The Paleo Lifestyle for Dogs and Cats

Written by: Dr. Jean Hofve, Holistic Veterinarian, DVM

The Paleo Lifestyle for Dogs and Cats

No doubt you’ve heard about the “Paleo Diet” for humans. But did you know that the same principles also apply to pets?

The Paleolithic period (also called the Stone Age) began about 2.5 million years ago, as the earliest humans began using crude stone tools, and lasted until about 10,000 years ago, when they developed agriculture and settled down.

During Paleo times, humans were hunter-gatherers. They lived in bands and followed game animals and growing seasons of edible plants. Because humans and wolves often hunted the same animals, they necessarily came into contact, and eventually tame wolves became part of the human community. Dogs started becoming genetically distinct from wolves somewhere around 130,000 years ago. Cats came into the picture later, around 9,000 years ago when humans began storing large amounts of grain. With grain storage came mice and rats, and cats inevitably followed. Eventually, cats took their place alongside humans and domestic dogs.

"The ideal dog and cat diet is based on the prey model: good quality, fresh animal protein and fat, and very little carbohydrate."

By selective breeding, humans have created hundreds of dog and cat breeds for a variety of purposes. Still, today’s dogs and wolves are 99.5% genetically identical; cats’ DNA differs from wildcats in only 13 out of almost 20,000 genes. In particular, dogs’ and cats’ digestive systems are quite similar to the wild carnivore (meat eater) type.

Of course, there are many differences in looks and behavior between our pets and their wild ancestors. Nevertheless, the inside of a dog or cat is not much different from those wolves and wildcats. Their basic nutritional needs and digestive systems are fundamentally the same as they have been for millions of years

The natural diet of a carnivore is prey animals. In nutrient terms, prey is typically about 50% protein, 40% fat, and 10% carbohydrate. But most modern pet foods (especially kibble) are basically upside down: loaded with cheap carbohydrates, poor quality fats, and a bare minimum of animal protein. So what does that mean for our pets?

There are more than 78 million dogs living in American households today, and some 90 million cats. About 85% of them eat heavily processed, mass-market pet food. But at least half of American dogs and cats are overweight or obese; and more than 3/4 of them have significant dental disease by the age of three. Cancer kills half of our dogs and a third of our cats. Ten years ago, cancer wasn’t even in the top ten of health concerns! While there are many things about modern life that are taking a toll on pets’ health, poor nutrition is a big factor in most chronic and degenerative diseases. Mass-market pet foods just aren’t working for our pets.

It makes more sense to mimic that ancestral, natural lifestyle as much as possible, in order to help our pets stay healthy and happy throughout their lives.

The Paleo Pet Lifestyle

While diet is a big factor in our pets’ health and well-being, there are plenty of other influences. The Paleo Lifestyle addresses those, as well as the primary aspects of life: physical, mental, and emotional.

In terms of physical health, we need to consider diet, veterinary care, and environment.


The ideal dog and cat diet is based on the prey model: good quality, fresh animal protein and fat, and very little carbohydrate. Fortunately, there are a few companies who produce high quality pet diets that are similar to the ancestral carnivore diet. Canned, freeze-dried and dehydrated diets are much closer to the prey model in nutritional composition; and they’re less processed. There are also dry diets that are higher in protein, with less simple carbohydrate than mass-market products. These foods make genetic sense, and are far better suited to fulfilling our cats’ and dogs’ true nutritional requirements throughout their lives.

To take any processed food up a notch in quality, add a little fresh raw or lightly cooked meat to each meal; or whenever you can. For dogs, you can also add some fresh, steamed or pureed vegetables. Even a little bit of fresh meat once or twice a week is way, way better than none.

Raw meat diets are controversial, and the pet food industry, veterinary profession, and the government are strongly opposed to them. It’s true that there is a potential problem with microbial contamination of raw meat; but people bring raw meat into their homes all the time without killing their families! No raw feeders advocate abandoning safe meat handling procedures—it’s wise to assume that all raw meat is contaminated and should be handled appropriately.

Dogs and cats are quite resistant to most of the common food-borne bacteria; and plenty of pets who have never taken a single bite of raw meat are asymptomatic carriers of Salmonella and other bugs anyway, because they are ubiquitous in the environment. The “danger” of raw meat is vastly overstated.

There are also serious potential health consequences if a raw diet is not properly balanced. The vast majority of recipes in books and on the internet are NOT balanced, and not safe to feed long-term. Add to that the fact that our soil is so depleted that produce grown in it doesn’t contain anything close to the same nutrition it did 50 years ago; and such recipes don’t take that into account. So, using as much organic food as possible, and properly supplementing the diet, are essential.

With education and dedication, a healthful homemade diet is within reach for most people and pets. But if you’re nervous about raw meat, cook it! A fresh-cooked meal of any kind is going to be miles ahead of a bag of processed kibble that’s been sitting in a warehouse for more than a year!

How you feed is also important. Our pets’ ancestors hunted, killed, ate, then slept and played and groomed and had social time. They were not grazers! A meal-feeding schedule is far healthier than leaving food out all the time.

"The ideal dog and cat diet is based on the prey model: good quality, fresh animal protein and fat, and very little carbohydrate."

Veterinary Care

Veterinary medicine has come a long way over the years. Today, appropriate vaccines can protect against diseases that used to kill so many kittens and puppies. And by providing a far safer environment, they are no longer as vulnerable to injuries and other risks that our pets’ ancestors faced. But a host of new diseases have taken the place of those former dangers. Many are probably due to that same modern medicine and controlled environment!

For instance, there never was any scientific justification for annual booster vaccines; nor is there any evidence supporting the current every-three-year recommendation. Parvo and distemper vaccines are extremely effective, and immunity lasts for many years, if not for the life of the animal. Most booster vaccines are unnecessary and increase the risk of adverse reactions. Many chronic diseases, such as hypothyroidism in dogs, and chronic kidney disease in cats, are likely vaccine-related, if not directly caused by over-vaccination.

Today our pets are a virtual chemical soup of vaccines, drugs, and pesticides to prevent or kill fleas, ticks, heartworms, and other parasites. None of these treatments are without side effects, and every flea product regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency has caused illness and death in both dogs and cats.

Natural methods of pest control are not as fast and efficient as toxic chemicals; unfortunately, most people prefer the quick fix of a pill, shot, or spot-on treatment. Natural control does require a greater commitment of time and effort, but it is much safer in both the short and long run.

Veterinary medicine relies on drugs for just about everything; particularly antibiotics and steroids. Drugs have side effects, not only for the pet receiving them, but also for the environment. There are herbs and other safe, natural alternatives for the vast majority of drugs that are a better option for our “Paleo Pets.”


Cleaning products are some of the most toxic chemicals our pets will ever be exposed to. It’s best to use safe, “green” or even homemade products around the house and yard, rather than chemical-laden cleaners and garden products. However, be aware of some manufacturers’ practice of “green-washing” when claims of “less” toxicity are used… they may be only slightly less toxic and still a big problem.

Another aspect that few people consider is air quality. Chemical air fresheners (sprays, liquids, and solids) pump tons of toxins into homes every year, yet their safety has never been studied. Most contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates as well as cancer-causing benzene and formaldehyde—even products marketed as “natural” or “unscented.”

Scented candles are not much better; they, too, contain phthalates. Worse, many imported candles have a lead core in the wick that spews lead into the air when burned. There is no safe level of lead; it is a powerful neurotoxin. Paraffin wax (a petroleum derivative) gives off a variety of toxins, such as benzene and toluene, and can aggravate asthma and other allergies.

Incense, too, can discharge volatile substances and irritating particulates into the air; incense smoke can be more dangerous than tobacco.

If you want to burn candles, choose unscented paraffin-free vegetable or beeswax candles for maximum safety.

Also consider getting rid of non-stick cookware. The fumes given off when non-stick pots and pans are heated will easily kill a bird; and they aren’t any better for people or pets! Cast-iron, glass, and ceramic cookware is much safer.

Indoor air pollution is, in many cases, even worse than outdoor pollution, so your best bet is to simply open a window to keep the environment fresh and clean without harmful chemicals.

The other big environmental concern is EMFs, electro-magnetic frequencies. Many sources of EMFs are unavoidable, but in the home, you can minimize exposure by putting cell phones in airplane mode when not in use (otherwise they are constantly pinging the towers) and keeping electronics out of the bedroom and away from pets’ resting areas as much as possible.

"Cleaning products are some of the most toxic chemicals our pets will ever be exposed to. "

Mental and Emotional Health

Mental and emotional health are closely tied together; you can’t have one without the other.

One of the simplest and most basic needs is for sufficient restful sleep. In this 24-hour society, that is remarkably hard to get. It’s best for our pets—and for us, too—to sleep in a totally dark room, with no LED power indicators or other light sources.

Fresh air and sunshine are also beneficial. For heaven’s sake, take the dog out of your purse and let him run in the grass! Grounding to the earth is extremely important for our four-footed friends. Even concrete will conduct negative ions away from your pet and into the earth, although more natural surfaces are, of course, superior. Sunlight is nature’s best antibiotic; and even indoor animals can take in those healing rays through window glass. And fresh air through that window will help dilute and disperse toxic indoor air.

Exercise is also vital to physical, mental and emotional health. A wolf pack may run 20 or 30 miles per day; and cats hunt whenever they’re hungry, day or night, although dawn and dusk are preferred. A wild animal’s world is full of sensory information that helps navigate a safe path.

Dogs are relatively easy to exercise, though their needs depend on their breed, age, size, etc. And yes, you CAN get a cat moving! The best cat toys are interactive: that is, the cat on one end and you on the other. Fishing-pole type toys like Da Bird are perfect. Regular play sessions will go a long way toward keeping your cat mentally and emotionally and healthy, and help fulfill those powerful hunting instincts that can otherwise result in aggression and conflict if not satisfied. Food puzzle toys are another way to keep both dogs and cats active and engaged.

For dogs and cats who live in apartments or who rarely or never go outside, the concept of indoor enrichment is extremely important. Pets need mental stimulation. Toys, videos, a fish tank… be creative! Cats need places to climb, hide, and view the world. Vertical space is highly prized by cats, especially in a multiple-pet home. At the very least, every pet needs a safe place to retreat.

Emotional health also involves the social environment. Use the physical layout of your home to help multiple animals get along and share the space; use behavior modification if necessary to ensure peace.

Spend quality time with your cat or dog every day; be engaged; be interactive. Sure, cuddle time while you’re watching TV counts, but your full attention while petting or grooming your pet count even more. If you’re walking your dog, be with your dog – not chattering away on the phone. If you’re playing with your cat, be the bird, be the mouse; get your whole self involved! Animals read energy, and they know the difference!

Stress management is also crucial. A dog or cat snoozing on the sofa may not look stressed to you, but stress is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Animals are far more sensitive to a broad range of odors, noises, and vibrations, than we are. Their senses are constantly bombarded with masses of information from sources that we humans may be completely unaware of. A crew fixing potholes down the street that you may barely notice is spewing a cacophony of scary sounds and smells that your pet doesn’t understand.

For cats in particular, routine is supreme. Cats strongly prefer routine and may feel like they are in chaos when schedules change. Do your best to establish and maintain a generally stable routine at home; at least try to feed and play at the same times every day.

Alternative therapies excel at stress reduction. Flower essences, homeopathy, herbs, massage, music therapy, Tellington Touch, Earthing, and Reiki can all be extremely beneficial for balancing the mental and emotional systems as well as the physical body.

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