Is Grain Free Cat Food Bad for Cats? An Interview with Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM

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Thank you again to Dr. Jean for taking the time to talk to Floppycats about grain free cat food for cats. 

You can learn more about cat health by reading Dr. Jean’s book, The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care: An Illustrated Handbook as well as proper cat nutrition: What Cats Should Eat: How to Keep Your Cat Healthy with Good Food (She’s currently updating this as you’ll discover in the interview below)

Grain Free Cat Food Bad for Cats Podcast

You can listen to the podcast of grain free cat food (click here) or you can read the interview below.

We’ve now done several interviews with Dr. Jean, feel free to check any of them out:

Transcription of Is Grain Free Cat Food Bad for Cats? An Interview with Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM

Jenny Dean:
Hi, Floppycatters. Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Jean Hofve, who is a longtime holistic cat veterinarian who lives in Colorado. She has a couple of books on Amazon, The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care as well as What Cats Should Eat. Dr. Jean is currently revising her What Cats Should Eat and I’m going to let her talk about that a little bit more. Dr. Jean, thank you for doing another interview with us.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
My pleasure. Good to talk to you.

Jenny Dean:
Before we started recording, you had mentioned to me that you are revising your What Cats Should Eat and I will include a link to your Little Big Cat website as well as your Little Big Cat Facebook group so that people can get notified of when that revision is up. But can you talk a little bit about what you’re revising it for?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
The big thing is the research that’s come out in the last little while about phosphorus levels in cat food and turns out that even healthy cats will show kidney damage eating high phosphorus foods. Now, meat is the primary source of phosphorus but what they do, they add extra phosphorus because cats like the taste of phosphate and it turns out that some of the phosphorus levels in cat foods are incredibly high.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
In my book, What Cats Should Eat, I always put in an updated list of the brands and flavors that I recommend or that I think are okay, maybe not. I might not recommend them but for the sake of people having a variety of foods to choose from, I have a list of things that are acceptable.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
It turns out that a lot of the ones that I thought were pretty good actually when you look at the phosphorus content, they’re not so good. So I’ve revamped the whole thing, that whole list, and added a whole bunch of new stuff. I’ve added information for people in Europe and Australia and Asia because I realized that people around the world want to know what to feed their cat and it’s not just us here in the U.S. It’s expanded its little self from… It started out as 14 pages and now, it’s 166 pages.

It’s out for formatting right now. So I expect to have it published in the next couple of weeks. But you can look at my website, littlebigcat.com, or especially on the Little Big Cat’s Facebook page and I’ll have that updated as soon as it’s ready to go. I wouldn’t suggest buying the current version because we’re probably going to have to take that down and republish it so you wouldn’t automatically get an update if I just updated it, but it’s so new and different that I’m going to have to start from scratch. That’s where we’re at on that.

Jenny Dean:
Okay. That is only going to be available in a digital format, correct?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
For now, I am going to have it formatted for paperback so it’ll be a print on demand and it’ll be available from Amazon and who knows else when the time comes. There’re a lot of people who want a hard copy.

Jenny Dean:
I have experienced that. That’s why I asked. All right. When I originally emailed you asking if you are game for another interview, one of the topics that you came back to me with was that you wanted to talk about grain-free cat food and taurine and I would like to know why. But I think it already has to do with what you just mentioned about your book.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Yeah. It’s not specific to that but a couple years ago, around July 2018, the FDA published an alarm about grain-free dog foods causing heart disease in dogs and they talked about, “Oh, it’s this boutique and legumes and potatoes.” It turns out none of that is correct but it became a big, big thing and people are still very concerned about it. There’s so much misinformation about it. I thought, “This should be a good opportunity to set the record straight.” Perry says he would like me to straighten out the record, too.

Jenny Dean:
Well, good. I’ve been wondering about this myself only because I know from reading Dr. Lisa Pierson’s website that what a dog needs is different than what a cat needs but I think maybe in the pet food industry, especially for consumers who aren’t highly educated on that, it seems right when you hear something about dogs then you assume the same about cats.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Cats are a little different but the principles are the same.

Jenny Dean:
Did you want to talk in general about if grain free is good or bad or do you want me to start asking some of the questions that Floppycats’ readers had about grain-free food?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Let me just riff for a few minutes about the whole taurine thing. Taurine is an amino acid and amino acids in the body are generally used to build proteins and enzymes and things like that.

Taurine is really different. It’s not used as a structural protein at all. It’s almost a hormone. It has a lot of special functions. It’s found primarily in bile which helps break down dietary fat. It’s really important in the muscles, eyes, brain, and immune system. It’s an antioxidant. It’s anti-inflammatory. It’s a really interesting little molecule.

Dogs can make their own taurine for the most part and the precursors or other sulfur-containing amino acids, methionine and cysteine. The way it works is it was thought that originally that if you had those precursors that dogs and cats could make their own taurine that turned out to be not quite true.

In the ’80s, some guys at University of California at Davis figured out that a whole tens of thousands of cats were going blind or dying of heart failure and they figured out that it was due to taurine deficiency.

Now, why it was the taurine deficient? Well, at that point in the ’80s, pet food manufacturers were dialing in how to make more money and the way they thought about making more money is that they would reduce the amount of the most expensive ingredient which was meat. The most expensive ingredient is protein, meat protein, and so they said, “We can make protein out of corn gluten meal and some other stuff.” They started substituting more and more grain protein for meat and turns out cats died when you do that.

Eventually, pet foods or cat foods were supplemented with taurine and the epidemic of thousands of cats dying of heart disease went away. The particular heart disease is called dilated cardiomyopathy and I have dilated cardiomyopathy myself so I can tell you exactly what it is. The heart loses strength and because of the blood pressure in the heart, the walls stretch and when they stretch, the muscle fibers can’t contract properly anymore. The heart just lays there and goes flippity-flop and it’s not really accomplishing much in the way of pumping blood in and out. It’s a pretty unpleasant disease.

Of course with cats, they hide signs of disease until the last possible second. Typically, even now, if cat is diagnosed with heart disease, it really is probably within a few weeks of death. They can be treated but it’s unusual to be able to get them back at that point because the disease is usually very advanced by the time they show symptoms.

Taurine is supplemented in all cat foods. There’s a fair benefit. They’ve figured it out. They figured how much they needed and AAFCO set new minimums and things have been just hunky dory ever since.

In dogs, it’s a little different because dogs are supposed to be able to make their own taurine. Turns out certain breeds and certain lines of breeds can’t. Turns out the biggest dogs have such a slow rate of taurine synthesis that they often can’t keep up. So, Newfoundlands and Golden Retrievers, they still get taurine deficiency cardiomyopathy.

Then the FDA apparently noticed that a whole bunch of dogs were getting dilated cardiomyopathy, not of the susceptible breeds, and they started looking at it and they immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was taurine and it’s these grain-free foods because a certain larger than expected percentage of dogs are eating grain-free foods.

The problem is that dogs can get dilated cardiomyopathy for no particular reason. It turns out the diet is a factor in less than 30% of dogs with dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM. Taurine may not even be the culprit. Some of the newer research says, “It may be the microbiome.” It turns out in the ’80s with the cats, it was entirely due to the microbiome. The food may have had enough taurine in it but the bacteria in the gut were stealing it. Turns out they really like taurine and they were scooping it up and the cats were becoming deficient. Processing and the microbiome and all that is probably the bigger factor.

However, taurine is a variable kind of guy. Different meats have different amounts of it. As long as you’re feeding a good quantity and quality of meat, you’re probably fine but when you’re talking about commercial pet food quality and quantity, not a sure thing. For some reason, the FDA focused on these boutique foods.

One of the questions that we’ll get to was that if these grain free, boutique foods that are problems that… How should I say this? There’s a Facebook group, DCM cardiomyopathy or something like that and I can give you that.

Jenny Dean:
Yes, somebody mentioned that.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Great pitch if you only look at that chart. I looked at the charts. The advice that people are giving each other on that page, terrible advice, terrible conclusions, not good. But the charts are extremely interesting. I went through early on and analyze the first 19 cases I found and 15 of the cases of these supposedly boutique pet foods… Out of 19, 15 of them were made by like Purina, Mars, Hill’s and Champion.

The last time I checked Purina was not a boutique brand. They own almost all of these boutique brands or almost all of them are owned by the big dogs. Somebody asks about Blue Buffalo, yeah, sorry, bought out by General Mills and quality took a nosedive, Nutro owned by Mars. So you know that the quality is already questionable when you’re talking about these big guys. And then FDA was all, “Oh, potatoes and legumes and all these peas and lentils and blah, blah, blah.” That turns out to be not entirely accurate either.

What I have found looking at the actual ingredients of the actual brands that were problems, one of them was a kangaroo-based food and the ingredients were kangaroo meat and then seven kinds of legume. So peas, pea starch, lentils, yellow lentils, green lentils, red lentils. The problem is just like it was in the ’80s, manufacturers substituting incomplete proteins for meat.

Now, the problem with kangaroo in particular, all meats are complete proteins. They contain all the essential amino acids including taurine but some of them have more or less taurine, poultry and fish high in taurine, red meat, beef, venison, lamb, and kangaroo low in taurine. You take a low taurine meat and you cook it up with five or seven kinds of legumes, now you have a problem, especially when you’re talking about… I got seven legumes in the food and some of them are like pea starch and pea fiber. There’s no taurine in plants.

Now, you have a situation where you have a named meat at the top, which theoretically a good thing although if you read my book, you’ll find out why that’s a bunch of boo and I’m trying to be polite here…

Jenny Dean:
Yes.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Yeah. But if you look at it logically, you’ve got a meat and it’s borderline in taurine and then you got seven kinds of plant materials. When you look at by weight, the plant materials outweigh the meat by a lot. So, the problem is the amount of plant proteins and plant fractions, not per se that they’re peas and starch because I think 20% of the originally “bad” foods that were implicated, they had grains in them. It was not all health based foods.

Basically, there’s not a lot of commonality with all those foods except they’ve got poor quality meat and a ton of plants. Same problem as before. Same problem again.

Now in this whole thing, cats have been affected by this taurine thing and cats have developed DCM on modern diets about it, I think nine or eight documented.

The other thing with the FDA is that when you look at the list of foods implicated, the list goes back 15 years. This is not a modern problem. It’s just more obvious now because we have social media and people are more apt to report things and say things and tell other people about it and the vets are getting together and saying, “Hey, wait a minute,” but it’s not grain free that’s doing it, it probably has to do with the microbiome deferentially stealing the taurine but it’s really how they’re manufactured and what products are in them.

If you have a meat but the meat is overwhelmed by the amount of plant materials in the food, you’re going to have a problem whether the carbohydrate is corn or peas or potatoes, it’s all the same kind of thing.

If you look at your label and you have three or four plant proteins, you got whole lentils and you got pea fiber, two or three or four, you’re probably fine especially if it’s a meat that has a fair amount of taurine which is poultry primarily is the best source. Fish is a good source too. But there’s a lot of problems with fish in cat food, too. We can talk about that another day.

I don’t want people to freak out because it isn’t really about the grain-free foods. It isn’t really about which carbohydrates are in the food. The fact is that all dry foods have a lot of carbohydrate in them and they’re not ideal for cats because cats don’t use carbohydrates. They digest them fine. They absorb them fine and they immediately turn them into fat. Dry foods with lots of carbs are already a bad idea for cats. We got to use more common sense and look at what cats are designed to eat and feed them an appropriate diet which is like not a lot of these things.

Jenny Dean:
I often find these conversations a little on the depressing side only because it seems like consumers are set up for failure when it comes to wanting to give their cat the best diet and thinking that… You want to trust a commercial about Blue Buffalo and not have to figure out whether or not they’re owned by Mars or Purina or whatever. It’s just exhausting.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
I know. It’s disheartening. It really is. I tell you I have a habit of going to Petco or PetSmart and prowling the aisles with the clipboard and reading ingredients. I make the employees very nervous. I’ll go-

Jenny Dean:
I was going to ask, do you get stopped?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
No. No one ever ask. They never-

Jenny Dean:
Really?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
They stand far away and stare. It’s hilarious. Try it. It will crack you up. They’re waiting for you to ask them something but if you just say it and silently go through… But I have gone through every cat food in the aisle and left thinking there’s not one of these that I would feed my cat. Not a one.

If I’m in a mellow mood, I can find a few that aren’t too bad but commercial pet food, it’s such a racket and you can trust nobody and even if you trust that a truly boutique cat food company really is trying to do a better job, they’re up against it. They can’t do it and stay in business. They have to make a profit or they go under. Even the ones that are trying real hard…we can’t build a better mouse. A mouse is a mouse and it will never replace everything that’s in it.

For one thing, every animal that is slaughtered for food that ends up being in pet food with the exception of whole fish, I will say, the first thing they do is hang them upside down and bleed them out. We’re missing the blood. There’s a lot of taurine in blood. There’s a lot of hormones. There’s a lot of proteins. There’s a whole lot of really important things in blood. So we cannot replicate that.

This whole trying to build a better mouse is never going to happen. Commercial stuff is never going to be ideal for our cats. It can be pretty good, but it’s never going to be perfect. Anybody that tells you different blowing smoke.

Jenny Dean:
Agreed. I often get questions about cat nutrition which I usually field off to catinfo.org or a page on my site that includes your books and our interviews and catinfo.org because I don’t feel comfortable answering any of those questions. But I always say if I could get my cats to eat raw that’s what they’d be on. But when I did make homemade raw, because I tried every avenue to try to get them to eat raw, taurine was one of the things that we had to add to it and it was crucial. I think it’s the recipe that’s on catinfo.org that we followed at the time. What is an ideal cat diet if you could make one?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
I would take mice and grind them up and say, “Here you go, Perry.” You can get frozen mice that are bred for snakes. They can be frozen in a bag. But you’re not going to eat that and most cats won’t because they’re… Cats’ food preferences are formed in kittenhood and whatever mom ate that’s what they prefer. As they get older if they are not exposed to a variety of foods, they may come to expect that Cat Chow is the only thing on the planet that actually is food and they won’t touch anything else. Cats are difficult.

What I do for my guy, if he eats raw, if he eats some canned food. Right now I’ve got this grass-fed organ meat supplement. This got little bits of all the organ meats round up and he’s eating it. I just feel I had to supplement everything and cat’s daily requirement for taurine is about 80 or 90 mg. So I would say a minimum 125 mg in each day’s meal. I would see it homemade or something like Stella & Chewy’s, he likes that. That’s a really good option.

This cat that I have, he’s a rescue and he was starving to death. You would think he wouldn’t be picky about food. Oh, no. But I actually have him on… His kidneys are shot from having been on the streets and nearly starved to death. I actually have him on an appetite stimulant so he will eat what I think is best for him because otherwise, he will only eat garbage. But I’m in a position where I can enforce the rules. I can tell him, “You will eat this,” and he will.

The freeze dried raws are good. I have a major variety of raw things when I feed freeze dried chicken and a variety of things. Just a variety. The problem with not feeding variety is that’s when you get problems like this. You feed them the same thing all the time without variation for years at a time. If the food is excessive or deficient in some respect, that’s going to be a problem.

Remember the Menu Foods, the melamine disaster. People were just only feeding one brand or one flavor or something. Even brands that I like, that I respect like Wellness, they went through a period where the foods are thiamine deficient.

I have a friend who runs a cat rescue. She lost all the kittens and half the adults because they only fed Wellness. The problem affected all of the Wellness products. If she had been feeding a variety, never would have a problem.

I don’t trust anybody. I don’t rely on any one thing to take care of my cat. I’m going to feed all bunch of things and he’s going to, by God, eat them. 

Jenny Dean:
What is the appetite stimulant that you give him?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Mirtazapine. I have it formulated by a pharmacy. It now comes in generic but it’s a very low dose. I don’t think it’s effective. It’s not cost effective and I don’t think it’s as good. If you have a cat with a poor appetite like this cat, even if I gave him all the junk food he wanted, he’s still too thin. He was really wrecked for being on the streets for so long. He’s got little round ears because his ear tips fell off from frostbite and he’s a wreck. Poor little guy. But he’s going to be as healthy as I can force him to be.

Jenny Dean:
I like it.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
We can only do the best we can but if you feed a variety, feed a mixture of meats, if you want to feed kangaroo just for change or beaver, fine. I’ve done that. I make sure there’s a fair amount of poultry and a fair amount of this and that and the other thing I’m not a big fan of fish for cats. There’s extensive article on Little Big Cat about that and it’ll be in my e-book – why fish is dangerous for cats? I don’t like it. For a treat once in a while, oh, heck yeah, why not?

It’s very, very difficult and I am constantly frustrated and I can’t even imagine how people who aren’t veterinarians must be completely confused and I feel so bad about that. That’s why I write articles and books and stuff to try and help people understand what’s going on but it’s a mess, Jenny. It’s a freaking mess.

Jenny Dean:
It is a mess. Even if you’re a veterinarian. Sometimes, I’ve heard pretty poor advice from veterinarians that contradicts the conversations I’ve had with you.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
When I was in vet school, we had half a semester on nutrition out of four years, half a semester. At the end of that I could formulate a sheep ration but the dog and cat lecture was one, two-hour lecture taught by a guy from Hill’s who came in and said, “AD is for anorexia, CD is for cystitis, DD is for dermatology, GD is for geriatrics, K is for kidneys, any questions?” That was Colorado State University in the ’90s. They’ve gotten better and a lot of schools have gotten better but nevertheless most vet schools have their nutrition departments headed by someone who is, I wouldn’t say on the payroll I shouldn’t say that, but the chair in nutrition is funded by Purina or Hill’s in most of the vet schools.

You can’t trust anybody. I’m sorry. I wish I had better news. Information is the best defense. Keep researching.

Jenny Dean:
Well, I want to get through some of these reader questions. Some of them might be a little bit repetitive but if you don’t mind answering them so that it’s clear, I would appreciate it.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
No problem.

Jenny Dean:
I’ll include a link. This interview is going to be on YouTube and on Floppycats. The transcription will be on Floppycats and then the recording will be on YouTube. I’ll include links to everything that I say. I’ll include links in the About section of the YouTube video but also hyperlinks within the text on Floppycats. This posts on our Facebook page a reader named Jen asked, “Is grain free bad to feed your pets? I’ve been hearing and reading conflicting opinions on this lately.” You’ve answered this already but if you could just say it one more time, please.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Grain free is not bad. It’s no worse than grain containing foods. Maybe marginally better. Problem with grain containing foods is things like the shoshu ingredients like brown rice. Brown rice and rice are full of arsenic. Brown rice, the rice bran actually interferes with guess what? Taurine. The great corn, it’s all genetically modified. I am not a fan of grains.

Cats aren’t particularly inclined to get allergic to grains or legumes or potatoes. If cat’s going to form an allergy, it’s going to form allergy and it’s going to find an excuse to do that which is why I feed a variety and I rotate around from time to time because allergies developed to things that they’re exposed to over and over for a period of time. Variety, variety, variety = you will stay out of trouble.

The reason that those are in there in the first place is because they want the carbohydrates to make the machinery work and to make the food cheaper to produce because carbohydrates are cheap calories. Any carb is as bad as any other carb, I guess I would say.

Jenny Dean:
Yes. The variety thing, variety thing reminds me of, I don’t… Maybe it was you but some veterinarian told me about a cat… I think it was my vet though. This cat was fed only a Fancy Feast variety that was like fish and shrimp or something like that. But the cat became so particular about it that it only ate a certain lot number.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
That was me actually.

Jenny Dean:
It was you? Okay. Maybe I told my vet and she said that she had a cat that’s obsessed with fish and shrimp too. But yes, they had to go everywhere to find the lot number.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
It was awful. It was a Friskies food and she was desperate. She had 141 cans left. When she ran out of food, the cat was going to die because it was going to get a hepatic lipidosis. She wouldn’t eat anything else. She needed to start right then and start incorporating other foods. One molecule at a time if you have to. It is always possible to get a cat to change what it’s eating but it’s not a necessarily a fast process and you have to be sneakier than a cat which is a pretty good trick.

I had two cats, started feeding him raw, Shinnok ate the raw immediately, loved it. She was fed raw for three years before I ever saw Spirit take a bite of it. Three years.

Jenny Dean:
Now you know why I haven’t been successful in switching my cats to raw.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
One of Jackson’s [Jackson Galaxy] cats was just as bad. He never did eat canned food. He would eat a variety of dry at least. He could be fed a variety of raw. Darn, man. They know from the start.

Jenny Dean:
I know. We talked about mice before. I ended up several years ago because one of my readers does the whole Frankenprey thing. To say just in case someone that’s listening doesn’t understand that. She buys whole pheasants that are frozen online and they’re sent to her and then she gives them to her cat to devour. She said that she started out with mice, and you start out with pinkies and then the different sizes on up and so I went to a local pet store here that sold the feeder mice for reptiles, but frozen. Although my cats would probably enjoy the live process, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
No, no. That’s a step too far.

Jenny Dean:
But I did find in researching and calling people online because I said, “If this works, I’ll continue to do this,” and there was one lady, a guy said, that would buy mice and throw them in her food processor and that’s what she would feed her cats. I was like-

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Who?

Jenny Dean:
I wouldn’t be opposed to buying the processed mice, but for me to hit pulse on that food processor. Really tough.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Yeah. The problem with pheasants-

Jenny Dean:
Even if they’re dead.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Yeah, the problem with the pheasant, if it’s raised for food, for one thing, they’re usually grain fed. Their omega-3, omega-6 ratio is off. They’re bred to produce more meat than a wild pheasant. The bone to meat ratio is off. When they kill a pheasant, they hang it up by a seat and drain the blood and then they kill them. You’re still not quite getting it. It’s certainly better than a lot of options but still not perfect. That’s the issue. Now, I hope I don’t cause a run on pinkies across the country, but… I certainly would have-

Jenny Dean:
How do they kill them? Did they give them gas or something? Because that’s what I was wondering about that.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
I’m not sure. Probably is gas but I don’t know. I have wondered but I have never had the nerve to actually look into it. I can take a lot of things but not everything. But I would certainly have a dedicated food processor just for the cat.

Jenny Dean:
Yes. So then I wonder, if you’re feeding your cats even pinkies and they’re getting gas, then is that in the lungs of the mice that they’re eating and is that toxic? Just when does it end?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Probably, if it’s gas, probably not. I think the gas would just blow off because it’s a gas. I don’t think it would stay in the tissue. When a lion catches a zebra, they strangle it. You’re going to have the same buildup of carbon dioxide and all that kind of stuff. I think it’s probably similar. The other thing they may do, and I don’t know this for sure, but I know they do it in some cases is they freeze them. Freeze them and they just die. From all that I know, freezing to death probably one of the more pleasant ways to go. Maybe that’s all right. I don’t know.

I think our cats can do fine with a Frankenprey model. We just do the best we can. It can’t be good enough. Is it perfect? No. But it’s probably good enough. Your Stella & Chewy’s, your Primals, your frozen raws are going to be the next best thing. Although, I would like to point out that cooking does not significantly change the nutrition. It does the nature of the enzyme but you don’t lose that much in terms of nutrients. If you’re squeamish about raw, you can lightly cook meat and things like that and it’ll be okay. You could always add enzymes and probiotics.

Jenny Dean:
All right, next question. Richard asked, “Do some grains such as brown rice add to the cat’s digestive system?”

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Well, I’m not sure what that means, but they don’t. Carbohydrates don’t do anything for the cat, period. They don’t need carbohydrates. They don’t even need fiber technically. There are no fiber in a mouse other than maybe zillions of a teaspoon of grass in the digestive system of the mouse when he eats it. There’s a lot of downsides to carbohydrates for cats. Small amount isn’t going to hurt anybody. But they don’t have a need for it and they don’t add to the nutritional value.

Jenny Dean:
Cynthia said, “I’m curious what she thinks of ingredients that are neither meat nor grain such as potatoes, blueberries or other fruits and vegetables. I’m generally aware that some are binders and others are added for nutrition, but would like to know if any of them should be avoided. Thank you.”

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
If you’re talking about things like carrots and spinach and blueberries and cranberries, those are in the food at a level so low that they make no difference to the cat. Those are in there to appeal to your eyeballs and they’re window dressing, as I’ve heard it put. I call them glamour ingredients. They’re just there for marketing purposes there. There’s not any nutritional reason for them to be there. Because they’re an amount so small that they’re not going to make any difference. There’s nothing that I would particularly avoid.

If you have a cat that had calcium oxalate crystals, maybe avoid the spinach and kale kind of things, but again the amounts are so tiny as to be insignificant in the long run.

If you’re making food, then there’s a lot of things to watch out for. But, in a commercial food, no. No big deal.

Jenny Dean:
Do you have a resource where to go to if you’re making food? Is that covered in your book?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
It is and there’s a recipe on my website as well. I actually had it reviewed by a nutritionist. I don’t think he ran it through his program but it seemed okay. But it hasn’t been through the… There’s a $5,000 computer program that formulates pet food. I worked with a formulator, Greg Aldrich, who is awesome and he writes for pet food industry and he’s a brilliant guy.

I was in charge of pie in the sky. I would say, “Can we please have this that and the other thing in the food?” We came up with a formula. I say, “Can we up the omega-3 just a little bit?” And he changed one thing on the computer and it cascaded changes through 11 pages of spreadsheet. Nutrition is incredibly complicated and I don’t pretend to be good with it.

There was an article in the AVMA Journal and my recipe was critiqued for not being complete and balanced. So I tweaked what I thought was wrong with it. It’s as good as I can make it but I don’t have a $5,000 computer program.

A variety. Just use different things, different meats, different veggies, different everything. When we grew up, Jenny, our mom would make breakfast, lunch, and dinner and we didn’t eat the same thing every day but over time, we all grew up big and strong. Each meal does not have to be completed and balance as long as you’re balanced over time is adequate. I think if you’re feeding a variety and you’re getting your basic supplements…

Now, meat is not a cat diet. I don’t care what Lilian Jackson Braun, she’s the Siamese cats in The Cat Who books. She’s wrong. Those cats would all be calcium deficient, vitamin D deficient, a lot of other problems. Meat is not a complete diet. You’ve got to balance calcium. You’ve got to balance taurine. You’ve got to balance the B vitamins. You got to balance… There’s 35 nutrients required in the AAFCO profile. If you look at the USDA tables, there’s over 100 nutrients in a food just any particular foods.

You have to balance. You have to supplement. You can’t just feed. Except maybe pinkies. You may be able to feed pinkies as a complete and balanced diet, but otherwise, just use common sense.

Jenny Dean:
Yes. Okay. Tammy said, “I’ll be interested to hear what she says. I am in some of the DCM Facebook groups which she already mentioned and there have been some kitty cases. I switch to grain inclusive.”

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Probably doesn’t matter. If I was going to change from a grain-free food, I would change from kangaroo to turkey or some other higher taurine meet just to make sure, and I will make sure there’s not more than three or four plant ingredients in the top 10 ingredients. When you start with many, many, many plant substitutions that’s when you’re going to get into trouble. Grain or no grain if it’s corn, that’s a problem because of the genetically modified portion of the program but cats don’t eat carbs. Which carb you use really not so relevant.

Jenny Dean:
Okay. That leads us to our next question. Judy said, “Could you please ask if peas or pea protein is any better than any other grain? Many pet food manufacturers use peas instead of grains and I’ve read it can be bad.” Can you also talk though about the difference between a green pea and chickpea? Because a lot of people are confused about that.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Chickpeas are also called garbanzo beans. They’re totally different. It’s like between peas and kidney beans. It’s just a different kind of legume but still legume. The reason that manufacturers started using the legumes is because they’re a little higher in protein. That reduced the cost of the food a little bit because they didn’t have to put quite so much meat protein in.

I just don’t believe that the presence of legumes or potatoes is the problem. The presence of carbs is the problem and the presence of low taurine meat and too many plant factors and pieces and parts, that’s the problem.

Jenny Dean:
Okay. You’ve mentioned that kangaroo thing and I almost wonder if I answered the guy’s question incorrectly. This is why I want to ask it. “Can you please ask her if kangaroo meat is good as a main food? That’s the only thing my cat eats plus all day Royal Canin biscuits?” Was that person is either Australian or British. They made dry food.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Yeah, I don’t recommend dry food. Tons and tons of problems from dry food. It’s dehydrating. It’s always high carb. See if your cat will eat the kangaroo if you add some taurine to it. You can get Jarrow taurine. You can buy it online. You can get 500 mg capsules, 1000 milligram capsules. Just make sure you get at least 125 mg of taurine into the food.

Taurine does not have much of a taste. It’s maybe a tiny bit salty, believe me, I have tried it. It’s fine. Just sprinkle that in the food just to abort any problems that may happen because it was the most commonly implicated food was the kangaroo.

I actually asked Quinton Rogers years ago… He’s one of the guys at UC Davis that that actually discovered the taurine deficiency problem in the ’80s. He’s a good buddy. He lives close by now. He retired to Colorado. Good for him. But I asked him about kangaroo and he didn’t know. They hadn’t tested kangaroo at the time. But now we know it is one of the low taurine meats like lamb and beef and elk and moose and venison. The ruminant… Rabbit is also borderline low in taurine. All meat have some taurine but kangaroo, rabbit, and the ruminant seem to be the lowest.

So supplement with taurine. It starts with the end of a toothpick, add that much. Your cat is not going to notice that and then you can work up to your 125 mg a day, but I would definitely add taurine to that food.

Jenny Dean:
Can you overdo the taurine? Can you give them too much?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
No. It’s very safe. The studies that have been done has used huge amounts of taurine, no problem. The only thing is you might turn off your cat’s chase if you put in boatloads, but it’s so mild and it’s very, very safe.

Jenny Dean:
Okay, but if you were, I don’t know, lazy or you had someone else that was feeding your cat and didn’t know the drill and they just popped open a 500 mg pill in your cat’s food, that’s not going to cause a huge problem?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
No. If you’re on vacation for two or three weeks, it’s not going to cause a problem and I don’t think even after that it would cause a problem. It will hurt your pocketbook, is all.

Jenny Dean:
Okay. All right. Fair enough. That’s about it. The other questions or the other statements are more about there’s a gal that lost her dog to DCM congestive heart failure and she’s getting a cat and she’s worried about what to feed, but you’ve covered that. One of my questions after listening to everything that you’ve talked about is if I’m looking at a can of food and it says… I’m looking at Feline Natural which is made… I don’t know if it’s made in New Zealand but it’s a company from New Zealand. The guaranteed analysis has a minimum taurine of point 0.3%. Is that bad?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
No, that’s fine. But the problem is that that turns out not to be enough for some cats.

Jenny Dean:
How can a consumer-

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
All cat foods has to be supplemented with taurine and every manufacturer knows this. Apparently, excuse me, my sense of it is that some cats have a metabolic defect that makes them require even more training or perhaps their microbiome is just especially greedy and is chewing up more of the taurine that comes in the food. When in doubt, add a little bit of taurine. That’s 0.3 is above the minimum recommendation. So I say that’s fine. The caveat being every cat is an individual and you can’t tell nothing from nobody, for sure, for every single cat.

Jenny Dean:
Yes. Okay. No matter… You’ve said commercial diets are never going to cut it. But what is that minimum amount?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
They’re not ever going to be perfect.

Jenny Dean:
Right. If 0.3% is above the minimum amount, what is the minimum amount that a commercial pet food is supposed to have?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
I forget. I think it’s 2% in canned food, 0.5% in dry food, something like that. But in order for the percent to make any sense on the label, you have to do a whole lot of calculations. I would just think it’s safe to assume that a commercial cat food that contains taurine has at least the minimum amount. Because otherwise, they wouldn’t be selling it in the U.S. The FEDIAH, the European pet food guys, the equivalent of AAFCO in Europe, their taurine requirement is actually higher.

There’s always been cats with a genetic problem that Maine Coon cats get dilated cardiomyopathy more than other cats. Is it related to taurine? We don’t know. Probably not. The thing is a lot of dogs and cats get dilated cardiomyopathy but most of them are not related to diet at all, it’s genetics.

Even if your cat gets DCM, there’s a probably 60, 70% chance that it’s genetic and nothing to do with the food and that is true for 70% of dogs that get DCM, it has nothing to do with food. DCM is bad if you get it. It’s not fun. It’s very uncomfortable. You’d be very sick. You end up in the ER in the cardiac unit for a few days because that’s what happened to me. By the way, I was on the Atkins diet at the time. I was eating a ton of meat. So it had nothing to do with taurine in my case. It was a physical problem with the heart. Nothing to do with taurine.

For the vast majority of cats, my advice would be don’t sweat it. You’re probably going to be fine. Just get the best quality food you can. If you look at it and it’s got tons of ingredients that are not meat, I might look twice at that… For the most part, you’re going to be fine. The bottom line is don’t stress it. Just pay a little bit of attention and feed a variety and you’ll be fine.

Jenny Dean:
Okay. I’m wanting to ask this question although it’s not really related. The difference between DCM and HCM. HCM is always genetic or not?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
They don’t know. They don’t know what causes it, There has to be a genetic component because it does run in a genetic fashion. But no, they don’t know what causes it. They don’t know how to fix it. It’s just a thing. It is not diet related as far as we know.

Jenny Dean:
Okay. All right, thanks. I was begging in my mind to ask that. Do you have anything else?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Then there’s something called restrictive cardiomyopathy that is DCM and it isn’t HCM. It’s a whole different thing. Heart disease is bad in cats It’s just bad but they mostly don’t know why. When they don’t know why, there’s probably a genetic component but can they pinpoint it? No.

Jenny Dean:
Okay. Oh, man. Well, as far as the grain-

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
As far as.

Jenny Dean:
This is refreshing and uplifting. As far as the grain-free stuff is concerned, is there anything that you wanted to touch on that we haven’t spoken about?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
I don’t think so. I think we’ve covered pretty much everything.

Jenny Dean:
Okay, I think so too. Thank you very much for your time. Okay, wait, there’s one girl that commented 20 minutes ago so I’ll read this one.

Binx is eating Instant Raw Boost grain-free, the issue that we’re having is that he’d rather eat his dry food than his wet food.” Yes, welcome to my world. “We have tried several varieties of wet canned food and he barely eats any of them. The only one he nibbles on is Weruva grain-free natural canned wet food. He won’t even eat plain shredded chicken. He loves the salmon flavor Whole Life cat treats. How do I incorporate more wet food in his diet? We’ve tried so many without success.” You don’t need to address that if you don’t want.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Take away the dry food. If I have kids and he comes home from school at 3:00 every day and eats a bag of pretzels and an apple and a few cookies and then you try and give them something interesting for dinner and he’s like, “I’m not eating that.” They have to be hungry. She’s in timed meals to start with. Just kick up your feet. You put the food down, you pick it up in an hour, period. No food until the next meal period, whatever that is.

Cats need to be fed ideally, four or five times a day, not everybody can do that so three times a day, I’d say, a minimum. First thing in the morning, right after work or school and then before bed. And you leave the food out for 30 or 60 minutes and you pick it up so at the next meal, they’re hungry, and you put the wet food down first and then if he doesn’t eat it, you put the dry food down for a little while.

You got to make the cat hungry because if he’s eating cookies all day, which is what drives it is I call it the Frito-Twinkie diet, if he’s gorging on Fritos and Twinkies all day, no, he’s not going to eat broccoli. It’s just tough love. Believe me. I’ve been through it. Like I said, my cat had raw food available for three years before she ate it and then of course, she loved it.

Jenny Dean:
Oh, I’d be jumping from that rooftops if that happen for me. Also, you can get creative with it. I’ve heard about readers mixing maybe a tablespoon of dry or half a tablespoon of dry with the wet so that they smell the dry. Because isn’t that if… A cat’s appetite starts with their nose.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Absolutely. But I don’t encourage mixing wet and dry just because dry food is known to be covered in bacteria and if the bacteria get wet, they will start to grow. So then you really have to abide by the 30-minute timeline. You can’t leave it down for more than 30 minutes or the bacteria will grow and then they’ll puke and then they won’t eat anything and then you have a real problem. In my book and on my website both, there’s articles about switching foods and every trick I have ever heard of. Lisa Pierson’s site also has a chapter on switching and she’s got a lot of good tips. Some of mine I stole from her because we’re friends. All fair.

You just got to be sneakier than the cat and you got to… One thing with Perry even though he’s on the mirtazapine he’s still a little fussy. So I take the nature’s Instinct Boost little pellets of raw, and I crushed them up and I just sprinkle it on top of the food and he eats it. He’ll eat for a few minutes then he walks away then I put the stuff on it and then he’ll eat more.

But they have to be hungry. They have to be hungry. That’s the key to the cat’s heart and through his stomach.

Jenny Dean:
I don’t remember who I first heard this thing from and it’s pretty common sense but it might have been Jackson Galaxy that I was watching. That cats have a pattern of plays/hunt, eat, groom, sleep. You’ve got to create the play or the hunt for them like play with a wand toy or whatever to get their appetite and their sense of… And then that will help your endeavor to-

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Yeah, that’s a great way to do it. For those cats who have the 3:00 AM crazies, do that right before bed and then they’re tired and full and they’ll sleep only.

Jenny Dean:
That’s exactly what I tell people that write me about their kittens. “They won’t let me sleep at night.” What’s your pattern because I bet if you change it, then they’ll be sleeping when you’re sleeping. It works like a charm, so that’s awesome.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
There’s lot of ways to manipulate it. You just have to remember that cats hate change so you got to be slow and sneaky with pretty much everything. But if you go to a meal schedule, they’re going to figure that out pretty fast and then people get paranoid. “Oh, well, I suppose I have to work late. I’m not home for 10 or 12 hours. He’s going to starve.” No, he’s not. Starve to death.

Lions will go for a week or two without eating. The cat’s digestive system is set up for an eat-fast-eat cycle. That’s what they’re designed for. In the wild, they’ll catch the mouse, eat it, catch another mouse, eat it, and then take a nap. Then maybe they’ll catch three birds in a row or three. They’re not designed to be on a perfect schedule or have the same thing all the time. I’ve never seen a cat come in and say, “Well, I will only eat purple finches. Chicken, beef, forget about it.” Only field mice not harvest mice and not voles. That would be evolutionary stupid.

If you work with the cat’s nature and try to think, “If I was a cat in the wild…” Go watch a nature’s something about mountain lions. They’ll catch a deer and they’ll eat it for two weeks before they’ll go catch something else. They’re less fussy than you think but they are as fussy as you have let them be.

Jenny Dean:
That actually is a great idea to go watch a nature program about a big cat. That is what helped me understand how pulling meat off of a bone would help clean their teeth.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Yeah, because they just grind away at it. There was a veterinary dentists who did a lot of big cats in zoos and he called it the hassle factor. He said cats need more hassle factor which is the ligaments, the tendons, and the bones and the things that they have to chew and work on and exercise their jaw muscles. That also consequently helps clean their teeth because those things get down in between the teeth. The problem with all the tartar control and the stuff you put in water, none of it gets under the gum line and under the gum line is where its problems are.

You can have bright shiny white teeth and horrendously infected under the gum periodontal ligament and stuff like that. Chewing is good.

It’s all in my book really. I put everything I know. There’s a lot of stuff… I keep revising it because I learned a new thing like three days ago that I had to put in the book. It’s a constantly evolving thing and it’s worth doing the research and figuring it out and as much as I fit on my website, I put there and there is an article about the taurine I need to update it a little bit. But there’s a lot of information out there.

Not everybody is reputable and one thing I find is that the board certified nutritionists are the most clueless because they’re the ones that say, “Ingredients don’t matter. Only nutrients matter.” If I created complete and balanced ice cream and said, “I’m just going to eat that for the rest of my life. What do you think my health would look like?”

Mentally, I’d be thrilled. But I would be terribly malnourished and weighs 600 pounds. Because you can’t play with nutrients like that. You have to assure the nutrients but the form the nutrients come in whether it’s good quality meat or crap quality intestines, it makes a difference. By the way there is no taurine in byproducts. Keep that in mind. Yeah, it’s in meat. Muscle meat, heart. That’s where the taurine is. But when they bleed the animal, not a lot of taurine is left. That’s probably why they have to stick more in.

Jenny Dean:
Do you have a particular source where you like to buy your taurine?

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
I get Jarrow, J-A-R-R-O-W. I get my vitamins from vitacost.com. It’s way cheaper than anybody else I’ve found.

Jenny Dean:
Yes, that’s where I like to go shopping too.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
In a pinch, you can go to Whole Foods and get it but next time plan ahead and get your restock from somewhere cheaper because they’re going to charge you an arm and leg. But an arm and leg is certainly worth preventing heart disease in your cat, so there you go.

Jenny Dean:
Yes, it is. Okay. I’m going to go buy some taurine for cats after this conversation. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk about grain free and taurine with us. I appreciate it.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
No problem. Glad to do it.

Jenny Dean:
All right, and hopefully we can get another interview out of you soon. I need to be a little more consistent in reaching out so I will do my best with that.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Well, I don’t go anywhere anymore so no problem.

Jenny Dean:
Okay, I will do that. Thank you again, Dr. Jean. I appreciate it.

Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM:
Yeah, take care, Jenny.

 

Comments (9)

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  1. WOW! Another SUPER PAWESOME & FABULOUS & INCREDIBLY EDUCATIONAL INTERVIEW with Dr. Jean Hofve, Jenny honey! A GREAT BIG PURRY TYSVM to you both for this AMAZEBALLS INTERVIEW!!! I LEARNED SOOOO MUCH!!! YAY!!!! 🙂 <3

    Big hugs & lots of love & purrs!

    Patti & Miss Pink Sugarbelle 🙂 <3 <3 <3

  2. Thanks for this Jenny, it’s a really interesting topic.
    I think we all want the best for our kitties and it’s about being a little savvy and looking beyond the “Big Brand BS” and ensure the ingredients aren’t just a load of junk with a shiny package around them.

    I was mortified when I started looking into this years ago when my Charlie started with allergies. Like Jean I went into pet superstores and read the ingredient labels and took notes on which foods were a definite no go.

    I made a chicken bone broth the other day and freezed the strained broth in ice cube holders. I was thinking of adding their freeze dried chicken to it to add texture but I don’t know, I’m no expert!

    I’ll let you know if I get any success with it!

  3. “I so wish mine would eat whole prey like you feed yours.”

    @Jenny, what about starting them with whole ground carcass from Hare-Today? They have whole carcass mice, quail, guinea pig and rabbit. They have others (duck, pork, etc.), that are meat + bones + organ.

    FYI, today (04/30/20) is the last day for this Hare-Today special:
    Use this coupon code to get 5% off your order during the month of Apirl!
    Coupon Code: Spring
    Valid: April 1, 2020- April 30, 2020
    *Coupon codes must be applied during checkout only. Please do not email about coupon codes not applied at checkout, no credit will be given after order.

    1. You know, I tried the mice – why do you think the Hare-Today whole carcass mice would be any better? They flung them around my living room – cannot do that again. It’s late and I am not in the mood to figure it out. So will miss the special – and need to get the May giveaway up before I go to bed =)

      1. They grind the whole carcass, so it’s like ground beef but ground mice -nothing to fling around! I was just thinking this is another option. The drawbacks of ground are there’s no dental benefit and the possible introduction of bacteria – which is why ground grocery store meat shouldn’t be fed. However, since this isn’t grocery store ground, where the animals are fed a species inappropriate diet and they aren’t grinding 100’s of carcasses from many factory farms, I am personally not worried about it. I feed their (Hare-Today) whole ground pork for variety.

      2. Thanks – yes, i have tried raw ground meat before – no go. Although, ideally, I would like mine on that – it’s not going to happen. They’re almost 11…and I don’t have the energy for the fight. Maybe with my next cats.

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