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.
For years, I kept a supply of phenobarbital on hand, prescribed by my vet for my mixed-breed dog's seizure. It turned out to be a one-time thing, and eventually, I disposed of the drug. But I can testify that watching her in the grip of it was both scary and confusing.
As dog-lovers, most of us hope we're never faced with a number of canine health conditions. Seizures fall into that category. When they happen, however, it's helpful to understand what we're looking at and what we need to do next.
Seizures, which are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain, can indicate a variety of conditions, some transitory, some longer-lasting. Our old friend "idiopathic" --or, of unknown origin--also comes into play more than either we or our vets would like.
As explained on the Texas A&M newswire, "For some dogs, a seizure is a one-time experience, but in most cases seizures reoccur. An underlying problem in the brain could be responsible for reoccurring seizures, often resulting in a diagnosis of epilepsy. Between the many causes of seizures in dogs and the often normal lab results, idiopathic epilepsy proves to be a frequent diagnosis." Other causes include toxin ingestion, tumors, stroke, or another of several related neurological disorders.
Dr. Joseph Mankin, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, describes a typical seizure. “The dog may become agitated or disoriented, and then may collapse on its side. It may exhibit signs of paddling, vocalization, and may lose bladder control. The seizure may last for a few seconds up to a few minutes, and often the dog will be disoriented or anxious afterward. Occasionally, a dog may be blind for a short period of time.”
When a dog is in the grip of a seizure, there's little we can do, other than to keep our hands away from his or her mouth. Afterward, the most important thing we can do is take the pup to the vet for investigation into the cause. Fortunately, a number of treatments, ranging from allopathic (Western medicine) to complementary (including acupunture) exist.
Like most things, especially those related to health, knowing what we're dealing with is half the battle.
For more on this topic, read Dr. Sophia Yin's excellent overview.
Wellness: Health Care
Aging pets benefit from close attention to their health
Most parents complain about how quickly their kids grow up. Within the blink of an eye, it seems, children go from diapers to diplomas. Now, imagine squeezing an entire life span into just 13 years, which is, on average, about how long dogs live. (People, on the other hand, have an average span of 77.6 years. ) Because dogs age nonlinearly, one human year can be equivalent to seven to 10 dog years. This means not only that puppies grow both physically and socially at a blazing speed, they also become senior citizens at an accelerated rate. And like their human counterparts, diseases such as diabetes, kidney failure, arthritis, dental disease and cancer become more prevalent with increasing age. While we cannot stop the aging process, there are measures we can take to ensure that our pets live long, healthy lives.
No one likes going to the doctor, and dogs are no exception. Nonetheless, geriatric dogs—defined as those seven years or older—should have routine veterinary examinations every six months. This may seem excessive, but it isn’t when you consider that six months is the equivalent of three dog-years. A yearly exam for a dog is equivalent to an exam every seven to 10 years for a human, and no medical doctor would advise seeing elderly human patients so infrequently. These routine exams are important, as they make it more likely that problems can be diagnosed and treated before they become more difficult to manage.
During these visits, the veterinarian will perform a complete physical and oral exam, and will also ask you about any changes you may have observed in your dog’s behavior or activity. Since dogs cannot tell us their symptoms, it is important that we observe them as we go about our daily routines, because changes in appetite, thirst, behavior and weight may signal the onset of disease.
Diagnostics Make a Difference
While dental disease is not unique to older dogs, it is usually more advanced in seniors due to years of neglect. Just imagine what your teeth would look like if you never brushed them. And it’s not just cosmetic—untreated dental disease can lead to more than just bad breath, but can result in difficulty eating, pain, tooth loss and the spread of infection throughout the body. A proper dental cleaning requires general anesthesia. While anesthesia in older animals may sound scary, age alone is not a risk factor. Here again, screening tests are important, since older animals are more likely to have conditions that require special care when using anesthesia. Your veterinarian will determine if your senior dog needs a dental cleaning and is healthy enough to undergo this procedure safely.
Lumps and Bumps
The shape, appearance, size and location of the mass can give your veterinarian clues as to whether the mass is benign or malignant. However, only a pathologist (who examines the tumor cells with a microscope) can make a definitive diagnosis. Your veterinarian will want to get a specimen, which can be obtained with fine needle aspiration or incisional or excisional biopsy, and send it to pathology. Once the mass is diagnosed, your veterinarian can discuss what treatment—if any—is needed.
The subject of cancer is as scary in pets as it is in humans, but fortunately, there have been significant advances in cancer treatment for our canine companions. Like us, our dogs can benefit from better imaging, such as MRIs and CT scans, and advanced treatment options, which include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Ultimately, the key to fighting cancer is early detection. Monitor your furry companion carefully.
Getting old is a normal and inevitable part of life. Though we cannot stop aging, we can take measures to ensure that our dogs’ senior years are truly their “Golden Years.”
News: Guest Posts
Tools to Groom
For those of us with dogs, summer is a season to be outdoors—early morning walks, afternoons at the lake or beach, weekend camping trips. Life outdoors is great but it has a tendency to follow you home as it attaches to your dog’s coat and paws … burrs, sand, mud and plain old dirt. Having our own pack’s three coats and dozen paws to clean and maintain, we’ve searched out a small arsenal of canine grooming products to help combat the inevitable summer soiling. Here are some of our favorite tools to keep ready in your mudroom, porch or garage … wherever your dog grooming takes place.
The Groom Genie
Messy Mutts Gloves and Chenille Grooming Mitt
News: Guest Posts
Be sure where it comes from
There’s a new concern about fish, and once again, labels won’t clear it up. The hidden ingredient in some pet food is slave labor used to harvest small forage fish like mackerel. A New York Times expose of brutal conditions on Thai fishing ships describes the link to several top brand U.S. pet food companies.
Why not just skip Thai fish? Many would if that information was on the label, as it is with seafood meant for humans. But country of origin doesn’t apply to pet food rules. So where the fish or fishmeal is from isn’t likely to be announced on labels or packages. The difficulty tracking each link in the global seafood supply chain can even leave manufacturers in doubt. The article says bar codes on pet food in some European countries let consumers track Thai seafood to the packaging facilities. But prior to processing, the global supply chain for forage fish, much of which is used for pet and animal feed, is “invisible.”
Given the unsavory news, not to mention the topic of fishing the oceans to extinction, any amount of Thai fish is likely to be too much for many shoppers.
AAFCO, the governing (though not regulatory) body for the pet food industry notes that FDA pet food regulations “focus on product labeling and the ingredients which may be used.” Where those ingredients originate is left out.
That’s why some shoppers look for “alternative” certification labels from organic to Fair Trade, and put their faith in U.S. companies that aim to exceed regulatory standards. For example, Honest Kitchen, which sells human food-grade products, states on its website that suppliers guarantee their statement of country of origin. (Another promise is that no ingredient is from China.) The company is a member of Green America that promotes companies that operate in ways that support workers, communities and the environment.
As for buying dog food with fish sourced from non-Thai waters, some pet food companies do state where the fish is sourced. But many manufacturers have a long way to go to make the process transparent and easy enough for consumers to find their ingredient sourcing. (We highly recommend calling pet food companies and asking for this information to be more readily available!)
Advertising terms like “holistic” (meaning the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) and “biologically appropriate” (referring to meat-content for carnivores) say nothing about origin.
Even pet food regulators admit that pet caretakers “have a right to know what they are feeding their animals.”
So if in doubt where the fish is from, ask the company behind the bag or can. That much—the manufacturer’s name and address—is required on labels.
And some say, why should pet food buyers beware the global supply chain? With some research on a dog’s protein, calcium and other basic needs, it’s more possible than ever to get it right with a home-made diet rich in “human food” or even home-cooked table scraps. In fact, local food waste is a problem with plenty of solutions.
Wellness: Health Care
It can’t be cured but it can be managed—partnering with your vet is the key.
Failure is a harsh word. It signifies loss of hope, or defeat. So when your vet diagnoses your dog with chronic kidney failure, how can your heart not sink? That’s why some DVMs call it chronic renal insufficiency (CRI) or chronic kidney disease (CRD) instead.
Maybe you made a vet appointment because your dog spends more time at the water bowl, seems overly thin and shies away from previously loved food. Some pets with kidney disease may also have urinary incontinence, vomiting, diarrhea, bad breath, blindness, depression or lethargy—all of which may be signs that the kidneys’ multitasking capacity is impaired.
These two bean-shaped organs are responsible for water conservation, blood pressure control, salt balance, phosphorus and calcium regulation, and the initial step in red blood cell production. When their performance of these jobs begins to falter, many of the body’s functions start to tumble too. Blood levels of BUN (blood urea nitrogen), creatinine, calcium and phosphate escalate; protein spills into the urine; potassium levels fall; red blood cell counts drop; and blood pressure rises. Your dog starts to feel very unwell, indeed.
Where to Start
CRD affects one in ten dogs (compared to one in three cats), and the initial medical goals are to investigate and address an inciting cause in an effort to halt the disease. The origins of CRD are many: chronic bacterial infections, kidney stones, immune-mediated diseases, high blood pressure, congenital kidney malformations, leptospirosis, Lyme disease, grape/raisin or antifreeze poisoning, cancer. Often, we don’t find the specific reason. We also want to attend to the dog’s clinical signs—dehydration, nausea, weight loss, fatigue—with treatments fine-tuned by test results. If the dog’s getting nephrotoxic drugs like NSAIDs and certain antibiotics, we’ll take him off them too.
CRD is managed, not cured, and your vet will refine her treatment plan by regular monitoring of your dog’s health. Tests recommended every three months might involve a renal panel (CBC and chemistries), urinalysis, urine culture, urine protein/creatinine ratio and blood pressure.
The first signs of CRD—elevations in BUN and creatinine levels—typically occur when the kidneys have lost 75 percent of their function, which has made its treatment challenging. However, Idexx Laboratories now offers a blood test, SDMA (symmetric dimethylarginine), which catches CRD at the 40 percent mark and allows earlier intervention.
Treatment goals for CRD are life-long and supportive, aimed at improving quality of life and slowing disease progression. Since the kidneys perform numerous functions, various medications are used to address specific disorders. ACE (angiotensin-converting-enzyme)–inhibitors are prescribed for hypertension and/or urine protein loss, antacids like famotidine or omeprazole for GI ulcers and overly acidic stomach, maropitant and metoclopramide for nausea. When indicated, phosphate binders reduce nausea, and potassium supplements boost low levels.
Your veterinary team can teach you how to give subcutaneous fluids at home, if needed, to hydrate your dog and flush out toxins. You can also encourage your canine friend to increase his water intake by providing a pet water fountain, adding wet food to his diet, and placing clean bowls with fresh water in multiple rooms. Your vet will also likely suggest a diet change. Prescription diets like Hill’s K/D, Royal Canin Renal MP and LP, Iams Renal Plus, and Purina N/F restrict phosphorus and sodium, reduce protein and add omega-3 fatty acids with B and C vitamins, a combination that has been tested to increase lifespan and overall quality of life. Restricting protein too early, however, can lead to muscle wasting. IRIS, the International Renal Interest Society, endorses a kidney-specific diet when a dog’s creatinine level rises to 2.1 to 5 mg/dl (Stage III). You can also find online support for home-cooked CRD diets via veterinary prescription (see info box). To make it more likely that your dog will accept a new diet, make the switch slowly.
The body does not store water-soluble B-complex and C vitamins, so we need to replace them every day. When dogs have CRD, these essential nutrients wash out too easily with the dilute urine. Prescription foods compensate for these expected losses, and Renal Essentials by Vetriscience, a highly palatable and balanced supplement with vitamins, potassium, fish oil and herbs, can be given twice daily as well.
Studies document that high daily doses of oral omega-3 fatty acids enhance the function of joints, heart, skin, brain and kidneys. In one study, fish oils decreased mortality, improved renal function and diminished protein loss. The recommended dose of marine fish oil, omega-3 EPA and DHA, is 300 mg per 10 pounds of dog weight. Do not use cod liver oil, as it may have excessive A and D vitamins.
In the Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine, Drs. Wynn and Marsden advocate traditional Chinese herbs for CRD, based on clinical experience. Studies in rats showed that Liu Wei Di Huang/Rehmannia 6 enhanced renal blood flow. Wynn and Marsden have also seen cats thrive for years when started in early-stage CRD on Shen Qi Wan/Rehmannia 8, another important formula. Rehmannia 8, with cinnamon and aconite, is warming, and this combination, when consistently used, can lower BUN and creatinine levels, reduce vomiting and thirst, boost appetite and weight, decrease urine volume, and increase urine concentration. Consultation with a TCVM vet is highly recommended for beginning and monitoring pets on Chinese herbs.
Rounding out a holistic kidney care plan, consider chiropractic to release spinal fixations and improve hind-end weakness that are common with CRD, and acupuncture to enhance the TCVM herbs’ effectiveness.
We who love dogs want our companions to live long and happy lives. If your canine has CRD, you can approach the disease from an integrative approach, maintaining quality of life and slowing kidney degeneration. Optimizing our dogs’ health may involve monitoring and close management, but they repay us with their company and more days of infinite joy.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Expanding the frontiers of the canine capacity to help us carry on.
We can’t find our glasses, our car keys or the right word. We forget an appointment. We’re unable to bring to mind the name of a long-ago best friend. Many of us jokingly refer to these as “senior moments,” but the humor is only skin-deep. Underneath is the niggling worry that dementia—the term for a set of symptoms signaling a decline in mental abilities severe enough to interfere with our daily lives—lurks. This fear is fed by a sobering statistic: according to the Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention, in the U.S., at least 5 million individuals suffer from age-related dementias (Alzheimer’s disease accounts for roughly 70 percent of the total). These numbers will continue to rise as the population ages.
Severe memory loss is no laughing matter. The brain, a mysterious and complex organ, is, among other things, the repository of the very essence of who we are: our memories. Generally speaking, memory breaks down into three broad categories: sensory, short-term and long-term. Things as dissimilar as childhood recollections and how to walk, hold a spoon or comb our hair reside in our memory As damaged nerve cells (neurons) cease to function, they take much of this information with them. This is where dogs come in.
Dogs love routine. People with dementia have difficulty with routine, everyday activities. Roughly a dozen years ago, two people had the idea to put them together. When Israeli social worker Daphna Golan-Shemesh met professional dog trainer Yariv Ben-Yosef, they chatted about their respective occupations. As Ben-Yosef recalled, “It was clear to us that Daphna’s expertise in Alzheimer’s and my expertise with dogs could result in something new.” Together, Golan-Shemesh and Ben-Yosef pioneered the idea of training dogs to help those with dementia to not only feel better but also, to assist with daily activities.
Fast-forward to early 2012, when Alzheimer’s Scotland secured funding to study the possibility that specially trained service dogs could benefit people in the early stages of dementia. Four students at the Glasgow School of Art developed the initial concept as a service design project in response to the Design Council’s 2011 Living Well with Dementia Challenge. Focused on “finding practical solutions to social problems,” the competition required entrants to “design and develop products and services that rethink living with dementia, and launch them as real initiatives.” The Dementia Dog project grew from this call to action.
Dementia Dog is a collaborative effort, with Alzheimer’s Scotland, Dogs for the Disabled, Guide Dogs Scotland and the Glasgow School of Art pooling their respective areas of expertise. Last year, the research phase was completed, and the group is now in the early stages of a small-scale pilot program. As noted on the Dementia Dog website, the program “aims to prove that dogs can help people with dementia maintain their waking, sleeping and eating routine … improve confidence, keep them active and engaged … as well as provide a constant companion who will reassure them when they face new and unfamiliar situations.”
They are also developing programs for two more assistive functions: intervention dogs, trained to help the client with specifically identified tasks, and facility dogs, who enhance the emotional well being of those living in residential care.
The program’s dogs receive instruction at the Guide Dogs’ Forfar Training School. After 18 months’ work, the first two dementia service dogs—Kaspa, a Lab, and Oscar, a Golden Retriever—were certified last year, and two more dogs are currently being trained.
As noted in the program statement, the dogs help their people with core needs: support for daily living (exercise, balance, alerting to hazards, environmental safety), reminders (prompts to take medication), “soft” support (companionship, a bridge to social interaction, confidence building), and physical and emotional anchoring (staying with their person while the partner/caregiver shops, or helping their person feel safe and secure when alone).
The dogs are also trained to provide another critical service: getting their people home safely. The dogs’ collars are fitted with a GPS unit, and if the person doesn’t give the “home” command, the device helps families or law enforcement zero in on the pair’s location. Unlike guide dogs for the blind, dementia dogs operate at the end of a six-foot leash, which allows them to most effectively steer their people in the appropriate direction.
Dementia service dogs are being trained in the U.S. as well. DogWish.org, a California-based charity that trains and sponsors service dogs, lists “dementia dogs” as one of their training options, as does Wilderwood Service Dogs in Tennessee.
This service dog program taps into our almost primal love for dogs in a very personal way. The dogs of our present, the dogs of our past: their names and quirks and the bone-deep understanding of their nonjudgmental and unconditional love often stay with us when much else has been lost. A person living with dementia may not be able to recall what she had for breakfast or where she lives, but the dogs she loved? That’s another story.
In a 1.28-minute YouTube video clip that’s been viewed by more than 5.6 million people (go to see it for yourself), an elderly man with Alzheimer’s who’s lost almost all of his speech talks to and interacts with the family dog. It’s hard to imagine a better example of the very real value that dogs—purpose-trained or not—provide to the most vulnerable among us.
Read deeply touching comments from family members and caregivers about the ways dogs help their loved ones cope at dementiadog.org.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Investigating the microscopic worlds in our dogs may reveal pathways to better health.
The microbiome is the invisible world of the hundred trillion bacterial, viral and fungal microbes that live on us and in us—on our hair and skin, behind our ears and inside our eyelids. The bulk of these miniscule microbes are good guys, gut microbiota that congregate in the digestive tract, where they bolster the immune system, manufacture vitamins and digest food to generate nutrients and energy.
Microbial equilibrium is a delicate balancing act, and a broad spectrum of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases is linked to having too many microbes—or too few. For example, researchers know that significantly lower bacterial diversity is found in both people and dogs with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases.
Teasing out the biological interaction of trillions of miniscule microorganisms that colonize the body, and the role they play in well being, is a new frontier. Will it be a watershed moment in veterinary medicine? Scientists are hopeful. The human microbiome has become a hot topic in biologic investigations, and canine research is fast catching up, much of it inspired by the success of the Human Microbiome Project, launched in 2007 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Using stool and tissue samples to isolate microorganisms, researchers are mapping the diversity and normal profile of the human microbial community.
Another undertaking, the Human Food Project, invites the public to submit personal and family microbial samples along with samples from family dogs to better understand how a person’s microbiome compares to that of animals living in the same environment. (The project’s dog segment has been discontinued.) The analysis centers on the anthropological co-evolution of humans, animal and plant microbes to understand modern disease against the backdrop of our ancestral/microbial past.
It’s all about dogs at Companion PBx, a new startup that primarily targets the canine digestive tract. Its goal is to build a cumulative gut flora database and develop dietary products customized for dogs’ digestive health. In January 2015, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for construction of the database.
According to Companion PBx Chief Science Officer Kelly Scott Swanson, PhD, who’s on the faculty at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Animal Sciences, “By sequencing the microbes in your pet’s sample, we obtain a fingerprint of the microbial community in your pet’s GI tract.”
Microbes in Common
Affected by age, environment, ancestry, evolution, genetics and diet, microbial communities vary widely between species and across individuals within a species. A recent study suggests that our housemates—including the family dog—may also affect the composition of our personal microbial signature.
If you and your significant other kiss, hug and/or share a bed with your dog, the three of you have more in common than you think. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, revealed several similarities: Adults who share a dog have more similar mouth microbes than those who don’t. Dog-owning families have more diverse and different microbial colonies than dogless households. Parents tend to share more kinds of mouth bacteria with their dog than they do their children. And children raised with dogs have a wider variety of microbes than dogless kids (Song et al. 2013).
Whether these spit-swapped microbes serve a purpose or are just passing through is not clear. But research shows that children raised with dogs are less likely to be afflicted by eczema (Epstein et al. 2010) and asthma (American Society for Microbiology 2012).
The notion that microorganisms in the canine gastrointestinal tract might have unique properties is not new. Early Romans understood the medical value of a well-run therapy dog program. Health temples, the ancient equivalent of modern-day outpatient clinics, were staffed with live-in cynotherapists, gentle dogs who wandered about the grounds greeting patients and licking wounds. Were the dogs healing only psychosomatic injuries? Time and additional research funding will tell.
The idea that our microorganisms may to some extent be collectively beneficial is intriguing. People and dogs have been exchanging microbes for at least 30,000 years, since the first little cave girl kissed the first proto-dog puppy smack on the muzzle. That’s a long history of sharing. It’s possible that our microorganisms are at least symbiotic, and perhaps even played a role in the dramatic domestication of the dog.
Theoretically, many thousands of years ago, a population of carnivorous wolves or ancient proto-dogs (depending on where you stand in the dog-domestication debate) transitioned from a meat-heavy diet to one laden with grain, a consequence of the agrarian revolution.
Scientists know that the acquisition of a new diet is a fundamental driver for the evolution of a new species (Dale, Moran 2006). When species transition from carnivorous to omnivorous diets, the gut microbial community co-diversifies with the host and drives further evolution (Ley et al. 2008). As human diets changed, so too did those of Canis familiaris. Over time, as we incorporated these unique animals into our daily lives, we continued to reshape them.
In humans, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases are on the increase. Scientists can’t verify a similar pattern in dogs because epidemiological studies are rarely conducted in veterinary medicine. Additionally, many autoimmune conditions are diagnosed based on the patient’s subjective description of symptoms.
But this is not the case with itchy skin. Dogs who scratch themselves incessantly are highly likely to have allergies. When researchers compared microbial colonies on the skin of healthy dogs to those of dogs with allergies, they found that non-allergic dogs have much richer and diverse skin microbial communities (Hoffmann et al. 2014).
But when it comes to proving causality, scientists wisely err on the side of caution. It’s not understood if a change in the microbiome causes certain conditions, or if it occurs as a consequence of the conditions. Nor is it absolutely clear that more diversity is better than less. At this point, scientists cannot say with confidence exactly what a healthy microbiome should look like in the dog.
Moreover, what seems logical may not be so. For instance, anyone who has lived with a poop-eating pooch has wondered why some dogs do and other don’t. Are coprophagic dogs seeking microbes lacking in their gut? Surprisingly, research involving mice suggests that this might not be the case; coprophagia in germfree mice is the same as in conventional lab mice (Ebino et al. 1987).
Other questions arise: Are the microbiomes of individual dog breeds more similar to each other than they are to those of other breeds? And could these isolated microbial communities drive breed-specific ailments?
Jan Suchodolski, DVM, a Texas A&M veterinary medical and biomedical sciences researcher who studies dog and cat gastrointestinal diseases, says that this doesn’t seem to be the case. As he noted, “So far, we do not have any clear evidence that gut microbiomes are more similar within breeds. Environmental influences such as age, diets and antibiotics, and especially the effects of GI disease, are larger than any breed effect.
“It may be possible that we missed an effect, as we have not evaluated thousands of animals. But if there were a breed effect, it would probably be very minor. Even within puppies of the same litter, the microbiome shows huge inter-animal variation, so the animal effect is much stronger than any other effect.”
Idiopathic canine inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a gastrointestinal condition in which the digestive tract is chronically inflamed. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss. Dogs with IBD have significantly lower bacterial diversity as well as microbial communities that are distinct from those of healthy dogs. In 2014, Dr. Suchodolski and his colleagues conducted a study of 22 companion dogs, half of whom suffered from idiopathic IBD (Minamoto et al. 2015). They wanted to know if traditional treatments—steroids and special diets—directly or indirectly created a more robust microbial community.
After treatment, the sick dogs felt a lot better. However, there was no change in their gut microbiota. The researchers concluded, “This study demonstrates intestinal dysbiosis [microbial imbalance] and altered serum metabolite profiles in dogs with IBD. But medical therapy doesn't seem to affect the intestinal dysbiosis.”
It could be that, rather than triggering the condition, microorganisms are compromised by it. Researchers also suspect that biological environmental stresses are involved in ways not yet understood. Dr. Suchodolski added, “It may be that we need longer follow-up periods of treatments to see potential improvements. Another reasonable theory is that with the current standard therapies—for instance, immunosuppression—we just control clinical signs, but the underlying etiology of the disease is ongoing.”
When it comes to treating dogs for myriad problems, vets often prescribe antibiotics, and for good reason: antibiotics save lives. But the war on infection sometimes puts good bacteria in the line of fire, too. When assaulted by repeated antibiotic use, some classes of gut bacteria struggle to recover. If the affected bacteria play a pivotal role in autoimmune health, overuse of antibiotics may coincide with a decrease in healthy autoimmune responses.
Antibiotics are not the only culprits. Scientists suspect that in human births, Cesarean deliveries may contribute to an increase in autoimmune weaknesses as well. In a vaginal birth, the fetus departs the womb without a single microbe but acquires them by passing through the mother’s birth canal. By the time the newborn takes his first breath, he is covered with colonies of bacteria that kick-start his immune system, establish a healthy digestive tract, help shape his growing brain and even protect him from psychiatric disorders. C-section babies start life without the microbes they would have picked up from vaginal delivery, suggesting that the colonization of the newborn might be delayed (Jakobsson et al. 2014).
Medical disorders connected to non-vaginal delivery and the slow introduction of protective bacteria have not been studied in the dog. Considering that a number of breeds with exceptionally flat, wide skulls—such as the Boston Terrier, French Bulldog and Bulldog—must have their pups delivered via C-section, it’s an area that deserves further study.
Or is diet the problem? Commercially manufactured dog chow was introduced in the U.S. in the mid-1920s. By the 1950s, processed dog food like Friskies, Sergeant’s and Purina were widely available through local grocery stores. Today in the U.S., we spend more than $10 billion a year on commercial pet food. The question arises: has the increase in autoimmune diseases paralleled the rise in popularity of processed dog food?
Because veterinary practices typically don’t collect this type of empirical data, the answer is, at best, a guess. But many dog owners think so, and have eliminated or cut back on processed foods in favor of raw meat and vegetables. However, as of now, there is no definitive evidence to show that fresh foods modulate the gut microbiota.
Sophisticated DNA sequencing technology has opened up the invisible world to scientific scrutiny. But determining its impact on the host species is difficult and time-consuming. Researchers need to locate and identify a microbe’s fingerprint, then remove a sample and grow it in a culture, a process especially difficult with shyer microbes that are destroyed by oxygen or stomach acid.
To figure out why we get sick and the role microbes play in illness, researchers must first determine how these trillions of organisms interact with each other. And the fact that scientists can prove a problem exists doesn’t mean they know how to fix it.
Developing therapeutic dog foods that target specific vulnerabilities may help, but will take time to develop. Although the probiotic movement may oversell their benefits, probiotics (friendly bacteria like those that live in the gut) are effective in some cases. And prebiotics, foods that encourage growth of good bacteria already present, may help as well.
The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) is recruiting dogs with acute symptoms of diarrhea and/or vomiting for a new clinical trail that will evaluate the role of the intestinal microbiome—the community of “good” bacteria that live in the gut—on chronic gastrointestinal diseases. Therapy will include simple diet change, treatment with antibiotics or combination therapy with steroids for more complicated cases.
Penn Vet researchers anticipate that their study may reveal how gut microbiota influence and respond to treatment, which in turn could lay the groundwork for future projects using treatments such as prebiotics, probiotics or fecal transplants (transferring “good” microorganisms from a donor’s healthy stool to the patient’s gastrointestinal tract). According to Research Assistant Professor Dr. Daniel Beiting, “Whereas past studies have used a single method to sequence bacterial DNA, the Penn Vet study will use a more sophisticated approach called metagenomics, generating a much more comprehensive catalog of bacteria in the stool and providing insight into what they might be doing.”
Penn Vet is currently looking for dogs with chronic gastrointestinal problems. People interested in enrolling their dog in the study—Evaluating the Role of the Microbiome in the Resolution of Canine Chronic Enteropathy—should email Penn Vet’s Veterinary Clinical Investigations Center at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (215) 573-0302.
Future possibilities are exciting. In the meantime, kiss your dog. It’s good for you in more ways than one.
Wellness: Health Care
A low-stress approach paves the way to successful dog handling.
Elissa and David Miles moved from Manhattan to Mattituck, Long Island, to pursue their lifelong dream of opening a dog-grooming salon. Their shop, Groom + Gear, which has attracted a clientele of more than 400 since opening in late 2013, practices something most others don’t: low-stress handling.
“I learned about Dr. Sophia Yin’s philosophy of low-stress handling 14 years ago while apprenticing with Lydia DesRoche, a New York City dog trainer,” says Elissa. (DesRoche is the owner-operator of Sit Stay Dog Training.)
Dr. Yin, a veterinarian well known for her work in animal behavior, coined the phrase “low-stress handling” It describes her philosophy of helping dogs through unpleasant or scary encounters by using positive reinforcement and creating comfortable environments. (Her death last year, at 48, stunned a nationwide group of passionate followers.)
Dr. Yin’s lasting legacy of low-stress handling stands in contrast to the unfortunately still-popular philosophy of establishing dominance over a dog as a way of dealing with unwanted behaviors and aggression. Dr. Yin recognized that many of these behaviors—among them, lunging, guarding food or toys, aggression, and separation anxiety—are based on a dog’s fear.
Further, she found that exercising dominance or trying to force a dog (or cat) to become compliant in a situation in which they are fearful often causes the undesired behavior to escalate and worsen over time.
As a vet, I have too often experienced how quickly a dog or cat’s aggression can ratchet up; they can go from mildly uncooperative to full-on trying to bite and physically escape as the level of restraint is increased. It’s critical to recognize this dynamic before their fear takes over, and it’s smart to back off and try a “less is more” restraint approach, or to include their owner in the mix.
Back to other canine contexts … low-stress handling also benefits dogs who are undergoing what may be a challenging task, such as grooming.
Obviously, a dog who doesn’t have to spend the day in a cage, but rather, comes into a place to be groomed and goes home afterward will be much more willing to go there again, and will also be more cooperative about the grooming itself. This situation plays out at Groom + Gear, a cageless facility. “David grooms one dog at a time, and they are picked up right after their grooming’s finished, “ Elissa says, adding that she had seen this business from the inside when she worked at a groomer’s in New York City.
In many grooming facilities, she says, “The dogs are dropped off in the morning and spend the day in a cage. The dryer is noisy and attaches to the outside, blowing hot air around the dog.
“[In our shop,] we use earmuffs that stay on the dog’s head, or a hand-held, quieter dryer on about one-third of the dogs. We have a pheromone diffuser, which releases calming pheromones into the grooming room, and each grooming begins with a bath and massage by David. The dogs are strapped with a wide band that crosses the chest when they’re on the table—nothing around the neck. We only use muzzles when the dog is a known biter.” On average, David grooms five dogs per day. He takes his time with each, typically one-and-a-half to two hours.”
And not surprisingly, she says, dogs come running in to see him.
The more dogs are accustomed to being touched and being around other dogs and people when they’re at home, the less stress they will feel later when in a new environment or activity, like grooming or being examined at the vet.
“Typically, puppies don’t show intolerance to being touched,” says Kristi Vizza, a trainer at Andrea Arden in New York City. “When a new puppy comes into your home, handling [the pup while] giving treats [should] be part of the daily routine.”
According to Vizza, a puppy or dog who begins taking treats more roughly, or stops taking them altogether, is displaying signs of discomfort with being touched. Looking at your hand when you touch a sensitive area is another way dogs convey their unease.
“If you see signs of discomfort when touching a certain area of your dog, back off and move to touching another area. Typically, dogs resent their paws (particularly the hind paws), ears or tail being touched,” Vizza says. “Handling your dog is something you’re going to do [daily] for the first couple of years. It’s relationship building. Behavior issues pop up between the age of 7 and 18 months, so for the first 6 months, socializing and handling your puppy as much as possible is extremely important.”
Low-stress handling is about meeting dogs where they are. It sets them up for success by teaching them to be less shy, and to tolerate being handled. Owners need to know to expect some unwanted behavior issues with their dog—they can and will come up. It doesn’t mean that either the owner or the dog has failed, however.
Although low-stress handling is highly regarded among vets, it requires patience, time and staff training to implement. In busy pet-service operations, carving out additional time can be a challenge, but is eminently worth the effort. Sedation, muzzling or roughly handling a noncompliant dog or cat may be faster, but they are techniques that can take a toll on our companion animals. As public awareness of the low-stress-handling approach increases, the demand for, and number of, facilities that practice it should increase as well.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What we feed our seniors has a nose-to-tail affect on their quality of life.
We are what we eat, or so the saying goes, and the emerging science of nutrigenomics (nutrition + genome), puts this adage to the test. Nutrigenomics is the study of how the foods we and our pets eat “speak” to our cells to regulate gene expression, which in turn plays a role in determining if we’re healthy or plagued by illness. In this article, adapted from Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health, by W. Jean Dodds, DVM, and Diana Laverdure, MS, the authors consider the ways that applying related discoveries in nutrigenomics can help our dogs gain or retain quality of life as they move into their senior years.
Which ingredients are proven to ramp up cognitive activity in aging dogs? Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, fed their dogs vitamins E and C (antioxidants) along with a mixture of fruits and vegetables to reduce free radical damage. They also included alpha-lipoic acid and L-carnitine (mitochondrial cofactors), which improve the function of aged mitochondria—specialized parts of cells that produce most of a cell’s energy—in their diets. The result? According to the study report, the diet resulted in a significant improvement in the ability of aged (but not young) animals to acquire progressively more difficult learning tasks (Cotman et al. 2002).
Other important nutrients also show the ability to improve cognitive function in senior dogs. Among the most studied: milk thistle, phosphatidylserine (a phospholipid), SAMe (s-adenosylmethionine), medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) found in coconut oil, and DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids (Milgram et al. 2002, Landsberg et al. 2011, Bensimoun 2013).
Many functional nutritional ingredients don’t just benefit one part of the body; they promote health across a wide range of systems. This, of course, makes sense because the body is not made up of isolated parts (as many Western medical specialists would like us to believe); it contains an intricately related set of systems that all perform a complex, wonderfully intertwined dance. Coconut oil, omega-3 fatty acids and many of the other functional ingredients target the body holistically, producing a wide range of benefits from head to toe—or, in the case of dogs, from nose to tail.
Coconut oil possesses many therapeutic qualities, but perhaps the most amazing is its scientifically proven ability to improve brain function in older dogs and people. As the body’s supercomputer, the brain requires a lot of energy, most of which is satisfied when the body breaks down glucose from food. However, as we age, we metabolize glucose less efficiently, leaving a gap in the brain’s energy requirement.
When this occurs, alternative sources of fuel become important to fill this gap and provide much-needed energy to the brain. This is where medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), such as those contained in coconut oil, can help save the day. Unlike regular fats (which the body metabolizes slowly), MCTs break down and absorb rapidly into the bloodstream, providing a quick source of non-carbohydrate energy.
Further, they readily cross the blood-brain barrier, supplying up to 20 percent of a normal brain’s energy requirement; are important for ketone production, which serves as an additional source of “brain food”; and help the body use omega-3 fatty acids more efficiently and increase omega-3 concentrations in the brain—a good reason to give your dog both omega-3s and coconut oil (Aldrich 2009, Laflamme 2012, Wolf 2009).
One study showed that when 24 Beagles who were between the ages of 7.5 and 11.6 years old at the start of the trial were fed a diet supplemented with 5.5 percent MCT, their cognitive ability improved significantly. The dogs showed improvement in learning-related tasks after only about two weeks of consuming the supplemented diet, and within one month, their learning ability improved significantly. The study’s authors concluded that supplementation with MCTs can improve age-related cognitive decline by providing an alternative source of brain energy (Pan et al. 2010).
In addition to its brain-boosting qualities, coconut oil is purported to provide a host of other benefits. It contains antiviral, antimicrobial and antifungal properties; helps with weight loss (MCTs increase metabolism, so they send signals of satiety and cannot be stored as fat), improves digestion and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, benefits the skin and coat, and provides a rapid form of non-carbohydrate energy (Aldrich 2009, Wolf 2009).
The coconut oil you select should be unrefined (virgin) and expeller- or cold pressed. Processed, heat-treated foods lose their natural life-giving nutritional force. If possible, choose organic brands to avoid potential contamination from pesticides.
Coconut oil does not need to be stored in the refrigerator, but since it is light sensitive (like all oils), it’s best to keep it in a dark cupboard. Dark glass containers are excellent storage choices, as they protect the oil from light while also ensuring that no bisphenol-As (BPAs) leach into the product.
There are many ways to incorporate coconut oil into your dog’s diet. Try mixing a tablespoon into some goat- or sheep’s-milk yogurt, or adding a dollop on top of some fresh organic blueberries. You can even scoop it straight from the container and let him lick the spoon. Dogs love the taste!
Studies show that coconut oil fed as 10 percent or less of your dog’s diet poses no digestive or other health issues (Aldrich 2009).
The omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA fight obesity, decrease inflammation, combat arthritis and cancer, and promote overall health, so it should come as no surprise that DHA and EPA also benefit brain health—especially since the brain is made up of as much as 60 percent fat (Mercola 2012).
About 20 percent of the brain’s cerebral cortex (the outermost layered structure of neural tissue) is made up of DHA, which also provides structural support to neurons (the cells that make up the central nervous system). Studies in people show that supplementation with DHA is beneficial in supporting cognitive health in aging brains, and that inadequate levels can cause neurons to become stiff, hindering proper neurotransmission both within and between cells (Mercola 2012, Yurko-Mauro 2010).
A study of 48 Beagle puppies showed that dietary fortification of fish oil rich in DHA following weaning resulted in improved cognitive learning, memory, psychomotor, immunologic and retinal functions during the developmental stage. The high-DHA food also contained higher concentrations of the antioxidant vitamin E, taurine, choline and l-carnitine, which may also have played a positive role on the puppies’ development (Zicker et al. 2012).
EPA, along with DHA, can also benefit mood. As anyone who has cared for an elderly relative or friend knows, depression is a common side effect of age-related cognitive decline. EPA from marine sources such as fish oil can decrease cytokines associated with depression (Mercola 2012).
Silibinin extracted from the seeds of the milk thistle plant shows tremendous promise as a therapeutic agent to treat cancer, but its benefits don’t stop there. It also prevents impairment of both short-term memory and recognition memory in mice injected with a highly toxic peptide fragment called Aβ25–35, which exerts neurotoxic properties. Silibinin works as an antioxidant, protecting the hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with memory) against oxidative damage caused by this powerful neurotoxin (Lu et al. 2009).
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid, a class of lipids (fats) that makes up a major part of cell membranes. Synthetic phosphatidylserine was once derived from cows’ brains, but due to concerns about mad cow disease, it is now manufactured primarily from soy lecithin.
Until November 2004, the FDA held the position that phosphatidylserine showed no benefit in people with cognitive dysfunction, citing a lack of credible scientific evidence. However, on November 24, 2004, they changed their position. In a document titled “Letter Updating the Phosphatidylserine and Cognitive Function and Dementia Qualified Health Claim,” the FDA acknowledged studies demonstrating the beneficial effects of phosphatidylserine for individuals at risk of dementia and cognitive dysfunction, and admitted that there is “credible evidence” for its use.
Senilife, manufactured by Ceva Animal Health, combines phosphatidylserine with ginkgo biloba, vitamin E, pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and grape-skin extract. According to the company’s studies, Senilife improves several signs of canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), decreasing sleeping problems, apathy and disorientation, and increasing playful behavior and response to commands. According to Ceva, dogs began showing improvement within seven days of taking Senilife (Straus 2012).
DNA methylation is an important epigenetic signaling tool for normal gene expression. SAMe (s-adenosylmethionine) is the brain’s major methyl donor and is responsible for forming a variety of compounds, including proteins, nuerotransmitters, phospholipids, glutathione, myelin, coenzyme Q-10, carnitine and creatine (Brogan 2013, Messonnier n.d.).
SAMe also improves neuron membrane fluidity and increases levels of serotonin and dopamine metabolites (Messonnier n.d.). In several human studies, reduced SAMe concentrations were detected in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, indicating that a methyl-group deficiency in the central nervous system may play a part in causing the disease (Bottiglieri 2002). Supplementation with SAMe has also been shown to effectively reduce the symptoms of depression in people—and might even be as beneficial as some prescription antidepressants.
Novifit, a SAMe supplement manufactured by Virbac Animal Health, has undergone testing in senior dogs with signs of CCD. Novifit showed favorable results beginning after just one month of testing on client-owned dogs, including a 44 percent reduction in problem behaviors, including a reduction in house soiling, after both four and eight weeks (compared to 24 percent in the placebo group); marked improvement in activity and playfulness; significant increase in awareness; and decreased sleep problems, disorientation and confusion. A separate study on laboratory dogs supplemented with Novifit showed improvement in cognitive processes, including attention and problem solving (Straus 2012).
Denosyl, manufactured by Nutramax Laboratories, is another SAMe product marketed to support liver and brain health.
SAMe works in conjunction with the methyl donors folate and vitamin B12, so supplementing with a B-complex vitamin is also advised. People with bipolar disorder, migraine headaches, Parkinson’s disease and active bleeding, as well as those on prescription antidepressants, should not take SAMe. While the contraindications in dogs are not known, similar precautions should be followed. We advise starting with a very low dose and monitoring your dog for adverse effects, which in people have been noted to include anxiety, restlessness, insomnia and mania (Messonnier n.d.).
Antioxidants also benefit the cognitive health of senior dogs. Anthocyanins, the phytochemical compounds that give berries their pigment, are a rich source of antioxidants. Anthocyanins can protect against—and even reverse—declines in cognitive function due to age-related oxidative stress (Joseph 1999, Lila 2004, Mercola 2012).
Anthocyanins are credited with enhancing memory, helping prevent age-related declines in neural function, and modulating cognitive and motor function (Lila 2004).
And here’s a reason to consider removing gluten from your senior dog’s diet: gluten sensitivity in people has been linked with impairment of brain function, including learning disabilities, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and memory problems. Gluten sensitivity may even manifest exclusively as a neurological disease, without any gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.
The link between gluten sensitivity and impairment of brain function makes perfect sense, according to David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, ABIHM, a board-certified neurologist and fellow of the American College of Nutrition as well as the author of Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers.
Perlmutter points out that the body’s antibody response to gliadin, a protein in gluten, results in elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines that are present in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and autism. The last thing your aging dog needs is a cascade of brain-related inflammation. For this and many other reasons, we advise removing gluten from your dog’s diet.
We’d also like to point out an important non-nutritional aspect of canine cognitive health: mental stimulation. Just as with humans, dogs “use it or lose it” when it comes to their cognitive ability. And, while your canine companion can’t pick up the latest New York Times crossword puzzle, he can engage in a variety of mentally challenging “dog brain games.”
Don’t for a second believe the old adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s not true! Old dogs are wonderful students, and most love to learn. There are lots of great books and articles with fun tricks you can teach your dog, which will not only help keep his brain young, but will also add a new dimension to your relationship and deepen the bond the two of you share.
Adapted from Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health (Dogwise Publishing). © 2015 by W. Jean Dodds, DVM; Diana R. Laverdure, MS. Used with permission.
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