I first heard about the story of Pottenger’s cats in an interview with David Woolf. He made a passing comment along the following lines – that there was an experiment done in the early 1900’s that showed that cats that were put on a conventional cooked human diet and they started getting human diseases like obesity, diabetes and cancer, but when returned to a conventional raw cat diet, they became well again. I apologise if this rough quote is inaccurate.
It seems like some raw food advocates use this as evidence that raw food is better for us. I needed to find out more. Information available on Pottenger’s cats is quite varied and inconsistent, not always backed up with good references and it clearly all can’t be true.
Pottenger’s Cats – what he really did
The story seems to be that Francis M. Pottenger, Jr. was using cats in some experiments related to hormones and tuberculosis when he accidentally noticed that cats consuming a raw food diet seemed to be healthier than cats consuming a cooked food diet. He then decided to test this point in a controlled study using 900 cats over a 10 year period (1932-1942). It’s true that the results of this study showed that the cats on a raw food diet were healthier than those on the cooked food diet who developed (some of the information available is contradictory here – I haven’t yet read Pottenger’s original papers) poor eyesight, heart problems, thyroid and bladder problems, nervous system problems, meningitis, infections and more. However, there are reasons not to consider this as absolute proof that cooked food is bad for us.
What do these results say for us?
This was one study (although well conducted for a study at its time in the 1930’s) and it doesn’t appear to be replicated by anybody since. Also, it is considered possible that the results seen are due to a deficiency of “taurine” in the cooked food diet, and not due to the diet being made up of “cooked food”. Taurine is an amino acid that is essential for cats and not for humans. If the results are due to taurine differences, then Pottenger’s cats don’t really tell us anything about the difference between raw and cooked food.
It’s commonly accepted that health tendencies in cats are not good indicators for humans. Cats and humans are biologically very different. As an example, it seems that cats don’t really need vitamin C whereas it’s essential for humans. This might explain why nobody has appeared to replicate the experiment.
Pottenger’s cats don’t tell us that cooked food is good for us either. Most likely the study is just inconclusive and we really can’t draw anything meaningful from it. This doesn’t seem to stop a lot of people claiming that it proves that we must eat raw food or we’ll get sick. That may be true, but I’m not sure this study is the proof for that. I’ll continue to read more about this and try and understand more of what Pottenger really did.
Where to from here?
Whether the experiment of Pottenger’s cats is inconclusive or not does not have any effect on the powerful learnings we can get from films like Simply Raw and can’t reduce my own personal experience with increased health and vitality on a raw food diet. If we have to choose between the conventional cooked food diet and a completely raw food diet, it’s clear (and I believe that this is beyond the shadow of a doubt) that the raw food diet is, by far, the healthier choice. It may be a hard choice for many people to follow, but the health benefits are real. The current rise of “Primal Diets” (see Marks Daily Apple and Primal Weight Loss) show that many people are seeing the benefits of moving to a diet that contains a lot of the benefits of a raw food diet.
Maybe these primal diets are just what’s needed for optimal health but my feeling is that a raw food diet is better. How can anybody argue with the ideal food in the form provided to us by nature? I’m still learning and experimenting with this. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings on this topic. You can leave a comment below.