Originally published Sep 23, 2011
Thank you to Jean Hofve, DVM of Denver, CO for taking the time to answer these questions. If you have similar cat health questions or a cat health topic that you’d like to see covered on the site, please contact me at jenny [at] floppycats [dot] com with more ideas.
You can learn more about cat health by reading Dr. Jean’s book, The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care: An Illustrated Handbook.
You can learn more from Jean’s website as well, Little Big Cat.
We’ve now done several interviews with Dr. Jean, feel free to check any of them out:
- Cat Allergies with Dr. Jean
- Food Allergies in Cats with Dr. Jean Hofve
- Litterbox Questions with Dr. Jean
- Obesity in Cats with Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM
- Kidney Disease in Cats with Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM
- Cat Conjunctivitis and Cat Herpes with Dr. Jean Hofve
- Cat Constipation – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment of Constipation with Dr. Jean Hofve
What kinds of ingredients do you see most often causing allergies?
In my experience, fish, dairy, and chicken; but according to veterinary research, the most common cat allergens are fish, beef, and dairy.
What specific brands of foods do you recommend/not recommend?
I try not to name names (in public!); that’s “giving a man a fish.” I teach shopping guidelines…that’s “teaching a man to fish” with skills that can be applied to any situation. For instance, here are the main things to avoid:
- use of by-products as the primary animal protein
- use of vegetable proteins (gluten or concentrate) as a substitute for animal protein
- contains corn or soybean products (most is genetically modified)
- contains menadione, a potentially harmful form of Vitamin K
- contains ethoxyquin, BHA, BHT, propyl gallate, or other synthetic preservatives
- one product labeled for both dogs and cats
- contains less than 30% protein (on a dry matter basis)
What symptoms do we see in our cats that lead you to a diagnosis of food allergy?
Gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea) or skin symptoms (rashes, itchiness)
How do you determine which particular ingredient is causing the allergy?
Because blood tests and skin tests are notoriously inaccurate in cats, I use an elimination diet trial. You feed a novel-ingredient diet exclusively (no cheating!) for 8-12 weeks or at least 2 weeks after all symptoms have resolved. Then you can start adding ingredients back in, one at a time.
Do you recommend supplements even when feeding premium food? What kind?
Yes. I recommend for all cats:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Digestive enzymes
What do we do if our regular vet recommends a food that is not on your list? How can we convince our regular vet that the food you recommend is better?
All your vet can do is give advice. You don’t have to follow that advice. It’s always your choice. Don’t waste your breath trying to convince a veterinarian who has been brain-washed by Science Diet ever since the first day of vet school. However, if your vet shows any signs of open-mindedness, show her the two articles (2000 and 2011) published in the Journal of the AVMA from Dr. Debra Zoran of Texas A&M. She makes a great case for cat-appropriate diets.
Zoran DL. The carnivore connection to nutrition in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2002 Dec 1;221(11):1559-67. (Online at: catinfo.org/docs/zorans_article.pdf)
Zoran DL, Buffington CA. Effects of nutrition choices and lifestyle changes on the well-being of cats, a carnivore that has moved indoors. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2011 Sep 1;239(5):596-606.
Do you recommend a holistic vet or a more conventional vet? If so, where would we go to find local holistic vets? Where could we find recommendations of good holistic vets?
I recommend an integrative veterinarian—one who is willing to use both conventional and alternative remedies to create the best program for your pet. Excluding one or the other is throwing the baby out with the bathwater; both methods have their place. For instance, if a cat has a broken leg, just giving it herbs isn’t the best plan! There is a directory of holistic practitioners at www.holisticvetlist.com.
What kind of tests do you do to determine food versus environmental allergies (this one might be a repetition of one above)?
I prefer to say “inhalant” allergy or “atopy”–I think that’s what you mean here. “Environmental” sounds more like contact allergy; such as an allergy to the cedar shavings in a dog bed.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of food and inhalant allergies are often identical; though inhalant symptoms are a little more likely to show up in skin than in the gut. I still use an elimination diet, because simplifying the diet will often help with inhalant allergies as well. As I mentioned, blood tests and skin tests are not very helpful in cats.
Can you tell us a little about symptoms of environmental allergies we can look for?
These will mostly be skin symptoms, but can also show up as tummy problems; the symptoms are usually indistinguishable from food allergy symptoms. Food allergies do have a vague tendency to show up around the face, ears, and feet more than other areas, but atopy can do the same. In dogs, most allergies are not to food but to inhaled particles such as dust and pollen. But cats have a higher rate of food allergy—perhaps up to 50%.
A lot of new foods are completely grain-free. Some are wheat, corn, soy, etc.-free. Do you have a preference? Is grain-free preferable to say corn-free?
Grains have gotten a bad rap for the wrong reasons. They are not all that allergenic, but that is why people think they should avoid them. But they are high in carbohydrates;, especially simple carbs that quickly turn to sugar. In cats, a high carb diet tends to cause obesity, diabetes, urinary tract disease, and many other health problems. I avoid corn in particular because it is very likely to be genetically modified.
Problems with “grain-free” foods:
- They are not necessarily lower carbohydrate because most of them simply substitute potatoes or peas – high-starch vegetables that are just as problematic.
- Many of them are higher protein. Protein is diuretic, so cats will become even more dehydrated on these foods.
- They are also usually higher in fat; if fed free-choice (which I do not recommend) most cats will gain considerable weight.
We see a lot of wheat, corn, and soy-free foods using rice as the bulk. Do you think rice is a common allergen? Do cats receive any benefit from eating rice in their food?
No, rice is relatively less allergenic than other grains. And no, no benefit; it is still a simple carb.
What about limited-ingredient foods? Do you see them as a way to help cats with food allergies? If so, what kinds do you recommend?
Yes; these are the foods I would use in an elimination trial. There are several veterinary diets but they are not very good quality. Several of the more “holistic” companies, such as Natural Balance, make decent “hypoallergenic” foods.
We know cats are carnivores, so what do you think about the more recent influx of ingredients such as cranberries, pumpkin, carrots, etc. in the higher quality foods? Are these really beneficial in our cats’ diets?
I think it’s a very bad idea. The conditions for which these items would be used (constipation, urinary tract problems) can be completely resolved simply by feeding all wet food. Adding more carbs to a dry diet is like adding potato chips to corn chips; it’s all still junk!
Do you recommend dry food, wet food, raw, or a combination? If a combination, what percentage?
Wet—any high-moisture diet, whether canned, raw, or reconstituted freeze-dried. Cats need the moisture. Dry food is not an appropriate diet for cats; it has no benefit for the cat. Use it as a treat only.
Can you tell us about high-protein versus high-carbohydrate diets for our cats? Can you tell us which one is preferable?
High-carbohydrate diets are not appropriate for cats. Cats are obligate carnivores, designed to eat a diet based on meat. Adult cats have zero physiological need for carbohydrates. A high-protein, high-fat, high-moisture diet is best for cats.
What protein sources do you recommend?
Any animal protein except fish.
My articles on pet allergies:
A Brief Introduction to Allergies
Overview of Allergies
Why Cats Need Canned Food.
How to Select a Good Commercial Pet Food:
Does Dry Food Clean the Teeth?
Pet Food Marketing Hype
Why Fish is Dangerous for Cats
Lots more on nutrition on my website, www.littlebigcat.com