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.
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.
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%.
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.
A 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 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.