Many feline diseases are caused by chronic inflammation. This is particularly true of the degenerative diseases of aging, such as arthritis, kidney disease, and even cancer. Such inflammation not only kills cells directly, but also deposits toxic inflammatory by-products and other “sludge” in the extracellular matrix that surrounds the cells. This toxic build-up reduces the flow of oxygen, nutrients, and wastes between cells and blood, and creating a fertile environment for parasites, disease-causing organisms, and abnormal cells that can thrive in such damaged environments.
So how do we keep the immune system healthy and prevent the signs and diseases of aging? The basic steps are:
1. Providing an optimal diet based on fresh, whole foods. Most commercial pet foods (especially dry foods) are made with the leftovers and unwanted parts from livestock slaughter and processing, and loaded with additives and preservatives. Any disease prevention (or treatment program) begins with diet. All the treatments in the world will not help a patient who eats “junk food” (as many commercial pet foods are!). The foundation of health is a balanced, home-prepared diet of fresh, organic, whole foods. When the body is supported with the building blocks needed to maintain healthy cells and repair damaged ones, healing from within can begin.
For cats, a diet of 80% meat and 20% non-starchy vegetables, preferably home-made, is ideal. Add a high-quality supplement containing EPA and DHA (green-lipped mussel oil, fish or cod liver oil) to help prevent age-related muscle wasting; the bonus is Omega-3s’ powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
When a home-prepared diet is not possible, try ready-made (frozen) raw food, freeze-dried or dehydrated diets, or a very high quality low-carbohydrate canned food. Meat can be lightly cooked if you are concerned about feeding raw (though we highly recommend eventually transitioning to raw). (Click here for a balanced homemade diet recipe.) If processed foods are fed, consider adding fresh ground or minced meat.
One other significant dietary issue needs mentioning, and that is weight management. Overweight pets are at increased risk of many diseases, such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Food does not equal love; your cat would rather have quality time with you than a big dinner or a few extra treats. Body fat doesn’t just sit there quietly; it continually churns out inflammatory signals. Keeping your cat at an ideal weight is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.
2. Offering only clean, purified water. Plenty of clean water is essential to the body’s ability to resolve inflammation, and to clean up dead cells, inflammatory markers, and other waste products.Depending on where you live, the quality of tap or well water ranges from wholesome to highly toxic. Distilled water is not suitable for long-term consumption because it pulls minerals from the body; but it can be used in a short-term detoxification program that is closely monitored by your veterinarian. Since cats are not a great water drinkers, add extra water to the food, or try a non-plastic pet fountain. Wet foods, including homemade, reconstituted freeze-dried, and raw diets, are also important sources of moisture. Many cats who eat only wet food will not drink water very often because, like their wild cousins, they get most of their water from their food. Click here for a detailed article about water.
3. Limiting vaccinations. The antibodies produced by vaccines cause inflammation, and every additional booster perpetuates it. Many holistic veterinarians agree that over-vaccination is a significant contributor to the rising rates of chronic disease in cats and dogs. This is not to say that pets should not receive any vaccines—puppy and kitten vaccines against life-threatening diseases are still important; and rabies vaccination is required by law. But most pets in the U.S. receive many unnecessary vaccines over their lifetimes. Most booster vaccines (other than legally mandated rabies vaccines) are unnecessary for adult pets. If your veterinarian recommends multiple or annual vaccinations, consider finding one who is more aware of the risks. For more information please read our in-depth article on Vaccination.
4. Reducing indoors air pollution, yard chemicals, and other sources of toxic exposure. This will calm the over-reactivity of the immune system and allow the body to cleanse and heal. For our furry companions’ sake, it is important to examine our home and yard care practices. Cleaning products are the first place to look; if the floor or carpet cleaner you use contains toxic chemicals (as most do), and your companion’s nose is continually close to that floor (as most are), then the body must continually detoxify itself. Choosing homemade, natural, and green cleaning products can go a long way to limiting the toxins your companion accumulates. (Click here for more information on going green.)
5. Minimizing electromagnetic radiation. Limit this cause of low-grade, chronic inflammation in and around your home. Keep your companion’s bed as far away from electrical components as possible. At night, make sure all electronics are turned off. This is important not just for the radiation, but also light. Even the tiny glow from power indicators can be disruptive to sleep, and inhibit the body’s natural healing cycles.
6. Using a safe, non-toxic flea control program. Most flea products are pesticides that can contribute to the toxic overload of the body and inhibit natural cleansing processes. Flea and tick management is an essential part of health, but spot-on flea control products such as Advantage, Frontline, and Revolution, are heavy-duty pesticides. These poisons absorb through the skin permeate the animal’s system; while a portion of them is eliminated in through urine and feces, some components may not be fully cleared, and can contribute to the toxic sludge build-up in the extracellular matrix. Tablets given by mouth are no better. A recent report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency makes it clear that every commercial flea product can cause illness and even death in pets; the agency is now encouraging more truthful labeling, but it is not requiring safer products. There are many natural flea/tick control products that offer effective, non-toxic alternatives to chemical pesticides. They take slightly more effort than putting occasionally a few drops on your companion’s skin, but they are well worth it for the long-term health of your friend.
7. Minimizing stress. It’s been abundantly proven that stress suppresses the immune system. Our furry companions can and do experience stress, as much or more than we do. For instance, dogs with separation anxiety live in extreme stress every day their guardians go to work or school. Cats in multiple-cat households are frequently stressed over territorial competition.
Of course, cats are acutely aware of the stress levels of their human companions—the more stressed you and other family members are, the more your cat feels, absorbs, and manifests that stress—whether by acting out behaviorally or internalizing it as illness or cancer. Managing our own stress may be the most important step we can take to improve our pets’ well-being.
You can reduce cats’ stress in other holistic ways, such as energy therapies, Tellington TTouch, massage, and flower essences.
“Indoor enrichment” can be helpful for both dogs and cats to reduce mental and emotional stress. This may include: food-dispensing toys; sensory enrichment (such as a window perch for bird-watching, pet-directed videos, and cat furniture for climbing and scratching, as well as to increase vertical territory); and novel objects (like cardboard boxes or paper bags). But adequate quality play and petting time with the human family is truly the most important “enrichment” tool.
8. Providing adequate exercise. Regular physical activity is a natural immune booster and stress reducer. Exercise is crucial for the health of the mind and body—human or cat. In their natural state, felines roam large territories and hunt for a living. The more we can mimic this natural lifestyle, the better. Physical activity is vital for pets for weight control, digestive health, detoxification, immune health, muscle tone, respiratory health, and mental and emotional stability.
Play is wonderful, because s it provides both exercise and the joy of fun and laughter (on your part!). There is nothing more hilarious than the antics of a cat chasing a laser beam or feathers on a pole or string. Cats need exercise, and regular play sessions are the ideal way to accomplish it. Or, try a kitty harness and go for walks. Introduce this activity gradually to increase the chance of acceptance.