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WSJ: How Do Cats Like Rabbits? Very Much, And Preferably Raw
The Wall Street Journal
How Do Cats Like Rabbits? Very Much, And Preferably Raw
Pet Food Scare Breeds New Interest in Furry Fare; Mice, Grinder and a Tarp
By CHARLES FORELLE
July 30, 2007; Page A1
SPRINGBORO, Pa. -- Even rabbits can't breed fast enough for Tracy Murphy's
At Hare Today, her small farm here, Mrs. Murphy spends seven days a week
slaughtering, packing and shipping rabbit. She's buying rabbit herds from
neighbors and building an extra shelter to boost capacity to 500 female
breeders from 200. Her freezers -- two walk-ins and a bank of industrial
units in a converted garage -- are chockablock with whole four-pound
rabbits, ground meat in five-pound tubes and sticks of jerky.
"When she started, I thought she was nuts," says her husband, Patrick. "Two
years later, I quit my job to work for her."
Mrs. Murphy's frozen-bunny concern caters to cat owners -- and business is
booming. While rabbit isn't an everyday human dish, at least in the U.S.,
its lean meat and mild flavor piques the feline palate. Lately, cats are
gobbling up rabbits almost as quickly as Hare Today's chest-high grinders
can reduce them to a crunchy mince.
A fringe contingent of cat owners has long rejected branded kibble in favor
of raw rabbits, chickens, mice and other small animals. But interest has
surged this year following the discovery that wheat gluten from a Chinese
supplier adulterated with the industrial chemical melamine had made its way
into dozens of brands of commercial cat and dog foods. The Food and Drug
Administration recorded 17,000 complaints within several weeks of the first
announcement in March. Some 4,000 were reports of pet deaths.
"All of a sudden, the idea of making your own food didn't seem so insane,"
says Anne Jablonski, who works for the federal government and also runs
catnutrition.org1, an online collection of raw-feeding advice. Ms. Jablonski
and other proponents point out that cats, in their natural environment, are
carnivores that eat animals raw. So they shouldn't eat bits of meat padded
out with grains and cooked in cans or baked into kibble.
By biological design, a cat "is lacking the ability to process those carbs
efficiently," says Lisa Pierson, a Los Angeles-area veterinarian who
switched her own cats to raw food nearly five years ago. In felines,
carbohydrates contribute to obesity, diabetes and related diseases, says Dr.
Pierson, who gives nutrition pointers on catinfo.org2. "What we are doing to
our pets is basically right in step with what humans are doing to themselves
in terms of nutrition."
At Hare Today, Mrs. Murphy estimates she's selling about 1,000 pounds of raw
rabbit each week. Her sales are up about 20% since the pet-food recall.
Wholefoods4Pets, a Washington state rabbitry, charges $6.10 for two pounds
of coarsely ground rabbit ("includes head, bones, organ meats," according to
its Web site). Its proprietor, Mary Whitney, says she "hasn't even stopped
to think" how much more she's selling since March. "I lost customers because
I had to put them on hold."
Rabbits at Hare Today are raised in a converted greenhouse.
Kelley Foust had been feeding his cats Eukanuba from a can for years. Last
November, Racer and Bullseye -- previously "the picture of health," he says
-- began vomiting. Their kidneys failed. He tried different foods and
medication, racking up $2,600 in veterinary bills. In March, Mr. Foust saw
the Eukanuba he had been buying on the recall list. "I had been feeding them
poisoned food," he says. "It's not an easy thing to go through. I've cried,
I've lost sleep."
A spokesman for Procter & Gamble Co., the maker of Eukanuba, says the
company is individually addressing customer concerns.
Now, Mr. Foust buys four whole, skinned rabbits each month. Once a week, he
defrosts one, chops it into a dozen pieces and puts it into a grinder. One
rabbit, mixed with supplements including vitamins and raw organic egg yolk,
serves the pair for a week. Mr. Foust's cats are energetic again, he says.
Many vets are wary of raw feeding. The American Veterinary Medical
Association urges caution. The FDA says raw diets may be nutritionally
incomplete. There's also the risk of transmitting bacteria to humans. In a
newsletter, the agency warned owners who use such food: "Don't allow your
pet to lick your face right after it has eaten."
Pet-food industry representatives say commercial feed is safe and carefully
formulated by veterinary nutritionists. They characterize the recall as an
aberration. Duane Ekedahl, president of the Pet Food Institute, an industry
trade group, says commercial brands' sales are recovering. Cat- and dog-food
sales in the U.S. topped $5.1 billion last year, not including figures from
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., according to Information Resources Inc.
Raw feeders tout rabbit as ideal for cats because it's more substantial and
cheaper to breed than the archetypal mouse. It's relatively low in fat. More
subjectively, they say, cats eat it up.
"The biggest problem is that once people start feeding rabbit, [the cats]
don't want anything else," says Sandy Arora, an educator in central
Virginia, who runs a cat nutrition forum, Holisticat.com, where about 200
paying subscribers swap recipes and equipment tips.
Raw-feeding owners share a certain dedication to the regimen. Some fill
freezers with shipments from companies such as Hare Today and RodentPro.com.
Animals, when thawing, may seep. Making the raw food, owners say, requires
bleach for sanitizing, as well as fortitude. Dr. Pierson, the veterinarian,
says she felt queasy "the first time I sent a rabbit head through the
Holisticat's Ms. Arora is a vegetarian, but feeds her cats mice, rats,
rabbits, Cornish game hen, quail, pheasant and chicken. For Thanksgiving she
buys Missy, Pigpen, Trikki and Puma a small heritage-breed turkey from a
nearby farmer. She hews larger animals into pieces or grinds them. Smaller
creatures go on a tarp on her kitchen floor. Pigpen doesn't care for mouse
tails, so Ms. Arora snips them off.
Rabbit is pricey compared with cans, kibble and even other raw meat. Bev
Nelson of McKeesport, Pa., stopped using commercial cat foods after the
March recall, first borrowing some chicken from a raw-feeding friend. Mitsy,
her Siamese-Burmese, initially turned up its nose. Soon, Mitsy and Ms.
Nelson's other cats were hooked.
That went double for rabbit. They "went nuts," she says. But at $21 for her
two-pound order -- about $3 a pound, plus shipping -- she says she told a
pair of her cats, " 'You two had better get a job.' "
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