Wellness: Healthy Living
So does your dog--here’s how to brush them
There’s no time like the present to have your veterinarian examine your dog’s teeth, and then begin a brushing routine at home. Daily brushing boosts and supports dogs’ well-being and general health by reducing bacteria that may enter the stomach and bloodstream. Trying to brush an unhealthy mouth is no fun for you or your dog, however. According to AAHA Dental Care Guidelines, the only way to know for sure that your pup’s mouth is healthy is through dental x-rays. Once your veterinarian gives you the go-ahead, it’s time to start brushing.
1. Use a pet-formulated toothpaste in a flavor your dog likes. Do not use human toothpaste, as the detergents and high fluoride levels may cause severe tummy distress.
2. Use any soft-bristled toothbrush. If your dog is small, try a child’s toothbrush. Some pet owners like to use angled pet toothbrushes or finger-cap brushes.
3. If you’ve never brushed your dog’s teeth, introduce brushing slowly. Use lots of praise for small advancements in the process.
4. Start by letting your dog lick a pea-size amount of toothpaste off your finger. If you’ve found a flavor he likes, he’ll consider it a special treat.
5. Next, rub some toothpaste onto the outer surfaces of his upper and lower teeth. (Do not try to clean the inner tooth surfaces—leave that to the veterinary professionals.)
6. After a few days, put a pea-sized amount of pet toothpaste on his toothbrush and let him lick it off.
7. The goal is to brush the upper and lower teeth on both sides of the mouth for a full minute, or the length of a television commercial.
Perhaps the most important point: “Dog breath” implies significant dental issues. If your dog’s breath is nasty, or if he resists brushing, please consult your veterinarian for a thorough dental check-up, including x-rays and professional cleaning under anesthesia. For more information, see the AAHA Dental Care Guidelines at aahanet.org.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Scientists investigate the new field of nutrigenomics.
Have you ever had problems losing weight and wondered if you’re just genetically fat and doomed to your pudgy fate? If so, you may be in luck. Scientists studying nutrition and genetics in dogs are helping to debunk the myth that your genes set your physiologic fate in stone.
“Your DNA tells you everything you could be. It doesn’t tell you everything you are going to be,” says Dr. Steven Hannah, Director of Molecular Nutrition at Nestlé Purina PetCare.“There are many factors that modify the ultimate expression of an animal.” One such factor is diet.
New studies are finding that diets can alter the expression of genes. In other words, they can determine which genes are active. In fact, there’s now a branch of nutrition called “nutrigenomics” dedicated to the study of how nutrients affect gene expression.
In an active gene, a segment of DNA is transcribed to RNA, which can then be translated into many copies of a single protein. Each gene codes for a different protein and each protein has a slightly different job. Some proteins provide structure, such as the protein in muscle or collagen.Other proteins, called enzymes, drive the chemical reactions that create the various hormones, neurotransmitters and products needed by the body, as well as creating products that serve as energy to power the body.
In humans, the study of nutrigenomics is slow because there are too many factors to consider in a person’s normal life—even in just their diet. But with dogs, researchers have already discovered diets that alter arthritis and obesity.
How does nutrigenomics come into play in developing these diets? First, the company or researcher identifies gene expression profiles in affected and normal dogs.Next, they figure out which ingredients they believe will change the gene expression profile from that of an affected dog to that of a healthy one. Then they formulate a mixture, feed it to the affected individuals and see if the gene expression profile changes in a positive way. For instance, in the case of arthritis or degenerative joint disease, researchers at Purina compared the gene expression profile of normal, healthy cartilage cells, called “chondrocytes,” to that of arthritic chondrocytes.
“We have constructed a gene expression array chip that has virtually every gene known in the dog,” states Hannah. “It has tens of thousands of genes on it. We took the chondrocyte cell’s RNA and applied it to the chip.” The chip, in turn, revealed every gene whose expression was affected.
“We were able to identify which genes in the tissue were up- and down-regulated in arthritis,” says Hannah.“Because those genes are codes for all of the proteins the cell was making, it’s a snapshot in time of what the cell is planning to do biochemically.” (“Up-regulation” and “down-regulation” are the processes by which cells increase or decrease, respectively, the quantity of a cellular component, such as RNA or protein, in response to an external variable.)
By examining the 325 up-regulated genes and the 25 down-regulated genes, Purina researchers were able to look at the biochemical decision of the arthritic cell compared to a healthy chondrocyte cell. What they found was that the arthritic cells were up-regulating specific enzymes that degrade the cartilage and down-regulating enzymes that inhibit the degradation process. That is, they were primed for cartilage destruction.
The next step was to determine what dietary changes might affect the joint. These tests started in petri dishes. First, the researchers grew chondrocytes in cell culture and added inflammatory mediators that would be seen with any joint injury. This made the chondrocytes look arthritic. Then they added nutrients at various concentrations to see which nutrients would help the cells repair.With that testing, they found that omega-3 fatty acids provided good results, and they were able to determine which levels worked best.
But, as Hannah points out, “We can’t feed the nutrient directly into an animal’s joint. There’s no cell culture dog food. Rather, we needed to next see if we could get the nutrient from the food in the same concentrations into the dogs’ joint.”They needed to know if the fish oil would be digested, absorbed and then the omega-3 fatty acids transported to the joint in concentrations shown to be effective in the cell culture.
“Luckily, at the time, Colorado State was conducting an arthritis study in dogs,” says Hannah.“We were able to put these dogs on test diets with different levels of omega-3 fatty acids and then analyze the joints.” They quickly found that they were indeed able to match the levels that they had gotten in the petri dish.
“That’s all nice,” says Hannah,“but the bigger question is whether the dog actually cares. Does it make a clinical difference?” That’s where force-plate analysis came in. This process determines whether a dog’s lameness has improved; researchers did find improvement in the dogs’ physical abilities.
“We were able to verify that the changes in the gene expression profile were accompanied by changes in the corresponding enzyme levels too,” says Hannah. “After the diet, the joints contained less metalloprotease, an enzyme that degrades the cartilage, and more protein that inhibited the metalloproteases. So the omega-3 down-regulated the enzymes that chew up cartilage and up-regulated factors that inhibit the degradation.”
Another major area of nutrigenomics research is in obesity. “We’ve looked at the gene expression profile in obese patients,” says Dr. Todd Towell of Hill’s Pet Nutrition.“We can see a huge difference in gene expression between dogs who are obese and those who are lean.”
What classes of genes are different? The short answer is that at the level of gene expression, obese dogs are up-regulated at systems that make them efficient at storing fat in adipose tissue. They are fat storers. Those who are lean are more efficient at burning fat for energy.
Armed with this information, researchers set out to answer the million-dollar question: Is it possible to design a diet that would both allow weight loss and change the gene profile? To find out, Hill’s researchers fed overweight animals a new weight-reduction diet and then looked at their gene expression profiles; they looked at percent of body fat and genomic analysis at the onset of the study and then again after four months on the diet. All the dogs went from overweight to lean, and those on the new diet showed a change in 254 genes—240 were down-regulated and 14 were upregulated. The diet had changed the dogs’ metabolisms from fat-storing to fat-burning.
Interestingly, in a similar study with dogs on a high-protein weight-loss diet, dogs also went from fat to lean, but their gene expression profiles remained those of metabolically obese dogs. So they were still fat-storers, which suggests they would gain weight back. Because it’s the gene expression in the fat cells that’s important, the downside to this study is that researchers tested the gene expression in blood cells but did not test it in the fat cells where fat is actually stored; their assumption was that gene expression was also changing in the fat cells.
Another researcher who has looked at gene-expression changes in fat is Dr. Kelly Swanson, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine. “We fed a fructooligosaccharide, which is a fiber-like substance that’s not digested by the host but preferentially stimulates the beneficial microbes in the gut.” In other words, the fructooligosaccharide hangs around in the gut, where it serves as food for beneficial microbes. As a result, it allows the beneficial microbes to flourish.
The results? The diet improved insulin sensitivity in fat cells of obese dogs. Several genes that coded for proteins important in lipid regulation and oxidation were up-regulated. These results suggest that a diet with fructooligosaccharides could be useful in diabetic patients.
These findings are just the start. Says Hannah,“Researchers are routinely using nutrigenomics to understand physiology and biology at a new level. Instead of just trying to find individual genes that predispose dogs to developing diseases such as diabetes or obesity, researchers are now asking, ‘What about all of the genes and corresponding pathways?’ It’s about understanding how a molecule or nutrient changes gene expression.”
Says Swanson, “With nutrigenomics, you often get to disease states you don’t understand. If you can identify the genes and pathways affected in the disease process and know the effect of nutrition on that same process, you can determine the biological mechanisms to target.”
Wellness: Healthy Living
Vet school team solves the mystery of Max’s skin problem
When we impulsively rescued an eightweek- old ball of yellow fur from the back of a pickup truck headed for the pound, we had no idea how much our lives would change. This Lab/German Shepherd mix, whom we named Max, grew quickly. Before we knew it, we had a 108-pound ballistic missile with a wet tongue and four paws — and, in his second year, a severe allergy to an unknown substance.
We tried steroids, antibiotics, topical applications, herbs and acupuncture, yet the rashes, oozing and itching persisted. The steroids worked in the short term, but made him hungry, thirsty and susceptible to ringworm, and were bad for his bones, joints and kidneys over the long haul.
The rashes typically began with papules — red dots — and pustules, and then spread into a solid flaming mass of irritation in his inguinal (groin) and axillary (armpit) areas — sometimes on his belly as well. I kept telling vets that it looked like poison ivy, and they assured me that dogs do not react to poison ivy.
No one had any idea what Max was allergic to. Because the rashes appeared initially in summer, they were first attributed to our typical Florida weather — hot and humid — exacerbated by insects of all kinds. That theory was disproved when Max’s condition continued into the cooler, drier months.
We investigated food as a source, and put Max on a special diet of an allergyfree amino acid–based food for three months. Then we reintroduced his regular diet. No change. We gave him raw milk at the suggestion of a farmer friend, who had tried it successfully for her dog’s itchiness. No change. We thought he might be allergic to turkey and chicken and eliminated them from his diet. Nothing seemed to make a difference. The typical culprits — fleas, ticks and mites, both demodex and scabies — were ruled out or did not fit the symptoms to begin with.
He wasn’t better in any particular season, so inhalant allergies were out. Our allopathic vet suggested he was just allergic to “a lot of stuff,” got itchy and then got various infections from romping around. That’s when drugs were prescribed: antibiotics for the secondary infections and steroids to suppress his reaction to the allergenic agents. Our holistic vet offered various herbs and did some acupuncture, but she seemed as perplexed as everyone else about what could be causing this awful skin condition. Although we were frustrated, we could not fault the professionals we consulted. Presented with the facts we had, they did the best they could.
We’re fortunate to have a veterinary college near us, part of the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville. Although we hesitated at first because of the cost, we finally decided it was time to have him checked out there — Max was still miserable despite the fortune we’d already spent on medications, herbs and topical applications.
The great thing about visiting a university clinic is that a team of students and residents reviews a case before the attending veterinarian weighs in. We liked the idea of having several bright, inquiring minds looking for solutions to this mystery. We were there for half the day, and the intake exam was thorough — the students carefully inspected every inch of Max’s body, then took him away for testing that included skin scrapings for cultures and microscopic examination. Finally, they all re-entered the tiny treatment room where my husband and I were waiting. The attending veterinarian, Rosanna Marsella — a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology — came in with them. “Max definitely has a contact allergy,” she told us, as opposed to an atopic allergy. (Atopic means the reaction can be distant from the cause — for example, a rash that is a result of pathogens entering through the respiratory or digestive system.)
So what was he coming in contact with? Dr. Marsella said the rash was consistent in character with that caused by plants in the Commelinaceae family. Her Italian accent, coupled with the challenging pronunciation of the full botanical name (genus and species), made it difficult for me to understand what she was saying. “Does it have a common name?” I asked.
“‘Wandering Jew,’” she said. We knew this plant as an invasive exotic that many people have in their ornamental gardens. But, since we make an effort to maintain native plants, this was not one that we had growing on our 10 acres of land. “Well, we don’t have any of that,” I said, disappointed that we had reached another dead end. My husband, however, made the connection between the botanical family name and the genus of “Wandering Jew.” He asked if she had said Tradescantia fluminensis.
“Yes, that’s it.”
And then it all fell into place. We are surrounded by acres of Tradescantia — not the invasive T. fluminensis, but the beautiful Florida native species, T. ohiensis, commonly called “spiderwort” or “blue jacket.” There was still a disconnect for the medical team because most plants in the Commelinaceae family are ground creepers. But the Tradescantia that grows abundantly on our property gets as high as 36 inches, which accounted for the reaction on Max’s torso.
“Do you live nearby? Can you get some of that Tradescantia and come back with it and Max?” Dr. Marsella asked. Of course, we said. Later that afternoon, the veterinary team made a slurry from the plant and coated shaved areas of healthy skin on Max’s flank and one of his ears with the paste. They added two control spots as well. To be sure he could not paw the test areas on his side, the students made him a spectacular outfit from pink vet wrap decorated with little red hearts.
The next day, we returned to the clinic and were told that the test was absolutely conclusive. Max had developed the same rashlike pustules that we had come to expect on his underside. And once the vet team saw field photos of the plant, they understood why this dog, with his 20-inch leg length, had extensive rashes in his armpits and groin and not just on his feet, where he would have come in contact with the creeping T. fluminensis, T. pallida, and T. zebrina. The rash between Max’s toes was tame compared to those on his underside because, as Dr. Marsella explained, fur prevents direct contact with the skin.
Just as with people who are allergic to poison ivy or oak, the culprit is a chemical, in this case calcium oxalate, a compound with a microscopic crystalline structure. The irritating needlelike formations penetrate the skin, causing an inflammatory response in animals that are sensitive to them. There is no cure for the rash and no vaccine to prevent reaction. The rash almost always leads to secondary infections, which is why most dogs (and cats) that have this allergy are treated with steroids and antibiotics. Fortunately, Dr. Marsella was the lead author of a study published in Veterinary Dermatology (volume 8, issue 2) by the team of veterinarians that pioneered the use of pentoxifylline (Trental®) to mitigate reaction to calcium oxalates when used prior to exposure. The only other treatment is avoidance. Max is now on this medication 24/7, which initially worried me because it is a vasodilator and in the caffeine class of drugs. Recently, though, a friend who is a pharmacist likened Max’s dose to a person drinking a daily cup of Earl Grey tea, and I calmed down a bit. Pentoxifylline lasts about eight hours in a dog’s system, and because it can irritate the stomach, we administer it day, eight hours apart (morning and late afternoon), so it is in his system and “on duty” during the times he is most active outside.
Other options for reducing contact with the plant include booties and/or a body suit. Unfortunately, Max is too large for a body suit to be effective, as it leaves exposed the very areas that need protecting. Another way to mitigate the rash is to rinse or thoroughly wipe down the dog after every potential exposure. By also using shampoos such as Malaseb, alone or mixed with a bit of Selsun Blue, the chance of secondary staph and yeast infections can be reduced.
Studies have shown that dogs build sensitivity over time but may not show a reaction until as late as two years old. And once started, it tends to get worse, according to the research. “Every time the dog comes in contact with the substance, the reaction is likely to worsen,” wrote Gail Kunkle, DVM, in a paper about canine allergies presented at a 2000 Dog Owners and Breeders Symposium at University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. “There are steroids which are used in severe cases to relieve the inflammation but these are not good long term solutions,” she wrote. “The most difficult part of managing a contact allergy is that it [requires] a lifetime commitment from the owners, as it is unlikely the dog will ‘outgrow’ the reaction or improve over time. Some owners have resorted to making concrete or rock kennels in their yards or even using Astroturf if the problem is a grass or weed. The common plants that cause this reactivity in the dog are very difficult to eliminate from your yard and, in some cases, clients have literally killed the grass and the weed has thrived.”
We have chosen to eradicate this otherwise wonderful plant on nearly an acre around our house, and we are considering a fence to keep Max from roaming on the rest of the acreage, where we are unable to tame this native menace. Botanical sources indicate there are 350 species in the Commelinaceae family, and all contain calcium oxalates. Some species are so tiny (e.g., Murdannia spp.) that they look like grass until you get on your hands and knees to see their minuscule purple flowers! Other plants, such as taro (Colocasia esculenta), also contain calcium oxalates, which should not be confused with plants that contain oxalic acid, such as spinach or sorrel.
Max is only outside when we are, so we can keep an eye on him. But still, he occasionally experiences a thrilling moment when a deer wanders by and taunts him into a good run, which the deer invariably wins. On his return, after successfully evicting an “intruder” from our property, Max gets a sudsy rinse on his underside, just in case.
Dr. Marsella told us that Commelinaceae allergy is a greatly underdiagnosed condition in dogs. She hopes that more exposure to the issue will encourage veterinary clinicians to consider it as a cause of chronic rashes and infections. We can vouch for the fact that the patch test is simple, painless, and conclusive. We are grateful to the students and faculty at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine for improving Max’s quality of life.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Profiling notable second acts: Heidi Hill
When Heidi Hill was growing up, she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. As so often happens, that dream was put aside; instead of going to vet school, she earned a degree in accounting and embarked on a successful career in corporate finance and human resources.
Then one day, as she was casually leafing through a magazine, she read an article on homeopathy. Intrigued, she began to explore the topic, which eventually led her not only to formal study at San Francisco’s Pacific Academy of Homeopathy, but also permanently changed the way she viewed health, illness and life in general. Opening Holistic Hound—a “health food” store for dogs and cats—in Berkeley, Calif., in 2003 allowed her to combine her two passions, animals and holistic health care, and realize her earlier dream in a new form.
As a retailer, Hill has been on the front lines—the connection between the marketplace and the manufacturers. Recently, Bark quizzed her on what she observed during the spring 2007 recall and during the months that followed.
Bark:When the recall was in full swing, what did you notice as far as your customers were concerned?
Heidi Hill: I think that, for many reasons, people didn’t pay a lot of attention to pet food before the recall. Afterward, they certainly did. As the recall developed, people understandably became very nervous, and changed their animal’s food to higher-quality brands. Some started feeding raw foods, and others started cooking for their dogs.They also worked to educate themselves.Web sites made a great deal of information available.
B:What, if any, changes have you seen in the amount and type of information manufacturers are sharing now, as opposed to pre-recall?
HH: Many are disclosing more, though they still don’t disclose much (they didn’t disclose anything before).But for the most part, they still seem to be reluctant to identify their sources. From what I can gather, the reason they don’t is competition— for competitive advantage.
B: Are manufacturers now operating differently in any other ways?
HH: Yes, I think so. Some of them have very sophisticated and elaborate testing facilities in place, and in some cases, you can go to a manufacturer’s site and see what the food’s been tested for. On one of them, you can even look up your own batch. I wasn’t aware of anything like that before the recall.
B: What’s your take on the long-term consequences of the recall?
HH: For the companion animals whose health was affected, or who died, the results were obviously tragic; in that way, it was an awful situation. In other ways, it has had a positive outcome—the pet food industry will never be the same. Consumers are demanding more, and are more discriminating. They ask more questions and want to know that they can rely on what a company tells them. The recall definitely raised people’s consciousness, and they know they need to do their homework. I think it’s safe to say that we all want to do the right thing in terms of providing for our pets’ nutritional needs, and we now know that we can’t take marketing claims at face value.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Let’s start with some tough truths. “Non-allergic” or hypo-allergenic dogs do not exist (sorry, Bo Obama). You can’t eliminate dog’s allergens with special shampoos, topical sprays or oral agents. And there’s little evidence steam-cleaning carpets and upholstery helps control pet allergies.
That’s the myth-busting word from the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). But all is not lost. ACAAI offers a few research-based suggestions for reducing pet allergen levels in the home.
Replace carpeting with hardwood, stone or tile. Carpeted floors act like big sponges that hold a hodgepodge of dust and allergens.
Limit or remove fabric-upholstered furniture and curtains. You want smooth surfaces from which you can wipe away allergens.
Wash bedding and curtains in one of three ways—in water at least 140°F with one rinse; at any temperature with two rinses; or in a steam-washing machine.
Use tightly woven protective coverings (with openings less than 4 microns) on mattresses, box springs and pillows.
Don’t groom pets in your home.
But before you do anything, be sure to accurately diagnose the problem. “I can’t tell you how many times I see patients who assume they’re allergic to a cat or dog and they get rid of it. Then we do the allergy testing and discover it wasn’t the animal,” says Dr. James L. Sublett, a practicing allergist in Louisville. “It’s unfortunate when you see that happen.”
Find a board-certified allergist at www.allergyandasthmarelief.org.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Although once nearly eradicated in developed countries, bedbugs are on the rise. These tiny bloodsuckers don’t transmit diseases, but can leave itchy welts on you and your warm-blooded pets. It’s important to routinely check any place you or your pets sleep for the telltale dark stains of bedbug activity.
Dogs aren’t taking this bedbug business lying down, either. Some companies are training dogs to be the ultimate pest detectors. With their sensitive noses, dogs can sniff out a single bedbug, and even tell live bugs from harmless dead ones, helping pest control specialists work more quickly and use less pesticide.
If you suspect a bedbug infestation, contact your pest control specialist. Pets are especially at risk from the long-lasting pesticides used to kill bedbugs, but certain chemicals, such as pyrethrin, may be safe when used correctly, and a handful of companies do offer non-toxic solutions to the bedbug problem.
Wellness: Health Care
When rich food appears, pancreatitis lurks
’Tis the season for family gatherings, gift giving and food galore. Veterinarians know that this is also the season for canine pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), a painful, potentially life-threatening condition most commonly caused by overindulgence in foods that are particularly rich or fatty. And what kitchen isn’t overflowing with such foods this time of year?
The pancreas is a thin, delicate-appearing, boomerang-shaped organ that lives in the abdominal cavity, tucked up against the stomach and small intestine.While the pancreas may be diminutive in appearance, its actions are mighty! It is the body’s source of insulin and enzymes necessary for food digestion.When pancreatitis is chronic or particularly severe, this little factory sometimes permanently closes down, resulting in diabetes mellitus and the need for insulin shots and/or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency requiring digestive enzyme replacement therapy.
When a dog eats, enzymes are released from the pancreas into the small intestine, where they are activated for food digestion. Sometimes, for reasons we do not understand, these enzymes are activated within the pancreas itself, resulting in the inflammation of pancreatitis. In addition to rich or fatty foods, certain drugs, hormonal imbalances and inherited defects in fat metabolism can also cause pancreatitis. For some dogs, an underlying cause is never found.
Classic pancreatitis symptoms include vomiting, abdominal pain, and decreased appetite and activity levels. Short of performing a pancreatic biopsy (an invasive and risky procedure), diagnosing pancreatitis can be challenging, because noninvasive tests are fraught with falsenegative and false-positive results. Veterinarians must rely on a combination of the following:
• A history of dietary indiscretion, vomiting and lethargy.
There is no cure for pancreatitis—much like a bruise, the inflammation must resolve on its own. This is best accomplished by allowing the pancreas to rest, which means giving nothing orally (not even water) to prevent digestive enzyme secretion. Treatment consists of hospitalization for the administration of intravenous fluids; injectable medication to control vomiting, pain and stomachacid secretion; and antibiotics to prevent secondary infection or abscess formation. Dogs should be monitored around the clock for the life-threatening complications that sometimes accompany pancreatitis, such as kidney failure, heart rhythm abnormalities, respiratory distress and bleeding disorders.
Small amounts of water and a fat-free diet are typically offered once vomiting has stopped, abdominal pain has subsided, and there is blood test and/or ultrasound confirmation that the inflammation has calmed down. If your dog has pancreatitis, count on a minimum of two to three days of hospitalization, and be sure to ask who will be caring for your dog during the night. Long-term treatment for pancreatitis typically involves feeding a low-fat or fat-free diet. This may be a life-long recommendation, especially if your dog has been a “repeat offender.”Most dogs fully recover with appropriate therapy; however, some succumb to the complications associated with this disease.
How can you prevent pancreatitis during this food-oriented time of year? You can avoid feeding holiday leftovers altogether (this would cause canine mutiny in my household) or you can heed the following recommendations.
New foods should be fed sparingly and only if well tolerated by your dog’s gastrointestinal tract and waistline.Keep in mind that whether offered a teaspoon or a tablespoon of something delicious, most dogs will gulp it down in the same amount of time and reap the same psychological benefit.
Don’t offer tidbits from the table while you are eating. This is a set up for bad behavior. Offer the treat only after you’ve left the table. If you shouldn’t be eating the food yourself (emphasis on shouldn’t), please don’t feed it to your dog! By all means, give your precious poopsie a bit of turkey breast, but without the turkey skin or fat-laden mashed potatoes and creamy gravy. Go ahead and offer your sweet snookums a bite of brisket, but please —no potato latkes or sour cream! Bear in mind that most dogs are so darned excited about getting a treat, they don’t care what it is, only that they’re getting it!
Some people dream of sugar plum fairies, a white Christmas or a stress-free family gathering. I’m dreaming of a holiday season in which not a single dog develops pancreatitis! I wish you and your four-legged family a happy and healthy holiday season.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
How alternative protein is going wild
Stroll down the aisle of almost any pet-supply store and you’re likely to see dog food that rivals the offerings of a high-end butcher shop: salmon, venison and duck, plus pheasant, bison, rabbit and ostrich. You’ll even find critters that aren’t on anyone’s menu, including beaver and Australian brushtail possum. Mmmmmm good.
While the vast majority of dog owners stick to the basics — beef, chicken and lamb-based foods — a growing number are venturing into the exotics, despite the fact that they may cost substantially more than economy kibble. If an average dog owner spends about $227 a year on dog food, an owner who’s feeding the wild stuff will spend many times more, especially if the dog who’s eating it is one of the big guys.
Why are some of us going in this direction? “The most common reason an owner will switch to a food that’s made with a more exotic meat is that the dog has food allergies,” says Mark Newkirk, VMD, director of the Margate Animal Hospital in Margate, N.J. Owners also cite ethical reasons — for example, concerns over the “factory farming” system that generates the meat used in most pet foods — as well as a wish to simply improve their dogs’ diets. The food might be “better” because of what’s in it (higher-grade meat and other ingredients) as well as what isn’t (chemical additives, plus the hormones and pesticides to which the feed animal and/or plant-based ingredients were exposed).
The market for natural pet foods, which includes many products made with exotic or game meats as well as those containing certified organic or “natural” ingredients (that includes products such as beds and toys) had $1 billion in retail sales in 2007 and is expected to top $2 billion by 2012, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. Natural foods represent just 6 percent of total dog-food sales, but they’re growing about five times as fast as the pet-food market as a whole. And while U.S. consumers are increasingly interested in all manner of organic and environmentally friendly products, sales of organic dog food — roughly $84 million in 2008 — have increased at almost twice the rate of organic food intended for human consumption, according to the Organic Trade Commission. Nearly half of all pet-owning households now look for “natural” or eco-friendly pet products, according to another national survey (Packaged Facts).
Consider the Source
One way to avoid this issue is to skip meat altogether and feed our dogs a vegetarian diet, a strategy that’s fairly controversial (and not recommended by many veterinarians). Or, we can look for alternative meat sources for our dog — animals that don’t come from gigantic feedlots and slaughterhouses but rather live and die on smaller farms or ranches, or even in the wild.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the animal that begat the food lived (or died) happily, says Jennifer Larsen, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. “These animals are either hunted or slaughtered on farms,” she says. “They didn’t die in their sleep.” On the other hand, research shows that animals in factory farms are generally subjected to overcrowded, unsanitary conditions; are routinely given hormones and antibiotics; and are consistently less healthy than animals that live on more traditional farms, or in the wild.
And while scientific evidence for the health benefits of naturally raised foods is still slim for people (and practically nonexistent for dogs), many experts contend that foods made from animals and plants raised in non-CAFO settings are inherently superior. “When you switch a dog to a better food, you definitely see benefits because you’re making the dog’s body healthier,” Newkirk says. “Any kind of debilitation or chronic disease or problem will respond, to one degree or another, to a diet that’s made from healthy ingredients and not full of chemicals. That only makes sense.”
Moreover, while the “big five” dog food manufacturers have recently jumped on the natural bandwagon, the majority of foods made with game meats come from smaller companies, which tend to use higher-quality ingredients and produce their products in smaller plants. Some, such as Taste of the Wild, use only hormone- and antibiotic-free meats (and no synthetic preservatives). Others, such as Timberwolf Organics, rely on wild-caught, free-range and U.S.-sourced ingredients. The Canadian company Horizon Pet Nutrition says that none of its ingredients travel more than 100 km (or about 62 miles) to its Saskatchewan facilities. Champion Pet Foods, another Canadian company, uses regional ducks, free-range bison and wild-caught fish in its foods.
Food allergies are triggered by exposure to a particular food (or more specifically, to a protein in that food) or food additives, such as preservatives, Larsen says. And many dogs are allergic to more than one thing, which makes it that much harder to find the culprit(s) in the dog’s diet. According to Larsen, dogs will often develop an allergy to a food or substance they’ve eaten regularly.
Some of the most common allergens for dogs are beef, chicken and grains, which are also the most common ingredients in commercial dog foods, says Newkirk. “If we suspect that the dog has a food allergy, we’ll put her on venison or duck or rabbit because her body hasn’t seen that protein before and therefore shouldn’t be allergic to it.” He also advises owners of allergic dogs to switch to a food that’s grain-free (meaning no wheat, corn or rice). “Grains are mostly carbohydrate, but they do contain some protein, too, and that can trigger a reaction in some dogs,” he says.
Before we begin swapping dog foods, however, it’s important to evaluate our dogs’ current diet as well as their diet history, notes Larsen. “I’m constantly amazed at people who think they’ve got to start buying ostrich [even though] their dog has never been exposed to beef,” she says. It’s also important that the new diet is both limited — incorporating a minimum number of ingredients — and based on a novel protein (something to which the dog has never been exposed). “Many diets with exotic meats also have a lot of other common ingredients, meaning there could be two dozen protein sources in a particular bag or can of dog food,” she says. There’s nothing magic about any one meat over another: “It’s really about exposure,” according to Larsen.
Identifying and eliminating a food allergen can be a lengthy process, and most vets advise an elimination trial of at least six weeks. Make sure that everything — kibble and wet food as well as treats and even chewable medications like heartworm preventives — containing potential allergens is removed from the dog’s diet. If the symptoms clear up after several weeks, re-introduce the food and watch for the symptoms to return.
Once the culprit is determined and a viable substitute is found, a big improvement in the dog’s health is likely, Newkirk observes. “The results are fairly remarkable. Of course, this may not be the dog’s only allergy and you may have other detective work to do, but it will probably make a major difference.”
Look at the Label
Commercial dog foods are generally lumped into a few categories, including “premium,” “super premium,” “ultra premium” and “gourmet.” Although it’s safe to assume that foods containing exotic meats will be classified thus, these words don’t have any official meaning: Dog foods that carry one of these terms on the label aren’t required to contain better ingredients or pass any more stringent nutritional requirements than ones that don’t.
Many dog foods, including exotic products, are labeled “natural” or “organic.” But this can be tricky, says Nancy K. Cook, vice president of the Pet Food Institute, a trade group representing petfood manufacturers, and chair of the USDA’s Organic Pet Food Task Force. The task force recommended a set of standards for dog and cat foods similar to those used for food intended for humans, but as of today, none has been adopted. That means that a manufacturer that touts its use of certified organic ingredients (or certified organic manufacturing facilities) and uses the official “organic” seal, which is issued by the USDA, must follow the same rules as manufacturers of human food, says Barbara Haumann, a spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association.
The term “natural” does have a definition, although it’s not exactly precise (or legally binding), Cook says. “Basically, a pet food is supposed to be made without artificial colors, flavors or preservatives in order to be called natural,” she says. That, at least, is the AAFCO definition. The FDA and USDA have no official definition of the term.
The bottom line: If you’re thinking of venturing into the exotic aisle, be sure to read the label carefully, says Larsen. Different doesn’t always mean better.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What's for dinner?
Having a dog you surely know the myriad of choices you have when it comes to selecting your dog’s food. It should not be news that dog food is a multi-billion dollar industry. What is surprising, is the segmentation that now dominates the marketing of dog food, and the variety of niche-sectors being pursued fervently by dog food manufacturers and their marketing agents. As Publisher of The Bark, one of my tasks is to stay abreast of industry trends. After attending the Global Pet Expo (the largest US pet tradeshow) this past spring, and culling through the pile of press releases received at The Bark’s office—I’ve noticed some fascinating developments in dog food marketing. Many are driven by popular crazes in human dietary, consumer and social habits. These parallels tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the nutritional evolution of our canine companions. Please note: These trends are not being singled out for their health or nutritional benefits but for their distinctive (and often creative) product positioning.
Premium ingredients. The catastrophic recall of 2007, the largest recall in the history of the pet food industry, quickened the pace towards natural and organic ingredients, and opened the doors for aggressive marketing and promotions. The consumer is faced with a glossary of terms from “natural” to “organic,” “human-grade” to “free-range” and “holistic” to “pure” with little guidance from the FDA and other governing bodies. Reading dog food labels today requires a working knowledge of semantics, marketing and science.
Local sourcing. Another outgrowth of the recall, and the outsourcing of manufacturing overseas, is the locavore movement adapted to pets. Like the trend in human food, expounded by journalist, Michael Pollan and others—the premise is to eat locally, and to know where your food comes from. A small but significant number of dog food makers are preparing their product with local ingredients, from farm-bred protein sources to regional grains, fruits and vegetables. Leading the way are practitioners of raw food diets that lend themselves to local sourcing.
Custom prepared and delivered. Catering to the very specific nutritional needs and taste preferences, some companies are offering customized recipes “designed” to your dog’s dietary requirements. Besides the breed, age, gender and size, other factors such as allergies can play a role in determining the best diet for your pet. Foods can be fortified with supplements to boost the immune system and revive joints—all delivered to your front door with your dog’s name on the package.
Weight-loss regimes. Obesity in dogs is a serious problem, with an estimate 44% of US dogs (34 million) considered overweight, and the percentages increasing each year. A number of new dog food products have been created to address the problem—from offering low-fat and reduced-carbohydrate diets to strict control of portions. Some offer pre-measured and custom-formulated dog food shipped direct to the consumer.
Variety. A handful of companies are advocating a rotating diet, as one claims to provide a “complete range of vitamins, minerals, fibers and all the other elements dogs need to thrive.” The concept appeals to the popular idea that variety is a good thing, but appears to counter that often heard warning from veterinarians that dogs can’t easily accommodate a sudden change in their diet. The plans claim careful calibration and balanced formulas to reduce digestive problems and “optimize nutrition,” while preventing oversaturation of any one ingredient (which can lead to allergies).
Raw food. The raw food diet has been around for some time now, and the legion of followers continues to grow. With the increasing popularity of raw food come more commercial options boasting USDA inspected and “chemical-free” meats along with “unprocessed whole foods”—available in handy frozen packages at your local pet specialty store. A growing number of small suppliers offer product delivered locally—from grass-fed bison to free-range emu, from chicken necks to lamb tripe.
Make-Your-Own. To augment the do-it-yourself movement in dog food preparation, companies are specializing in “minimally processed” mixes of dried or dehydrated ingredients. Some simply require water and are meant as stand-alone meals, while others combine with raw food or commercial canned products.
Special Needs. From wheat-free to gluten-free, from low-carb to high-fiber, from vegan to ultra-protein, more and more tailored ingredients are being marketed to address allergies, obesity, high-maintenance issues and a host of other special needs diets.
Selecting the best food for your dog is an important decision based on the individual needs of each pet. Your dog’s age, body condition, health history, along with your budget all factor into this choice. The challenge is navigating through the marketing come-ons and buzz words to discover the real ingredients and benefits offered by each product. It can seem like a daunting task, but one well worth the effort in supporting the health and well-being of your canine family member.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Tricks of the Trade
Winter’s often-arctic temperatures don’t inspire long walks or afternoons in the park with the dog. Like us, our canine pals spend more time indoors, which—because they’re biological creatures who shed and are prone to the occasional gastrointestinal indiscretion—creates more potential “clean-up ops” for us. Here are some quick tips for dealing with the inevitable.
•Fur on the furniture? Use a piece of terry cloth to brush it to one spot, then pick it up; a slightly dampened sponge or rubber gloves also work well as picker-uppers.
•For stains, stock up on white vinegar or commercial stain- and odor-neutralizing products; those with enzymes or “oxy” in the name work best. Keep some old white or light-colored cotton towels or white paper towels at hand.
•Accidents on carpeting require immediate attention. For fresh urine, blot the spot, apply a pet stain/odor remover spray or a vinegar solution (1/3 cup vinegar to 2/3 cup water), blot again and repeat as needed. For upchuck, remove residue and blot with cotton towels. Apply a detergent solution (1/4 teaspoon clear dishwashing detergent mixed with 1 cup water) and blot well. Rinse with plain water, blot and allow to dry. Whatever method you choose, test it out first on an inconspicuous spot, and try not to soak the carpet.
•Place a throw rug on your dog’s favorite resting place to keep the carpet clean, and check out the grime- and water-trapper varieties for the door. Tracked in mud should be scraped up (or allowed to dry and vacuumed up) and any stains treated ASAP.
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