This article was adapted from an essay I wrote for the my certification program through the Nutritional Therapy Association.
Dr. Francis Pottenger was a physician in California who ran a sanitorium for tuberculosis patients in California in the 1930s. As part of the patients' treatment, Dr. Pottenger would supplement their diet with adrenal cortex he got from performing adrenalectomies on laboratory cats. The laboratory cats diet consisted of raw milk, cod liver oil, and cooked meat scraps. Dr. Pottenger was frustrated that a lot of the cats were not surviving the operation.
At the same time, the number of cats Dr. Pottenger was housing began to exceed their food supply, so he started giving some of the cats raw meat scraps from the local butcher, which consisted of nutrient-dense organ meats. He noticed that the cats on the raw meat diet were surviving the operations, had more lively offspring, and were healthier in general. He decided to do a multi-generational controlled experiment focusing on two components of the cats’ diet: a meat study and a milk study. In one study, he observed the difference between cooked meat and raw meat in the cats (all the cats in the meat study were given raw milk), and another study observed the difference in raw milk, pasteurized milk, condensed milk, sweetened evaporated milk, and a raw vitamin D fortified milk from either grass fed cows or grain fed cows (all the cats in the milk study were given raw meat).
Dr. Pottenger observed that the cats given raw meat and raw milk, and subsequently their offspring, maintained better health than the cats given cooked meat and processed milks. The cats given condensed milk, sweetened evaporated milk, and grain fed Vitamin D fortified milk degenerated the quickest. In fact, the cats given the Vitamin D fortified milk from grain fed cows ironically developed rickets—a disease caused by a deficiency in Vitamin D! Dr. Pottenger maintained the same exact diet throughout the generations of cats, and while the first generation of cats on the processed milk diets did degenerate, their offspring had exponentially more health issues. Details of the study can be found here and here, as well as in this book.
Some of the health issues observed in the cats on the processed diets include: facial and structural deformities, allergies, behavioral and social issues, infertility and other reproductive health issues, and other degenerative diseases. These multi-generational observations parallel what we are currently seeing in human families, now that processed and refined foods have sadly become the norm in today’s society: mental issues, behavioral problems, chronic disease, increasing food and environmental allergies, and infertility. For example, heart disease and diabetes were not common health issues prior to the 1900s; the increase of these issues correlates with the addition of hydrogenated fats, processed vegetable oils, refined sugar, low-fat fortified dairy products, and factory-farmed meat in our diet. And for what we believe is the first time in human history, the latest generation has a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
There is some hope. Dr. Pottenger was able to reverse the health of some of the third generation kittens by feeding them a completely raw meat and raw milk diet (the third generation of degenerating cats who continued their deficient diets died before reaching adulthood and were not able to reproduce). However, it took FOUR generations of the adequate diet to bring those kittens and their eventual offspring back to normal health. So we have a lot of work to do!
I think it's important to look at the overall context of this study. Obviously at the time of the study, we were not aware of the importance of taurine in a cat's diet, and now all cat food is supplemented with the essential nutrient. No one is advocating for a completely raw milk or raw food diet in neither humans or cats. But it is interesting to observe how their bodies responded to a more natural diet versus a processed one. You cannot deny that we are seeing the same effects of such diets in humans today. The founder of the NTA wrote a book discussing these parallels in more detail.
I also want to note that as the owner of two rescued cats and a pet lover (we feed them Taste of the Wild), I wasn't too fond of learning this study and reading some of the details or seeing the autopsy photos (I've spared you from seeing those, and have included a photo of my spoiled cats instead). But the results of Pottenger's experiment is a very important foundation to the study of nutritional therapy. It also serves as a good reminder that it may be possible to reverse some of the effects of our increasingly poor diet by eating nutrient-dense foods in their whole and natural form, instead of the processed and refined foods that are so prominent in today's standard diet. And while it seems cruel to feed the cats such terrible food that we know is bad for their health, how is it any different than all the refined sugar, nutrient-stripped milk, and other processed foods we currently feed kids? We can't do anything to save the cats now, but we can save our future generations from experiencing a similar fate.
If you have a few minutes, this video on the study is worth watching and is not too graphic for my fellow animal lovers. If anything, I highly recommend skipping to the 13:30 mark. "The cat that got away" is my little furry hero. I think those of you who have figuratively given a middle finger to the Standard American Diet and our flawed government dietary recommendations, and have begun the process of restoring your health through primal and other whole food nutrition concepts, can also relate to her like I can.
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