June '24 - Pet Health & Nutrition

Laurien Achaur

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This month, the SOA Team is taking a look at how to help our dogs and cats live their best lives with a focus on pet health and nutrition! Laurien Achaur of the Yellow Ajah has a lot of info to share, so grab your favorite drink, have a sit, and prepare for a bit of reading - all for the love of your pet.

Introduction
Hey there, Tar Valon! I’m Laurien Achaur of the Yellow Ajah, and I’m excited to share some information with you all about a topic that has become very near and dear to my heart because of my day job - pet health and nutrition. Throughout June, I’ll be talking a bit about pet nutrition in general with a focus on cats and dogs as well as ways to make sure your house is as pet-safe as possible and how to help your dog or cat in emergencies.

I need to make a very important disclaimer before diving in: I am not a veterinarian or certified pet nutritionist. Nothing I share with you this month should be considered a substitute for professional veterinary (or even better, professional pet nutritionist) help.

What I am is an employee of an independent pet food and supply store who has undergone nutrition and brand-specific training for the past two years. I continue to train and study as the knowledge base for pet nutrition grows and changes because I want to give the people who come into my work the most accurate and fact-founded information I possibly can. I’m a pet guardian just like them and just like you; I love my pets deeply and want to give them the best life possible because they enrich mine so very much. I just want to share what I know of how to do that with as many people as possible.

While I am confident in my knowledge and am always striving to increase and adjust it, I understand that my lack of official certification in anything may make some people dubious. I am not offended by this (and would probably react the same way in your position). However, I hope you will trust me to share what I know in good faith and cross-check it with trusted information sources if you feel inclined. I will provide links to reputable websites whenever possible because I do not expect anyone to simply take my word for it!

You may feel compelled to verify things I say with your vet, which is also understandable. Do keep in mind that when it comes to proper nutrition, most vets are not trained specifically in nutrition outside of a small portion of their curriculum. It’s akin to your family doctor or primary care physician - they are excellent when it comes to overall health and chronic conditions, but they are not nutritionists. Dedicated dieticians and nutritionists will be able to advise you about what to eat according to what may be going on with you, and the same is now true for pets; there are certified pet nutritionists out there (though they do have to become vets to practice).

Fortunately, accurate general pet nutrition info is available out there for public consumption. As with many things on the internet these days, it may take a bit of sleuthing to ensure it’s reliable (and not AI-generated; yikes). But it is there! Just be sure to do your due diligence for your pets’ sake.

I am certified in Pet CPR and First Aid through The Frontline Coalition, which I took a refresher course in at the beginning of this year. Hopefully, this fact will help you feel at ease with what I present in a later post.

And now, without further ado, let’s get into how to have the happiest, healthiest fur babies possible!



Pet Food 101: History, Biology, Brands, and Types

The realm of pet nutrition, especially for dogs and cats, has come quite a long way over the past few decades. Just as it has for us, the importance of gastrointestinal health and foods that satisfy biological needs rather than just filling a growling void has come into the spotlight as a major key to our pets’ overall well-being.

We’re all familiar with dry food (kibble) and wet food, but with raw, freeze-dried, air-dried, gently cooked, and dehydrated foods now on the scene, trying to understand why these options are around and which would be the best choice can become a bit overwhelming. It makes some people want to cling to their current longstanding choice all the more stubbornly. In contrast, others throw themselves headlong into researching and figuring out the best option, often getting bounced around between conflicting sources of information and opinions.

If you aren’t interested in going to either extreme, I may have some guidance for you! Let’s lay a good foundation by reviewing some basic canine and feline biology, food history, common brands, and food types.



Dogs and Cats, Living Together (With Humans)

All dogs (yes, even your Aunt Kathy’s floofy little Pomerianian) evolved from wolves, with the genetic split likely happening somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago (https://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/do-all-dogs-come-from-wolves).

All domestic cats evolved from - and still share nearly identical DNA with - the North African/Southwest Asian Wildcat. It’s difficult to tell when exactly the bit of genetic split happened there for cats, so it’s easier to distinguish them by when domestication started happening, which some scientists estimate to have been around 12,000 years ago (https://nationalkitty.com/cat-ancestry-where-do-cats-come-from/).

While there’s still a fair amount of debate about how domestication happened, most theories these days hold that both dogs and cats likely self-domesticated (and cats are often considered only semi-domesticated). Wolves became attracted to hunter-gatherer encampments by food scraps and started getting closer and closer to stay fed, especially in colder climes. The hunters may have eventually decided that wolves would be good deterrents for other scavengers and started encouraging them to stick around.

As for cats, 12,000 years ago is when agricultural societies began to pop up along the Fertile Crescent (the upper Nile, eastern Mediterranean coast, and along the Euphrates). This was also where the above-mentioned Wildcat lived. Where there are stores of grain and other foodstuffs, there are mice, and the clever little Wildcat found this to be a very convenient and reliable source of food. Therefore, they decided to hang around.

Colons and Canines
Cats are obligate carnivores. “Obligate” means “by necessity;” they need meat (and only meat) to get all their nutrients. They are also meant to get most of their hydration from their food (prey). Their desert wildcat ancestors had very little water in their arid environment and evolved to get the moisture they needed from hunting. Their digestive tracts are short because they do not need the fermenting bacteria (and room for it to populate) that carb-eaters have (https://hare-today.com/feline-nutrition/answers/answers-what-exactly-is-an-obligate-carnivore).
Their mouths are full of sharp, pointy teeth made for ripping into meat and chewing apart connective tissues.

While it may seem obvious to say that dogs are carnivores, there is actually an ongoing debate about the matter. Wolves are clearly carnivores; they hunt and eat large prey to survive. But dogs’ digestive tracts have evolved to be longer than those of wolves, and behind all their canines are some back teeth that are more like molars for crushing and grinding. They also have taste buds that can register “sweet,” which is something obligate carnivores don’t have (https://www.rover.com/blog/are-dogs-carnivores/). For the moment, it seems that dogs should be considered omnivores who need meat as their biggest portion.

So cats need strictly meat, and dogs can have meat, veggies and grains. Both used to hunt, and both still sometimes do. So when did we start feeding them things other than what they caught for themselves or our leftovers?

The Need for Convenience

The first dry pet foods appeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s - the predecessor of Milk-Bones, then Milk-Bones themselves and a similar option for cats. Then, in the 1920s, canned food made of leftover meat (usually horsemeat) and grains became popular. It remained the most cost-effective option for commercial pet food through the Great Depression until World War II came along.

Many canned food makers closed during World War II due to material rationing. This is when dry food - kibble - became popular; it didn’t require cans and provided a quick solution for households in which the husband was away at war and the wife was away working to support the war and didn’t have time to prepare food.

After World War II, consumption culture emerged. Everything got bigger and faster, and with the invention of extrusion to produce kibble in the 1950s, dry food took the top spot for popular pet food and has remained there ever since (https://www.catster.com/guides/history-of-commercial-pet-food/).

A Question of Quality

In more recent decades, especially with certain pet food brands dealing with multiple recalls (ie. Purina - https://www.petful.com/brands/purina-recall/) and some with lawsuits (like Hill’s - https://www.petage.com/dcm-related-...n-grain-free-dog-food-academic-veterinarians/), people have started to pause and question what exactly they are feeding their pets. When “meat meal” appears on a label, what meat is meant? Where does it come from? What is a “natural flavor?” What is contained in the “by-product” part of a “meat by-product?” Why does this dog food have corn gluten in it? Why is wheat on the ingredient list for that cat food?

The list of questions gets longer and longer, and more and more people are turning to more biologically appropriate food for their pets. The health benefits are undeniable - decrease in or elimination of scratching/allergies, shiny coat, increase in energy, better (and less stinky) stools, and the like. However, just as it’s more expensive for us to buy healthier foods, the same is unfortunately true for our pets. There is also still a great deal of resistance to switching to these foods, an astounding amount of which continues to be from some veterinarians. Still, change is steadily occurring on that front as well.

Brands Big and Small
What do Mars and Nestlé have in common?

Your first answer probably wouldn’t be pet food. Yet these candy-making giants currently hold the top two spots for largest pet food company in the US based on annual revenue according to petfoodindustry.com. They’re followed by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, which is owned by Colgate-Palmolive (the toothpaste and soap people), and J.M. Smucker (probably best known for jams and jellies and peanut butter and such). - https://www.petfoodindustry.com/new...275/10-top-usbased-pet-food-companies-in-2022

Mars owns nearly fifty pet food brands including Greenies, Iams, Pedigree, Royal Canin, Sheba, Temptations, and Whiskas. They recently acquired premium sister brands Acana and Orijen. Additionally, they own several veterinary services including the VCA and Banfield animal hospitals.

Nestlé owns Purina, which includes One, Pro Plan, Friskies, and Fancy Feast. J.M. Smucker owns Milk-Bone and Meow Mix as well as a few others.

Blue Buffalo, owned by General Mills, is an extremely popular brand among people who are trying to transition to healthier food.

Why have I taken the time to point out the mother companies for some of the most familiar pet food brands? It is because these companies are conglomerates, meaning they oversee many other brands in areas unrelated to pet food and health (such as human food, hygiene products, and cleansers). Their food meets the standards of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO - https://aafco.org), which dictates food standards and regulates what foods can be sold and where. However, the AAFCO standards do not state that ingredients must come from a specific source, nor that the type of meat in a pet food needs to be specified. Therefore, to look at the label on a bag of Mars or Nestlé-owned pet food is to see such ambiguous terms as poultry by-product and animal digest. Corn gluten, wheat, and soy are also common to see. Cats cannot digest or process these things, and for dogs, wheat and soy are some of the most common allergens, while corn gluten is a filler that lacks several important amino acids needed for proper nutrition (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/corn-in-dog-food-what-you-need-to-know/).

My purpose is not necessarily to vilify these companies. Some good things have come out of them. However, I believe that understanding where they are rooted and considering the possible bottom line for conglomerates is important to think about when it comes to quality, transparency, and focus.

Times are hard for many of us. Big-name commercial pet food brands offer more affordable solutions so that we can keep our pets fed. But when we consider our pets’ physiology, biological needs, and quality of life, it may be worth reevaluating our budget to see if we can spend a little more on food with transparent ingredient sourcing that will keep them healthier for longer, just as we might with our own food when we know a diet change might do us some good in the long run.

Some excellent lesser-known brands deal with pet food and nothing else. They exceed AAFCO standards, with some priding themselves on human-grade food and/or meeting and exceeding European Union or Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) standards. Others go to great lengths to ensure their ingredients are ethically and sustainably sourced from both land and sea, and many have their own dedicated production and packing facilities.

Some, like Wellness or Weruva, can be found at big-box pet retailers like PetCo or PetSmart. Other brands deal only with independent retailers, so check out and support your local pet stores. Here are a few of my favorite brands for your consideration:

Open Farm - https://openfarmpet.com/en-us/
Earth Animal - https://earthanimal.com/
Farmina - https://www.farmina.com/us/
First Mate & Kasik’s - https://firstmate.com/
Petcurean (Go! Solutions, Now Fresh, Summit) - https://petcurean.com/en-us
Weruva - https://www.weruva.com/
Tiki Pets - https://tikipets.com/
Nulo - https://nulo.com/
Ziwi - https://us.ziwipets.com/
Feline/K9 Naturals - https://us.felinenatural.com/ and https://us.k9natural.com/
Stella & Chewy’s - https://www.stellaandchewys.com/
A Pup Above - https://apupabove.com/
Steve’s Real Food - https://stevesrealfood.com/
The Honest Kitchen - https://www.thehonestkitchen.com/

Types of Pet Food

Kibble/Dry food: The long-standing staple of the pet food industry, kibble is a type of dry pet food that is typically made of any combination of the following: dehydrated meat or meat meal, insect protein, grains, legumes, potato, vegetables, vitamins and minerals from synthetic or natural sources. Most kibble is still made through the process of extrusion, which involves mixing the ingredients in a large barrel with a corkscrew element. While the ingredients cook at a high temperature, the corkscrew turns and forces the mixture through a narrow opening, where it is cut into bite-sized pieces on the way out. It is often sprayed with a flavored coating afterward. Some premium kibble is baked instead of extruded and/or vacuum-infused with animal fat as a binding agent.

Wet food: Wet pet foods come in cans, Tetrapaks, pouches, or cups. They come in paté form (smooth), mousse (usually in pouches), shreds, stews, minces, whipped patés, or even combinations of textures. It is common to pack them in gravies, broths, aspic, or even simply water. They consist of meat or insect protein, carbohydrates (vegetables, grains, potato, or legumes in any combination), and vitamin/mineral packs from either natural or synthetic sources.

Raw food: This is exactly what it sounds like - raw muscle and organ meat (just like prey would be) and vegetables, usually put into nugget or patty form for easy serving. It is fortified with vitamins and minerals from either natural or synthetic sources to ensure proper nutrient balance. From both historical and biological standpoints, a raw diet is sometimes regarded as the most appropriate, especially for felines. While some people are concerned about bacteria and contaminants in raw food, it is important to remember that it is not much different than the meat we cook for ourselves, so the same precautions should be taken. This will decrease or eliminate the risk of issues just as it would for us. This 2019 study provides an in-depth look at some of these issues and links to other studies for those interested - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6849757/

Freeze-dried raw: This form of raw food is a convenient way to avoid handling moist raw meat and to allow easy maintenance of a raw diet while on the go. It’s also a bit more affordable than frozen raw. It’s a versatile sort of food that can be used as a complete meal, a topper for wet food, or treats. It can be reconstituted with water, bone broth, or raw goat’s milk (pets shouldn’t be given human-grade or lactose-in cow dairy) or given as-is, though rehydrating is highly recommended. A few companies have begun mixing freeze-dried raw into dry food to help get some raw food into pets’ diets and ease the transition away from kibble completely.

Air-dried food: There are a few companies that use this method of pet food preparation, which involves the gentle circulation of warm air around and through raw ingredients until dryness is achieved, creating a shelf-stable and nutritionally dense alternative to raw food that isn’t completely devoid of moisture.

Dehydrated food: In this form of food, all ingredients are desiccated and sometimes reduced to a meal or powder, though something of an oatmeal-like appearance is common as well. It can then be reconstituted with water or bone broth, the amount of which determines the consistency. While dehydrated food can be expensive up front, it can be quite cost-effective because it lasts a long time. A ten-pound box or bag of dehydrated food can yield up to forty pounds of reconstituted food.

Gently-cooked (sous-vide) food: An increasingly popular alternative to raw, gently-cooked food eliminates much of the worry about bacteria from raw meat that some people have. It is a combination of meat, vegetables, vitamins, and minerals cooked at a low temperature for an extended period, then frozen into patties for easy serving.

What’s the Best Option?
Now that we’ve been over some pet food history, biology, brands, and types, what do you think is the best pet food?

I am a big advocate of everything but kibble for all pets, especially raw food. Regardless of my opinions and what I’ve found to work for my own pets, however, the answer is: whatever works best for your pet(s) and keeps them happiest and healthiest. This is not always going to be the same as what is most comfortable for your wallet (it certainly isn't for mine). Finding a balance between the two can be a challenge, but I would say it's worth figuring out for the animals we love.

While there have been studies done comparing raw food to other commercial pet food, there are not many yet, given how recent the interest in taking a deep dive into pet nutrition is. Much of the evidence for the benefits of non-kibble or non-canned/wet diets is anecdotal - still valid and worth listening to, but not always scientifically quantifiable. (How annoyed would you be if you tried something and saw the evidence for yourself but were dismissed just because it’s your word and experience but not scientific study? Anecdotes have power, especially if they end up providing the motivation for scientific studies.)

I feed my cats wet food for breakfast and dinner and lightly reconstituted freeze-dried raw for lunch. They are happy, healthy boys with beautiful coats and excellent builds, and while I joke that they eat better than I do, that little extra investment is well worth it. You can get similar results with high-quality kibble with a bit of bone broth for your dog or by feeding your cat only wet food and nothing else. Just keep an open mind, be patient, give them options to try, and see what works.

Just like us, our pets are all unique with their own personalities, preferences, and health quirks. Just like us, many want variety while some don’t mind eating the same thing every day. While it’s becoming more accepted that kibble alone isn’t the best way to go, it’s also an acceptable option to turn to for those of us with busy lives that keep us away from our pets for most of the day. It’s more feasible and less problematic for dogs than for cats, but there are some very high-protein dry food options out there for cats that will suffice for a while if needed.

In a nutshell, dogs are more versatile than cats because they are carnivorous with omnivorous leanings. Cats, being obligate carnivores, must have an all-meat diet with few to no carbs to be their healthiest. Therefore, wet, raw, air-dried, gently-cooked, and reconstituted freeze-dried or dehydrated foods will work best for them.

Dogs can have all of the above plus kibble, though be sure to include a healthy dose of wet topping or soak their kibble in water, bone broth, or raw goat’s milk to ensure they don’t bloat from the kibble expanding in their stomach and get enough moisture. Also, be sure to check the ingredients. Make certain that the types of meat in the kibble are specified, not given the generic label of “meat meal” or “poultry” or the like, and are the first things on the ingredient label. Ensure that it doesn’t include “meat by-products” (filler made from the parts of an animal that wouldn’t normally be eaten), and stay away from the common allergens of wheat and soy and nutritionally-deficient fillers based on corn (corn gluten and cornstarch).



I could write a whole paper on this topic, but I’ll stop there for now and save some of the finer points for the dog and cat-specific posts I’ll be making later. Thanks for sticking with me through this intro! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask on this post or ping me in Discord or via DMs and I’ll answer what I can!
 

Jahily al'Karee

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Thanks for sharing - this is fascinating! And I just went and re-checked the ingredients in our dog’s food. ;)
 

Leira Galene

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Do you know anything about raw food suitability for cats with urinary issues? We have to feed one of our cats the prescription urinary food to prevent bladder crystals, and I'd be interested in trying something like freeze dried raw food but I never know if it's safe for him. I feel bad that he does get the same boring kibble for years though!
 

Laurien Achaur

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Do you know anything about raw food suitability for cats with urinary issues? We have to feed one of our cats the prescription urinary food to prevent bladder crystals, and I'd be interested in trying something like freeze dried raw food but I never know if it's safe for him. I feel bad that he does get the same boring kibble for years though!
Hey Leira! A couple of things here: urinary prescription foods don't actually have "medicine" in them to treat or prevent urinary tract issues. What they do have is a lower phosphorous content than most other foods, which is what makes them prescription. They're also not meant to be eaten long-term; once the issue is cleared up, you're supposed to go back to regular (wet) food...which is apparently not something that's often mentioned. They do need to get back to their normal level of phosphorous eventually, after all. Consider what happens for us when we get urinary issues - we're given medicine, maybe told to drink a lot of fluids and cranberry juice, and unless there's a chronic condition involved, we eventually go off the medicine and back to normal. It makes no sense to sustain that for an animal, either, unless there's a chronic condition as I mentioned before.

Nowadays, there are low-phosphorous foods to help with urinary issues that you can get without a prescription. Weruva and Farmina make some excellent ones, and Farmina makes a urinary-focused kibble that's free of the common allergens and fillers. If your cat does have a chronic issue, you can safely swap to those foods if it's easier on the budget. But the big thing here is to get him off the kibble. As I mentioned in the article, cats need meat and evolved to get their hydration from their food. Kibble is not providing that for them and is a major contributor to cat urinary and renal issues, especially later in life. There's meat in there, but no moisture and way too many carbs for an obligate carnivore.

TL;DR, he doesn't (and shouldn't) need to be on the same boring kibble for years! Switch him to wet, look into the Weruva low-phosphorous and Farmina urinary wet foods, and if you absolutely must use a kibble, try the Farmina urinary kibble and make sure you soak it to address the no-moisture issue. If he currently isn't having any urinary issues, switch him to wet food (I still recommend Weruva because it's so hydration-focused, but Tiki Cat is a good one, too) to help prevent them from coming back. You'll have a much happier and healthier kitty!

Raw food has the moisture cats need, so if there are no current issues (and he'll actually eat it), it's fine. Freeze-dried raw needs to be reconstituted with water or bone broth to have the right moisture content. If there's a long-term need for low phosphorous, though, raw diets won't work. They have high levels of phosphorous because of the ground bone content, which is included for calcium needs.
 

Leira Galene

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Thanks! He does have issues (crystals) every time we try to switch him back to higher phosphorus foods, and he does get like a 2-to-1 water-to-kibble ratio when we feed him at least, lol. I haven't heard of those brands so I will look them up, that's good to know! I really appreciate it.
 

Laurien Achaur

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Thanks! He does have issues (crystals) every time we try to switch him back to higher phosphorus foods, and he does get like a 2-to-1 water-to-kibble ratio when we feed him at least, lol. I haven't heard of those brands so I will look them up, that's good to know! I really appreciate it.
Aww, poor buddy! I’m sorry he’s dealing with that long-term. 🙁 But yes, those two brands I’ve mentioned are definitely worthwhile. Weruva’s low-phos wet food goes by Wx (looks like the prescription Rx symbol). I hope you’re able to get hold of some!
 

Laurien Achaur

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Dogs: Nutrition & Health for Our Canine Companions

Dogs have been our loyal friends and guardians for thousands of years, even beyond the establishment of settled civilization. As stated in the previous post, popular theory posits that they’ve essentially been living off our table scraps for about as long as humans have been hunting. With such a long streak of loyalty, it seems only fair that we repay them in kind with the best care and feeding we can give them.

Sharing Our Food - Human-Grade vs. Pet-Appropriate

Your dog sits beside your chair at the dinner table, gazing up at you with big, pleading brown eyes. He’s just so cute! How can you possibly resist slipping him the treat he’s so fervently hoping for from your plate?

We did just establish that they’ve long lived off our table scraps, after all.

BUT.

These days, our table scraps aren’t really the best thing for them due to all the additives and fillers in our food and even some of the spices and vegetables we use. While there are some human-grade dog foods out there, keep in mind that “human-grade” and “pet-appropriate” can be two very different things. Just because we can eat something doesn’t mean our pets can without adverse consequences.

Here are some foods to avoid feeding your dog and a few things that can happen if you do:

Chocolate and caffeine - vomiting, diarrhea, heart arrhythmia, seizures, death
Alcohol - vomiting, diarrhea, trouble breathing, coma, death
Macadamia nuts - vomiting, weakness, hyperthermia (overheating)
Grapes and raisins - kidney failure. (The substance in these that is toxic to dogs is still unknown.)
Uncooked yeast dough - rises inside the digestive tract, causing pain and/or intestinal rupture.
Xylitol - a common sweetener in many candies, baked goods, toothpaste, and some brands of peanut butter (commonly given as a treat). Causes vomiting, lethargy, loss of coordination, hypoglycemia, liver failure.
Onions, garlic, and chives - Small amounts are okay. Too much can cause gastrointestinal irritation and red blood cell damage.
Cow’s milk - diarrhea, digestive upset.
Salt - Okay in small amounts, but most human food has too much for dogs. It can cause vomiting, diarrhea, excessive thirst/urination, hyperthermia, seizures, death.

ASPCA Toxicology and Poison Control has this list and others for further reading - https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/people-foods-pets-should-never-eat.

If you want to give your dog the occasional plate treat, that’s fine! Just make sure it’s safe, and don’t overdo it! Being overweight is one of the biggest health problems faced by both dogs and cats, and one of the primary reasons for it is that we overdo the treats, especially off our (largely carb-heavy) plates. Your pet is not going to starve if you don’t give in to the puppy-dog eyes and feed them half of your breakfast. I promise.

Here’s one of many lists of foods that we can safely share with our dogs. Some of them may surprise you! - https://www.hepper.com/human-foods-that-dogs-can-safely-eat/



Grain-Free vs. Grain-Inclusive Foods: A Recent Controversy

Some kibbles/dry foods and wet foods for dogs include grain. Others do not. Some people feel grain-free foods are more biologically appropriate, while others believe grains are important for a dog’s heart and gut health. Who’s correct?

Again, every dog is different, just as we are. Some do perfectly fine on grain-free diets, while others benefit from having grains. Some dogs are allergic to grains and can’t have them. Some are allergic to legumes or potatoes, making grain-inclusive foods their only option. While this may seem like common sense, you may have noticed that grain-free versus grain-inclusive can be a topic that people (and some vets) get rather passionate about. What’s the big hairy deal?

It all has to do with a rare but concerning heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM.

DCM has mostly been documented in large-breed dogs and certain breeds with a hereditary predisposition to the condition. (https://www.petmd.com/dog/slideshows/7-dog-breeds-risk-heart-disease) However, in 2018, the FDA was compelled by a group of veterinary researchers to begin investigating an alleged tie between dog foods containing pulses (legumes) rather than grains and an increase in diagnoses of DCM in breeds not predisposed toward it.

News of this prompted many people to begin making the switch to grain-inclusive foods, and vets started to advise people whose dogs showed any potential symptoms of DCM to change their food just in case.

In recent years, the FDA has stated that it has not found definitive evidence connecting grain-free diets to DCM. It has released four updates about its investigation since beginning in 2018 and will no longer do so until there is meaningful new scientific information to share about the matter (https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterina...rtain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy). It has a comprehensive Q&A section to help address curiosities anyone may have about where things stand thus far (https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterina...work-potential-causes-non-hereditary-dcm-dogs).

A good overview of the entire issue and relevant studies can be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7447921/

There has been some speculation that the initial studies leading to the investigation were not scientifically founded and were biased due to being funded by leading distributors of grain-inclusive pet food brands who were seeking to devalue and damage the reputation of grain-free brands. Researchers maintain that this is not the case (https://apnews.com/article/science-...ministration-adbe215e2ee660b57b1d01dfff8d5f40).

With DCM being recognized as a complicated issue that is currently undergoing further study and no definitive evidence that diet has anything to do with it, why are some still digging their heels in about it? As we know, the internet and social media are powerful tools for perpetuating information, especially bad and outdated information. It is one of the largest culprits for the continuing saga of DCM and grain-free food.

However, good information is out there. It just takes some digging to find and patience to test.

With all the above in mind, what should you feed (if you’re at all concerned about DCM in the first place)? Unless your vet instructs you to feed your dog a certain way, that judgment is yours to make.



Common Health Concerns

Whether we like it or not, the likelihood that we will end up dealing with some health concern or other with our dogs is quite high. These could be minor things like a thorn in a paw all the way up to a major diagnosis like cancer. While anything we’re concerned about is cause for a vet visit, there are some common issues we can identify before that visit that can help us make our dogs more comfortable, grant us peace of mind, and perhaps even give us an alternative to having to spend money at the vet.

We’ll cover injuries and conditions requiring first aid in a later article. Here are a few things that may arise over the course of your dog’s life.

Allergies: Just like us, dogs can have seasonal, food, skin, or environmental allergies. Sneezing, frequent scratching, vomiting, diarrhea, eye discharge, yeast infections of the ears, paws, or skin, hair loss, hot spots, and rashes are some common symptoms of allergies.

Food and skin allergies are often related and can usually be solved by changing foods. Limited-ingredient foods are particularly helpful for determining and curbing food allergies. Some of the most common food allergens for dogs are chicken, beef, wheat, soy, dairy, lamb, and eggs. If you suspect a food allergy, try switching to a limited-ingredient food that doesn’t contain any of these possibilities. Give the new food time to work, doing a transitional mix of old and new food if needed. There may be some trial and error involved to find out what works and what your dog will eat, but it will be well worth it to save yourself thousands of dollars in vet visits and allergy tests. However, it’s always worthwhile to make at least one visit to rule out a different issue altogether.

Environmental allergies can have several potential causes including pollen, cigarette smoke, dust mites, fleas, mold, and chemicals in the products we use on ourselves or to clean around the house. There are several companies that make excellent natural supplements to help with pet allergies. Naturvet, Earth Animal, inClover, Super Snouts, and Zesty Paws are among them. They contain ingredients like quercetin (aka “Nature’s Benadryl”), salmon oil, nettle, adaptogenic mushrooms, and colostrum. While a bit pricey, they are far safer than many synthetic chemical concoctions, especially in the long run.

If your dog’s allergies are resulting in scratching themselves raw or hot spots, there are companies that make soothing balms and shampoos to help bring a bit of relief. Earth Animal, Kin & Kind, earthbath, and Super Snouts are excellent for this.

Anxiety: Anxiety in dogs can be expressed in many ways, from cowering and crying all the way up to property destruction and even inadvertent self-harm. Training can help with these things, but there are also supplements that can be quite effective before a trip to the vet or a canine behaviorist becomes necessary. CBD supplements work wonderfully for many dogs. Super Snouts makes a CBD chew called Chill+Out to help soothe a dog’s nerves. (These are probably the biggest seller at my work just prior to Independence Day.)

Other companies make herbal remedies that do not contain CBD. Naturvet makes Quiet Moments supplements and drops both with and without hemp. Bocce’s Bakery, Nulo, Zesty Paws, Ark Naturals, and Bach’s Rescue Remedy are all companies that make natural calming aids for pets. Since every dog is different, it may take some trial and error to find which supplements work best for your anxious pup.

Dental Issues (Plaque, Tartar, Decay, Infection): Unfortunately, dental issues are a problem for pets across the board. There is a common myth that kibble is important for dental health because it scrapes teeth clean. If this were true, kibble-eating dogs would never have dental issues, and they are not immune. (And we would have healthy teeth from eating breakfast cereal and chips, by that logic). Some plaque can get scraped off by crunching kibble, but that doesn’t reach to the upper teeth and gumline, which is where tartar buildup and gingivitis commonly start occurring.

Dogs can have their teeth brushed just like we can, though not every dog will tolerate it. In this case, regular dental checkups are important along with providing your dog with good quality dental treats and raw bones to chew on. Check out some brands like Bocce’s, Ark Naturals, and Stella & Chewy’s for dental treats. Whichever treats you choose, make sure there isn’t a bunch of starch in the ingredient list, like potato or tapioca. Starch is a big cause of the problem in the first place! Tucker’s and Primal are good companies to turn to for bones.

If your dog does let you brush their teeth, be sure to use a very soft-bristled brush or a silicone-bristled finger brush and pet-specific toothpaste or tooth-cleaning gel. Do NOT use human toothpaste; many of the ingredients are toxic to dogs and cats.

Even if you’re able to brush your dog’s teeth, dental checkups are still important to get at least annually.

Stool Issues: Diarrhea is often caused by a change in food or a dog eating something they shouldn’t have. In the latter case, if you can find what it was, remove it from access and give the condition time to pass. In the former case, you may need to add pureed or dehydrated (powdered) pumpkin to your dog’s food to help regulate them a bit. If you’re switching to a new food, be sure to try a transitional mix to help ease into the new recipe - three parts old food and one part new for three or four days, then half and half for the same amount of time, then three parts new to one part old for the same amount of time, then all the way over to the new food.

Constipation can be caused by lack of hydration, not enough exercise, eating something that causes a blockage, too much self-grooming, age, or medications, amongst other things. Pumpkin can also help constipation because it’s high in both moisture and fiber. For constipation, it’s best to use pumpkin puree. If you feed kibble, consider switching to wet food for a few days to ensure your dog is getting enough moisture and to soften the stool. Fiber supplements, exercise, and plenty of fresh water will also help the issue.

If the diarrhea or constipation doesn’t seem to be improving after all these steps, make a visit to your vet. Continued diarrhea can lead to dehydration, while constipation can become obstipation, which means the stool in the colon has become so hard and dry that it can’t move.

Stool-eating: This behavior is called coprophagia. It’s actually normal for dogs to eat the poop of other species, but not their own or that of other dogs. When they start doing this, it could be because they have anxiety, are trying to get your attention, are afraid of being punished, aren’t feeling good, or have a nutrient deficiency in their diet.

There are supplements that can help to deter your dog from this behavior. Naturvet makes an effective coprophagia supplement. However, getting at the underlying cause is most important. If it’s determined that your dog’s coprophagia isn’t a behavior issue, figuring out what nutrient they’re missing is key. Be sure you’re feeding your dog enough and that their food is as nutritionally sound as it should be (protein-rich, full of good fats and carbs, no junk fillers and by-products).

The Boot Scoot: While seeing your dog butt-drag on your carpet might get a giggle out of you, it could be a sign that something is wrong. Itchiness from allergies could be one cause, but anal gland issues, internal parasites, GI troubles, or even urinary tract infections can cause your dog to exhibit this behavior.

The first thing to do is make sure your dog’s behind is clean. Help them out with that if you need to, including clipping excess hair from the area (if you’re allowed). If you know how to express anal glands, give that a shot as well. If you notice irritation, you might see if a moisturizer and/or warm compress will give some relief. Allergy-related scooting may be helped by allergy supplements or a diet change. If the cause is not obvious or you do not know how to express anal glands, see your vet. Deworming might be in order.

Mats: While matted fur might not seem like a health issue, it can become one. Not only are mats unsightly, they can become quite painful, irritating and pulling on your dog’s skin even if it may not be obvious on the surface. Be sure to bathe and groom your dog regularly to avoid matted fur, especially long-haired or corded breeds.
 
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Laurien Achaur

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Cats: Nutrition & Health for Our Feline Friends

For as long as we’ve had agriculture, we’ve had cats in our midst. They began as loyal mousers and bug-hunters, and as many people know, they were revered in ancient Egypt. For centuries they’ve been welcome guests on ships to help keep vermin under control, and nowadays, many still act on their hunting impulses to take care of mice, rats, and bugs for us.

Whether they leave us dead or live presents of any of the above tends to be hit or miss, of course.

Cats in the present also come to us as companions of various temperaments and important emotional support. Some are loving, some are aloof, but those of us who are cat guardians can all agree that our lives would be less full without them, whatever their disposition. So how do we best care for them in turn?



Cats and the Kitchen

When it comes to cats and human foods, the same is largely true as in the dog article - some foods are safe while others are not, and too much fed from our plates can lead to chunky kitties. The big difference hearkens back to a fact stated in the first post: cats are obligate carnivores. They need meat and little to no carbohydrates. If we feel the need to share a treat from our plates with our cats, that treat should be in the form of meat more often than not.

Here is a list of foods that you should avoid giving your cat along with a few of the potential consequences of doing so:

Alcohol: can cause severe liver damage, coma, death.
Chocolate: contains theobromine, which can cause heart arrhythmia, seizures, tremors.
Caffeine: can cause rapid breathing, heart palpitations, muscle tremors.
Cow Dairy Products (milk, cheese, etc.): can cause vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Onions and Garlic: in great quantities, these can cause digestive upset. Onion eaten on a regular basis can cause anemia.
Baby Food: meat-based baby foods are often seasoned with onion and garlic. See above.
Human-grade Tuna: Tuna is an integral part of a lot of commercial cat food and doesn't need to be worried about in that context. The canned tuna we eat has too many unsaturated fatty acids for cats to process and not enough vitamin E and antioxidants to be nutritionally sound. Can cause steatitis (painful inflammation of fatty tissues in the body).
Raisins, Grapes, Currants: can cause vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea, abdominal pain.
Raw Dough: can cause alcohol poisoning, disorientation, bloating
Avocado: vomiting, diarrhea, heart issues, pancreatitis, death.
Dog Food: can cause excessive weight gain due to different nutritional profile.
Raw Seafood: potential to cause thiamine deficiency.

All this said, if your cat is quirky and wants a particular fruit or vegetable every now and again, do the research to make sure it’s safe before giving them a little piece. It won’t hurt them, but since they’re obligate carnivores, be sure not to overdo it. Their shorter digestive tracts mean that they don’t have all the gut flora omnivores or herbivores have to help them break down and process those carbs properly, so going overboard can stress your cat’s digestive system and even lead to other issues.

Common Health Concerns

Just like dogs, cats have some health issues that tend to crop up over time. While some of those overlap with dogs, there are also some that occur in cats more often (or entirely specifically to them). Here are a few and some possible ways to confront them before and/or during veterinary care.

Allergies: All of the information from the dog article holds true for cats. One food allergy that crops up frequently for cats is - often to the surprise of many - chicken. As near as researchers can tell, this happens because of how prevalent chicken is as the primary protein in pet foods alongside the fact that the sourcing of chicken in so many of those foods, especially the most common big-box brands, is questionable. What feeds the chickens also goes into our cats’ bodies, and if those chickens aren’t fed properly or safely, some cats’ immune systems pick up on that and go on the offensive.

Salmon is a common alternative when this happens, as are novel proteins like rabbit or whitefish. It is also best to make the switch to something other than kibble to help with allergies since the extra ingredients (which are harder for cats to process) mean there is more for their bodies to contend with while combatting the allergy.

Urinary and Renal (Kidney) Issues: While many veterinary websites mention that urinary disorders - including UTIs - are not common, they are somehow one of the most regular issues customers at my work come in to address with a change of food. Over the past two years of helping people tackle both urinary and kidney issues with their cats as well as taking care of the rescue cats our business has in its care, I have noted some commonalities.

One is that urinary issues in younger cats seem to coincide quite frequently with a lack of proper litter box care. Another is that urinary problems in older cats have a common denominator of happening to cats that have been on exclusively kibble diets. Moisture is key in helping to prevent infections, bladder and kidney stones, and crystals (struvite), and eating an all-kibble diet does not provide that.

Kidney issues can have many underlying causes, some genetic and some not. Cats are very good at hiding their discomfort, so renal failure is often not diagnosed until a cat is in obvious distress, at which point the issue is rather advanced. When this happens, a diet change is usually the first course of action a vet will recommend. This typically involves switching to a low-phosphorous diet. Such a diet used to be prescription-only. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. At present, Weruva and Dave’s make low-phosphorous foods that can be purchased, and both are of a much higher quality than Hill’s Science Diet, which is what most vets will turn to because it is more well-known than the other brands (and often pays veterinarians for their patronage).

It is also common for vets to advise a low-protein/high-fiber diet for cats with renal issues, which is not easy for our little obligate carnivores to adjust to. It is also difficult to find cat foods that fit this bill outside of prescriptions, though it isn’t impossible! Some cat foods that are formulated specifically for senior cats (those eleven-plus years of age) can be helpful on this front. Nulo in particular may be a good option; their senior formula kibble, while grain-free and still protein-focused, has lower protein content than many other kibbles, low-glycemic ingredients, and gentle fiber in the form of miscanthus grass.

As for urinary issues, the main thing to help prevent them is hydration. Keeping a clean litter box is also crucial to reduce the risk of UTIs, which are caused by bacteria entering the urethra. The bigger the litter box, the more comfortable your cat will be, and they should be scooped at least twice a day regardless of size. Ensure that you have one litter box per cat plus one in your house (if space allows) so that waste doesn’t become too concentrated. Litter should be kept to a depth of three inches or so. The entire box should be completely cleaned and disinfected at least once a month.

For non-chronic/short-term urinary issues, low-phosphorous foods are helpful. Farmina in particular makes excellent urinary-focused wet food and kibble, while Weruva’s low-phosphorous formulas may be helpful for the duration of the issue as well. These foods are not meant to become a cat’s one-and-only diet. Once the issue has been resolved, returning to a moisture-rich regular diet is important. However, if the condition is chronic, it may be necessary to remain on a low-phosphorous/urinary-focused diet in the long term if the vet thinks it is best.

There are also a few supplements out there that can help with feline urinary health. Cranberries are cat-safe, and just as they do for us, they can help lessen the time it takes for urinary issues to clear up. Super Snout’s Urinary Berry powder could be a worthwhile add-in for your ailing kitty’s food. inClover’s UT Health Soft Chew treats might also be a helpful boost during urinary issues as well as a nice, treat-centric way to help maintain UT health.

Dental Troubles: This seems to be even more problematic for cats than for dogs, again owing to how well cats mask their discomfort until it’s often too late. I have heard more stories of people going in for a routine dental checkup only to come away with their poor cat having half their teeth pulled than I can count at this point.

Cats are much less likely to be amenable to having their teeth brushed than dogs, perhaps unsurprisingly. If you are lucky enough to have that odd unicorn of a cat who will tolerate it, consider yourself envied! If you aren’t in that rare company, however, it’s best to make a point of getting regular dental checkups for your cat to stay ahead of complications. Consider supplementing these with some dental treats, like Emerald Pet’s Feline Dental Treats (crunchy little green fishies that come in a handful of flavors). inClover’s Smile soft treats are also a great way to add some extra dental maintenance to your cat’s routine, and they help with breath freshening, too.

You might also like to add a stir-in dental supplement to their wet food. Plaque-Off, which is made of kelp, is a popular option. inClover’s Dental powder is a fantastic option as well, so long as your cat doesn’t mind the interesting flavor it might add. (Mine don’t mind, and Toby in particular is picky about what goes into his food.)

Depression: While it’s still being studied, depression - the shadowy cousin of the better-understood anxiety - in cats (and pets in general) is becoming more recognized. Just like us, they can develop depression when their environment changes or they experience the loss of a loved one. Anyone who has had pets that were/are bonded to one another can likely attest to the fact that cats and dogs - and others! - do grieve.

Cats have long been touted as low-maintenance pets that are ideal for those with a busier lifestyle. However, this isn’t true for every cat. As hunters, cats need plenty of enrichment and chances to keep those instincts sharp, which is why it’s so important for them to have toys and playtime with their human guardians if they show an interest. If your cat is following you around and being extra chatty, it may be their way of asking you to play with them!

If you’re like me and have a job that keeps you away from home most of the day, be sure to pay plenty of attention to your pets on either side of your shift(s), especially if you’re regularly the only human in the house. Cats sleep a lot and are generally nocturnal, but if you notice them sleeping excessively (more than 16 hours a day as adults; kittens and seniors will sleep more), showing little interest in anything other than food, getting aggressive when they weren’t before, not eating like they used to, or changing their usual behavior at all, they might be getting depressed.

All of these symptoms can also point to issues with physical health as well, and pain in itself can also cause depression. Therefore, it’s important to get them a checkup to rule out any physical issues before concluding that your pet might be depressed. Aside from that, make sure you spend time playing with and petting your cat (if they’ll let you; some aren’t into the whole physical affection thing if it isn’t on their terms, as many of us know). See if some catnip will perk them up, and maybe give some new food a try. If their sadness persists, however, absolutely see a vet.

Other Issues: Stool troubles, coprophagia (poop-eating), boot-scooting, and matted fur are also problems that can crop up for cats, so check out the pointers in the previous post about dogs for some advice about those. With cats generally being pickier than dogs, however, some may not accept pumpkin for help with their poop problems, in which case a sneakier supplement, such as those made by NaturVet, may be a better solution.
 
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