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Nutrition: The Foundation of Good Health
Dr. Jean's Four-Point Program for Optimal Health
by Jean C. Hofe, DVM

No matter what drugs, herbs, acupuncture points, homeopathic remedies, or flower essences you give your animal companion, none is as important to overall health as the food you feed. An animal cannot heal its body if its nutritional needs remain unfilled. Even apparent behavior problems such as irritability, fearfulness, aggression, jealousy, excessive grooming, and litterbox issues often, at their most fundamental level, have a nutritional component. After all, when you don't feel good, your behavior is likely to be abnormal.

My four-point program for optimal nutrition and immune system support includes:

  1. Natural diet.
  2. Digestive enzymes (prebiotics) and beneficial bacteria (probiotics).
  3. Essential fatty acids, particularly Omega-3 fatty acids.
  4. Antioxidants.

If you include all these in your animal companion's diet, you will be providing the very best nutrition and correcting some of the most common deficiencies and needs of stressful modern life. Let's look at each of these in more detail.

1. Natural Diet

"Natural" is such a buzz-word these days that it bears some scrutinizing. By a natural diet, I mean one that is appropriate to the species, and contains the fewest "unnatural" processed, synthetic, and chemical ingredients. There are narrow and broad interpretations of this possible. For example, many holistic veterinarians emphasize a raw, whole food, organic diet for their patients. And there's no question about it, a carefully balanced raw food diet is the very best diet possible for a cat or dog. Raw food is, of course, what a wild dog or cat (or wolf or lynx) would be eating. Mountain lions are not out there barbecuing haunches of mule deer! I have heard story after story of animals cured of skin disease, allergies, autoimmune disease, seizures, dental problems, cancer, and dozens of other conditions, solely or mainly by switching to a raw foods diet. The fascinating Pottenger's Cats study, a 10-year experiment conducted in the 1930s, illustrated the benefits of raw foods. However, there are also cautionary tales of Salmonella, Toxoplasma, and other contaminating organisms that can make your animal--or even you--very sick. If you choose a raw meat diet, be sure to follow safe meat-handling procedures.

The next best diet would still be home-made, but using cooked foods. While you lose the benefit of the natural enzymes present in raw foods, you still have control over the quality of ingredients. And ingredient quality is one of the biggest problems with commercial foods.

There are multitudes of good books, articles, and websites that offer guidance and recipes for caretakers willing and able to prepare their pets' food at home.

If a home-made diet is not possible or practical for your home, then you must make a choice among a wide variety of commercial pet foods. This is a big task, because there are so many kinds of food available. In general, I recommend that you avoid foods based mainly on grain ingredients (ground yellow corn, for instance), or that contain meat by-product meal, meat meal, or meat and bone meal. Also avoid foods containing the chemical preservatives ethoxyquin, BHA, BHT, propyl gallate or propylene glycol, or preserved with sugar (sorbitol, fructose, etc.). For more complete guidelines, see Selecting a Good Commercial Food.

Dr. Jean's "Approved Brands"

  • A.P.D.

  • Authority (Adult Maintenance Dry Cat Food, some flavors of canned cat food only)

  • Avoderm

  • California Natural

  • Canidae

  • Eagle Pack Holistic Select

  • Felidae

  • Flint River Ranch

  • Innova

  • Lick Your Chops

  • Natural Blend (by Royal Canin)

  • Natural Life

  • Nutro

  • Owen & Mandeville

  • Pinnacle

  • Precise

  • Petguard

  • PHD

  • Sensible Choice

  • Wellness

2. Digestive Enzymes (prebiotics) and Beneficial Bacteria (probiotics)

With any cooked or commercial food, it is essential to add digestive enzymes, or "prebiotics." Plant-based enzymes work in the widest range of pH and temperature, and are better for the majority of animals than pancreatic enzymes or pancreas extracts. There may be a few instances where pancreas products work better, but these should be prescribed by your veterinarian. It does not take much, just a little bit with each meal. Some sources suggest using brewer's yeast or nutritional yeast, because they contain enzymes as well as B-vitamins and other nutrients. If your animal likes and tolerates yeast, it is a fine addition to the food. However, some animals will develop an allergy to yeast, and not all of them like it. I would still recommend adding a specific enzyme combination even if you are also using yeast. Make sure that the product you select contains at least protease, amylase, and lipase (some also contain cellulase, which helps digest plant materials containing cellulose). Many products combine enzymes with probiotics, and these are also an excellent choice. There are many products made specifically for animals, such as Florazyme, Dr. Goodpet, Petguard, Juice Plus, and other enzyme products. Or, you can get a human product at the health food store.

Probiotics, which include acidophilus as well as a number of other beneficial bacteria, are of special importance in animals with any type of digestive problem as well as animals who are, or have been, taking antibiotics. They help keep the bacteria population in the gut balanced and healthy, and prevent "bad" bacteria from gaining a foothold. Live-culture yogurt, which contains a small amount of acidophilus, while not harmful, is not an adequate source of probiotics for the average animal.

3.  Omega-3 Fatty Acids

You've probably heard a lot about essential fatty acids, especially Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, in the media lately. There are many kinds of fatty acids, of which Omega-3 and Omega-6 are two types. "Essential" means that our bodies cannot synthesize them, and they must be obtained in the diet. The modern American diet contains far more Omega-6 than Omega-3 fatty acids, and many studies are showing that this imbalance is potentially harmful. No one knows the "ideal" ratio but something like 5:1 is probably adequate. The average person's diet contains more like 10:1 or 20:1. This is also true of commercial pet foods, because Omega-6 oils are less expensive and more stable than Omega-3's. The Omega-3's have a number of important effects on immune system function, nervous system development and function, and on the skin. They also have anti-arthritic, antioxidant, and anti-ulcer properties. They are precursors of endogenous steroids and other hormones, help regulate blood circulation and blood pressure, maintain kidney function and fluid balance, prevent blood clots, and have dozens of other vital functions. The first sign of an imbalance or deficiency of Omega-3 fatty acids is most likely to show up in dogs and cats as dry, dull fur or itchy, irritated, or flaky skin.

Probably the best source of Omega-3 fatty acids for animals is fish oil. This is not the same as cod liver oil, which contains too much Vitamin A and D to be used in large amounts. You can get fish oil capsules at the health food store, variously labeled "Salmon Oil," "Marine Fish Oil," "Deep Sea Fish Oil," or "Cold Water Fish Oil." These contain the specific Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which can be used directly by the body.

The other major source of Omega-3 fatty acids is Flax Seed Oil. Flax seed oil has some important points in its favor, including its lower cost, availability in bottles (rather than only in capsules), and the fact that flax is a plant product and therefore a renewable resource. Lignans, a component of flax seed, have anti-cancer effects (you would select a high-lignan flax seed oil for this benefit). However, studies that have been conducted on the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids have mostly used fish oils, so its benefits are somewhat unproven. Its predominant fatty acid, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), must be converted in the body to EPA and DHA, which are already present in that form in fish oils. It is also less palatable than fish oil to many animals, especially cats. However, in practice, I have seen great benefits, both from ground flax seed and flax seed oil, in my patients, in terms of improved skin and coat and obviously better energy and well-being. "Missing Link," a powdered nutritional supplement, contains ground flax seed as well as other beneficial supplements (Designing Health, 1-800-774-7387).

High doses of fish oils deserve a special mention in their ability to fight cancer. Dr. Susan Wynn's protocol for cancer patients includes a natural diet, antioxidants, and fish oil (salmon or menhaden oil) at 50-100 mg/kg (milligrams per kilogram) per day. At the high end, that is about 45 mg of oil per pound of dog (or cat) every day, which is a lot of fish-oil capsules if you have a big dog. However, the benefits may be well worth the effort.

IMPORTANT: When supplementing with any oils, it is vital to also give extra Vitamin E, approximately 100-800 mg per day depending on the size of the animal (see Antioxidants below for dosage suggestions).

4. Antioxidants

There are many kinds of antioxidants. They are important in the neutralization or scavenging of "oxygen free radicals" which are normal by-products of body metabolism. Controlled amounts of free radicals are necessary as weapons against viruses and bacteria, as well as for their role in hormone production and numerous enzyme-catalyzed reactions. However, excess free radicals can damage cellular DNA, destroy cell membranes, and lead to long-term immune system damage and cancer. Excessive amounts of free radicals are formed from exposure to radiation, including sunlight, environmental pollution, and high-fat diets. In people, a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables may contain adequate natural antioxidants. Dogs and cats eating commercial pet food, however, may not get enough appropriate antioxidants in the diet.

Common antioxidants include Vitamins C and E, which do indeed have significant antioxidant activity as well as many other important metabolic functions. These vitamins are excellent supplements to the diet in any case. Try to find either sodium ascorbate or Ester C forms of Vitamin C. Vitamin C may be dosed to "bowel tolerance." That is, you start off adding just a little Vitamin C (50-100 mg) to the food, and increase the dose very gradually until the animal develops diarrhea. At that point, you back off to the previous dosage amount that did not cause diarrhea, and stay with that dose. The animal's tolerance may vary depending on diet, time of year, and stresses such as changes in the home, pollution, and exposure to radiation (UV light, x-rays, power lines, etc.). Natural Vitamin E comes in the form of d-alpha tocopherol, but a supplement containing mixed tocopherols (alpha and gamma) may have more benefits. (Avoid dl-alpha tocopherol, which is a synthetic form of Vitamin E.) It is very safe to give. Give 100 IU per day for a cat or small dog (less than 20 pounds), up to 800 IU for giant breed dogs.

There are many other good antioxidant supplements. Where dosage information is not specified, give a cat or small dog about 1/6 the human dosage, as specified on the lable, per day. (Human doses are based on a 150 lb. person)

  1. Vitamin A/beta-carotene. Dogs can use beta-carotene, but cats cannot convert it to Vitamin A and must receive Vitamin A itself in the diet. Cod liver oil is a good source of Vitamin A. CAUTION: Vitamin A (though not beta-carotene) can be toxic in overdose. Signs of toxicity include anorexia, weight loss, sensitivity to touch, and loss of bone density which may cause fractures. Kittens and puppies require about 200 IU of Vitamin A per kilogram of body weight per day, adult cats and dogs about 75 IU per kilogram per day. Commercial pet foods probably contain adequate amounts of Vitamin A.
  2. Green tea, which can be found as an extract in some antioxidant combinations
  3. Selenium, which is synergistic with Vitamin E and a component of the antioxidant glutathione peroxidase, which is produced by the body. Puppies and kittens need about 5 mg of selenium per kilogram of body weight per day, adult cats 1.6 g, and adult dogs 2.2 g per kilogram per day. CAUTION: Selenium can be toxic in overdose. Signs of toxicity including vomiting, anorexia, nervousness, staggering gait, weakness and difficulty breathing.
  4. SOD (super-oxide dismutase), an antioxidant normally produced by the body. There is some controversy as to whether SOD taken orally is actually absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream.
  5. Zinc, which is also important to skin health, immune system function, and is important in regulating Vitamins E and A. CAUTION: Zinc can be toxic in overdose. Too much zinc will cause imbalances in calcium and copper. Signs of toxicity include vomiting, diarrhea, anemia, loss of hair color, constipation, tetany, lameness, stiffness, or reluctance to move. Give a maximum of 5 mg per day for a cat or small dog for up to 2 weeks; for long-term supplementation, give a maximum of 5 mg every other day. Some Siberian Huskies may be able tolerate higher dosages.
  6. L-Cysteine, a sulfur-containing amino acid. It can be taken as a separate supplement. MSM (methyl-sulfonyl-methane), a derivative of DMSO, may help the body maintain adequate levels of cysteine in the body.
  7. Glutathione, a component of glutathione peroxidase, an antioxidant formed by the body with selenium. It can be found as an oral supplement, but the body's production of the peroxidase form may be better enhanced by taking oral, N-acetylcysteine, L-cysteine, and L-methionine. Oral MSM may also be a good supplement to promote the production of these sulfur amino acids.
  8. Alpha-lipoic acid, which aids in the functions of Vitamins C and E as well as glutathione peroxidase.
  9. Proanthocyanadins (pycnogenol/pine bark extract and grape seed extract). These highly concentrated antioxidants are easy and fairly inexpensive to use
  10. Chlorophyll, the plant version of hemoglobin, contains fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other valuable nutrients, and appears to have antioxidant activity. Available as a liquid extract, wheat grass extract, and present in products like Chlorella, Kyo-Green, spirulina and blue-green algae. Concentrated extract may be given at 1/2 - 1 tsp. per 10 pounds of body weight per day.
  11. Milk thistle (Silymarin), a flavinoid antioxidant with particular healing power for the liver.
  12. Co-enzyme Q10 (Ubiquinone). While not a free radical scavenger, Co-enyzme Q10 helps prevent the formation of oxygen free radicals during cellular metabolism. This enzyme is present in every cell in the body, but its levels decrease as we age. It has been shown to improve oxygenation to the heart, and may be beneficial in chronic inflammatory conditions such as cystitis and arthritis. Older animals, and those with inflammatory disease, may benefit from supplementation. A cat or small dog should get 5-10 mg per day, and large dogs may take 30-60 mg per day.

Copyright  1999 - 2003, Jean C. Hofve, DVM. All rights reserved.

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