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In this issue:

1. News Bites

  • February is Pet Dental Health Month!
  • How People Choose Cat Food
  • Recent Cat Food Recalls
  • Jerky Treats Back on the Shelf–and Still a Problem
  • Pet Food Safety Info
  • Rabies on Staten Island

2. Science News

  • Thiamine Too Low in Many Canned Cat Foods 
  • Cancer-Causing Viruses Found in Wild and Domestic Cats
  • New Concerns about Toxic Ocean Fish
  • Cat Bites Can Be Serious

3. Carrageenan: A Controversial Cat Food Additive

Who’d have thought that there would be a new, major technological advance in that most basic of all cat-related tools, the litter scoop? It’s true–the ultimate awesome pooper scooper has arrived: the Litter-Lifter. It’s hefty, it’s sturdy, and it even comes in designer colors! Click here for more info.

1. News Bites 

February is Pet Dental Health Month! Dental disease is the most common health problem seen by veterinarians; more than 80% of cats (and dogs) have some degree of dental disease by the time they are only three years old. Dental disease can be very painful, but you’ll never know it from your cat’s behavior–their stoic nature and the insidiously gradual onset of problems make for a great disguise. Many veterinarians are offering discounts on exams, cleanings, and other procedures this month, so please take advantage of it for your cat’s health and comfort’s sake! Click here for more info on feline dental health.

How People Choose Cat Food: Royal Canin, a subsidiary of Mars, Inc., conducted a survey of cat guardians to find out how they are choosing food for their cats. The results were compiled into an entertaining infographic that actually tells us more about the pet food industry than it does about cats! For example, one of their big points is that “close to three-quarters of cat owners (72%) don’t consider their cat’s health when selecting food for their pet. Others don’t factor their cat’s breed (93%), weight (65%) or age (52%) into their pet-food decision-making process—all important considerations that contribute to the overall health and well-being of cats.” Important? Only if you believe the genre of hyperbole that Royal Canin helped pioneer: “niche” cat food. There are foods for Maine Coon, Siamese, Ragdoll and Persian cats, as well for as a variety of health issues and even made-up life stages (three different foods for the first year of life, starting with “babycat”); heck, they even have food for spayed/neutered cats of certain ages. But the truth is that U.S. pet foods are formulated to meet one of just two standards: adult maintenance, and everything else (all phases of growth and reproduction); and cats in the wild do not change their diet every time they have a birthday! The tiny tweaks made to differentiate Royal Canin’s dozens of dry foods are pure puffery. Click here to learn more about the hype that pet food companies use to sell you their food! 

Recent Cat Food Recalls: On February 5, 2014, Pro-Pet announced a recall of several of its dry dog and cat foods, including Hubbard Life Cat Stars and Joy Combo cat foods after they tested positive for Salmonella. On January 27, 2014, PMI Nutrition, LLC initiated a voluntary recall of its 20 lb. bags of Red Flannel Cat Formula cat food, also due to Salmonella concerns. Click here for current FDA animal product recalls; and click here for our 2014 list of pet food and supplement recalls.

Tea Tree Oil Toxicity: A recent study found that pets exposed to pure tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) displayed serious signs of toxicity, including central nervous system depression, weakness, ataxia (unsteady gait), or tremors within hours; and that signs persisted for up to three days. Young and small pets are especially susceptible. Many cats have been poisoned or killed by tea tree oil. Never, never, EVER use pure essential oils directly on an animal (or child, for that matter). Click here to learn about the safe use of essential oils for animals.

Colorado State University Recruiting for Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) Study: CKD is a major cat killer; it’s estimated that it affects at least 50% of cats >10 years old. CKD is considered irreversible, progressive, and fatal. Up till now, the only definitive treatment was kidney transplantation. Thanks to a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation, CSU (Dr. Jean’s alma mater) is seeking Colorado cats with CKD to participate in a clinical trial with stem cell therapy. Click here to learn more about the study; and click here for more information on feline CKD.

Jerky Treats Back on the Shelf–and Still a Problem: Since it’s been going on for several years, you’ve probably heard about how chicken jerky treats made in China have caused illness and kidney failure in more than 3,000 pets, killing nearly 600 dogs and cats. New reports continue to trickle in, though at a slower rate while products were recalled. Note that it is not just chicken: jerky containing duck, sweet potato, or dried fruit has also been implicated. Only a few products were recalled for any reason; and most are now back on pet store shelves. Nobody has acknowledged that the illegal antibiotic residues found in the treats could be the cause. So what have companies done to make sure their products are safe? Not a whole heck of a lot! Dogswell’s website implies that there was never a problem, despite their own recall just months earlier. (Note to Dogswell: It’s not necessary to send us another nasty email. Stop buying your treats from China, and we’ll stop reporting on it.)  Purina states that they “now source our chicken exclusively from a single, trusted chicken supplier, which is part of a U.S.-based company.” That company? The former Menu Foods, perpetrator behind the largest pet food recall in U.S. history, now owned by Simmons Foods. Many thanks to and for their tireless pursuit of the truth in this investigation. (If you are not on their mailing lists, you should be!) The word to the wise remains: don’t buy ANY jerky treats or ANY products from China for your pets! 

Pet Food Safety Info: So if your pet does consume a product that is later recalled, or that you have any doubts about…what should you do? Mollie Morrissette of has done a splendid job of explaining all the steps you need to take…besides panic! Click here to read her most excellent article.
Rabies on Staten Island: Rabies was recently confirmed in a free-roaming cat found in Bloomingdale Park on Staten Island. The city’s Dept. of Health & Mental Hygiene subsequently ordered the removal and euthanasia of any other free-roaming cats at that location. In the northeastern U.S., rabies is found mainly in raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes, but it can be transmitted to other animals, including cats. If you needed just one more reason to keep your cat indoors, pay attention to this one!


Dr. Jean’s newest book with co-author Dr. Celeste Yarnall, Paleo Dog: Give Your Best Friend a Long Life, Healthy Weight, and Freedom from Illness by Nurturing His Inner Wolf (Rodale Press) is now available for pre-order. It will be available on June 3, 2014. Visit for more information.

2. Science Notes

Thiamine Too Low in Many Canned Cat Foods: There have been several recent recalls of canned cat food due to inadequate thiamine (Vitamin B1) in the food. A severe deficiency can cause serious illness or even death within 8-12 weeks. A recent study examined a variety of canned foods and discovered that it’s a common problem. The issue is that B vitamins are largely destroyed by the heat used in processing. Interestingly, although the researchers postulated that seafood flavors would be the bigger problem, due to the enzyme thiaminase in fish and shellfish organs, this turned out not to be the case. The findings did, however, pinpoint paté (loaf) style foods, and foods from smaller manufacturers, as the most likely to have problems with inadequate thiamine. Cats have a high requirement for B vitamins, which would be satisfied by their natural prey diet. Because the recalls have all been of single brands (though many flavors), this illustrates the absolute necessity of feeding a wide variety of flavors and brands; and now it’s apparently important to also feed variety of textures. Unfortunately, most cats tend to prefer specific textures and it’s not easy to switch them. For paté loving cats, it may be wise to add a pinch of vitamin B complex or a little nutritional yeast (a good source of B vitamins) to the food. Feeding nutritionally complete raw food diets or balanced reconstituted freeze-dried and dehydrated foods would also avoid the problem. (Markovich JE, et al. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2014 Jan 15;244(2):175-179.

Cancer-Causing Viruses Found in Wild and Domestic Cats: Three previously undetected viruses in a family called gammaherpesvirus have been found in in several U.S. populations of bobcats, mountain lions, and domestic cats. These viruses could be transmitted between cat species, and may be the cause of some cancers found in housecats, thus adding yet another item to the long list of reasons to keep your cat indoors. About 300 cats from California, Colorado, and Florida were tested. Related viruses are known to cause lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma in humans. (Troyer RM, et al. Novel gammaherpesviruses in North American domestic cats, bobcats and pumas: identification, prevalence and risk factors. Journal of Virology. 2014 Jan 22. [Epub ahead of print])

Young Adults Benefit from Pets: A new study from Tufts University shows that young adults (18-26 years old) are positively influenced by caring for pets; and the more active the care-giving role, the stronger the association. “The young adults in the study who had strong attachment to pets reported feeling more connected to their communities and relationships…[and] reported engaging in more ‘contribution’ activities, such as providing service to their community, helping friends or family and demonstrating leadership, (Mueller MK. Is Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) Linked to Positive Youth Development? Initial Answers. Applied Developmental Science. 2014;18(1):5.)

New Concerns about Toxic Ocean Fish: We have long cautioned against feeding fish to cats, but it now appears to be even more unsafe than previously thought. A new study from the University of California raises concerns that the fish who eat plastic that is floating in our oceans are absorbing excessive hazardous chemical pollutants. When fish eat small, contaminated pieces of plastic, those contaminants enter the fishes’ tissues, and are transferred to anything that eats them: not only bigger fish (e.g., tuna, mackerel, and tilefish aka “ocean whitefish”), but also people and pets. Click here to read “Why Fish is Dangerous for Cats.” (Rochman C, Hoh E, Kurobe T, et al. Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress. Nature Scientific Reports. 2013 Nov.;3(3263). 

Cat Bites Can Be Serious. A recent study found that cat bites to the hand are particularly dangerous, because even small punctures can be very deep due to the cat’s sharp fangs. A bite in the hand can result in bacteria being injected deep into tissue, risking infections of bones and joints. About 69% of bite victims were female, and their mean age was 49. Thirty-six of the 193 patients were immediately hospitalized when they sought medical care; 154 were treated with oral antibiotics on an outpatient basis; and three did not receive treatment. The outpatient antibiotic treatment failed 14 percent of cases, and those patients were subsequently hospitalized. Having experienced a cat bite to the hand that required surgery as well as hospitalization and 5 days of IV antibiotics, I urge you to take any cat bite seriously, and seek immediate medical attention. (Babovic N, Cayci C, Carlsen BT. Cat Bite Infections of the Hand: Assessment of Morbidity and Predictors of Severe Infection. The Journal of Hand Surgery. 2014;39(2):286.)

So, what should you feed your cat? Newly updated for 2014, Dr. Jean’s best-selling ebook, “What Cats Should Eat,” explains feline nutritional requirements, the links between diet and disease, how to feed, and how to shop, including a list of her “approved brands” as well as homemade diet advice. Available right this minute on for e-readers (Kindle and kindle apps for PCs, tablets and smartphones), or as a PDF download in our Bookstore.

3. Carrageenan: A Controversial Cat Food Additive

Carrageenan is a seaweed derivative that is commonly used as a food additive in a wide variety of products. There has been a lot of controversy about this ingredient, so let’s take a look at it in more detail.

Carragreenan is an edible red seaweed. Sounds good, right? Seaweed contains lots of trace minerals and is very nutritious. Its predecessor, “carraigín,” has been made from Irish Moss for hundreds of years to create the base for a pudding-like dessert. When cooked, carrageenan takes on a smooth gelatinous texture. Today, it’s used to thicken and texturize paté style (loaf) canned pet foods..

But modern industrially-produced carrageenan is far removed from its picturesque Irish kitchen beginnings. Now, it’s a highly processed ingredient that is extracted using strong alkaline solvents.

Food grade (also called “undegraded”) carrageenan is on the “GRAS” list (FDA’s list of items that are “Generally Recognized as Safe). As it pertains to pet food, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines it as an acceptable emulsifier, stabilizer, and thickener. In addition to pet food, carrageenan is used hundreds of other products, from beer, ice cream, jelly, diet soda and yogurt to toothpaste, shampoo, and gel air fresheners. It is found in many in vegetarian and vegan food products, where it is used instead of gelatin (which is derived from animals). Even organic foods are allowed to contain carrageenan. 

There is a second main type of carrageenan called poligeenan (or “degraded” carrageenan) that has been chemically broken down into smaller fragments. In scientific research, it is used to purposely induce inflammation in animal experiments. Because it is known to cause cancer, poligeenan is not permitted in food.

Carrageenan producers, as well as veterinary nutritionists and pet food manufacturers, assert that food-grade carrageenan is completely safe for pets to eat. The truth is not quite so simple. Food-grade carrageenan is not perfectly pure; it contains “a low percentage” of the smaller, inflammatory, more damaging fragments. This may explain why even food-grade carrageenan has been known to cause problems.

Researchers have discovered that carrageenan triggers the body to produce a cytokine (an intercellular messenger molecule) called Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNF-⍺). This molecule stimulates inflammation, but also promotes apoptosis (cell death). These opposing functions help maintain balance in the immune system, and they also play an crucial role in defense against pathogenic organisms such as bacteria.

On the other hand, TNF-⍺ is thought to be a causal factor in many chronic inflammatory diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), asthma, and autoimmune diseases, and cancer. All types of carrageenan stimulate the production of TNF-⍺.

There has been quite a bit of research on carrageenan in animals, but results have been mixed. Not surprisingly, the conclusions reached often depend on who funded the study.

Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a leading researcher, has studied the effects of carrageenan on intestinal epithelium (the lining of the gut) for more than 20 years. Also unsurprisingly, her research has been highly criticized by the carrageenan industry. However, she remains convinced that the inflammatory and carcinogenic effects of carrageenan are caused by both native (food grade) and degraded (poligeenan) forms. She has been shown that it increases free radicals, directly causes intestinal inflammation, and disrupts insulin metabolism (potentially leading to diabetes); and there is increasing evidence for its role in the development of cancer.

Heat, digestive enzymes, acid, and bacteria can convert high weight carrageenans to dangerous poligeenans in the human (and presumably animal) gut. The feline stomach environment is extremely acidic; could this make carrageenan especially dangerous for cats? Could carrageenan be a factor in IBD, food intolerance, and the skyrocketing rates of cancer and feline diabetes?

Some have pointed out that because carrageenan grows in the ocean, that there is a possibility that it may become contaminated by the radioactivity that continues to spew from the Fukushima nuclear reactor site. Currently, most carrageenan comes from South American countries such as Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Because all of these countries are south of the equator, they are protected from the radioactive plume circulating in the northern Pacific by ocean currents. However, any seaweed products harvested in the north are, now and into the foreseeable future, very likely to be contaminated.

It is clear that the FDA has no interest in all the newer research that suggests carrageenan is seriously problematic, so it will remain on the GRAS list. And the other financially-interested parties –including the pet food industry — appear determined to maintain that status quo.

It’s up to consumers and pet parents to decide, and to vote with their dollars. It’s certainly possible that carrageenan could be a factor in many of the health problems experienced by animals and people. It is found in so many products that it would be hard to eliminate, but avoiding it may be worth the effort.


Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Tumor necrosis factor alpha-induced inflammation is increased but apoptosis is inhibited by common food additive carrageenan. J Biol Chem. 2010 Dec 10;285(50):39511-22.

Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Carrageenan-induced NFkappaB activation depends on distinct pathways mediated by reactive oxygen species and Hsp27 or by Bcl10. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2008 Jul-Aug;1780(7-8):973-82.

Bhattacharyyaa S, Liu H, Zhang Z, et al. Carrageenan-induced innate immune response is modified by enzymes that hydrolyze distinct galactosidic bonds. J Nutr Biochem. 2010 October ; 21(10): 906–913.

Bhattacharyya S, O-Sullivan I, Katyal S, Unterman T, Tobacman JK. Exposure to the common food additive carrageenan leads to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and inhibition of insulin signalling in HepG2 cells and C57BL/6J mice. Diabetologia. 2012 Jan;55(1):194-203.

Cohen S, Ito N. A critical review of the toxicological effects of carrageenan and processed eucheuma seaweed on the gastrointestinal tract. Crit Rev in Toxicol. 2002;32(5) 413-444.

Tobacman JK. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Oct;109(10):983-94. 

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