December 27, 2014

Improve Diet, Improve Life – from Beth Taylor

Roadblocks to health

We may promote faster healing, better function, and better overall health if we can encourage clients to address other possible roadblocks to health.

The lifestyle of the client (the owner) and the patient (the pet) often contribute to the presenting problem. I believe we will see the optimal results we wish for only if we integrate extensive education about how exercise, fitness and food affect the function of all systems.

A client who comes to us with an overweight, arthritic dog in a lot of pain may see a dog who feels better with drugs for pain and inflammation and an even happier dog when they begin to use the Assisi Loop – but without lifestyle changes, an anti-inflammatory device or drug competes with an inflammatory diet or sedentary life that promotes inflammation. Accomplishing this educational goal is labor-intensive and ongoing. It’s almost an added counseling segment of the practice – people don’t lose entrenched ideas and points of view in one visit. Ongoing educational support is needed – and many times it’s emotional as well.

One of the biggest roadblocks to health is a dry food diet that is pro-inflammatory and likely to include toxins that are difficult or impossible for the body to process. If we can lighten the load for the body, all systems can work more efficiently.

How best to lighten the dietary load? This is a question worth exploring in order to best serve our clients.

Many clients have no idea what they are feeding their pets. A week of journaling followed by an evaluation consultation is often an eye-opener for clients, and allows us to really show the client how what they do adds up. Do their Milk Bones add up to 300 kcal more per day than their dog needs? Do those table scraps (not all bad) add up to more than half the diet – which means that some nutrients will be deficient? To be effective, we need to develop the knowledge to be able to evaluate. It’s mostly arithmetic and internet research, but analysis  and deep label reading skills are required. It’s not enough to look at the front panel – staff need to be able to evaluate what they read and translate for the client.

For example, if a food contains glucosamine, how much does each serving contain? Probably not a therapeutic dose. If the front panel says “bison and sweet potato” but sweet potato is 14th on the ingredient list, and bison is first but beef meal is second, we need to be able to interpret this for the client. (One clue: it’s not a bison and sweet potato food.) Ongoing education sessions with clients result in clients who are willing to take charge of learning, and pets that feel better.

A short look at the various aspects of commercial and home feeding may provide a place to start in developing effective education tools for clients. At our facility (which specializes in swimming, massage, rehab, and food), clients usually come in confused. For example, they’re feeding a high-carbohydrate, plant-based prescription diet that contributes to inflammation, or they’ve read that grain-free is best, or they believe that a raw diet is the only way to go but their dog isn’t doing well on it, or they listened to the salesperson at the pet store and they’re on food advertised as  “low-glycemic index,” heavy on the beans, and their dog’s gut is rumbling. We need to simplify the issues in pet food, and this is no easy task.

pet storeSimplify!

The giant “pet food” category can be divided into dry foods, canned foods, and frozen foods. In addition, there are smaller categories, freeze-dried or dehydrated versions of frozen foods, and dehydrated diets that fall into one of the other categories.

Meat-Based Fresh Food Diets

For dogs or cats, a species-appropriate diet can be a radical step toward better health. The ancestral diet is a meat-based diet, with moderate fat and protein levels, and very low levels of carbohydrate. An appropriate meat-based diet avoids many of the toxic pitfalls of dry food because it simply doesn’t include the ingredients most likely to be toxic: corn, soy, wheat, rice, barley, oats, or any other carbohydrate sources beyond relatively small amounts of vegetables and fruits. The much lower carbohydrate level promotes normal hormonal function in many ways, interrupting the pro-inflammatory cycle.

A species-appropriate diet is a raw diet. It may be homemade or commercially produced. There are challenges in both approaches.

Homemade diets require careful monitoring. Most programs and recipe “cook” books have not been analyzed and do not meet AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) and/or NRC (National Research Council) standards. A “balance over time” philosophy is popular among raw feeders. Basically, the idea is that meals don’t need to be complete or the same every day as long as a correct balance is achieved over time. This is true, but unfortunately it only works if the basic components are correct. This is seldom the case, in my experience. Common flaws in homemade diets include too much fat, too much bone, and missing mineral components that can’t be addressed without supplementation. Supplements designed to be used for homemade raw diets often do not take into account the adjustments that must be made for lower and high fat content in the diet. To try to make homemade diets safer and easier for clients, Karen Becker and I wrote Dr. Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats, which includes a framework for rotation, fatty acid guidelines, and two mineral supplement recipes.Real food book

Homemade food is a large time commitment. Commercial fresh food diets offer instant success – almost as easily as pouring kibble from a bag.

Commercial frozen foods abound. Products may or may not meet nutrition standards. Food that claims to be AAFCO-compliant may be a relatively safe choice, but knowledge about requirements and labeling is necessary to determine this. Just because the label makes that statement doesn’t mean that it’s true. Within AAFCO-compliant foods, caloric density may range from 300 to 600 kcal per cup. For those concerned about bacteria, High pressure pasteurized foods (which are sterile) and cooked versions are available. Some frozen products are ground fine enough to be cooked for those animals who need cooked food.

Freeze-dried and dehydrated versions of these foods may be useful for switching dogs with GI problems where adding water to the diet may set off an digestive issues. For switching cats away from dry food, these intensely flavorful foods are a good tool.  They’re are great for travel, they make excellent treats, and  they are an acceptable transition for those (owners or pets) who can’t quite make the leap to fresh food in its more natural, with-water state. However, they also cost much more than the frozen versions.

A raw meat-based diet may not work for all animals. Compromised systems may need diets tweaked for their specific needs, and some animals need their meat-based diet cooked.

Frozen foods vary considerably in macronutrient content, and variation concerns me. If a label says that the food is 12% protein and 6% fat, and the calorie content is listed at 600 kcal per cup, something is not right! Fat content is listed as a minimum, and if this food has 600 kcal per cup, there’s a lot more fat than 6%.

Dry Food

Should dogs and cats eat dry food? In my opinion, dry food is at best a compromise. However, issues of cost and convenience make it necessary to help clients find a balance of products that is affordable and workable for their lives.

Dry foods are mostly either “with grain” or “without grain.” This is a confusing distinction, but one that can assume that “grain” is bad and “grain-free” is better.

Foods that include “grains” include a range of starches from wheat and corn through rice, oats, barley, sorghum and so on. They usually have a combination, and they provide about 50% or more of their calories as carbohydrate. Most of these starch ingredients are prone by their nature to contaminants including pesticide residues, GMOs, and mold byproducts like aflatoxins and vomitoxins. Bacterial contamination is common. These contaminants may be present at low levels in purchased food – but some, like aflatoxins and salmonella, can increase post-production, as in the common “pet food storage” container or garbage-can-in-the-garage storage. The home storage dangers exist no matter how good the dry food is.

Digestive issues with grain include the difficulty for dogs and cats in digesting and making use of glutens and other plant proteins in bodies designed to get protein mostly from meat.

Many clients think that “grain-free” means carbohydrate-free, but “grain-free” foods actually contain roughly 40% carbohydrate – something has to hold dry food together.  Pet foods frequently contain vegetable protein isolates that boost the protein content of the food, which reduces the protein coming from meat – and makes the food cheaper to produce.

grainsA common “non-grain” category of carbohydrate in upscale foods is the relatively recent inclusion and promotion of legumes as good food for dogs. From peas and lentils through garbanzos, these “low-glycemic index” ingredients are high-profile persuaders. The inclusion of high-protein legumes always means that there is less meat protein in the food. Long term, I don’t think legumes, which are incomplete proteins, are going to contribute to the health of dogs, though these foods may be acceptable as part of a rotation program.

Rotation of proteins is a practice that many are aware of. What isn’t considered as often is that vegetables have proteins too, so we need to find products that provide actual rotation. Because the products in each brand are closely related, the same starch ingredients are often seen in every product (though the order might be switched around) while the meat changes.  It is probably necessary to go outside a chosen brand to get actual rotation. This is an excellent idea, but few know how to read a label well enough to do this. A frequently updated list/handout is needed to help people make these choices.

Canned Food

Canned foods are usually a better nutrition choice than dry foods. It’s not necessary to add starches to hold them together, so the nutrition profile is often more appropriate. The same evaluation process can be used as is used for frozen foods. In the past, I often recommended that clients begin to improve their pet’s diets with canned food, especially for those people and/or animals who find change difficult. However, it’s very difficult for clients to discern which of the countless canned foods are really better. Now, I often recommend that they use a freeze-dried meat-based food, or a frozen food. High Pressure Pasteurized products provide a sterile food if needed, and many frozen foods can be cooked lightly if necessary. Good canned foods are more expensive than frozen ones, but if it’s difficult for clients to make the conceptual leap to fresh or dehydrated diets, canned food is still a good choice.

We need to provide tools for client that they can understand

Helping clients along as fast as they can go – it’s a tricky endeavor. It would be lovely if we could just hand over written materials and know that people would read, understand, and apply. We all experience the frustration of giving people good information that they immediately forget. It’s my experience that we need to get better at how we present the information. We need to provide simplified presentations that catch the interest of clients. We need to entice them to want to understand more, and we need to spend time with them. If we’re really good, a lot of our clients will be empowered to take charge of the health of their pets in a much more proactive way, and we all win.

FOOD, FITNESS and FUN ~ Help your dog and cat live better and longer!

The same principles proven to contribute to a longer healthier life in humans also apply to our pets.
– A diet of fresh, minimally processed ingredients helps the body to function properly
– A lifestyle that includes vigorous exercise promotes the health of all systems, from muscle to heart to brain
– Mental stimulation keeps us all thinking and functioning at our peaks for much longer

Do older dogs need senior food?
Through vigorous advertising, we are often advised to start feeding our dogs “senior” food, sometimes for dogs as young as 6 years old. These foods usually have less fat, more carbohydrate, and less protein. Sometimes they contain small amounts of supplements that are supposed to help joints and mobility, but the amounts are rarely at levels that would help. These formulas are based on ideas that are dated and were not quite accurate to begin with.

Senior dog food formulas in general include less protein. Decades ago, researchers looked at diets for those in kidney failure whose kidneys could no longer process the amount of protein they once did, and made the leap that then if we feed dogs (and humans) less protein as they age, their kidneys will be spared and last longer.

This has not proven to be true in humans or dogs, and research by big pet food companies agrees. *** In fact, older bodies need better protein and more of it but, the products hang on. Why is this? Well, in the world of marketing and sales, the more shelf space your product occupies, and the more product varieties you have, the better your chances of selling something.

Senior formulas frequently have less fat than all-life-stages formulas. This allows them to have fewer calories. The idea that a low fat diet is a healthy diet has been around for a number of decades, long enough for years of research to show us that in fact, low fat diets do not make bodies healthier. The natural, ancestral diet of dogs (all life stages) provides about equal calories of fat and protein. Since fat has twice as many calories as protein, on a plate, the fat would take up half as much space as the protein.

Senior foods are also formulated to be lower in calories to help pet caretakers keep their animals at normal weights. This is an excellent goal. A four-year study compared two groups of labradors, one group was allowed to “free feed” (left dish full and available all day) and one group fed only scheduled meals. At the close of the study, conclusions were clear. Those dogs kept lean by eating scheduled meals lived two years longer, The muscle wasting associated with old age was delayed by two years compared to the group allowed to become overweight. Lean dogs did not develop arthritis until many years after the overweight dogs, who began to show arthritic changes at 2 years of age. *** These dogs were fed a standard grain based dry food.

Whatever you feed your dog, keeping him lean will promote the healthiest functioning of your dog or cat’s body. In our opinion, “senior” and “Light” foods are detrimental to the health of our pets.

If Sparky could talk, he’d tell you it’s true. When I met Sparky, a 9-year-old Brittany Spaniel, he was not feeling very good. He was on a “senior”, limited calorie dry food. He was seriously stout, with no waistline, and moving pretty slowly, had a dull coat. but his people said he was in good health and had ho problems. They wanted to try a meat-based, fresh food diet to see if a lower carbohydrate diet would help him lose weight. We got reports on Sparky regularly; he was losing weight and doing well. When I saw him next, 4 months later, he looked like a different dog. Perfect weight, glowing coat. His owners reported that these issues (which they had not mentioned – they thought it was “just Sparky”) had disappeared: flaky coat, itchy skin, frequent bladder infections, general pain and achiness, and most of the tartar on his teeth. At 9, Sparky was no longer an old dog. Senior food certainly didn’t help Sparky live a healthy, active life.

A species appropriate diet, based on meat and vegetables, provides the protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants needed to keep the immune system and the brain working well. Good fats keep inflammatory processes in balance and hormone systems working properly.

Those with achy and overweight dogs will be amazed to see the difference in how their dogs feel and act when they are fed meat and vegetable based diets. Often creaky, achy dogs are transformed by a change in diet. Dogs with common chronic medical conditions need the supervision of a veterinarian who is skilled with fresh food diets to supervise and fine-tune a fresh food diet. Many chronic conditions (diabetes, Arthritis, Irritable Bowel Disease and Syndrome, liver and kidney problems, dental disease) will improve on a commercial or home-prepared meat-based diet.

Fat cells themselves contribute to inflammation, so the benefits of helping your pet reach a proper weight are immense. Perhaps, and a proper weight, your dog would not need those NSAIDs or pain meds. This is much easier and healthier to do with meat and vegetable based diets than with starch-based diets, which tend to result in the productions of more inflammatory chemicals.

We are happy to help you tweak your diet with our nutrition software, choose a commercial food and plan diet program, or help you make your own food that meets all you pet’s nutrition needs.


Older pets might not feel much like exercising. As most of us know, we don’t feel better until we actually get moving, but it is very important to only do as much as your body is able to do. Before starting any exercise program, check with your vet about your pet’s level of fitness and ask how you can tell how much is too much. Start at a level lower than what you thing your pet can do, and work up from there. Be aware of signs like increased heart rate, curled tongue, gait change, limping – stop BEFORE you have major stress responses. Remember when you started to see that your pet was tired and don’t go that for tomorrow. Their stamina will build quickly as they become fitter, but if we push them past the level that the body can do, we will only to harm and have to wait for the damaged tissues to heal. “Not pain, no gain” is very outdated fitness advice, but many of us have it embedded in our brains.

If we stay within these parameters, starting with frequent, short exercise sessions that challenge but don’t overwhelm the body, excellent progress may be made. Many conditions we might have discounted as “just old age” diminish or disappear with good exercise. Digestion improves, elimination becomes more regular, animals are less achy, and their brains work better, which means that all systems work better Getting more oxygen circulating builds lungs and heart, improves overall muscle tone and general health immensely.

Walking is great exercise, and can be adapted to the needs of your pet easily. Take it easy, this is weight-bearing exercise and your pet might have some areas that are compromised. Creaky knees and rear ends can strengthen. Take advantage of all opportunities for appropriate walking exercise! Weather can limit what your dog can do, from days too hot to walk to weeks of snow after snow after snow.

Swimming is one of the best ways we know to build fitness and to exercise dogs. Cats not so much! At our pool, we closely monitor the progress of each dog, and chart each session for maximal progress. Older dogs often start out with 15-minute sessions, but after a few weeks, they are ready to lengthen their pool time. In winter, many older dogs lose a lot of ground, and injury is much more likely when footing is not solid. Once a week swimming can maintain and improve the condition of your older dog so he can go into the next spring in better shape than the previous spring. Swimming is also a great pain reliever.

Indoor exercise opportunities are unlimited for the creative, but don’t take the place of vigorous exercise. Sit-to-stand for a treat, cookie stretches, backward walking and many more simple exercises help lubricate and tone your dog’s body. Small dogs are easy to exercise, being small – they can charge down a hallway for a treat a few times and get pretty good exercise.
For the bigger dogs, this can be difficult. Walking up and down stairs with a treat on each stair is an excellent workout – slow is good!

Dogs often fade away from simple boredom. We start to accept Snoopy snoozing in the recliner as the way it always is. The more you include your dog and stimulate him with attention and activities the better his brain will function, and the more interest he will take in his life.

Include your dog in family activities and play with him. Small games like “catch the popcorn and “find the treat” take very little human effort, and provide fun and mental stimulation.

Modify activities your old guy is no longer able to do so he CAN do them. For example, throw the ball so it lands close to you. Help him in and out of the car and to accomplish stairs correctly. Many dogs have jobs in the household – encourage them to keep their jobs! Learning something new is great for the brain and keeps dogs (and cats) happy too. It’s a mutually beneficial activity – both human and animal brains get a workout, and your connection to your dog gets even better.


Get them moving, feed them well, engage their brains – you’ll see a dog or cat who is interested in life, who feels much better. You have perfected your relationship with your friend over many years – and you want to keep it going as long as you can.

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