Monday, December 3, 2007

Cats & Diabetes

From today's Chicago Tribune:

Cat diabetes growing problem

By Jennifer Mann

McClatchy Newspapers

8:21 AM CST, December 3, 2007


We're all aware of the alarm sounding and hand-wringing over the ever-increasing numbers of children and adults diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

But we are not alone. The epidemic of diabetes is increasingly afflicting the kitties curled up on our overlarge laps as we have allowed our tabbies to get tubby.

While there is not full agreement as to the causes, in general experts say the soaring rates of diabetes in the pet population -- and cats in particular -- mimic the reasons that it has become epidemic in the people population: increasingly sedentary lifestyles coupled with copious consumption of highly refined foods.

Francis Kallfelz, a professor of veterinary nutrition at Cornell University, confirms that obesity in the pet population is burgeoning.

"The literature shows that there is a huge incidence of overweightness in our pet population that's getting to be a bigger and bigger problem," Kallfelz said. "Just like it is in the case of human beings."

While there is a debate on the cause of the rising numbers of cats with diabetes, one theory gaining traction is that much of the dry cat food is too high in carbohydrates and too low in protein.

University of Missouri-Kansas City biology professor Karen Bame was shocked when she found out her beloved black cat, Rachel, was diabetic.

Her cat's veterinarian, Eliza Sundahl, sat her down and explained that cats, as carnivores, need diets high in protein. "It sort of blew me away because I teach biochemistry, and I had just gotten through with a lecture with my students about diabetes in people and how they should stay away from proteins," Bame said.

But people and cats have vastly different physiologies. People (and dogs) are omnivores -- they'll eat animals and plants. Cats are carnivores, and, left to their own devices, eat other animals.

Bame switched Rachel from a high-carbohydrate kibble food to high-protein canned food. Four months after the switch, 15-pound Rachel went from 3 units of insulin a day to 1 1/2. And while not exactly svelte, she is a much healthier 11 pounds.

"When we first changed her food, she was not terribly happy," Bame said. "Now I buy organic food at Wild Oats that smells horrible. Rachel loves it."

Elizabeth Hodgkins, a vet in Yorba Linda, Calif., falls firmly in the camp of diet as the key to preventing and treating cat diabetes. She administers the Web site and is the author of the recently published book, "Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life."

Hodgkins, who worked eight years in the pet food industry, thinks feeding cats dry kibbles is analogous to filling children's cereal bowls with sugarfrosted flakes.

She is trying to change attitudes among her colleagues, who she thinks are compassionate pet lovers but fall prey to habits. She contends that treating diabetic cats without making a switch in diets defeats the purpose.

"It's akin to treating a child for lead poisoning while continuing to feed them paint chips," Hodgkins said.

Hodgkins changed her outlook on pet food 10 years ago after her cat, Punkin, became diabetic and she took a close look at what she had been feeding him. Shortly after switching her kitty to a high-protein canned food, her cat was cured of diabetes, she said.

"How in the world did intelligent people miss this?" she asked. "I don't have a good answer for that, because I was part of that group of intelligent people."

Some in the $11 billion U.S. pet food industry have taken notice of the trend.

Deborah Greco, a senior research scientist for Purina, started researching the diabetic diet connection in the late 1990s, eventually helping create a food with a nutritional makeup that mimicked cats eating mice.

The food, which was introduced in 2001 and dubbed "Catkins" by many, is 3 percent carbohydrate, 55 to 60 percent protein and the rest fat.

"All I can say is I keep an individual file of people who have called and e-mailed me thanking me for saving their cats," Greco said.

Kallfelz "wholeheartedly and respectfully" disagrees with the premise that high-carb dry food is the culprit.

"I have seen no published evidence to the effect that feeding cats dry foods is a risk factor for diabetes. To make the leap of faith ... that dry food is causing the problem is not a rational leap of faith," said Kallfelz, a member of the National Pet Food Commission. The commission was formed this year by the trade association, the Pet Food Institute, after the widespread recall of pet food thought to be tainted by ingredients imported from China.

Kallfelz pointed to a recent study from Utrecht University's Department of Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals in the Netherlands, concluding that indoor confinement and inactivity were the biggest contributors to cat diabetes.

Bame's veterinarian Sundahl thinks both viewpoints have validity. She thinks cats need to follow the same medical advice often given their owners -- watch their diet and get more exercise. She is a proponent of getting our fat, lazy cats off the couch.

Our cats would be better served, she said, if we got them up and about, advice she had for her receptionist, Pat Landwehr, whose tuxedo kitty Sparkle is overweight and has diabetes.

Sundahl recommends pet owners move their cat's food bowl every two or three days. Make it hunt in the house. More important, she said, understand and control portions.

Before society turned cats into house-bound pets to protect them from the dangers of the outdoors, they roamed neighborhoods in the cover of dark. Sundahl said that for every 30 to 40 attempts at catching prey, cats scored four or five times. Not only did that supplement their diet, it gave them exercise.

"That's a lot of activity," Sundahl said. "Now, our cats lay on the couch, know where the food bowl is, saunter over, eat and saunter back."

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