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JoAnna Lou

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Wellness: Food & Nutrition
How and Why to Cook Your Dog’s Food
An interview with Barbara Laino
Home Cooked Dog Food

Like many people who’ve turned to natural pet food, Barbara Laino initially experimented with a homemade diet out of frustration. Her first dog, Aurora, developed a type of irritable bowel syndrome that didn’t respond to traditional medicine. After Laino switched her from kibble, the Alaskan Malamute’s symptoms completely disappeared, and Laino was a convert. Now, 15 years later, she is a certified holistic health counselor and teaches classes on making nutritious food (for people and pets alike) at her organic farm in Warwick, N.Y. Laino shared her experiences with us between sessions of her popular workshop, “Making Homemade Dog and Cat Food.”

JoAnna Lou: Were you criticized when you started making your own dog food?

Barbara Laino: There’s a lot of pressure from veterinarians. They pretend that feeding a dog is a complex thing to do. When I first started making my own food, I felt cornered. I felt like I had to have all these numbers — milligrams of calcium, percentage of protein … Since then, I’ve realized that it’s really common sense. Feeding a dog is no more difficult than feeding a child.

JL: How do you ensure that you’re feeding a balanced diet?

BL: I’ve sent recipes to be tested for how well they meet AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] standards, but I don’t give it that much credence. Pet-food guidelines are the minimum of what a dog needs in order to stay alive. But I want my dog to thrive and be happy and healthy for a long time!

Think about the Great Dane and the Chihuahua. There’s such variation in dogs. These feeding guidelines don’t take size difference into consideration, not to mention place of origin. With northern breeds, for instance, I focus a lot on zinc because they’re coming from a thousand years of eating fish and seaweed. It all comes down to the individual.

JL: Across individuals, what do you consider to be the foundation of a good diet?

BL: Variety. I believe much of the recent food allergy problem has developed from feeding the same thing every day. Yet, this is probably one of the most controversial parts of the homemade diet. Somehow it has reached the point that people are scared they can’t balance their dog’s food properly.

JL: In addition to this fear, many people avoid homemade pet food because they are concerned about handling raw meat. Do you recommend cooked diets in these cases?

BL: Yes, I do. I think people get hooked on the raw concept, but it’s not all about raw. Whatever you feel comfortable with, whether it’s boiling chicken breasts or grinding raw chicken necks … any time you’re preparing food using fresh ingredients, it’s going to be a thousand times better than what you’re getting from kibble.

JL: The popularity of organic food has exploded in recent years, but it doesn’t fit everyone’s budget. How important is it to use organic ingredients? BL: Organic is a great thing, along with grass-fed meat, which is even better than organic. Most premium dog food is not certified organic and, considering how expensive [those foods] are, it’s actually cheaper to buy organic ingredients and make your own dog food. With chicken, it’s even more important to buy organic to avoid the genetically modified soy that makes up the bulk of non-organic chicken feed. However, if you can only afford to buy non-organic ingredients, it’s still much better to make your own food.

JL: Are there ways that people can incorporate aspects of a homemade diet without completely converting to it?

BL: Definitely. In my workshop, I have a list of foods that people can add to their dog’s meal. I tell them to stick it on the fridge as a reminder. You can take a scoop of good kibble and combine it with carrots, honey or a whole egg. Another one is canned salmon, which is super-easy and convenient. If you do nothing else, add a little canned salmon to your dog’s kibble every day. It’s one of the healthiest things you can do.

[Not all dogs tolerate all foods. Be sure to introduce new foods slowly and adjust based on what works for your dog. When in doubt, consult a holistic veterinarian.]

JL: You teach workshops on preparing healthy food for both humans and canines. Do you find a connection between the two?

BL: Dogs are pack animals; there’s a social process to food with wild dogs. When you’re sitting at the table and not sharing with your dog, there’s a disconnect. Our dogs want to be part of a pack and have the social connection of eating together. I just think it makes a lot of sense.

JL: Dog food has gone from table scraps to commercial kibble to feeding natural food and becoming more involved in the process. How have you experienced this in your work?

BL: Nowadays, people want the experience of making their own food, including meals for their pets. In my workshops, people are coming in who are less concerned with the nutrition specifics and just want to make their dog a really nice meal. I got into this because my dog was sick, so it’s cool to see people with healthy dogs who just want to do this differently now. And they’re finding that it’s enjoyable, ethical and feels good.

Click for some of Barbara Laino's homemade recipes.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine Custody Battles
NY man spends $60,000 trying to get his Puggle back

We consider our dogs full members of the family, so it probably comes as no surprise that canine custody battles are becoming more common.  Lawyers are reporting as much as a 15 percent increase in these cases.  Figuring out who gets to keep the pets is stressful for both humans and canines and can get expensive quickly.

In New York, Craig Dershowitz is fighting to be reunited with his Puggle, Knux.  He had been sharing custody with his ex-girlfriend, regularly traveling ten hours round trip to drop off and pick up the pup, when his ex took off to California with the dog.  

Craig has already spent upwards of $60,000 in legal fees and is headed to court again.  He received two orders in the state of New York giving him custody, but he must argue his case in front of a California judge since his ex now resides in Los Angeles.

The battle to get Knux back has been financially difficult and Craig is appealing to fellow pet lovers to help his cause.  Many talented friends have donated artwork and other creative gifts in exchange for donations.

I can’t imagine if my pets were taken away from me, but I know I would do everything in my power to get them back.  Hopefully Craig and Knux will be reunited soon. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Influencing Hip Dysplasia
Study finds exercise helps prevent the debilitating disease

Responsible breeders have done a lot to combat hip dysplasia by researching lines and x-raying their dogs.

As a pet parent, I try to do all that I can to keep my pups healthy. To protect their bones and joints, I keep my crew at a healthy weight and avoid agility jump training until their growth plates close.

Now new research points to additional factors that could affect the development of hip dysplasia and change the way breeders raise their puppies.

According to scientists at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, puppies that exercised daily in a park had a reduced risk of developing hip dysplasia. Daily use of a staircase increased the risk.

They found that the period from birth to three months is particularly critical and that puppies born in the spring or summer and at breeders who lived on a farm had a lower risk, perhaps because they had more room to romp.

While previous studies found that rapid growth and high body weight increase the likelihood of developing hip dysplasia, this study found the opposite to be true.

Based on the study, the scientists recommend that puppies have regular off leash access to varied terrain, particularly if they may be predisposed to hip dysplasia.

This debilitating disease affects the lives of many dogs, so it’s good to have additional ways to be proactive in prevention. And the study also gives us yet another excuse to get our dogs outside to play!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Understanding Our Dogs' Thoughts
Study uses MRIs to figure out what’s going on inside the canine brain

I spend so much time with my dogs that I feel like I know exactly what’s going on inside their heads. But of course I don’t. When I walk in the door, how do I know that Nemo is genuinely happy to see me or is just excited to smell all the interesting scents I brought home on my clothes?

Researchers at Emory University are setting out to understand what our dogs are thinking. Using an MRI to capture brain images, they’re looking at what parts of the brain activate in response to certain activities, like when we talk to our dogs. Scientists believe that this is the cornerstone to knowing what a dog is thinking.

Neuroeconomics professor Gregory Berns came up with the idea for the study after learning about canines in the military. He figured that if dogs can be trained to jump out of helicopters, teaching them to stay still in an MRI machine would be doable.

It took eight months for researchers to train two dogs to climb into the machine, put their head in the head coil, and stay still, all while wearing noise-reducing earmuffs. The first study looked at the dogs' brain response to hand signals that indicated whether or not they would receive a hot dog.  

The researchers are now looking at more complicated studies on how dogs process human language and if they recognize people by sight or smell. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of their work on canine empathy. The plan is to show dogs a photo of a person being poked with a pin and seeing if it triggers a pain response in the dog’s brain.

We know that our pups have a profound effect on our emptions and health. Knowing more about what our dogs are thinking can help us understand the effect that we have on them.  

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Diamond Pet Foods Recall Fiasco
Tainted kibble affects both people and pets

In early April, Diamond Pet Foods initiated a recall in response to 14 cases of human salmonella poisoning linked to handling their kibble. At first only a few brands were included, but the list has been steadily growing in the last month. Now the recall has spread to other companies who manufacture products in the same plant, like WellPet.

I feed my pups Taste of the Wild, which was only recently added to the recall. It’s frustrating because Diamond Pet Foods initially claimed the food was safe, but then later included it in the recall.

Diamond Pet Foods and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are only reporting the 14-person salmonella outbreak, but stories of sick pets have been emerging online.

One woman in California reported that her dog is suffering from acute liver failure that she believes is related to the Taste of the Wild recall. So far she has spent over $3,000 on veterinary care and she’s not alone. Others are in a similar predicament and are having a hard time getting information from Taste of the Wild.

Sadly recalls seem to be a regular occurrence these days. Feeding a good kibble is no longer about just finding a food with quality ingredients. Now you have to be worried about the track record of a company and the manufacturing plants that they use.  I’m starting to think that making my own pet food is the only way that I can be truly confident in the meals I put in my dogs’ bowls. In talking to my friends, I know I’m not the only one contemplating a switch to fresh foods or homemade diets.

Are you planning on changing your dog’s food as a result of the recall? 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs are Born to Run
Study finds that our pups experience “runners high”

Sometimes it takes a good amount of effort to get myself off the couch and out for a run. But when I manage to get moving, it feels great. On the other hand, my dogs seem to naturally love running and could probably gallop around all day.

As it turns out, exercising is another way that humans and canines are alike. Researchers at the University of Arizona recently found that, like people, dogs experience a “runners high,” the rush of positive feelings that result from exercising.

The study originally set out to see if certain species evolved to like running. Sprinting uses a lot of energy and increases risk of injury, so the researchers hypothesized that humans and dogs didn’t run because they had to (for capturing prey and escaping predators), but because they became hard-wired to enjoy it.

They compared species who naturally run—humans and dogs, to ferrets, which are considered non-runners. For the experiment, the dogs and ferrets were trained to use a treadmill using positive reinforcement.  

The results showed that the people and dogs had higher levels of endocannabinoids, the chemicals that alter and lighten mood, after running, but not walking. The ferrets had the same levels before and after both, suggesting that they derived no pleasure from the more intense activity.

Apparently these days most humans regularly suppress our biological desire to run, but dogs do not. So the next time your pup looks like he wants to get out and play, lace up your sneakers and go out together. You were both born to run!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Social Network Finds Lost Dog
A new website connects neighbors online

Years ago, it took a runaway cat for me to befriend several of my neighbors who lived down the street. Eventually Izzy was found and I gained some new friends in the process. Unfortunately, it often takes an emergency to get communities to rally together.

As we become more and more dependent on technology, our isolation has only become worse. A recent study found that over 65 percent of adults are on a social networking site, yet 33 percent of Americans don’t know any of their neighbors by name.

Nextdoor.com aims to change all that by connecting neighbors in a secure online forum. This new social networking website lets users log on and start conversations on everything from finding a ladder to borrow to sending an alert about local road construction.  

Naturally, many users have started sharing pet related recommendations, like preferred veterinarians and dog walkers.

Nextdoor.com has also been credited with helping reunite a family in Washington with their lost puppy, Willie. When the small dog ran away last winter, the family posted an alert to their local Nextdoor.com site. Neighbors started reporting sightings and Willie was soon found.

It feels a little artificial to have an online neighborhood, but I can see how communities have to evolve the way they interact to keep up in this age of technology. However, as much as I rely on my smartphone and internet connection, I probably meet the most people in my neighborhood the good old fashioned way—while walking the dogs!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Agility by Scent
A handicapped dog negotiates obstacles with his nose

Navigating an agility course isn’t easy, so it would seem impossible for a dog who can’t see or hear. But there’s one pup in Texas who is proving everyone wrong.

Charlie is from a litter of deaf and blind puppies who were slated to be euthanized at a Texas shelter. Tara Stermer, a local trainer, and her friend, Carol Knight, took in Charlie, the mom, and two of the other puppies. Tara and Carol have been doing basic obedience and rescue event demos with the dogs, but were looking for new ways to provide enrichment.  

At the suggestion of a friend who works with deaf and blind adults, Tara started teaching Charlie to negotiate agility obstacles with his nose. It may seem crazy, but Tara believes that training blind dogs to differentiate obstacles by smell isn’t so dissimilar from teaching a seeing dog to track.

Each obstacle is assigned a different scent so that Charlie can use his nose to anticipate what obstacle is coming up. So far Charlie has learned to go over a small jump and weave through poles.

Tara isn’t aware of anyone else doing agility by scent, so it’s still a work in progress. She may incorporate textures since scent varies with wind and other weather conditions.

Unfortunately, dogs with disabilities are often the first to be euthanized at shelters. But Tara has found that their handicap doesn’t hinder their learning curve. These dogs don’t realize that they’re different and can be trained with operant conditioning just like any other dog.

Charlie is an inspiration who will hopefully encourage people not to give up on these special dogs. Truly anything is possible!

Check out the Training By Tara Facebook page to follow Charlie's journey.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Growing Pet Weight Loss Industry
Companies respond to the canine obesity problem

Human weight loss is a billion dollar industry, covering everything from books to personal training. When I first heard about a local doggy daycare’s canine “fat camp,” I thought it might be taking advantage of our obsession with shedding pounds. Activities at the camp include hikes, walks on a treadmill, doga (canine yoga!), and swimming. The marketing is certainly creative, but the camp is actually reflecting a nationwide epidemic.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of dogs and cats are considered overweight or obese. It’s a problem that veterinarians are calling the single most preventable health crisis in America.

The pet industry is responding by introducing products like canine treadmills, specially designed toys to increase activity, and dog running leashes.

Last year the makers of Science Diet introduced a line of meals and treats in pre-measured packets. And when Banfield found that veterinarians were hesitant to tell people that their dogs were overweight, the national veterinary chain introduced software to give pets a Body Condition Score.

Obesity can lead to a number of health problems, including diabetes and kidney failure. And research has suggested that a lower calorie diet can lead to a longer lifespan. So why are so many pets overweight?

First, most of us lead a pretty sedentary life these days, which carries over to our pets. Second, it can be hard to feed the right amount of food. I know my dogs would eat all day if they could and it can be hard to resist their cute faces. At my house, we replaced frequent treats with pieces of carrots and other vegetables.

According to Dr. Denise Elliott, a veterinarian and nutritionist at Banfield, the feeding directions on pet food packages can be inflated by as much as 25 percent.

Also, many people don’t know what normal weight looks like for a dog. Purina has a helpful chart on their website, but it’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian.

The pet obesity epidemic is a serious one, but it’s a problem that our pups are counting on us to figure out.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
How We Choose Our Pups
Study looks at how adopters decide a dog is “the one”

The first thing I noticed about my oldest dog, Nemo, was the cluster of cute freckles on his nose. But I knew he was “the one” as soon as I held him in my arms and he licked my face.

The ASPCA wants to understand more about how we pick our pets so they can better help homeless animals find new homes. They conducted a study of 1,500 prospective adopters at five animal shelters across the nation on how they decided on their pet.

The research found that people are most likely to choose adult dogs based on their behavior, but are most likely to choose puppies based on physical appearance. Not surprisingly, age was more important for puppies than adult dogs.

However, despite behavior and looks, having some sort of connection, like the way Nemo licked my face, was the deciding factor that convinced people that a particular animal was “the one.”

How did you know that your pup had to be a part of your life?

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