By Jacinta D’Andrea –
We are all connected. People. Pets. The planet. Cows. Cats. Chickens. Songbirds and honey bees. Monarch butterflies. Old growth trees…
I was eating an apple in first year biochemistry class, when I was taught one of the most relevant truths of my veterinary education: “We are what we eat.” The foods we consume literally become our physical bodies. Our dogs’ dinners become their teeth, joints, and bones and our cats’ kibbles are transformed into their skin, fur, and friskiness. While I clearly remember the great ‘aha’ that came with this understanding, my awareness of the impact diet had on health did not really hit home until a number of years after graduating.
The subject of animal nutrition is perched on a mountain of questionable research and intense debate. Whether discussing grain and grass or kibble and raw most experts do not agree on what constitutes the ‘best’ diet for any species. We know all animals evolved extracting the nutrients they needed by eating the whole foods their bodies were designed to eat. Indeed, for 99.99 per cent of their time on this planet cats and dogs have survived eating diets largely based on uncooked meat (protein/fat/vitamins), raw bones (minerals), and small amounts of vegetation in the form of foraged fruits, grasses, grains, seeds, and pre-digested plant matter found in the gut contents of prey. Classified as everything from scavenging carnivores to opportunistic omnivores, dogs undoubtedly have survived on a wide variety of foods since their domestication. Although most of the dogs sharing our hearts and homes today are a far cry from the wolves they descended from, their digestive systems remain essentially the same.
But, Buster! What big (pointy) teeth you have. What wide-opening mouth and forward-facing eyes. But Buster! What highly acidic stomach and relatively short digestive tract you have… All the better to digest raw meat and bones and destroy pathogens with, my dear.
Like most health care providers trained in Western culture, my understanding of medicine was built mostly upon germ theory and genetics. With this perception, I unwittingly became a participant in the war on disease. Treating countless cases of itchy skin and infected ears with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, I did the best I knew to help ease the suffering of animals coming to me for help with a variety of conditions. Still, I was losing the battle. While the pills I had to offer would temporarily reduce symptoms, they continually failed to address underlying causes. Beyond this, with many drugs carrying the risk of serious side effects and mounting evidence on the dangers of antibiotic resistant bacteria, I really began to question the wisdom of treating anything but life threatening diseases with these powerful pharmaceuticals, particularly those that translated as “Pertaining to (tic) NO (anti) -LIFE (bio).”
We can all agree many factors influence health. From germs and genetics to stress levels and the state of the environment, distilling disease is a daunting task to say the least. Yet with chronic and degenerative diseases skyrocketing through our pet populations and a recent report that our canine companions have the highest rate of cancer of all mammals on the planet, perhaps we are wise to carefully consider the influence our furry friends’ food has on their health.
I’ll be honest. As a vet I was dead set against feeding real foods to pets. Terrified of potential pathogenic bacteria, parasites, and the possibility of creating imbalances in the body, I truly believed diets needed to be scientifically formulated and processed to be safe, ‘balanced,’ and ‘complete.’ It’s been a long journey to get to the point where I no longer buy into the perpetuated lie that feeding nourishing, real, whole, raw foods to animals designed to eat them is bad. In fact, I’ve since found the opposite to be true. This doesn’t mean I believe raw foods are right for all pets, all people, and all situations, but I do think we need to start taking a good look at what we consider good food.
Which brings me back to biochemistry and biological truths. Ancestral diets of cats and dogs were based on protein and fat in the form of raw meat, organs, and bones. Our pets have no known nutritional need for carbohydrates. Recognizing this, isn’t it possible feeding them carb-heavy, high-heat processed foods built from the by-products of our global agriculture system may not be serving their nutritional needs as well as we had hoped? Beyond this, acknowledging the ancestral diet of cows was grass, isn’t it also possible fattening them in feedlots on highly “-cide” sprayed GMO monocrops may not be serving their nutritional needs, never mind the needs of those consuming them?
While clearly a step up from the meat meals that were making them ‘mad,’ modern research backs the fact that range-raised and grass-grazed animals have higher nutritional value than their conventional cohorts. As an aside, what of “-cides?” Translated: “death,” is it any wonder bees are declining with the widespread use of insect-i-death? Clearly the issues are complex.
Both pragmatic and powerful, I believe whether discussing our furry friends or the animals being farmed for food, species appropriate diets have benefits that are shared throughout the food web. Restoring Animal Wellness (RAW) is a better acronym than the previously popular Biologically Appropriate Real/Raw Foods (BARF), which mirrors what we know of evolutionary diets, and can provide optimal nutrition for creating health and wellness in our pets. Getting to the root of many of the chronic debilitating dis-eases being treated in vet clinics across the country, it is extremely important, however, the key words “biologically appropriate,” are understood. While real, whole foods are full of nutrients (both known and yet-to-be discovered) operating synergistically in the body to promote health, devastating imbalances can occur if basic guidelines are not followed. Just feeding raw meat to your pet is absolutely not appropriate and will result in health problems over time.
The scientific community has been doing its best to determine what constitutes ‘complete’ and ‘balanced’ diets for domestic species for a couple of hundred years. Clearly, without the freedom to choose their own foods most animals in our care are entirely dependent on us providing all the ‘essential’ nutrients. Yet, it’s important to remember these needs are neither static nor fixed. All animals, like people, are individuals. The nutrients they require will change throughout the seasons and cycles of their lives. An in depth look at AAFCO standards, those by which all pet foods in North America are formulated, shows we still have insufficient data to establish maximum and minimum values of many known nutrients for most species—never mind those we’ve yet to discover and measure. Beyond this, these standards are based largely on formulating meals from fractions of foods these animals never evolved eating. As BSE (mad cow disease) clearly illustrates, following evolutionary guidelines likely serves the health of all beings better than trying to recreate with nutrients what species appropriate whole foods have always offered.
To this end I have been working with the meat processors of British Columbia to help establish guidelines for safely feeding raw foods to pets. Available at www.bcsbestrawpetfood.com/community-line.html, it is my hope these guidelines act as a stepping stone to create a community of conscious consumers able to support their pets’ health with biologically appropriate real foods. Beyond this, my intention is to build a bridge upon which veterinarians and other animal healthcare providers can comfortably consider the potential for real whole foods to revitalize animal wellness. Seeking to co-create long-term, sustainable change in our food production systems, this is about more than pet food. It’s about understanding the deep connections shared by all life on the planet and nourishing health through the understanding of food as medicine.
Jacinta D’Andrea is a vet, mother, and nature lover. Understanding the health of all animals is deeply connected to human health and the health of the environment, it is her mission to create understanding of the vital roles real foods, clean air, and fresh water play in nourishing wellness for all beings.