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The Newsroom: Articles: Whole Foods for Pets

Whole Foods For Pets
by Laura Costas

If you're reading this newsletter the chances are good that you care about what you eat, and are careful to prepare food for your family that is fresh, whole, responsibly produced, and nourishing. The chances are also good that you enjoy the company of a companion animal in your home and consider the animal a member of your family. And unfortunately the chances are good that you feed your pet a highly processed diet that comes out of a bag or a can thinking that that's the best you can do. This article will show you how to find the resources to feed your companion animals as you well as you do the human members of your family.

The central principle of the whole foods diet for pets is to match as closely as possible the diet that the species has, over millions of years, adapted to eat.

I am not a nutritionist, I'm a dog trainer, but I have learned the hard way the cost of a poor diet with my own animals and I'd like to share what I've learned for the benefit of all. My own lean, active, impeccably bred Doberman was diagnosed at age 5 with diabetes so severe that the initial blood test readings were literally off the charts. She also has had orthopedic problems despite a superb genetic makeup. In my search to find the cause of these problems I have learned that the environmental factor of diet plays a huge role, and that the problems that I had with my dog testify to a much larger trend in the health of our companion animals. Record numbers of our animals are being diagnosed with cancer, orthopedic problems, skin problems, allergies, and liver, kidney, and pancreatic insufficiencies. Partly this is because they are living longer, but many pets are stricken at an age where they should be enjoying robust health. Our assumption is frequently that genetics and "overbreeding" is to blame for a lot of it, and this is partly true, but as with human illnesses much of the cause is environmental, and diet is one of the largest factors. Happily, diet is a factor that we can control, and we can begin to benefit immediately by making some crucial, simple changes.

If you are like me, you have probably assumed that the expensive premium pet food that you purchase at pet stores or vets' offices is the result of a great deal of science and you believe the manufacturer's claims that the food is "highly digestible" or "nutritionally complete." The truth is that the pet food industry started in the 1950's with the waste products of food processed for human consumption, and that trend continues. The contents of most pet food is the stuff that no human will eat, that has little nutritional value, that may be contaminated or diseased or decayed. It isn't my intention to belabor the ethics of the pet food industry, although even a cursory study of the subject will provide plenty of material for outrage and disgust; I would like to present an alternative to the industrial approach to animal nutrition. It's easy and not costly to provide fresh, whole food for our pets right from our own kitchens.

Please pardon my dog-o-centric view of the world as I write; it's the animal I'm most familiar with. The principles (though not the ingredients or proportions) are the same for all species, and I have included resources for cats, birds, small mammals, and reptiles in the sidebar. For simplicity I'll write as if we all had dogs. Also, since some of our pets are carnivores I'm going to talk about meat. As a vegetarian it was hard for me to make the adjustment to having meat around the house, but the enormous improvement in my dog's health has made me very glad that I did.

The problem with commercial pet food

If you look at the list of ingredients on the side of your bag or can of dog food you may see that the first ingredient involves meat of some kind (often meat meal or byproducts, with low nutritional value), but following that are probably several kinds of grain, things like beet pulp, then a bunch of vitamins and minerals, and perhaps preservatives. Added all together your dog is getting mostly grain, some low quality meat, some nutritionally negligible fiber, and a vitamin pill. It's cooked, clearly highly processed, and not to put too fine a point on it, what comes out of your dog at the end of digestion looks remarkably like what went in at the beginning! Let's examine what the canine species eats naturally to see how we can do better. The central principle of the whole food diet for pets is to match as closely as possible the diet that the species, over millions of years, has adapted to eat. In short, raw food is alive and contains its own little engines that contribute to the larger cycle of life. In the wild, canines eat primarily herbivorous animals and forage on the occasional herb or plant. They eat the entire animal, including the bones and the fermented contents of its gut. They don't have the digestive enzymes to break down seeds or grain. They don't eat anything cooked--it's all raw.

Raw foods contain all of the vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and enzymes that nature put into them--cooking changes or removes many of these nutrients. Enzymes are an especially important nutrient that are removed by cooking. They facilitate digestion, and unless they are present in the diet the animal's digestive and metabolic systems have to work harder to break down the food for use as fuel. Conveniently, each food contains the enzymes necessary for its digestion. Fats can also undergo changes when heated, forming harmful compounds called amines. Raw bones contain the complete package of minerals for canines, and the softer tissue inside the bone is extremely nutrient dense. They are, compared to cooked bones, soft and pliable, especially when from young animals such as lamb, veal, or chicken. While raw bones are the foundation of the canine raw diet, cooked bones are nutritionally poor and pose a serious threat because they harden and splinter and could puncture anything along the digestive route. Raw vegetables are rich in vitamins and enzymes, and they provide insoluble fiber that assists with absorption of nutrients and cleanse the gut. Bacteria is present on all raw food, and most of it is "friendly" bacteria that benefits both the host and the consumer animal. These little bugs often assist with digestion and keep disease-causing hostile bacteria from colonizing. In short, raw food is alive and contains its own little engines that contribute to the larger cycle of life.

How to put together an adequate diet for your pet

In one sense, nutrition is truly rocket science: there are so many factors at work and so many macro- and micronutrients to balance and juggle that none of us without a degree in nutrition can hope to understand it and get it exactly right. The hair-splitting in diet and nutrition can be endless. On the other hand it's really quite simple: offer a wide variety of high quality foods from the basic food groups and you're done. For any species it's important to identify the foods that the animal would eat in its natural world and create a diet that contains the same elements in the same proportions. For canines that would include animal products and plant products.

Raw meaty bones are the best source of protein for dogs. Many experts suggest that chicken is a superb source for meat and bone, and fat, and that the optimum ratio of these is chicken necks, backs, and wings. Chicken bones are very flexible when raw, but the very best way to offer them is ground, bone and all. This way the dog crunches thru them without encountering any large pieces that might choke. Other meat sources include beef, lamb and pork--or any other source commonly consumed by humans. The bones from these animals are harder, but the dogs can make their way through most of them. Back ribs of beef are a good choice--inexpensive and about the right proportion of meat to bone to fat. Organ meats are excellent when offered once or twice per week, but are not suitable for daily use. Also very useful are raw eggs, especially the yolk. Eggs are a nearly complete food and contain every nutrient in significant amounts except for vitamin C. Your dog can also consume the crushed shell as a mineral source. Cheese and yogurt are both rich in the "bugs" that aid digestion--I use cheese as a training reward.

Plant products include green leafies such as kale and collards, yellow and orange vegetables such as carrots, yams, and squash. Fruits are high in sugars and should be used conservatively, but are also quite nutritious. Dogs don't have the right kind of teeth to crush plant material so these must be ground or processed before they are of any use to your pet. I use a food processor and grind them all together till they are no bigger than uncooked rice. If you have a juicer, the pulp that results from your fruit and vegetable juices are ideal as well, with our without the juice added back in. If your dog accepts them there's no harm in offering a broccoli stalk or carrot to chew on as a treat, but for daily consumption the veggies should be ground finer than the dog's teeth can manage. Remember, in the wild most plant material comes from the gut of the prey animal and has already been significantly broken down.

Note that carbohydrates are not nearly as instrumental in the canine diet as they are for other species. I believe that the high levels of carbohydrates from the grain in commercial food contributed to my own dog's diabetes. When I removed them from the diet entirely her blood sugar levels dropped precipitously. Some authors include grains in their recipes for dogs and cats, but my own opinion is that they should be used quite sparingly. Cooked oatmeal is a good choice if you want to add grain.

Fats and oils are more important in the canine diet than in ours and supplementing with cod liver oil, safflower, corn, or olive oils can add important omega-3 and -6 fatty acids to the diet. If your dog is underweight adding oils is a good way to add calories, but if he or she is overweight don't skip them entirely.

I feed my dog a diet that is in the proportion of about 60% animal to 40% plant. This is a very general guideline that will help you get started, but you should consult the references cited in the sidebar for more detailed information on the subject. Some authors suggest that the meat and bone portion be fed separately from the veggie portion. For example you could feed the meaty bones in the morning, and then the veggies with the egg (for palatability) in the evening. The most difficult question is how much to feed your dog. The simplistic answer is to feed 2% of the dog's body weight per day. Some of the sources will be able to be more helpful along those lines. I have found that experimentation is the best answer because your pet's needs will vary greatly according to activity level, individual taste, digestive sensitivity, and general health status.

How to introduce your pet to the new diet

There are two ways to introduce the new diet to your pet. The first is by cutting back the commercial food as you gradually add the new diet. The second is to simply remove the old food and replace it with the new food. Many dogs have never seen a raw bone and won't know what to do with it! If your dog rejects the new food allow him to go hungry until he accepts it--you won't have to wait long, and if your dog is in good health there's no harm in missing a meal or two. Allow your dog some time to adjust to the new thing and get excited about it for him so that he knows its a good thing. He'll probably start by licking and end up chewing later. I cooked the meat as in the recipe I've included and began with that. My dog ate it readily and left no doubt that she preferred it to the dry food that she had always known. Once your dog has gotten accustomed to the new food you can introduce the 100% raw diet. Even if you are squeamish about the raw this cooked-plus-raw combo is certainly light years ahead of the commercial diet. The raw foods diet has an amusing acronym: BARF. The letters stand for Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods

Other benefits of a raw diet

There are other benefits to the diet apart from superior nutrition. One of the principal advantages is dental health. Poor dental health has the same consequences for dogs as it does for people, and the commercial diet, especially the canned food, offers none of the natural diet's teeth-cleansing features. Chewing on bones not only scrubs the teeth but provides the enzymes that help break down harmful substances in the mouth. The diet can reverse poor dental health in a matter of weeks or months. Another advantage is recreational chewing. Dogs were born to chew throughout their lives; it relieves anxiety and offers something constructive to do. All species were designed to work for their food, and the absence of this activity opens the door to boredom and the behavior problems that result. A homemade diet removes us from agroindustrial dependence; we can choose to buy meat and vegetables raised organically and humanely. Fresh Fields is a source for meat that at least purports to being organic and humanely raised, although I have not researched the company that supplies it.

Things to add to commercial food to improve it

What if you're sold on the concept but can't for some reason go the whole nine with a homemade diet? It's easier, cheaper, more satisfying, and less time-consuming than you might think, but if you aren't ready you can make some adjustments that will help quite a bit. The first is to switch to a better brand of commercial food. These include Canidae (or Felidae for cats), California Naturals, Innova, Flint River, PhD, or Wysong (there are others as well). These can be found on the web and/or in Kensington, MD at ProPet. If you add some ground fresh veggies, a probiotic supplement, a raw egg, cheese, and a few recreational bones this will really go a long way to improving the outlook for your dog. Keep in mind that anything that comes in a bag or a can is entirely dead, and you must add back the living ingredients. There are some distributors of frozen whole foods diets such as Homemade 4 Life available at the Aunt Jeni web site listed in the sidebar. The Whole Dog Journal did a comparison of many of these prepared foods in a back issue.

Learn more

This little article is the briefest of overviews of a large and interesting subject. The resources, especially the email discussion groups, will really help to make the new diet work for you and your pets. You'll have many questions and discover many things that will inform you about your own diet as well. The raw foods diet has an amusing and I may say unfortunate acronym: BARF. The letters stand for Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods (or sometimes Bones And Raw Foods). Whether you accept it or not you'll probably be hearing more about it as time goes on. There are those who will say that the diet is not as good as commercially prepared ones, and many traditional vets won't know much about it. As with a lot of alternative therapies and endeavors few clinical studies have been done--since the pet food industry has nothing to gain and a lot to lose with consumers making homemade foods they aren't going to fund expensive studies. And there is always a risk-benefit equation with anything--I have found through experimenting a bit that my own pets' health improved by leaps and bounds on a better diet. Learn more about the diet and see for yourself what works for your pet.

Resources Guide

Books and Publications

"Give Your Dog a Bone" and "Grow Your Pups with Bones" by Ian Billinghurst. Billinghurst is an Australian vet who is probably the best known exponent of the raw foods diet. His books are home grown productions and look it, and his tone is a wee patronizing, but the books have become a major cult hit and are full of very valuable information. These would be the single best books on nutrition to purchase if you were buying only one for your adult dog or growing puppy. More on the author himself at <www.drianbillinghurst.com>

"Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats" by Richard Pitcairn. One of the first and most respected books on the subject of natural care and nutrition. Recently updated and expanded.

"Holistic Guide to a Healthy Dog" by Wendy Volhard and Kerry Brown. Another superb book with very detailed information on nutrition as well as on general health.

"The Nature of Animal Healing" by Martin Goldstein. An excellent and informative resource guide.

"Reigning Cats and Dogs" by Pat McKay. A book of recipes and guidelines for homemade diets.

All of these titles and many more are available at <www.dogwise.com>

The Whole Dog Journal is a monthly publication that presents articles, resources, and consumer guides related to positive training and natural care. Call: 800/829-9165.

Dog Watch is a newsletter published by Cornell University, one of the leaders in research on all aspects of animal health and behavior. Call: 800/829-5574.

Web Sites and List Serves

<www.auntjeni.com> Aunt Jeni is Jeni Boniface, a Temple Hills, Maryland animal nutritionist who offers a line of prepared raw foods called Homemade-4-Life for dogs, cats, and ferrets. Her site is a treasury of books, articles, links, and products that will get you well started on a better diet for your dog, cat, or ferret.

<www.altvetmed.com> The outstanding web site of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (located in Bel Air, Maryland) with a directory of practitioners nationwide--we in this area are fortunate to have many to select from. Check out the Table of Contents on this site to find articles on many subjects like natural flea control, allergies, vaccinations, and arthritis.

For bird care and training sites try <www.parrothouse.com> an exhaustive site assembled by an avian nutritionist, and <www.ddc.com/~kjohnson/birdcare.htm> including many aspects of bird care, and <www.birdclick.com> on training your bird with links and articles on general bird care.

Reptile lovers should drop everything and visit Melissa Kaplan's site on reptile care and herpteological issues. <anapsid.org> or do a search for Melissa Kaplan. Also check out <www.reptileinfo.com> and <www.baskingspot.com>.

Bunnies and other small animals can find good company at <www.rabbit.org> and <friendsofrabbits.org>.

There are many email discussion groups that focus on the subject of natural diets for pets; you will see how popular it is, and how arcane the discussions can get! If you search <www.groups.yahoo.com> for BARF diet you will find plenty of action for all levels of involvement.

Supplement suppliers

Springtime, Inc. A very fine company in Cockeysville, MD that is a pleasure to trade with. They supply vitamins and supplements for dogs, horses, and people. Call for a catalog: 800/521-3212.

B-Naturals A great source for all manner of vitamins, probiotics, and other supplements. They also have an informative website, nutrition consultations, and are quite helpful in general. There is a special section for cats, and you can join a good discussion group: K9 Nutrition. <www.b-naturals.com>

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