food & nutrition
News: Guest Posts
Maybe a better source for insight on GPS collars and robot dogs
When I turn to Consumer Reports, it’s usually for the skinny on things with plugs and engines. Last time I subscribed online, I was in the market for a refrigerator. So I was surprised to see them shine their high beams (only sorta) on pet food in the March '09 issue. The basic advice was sound: Ignore fancy packaging and unverified claims, read the labels, don’t assume the most expensive is best.
But some aspects of Q&A: Vets Weigh In on Fido’s Food nagged at me, especially the opening caveat: “All but one [of the veterinarians interviewed] have received some funding from the pet-food industry.” Give me Whole Dog Journal food reviews anytime.
I also felt a twinge when I read this advice: “Be careful when making your own pet food. Most experts said they hadn’t seen a pet get sick from inexpensive food; however, half said they had seen pets become ill from eating homemade pet food, a growing trend since the 2007 recall of some commercial pet food contaminated by melamine.” I’m not a nutrition expert but the suggestion that people can’t home-prepare food better than a giant extruding machine half-way around the world really sticks in my craw.
I was also disappointed by the lack of detailed help in interpreting ingredient lists. For example, there is no advice about avoiding meat by-products, processed grains or artificial preservatives. As much as I love CR, I'm disappointed they squandered this opportunity to reach a wide audience with sorely needed smarts.
Stop the spread of salmonella by taking stock of your pantry.
Now is the time to check the ingredients list of your dog's food and treats as the peanut butter recall has spread, so to speak. If you want to look up a particular item, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has created an exhaustive database. Click on the "Pet Food" category for specific brands. If you're like me and treat your dogs to a dollop of peanut butter from time to time, it's worth looking through the list for any other brands that might be on your shelves.
Salmonella outbreak traced to a small peanut manufacturing plant could now affect dogs
Time to check your pantry again! The recent salmonella outbreak traced to a small peanut manufacturing plant could now affect dogs and their owners. PetsMart is recalling Grreat Choice dog biscuits because of a link to Peanut Corp. of America in Blakely, Ga. Animals are at less risk than people, especially kids, who handle the treats. However, if your dog acts lethargic or has bloody diarrhea, seek immediate veterinary care. For more info, read "Pet Treats Recalled in Salmonella Outbreak."
News: Guest Posts
Peanut butter treats and chicken jerky on the list
Citing concerns over a salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter, PetSmart has removed seven types of Grreat Choice Dog Biscuits from its shelves. According the company, there have been no reports of illness from the biscuits, and the recall is a voluntary precaution. This appears to be the only pet product affected by the recall so far. Read the Food & Drug Administration's most recent information--with a list of affected products.
The Washington Post reports that the FDA has issued repeated warnings over chicken jerky products imported from China. There has been no recall. Symptoms from ingesting the unidentified poison include "decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea (sometimes with blood) and increased water consumption and urination."
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
An All-natural Snack for Serious Chewers
We’ve found a healthy treat to engage even the busiest dogs for hours: Himalayan Dog Chew from Mukilteo, Washington. Slow-heated using a traditional Himalayan recipe, the treat has only three ingredients, all of them 100 percent natural: yak milk, cow milk and lime juice. A treat that has no chemicals or preservatives and lasts for hours? This one’s Lola-approved! And don’t forget to stop back in and let us know what you think.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Denizens of the Middle East, Africa and India have long believed camel milk — loaded with fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamins — contains medicinal, aphrodisiac and even magical properties. Now it appears to hold promise for dogs in the treatment of Type 1 diabetes, if promise can be derived from a small 2009 study in Tunisia. Researchers at the Arid Land Institute found that dogs given 250 or 500 milliliters of raw camel milk (which is naturally high in insulin) daily experienced a significant and lasting decrease in blood glucose, as well as decreases in protein concentrations and cholesterol levels after three weeks.
It’s one of many studies touted by Millie Hinkle, a naturopathic doctor in Chapel Hill, N.C., who has for years championed the potential for camel milk in treating humans for autism, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, food allergies, Crohn’s and Parkinson’s diseases and more. But until recently, the milk of two-toed ruminants was not available in the U.S.
In 2009, Hinkle successfully lobbied the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to permit the sale of camel milk for the first time. In addition, her company, Camel Milk USA, helps domestic camel dairies get started — using dromedary camels, which are heartier, more productive and more common than the two-humped Bactrian camel. As of June, there were nine established and 13 planned camel dairies — all in states that can legally sell raw camel milk for dogs. (States set their own regulations for raw and pasteurized milk sales.) She also facilitates domestic medical research on camel milk, which currently includes a study focused on treating lymphoma in dogs.
Meanwhile, Hinkle gave camel milk (left over from a study) to her own dog, a young Maltese named Winter. “His behavior changed immediately,” she says. Normally “he’s a barker; he won’t stop. He’s sort of aggressive. We gave him the milk and he became very settled. The barking stopped. I said, ‘Boy, I really need this.’” Fair warning: Winter also gained two pounds in a week.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Donald Strombeck's book cooks up nutritious recipes for your dog.
When he wrote Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative, Donald R. Strombeck, DVM, PhD, created one of the first-of-its-kind pet nutrition books. It went on to become a standard reference for veterinarians and those looking for an alternative to commercial pet food.
Once again the professor emeritus at the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine is breaking ground and demonstrating that his overriding concern is for the health of dogs and cats. When the first edition went out of print, the good doctor made all the information available free at dogcathomeprepareddiet.com.
So, why DIY? Here are a few simple reasons to homeprepare your dog’s food, according to Dr. Strombeck.
Click here to read our 2007 interview with Dr. Strombeck.
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: 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: 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.
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