Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Rant About Breast Milk And Dog Nutrition

Do you, like me, find yourself wondering since when having a dog became rocket science?

According to science, domestication of dogs happened some 20 to 30 thousand years ago. Were the hunter-gatherers sitting there, racking their brains with what to feed and how to train their new companions?

And yet everything worked itself out naturally.

But then, hunter-gatherers didn’t have McDonalds or dog Chow, nor did they have pesticides, herbicides or Monsanto … among other things.

Is that significant?

I am a little Czech woman who found her port in Canada about 20 years ago.

Where I come from, dogs were fed left-overs and, if they were really lucky, some meat, bones or risotto type of mixtures. Rural dogs would live on combination of that and fending for themselves. Nobody ever heard of commercial kibble and when it eventually got introduced it was a luxury item normal people couldn’t afford.

The dogs seemed to have lived happy and healthy long lives.

My mom has a friend whose dog is of a ripe age and lives on boiled out chicken carcasses, milk and bread. And only when the cat leaves some. Does that make your hair stand up? Mine too. And yet, the dog survived all these years.

When I came to Canada and met my husband, he had a little rescued Rottie girl. I was new to the country and he had gone through a nasty divorce. We were very broke. We fed her grocery store Chow because that’s all we could afford.

While I would NEVER feed my dog that stuff unless I couldn’t help it, she too survived on that.

A few years after her passing, we got a new puppy, Jasmine. At first we fed her based on her breeder’s recommendation. Because of her constant stool problems, she ended up long term on Hill’s i/d. Not that it made any difference.

It actually wasn’t her food but her treats that got me thinking harder about nutrition. 

She used to get Begging Strips, which she liked a lot. It used to be crispy and smell like bacon. Then they changed the formulation. It became gooey and suddenly it smelled sour and mostly like chemicals more than anything else.

Perhaps just because they sell something for dogs doesn’t mean that it’s good for them …

So I started looking closer at the ingredients. We started making home-made beef jerky treats and I decided to exchange the i/d for California Natural Fish and Potato.

Jasmine’s appetite was also dwindling and stools continued to be bad but frequent vet visits didn’t bring any answers or solutions.

It wasn’t until Jasmine was five years of age, when problems started piling up. 

She was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. She busted her knee ligament. And then, finally, after finding yet another new vet, she was diagnosed with IBD. The cause was determined to be food allergies, which none of the vets ever caught before. (This was about six years ago)

With everything as it was, it meant a major change in her diet and we decided to go with home-cooking. 

We involved a veterinary nutritionist but even then we had to change the recipe a couple of times because some of the nutrients weren’t getting assimilated from some of the ingredients.

The fact is, that once we got it figured out, Jasmine thrived on that.

Looking at the big picture, I was wondering how much of the later problems could have been avoided if her allergies were diagnosed earlier. The new vet said, based on his findings, that she likely had the IBD all along.

How many of the later issues might have been avoided if that had been diagnosed and addressed at the beginning?

I started seriously researching what could I do, in terms of nutrition, to help Jasmine’s body. And that was when dog nutrition became a big part of my learning curve.

I read a long list of books on dog nutrition. I learned about food therapy in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. I felt I didn’t know enough. I took a course on integrative dog nutrition and decided to study dog physiology and biochemistry to really get to understand things.

Do I feel that I know it all now?

Mostly what I learned is that there are more questions to be asking.

Should it be this complicated?

These days, everybody will give you an opinion on what you should feed your dog. Everybody has a strong conviction and the beliefs vary greatly. And most of them believe (and are happy to let you know) that if you choose to feed something else, you’re killing your dog.

I remember meeting my husband’s colleague for a dog play date for the first time. As our conversation went on, I innocently asked what she was feeding her dog. She refused to tell me. When I asked why, she said that I wouldn’t agree with it.

How many judgmental responses did it take for her to simply refuse to disclose what she was feeding her dog?

You get bombarded from all sides. From your breeder, your vet, your friends, your neighbors, the media, and the clerk at the pet store … There are people who use the term “food Nazi” and then there are people who’d likely be best described by this term.

For some, feeding a certain type of diet being the answer to everything.

“I think my dog just broke a leg, what should I do?”
“Switch him to raw.”

Am I exaggerating? Yes, but not that much.

Extruded kibble, baked kibble, canned, semi-moist, freeze-dried, raw, premium, gourmet, all-natural, grain-free, gluten-free, holistic, organic, human-grade, biologically appropriate, ancestral, cooked, home-cooked … those are just some of the terms to contend with.

And all that before you even turn the package to take a look at the back.

Beside the processing method, what the label says on the back actually matters the most.
Back to my husband’s colleague’s feeding choice.

Her dog is doing great. Isn’t that all that matters?

One of the big arguments going on is which is more important, ingredients or nutrients? Are nutrients all that matters and ingredients are irrelevant?

What do you think?

Photo Cavalier Health

Nutrients ARE important. It is nutrients that carry the needed energy, building blocks of tissues and functional elements. Fatty acids, amino acids, minerals, vitamins … those are the things a dog’s body needs to function.

Does it or does it not matter where the nutrients come from, though?

And more importantly, if we're counting nutrients, are we counting ALL of them? And what about food substances that don't qualify as nutrients and yet might be just as important?

Remember the times when baby formula was deemed the be superior to breast milk?

Just today I came across an article on how decoding breast milk secret reveals clues to lasting health.

"Evidence shows that breast-feeding is good for babies, boosting immunity and protecting them from a wide range of health issues such as obesity, diabetes, liver problems and cardiovascular disease."
“Mother’s milk is the Rosetta Stone for all food,” said Professor Bruce German, director of the UC Davis Foods for Health Institute. “It’s a complete diet, shaped over 200 million years of evolution, to keep healthy babies healthy.”

Shaped over 200 million years of evolution ...

So what does breast milk have that formula does not? It has nutrients, of course. But third most abundant to lactose and lipids is a biomolecule that the babies cannot digest. It goes in just to end up in the diapers.

Nobody ever counted that.

Heck, nobody even knew it was there.

"Turns out, the indigestible matter is a slew of complex sugars called oligosaccharides that are extremely difficult to detect and analyze."

If they don't get digested, how could they be important? They don't feed the baby, they feed Bifidobacterium infantis bacteria in the baby's gut. If you're into probiotics, you know what these are. As it turns out, breast milk is loaded with prebiotics.

What does this have to do with dog nutrition?

Perhaps ingredients, and what happens to them in the process, matter after all. Perhaps we should not just count nutrients and think that is all there is to nutrition. Perhaps natural ingredients offer more than meets the eye.

Image: indrja, fotoalba by

Perhaps we lost sight of what dogs evolved to eat. Perhaps nutrition isn't rocket science after all, just common sense.

What do you think?

Related articles:
"Natural" With Regard To Dog Nutrition (Part I): What Does It Mean And Does It Matter? 
The Whole Food Philosophy And The Tale Of A Giant Sugar Beet
Brad Pitt Doesn't Believe in Germs. Could he be right?


  1. You make many excellent points. So much of the dog food world is all about marketing and guilt. It will be interesting to follow the lawsuit between Nestle and Blue Buffalo to see if it can bring some truth to what ingredients actually go into dog food.

    1. Yeah, that lawsuit is certainly something interesting to follow. I think the biggest question is this. Science is awesome. But how much is the science in case of dog nutrition a servant of industry?

  2. I agree 100%...common sense is the answer. You provide great examples on dogs living, thriving on non-traditional foods. Dogs are the great adapters. The real indicator with dogs, as with people. How do they look, how do they feel, do they have energy? If so, then what they are being fed is probably okay. Don't get caught up in the marketing hype. Use your common sense.

    1. Of course, we want to do better by our dogs than just 'okay'. But from those examples it seems that simply counting nutrients isn't the whole answer at least.

  3. You had me at "wondering since when having a dog became rocket science." My childhood dogs all lived to ripe old ages, healthy and happy, except for the obese one. We never researched what we fed them or brushed their teeth. I use common sense/instinct for deciding what I should eat but I can shop for and choose what my body is telling me it needs. I certainly wish my dogs could do that too but instead I have to do all the studying, researching and budgeting I can to feed them as best as I think I can. Which never seems good enough.

    1. Yes, it would be awesome if dogs could make their own choices too. Though not all out choices for ourselves are always the best; we all love cookies and McDonnald's type of stuff ;-)

  4. Common Sense is key - Thanks Jana for doing all the leg work, I don't have the attention span for all that research . Zeus just turned 14 and for a male Rottie that's remarkable... My rule has always been if I won't eat it he doesn't eat it . After finding out 10 yrs ago what china was up to with regards to poisoning our pals is when I started paying closer attention to things. I use to buy Zeus his favorite thing in the world was pig ears in bulk . I had wondered why for yrs why his stools were always loose it was the irradiated pig ears. My boy has had his own personal chef for 14 yrs. I've cooked him chicken and turkey his whole life . He gets very sick if he eats anything beef needless to say I read a lot of labels but society has to make everything so complex I don't understand most of it. The Golden Rule is if you won't eat it they shouldn't.

    1. Wow, that is totally remarkable! Nothing like having a personal chef! :-) It is one of my jobs too.

  5. I tried feeding my cats raw food but they turned their noses up at it. I feed them grain free food, either Blue Buffalo or Taste of the Wild. I wish I could feed them home cooked stuff, but I am on a very limited budget and my stove has been broken for many years. I myself live on microwaved meals. I do the best for them that I can.

    1. There is always more than one way of doing things. There are certainly dogs who are not keen on raw, or even those for which cooked is definitely safer and better solution.

      There are many dogs who do great on kibble too.

      It's the dogmas that bother me.

  6. Love this article, Jana. We dog (and pet) enthusiasts love to nitpick the details, but when it comes down to it, our pets' bodies are pretty amazing when it comes to adapting to food, and minor differences are probably not going to matter that much to most animals. That being said, natural does seem to make a difference!

    1. I am all for complete and balanced diet. The question is what it is exactly. For example, having all the minimum levels of proteins, minerals and vitamins - I'm not a fan of minimum levels. And having all those carbs, how balanced is that really then?

  7. Great article! A friend of mine recently lost her dog to cancer. In a raw food group, someone told her that her dog would be alive if she fed raw. She joined the group to learn and left after this "advice."

    I was just telling someone earlier today that it's such a pain that we have to pay such close attention to the ingredients in our dogs' food and treats.

    1. Yes, some people really are "Nazis" about the food. And have to respect, understanding or compassion. Even if it was true and her dog might have still lived, there is no point adding insult to the injury.

      As for taking apart ingredients, one really has to read all the small print and learn what it all means. Does become quite a pain.

  8. The truth is it is complicated. But no one is arguing that puppies are better off being bottle fed than getting mild from their moms. A more apt analogy is are we as humans really healthier if we eat raw food diets vs. cooked with fire diets? The truth is we don't know, but odds are we've benefitted from killing all the germs we're exposed to from food, and it's likely our pets have too. We have more nutritional studies on pet nutrition than we even do on human nutrition. At the end of the day though, it is really complicated and there's only so much we know. While it's not a perfect book - I think Feed your Pet Right by Marion Nestle - written by pHD nutritonists - does a pretty good job at talking about what really matters and what probably doesn't.

    1. It's not really specifically about cooking. I think cooking does destroy some nutrients but to me, the real problem is high processing, using ingredients that are not "species appropriate", additives and stuff that arguably doesn't belong in the body at all. And also counting certain nutrients with disregard of value of a whole piece of food.