Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Feed Your Way to a Healthy Pet

(Note: An updated version of this article can be found on the Pet Foods tab at the top of this blog.)

Thirteen years ago, before I started my pet sitting business, I began reading about and researching what it takes to keep our pets living long, healthy and happy lives. Animals and especially dogs and cats, are a passion of mine and have been since I was a child. 

Now, after pet sitting professionally for many years and with what I've observed with my client's pets and my own pets, in addition to the books, videos, classes and research, I have noticed some common trends between what pets eat and the illnesses they tend to get.

First of all, we need to remember that well-being is our natural state as well as our pets' natural state of being. We/they are meant to be healthy. The problem is, there are not as many pets in their natural state of well being any more (as with humans). Why? For several different reasons but it's the same reasons for pets as it is for us. One of the major culprits is what is put into the body. The majority of pets are over weight and/or sick and on medications, or are destined to become ill after continuously consuming diets that contain ingredients that are known to be not just unhealthy, but cause illnesses and diseases. Things have gotten totally out of hand. We need to get back to the basics of what it takes to be and remain in our and our pets' natural state of well-being. We have to be more conscious of what we are doing and the every day decisions we make. 

Nutrition is just one facet of a holistic approach to health, but it's an important and fundamental basis. The more I learned about pet nutrition and what the ingredients actually are in most commercial pet foods, the more disturbed I became. Each time I learned about an ingredient I didn't want my pets to consume, I would change the foods I bought for my own pets accordingly. I learned how to read labels and choose pet foods based on the quality of ingredients, not based on the name, the packaging or the advertising. These big pet food companies have plenty of money to spend on convincing you to buy their products

Just like with my own diet and the food I choose (or not) to put in my body, given what I know, I got more selective and particular on what I buy and feed my pets. I see more and more people doing this. (And remember, you make a statement with every dollar you spend!)  This is why the larger pet supply stores started stocking more higher quality foods, (where I live Petco stocks more of a selection than Petsmart) and why the smaller natural pet supply stores like Natural Pawz are growing like crazy. There's another natural pet food store that just opened here locally in Houston called Kriser's. I stopped by the other day and they said business has been really good. These types of stores will only grow in popularity as more people become more pet food savvy.

Another reason you need to read the ingredients is because everything nowadays is labeled "natural" and yet it could be the farthest thing from natural. These short funny video clips from OnlyOrganic.org explain what I'm talking about. You can't count on government agencies such as the FDA to protect your pet from harmful ingredients (or you!).  Here is a slide show of ten of the most ridiculous ingredients or regulations that are allowed in pet food.

I wrote about a few of the books that I have read on the subject of pet food  back in 2010 and 2011, such as Food Pets Die For; Shocking Facts About Pet Foods by Ann N. Martin, Not Fit for a Dog! The Truth About Manufactured Dog and Cat Food written by three veterinarians, and Buyer Beware - The Crimes, Lies and Truth About Pet Food by Susan Thixton. More people are speaking up about pet foods than ever before. Here is a recent article by a canine nutrition expert.
Another great resource on choosing better quality pet foods is Susan Thixton's website TruthAboutPetFood.com. There, she has a lot of helpful information and she keeps up with all pet food or treat recalls. She has done so much research and work on her wonderful pet food review database PetsumerReport.com, which for less than $18 a year, you can have access to reviews on over 2,500 pet foods and treats! Get the nitty gritty on what's in your pet's food! She makes it easy! She adds new ones every month so it's always growing. A great resource and well worth the money! 

Susan is our crusader when it comes to demanding healthier and safer pet foods. She holds advisory positions on two AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials – those that develop pet food regulations) committees – the Pet Food Committee and the Ingredient Definitions Committee.  She and fellow pet food safety advocate Mollie Morrissette (of PoisonedPets.com) and Dr. Jean Hofve, a holistic veterinarian, founded the Association for Truth in Pet Food – a pet food consumer advocacy group of which I am a proud member.  They are working towards developing regular meetings with the FDA. They have made great strides already. As a life long pet lover and parent as well as a pet sitting business owner and advocate for better pet foods, I am grateful for all their hard work and determination!

For the dog lovers, I have also previously written about another wonderful resource on natural dog care, training and nutrition called The Whole Dog Journal. Every year they give their list of the best rated dog foods based on quality ingredients (and they explain what their criteria is). They even go so far as to visit the manufacturing plants. Though they only deal with dog foods, you can get a good idea on the brands that are better quality for cat foods as well.

One of my favorite holistic veterinarians, Dr. Karen Becker, has excellent advice and tips on the best and worst pet foods to buy and on feeding cats in particular, in these short video clips. She also has great advice on how to shop for healthy pet foods and talks about the ingredients in the foods. Though she doesn't mention GMO ingredients (see below), she does bring up other subjects I discuss later in this article such as what exactly certain ingredients like "meat meal" consist of, and about staying away from treats made in China. These are excellent videos!

When you have forty minutes, this video taped conversation between Dr. Karen Becker, Dr. Joseph Mercola and Dr. Barbara Royal, President of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA), is full of little pearls of wonderful advice and guidance on how to improve the health of the animals in your life. 

(Special Note: You may have seen Dr. Mercola on Dr. Oz's television show. He has been on several times. I am a big fan of Dr. Mercola, who is controversial. Thanks to him I was made aware of a cure for basal cell carcinoma which was discovered by a cancer biochemist, Dr. Bill Cham in the UK.  I cured not one, but two basal cell carcinomas on my face without surgery by using Curaderm (along with thousands of other people), a cream that contains BEC5, which is the compound that actually seeks out and destroys cancer cells such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and keratoses without harming healthy cells. More than likely, you won't hear about this from your dermatologist. Mine knew nothing about it and didn't seem too interested in learning. (It means no profit for her or the surgeon she refers me to.) You can read more about this in his book The Eggplant Cancer Cure. Though it's written by a scientist, it is very easy to read and contains a lot of photos. Learn more about Curaderm here. Someone else who has used Curaderm made a documentary video to share here.I just had to mention this. Now back to pets....

What I also love about Dr. Becker is she openly discusses the fact that veterinarians don't know much about dog and cat nutrition. Shocking? Did you know that many nutrition courses offered at U.S. veterinary schools are not taught by nutritionists… they're taught by representatives of major pet food companies? It's obviously a major conflict of interest, and as a result most veterinarians graduate without having any unbiased nutrition information. This is why your veterinarian may have told you to only feed your pet a certain "prescription" diet, or to avoid offering "people food" (even if it's healthy, species-appropriate food for your pet).  Dr. Becker states "Veterinarians are graduating totally incompetent and unable to effectively talk about foods outside of what they learned from pet food manufacturers. If they did receive any nutritional counseling, it was archaic…" They are graduating not only with a lack of knowledge about pet nutrition, but also with a skewed perception of what whole nutrition really means." She goes on to say "Veterinarians, oftentimes, become pretty defensive – as do medical doctors – when they're confronted with these issues, because they don't have enough knowledge to be able to confidently defend their position. They weren't given a whole lot of nutrition training."  

This is sad but true. Just as our medical doctors aren't trained in nutrition and how to stay healthy, neither are veterinarians. They are taught and trained in and know about illnesses, diseases, (and how to treat them medically) and medications. (We have disease care systems -- not health and wellbeing systems.) Don't get me wrong -- I love doctors and veterinarians! I am grateful we have them. We need them and they have their place. But they were not trained in what it takes to prevent these problems to begin with and the basis of health and wellbeing begins with diet, and what substances go into the body. The body -- whether human or animal -- is the sacred, temporary vehicle we are given through which the soul experiences this life. Isn't it time we became more mindful of how we treat our bodies -- animals included?

Another issue I have in this regard is the fact that pet parents often look to their veterinarian to recommend a food for their pets, especially when they develop an illness. Veterinarians only sell prescription foods. The same companies that make these prescription foods are the same companies that give them their training in nutrition. I think that's a little biased, don't you? I know I am not the only one who has a problem with this.(Click here for another article on the same subject written by Susan Thixton.) One pet food consumer shared some interesting information she found regarding this subject as well, and asks the question: Is this ethical? In my opinion, no -- I don't think it's ethical. We're not talking about office products here. We're talking about the foods our beloved pets eat every day. 

Most, if not all holistic veterinarians that are educated in nutrition do not recommend prescription diets. On Dr. Becker's list of best to worst pet foods for example, prescription foods were number 8 and 9 out of 13 -- 13 being the worst. These special diet foods contain ingredients you want to avoid. Most pets do not like prescription foods. That should tell you something. Every time I read the ingredients of these foods that pets are forced to eat day after day, I cringe. Corn is a major ingredient in the ones I typically see. Corn is GMO. Not to mention its an allergenic. How are carnivores supposed to thrive on primarily a grain, especially when that grain is genetically engineered and has shown to wreak havoc in animal's bodies? It's madness.

One of the biggest problems in the majority of the commercial pet foods these days -- of which the symptoms are usually subtle and progressively get worse over time -- is the same big problem we have with our food supply, and that is genetically modified ingredients (or genetically engineered); otherwise known as GMO ingredients. We have only just begun to see the health effects from consuming GMO ingredients. We as humans, along with our animal companions and farm animals, are experiments in the consumption of ingredients that are so far from anything our bodies should consume that when tested and given the choice, even squirrels and birds will not eat such foods. Why? Because animals inherently know what is good or healthy for them. GMOs are anything but natural or good for them or us. They are called frankenfoods for a reason. And if GM crops are causing monarch butterflies and bees to disappear, what do you think these ingredients are doing to your pets, eating them day after day? If you want to learn about what GMOs are all about (if you don't already know), you will have to do your own research because you won't hear what is really happening in your typical controlled media. The powers that be want you to keep consuming their products. They don't even want us to be able to know that these ingredients are in our or our pets' foods. There is a documentary on GMOs called Genetic Roulette. I highly recommend it. Awareness is the key. We can't change anything unless we are first aware of it. I have noticed there are still a large number of people who know nothing about GMO foods. My intention is to spread the word and help educate. "Education-not Medication". The Center for Food Safety has a downloadable True Food Shoppers Guide to Avoiding GE Food and apps as well. Another good resource to learn more about GMO foods is at OrganicConsumers.org.

What foods are GMO? Currently commercialized GMO crops in the U.S. include soy (94%), cotton (90%), canola (90%), sugar beets (95%), corn (88%), Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%), zucchini and yellow squash (over 24,000 acres). Also any products derived from the above, including oils from all four, soy protein, soy lecithin, cornstarch, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup among others. (Yes, that's right: if you consume sodas that contain high fructose corn syrup -- which most of them do -- you are consuming a GMO ingredient. Not to mention diet drinks, which contain aspartame -- a GMO, neurotoxin and carcinogen!)

Does your pet have any of these problems?:
  • Itchy Skin, Hot Spots, Chewing of the Feet 
  • Ear Infections
  • Gastrointestinal Upset (diarrhea, colitis, irritable bowel) 
  • Vomiting
  • Other Chronic Illnesses (from a weak immune system)
Check the ingredients in their food! (And treats! Don't forget the treats! So many treats are loaded with GMO ingredients and toxic preservatives.) If there is any corn, soy or beet pulp or any ingredients derived from cotton (cottonseed oil) or canola, try slowly transitioning them (over a week's time, longer if needed) onto a grain free food without any of these GMO ingredients. Rice and wheat are not currently GMO but they have their own problems. Dogs and cats do not need grains in their diets. Particularly cats. It's best to avoid them. GMO ingredients wreak havoc on their immune systems among other things. We are doing a great dis-service to the animals by feeding them foods that contain these ingredients (not to mention ourselves). I have witnessed the improvements in my own and my clients' pets (and humans too!) that have been transitioned off of all grains and GMO ingredients. And dogs or cats that are transitioned from dry foods to can foods (at the very least) have remarkable improvements in their health. They need moisture-rich diets.

Does your pet have Urinary and/or Renal problems? This is also another common problem with dogs and cats who eat dry foods. These highly processed, extruded kibble diets are not biologically appropriate for dogs and cats like we have been led to believe (by the pet food companies). They contain nowhere near the moisture levels of these animals' natural prey or what they need to be consuming. In fact, they are so devoid of necessary moisture that some pets become chronically dehydrated and are more prone to urinary tract problems, especially cats. Cats need a diet high in moisture and they are not naturally big drinkers. Our pets need diets closer to 70% moisture and dry food is 10 - 12%. Not even close. (Another problem is cats can become addicted to the additives in some foods, including dry foods.)

Other ingredients that you want to avoid are artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, especially those known to be carcinogens such as  BHT, BHA, ethoxyquin and propyl gallateAlso walk away from formulas containing by-products, especially those that don’t specify the type of meat in the meat by-product. Believe it or not, meat by-products – especially those not specified as a certain kind of meat – will contain parts of beaks, feathers, feet, hooves, hair and even tumors that have been ground into the mix during processing. Although some by-products may provide some nutrition, such as spleens and other organ meats, because they are all lumped together it’s best to avoid them.

Another big huge (disgusting!) problem with some ingredients are they could (and do) include euthanized cats and dogs. No, I didn't make this up. (read more about this here) According to the FDA: "There appear to be associations between rendered or hydrolyzed ingredients and the presence of phenobarbital in dog food. The ingredients Meat and Bone Meal (MBM), Beef and Bone Meal (BBM), Animal Fat (AF), and Animal Digest (AD) are rendered or hydrolyzed from animal sources that could include euthanized animals." ( as stated on their website here.) Yes -- that includes dogs and cats that are euthanized in shelters. If that doesn't make your stomach turn, I don't know what will. (Dr. Becker talks about this in one of her videos about pet foods, which I link to above.)

As you will discover, a large proportion of the foods available (and treats!) have one or more of the ingredients listed above (in bold) to be avoided. Some of the foods are full of these ingredients. But by being an educated and informed pet guardian and selecting your pet's food based on quality ingredients, you can make all the difference in the world in your pet's health and wellbeing. Give it a try and see for yourself. A  lot of times people see an improvement within just a few weeks. And believe me, I know that cats in particular can be very finicky and difficult to transition onto better foods. They will refuse to eat if they don't like something and that isn't good either. Don't play hardball with a cat. (It took me almost a year to transition a picky cat from dry to can food.) You have to have patience, persistence and remember that they depend on you to know what's best for them. Our animal friends can't read the ingredients, but you can. Their only choice is what you give them.

When considering foods containing fish, look for manufacturer assurance on the label (or on their website) that states the formula contains NO artificial preservatives (like ethoxyquin which is frequently used in fish). Look for foods preserved with vitamins E and C, often called tocopherols instead. Another thing is that some fish (especially tuna) is contaminated with mercury. You may think it's just a small amount but think how small the animals are and if they are eating fish on a regular basis....not a good thingEven the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns against excessive tuna (and other fish) consumption due to mercury contamination. Farmed fish are fed genetically engineered food. Not only that, but genetically engineered fish may soon be heading to the market. Get your downloadable Guide to Avoiding GE Fish here.

Another good reason to avoid feeding fish to your cats is because in a recent study of 112 different cat foods, which included over-the-counter and prescription foods in cans, pouches and dry formulas, it showed dramatic fluctuations in the iodine content in the foods. These results suggest the inconsistency in iodine concentrations may lead to development of clinical hyperthyroidism, especially in cats that are first fed iodine-deficient diets, and then later in life are fed diets containing excessive iodine. It's impossible for one to know if the iodine in the food is in a balanced proportion or not. Not to mention that seafood is a very rich source of iodine and cats aren't designed to process a lot of iodine. (Besides, seafood is not a natural food for cats.) Soy products have also been linked to thyroid damage. Studies have also linked PDBE's (flame retardant chemicals) in house dust to the growing problem of thyroid disease.

If all that I have mentioned isn't enough, it has been discovered that the high heat processing that occurs in the manufacturing of dry kibble actually creates two carcinogens -- acrylamide and heterocyclic amines. These won't be listed in the ingredients of the food of course because it is created in the process itself and is not an ingredient. That's just great, isn't it? The very process of making dry pet foods creates carcinogens in the food that the pets are consuming. They call them carcinogens for a reason  -- they cause cancer. And without dragging this post on for several more pages about the details of what these are and the studies that have been done (or not), I'll let you do your own investigation if you'd like further information on the subject. Knowing that dry foods contain carcinogens and that carcinogens are known to cause cancer and seeing all the pets I see die of cancer....well, that's enough for me.

Remember those dog jerky treats that were made in China and were just recently pulled from store shelves after killing 600 dogs and making many more ill? You know -- the same treats they have been investigating for the last seven years with still no answer as to what the cause was. Well, guess what? Those same treats are coming back to the store shelves. In fact, they are probably already there. What's changed? Nothing. They can't even figure out what about them caused the deaths and illnesses of thousands of dogs. Here are some tips on avoiding toxic pet treats from Dr. Becker. My advice is (and has been) do not buy any treats that are made in China. You have to read the packing. It's usually in small print at the bottom.

(May 1, 2014 - Update on jerky treats from China: Over the past six months (since October 2013) the FDA has received reports of an average of 6 sick or dying pets a day related to jerky dog treats imported from China.  This means approximately 1200 more pets have become sick or died linked to jerky treats imported from China in just the last six months.  When will this madness end? Read more about this here.)

(Aug. 29, 2014 - Update with some good news regarding the jerky treats. As of May 1, 2014, the FDA has received reports involving more than 5,600 dogs and 24 cats, and included over 1,000 dog deaths -- all linked to chicken, duck, or sweet potato jerky treats imported from China. Three humans, two of them children, also became ill after ingesting the treats. The good news: Petco and Petsmart announced they will no longer sell treats made in China! Woohoo! Finally! This will take effect at the end of this year for Petco and in March 2015 for Petsmart. Send them a "thank you", will you? Read more about this here.)

Although I link to and mention Dr. Karen Becker, a holistic veterinarian in Illinois, most frequently in a lot of my writings including this one, she is not the only source that I get my information from. It's just that she has made sharing information easy because she writes articles and posts videos frequently and they are easily found for reference on healthypets.mercola.com

This article is full of links to more articles and information and resources. I hope you will come back and check them all out and become a more informed pet food consumer. At the very least, I hope you will watch Dr. Becker's videos about pet foods and the documentary Genetic Roulette (links above). You and your pets can only benefit from it.

Our pets are living, breathing, sentient beings who depend on us for their care. Just like us, the foods they ingest play a major role in their health and wellbeing. For decades we have been dumping highly processed, dry foods in their bowls as we rush about our busy lives. It's convenient and we have been led to believe it's what our pets need to be healthy. Now, just like with the human population, we have created a population of sick and overweight animals. It's time to rethink what we are feeding our beloved pets if we want to keep them healthy and around as long as possible. Nutrition and diet is the foundation. You CAN feed your way to a healthy pet!

Don't think you can afford to feed better quality foods? Better think again....it's either spend the money on the food now or spend the money at the vet's later, plus at the cost of your pet's health. If you actually sat down and figured out how much a day it would cost you to feed a better food versus how much it will cost if your pet gets one or more illnesses (as listed above) due to what he/she is consuming on a regular basis, you may be surprised. Not to mention your pets will be healthier and happier. Just move up one place on the pet food scale if that's all you can do right now, as Dr. Becker describes in her video. It's the difference between thriving and surviving. It's about prevention. There is truth in the old saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We have lost sight of what it takes to (reclaim and) maintain our and our pets' natural state, which is health and well-being. Instead of taking a medication for every and anything......as Hippocrates wisely said "Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Medicine Be Thy Food".

Update (4/25/14): In a new article by Dr. Becker titled Five Health Tips for A Long-Lived Pet , she offers excellent advice on how to not only extend the quantity of your pet's life, but also the quality. 

Update (5/19/14): Recently, one of the best studies that has ever been done to document the dangers of GMO foods revealed significant information. Of course, this study was not done in the U.S.

Update (5/23/14): Exciting news! Susan Thixton of TruthAboutPetFood.com began a campaign (in April)  to raise $10,000 to start testing pet foods for dangerous toxins. I've had the thought of...if only we had our own lab and scientists to test pet foods ourselves! Well, that's exactly what's happening! Pet food consumers (including me) have banded together and not only raised the $10,000 rather quickly, but surpassed that amount and it is continuing to grow. Won't you join us in our great cause? Go here to learn more.

Update (6/23/14): "A commercial pet food company in Canada recently produced a "white paper" titled The Biologically Appropriate Food Concept and the Dietary Needs of Dogs and Cats. While white papers produced by businesses are typically informational marketing pieces, this report contains a lot of good information that can be very useful for pet guardians interested in understanding their dog's or cat's nutritional needs" says Dr. Karen Becker. I have to agree. You can download the full report and read more about it here.