Wellness: Healthy Living
Tonight my littlest dog Nellie came in the house sneezing. Any other time of year and I would be unconcerned, but in late spring and early summer an abrupt onset of sneezing after being outdoors is a “foxtail-in-the-nose alarm bell.” I’ll be watching Nellie like a hawk for the rest of the evening. Any crinkling of her nose, ongoing sneezing or bloody nose, and she’ll be my first patient tomorrow morning.
If you are unfamiliar with foxtails, count your blessings! These pesky, bristly plant awns grow in abundance throughout California and are reported in most every state west of the Mississippi. Once the plant heads dry, they become hell-bent on finding their way into dogs’ noses, ears, eyes, mouths and just about every other orifice. They can dive deep into a dog’s nostril or ear canal (beyond sight) in the blink of an eye. And a foxtail camouflaged under a layer of hair can readily burrow through the skin (a favorite hiding place is between toes). Foxtails can wind up virtually anywhere in the body, and associated symptoms vary based on location. For example, a foxtail within the ear canal causes head shaking, under the skin a draining tract, or within the lung, labored breathing and coughing. Not only is the dog’s body incapable of degrading or decomposing foxtails, these plant awns are barbed in such a way that they can only move in a “forward” direction. Unless caught early, they, and the bacteria they carry, either become walled off to form an abscess or migrate through the body causing infection and tissue damage. Once foxtails have moved internally, they become the proverbial needle in a haystack—notoriously difficult to find and remove.
Take the example of Emma Louise, an undeniably adorable Brittany Spaniel mix whose family told me that her favorite pastime is running through fields with her nose to the ground. They described her as a “foxtail magnet,” having accumulated several in her ears and nose over the years. I was asked to help figure out the cause of Emma Louise’s hunched back and straining to urinate. With abdominal ultrasound, I discovered a gigantic abscess tucked up under Emma Louise’s spine, extending into her pelvic canal. Given this girl’s history, I just knew there had to be a foxtail in there somewhere. The question was, would we be able to find it?
As is my medical tradition before launching a foxtail search, I recited a prayer to the “god of foxtails.” I then turned Emma Louise over to one of my surgical colleagues for exploratory surgery. After two hours of nailbiting and a barrage of expletives originating in the O.R., I heard a shout of, “Got it!” The foxtail had been located and removed, and sweet little Emma Louise made a rapid and complete recovery. Not finding the foxtail would have meant a lifetime of antibiotics to treat her foxtail-induced infection.
If you suspect your dog has a foxtail-related issue, contact your veterinarian right away to find out what steps can be taken (at home or in the veterinary hospital) to rid your dog of this unwanted plant material. Whenever possible, avoidance of foxtail exposure is the best and only foolproof prevention. If your dog does have access to foxtails, carefully comb through his or her haircoat—checking ears and toes, too —a couple of times daily to remove any that are embedded and poised to wreak havoc!
Wellness: Healthy Living
Arizona genetics researchers are taking the unusual step of asking for dog lovers’ help in fighting a mysterious, potentially lethal infection that plagues both dog and man.
They are looking for dogs to be registered and potentially to have their DNA collected to help combat valley fever, a fungus-based disease once confined to the Southwest desert but is now spreading across the country.
Valley fever can be triggered by inhalation of just a handful of spores of a particular fungus. People, dogs and cats are susceptible to the illness that was once believed to occur only in Arizona and California. The disease is not contagious and is not spread from species to species.
The risk for valley fever increases as climates get drier, say California State University, Bakersfield researchers. Warmer temperatures and less rain basically kill off the fungus’ competitors for nutrients and thereby creating an ideal growing environment for the infection-causing fungus.
Valley fever is now being reported in states such as Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota, which never used to see the condition. And the states that typically see the condition are reporting more and more cases: The number of Valley Fever reports is increasing in more than a third of California’s counties, putting more dogs at risk for a disease that can lead to lameness, extreme weight loss and coma.
When Charlie, a 75-pound Chocolate Lab, started coughing, it didn’t set off any alarms. But then he developed a fever and was diagnosed as having kennel cough, which can be easily treated by antibiotics and steroids. Then the symptoms returned and again it was misdiagnosed as pneumonia. More than two months passed before Charlie was given the correct medication; the delay in a correct diagnosis lessens his chances for a full recovery.
Charlie now spends most of his time sleeping off the effects of valley fever, instead of being his normal playful self.
There is no cure for valley fever. Currently treatments focus on helping dogs beat the symptoms. Vet bills can mount up since a dog may have to get medication for up to eighteen months; in some severe cases, a dog may be on medicine for the rest of his life. It is estimated that Arizona dog lovers spend $60 million per year in caring for dogs with valley fever.
Seeing the increase in valley fever cases across the U.S., Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) researchers are now asking for dog people to take a brief online survey about their pet’s breed, health history and lifestyle. After the survey, the dog may be selected to give a saliva sample.
Then after the swabbing is done, researchers will look for differences in the genes of dogs who are sick compared to dogs who show signs of exposure to valley fever but who aren’t sick.
“In certain dogs, a minor infection can progress to severe disease, and the reasons for this are unknown,” said Dr. Bridget Barker, assistant professor and head of TGen’s Northern Arizona Center for Valley Fever Research in Flagstaff, Ariz.
This information would be used to help develop new therapies for both dogs and people, she said.
For more information about TGen’s Valley Fever PAWS (Prevention, Awareness, Working for Solutions), visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vfpaws, and on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPAWS.
Wellness: Health Care
Though in many ways, our dogs communicate with us all the time, when it comes to their pain, we have to figure it out on our own. Here to help with that daunting task is Michael Petty, DVM, author of the newly released Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs in a Q&A with Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska.
What are the most common ways dog guardians can recognize that their dogs are in pain, beyond obvious signs like limping or decreased appetite?
The answer to this is complicated and I probably can’t do it justice here. However, if people start to see their dog as lazy, not socially interacting, reluctant to do the things they liked in the past—really, any behavioral change—then pain should be on the list of possible problems. Dogs rarely quit doing the things they like to do because they’re old, they quit doing them because there’s something wrong. And that usually means disease, commonly something painful like degenerative joint disease.
You note in your book that “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to pain treatment.” You also mention something called a “pain examination.” What does that entail, and is it something that’s perhaps best handled by a specialist?
A pain exam can take many forms. My approach depends in part on the history given to me by the dog’s caregiver, the breed, prior medical conditions and watching the dog walk into the exam room, just to name a few.
Every pain exam should consist of a complete physical exam; an observation of the dog’s gait when possible; a basic neurological exam (many neurological issues can mimic pain); and a hands-on palpation of the dog’s joints, muscles and bones. Based on the fi ndings, X-rays are often indicated, as well as blood work and urinalysis in anticipation of possible pharmaceutical interventions and procedures requiring sedation or anesthesia.
No one specialty “owns” pain. Anesthesiologists are well trained to handle acute pain, but not chronic. Neurologists are trained in matters like intervertebral disc disease, but not osteoarthritis. The list goes on. My fi rst choice would be to seek out someone with a pain certifi cation—a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner—from the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management (ivapm.org). This certification takes several years to earn, and program graduates are experts in the fi eld of pain management.
Do most vets understand the importance of neuropathic pain (essentially, a misfire between the sensory/nervous system and a region of the body)? And how is it best diagnosed?
Most of the veterinarians I talk to, outside of those belonging to pain-aware organizations such as the IVAPM, do not have a firm understanding of neuropathic pain. In human medicine, diagnosing neuropathic pain is difficult; it requires both a verbal description of what the pain feels like and verbal responses to certain tests. Without these tools, most of the time, our diagnosis is, at best, an educated guess. However, patient response to therapy for neuropathic pain is one indication that a veterinarian is on the right track.
You note that aspirin is dangerous for dogs. Are there any over-the-counter medications that can be given to a dog who has sustained an injury, to ease pain and infl ammation before taking the dog to a vet?
No. No OTC medications are licensed for use in dogs. Ice and stabilizing injured limbs are about the best you can do.
You support the importance of omega-3 fatty acids as part of a dog’s diet because they work to help decrease the production of pain-causing prostaglandins. Why is a fish-based source of omega-3 fatty acids preferred, and do foods such as canned salmon and water-packed sardines and tuna contain enough of it? How do we determine the correct amount?
Fish-based sources are best because of bioavailability. Sources like flax seed are okay for people but useless for dogs, as they cannot convert flax to omega-3s. If you are feeding a food that has salmon or sardines as an ingredient, then you don’t have to worry about the amount, as it takes very little of these foods to provide enough omega-3s.
You call out a few botanicals, like ashwagandha, boswellia serrata and turmeric, for their benefits in pain relief and/or in reducing infl ammation. Do you prescribe these in your practice?
Yes. The problem is finding a reliable source of herbs, as they are not monitored by the FDA like pharmaceuticals are. One good option is a product called Dasuquin Advanced, from Nutramax; it has many important pain-modifying ingredients, including several herbs.
The veterinary attitude toward acupuncture seems to have changed a lot. In your experience, which conditions respond best to acupuncture? And how do you know which dogs are good candidates for this treatment? (I had a dog who would shake out the needles!)
Talking about acupuncture is one of my favorite things to do. I cannot imagine practicing without it, especially in my geriatric population, which is more sensitive to the effects of many drugs. I think attitudes have improved—in both veterinarians and dog owners—as more and more research is being published on the benefi ts of acupuncture; also, people hear about someone’s dog being helped by it. In addition, it has the support of the National Institute of Health for the treatment of pain.
For many dogs, the proof of being a good candidate is obvious in their response to treatment. Within one to three treatments, we can usually see an improvement in pain scores and observations. If we don’t, then sometimes the decision is made to stop treatment. I have had a few clients return and say they didn’t realize how much it was helping until it was stopped.
Many people experience what you did with your own dog. Some dogs are needle-phobic and resent even one needle going in. Some dogs are just afraid of being at the veterinary clinic and won’t sit still. I sometimes give these patients a mild sedative to get over this hump. A reduction in anxiety for several treatments often means that they eventually accept acupuncture without continued use of the sedative.
Finally, dewclaws. You make the point that a dog’s dewclaw, the equivalent of a human thumb, plays important functions in both the mechanics of the front foot and in joint stability, and that ligaments and tendons connect it to surrounding tissues. Yet you also observe that some breeders routinely remove it. How can this horrible practice be changed? Do any vet groups take a position on this?
Both the AVMA and the American Animal Hospital Association discourage any surgery done for cosmetic reasons, but they only name ear-cropping and tail-docking. Unfortunately, I don’t think this has had much of an impact, as very few breeders belong to either organization. I cannot speak for every state’s practice act, but most (if not all) specify that surgery must be performed by a veterinarian. Every instance where a breeder chooses to perform surgery crosses that line, and they are breaking the law. I feel that the best way to address this issue is through kennel clubs, such as the AKC. If the AKC were to say, “No dog born after such-and-such date who has had cosmetic surgery, including dewclaw removal, ear-cropping or tail-docking, can be shown in AKC sanctioned shows,” the practice would grind to a halt.
Wellness: Healthy Living
A Seasonal Heads-Up
Spring officially, well, springs forth in late March, but depending on where you live, it might show up earlier, or later. Either way, if you live with companion animals, it comes with a few cautions. Take note …
In the house. Thinking about dealing with a winter’s worth of dust and debris? Think smart about your cleaning products; many are irritating or even toxic for dogs. Invest in eco-friendly products, or make them yourself. (For a passel of cleaning tips as well as other ways to green up your paw print.)
In the driveway. Most often associated with winter, antifreeze poisonings happen in the spring as well. Whether from shade-tree mechanics, unidentified vehicle leaks or even the bases of portable basketball hoops, ethylene glycol–based antifreeze winds up in driveways and streets, where its sweet taste attracts dogs and cats. Even in tiny amounts, it’s been known to cause sudden kidney failure.
In the yard. Slug and snail baits combine an attractant, usually apple meal or some other sweet-smelling base, with an active chemical compound such as metaldehyde to poison whatever swallows the bait. Increased rodent activity also means increased use of rat poison, which is one of the deadliest things your dog can ingest. Keep all of them out of dogs’ reach.
If you’re planting (or replanting), check out the ASPCA’s list of toxic and non-toxic plants. A safe choice trumps a dangerous one, particularly if your dog likes to graze in your garden. Go to aspca.org and enter toxic plants in the search box.
Then there are fertilizers; even organic or natural varieties can be harmful. Blood and bone meal can cause vomiting, diarrhea and pancreatic inflammation. Grass and flower fertilizers can also contain toxic chemicals that may be deadly if ingested.
Out and about. If your dog spent a good chunk of the winter crashed on the couch or eating a few too many sweet potato chews, it’s a good idea to bound gradually into a spring exercise regime. Monitor your pet and start slow. (This is also applies to the human member of the team.)
If your outings take you to your local dog park or over hill and dale, keep an eye out for foxtails—wild grass awns that begin to sprout in abundance in the spring. They’re more obvious later on in the year when they dry out, but they’re also a problem at the green stage. Get Dr. Shea Cox’s take on the problem.
Spring Tips and Green Ideas
Spring and spring cleaning days are upon us, plus March 20th also marks the start of National Poison Prevention Week. An informative notice from Dr. Denise Petryk, on-staff veterinarian at Trupanion (pet insurance), provides insights into the most common pet poisons and other tips to help protect dogs and keep them out of harm’s way:
· Household cleaning products: Soaps, bleach, detergents, specialized cleaners and even sponges can harm a pet by irritating the skin or eyes, as well as damaging and blocking the gastrointestinal system. See better alternatives to these cleaning products.
· Plants: Tulips, Daffodils, Foxglove and Azaleas are all plants that can cause symptoms such as vomiting, drooling and even kidney damage when ingested by pets. Lilies are especially toxic to cats—and popular around Easter time—and can cause kidney problems, while the Sago Palm plant causes health problems such as vomiting, diarrhea and liver failure in dogs.
· Fertilizers: The nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc and herbicides that supplement plant growth can cause severe symptoms in pets, such as difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea and intestinal blockage. Be very careful about fertilizing lawn areas where many dogs like to spend time.
· Yard tools: Rakes, shrub sheers and even shovels can be deadly for curious pets if they’re not stored properly.
· Pest control substances: Rodenticides and other poisons such as slug bait are toxic to all animals, so owners should take special care to keep their pet away.
For more green ideas and safety tips see our dog-friendly prepping for spring checklist.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Winter Paw Tips
Trim Fur between dog toe pads that can get packed with snow and ice walking painful.
Boot Up Consider dog booties, make sure the fit is correct and start with short walks, with plenty of treats.
Avoid Frozen ponds or streams, dogs may fall through ice less than 2 inches thick.
Lube Up Lubricate paws to prevent skin cracks caused by cold, dry air. A thin coating of products as Bag Balm, Musher’s Secret or petroleum jelly will also do.
Quick Wipe Wash paws off after walks. Dogs can lick salt, antifreeze or other chemicals, plus paw pads may bleed from snow or encrusted ice.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Eight ways you and your anxious dog can catch a break
It sometimes feels like the dog world is polarized between people who “get” anxious and reactive dogs and people who don’t. Worse, the people who don’t can be dismissive and unkind, not to mention make it difficult for you to navigate the world with your dog by not respecting personal space.
Lately, however, people are coming to realize that completely calm, bombproof dogs are closer to the exception than the rule. Many dogs have something they’re not good with, whether it’s alone time, storms, cats or children. This increased awareness has translated into more and easier tactics to help anxious dogs than walking them at 5 in the morning. Here are eight ways to make life with your anxious or reactive dog better for both of you.
1. Seek out a PR trainer. In recent years, modern trainers have learned that an overwhelming majority of dogs who lunge at, bark at and fight with other dogs and humans aren’t doing so because they’re “dominant” or because they want to be “pack leader.” They’re doing it because they’re scared. A frightened dog, especially one who feels like she can’t escape, will turn to aggression to “get him before he gets me.” Once we know that aggression is rooted in fear, we know to avoid trainers who “rehabilitate” aggressive dogs by dominating them. Hurting a dog doesn’t stop her from being scared, it just makes her shut down. Change the emotion, on the other hand, and you’ll change the behavior. A dog who isn’t scared of other dogs has no need to bark or fight. Find a good trainer, ideally one who follows positive reinforcement principles and is certified by CCPDT, and you can work wonders together.
2. Make her visible. This might sound like the last thing you want to do with an anxious dog—I’ve certainly spent my share of time hiding around corners and not opening my door until I’ve checked that the coast is clear—but drawing attention to your dog’s anxiety is a good way to tell other people not to approach. Put a yellow ribbon on your dog’s leash, or buy a bandanna or harness that says “nervous” or “no dogs” and you’re giving people a heads-up without having to yell at them.
3. Muzzle up. If your dog is reactive and big enough that you could lose control if she lunges, consider a good quality muzzle. A muzzled dog is still seen by most people as a dangerous dog, which can lead to some unpleasantness for the owner, but thankfully, the Muzzle Up! Project is trying to get rid of that prejudice and spread the word that a muzzle is a sign of a responsible owner and a safe dog. By making those with aggressive dogs feel safer, muzzles allow both people and dogs to get more enjoyment from being outside.
4. Consider changing your vet if he/she isn’t tuned in to your dog’s needs. While some vets are great with nervous and aggressive dogs, others are still very old school; they don’t listen to owners and use invasive and rough handling. There are, however, new techniques out there for vets dealing with anxious dogs. Dr. Sophia Yin has developed a program for vets that focuses on low-stress handling, which can make a huge difference in your dog’s anxiety levels. And Dogs in Need of Space has a list of vets who go the extra mile for anxious dogs; if you do want to change your vet, it’s a good place to start.
5. Learn your dog’s body language. Your dog constantly communicates how she’s feeling, and the better you understand what she’s saying, the easier it can be to avoid stressful situations. Something that was fine for her last week might be too much for her to cope with today due to a phenomenon called trigger stacking (an increase in anxiety-related behaviors caused by the dog experiencing repeated stressful events without enough time in between for the associated stress hormones to leave her system). Avoid this by keeping an eye out for signs that tell you how your dog is feeling.
There are lots of resources for learning the basics; Lili Chin has made some lovely posters, and there’s even an iPhone app, so you needn’t run out and buy a textbook. Just remember that every dog is an individual, so you might not see all the signs of stress all the time. My dog only pants when she’s hot, for example.
6. Try medication. When I tell people, “My dog’s on Prozac,” most of them laugh; they think it’s a funny way of talking about her anxiety. It’s not: she really is on Prozac. Many of the same antidepressant medications that millions of humans use have been proven to help dogs with anxiety have the confidence to try new behaviors. A conversation with your vet is the first step on this route. Your vet can refer you to a veterinary behaviorist, a DVM who is knowledgeable about both training and medication; a vet behaviorist can give you a complete prescription tailored to your dog’s needs and, ideally, liaise with your trainer or applied animal behaviorist (a professional who specializes in dogs with behavioral problems but is not a vet).
Making the decision to try medical intervention can seem like a big step, but there is a lot of specialist information designed to make it easier. A good place to start is Debbie Jacob’s website, fearfuldogs.com. There are also numerous over-the-counter pills and products marketed to help anxious dogs, but be careful if you choose to experiment with them. Most “calming supplements” haven’t been tested, and evidence for the ones that have been is sketchy at best. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice, but do remember that treatment has its own kind of placebo effect.
7. Find a shared interest. It’s okay to be disappointed that your dog doesn’t want to go to the dog park, agility trials or pavement cafés. Try focusing on what you guys can do together instead. Set up indoor obstacle courses, go on quiet wilderness hikes, take nose-work classes or just chill at home. Don’t try to force the dog you have to be the dog you wanted. In the end, you’re likely to make her problems worse, not to mention strain your relationship.
8. Know your limits. If you’re really out of your depth, or your dog represents a serious danger to you or your children, it’s okay to consider rehoming. Training and medications are expensive, and anxious dogs often require a lifetime commitment. In some cases, it’s safer for you and better for the dog to find a new home where she can get what she needs if you don’t have the resources or the situation to provide it. You’re not a bad person or a failure—you’re making the wisest, kindest choice in the circumstances.
With these options, life with an anxious dog doesn’t have to be lonely!
A gathering of ideas
There is an astounding amount of research on dogs—academic studies, medical research, social and psychological testing, not to mention reams of data gathered from our everyday lives. Thoughtfully assimilated, all of this information can help us and our dogs live better lives together.
I was reminded of how fortunate dog enthusiasts are to share in this wealth of information upon my return last week from Purina’s Better with Pets Summit (November 3). The annual event, this year presented in Brooklyn, NY, was a gathering of pet experts sharing their latest findings with the media. The theme for the day was “exploring the best ideas for bringing people and pets closer together.” It was an apt description.
The day started out with an inspired presentation by Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, a veterinarian and research scientist who studies the impact of nutrition on performance on sled dogs. A champion musher himself, Reynolds’ talk focused not on a program he’s involved with in the Alaskan village of Huslia. This small coastal community was the home of George Attla, a famed champion musher and native Athabascan who ruled the sport for thirty years before retiring. In honor of his son Frank, who died at age 21 in 2010, Attla started the Frank Attla Youth and Sled Dog Care Mushing Program. The program serves many purposes—providing skills, lessons in cultural traditions, and a sense of belonging to the youth population while uniting all townspeople around a common activity, mushing. The program, as described warmly by Reynolds and in a short documentary film demonstrates the power that dogs can initiate in our lives.
Next up was a panel discussion titled “Are Millennials Changing Our Relationships with Cats?”—offering the interesting observation that a new generation of cat people have now formed a community on the internet—so as dog people connect at dog parks, cat lovers now interact online sharing their passion for felines. We met Christina Ha, the co-founder of Meow Parlour, New York’s first cat café. Can a canine café be in our future?
The most anticipated panel “Stress, Our Pets, and Us” featured animal behaviorist Ragen McGowan, PhD; architect Heather Lewis (Animal Arts) and Dr. Tony Buffington, professor of veterinary science. McGowan discussed the value of having dogs work for their food citing her studies with grizzlies, chickens and mice on the practice of contrafreeloading (working for food when food is freely available). Lewis’s architectural practice specializes in designing veterinary hospitals and animal care facilities around the country, meeting the unique needs of both workers and animals. It’s evident that good design can have an important impact on animal friendly environments—from soothing color palettes to calming lighting levels or the simple use of horizontal bars (less stress inducing) instead of traditional vertical bars. The key takeaway: Mental exercise for animals might be as important to their well-being as physical exercise.
“Raising Pets and Kids” featured Jayne Vitale of Mutt-i-grees Child Development Director; Ilana Resiner, veterinarian behaviorist; and Charley Bednarsh, Director of Children’s Services (Brooklyn). The Bark features an in-depth article in its Winter 2015 issue on Mutt-i-grees, a program developed by the North Shore Animal League that offers academic and emotional support to students from kindergarten through high school, teaching them how to be ambassadors for the humane treatment of animals. Bednarsh and her therapy dog Paz, team up to assist young witnesses of domestic violence navigate the judicial system (a similar program first reported in The Bark). We were reminded of the important contribution to the health and well-being of the children in these extraordinary programs, and also to common households. Note to self: Don’t humanize your dog—study, understand, embrace their dogness.
The afternoon offered a room full of experiential exhibits—interactive displays that provided lessons in healthy environments, cognition, reading your pet, nutrition and your pet’s purpose. Manned by teams of experts, the well designed displays presented an immersive course in Dog and Cat 101. I’d love to see the exhibits showcased to the general public, those most in need of education and guidance in the proper care of pet companions. The day was rich with ideas and notes that we’ll shape into future articles for The Bark.
Purina’s commitment to offering a forum of ideas is commendable. In a similar vein, the company hosted another notable event on November 7—a free live video cast of the Family Dog Project from Hungary—with over a dozen presentations by leading scientists and animal behaviorist exploring everything from canine cognition to sensory perception in dogs. Like the Pet Summit, it was a fascinating collection of concepts and dialogue, enriching to everybody who participated.
For more check out #BetterWithPets
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Home cooking helps you feed ’em well for less.
When suppertime rolls around, there’s nothing like a healthy home-cooked meal. This is true not only for the human members of your family, but for your dog as well. Cooking for your canine companion has many benefits, including fewer preservatives and additives, more varied and potentially better ingredients and, of course, more interest for the canine palate.
Homemade meals may even make it possible to feed your dog well for less. A 15- pound bag of high-end dry dog food costs approximately $42, and a 5.5 oz. can of high-end wet food runs approximately $2. Feeding a medium-sized dog two cans of wet mixed with two cups of dry food costs about $5 per day. That doesn’t include the treats, bones and tidbits that inevitably make their way into her tummy! Compare that with four cups of Puppy Stew (recipe here) at $2.25 per day. Add the cost of a vitamin/ mineral supplement and calcium, and it is still less than the cost of feeding high-end commercial food.* (You can also combine homemade meals with commercially available dry dog food. This will, of course, change the nutritional calculations as well as the price, but your pup will still be pleased.)
As both able hunters and scavengers, dogs ate from a diverse menu when they began accompanying humans. An omnivorous diet of protein, carbohydrate and fat sources suits them; dogs in good health can also handle the fat in their diet more effectively than you can— their bodies use it for energy and then efficiently clear it from the bloodstream.
The caveats? Dogs have different nutrient requirements than people. For example, they need high-quality protein, more calcium and more minerals for their proportional body size. Calcium is particularly critical. In The Complete Holistic Dog Book, co-author Katy Sommers, DVM, notes that “calcium is perhaps the single most important supplement for a successful home-cooked diet. Even if you’re feeding a variety of foods, you’ll need to supply an extra source of calcium.” She recommends giving one 600 mg calcium carbonate tablet (or 1⁄2 teaspoon of the powder form) for each 10 to 15 pounds of body weight daily for most adult dogs. (She also points out that, if you’re mixing homemade and commercial foods, you don’t need to supplement as heavily, as commercial foods contain adequate or possibly even excessive amounts of calcium and phosphorus.) More good advice on this subject can be found in Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn.
There are some human foods that dogs should never be given, including macadamia nuts, chocolate, tea, coffee, raisins, grapes, onions or excessive amounts of garlic. And, of course, check with your veterinarian before making big changes to your dog’s diet, particularly if she has any preexisting health conditions. Once you get the green light, make the changes gradually to avoid digestive upsets; introduce new foods slowly, substituting a small proportion of the new food for the old over time. Finally, be careful not to provide too many overall calories (energy), as obesity is just as unhealthy for dogs as it is for humans; your vet can help you determine how much your dog should be eating.
Food safety is also an issue. While dogs have many defenses against bacteria, parasites and other food-borne pathogens, they are not immune to them. Be sure to keep utensils clean, perishables refrigerated and ingredients cooked to appropriate internal temperatures to kill off any unwanted bugs. This is particularly important for puppies, old dogs or those with a health condition that makes them vulnerable.
In general, your homemade recipes should contain a high-value protein source (muscle meat, eggs, fish, liver), a fat source (safflower, olive, canola or fish oil; the best and most easily available fish oils are salmon and cod), a fiber-containing carbohydrate (brown rice, sweet potato, oats, barley), and a phytochemical source (fruits, vegetables, herbs). Substitutions can be made; for example, if you know your dog likes whole-grain pasta, substitute pasta for barley as a carbohydrate source. Some dogs, like some kids, hate veggies but will eat fruit, so use fruit instead; fruit can complement meats just as readily as vegetables can. Yogurt, cottage cheese, beans and tofu can occasionally be used as protein sources, but keep in mind that not all dogs can tolerate dairy products, beans or soy and may become flatulent or experience other gastrointestinal “issues”; test tolerance with small quantities.
When you cook a batch of homemade food, let it cool, and—if you make more than your dog can eat within a couple of days—portion it into reusable, washable containers, then freeze and defrost as needed. You can safely keep cooked food in the refrigerator for three days; after that, spoilage becomes a concern.
By adhering to the basic guidelines, you can be creative, provide great homemade meals and know that the ingredients are wholesome. You might even try serving some of these recipes to your human family so they can feel special too.
These recipes are calculated for a healthy adult medium-sized dog (approximately 35 to 40 pounds) who’s moderately active. The ingredients listed are standard (not organic) and can be purchased at any supermarket. Dogs of this general description require approximately 1,800 mg of calcium daily, according to Sommers, et al. If your dog is smaller or larger, her total calcium requirements can be calculated using 600 mg for every 12.5 pounds. (If your dog is a senior, still growing or has health issues, please consult your veterinarian— we really can’t say this often enough!) For a veterinary nutritionist– developed canine vitamin/mineral (calcium- inclusive) supplement, check out BalanceIT® powder.
Important: Many veterinarians, while acknowledging that pet food recalls and the poor quality of some pet foods are causes for concern, still feel that homemade diets, when fed exclusively, may result in nutritional imbalances and vitamin/mineral deficiencies that may pose threats to canine health. Therefore, if you choose to feed your dog a homemade diet, it is important that you understand and provide what your dog needs to stay healthy; veterinary nutritionists can assist in developing suitable homemade diets. While caution was taken to give safe recommendations and accurate instructions in this article, it is impossible to predict an individual dog’s reaction to any food or ingredient. Readers should consult their vets and use personal judgment when applying this information to their own dogs’ diets.
*The cost of feeding homemade will vary according to the size, activity level and health of your dog. Dogs who are pregnant or lactating, growing pups and those who perform endurance activities require much more nutrition (calories, protein, fatty acids) and have other special nutritional needs.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Some things to know about "low-cal" pet food
There’s no denying obesity is a major canine health issue. Obesity contributes to arthritis, heart and liver disease, diabetes, respiratory difficulties, heat stroke, some cancers and more. And somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of domestic cats and dogs in the United States are overweight, according to several estimates. As we do in our personal battles of the bulge, we turn to reduced calorie diets for help. Unfortunately, these may not be the straightforward solution they appear to be.
A study of so-called light or low-calorie pet foods performed at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University revealed a confusing variation in calorie density and feeding recommendations among brands. Researchers found dry dog foods making weight management claims ranged in calorie density from 217 to 440 kilocalories per cup (kcal/cup), and that the recommended intake ranged from 0.73 to 1.47 times the dog’s resting energy requirement.
What this means is that well-meaning dog owners following manufacturer guidelines might not see promised weight loss in their chubby pups—in fact, they might see weigh gain—leading to frustration for people and ill health for dogs.
Knowing and counting calories is a priority for weight management, according to veterinary nutritionist Edward Moser, MS, VMD, DACVN, with whom we talked about the Tufts study and canine weight management. Dr. Moser is an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, he serves on the National Organic Standards Board Pet Food Task Force.
“It’s incumbent on the pet owner to know what calories are in the food and the energy their dog needs,” Dr. Moser says. While weight and age are a good starting point for calculating what your dog requires maintain or lose weight, there are other important multipliers to take into consideration, such as whether your dog is spayed or neutered, and the intensity and duration of their daily activity. Also, pregnant or nursing dogs and puppies need more energy (aka calories).
A good way to set a calorie baseline is with a visit to your veterinarian. Since only about 17 percent of owners think their dogs are overweight, according to one study, the first step is breaking through denial. Your vet can help. There are several ways to set a daily calorie count, such as aiming for a one percent of total weight loss each week, or 75 percent of the calories required to maintain a goal weight, etc., Dr. Moser says.
The important thing is to be consistent and engaged. Once you cut back on calories, weigh your dog about every ten days, Dr. Moser says, to see when they plateau. Also, he recommends something called “body condition scoring.” The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine website provides an illustrated chart that shows dogs and cats from emaciated to obese. Look at the pictures and ask: Where does my dog fit? You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs but your fingers shouldn’t fit between them.
Why diet food? Why not just feed your dog less of his or her regular food? “What makes a diet food different is we’re essentially diluting calories,” Dr. Moser says. There are only a couple ways you can do that including reducing fat content, which decreases calorie density and palatability, or adding fiber or even air, in the case of kibble. The calories in canned food can be diluted with water. “We are making dogs think they are full when they’ve really only eaten 75 percent of the calories,” Dr. Moser says. “The other stuff is just helping you feed more so the dog doesn’t beg.”
One reason Dr. Moser says people aren’t successful with low calorie food is because they leave it out for free-choice feeding. (Imagine a sort of bottomless bowl." “Because even low calorie foods have calories,” he says. He agrees with the study recommendation that free-choice feeding is not a good option—in part because food today is extremely palatable and so it’s easy for dogs to overeat. The better option is a measured quantity of food a couple times a day, he says.
If you don’t see calories listed on your label that’s because calorie counts are only required on dog food that claims to be lite, light, less calorie or low calorie. (The Academy of Canine Veterinary Nutrition, to which study co-author Dr. Lisa Freeman and Dr. Moser belong, is advocating for requiring calorie information on all pet food labels.) Foods with a light, lite, or low-calorie designation must also adhere to a maximum kilocalorie per kilogram restriction. However, Dr. Freeman pointed out that more than half of the foods evaluated in her study exceeded this maximum.
Why does it matter if your pup’s a little plump? Dr. Moser points to research that shows keeping dogs thin can extend their lives by as much as one and half years—that should motivate us to study labels and get out our measuring cups.
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