By Dr. Becker
I’ve been shouting this from the rooftops for years, as have many of my holistic veterinary and pet nutrition colleagues, but it’s encouraging to see it appear as a headline on a conventional medical website like Diabetes.co.uk:
“Feeding cats dry food could increase feline diabetes risk”1
Actually, my experience treating hundreds of cats over the years tells me there’s no “could” about it — kibble absolutely, unequivocally increases the risk your kitty will develop diabetes.
Study Shows Even Normal Weight Cats Eating Kibble Are at Increased Risk for Diabetes
The article at the U.K. diabetes site reports on a Swedish study of a little over 6,700 cats, 1,369 of which had diabetes. The cats’ guardians completed an online survey involving dozens of questions about their pet’s breed, age, sex, spay/neuter status, general health, body size, exercise habits, behavior, medications and diet.2
Based on the owners’ answers regarding diet, the cats were divided into three groups: cats who were fed dry food, cats fed wet food and cats fed a combination of dry and wet.
The kitties’ body types were also categorized as underweight, normal weight or overweight. According to lead researcher and veterinarian Dr. Malin Ohlund:
"Through our research we found that while obesity is a very important and prominent risk factor for diabetes mellitus in cats, there is also an increased risk of diabetes among normal-weight cats consuming a dry food diet.
This correlation, compared to normal-weight cats on a wet food diet, is a new and interesting finding that warrants further research, as a dry food diet is commonly fed to cats around the world."3
These study results may represent “new and interesting findings” in the conventional veterinary world, but it’s old news to those of us with a passion for animal nutrition and a proactive approach to helping pets avoid illness and disease.
Feline Diabetes Has Reached Epidemic Proportions
Tragically, feline diabetes rates have skyrocketed over the last decade, primarily in overweight and obese adult cats fed dry food diets.
Obesity is hands down the biggest cause of feline diabetes. The majority of cats in the U.S. are fed a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet loaded with grains they have no need for, such as corn, wheat, rice, soy, millet and quinoa.
Grain-free dry foods also contribute to obesity and diabetes, because they are calorie-dense and contain high glycemic potatoes, chickpeas, peas or tapioca, which require a substantial insulin release from the body.
All the carbs (starches) in your cat's food break down into sugar. Excess sugar can trigger diabetes.
Another contributing factor to diabetes in cats is a sedentary lifestyle. Most house cats are couch potatoes. They don't get nearly enough exercise to benefit their health. Unless you're giving kitty an incentive to be physically active, her exertion will be anaerobic — short bursts of energy followed by long periods of rest.
Anaerobic exercise won't condition her heart or muscles or burn the calories she consumes. I recommend a minimum of 20 minutes of daily aerobic exercise for your cat. You'll probably need to get creative to get her moving, but it can be done, especially if you learn how to bring out her natural hunting behaviors.
High-Carb Diets and Diabetic Cats: 'Like Pouring Gasoline on a Fire'
While we don't yet know all the causes of diabetes in kitties, we do know that many diabetic cats improve significantly once they're transitioned to a low-carbohydrate diet. Many stop needing insulin altogether; others require much less than when first diagnosed.
Unfortunately, many veterinarians recommend prescription diets for diabetic cats that are wholly inappropriate. As cat nutrition expert Dr. Lisa Pierson points out, these diets "… are expensive, low in quality, contain species-inappropriate ingredients and are not necessarily low in carbohydrates.”4
"Feeding a high-carbohydrate diet to a diabetic cat is analogous to pouring gasoline on a fire and wondering why you can't put the fire out," says Pierson.
"While some cats are more sensitive to the detrimental effects of carbohydrates than others, the bottom line is that cats are obligate carnivores and are not designed by nature to consume a high-carbohydrate diet or one that is water-depleted (dry kibble)."
There are two general guidelines for selecting the best diet for cats with diabetes, and to prevent the disease in a healthy cat:
- Avoid dry food (kibble), including treats
- Calories from carbohydrates should be less than 10 percent of the total calories consumed each day
The carbohydrate content of commercial cat food won’t be found on the package label. Pet food companies don't want to reveal this info because they recognize nutrition-savvy pet parents would be stunned to learn just how much cheap, unnecessary filler (starch) is added to pet foods to keep costs low.
However, calculating the approximate amount of carbs in a dry diet is easy to do. Just add up the percent of protein, fat, fiber, moisture and ash and subtract the total from 100. Just as an example, let’s take a look at the guaranteed analysis for Blue Buffalo’s BLUE Freedom® Grain-Free Indoor Chicken Recipe For Adult Cats:5
- Crude protein = 32 percent
- Crude fat = 14 percent
- Crude fiber = 7 percent
- Moisture = 10 percent
- Ash = N/A
Now let’s plug those numbers into our formula:
100 – 32 – 14 – 7 – 10 = 37 percent carbohydrates
That’s four times the amount of carbs a cat should be eating each day. It’s very important to understand many grain-free dry foods have a higher carb (starch) content than regular dry cat food, and you can't count on the pet food manufacturer to disclose this fact.
What to Do About a Dry Food-Addicted Cat
The ideal nutrition for cats is whole, fresh and unprocessed animal meat, organs and bones, with a small amount of vegetables. Unfortunately, the majority of middle-aged and senior kitties with diabetes are completely addicted to processed pet food, usually kibble.
Despite what many cat guardians believe, it's possible to transition almost any kitty from kibble to a high-quality canned food and/or raw diet with patience and persistence. It can take weeks and even months, in some cases, to make the full transition. For step-by-step guidelines on how to get it done, see my two-part video/article series "How to Win the Healthy Food Battle with Your Fussy Feline," part 1 and part 2.
Some diabetic cats are always hungry, which works in your favor when transitioning to a better diet. Others don't have much appetite, and it can feel like mission impossible to convince a finicky cat who feels lousy to sample a new type of food.
I recommend sticking with it as long as your cat is eating well each day. If she absolutely must have kibble or she won't eat, try to add as much grain-free, potato-free and low-carb canned food to her dry diet as she'll tolerate. Meanwhile, continue to try to move her away from the kibble to a 100 percent canned and/or raw diet.