We all know that eating right is extremely important, and consistently subsiding on a diet full of processed foods and saturated fat leads to a number of disorders and diseases. And it is just as important for our pets as it is for us, but with all the conflicting information out there, how do you know what to feed your pets?
As I mentioned in my review of “Wild Health”, while reading it I had this aha moment where it really hit me that food is medicine, and not just bitter foods you don’t want to eat – everything you consume impacts your health.
I was reminded of this once again a few months ago when we were taking care of our friends’ young Westie. I hadn’t really spent a whole lot of time with him before (and being a puppy, he was never still!) but as soon as I had a few calm moments with him, I realized he was having a bad reaction to something. He was scratching and chewing his fur constantly; his ears were bright red and the hair on his head was so thin you could see his little pink scalp through it.
Our little houseguest refused to eat the kibble he came with (and the owners said he was a very picky eater). He came to work with me the first day and I had brought his breakfast because he didn’t eat it before we left the house. He still didn’t touch it all day, and in the afternoon I thought, why not try a bit of applied zoopharmacognosy? I had a small bottle of my homemade “cuts and bites” gel at the office (aloe with german chamomile and helichrysum essential oils) so I put a bit of that in my hand and offered him (I had gotten permission from the owners beforehand to use the oils with him). He sniffed it for a long time, thought about it, took a few licks, then vigorously rubbed his chin and top of head in it, and went over and ate his food! Every time I work with the oils, I’m amazed, but this really stunned me. He knew what the problem was – his food – so he didn’t eat it until he had the chance to apply something that soothed his itchy skin.
I did some research and found that Westies are apparently often plagued by these kinds of problems, and that food is often the culprit. And when I contacted another friend whose previous Westie had the same sort of issues, she said that on the advice of a veterinary dermatologist, they changed his diet, and that ended what had been a 2-year nightmare of constant scratching, open sores and countless rounds of medication.
That weekend we went and got some plain duck meat for him (I muscle tested a variety of things and that tested the strongest), and oh, was he a happy little boy! As soon as I took the meat out, his tail started wagging and he ate that food in no time. I would of course not do this long term without consulting a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist to be sure that the dog got all the nutrients he needs, but for that weekend, I just couldn’t stand to give him the kibble that caused him such distress (and that he didn’t want to eat). I of course told the owners all this when they came to pick him up; they have since consulted with a veterinarian and changed his diet, and he is now healthy and have no problems with itching and thin fur.
So our Westie-friend’s story ended well, but how do you know which food is right for your pet? There are hundreds of prepared food brands out there, so how do you choose one? Or should you cook your pets’ food at home? And what about a raw diet, which many holistic practitioners recommend?
Below, veterinarian Beth Innis gives us some insights on veterinary nutrition, shares her views on pet food and give us advice on how to decide on a diet for our pets:
Beth, there isn’t a “right diet” for all dogs, is there?
No, there is not a right diet for all dogs. Each pet has a variety of factors that influence what diet is right for them. These factors include genetics, acquired allergies, disposition, medical conditions, food sensitivities… The perfect diet for one pet can be completely inappropriate for another!
A lot of integrative veterinarians (and other practitioners) feel very strongly that a raw diet is the best way to go, but there are just as many who say it is dangerous and should be avoided. What is your opinion on that?
Ah, such a big debate!
In my opinion, some pets do great on raw diets. Without the processing, the byproducts and filler ingredients, these pets thrive. It is very, very important, however, to be feeding your pet a balanced diet. I recommend getting some help from your holistic veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist with this. Things like calcium and phosphorus need to be given in balanced quantities or disasters can ensue! Certain bones if ingested can cause things like obstructions.
It is also very important to have strict and clean practices and obtain your raw foods from a quality source, otherwise you or your pet may be put in danger. There are some companies who create prepared raw diets that comply with AAFCO standards (the people who assess veterinary diets), which can help if you are unable to commit to this lifestyle choice. This is not something you can enter into lightly, you have to do it right.
Critics of the raw food diets cite their potential for imbalanced diet and increased pathogen load. While dogs and cats can tolerate more germs in their food than we can, by preparing those diets, we are putting ourselves at higher risk of exposure and also our animals.
However, if you are planning on just throwing some raw hamburger into a bowl for your dog and walking away without washing up properly, I’d ask you to abort mission!
All that said, there are also pets that just don’t do well on raw, and that is okay, too, in my opinion. It just wasn’t meant to be.
How about raw compared to a home cooked diet?
Ah!!! My favorite! A home cooked diet means we can feed our pets wholesome, quality ingredients in a tasty and fun way AND not worry about pesky germs. The catch: you still have to follow a recipe! Still need that balance.
So if you do decide to cook your pet’s food yourself, how do you make sure that they do get all the nutrients they need?
It is important to talk this over with your veterinarian and make sure you are addressing your particular pet’s needs. A homemade diet for a dog with kidney disease will be wholly different from a cat with cancer. It is important to have a source to work from. Some diets will be okay in the short run, but not in the long run. Some ingredients might be seasonal.
I know you can find lots of pet food recipes and cookbooks online, but is that a good way to come up with a weekly menu for your pet?
There is so much available on-line these days, both good and bad information. Each dog or cat needs to be assessed for whether they need something adjusted. Be sure to look at the source. Is this diet created by a lay person? Where did they get their training? Are they a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist? Do they work with one or both?
Are there any good commercial pet foods that you would feel comfortable feeding your pets?
Yes, I think they are out there. Not one size fits all, of course. Just like with us, these days, look for diets that have fewer ingredients, and ones that you recognize. Make sure they are AAFCO compatible. Make sure they haven’t had a lot of recalls of late (a real problem).
How about canned food vs. kibble?
These days, in holistic medicine, our preferred would be canned food. Kibble is that much more processed.
When our dog, Sadie, was diagnosed with cancer, we were told of an “anti-cancer” diet, which was essentially all meat and veggies, no carbs because supposedly the cancer cells feed on that. Is there such a thing as an “anti-cancer” diet?
As much as I would like to say otherwise, I don’t think there is. All sides seem to agree that carbohydrates are food for cancer cells, so yes, avoiding them if possible is crucial. Things like fish oils are also incredibly helpful. The symptoms the pet is experiencing also can affect what you are feeding. If there are problems with appetite, some food is better than the exact right food.
Food as prevention – is there anything we can feed our pets that can help prevent serious diseases?
It is my opinion that our best bet is wholesome, quality ingredients. For dogs, a mixture of complex carbs, veggies, fruits and meats. For cats, veggies, fruits and meats, much less carbs.
These days, pets seem to have as many allergies as we do – are there any foods in particular that they react to?
The more common allergens these days are things like beef and chicken. That is why you hear of a lot of dogs and cats on protein sources such as duck, venison, kangaroo… We have had to seek new sources that they have not yet mounted an allergic response to!
As we saw in the intro, itchy skin can be one sign of food allergies – what are some other signs? Are hot spots food allergy indicators?
Yes! Recurrent skin infections, recurrent ear infections, recurrent hot spots, hair loss, excessive grooming, scratching, rubbing, chronic vomiting and chronic diarrhea can all indicate a potential food allergy
How do you figure out what it is in the food your pet is reacting to?
The best way is to do an elimination trial (this may sound familiar if you have struggled with food allergies yourself). This involves 12 weeks of feeding a totally new food source with limited ingredients (like Venison and Peas or Duck and Potato, sometimes a prescription hydrolyzed protein) with NO CHEATING. If the symptoms start to resolve, be they itchy skin, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.) you’ve got your answer. But it takes that long to tell and it is essential that no one is slipping them anything on the side!
Can the right food cure an illness?
The ancient Chinese tell us acupuncturists and herbalists to work on a sick patient’s imbalance with acupuncture and herbs, while all along improving their diet. Once their balance is restored, it is key to have a healthy diet and lifestyle to maintain that balance. If they are starting off healthy, make sure they are on a diet you can be proud of, they get lots of physical and mental activity, and, of course, all the love you have to give. Which for most of us, is a whole lot!