The little lion in the autumn

In December, we learned about the quirky crimes of Mamoru Demizu. The unemployed man was accused of breaking into homes in western Japan to steal jewels, cash, and other valuables, all for the purpose of feeding 120 stray cats. He wanted them to have gourmet food — fresh fish and chicken, “not cheap canned food,” according to Japanese police. His haul from the thefts was around $185,000 — all of which went to support the cats’ $272 daily food bill.

That, you say, is going too far.

That, your cat says, is a good start.

Extreme as Mamoru’s approach was, the desire to elevate the quality of food our fangy furry friends eat is not crazy. Cats are supremely carnivorous creatures; when we take them into our homes and give them some artificially and mysteriously mixed up stuff from a pet food company, we often do it without thinking about how different it is from the food cats would eat if they were on their own. The substitutions we have made in the name of simplicity can result in the cats missing something in their diets that they really need.

Frequently in the Marina Times, Thalia Farshchian writes about the importance of diet in everyday human health. So many of the problems we complain about — sleeplessness, lethargy, weight, even hangovers — can be lessened or even eliminated by making smarter food choices.

The same is true with cats, perhaps even more so. (A cat can even get diabetes and then send it into remission, which is a trick they could show us if they wanted to display a little gratitude for all the good food and petting.)

Our two-cat household is a gourmet feline’s delight, but we don’t do it because we like spending money, and our neighbors don’t need to fear us breaking in to grab their television or silverware to hock for cash. But our approach is still more expensive than what most people provide for their felines, and it takes more time to prepare.

That, our cats would say, is only appropriate.

Our interest in improving our cats’ diet began with a cat we had more than a decade ago, a beautiful longhaired tom whose fur was an almost bluish grey. He was a big, gentle cat. As Max got older, however, he slowed down, which would certainly be natural for any animal in its dotage. Still, we looked for possible ways to help him with the general aches and pains of aging, and we got interested in a raw food diet for the cat.

There was not a lot of information available on the topic at the time, and there was more than a little uninformed crankery out there. Luckily, one of us is a chemist and was able to wade through the false claims and junk cures, eventually coming up with a mix of things tailored for our older male cat. Thus began our regimen of chopping up chicken hearts (purchased from grocery stores or restaurants) and liver, mixing a portion of it with ground turkey or a bit of red meat for taurine, and perhaps some other elements to address specific needs of Max. Then we would freeze each individually bagged meal, removing it from the freezer when it was mealtime and heating up the baggie in a bowl of hot water before serving it, still warm, to Max.

Max’s transformation was dramatic. He began to display the energy of a cat five years younger than he was, and the cat we had begun to think was going to spend the rest of his days sleeping and slowly walking around was able to jump and run once again.

More expensive than the traditional approach? Yes, but my attitude is echoed by veterinarian Dr. Laurie S. Coger, who wrote about raw food diets for dogs last year on the (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union website. Her words are equally applicable to cats: “[T]here are savings as your dog becomes healthier when eating a natural, raw diet. Imagine the savings if you don’t have to go to the veterinarian for an ear infection, or bout of gastrointestinal upset? Let’s say you save two veterinary visits per year — that’s easily $100–$200, depending on your location. There’s the cost of your freezer! And the bonus is you can save money on your food by using the freezer your dog’s savings bought! And who can place a dollar value on a dog living longer? What would it mean to you to have your best friend with you for an extra year or more?”

Today, there are many resources for a feline raw food diet. (Just Google raw food diet for cats and start digging through your nearly 2.5 million results.) With our current cats, we knew from the start there was no way we were going to buy them prepackaged cat foods in which grain is the first ingredient and there are various mysterious byproducts among the other ingredients. So we started again with the chopping and the freezing and the warming, but a persistent problem for us was that the raw meat was often bad when we purchased it. We might buy four packages filled with chicken hearts and two or three of them would turn out to be spoiled, regardless of the sell-by date. A big bag of liver usually fared better, but that, too, was not always fresh and usable.

The problem wasn’t the cost of buying the food, and we didn’t mind the 15 minutes it would take us each week to make the meals. The problem was the cost of having to go back to the store and buy yet more chicken hearts or liver, and the repeated 15 minutes it took to make the meals. And it happened frequently. So we began to look around for a better way. That led us back to prepackaged food, in an updated way. But by then, there were more brands like Halo that use premium-quality ingredients and are formulated with an animal’s health in mind, not just ease of production.

We still take time to add other elements to the canned or dry food. For example, as our aging Maine Coon, Charlie — who looks like a little lion — began showing signs of arthritis, we began including some natural ingredients that help with joint flexibility. They nearly immediately increased his agility, much to the chagrin of our other cat, Ashes, who gets tired of being chased by Charlie.

As I sit in my office writing these words, Charlie is sitting on the floor under my desk, purring loudly.

I know his routine; he didn’t like the wet food we gave him this morning, and he’s telling me that I clearly made a mistake because he’s sure I intended to give him some salmon or his favorite dry food. That would be one error I can correct, but I won’t. He needs to eat the wet food, and on this, I can wait him out.

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