Friday, January 20, 2012

How Grain Free Food Changed Our Lives

The best thing that ever happened to my cat family was when my lovely, little Lola started losing all her fur. I know that sounds bizarre, but bear with me, I'll explain.

We had just moved to Chicago, I hadn't found a vet I really liked (still haven't found one I adore for that matter, any recommendations?) and on top of that we were broke. Husband was still looking for a job and I was imagining a vet with dollar signs in their eyes, wanting to do expensive blood work and tests. Since it wasn't an emergency sort of situation, I curled up on my couch and started doing some internet research.

So many diseases can make your cat's hair fall out! So many nasty parasites! Nothing sounded right though, outside of losing her hair, Lola didn't have the symptoms of Eosinophilic Granuloma or Feline Endocrine Alopecia or any other obscure cat disease I read about. One thing was for sure though, she was itching like crazy and balding rapidly.

When I found the answer it wasn't by reading anything about cats. Instead I learned that in dogs, food allergies can cause hair loss. Well, guess what y'all, the same is true for cats.

We learn as little kids that cats are carnivores. Why is it then that pet foods are routinely made using grains as a primary ingredient? Corn, corn gluten meal, oats, barley, brewers rice, not to mention a dozen other unnecessary things, some of which are truly awful. Felines do not require grain in their diets. Grains are nothing but filler, just something to keep the price low for the pet food companies. They cause allergy problems and obesity, leading to even more health problems. 

The number one ingredient in Lola's daily fare? Corn. This is how I became obsessed with pet food.

Within the same week of my revelation, I met a girl named Anna at a neighbor's grill out. Anna works at Soggy Paws*, a local pet store that sells grain free pet foods amongst other things. She was more than happy to have a passionate discussion with me about what I had recently learned and was super excited to come over and meet my cat family. The next day I went to Soggy Paws, where they hooked me up with samples and talked my ear off. 

So there I was, armed with new knowledge and a bag full of cat food, excited to see if all these supposed benefits were going to pan out. Being the giant nerd that I am, I set up a spreadsheet. In it, I listed each cat, any current or reoccurring issues said cat had, their current weight, and what food they were being fed. (When switching a cats food, most people say to do so gradually, over the course of a few weeks. I've heard different opinions, and don't really think it matters a whole lot, but I followed the gradual rule when I switched them on this. Expect some softer poop, or even diarrhea, any way you do it.) Then I followed up weekly, then biweekly, for nine weeks, reweighing and observing.

I opened up that spreadsheet for the first time in a long time to write this post. The first thing that jumped out at me from the "issues" category was our excessive hairball problems. Daily hairballs, sometimes multiple ones a day! Sly was by far the worst. He had a terrible hack, like a little kitty smoker's cough, that produced a hairball about every third time. The vet had given me a hairball paste and told me if there wasn't improvement we might have to x-ray for blockages. The hairball paste wasn't making an impact at all. By week two of switching to grain free, Sly wasn't hacking anymore and overall hairballs for the household were down to a once or twice a week thing. It was amazing. 

A few of my cats were fatties. Sly comes to mind, he likes to fetch, but had gotten so heavy that he'd be breathing hard by the second toss. During the switch, most of my cats gained a bit of weight at first. This was due to the simple fact that I was feeding them too much. Once I got their portions under control (and an appropriate portion for a cat is much smaller than what most people think), the lack of pointless grain fillers in their food helped my chunky cats to lose weight (with the exception of Boo, my rotund little pumpkin cat, in which there was no change.) In my slender cats, weight change was minimal. WARNING! If your cat qualifies as obese, then you need to be extremely careful while helping your cat lose weight. Losing weight too quickly can further strain their internal organs causing horrible things to happen or even killing them. Please don't try to help your obese cat lose weight without help. In the future, I'm going to write more about this. You can email me if you want to talk about you fat cat sooner ( I know I should recommend that you talk to your vet, so go talk to your vet, but they are probably going to suggest a low calorie cat food laden with grains, and obviously, I'm against that.

Here's one of those charts to help you assess your cat's weight.
Chart via
An unexpected benefit was that every one's fur got sooooooo much softer. Within the first week I noticed it in Harry's fur. After two weeks half my cat population was noticeably softer. The softness came with a small price - shedding. I've never seen so much shedding! Then, as they continued to get softer and softer, the shedding slowed, and now they shed less than ever. After about two months eating grain free food, Lola's fur was looking particularly nice. It was growing back in, softer than ever, and she was no longer licking and chewing constantly.

Grain free foods my cats really like include (canned/wet) Wellness, Dave's, and BFF (although BFF is primarily fish based, so don't use it as your cats main protein source) and (dry) Taste of the Wild. Honestly, the only reason I feed dry food at all is because it's economical. Wet food is really the way to go. It adds to all the benefits of feeding grain free and even better, it's a great way for your cat to get enough water. Raw feeding is another option, but that's for another day. I feed my cats dry food in the morning and wet food in the evening.

Overall, after switching to grain free, the cats have had fewer hairballs, the overweight problem came more under control, they got softer and prettier, started shedding less, have smaller and less frequent poops, and we haven't had any UTI's (Lola and Harry have both had serious problems with that when on dry and grain filled diets). One of my very favorite things about switching to grain free is that when I bring Lola her evening meal she trills an adorable little song while gobbling it down. It's so precious.  

Look at the label on your bag of cat food. Unless you are already intentionally buying grain free food, chances are it's full of a bunch of crap that your cat doesn't need. Websites for grain free foods usually have some sort of "where to buy" button. Click on it, go get some, your cat will be so happy.

*Soggy Paws did not compensate me in any way for the name drop or praise. Let me tell you though, they are an A+ store, and after working in retail for ten years, I have some pretty high standards for retail establishments. If you live in Chicago (or in Omaha, NE, they just opened a store there!), check them out. (Maybe even tell them you read about them here!)

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