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DOG DIETS: DRIVING ME CRAZY

One of the questions on the form new clients are asked to complete at our office is what dog food they use. The answer to this question leads me to jump to conclusions about the client. This could be a bit unfair, since there are large gray areas involved, and there is probably the occasional person who truly is a good pet owner despite having fallen into bad feeding habits.

In many cases, we see that the pets are obese - and often morbidly obese. The blindness of these owners to the health of their pets is stunning. They are in total denial and often have a small submissive smile on their faces as I speak to them about weight and diet. They know they are doing wrong, but have no intention of changing their procedures, and just want me to get it over with. One additional problem for the pet owner here is that dog food bags that say to feed their dogs way more than is sensible. But, the only true test of whether your dog is eating the correct amount or not is your dog's body condition.

Purina is the company that has put out information on the correct shape for your dog. They have said that your dog, when viewed from above, should have a discernable 'waist' behind the ribs and in front of the pelvis. The ribs should have a slight covering of fat on them. Well, in 2002, Purina published information that they had taken dogs conforming to their definition of perfect weight, and cut their food consumption by 25%. The dogs on 25% less food lived on average two years longer than those in their formerly identified 'perfect weight' classification. We're not talking a couple of weeks, we're talking a couple of years. Why should your veterinarian have to say anything more? Doesn't everyone want their pet to live an extra two years?

The next dog food company that presented new information in 2002 was Iams/Eukanuba. In a study of 1500 dogs (most studies are run on much lower numbers) the newly formulated 'Eukanuba Premium Performance' kibble produced an average of two more puppies per litter. Once again, we're not talking subtleties here. In urging my clients with bitches being bred to change to this, I've had anecdotal and visual evidence of many unexpected benefits of this ultimate dog food. Instant change in coat condition in short haired dogs where you can observe this easily and reduced coat loss in the bitch after weaning a litter. Being a concentrated food you might expect a tendency for weight gain; instead we seem to be seeing a better utilization of the food and more muscle than fat being laid down, and even old neutered dogs coming into wonderful coat. I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I speculate that if you get extra puppies per litter, improved coat and improved muscle mass, this food must be meeting a great many nutritional needs that the previously used high quality food didn't meet.

I've always contended that the larger the pet food manufacturer, the better and more frequent quality control and more research they will run, eventually benefiting you and your dog. One very important factor to consider in purchasing dog food is freshness. Don't buy your food at a low volume boutique pet store; you want a place where the food flies off the shelves. Don't buy more than a month's supply at a time of any dry food.

Our society is driven so much - and more all the time, it seems - by marketing that we are well into damaging our dogs by becoming the disciples of idiots with a good pitch. I am not naming names here, but rational readers will immediately know what I mean; of course, the gullible brain-washed culties will never get it. I saw one newly advertised dog food produced by a Mom-and-Pop (as they proudly proclaimed) business. Well, unless Mom or Pop was Chairman of the Animal Nutrition Department at the local land-grant university, and unless their annual sales are in the billions of dollars, I personally wouldn't even bother to read the label.

Then there are those who scan the human nutrition news until they find mention of a new exotic plant that may turn out to have some benefit to humans. They immediately throw a stick of this stuff in the batch of food and add it to their ingredients list. Come on, where's our natural common sense? I'll tell you; it's been advertised out of us. We all want to show off by using the newest and self-proclaimed best. We want to have a secret that we can tell others about. And we never seem to think about applying a modicum of common sense to the subject.

We all seem to loathe the idea of feeding 'grocery store' dog food, but consider this; the grocery store food comes from huge companies with superb quality control and research programs. It flies off the shelves and doesn't get stale. The billions of pets eating these foods come into the vet's office happy, healthy and glowing. And, they only need to come in once a year for their shots.

What the grocery store fed dogs generally don't come in with are the perforated intestines, severe bacterial disease from campylobacter or salmonella, exotic parasites, or the way out of wack metabolic changes we see in the dogs being 'cooked for' or being fed 'raw' or 'barf' food.

The people who feed barf, raw, or home-cooked diets are the ones I really want to identify. First their dogs are at severe risk for many many problems. For instance, the dog with a high blood phosphorous level; does it have kidney disease or an owner feeding barf? The bitch that can't become pregnant; is she hormonally challenged, infected, being bred at the wrong time, or is her owner cooking for her and adding estrogen-like compounds to her diet?

These home-made diets may follow a recipe in a book. And of course, if it's printed in a book it's automatically true, correct, authentic, well researched and intelligent - isn't it? If we assume that there is even the slightest provable merit to these diets, we'd next have to ask if the owner has a lab-quality balance to measure every ingredient on, and every other piece of equipment to finish the nutritional analysis of each meal.

Thankfully, most of us (dog owners) recognize that a lot of those books are full of bovine excreta. And nearly all of us (Veterinarians) are laughing all the way to the bank after we fix - if possible - the problems caused by some of the alternative diets to the tune of $5,000.00, more or less, per dog. Many of the problems can't be fixed, and the pet dies. So instead of the extra two years of life Purina has shown us we can achieve, we're opting for illness, pain and early death for our dogs by refusing to feed them appropriately.

As the veterinarians of these patients, all of our thought processes must be altered. We cannot assume that we are looking at a dog that's starting from the same basic husbandry conditions we are used to. They aren't being fed a commercial kibble diet, so we now have to factor in all of the multitude of variables these raw, barf and home-cooked diets may cause. It makes diagnosis and treatment difficult.

The most frustrating problem with these patients, however, is the cult-like belief of their owners. The worst thing I have found about those who answer the questions about diet as raw, barf or home-cooked on my admission sheet, is that they to be somewhat uneducable. I spend great amounts of time supplying my clients with information that I have, and that I think will be of assistance to them and benefit to their dog. I know however, that with this group, my efforts will fall on deaf ears. I ask them a simple question; 'Are you a nutritionist'? They stand there, their eyes moving and their lips clenched - verging on saying something, but never getting it out. It seems that they feel they are nutritionists by virtue of reading alternative diet books and Internet articles. They want to say they are. But they know I can call their bluff if they do. It's a fascinating look at human behavior. It results, pretty often, in visible hostility to me. A simple question. Perhaps I should change it to 'Do you have a university degree in nutrition?' - that would make it easier for them to answer, or would it? Actually, there's a hotel ad something like that, isn't there -- "no I'm not really an animal nutritionist, but I did stay at a H-- Inn last night"?

With the exception of the few who are doing this because their puppy's breeder insisted on it, and who aren't themselves totally converted to this cult, all I succeed in doing is frustrating and exhausting myself. That's hard for me to take. I feel that education is by far the most important of the services I offer. That's why I have put things on these Internet pages for the use of the general public. I've always felt that the application of common sense will result in my clients perceiving what I am trying to explain.

All three of these diets aren't the same. They each may cause some or all of the problems listed:

  • Unbalanced nutrition
  • Changes in blood chemistry and metabolism
  • Detrimental affects to the skeleton
  • Bacterial disease
  • Parasites of many kinds
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cystitis and kidney disease
  • Perforations of the esophagus, stomach and intestines
  • Peritonitis
  • Septicemia, shock and death.

Another type of nonsensical dog diet comes from the veggie lovers. If you look at a dog's teeth, then at your own, you will see lots of differences. The teeth of a dog are closer to those of carnivores than to ours, the ultimate omnivore. While dogs are classified as omnivores, so are bears. We never think of these animals as herbivores. Some humans carefully manage their own nutrition so that they can maintain health as vegetarians. You can't do this with dogs. They are not vegetarians. Don't try to burden your dog with your own emotional responses. They have no moral and ethical objection to good red meat. They also don't suffer from the cholesterol/cardiac artery connection we do. Because you, a Homo sapiens, wish to eat in a certain way, and your metabolism is flexible enough to accommodate it, doesn't mean that you can change the diet in the same way for Canis familiaris.

Another note about a wonderful food like the Eukanuba Premium Performance; it is a perfectly balanced food, and it is that precise balance, even more than specific ingredients, that makes it a better dog food. If you are feeding a nutritionally balanced commercial dog food, and you start adding table scraps, raw or cooked meat, chunks of broccoli or carrots, cottage cheese or yogurt, you are unbalancing it. Don't do that, at least don't do it very much.

We see a lot of cystitis today, associated with various crystals in the bladder. It is often a moot point as to whether the crystals came first and caused the pH (acid/base balance) of the urine to change, or bacteria caused the pH to change and thus started crystals to precipitate out. I have checked urines on many dogs with high vegetable content diets and found the pH of the urine in an undesirable range. My sample isn't large, but is intuitively correct as well as observable in the lab. One of the pet supply catalogs I have looked at recently is selling a substance that's supposed to neutralize the pH of your dog's urine so it won't burn grass. Never mind that you could kill your dog by causing bladder and kidney stones by changing urine pH.

We just have to stop thinking of dogs as either an extension of ourselves and our preferences, or as experimental systems, where we try new things on them just to see what will happen. If your dog has been thriving on grocery store dog food - as most do - the old adage 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' should leap to mind. Marketing is difficult to resist, but I think we look at most of the ads on TV with a grain of skepticism these days. So please, apply that skepticism to claims of new dog food products. Use your computer and Google-out the information you need to become fully informed.

A BIT ABOUT BONES:

While I am totally against the barf, raw, and most home-cooked diets, I am totally for giving dogs and puppies appropriate bones for their entertainment, teeth and muscles of mastication. The best way to remove puppy teeth is with a good bone. Just remember, the most important thing is, don't give your dog any bone he can eat as opposed to gnaw on and play with.

Cooking bones will cause even large and otherwise harmless bones to become likely to splinter into shards. The alternative dog food recipes feed bones that are much too small, as well as cooking them in some cases. The bones of chickens are the best example. Primitive human populations use the leg and wing bones of birds and fowl for sewing awls. They are always sharp and potentially lethal, raw or cooked. Slightly larger bones will splinter in such a way as to produce sharp pointed fragments.

For 27 years I've counseled people to give their dogs and puppies marrow bones. Poke out the marrow - there's too much fat there, and give a nice fresh bone to your dog. Puppies will chew that instead of your belongings, and loosen baby teeth. Once the puppy's finished with it, unless it's polished clean, pick it up and get rid of it. The only problems with marrow bones are the fat content of the marrow and the bacteria that will begin to grow on it if it is left around with tissue still adhering to it. If the puppy hasn't finished his bone, you can pick it up and put it in the freezer, as long as it hasn't been at room temperature too long. Teething puppies may not pick a bone clean in one try. If in doubt, toss it and get a fresh one. Always freeze any extra bones you have rather than keeping them at refrigerator temperature.

The best bone you can get is from a beef thigh (femur), not including the ends. There are two kinds of bone in the femur. One is the extremely hard and dense cylindrical bone forming the shaft. The other is the kind of bone found near the joints (sometimes called knuckle bones). This kind of bone is often sawed in half lengthwise by your butcher. You will be able to see the trabeculae (cross-hatching) in the interior of this bone if it is cut lengthwise. These parts of the bone can be consumed by most dogs. Along with other problems we've discussed, there's one more big problem from consuming bones. We gave a knuckle bone to our first born, a superior mutt named Dudley. He consumed some of the trabecular bone, and several days later, after being constipated for some time, he produced a stool that was pure white and hard as concrete. With the stool he also produced a scream such as I haven't heard since. I'm one of those people that doesn't need to be shown twice. I would never again do something to cause such agony to one of my dogs.

The only good bone is one that cannot be consumed or fractured, is not full of fatty marrow, and is not harboring bacteria by virtue of lying around at room temperature while still having tissue remaining on it.

The best way to clean and loosen puppy teeth, as well as to entertain, is to give your dog an appropriate bone.


Mary C. Wakeman, D.V.M.
©2003 for BREEDERVET

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