many great treats out there, says Dr. Hofve, but there are even more bad ones. Jerky treats (chicken, duck, sweet potato, and dried fruit treats) made in China have been implicated in the illnesses and deaths of many hundreds of dogs and cats. While some of the worst offenders were recalled, they are already coming back onto shelves — and are still made in China.
Freeze-dried or dehydrated meats and organs (such as liver or lung) are your best bet. Make sure they contain no additives or chemicals and have not undergone harsh processing. Simple is how nature made them, and that’s how they should stay!
Litter is tricky. The most common type of litter is made from clay, says Dr. Hofve. Clay is extracted from the ground in an environmentally unfriendly mining process, and it creates a lot of dust (even with the “dustless” types of litter).
Since your cat’s nose is just a few inches away from her digging paws, clay dust can get into her lungs, where it can cause inflammation and even asthma in susceptible cats. There is also a risk (though very small) of intestinal impaction of clay in the digestive tract of very young kittens, very elderly cats, or cats with extremely furry paws; they are more likely to step into wet litter and then ingest it when they lick their paws clean.
It’s preferable to use natural, sustainable resources, such as corn, walnut hulls, wheat, or sawdust (e.g., pine). However, they too have benefits and drawbacks. Some are quite dusty themselves, and many have scents (whether artificial fragrance or natural pine oils) that are aversive and even potentially toxic to sensitive kitties. Pine oils in particular can cause an allergic reaction. Newsprint is sort of renewable, but the inks used on newspaper may be toxic for cats.
Most cats prefer the softer surface of fine-textured clumping litters over the texture of pellets, pearls, and large clay pieces. The most important thing is to use a litter that your cat likes, and that is also easy for you to keep clean daily; a dirty box is the number one reason for failure of the cat to use it. If your cat doesn't seem to like the litter she has, try another, and keep trying 'til you find the right one!