Why good nutrition matters

Bark speaks with W. Jean Dodds, DVM, co-author of Canine Nutrigenomics
By Claudia Kawczynska, May 2015

W. Jean Dodds, DVM, founder of Hemopet, the first nonprofit national blood bank program for animals, has built much of her considerable reputation on her work in the development of advanced comprehensive diagnostic profiles. She’s also passionate about Greyhound rescue, minimum vaccine protocols and nutrition. So it’s no surprise that in her latest book, written in cooperation with Diana Laverdure, she takes up the cutting-edge topic of nutrigenomics. In a recent email exchange, Dr. Dodds expanded upon some of the concepts she includes in the book.

Bark: What makes a happy, healthy cell?

W. Jean Dodds: One that is exposed only to healthy environmental stimuli, including a variety of wholesome, nutrient-dense foods.

BK: How are cells influenced?

WJD: The process of turning genes on or off inside a cell is called “gene expression.” It determines how cells look, grow and act. Gene expression is controlled by the epigenome, a structural layer that surrounds our DNA and the proteins they are attached to. The epigenome initiates chemical reactions within cells that control gene expression, determining which genes are turned on or off and which proteins are produced.

BK: How is this relevant to what we feed our dogs?

WJD: Environmental assaults on the epigenome can become too much for the body to handle, and the result is chronic inflammation and disease. Epigenetic signaling tools manage and prevent chronic inflammatory diseases by affecting the expression of pro-inflammatory disease-fighting molecules. This can be promoted by feeding functional foods that include certain botanicals, amino acids, vitamins and phytochemicals (plant-based nutraceuticals).

BK: How is this signaling determined, and how is it measured?

WJD: The epigenetic response is determined by measuring the number of expressed inflammatory cell markers, like cytokines and interleukins. When these inflammatory enzymes are expressed from cells after exposure to unhealthy food ingredients, additives or contaminants, the result is chronic inflammation and disease. By contrast, functional foods express healthy enzymic marker responses.

BK: Throughout the book, you reference “canine functional superfoods”—blueberries, coconut oil, honeybee products, probiotics and so forth. Why are they so important, and what are some of their healing powers?

WJD: Functional foods are nutritional ingredients that switch on gene expression to fight disease and switch off the expression to promote disease. The functional effect of a food is only as good as the sum of its ingredients. Functional superfoods [have] the most beneficial effects on health: they reduce chronic inflammation and promote healing; are powerfully antioxidant, antimicrobial and antitumor; and are even believed to delay aging.

BK: What’s the difference between junk carbohydrates and functional carbohydrates?

WJD: The so-called “good carbs” originate from whole, fresh foods such as fruits; vegetables; beans; and unrefined, gluten-free grains. Unhealthy “junk carbs” come from processed foods that rank high on the glycemic index (GI), such as bread, pasta and cereal. These high-GI carbs contain sugary, refined ingredients that cause blood sugar levels to rise rapidly, which triggers the body to produce a chronic inflammatory response, contributing to a variety of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and cancer.

BK: You write that high-glycemic carbs can negatively affect brain health; please explain this.

WJD: High-glycemic foods such as corn and wheat create mood swings in dogs as they do in people. After ingesting them, dogs experience a “sugar high,” with hyperactivity and lack of focus that can be mistaken as ill-mannered and uncooperative behavior. This “high” is followed by a “low,” which can cause dogs to become sleepy, lethargic, moody and irritable.

Impaired glucose metabolism caused by sugary foods may promote brain starvation, leading to memory problems like cognitive dysfunction in dogs. These foods can also lead to a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar concentrations, which may leave dogs feeling hungry again quicker.

BK: There are many reasons to keep our dogs trim; what do you consider to be the most important?

WJD: Obesity leads to chronic inflammation, which promotes diabetes and predisposes to joint problems and cancer.

BK: You note that obesity is an inflammatory condition; why is this, and how do functional foods fight it?

WJD: Being obese affects gene expression, and this results in disease. Poor diet doesn’t just lead to health problems by creating fat in our bodies; it actually changes the expression of obesity-related genes. Feeding your dog foods that suppress his genomic expression for obesity may, therefore, not only result in loss of weight, but also in the reduced risk of a whole host of obesity-related diseases.

Once the body becomes “programmed” for fat, it’s a never-ending cycle, because fat cells lead to more fat cells. The more fat cells there are in the body, the more these cells secrete a type of pro-inflammatory cell messenger cytokine and the more chronic, systemic inflammation that is created.

A key step in helping animals (and people) lose weight is to add lots of fat-fighting anti-inflammatory foods while removing pro-inflammatory foods. Fat-fighting functional foods include high-quality, bioavailable novel proteins, virgin coconut oil, omega-3 fatty acids, L-carnitine, white kidney bean extract and anti-angiogenic foods that help shrink tumor cells.

BK: Why do you recommend novel protein sources, such as venison, buffalo and goat?

WJD: Because these are proteins that the body typically has not encountered before, sensitivity or intolerance is unlikely to occur, at least initially. Remember, however, that venison and related meats are considered as pro-inflammatory “hot” foods in Chinese medicine. Chicken and mutton [adult sheep] are also categorized as “hot” foods.

BK: Dogs require more fat in their diet than humans do; what is the best way to ensure they get the right amount?

WJD: Dogs are generally more active than many people, and dietary fat supplies them with the most concentrated and digestible form of energy. It also provides important essential fatty acids (such as omega-3 fatty acids) and promotes absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and a healthy nervous system. Functional fats include chicken fat or lamb fat (as long the dog tolerates chicken or lamb); fatty fish low in mercury and rich in omega-3s; novel meat sources; and oils, such as fish, krill, borage, coconut, olive, primrose, pumpkin seed, moringa and sunflower.

BK: Why is milk thistle so important?

WJD: Milk thistle (silymarin) is an important antioxidant for the liver; it acts as a detoxicant by scavenging inflammatory free radicals released from injured cells and stabilizing liver cell membranes. It also stimulates the production of new liver cells. (In addition to liver diseases, it has also been used to treat diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.) However, it should not be given routinely as a supplement for dogs with healthy livers, and is best not given during pregnancy.

BK: If a vet determines that it’s needed, what is the best way to add  milk thistle to a dog’s diet?

WJD: Silymarin is available in powder, capsule and liquid extract forms from the seeds of the Silybum marianum plant. All milk thistle products contain 80 percent of the active compound.

BK: What’s the difference between food allergies and food intolerance/sensitivities?

WJD: This is one of my favorite questions. True food allergies, which are rare, produce immediate hypersensitivity reactions to certain foods that result in release of the antibodies IgE, IgD and IgG. By contrast, food intolerances or sensitivities, which are much more common, are delayed reactions to exposure to certain foods, and result in production of the antibodies IgA and IgM in saliva, feces and other body secretions.

BK: Why is it important to know the difference?

WJD: A true food allergy can result in a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. Food intolerance leads to chronic itching and/or bowel issues such as flatulence, abdominal discomfort, constipation, diarrhea and vomiting.

BK: What is the evidence for a connection between epigenetics and cancer? It’s interesting to learn that only 5 to 10 percent of all cancers originate from genetic predispositions.

WJD: That’s true—90 to 95 percent of cancers are linked to our environmental exposures and lifestyle. Scientific research has shown that 30 to 45 percent of cancers can be prevented or controlled by implementing dietary changes. Powerful functional foods for cancer protection include berries; pomegranates; cruciferous vegetables; curcumin; green leafy and yellow-orange vegetables; certain herbs, such as ginger and milk thistle; medicinal mushrooms; omega-3 fatty acids; probiotics; spirulina; and vitamin D. Anti-angiogenic foods starve cancer cells and are important dietary factors in cancer therapy.

BK: What about breed types such as the Golden Retriever, who seem to be genetically predisposed to cancer—how does this equate?

WJD: Other breeds are also at risk, but the facts point to the critical importance of reducing unhealthy environmental exposures and stress events, coupled with feeding a variety of wholesome, nutrient-dense foods. Controlling these factors should significantly reduce the expression of cancer-promoting genes.

BK: Given that, practically speaking, it’s almost impossible to totally detoxify our dogs’ (and our own) environments, what are the most important elements to work on eliminating?

WJD: I would focus on avoiding over-vaccination; herbicides; pesticides; GMO foods; food colorings; wheat, corn and soy; and preventives for heartworm, fleas and ticks (unless you live in a high exposure risk area).

BK: Many people are fearful of feeding their dogs a raw or home-prepared diet because there’s a chance that meals might not be balanced. What advice do you offer people on the importance of a “balanced” diet?

WJD: There is a large amount of misinformation pertaining to the benefits or drawbacks of raw or home-prepared diets. For the novice, it is best to consult an experienced and respected animal or veterinary nutritionist for advice. Reliable published books, articles and resources are also available and offer guidance. The resources section of our new book lists these options. 

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.