Feeding grains to dogs and cats.

Since the 3rd edition of our book was published in 2005 there was a strong movement towards feeding dogs and cats primarily meat and bones. This was called a “raw food diet.” The strange idea was put forth that grains are harmful or poisonous. Likely this is an exaggeration of the concept that grains in large amounts are not the optimal diet. The situation is more complex, however, than most realize.

The first question is if grains are not good for animals. The short answer is that grains are well accepted by animals if they are properly prepared. By this, I mean that the animal digestive tract is shorter than the human so the grains must be well cooked to be digestible.

Well, then, are they are in some way harmful? They are not if the quality is good. By “quality” we are meaning that the grains are complete, not just “leftovers” from milling. Also they need to be fresh, not rancid or spoiled. One would assume this is obvious but the fact is that commercial pet foods can use the leftovers and rejects from the production of human foods — the spoiled, contaminated, nutritionally inadequate floor sweepings — as their source of grains. Much of the concern about the harmful effect of grains in food for animals is because of the poor quality grain used in many commercial pet foods. The formula is like this:

Poor quality grain in commercial food = diminished health in animals = avoidance of grain based commercial foods = all grains are bad.

You can see that the first 3 steps make sense but the last conclusion does not as it is not taking into account that the health problems seen in animals has to do with the quality of the ingredient rather than the nature of it, e.g. that it is from grains.

Research into animal nutrition as cited in “Nutrient Requirements for Dogs” and “Nutrient Requirements for Cats” published by the Subcommittee on Dog Nutrition and Cat Nutrition by the National Research Council (about as reliable as one is going to find outside of the industry) reports that growing dogs fed a diet of up to 62% starch (which is an unusually simple carbohydrate, grains being much more complete) were able to digest 84% of the starch and use it for growth and energy. Even more significant these puppies had no apparent health effects from such a diet, growing the same as the group fed no carbohydrates. Cats have been shown to be able to digest over 96% of starch fed to them.

Another factor to bring in is that whole organic grains are very nutritious and compared to meat or other animal products have a fraction of the environmental toxins found in the tissues of animals. The animals that eat plants, drink the water available, and accumulate huge amounts of toxic substances, many hundreds of chemicals, that build up in their bodies. It is not so much that plants are completely free of these because our environment is so contaminated, but the amount in plants is like 1-2% of what is in animal tissue. The animals eating these plants day after day (or GMO soy or corn) accumulate this in their bodies. Then when their bodies are eaten by others, those that eat them again accumulate thousands of greater quantities of these chemicals in their tissues. This build up each step of the food chain is called bioaccumulation.

We discuss this in detail in the 4th edition of our book, Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide To Natural Health For Dogs and Cats, published by Rodale Press. It is now available from booksellers.

Feeding Meat

It has been, and continues to be, a very popular movement to take the nutrition of your dog (or cat) in hand and rather than feed a commercial food to select ingredients and prepare the meals yourself. This is very admirable as it is a move to freshness and a greater awareness of the quality of the food.

Along with this movement has been an emphasis on using primarily meat and bones in the meals. This is unfortunate and has led to unnecessary suffering. Starting with the first edition of our book, and continued through the recent 4th edition, we advised keeping meat in the recipes at a minimum, instead using a balanced ration including whole grains and vegetables. We did this for more than one reason and the one I want to address here first is the issue of health.

What we know is that dogs in nature eat primarily the animals they capture. From this thought one is encouraged to imitate this by buying meat and using that as a primary ingredient. What is not understood is that wolves and other dog-like animals don’t eat the meat that we get in the market. They eat the whole body of the animal they capture, not just its muscles or liver or heart. Do you see the difference? Then we have to bring in that if the animal being used as food (the livestock so called) was raised in the conventional factory farming process it will have been given a number of drugs — growth hormones, antibiotics, and parasiticides primarily. These drugs remain in the meat and are taken into the body of the animal (or person) that eats them.

It gets more complicated when we consider the food being fed to the livestock as we also have a number of chemicals in these crops accumulating in their bodies as well. How could this have happened? It is a sad story.

In this last century our human culture committed itself to practices that have, in today’s world, created very serious problems for us. With the development of chemistry substances were created, new chemicals, and they were put to use in various ways. Many of them are used directly on food crops, the various poisons against what are considered weeds and also to kill the various creatures that want to feed on these plants.

There are two things to emphasize here. First these are poisons and secondly these substances have never existed before.

That they are poisons cannot be denied as this is why they are used — to kill insects, other plants, etc. The justification is that they are harmless to us, or your dog or cat. We have learned, however, that this is relative. Yes, they are more poisonous to the insects or plants but they are not neutral in the bodies of animals. This is being found out over and over. As some of this comes out, then there might be a ban against using that particular chemical but of course then a new one is turned to — with the naïve expectation that somehow it will be different and not cause any health problems.

That they have never existed on the earth before, not for the 9 billion (or whatever) years of the time of our earth is important. I want to emphasize — they never existed before. The problem is that, because of this newness,  the various forms of life that encounter these substances are not prepared to deal with them. In contrast to the many thousands of years of evolution during which creatures learned to handle the natural toxins encountered, found ways to neutralize them, we (and the animals) don’t have a way to do this. Maybe in a couple of centuries that ability will develop but now these substances are just building up in the body , in a body that does not know what to do with them.

This is why these agricultural chemicals are so useful. When introduced there does not exist any way for the plants, insects to avoid being affected by them. Yes, they are learning to do it, but the extraordinary usefulness of these chemicals is because of this newness. And it is this newness that is creating problems in the bodies of the animals that live with us.

(to be continued — environmental toxins)

Thoughts on Plant Based Diets for Dogs

I am thinking, since proposing this idea of changing the diet of dogs to a more plant based one, it would help to explain somewhat what my path to this has been. Many people when first hearing about this react with strong disapproval, saying this is both unnatural and harmful to dogs. Of course we know that the ancestors of dogs, the wolves, were prey animals and mostly ate the animals they hunted and killed. It is easy, therefore, to assume that domestic dogs should be fed the same way. This would be a good argument a couple of centuries ago, but not so much now.

The Problem

We have a problem in the dog world. Overall dogs are becoming more sick with the passing years. I am referring to numbers, percentages. Whatever our system of medicine is doing, it is not bringing about a progressive improvement of health in the dog population. One example, is the tremendous increase in cancer in dogs. Veterinarians that have looked into this say that cancer is now the leading cause of death in dogs and that some breeds like Golden Retrievers will have half of them experiencing cancer in their lives.

The Veterinary Perspective

I am giving just one example of what we veterinarians are facing in our desire to help dogs lead healthy lives. I have been a veterinarian for 50 years and I have seen a lot of change and it has concerned me. I kept looking into what might be causing this to happen (not just cancer, but the decline in health). This led me, over time, into study of nutrition, a re-evaluation of vaccine use (not an easy thing for me to do with my PhD in immunology), and working with alternative methods of treatment. I came to like homeopathy the best.

Nutrition

My study of nutrition opened up a whole new world. I had no idea. What I found you will see in our book along with the nutritional advice that came from my clinical experience. What is different in this last edition of our book is putting much emphasis on feeding dogs a plant based diet or a diet with mostly plant sources and minimal animal products. Many people object to this, thinking it cannot be healthy. I started out thinking the same way but my progression of learning took me to a different view.

Environmental Contamination

I learned that the environment has been very significantly contaminated by substances which are toxic when they end up in our tissues. It did not used to be like this, but with each passing year it has become greater and greater. Part of this is that more and more chemicals are being put into use. There are now 100,000 being used in all sorts of ways, most of them ending up in sewers, in the water, soil, ocean. One of the most toxic materials is the solid stuff that settles out in waste water treatment plants of towns and cities. There was so much of it that there had to be a way to get rid of it. It was expensive to put in a land fill so another solution was thought up. The sewage sludge was renamed “biosolids” and our government approved it being used as fertilizer on our food crops. So the most toxic material we can come up with, with hundreds of chemicals in it, is put on our food for the plants to take up.

It is not just this source that is a problem. As one example, industrial processing has released very extensive amounts of dioxin, which is considered to be the most potent chemical in existence that can cause cancer. Dioxin is throughout the environment, highest in fish, next in eggs, then significant amounts in dairy and beef. It is important to realize that dioxin is not something added to the food, or injected into the animals. It is in the environment, in water, air and soil. So it gets into all animals, even those raised organically.

Do you begin to see the problem? We could go on and on. After all, there are 100,000 chemicals. But you can get the idea. I realized that this contamination was a big deal and that regular feeding of dogs with sources that had poisons in them would be a very important reason whey there would be so much increasing illness.

Bioaccumulation

We could talk about this for a very long time. There is actually much information available. Rather what I would like to do is bring in one more consideration and that is called “bioaccumulation.” The idea is this: the chemicals introduced into our environment are taken up by the plants as they grow. The animals that eat the plants then also get these chemicals but because they eat plant after plant, over months or years, the chemicals build up in their bodies to much higher levels that what is in the plants. Then if there are animals that eat these plant-easting animals, then they too accumulate more of it. This is sometimes called a “food chain” meaning that like a ladder the amount of accumulate chemical gets higher every rung. How much higher at the top? We are talking hundreds of thousands or millions of times more than what is found in plants. So what animals are at the “top” of the food chain and get the most chemical buildup? Human beings, dogs, cats.

Do dogs have much in their bodies? Studies of their tissues tell us that have about one and half times as much as the average human. This is a big load. Many of the chemicals are carcinogens. I will remind you that carcinogen meant a chemical that has been shown to cause cancer in animals. Do you think it possible that if a dog is eating a food that contains chemicals that cause cancer in animals that it might be a problem for that dog eventually? It may take a few years. It might show up as something else, maybe allergies, chronic ear problems, hypothyroidism. Who knows? The veterinary profession is not really interested into looking into this. Even if it were, it would involve injecting some poor dogs with the chemical for a time to see what it would do to them. A nasty thing to do.

Another Idea

How about a simple solution? I admit not a total solution but one that does seem like it makes sense. How about we just don’t feed so much of this toxic stuff to them? Once this came to my mind I had to investigate the possibility that dogs could get by eating less meat and animal products. I was surprised to find studies that showed they could do very well on vegetarian diets, even diets entirely plant based. This investigation took some time as I had my inner resistances just like most of you. But I found that dogs have the ability to eat a variety of foods and do quite well with them. They are not considered to be strict carnivores by biologists and that has allowed them to adapt to a range of diets. Studies of their ability to make enzymes used in digestion has shown us that the have the same ability as humans in this regard. They can eat carbohydrates and digest them very well.

Testing the Idea

Along the way this idea was put into action. I began to recommend to people that they make diet changes and see if there was a favorable effect. It was surprising to see that many dogs with chronic health problems, like allergies, auto-immune diseases, seizures, would noticeably improve in their health when animal products no longer part of their diet. This was unanticipated on my part but was much like long ago when I started having clients prepare their own food instead of using commercial pet foods and seeing improvements there.

Seeing better health in these chronically ill dogs reinforced the idea that this consideration of environmental contamination was an important to understand. I am not suggesting it is the only issue but seem it must be a very significant factor. Even if the chemical buildup is not the primary influence, it must be somewhat weakening to that animal wouldn’t you think?

Conclusion

I am going to close here. As I said above, we could go on and on with information and experience about this. I do want to communicate here that my views about this, whatever their validity, have come about because of a very long time of study and experience in the veterinary field. I started with the desire to help animals, to spare them unnecessary suffering, and this intention has remained all this time. I feel like it was this intention that prompted me to look “outside the box” and consider other ways of looking at this problem of increasing chronic health problems for our poor brothers and sisters.

Blessing to you all.