By Dr. Bill Barnett, D.V.M.

1. Inappropriate Nutrition

Nutrition must provide the ideal level of all macronutrients, micronutrients and total energy needed during all developmental and maintenance phases in life. It should promote optimum pet health, minimize age-related health problems, and maximize a pet’s life span. Unfortunately, pet food manufacturers are mired in old fashion methods and dated guidelines that result in pet foods that contain only minimum maintenance levels of nutrients for growth and adult life stages.There is no explanation as to why there are no nutritional guidelines for the more serious of life’s health situations like reproduction, high performance, injury, disease, stress and senior life.

It is a sad fact that very few of the positive scientific breakthroughs of recent decades related to optimum nutrition have been incorporated into today’s commercially prepared pet foods.

Scientists continue to associate various immune system and endocrine function problems with commercial pet foods. Highly processed foods laden with grains and chemicals are a chronic irritant to many dogs and cats. In response to inflammation, the body secretes cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is a stress hormone that under normal conditions controls inflammation and keeps the immune system in check. When irritation and inflammation become chronic cortisol may be secreted in excess causing increased thirst and appetite, incontinence, confusion, insomnia, seizures, chronic infection and the expression of some genetic predispositions, such as cancer or autoimmune disease, a situation in which the body attacks its own tissues.

Hypothyroidism in dogs is perhaps the most common autoimmune disease that is diagnosed. Another common autoimmune disease is Diabetes Mellitus, which occurs when the body attacks the beta cells of the pancreas. The incidence of Diabetes is rapidly rising in both dogs and cats today. Overfeeding excess carbohydrate is at the root of the problem.

While most of these conditions require prescription medications and or hormone replacement, the immune system response may also be reduced when chronic irritants are removed from the diet. In other words, instead of providing a diet that constantly irritates the system, providing a biologically correct nutritional diet that doesn’t produce inflammation will go a long way towards improving your pet’s health. This dietary strategy would also be an important part of any treatment regimen where reducing chronic inflammation is important.

Biologically Appropriate Nutrition should be the norm when attempting to minimize the development of additional health problems brought on by inadequate nutrition.

2. Free Radicals

Free radical damage is another basic component responsible for the chronic, age-related diseases that ultimately cause the demise of our pets. Free radicals are atoms that have lost an electron, thus making them harmful when they come in contact with a healthy cell.

Free radicals are damaging to our pet's health
Free radicals are damaging to our pet’s health

The Free Radical Theory of Aging was first proposed by Denham Harmon in the 1950s, and in the 1970s the idea was extended to suggest that oxygen free radicals damage cells and lead to aging, cell death, and various age-related pathologies. All species that require oxygen for respiration have an elaborate antioxidant defense system to scavenge free radicals and protect cell DNA and other structures such as lipid membranes from premature death. In other words, antioxidants protect cellular structures from being damaged by free radicals. They accomplish this by donating one of their electrons to the free radical thereby stabilizing it.

Antioxidants stabilize free radicals, preventing cell damage.
Antioxidants stabilize free radicals, preventing cell damage.

Free radicals can attack all parts of the cell. Damage to DNA can lead to Cancer. Damage to the mitochondria can lead to premature aging.

Different antioxidants protect different parts of the cell. Vitamin C is water soluble and protects against free radicals in the blood and fluids that bathe the cells. Vitamin E is fat soluble like the carotenoids and co-enzyme Q10. They protect the fatty structures such as cholesterol in the blood and cell membranes. Vitamin E needs Vitamin C in a specific ratio in order to be effective. Beta carotene protects mitochondrial walls while co-enzyme Q10 works inside the mitochondria. Antioxidant enzymes neutralize free radicals almost everywhere in the body. They rely on the presence of various trace elements like copper, zinc, manganese and selenium to be effective.

A balanced combination of antioxidants is the best way to boost the natural antioxidant system. Single antioxidants cannot provide comprehensive protection. Most of the antioxidants only function properly when they are in combination with other specific antioxidants. Without these synergistic relationships, antioxidants would function one time and then be useless for further free radical scavenging. Obviously, a deficiency in one antioxidant can affect the entire defense system.

The vast collection of scientific studies strongly supports the Free Radical Theory of Aging and suggests that underfeeding reduces the number of reactive oxygen molecules and enhances the mechanisms that protect cells from their damaging action. Thus feeding smaller quantities of food rich in antioxidants could go a long way towards extending a pet’s life and improving its health.

3. Inadequate Immune System

Poor breeding habits, environmental influences and the increased amount of stress placed on our pets, accompanied by the lack of micro-nutrients vital to immune function can easily lead to a compromised immune system and increased disease in all of our pets.

According to the Pet Insurance Industry – ten years ago fifty percent of all pets over ten years of age developed some form of cancer. Today – 60% of all pets over 6 years of age are being affected by cancer.

An animal’s first line of defense against foreign intruders like bacteria, viruses, yeast, fungus, mold and even cancer causing agents is their “innate immune system.” When the innate immune system is functioning properly, it recognizes these foreign intruders and dispatches “killer” T-cells along with macrophages and neutrophils that engulf the intruders then digest, kill and remove them.

Your pet's immune system can categorized into different levels.
Your pet’s immune system can categorized into different levels.

These primary defense cells require an optimum level of protein along with certain vitamins and minerals to function properly. Some of the more important nutrients are vitamins A, C and E, B, and the minerals copper, zinc, manganese, iron, selenium and chromium.

Many things act to compromise the innate immune system. As pets age, the immune system slowly declines and becomes less effective. This is one of the reasons senior pets are more prone to infections, why they recover more slowly and why they have a higher incidence of cancer. Other factors leading to immune system failures are chronic diseases, environmental and physical stresses, and most importantly, failure to provide the nutrition needed to keep the immune system at peak performance levels.

One ingredient that has been proven to enhance the innate immune system is a natural glucopolysaccharide compound called Beta Glucan. Animal immune systems used to rely on this natural substance in order for their immune systems to function at peak effectiveness. Today, with our soil and processed foods being basically sterilized, the absence or lack of natural innate immune system enhancers have left our animals less capable of responding to disease organisms when challenged.

Research has shown that one specific Beta glucan 1,3 1,6 Beta-d-Glucan extracted from the cell wall of yeast stands far above the rest when it comes to enhancing the innate immune system. A patented process of extracting the Beta glucan as long chain reactive particles makes this compound much more effective than others. In fact, supplementing this form of beta glucan back into the diet has been shown to restore the innate immune system to a level of peak effectiveness and has proven to have considerable long-term health benefits.

4. Inflammation

Inflammation is thought by many scientists to be the initial process by which all disease manifests itself. We certainly see inflammation associated with most degenerative diseases.

Inflammation is associated with many of the most degenerative diseases.
Inflammation is associated with many of the most degernative diseases.

Unfortunately, commercially prepared pet foods that contain an abundance of carbohydrate, refined sugars and vegetable source fats actually increase inflammation while anti-inflammatory nutrients such as Omega 3 fatty acids, flavonoids, pre-biotics and isoflavones are usually lacking.

Osteoarthritis, which affects up to 70% of all dogs and cats over 7 years of age, is the result of chronic inflammation.

5. Glucose & Insulin

Plasma glucose levels are dependent upon insulin provided by the Pancreas. Insulin is needed in order to drive glucose out of the blood and into the cells where it can be used to produce energy. Poor regulation of plasma glucose, as exhibited in diabetes, results in serious complications including cardiovascular and renal disorders, collagen aging, neuropathy, cataracts, macular degeneration, hypercholesterolemia, and a declining immune response.

These conditions are all commonly observed during the aging process but appear to be accelerated in diabetics. Effective glucose and insulin control is enhanced by dietary restriction and exercise. Numerous studies have shown that eating less and exercising regularly aids in maintaining lower levels of plasma glucose and insulin. Studies in dogs and cats demonstrated that food restricted animals were found to maintain mean plasma glucose and insulin levels significantly below animals being fed free choice (food available all the time).

Diabetes in pets is a growing concern

A direct cause and effect for diabetes in pets has been established. Physiologically, neither dogs nor cats have a metabolic requirement for carbohydrate – a primary glucose precursor. Dogs and cats evolved as carnivores eating diets high in protein and primarily absent of carbohydrate. In spite of this knowledge, most of our commercial diets today contain high levels of carbohydrate.

With evidence that this feeding practice is directly related to a devastating disease and scientific fact that our pets do not have a requirement for carbohydrate…two primary conclusions can be drawn: carbohydrate must be cheaper than protein and profit seems to trump pet health.

Diabetes is one of the most rapidly growing diseases in pets today. This may represent significant evidence of the pathological nature of modern day high grain pet diets.

6. Obesity

Are we killing our pets with kindness? A recent survey of those who specialize in the treatment of animals identified obesity as the #1 nutritional health problem facing pets today. Obesity is the most common nutritional disease occurring in the dog and cat. Overweight pets are a routine site in veterinary clinics. Statistically speaking, somewhere close to 60% of our best friends tip the scale on the high side.

Obesity in pets can result in a myriad of health problems
Obesity in pets can result in a myriad of health problems

Obesity is a nutritional disorder that is never observed in wild carnivores. Because our pets eat what we provide, this is a manmade disease stemming from overfeeding and under exercising.
Becoming overweight is more common with advancing age. It is seen more often in females than males and its occurrence usually doubles in neutered pets. Obesity can also be hereditary as we see in many breeds like the Labrador retriever, Collies, and small hounds such as Beagles, Basset Hounds and Dachshunds. The real culprit however, is simply eating too much and exercising too little (more energy taken in than expended). Overeating cannot be blamed on the dog or cat…they usually consume what we provide.

Generally speaking, several things predispose pets to obesity:

  • Decreased activity
  • Feeding high-calorie premium foods to inactive pets
  • Overfeeding table scraps and high calorie treats
  • Free choice feeding – continuously leaving a full bowl of food out
  • Feeding competition between pets

Nutritional Fact: Overfeeding puppies and kittens increases their total number of fat cells, making them more susceptible to obesity as adults

How do you know when your pet is overweight or obese? Veterinarians use these simple tests.

Rib Check – Simply place both of your thumbs on your pet’s backbone and spread both hands across the rib cage. If you can’t feel the ribs easily, your pet probably needs to lose weight.

Profile Check – Look at your pet from the side. The abdomen should appear slightly “tucked up” behind the rib cage.

Overhead Check – With your pet standing, stand directly over him and look down. You should see a clearly defined waist behind the ribs.

Obesity affects overall pet health in many ways. An overweight dog generally has more physical ailments and a shorter life than one of average weight. Obesity reduces the quality of life and often results in one or more of these disorders:

  • Bone/Joint Difficulties: extra pounds add stress to bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles. Being overweight can cause the onset of or aggravate conditions such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, vertebral disk disease and ligament ruptures.
  • Respiratory Problems: lungs have to work harder to provide oxygen, while extra fat affects breathing and decreases circulation.
  • Heart Disease: the heart must also work harder as the circulatory system expands. This causes strain on the heart as it beats harder and faster causing higher blood pressure, circulatory disease and potential failure.
  • Diabetes: is more common in obese dogs and cats and can lead to secondary complications. Diabetes is becoming a pet health epidemic.
  • Liver Disease: overweight animals are more prone to liver disease.
  • Skin Problems: overweight pets have problems grooming themselves. Extra fat can often hide dirt, bacteria and other harmful substances in skin folds that can cause hair loss and skin irritation.
  • Gastrointestinal problems: overweight dogs are more likely to suffer from poor digestion, which is displayed by bad breath, excess gas and more serious problems such as stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, gas, ulcers and pancreatitis.
  • Obesity is also responsible for: intolerance to heat; lowered resistance to infectious disease especially viral infections; greater surgical and anesthetic risks; irritability and other behavioral problems related to increased discomfort.

One of the most important steps you can take in helping to preserve your dog’s health is to cut them back on the food they eat, feed a biologically appropriate diet and provide more exercise.

High-Calorie, High Carbohydrate Diets contribute to Rapid Growth, Obesity, and Joint Disease. When a puppy grows too quickly, cartilage often cannot keep up with the growth of his frame and cartilage deficits can occur. When imbalances of this type develop in a growing dog, they can contribute to hip dysplasia and other structural weaknesses that ultimately lead to arthritis. High-calorie diets, which are typically also high in carbohydrates, can especially cause problems in growing large breed dogs. In fact, research indicates the amount of calories a dog consumes, especially from the age of three to ten months, can have a significant impact on whether a dog that is genetically prone to hip dysplasia will develop the condition.

Our most popular breed, the Labrador Retriever, is especially affected. In a 1997 study of Labrador Retriever puppies, dogs fed ‘free choice’ (food left out all the time) had a much higher rate of hip dysplasia and weight problems than their litter-mates who were fed the same food, but in controlled portions that amounted to 25 percent less than the free fed pups.

Black Lab Puppies

In a more recent study researchers concluded that: A diet that is proportionately higher in protein, calcium, n-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants increases lean body mass and positively affects cartilage turnover and joint health.

Management of overweight conditions or obesity obviously begins with prevention. Knowing the ideal weight of your breed is a good place to start. Determining the correct number of calories needed on a daily basis is also helpful. Selecting a diet that has been developed to match your pet’s energy output will help. Measuring the correct amount of food to feed and dividing that into 3 to 4 small feedings throughout the day encourages weight loss. Slowly increasing the amount of play or exercise stimulates metabolism and helps produce weight loss. Finally, any reducing plan must have the complete cooperation of all members of the family.

There are commercially prepared reducing diets available. In fact, after contributing greatly to the obesity epidemic through decades of advertising their high calorie, super premium diets as better for your pet; these same manufacturers now offer you high cost, high fiber reducing diets, which often cause gas, diarrhea, degeneration in coat quality and the development of dry flaky skin. This veterinarian believes there is a better way to take the weight off.

In order to initiate weight loss, the ideal caloric intake must be reduced by 20 – 30%. When you do that with any commercially manufactured pet food you are also reducing 20 – 30% of the nutrient portion (essential amino acids, fatty acids vitamins and minerals) of the food. The nutrients can safely and efficiently be replaced without adding extra calories by adding a complete and balanced nutritional supplement.

7. Stress

Stress can be detrimental to your pet's health and lifespan.
Stress can be detrimental to your pet’s health and lifespan.

Stress is a general set of physiological responses to any extra demand whether it is physical or emotional. Small amounts of stress can be considered healthy while continued or chronic stress can be debilitating. Early responses to stress include an increased heart rate, constriction of the stomach, and energy or fuel mobilization. Stress releases adrenalin causing pupils to dilate which readies an animal for “Fight or Flight”. Under stress, protein stores are rapidly converted to glucose causing blood sugar levels to rise and protein reserves to become depleted. As protein reserves diminish, blood cell and antibody production becomes compromised.

Pets that experience high levels of stress during the immunity gap face a greater incidence of lasting health problems and even premature death.
Pets that experience high levels of stress during the immunity gap face a greater incidence of lasting health problems and even premature death.

The sources of stress are many and they have an accumulative effect. The type of stress and the length of time it is present determines how detrimental the overall effect will be. Puppies and kittens experience the stress of separation during weaning when mom pushes them away and again a few weeks later when suddenly they are being shipped off to a new home away from their siblings and playmates. This can be one of the most severe stressors an animal may ever experience and it comes at a time when the immune system has not fully developed leaving them overly exposed to infections, parasites and disease.

Fact: 1 in 4 of our new puppies and kittens do not live beyond 12 weeks of age. It is easy to see how chronic (long term) stress can suppress an animal’s immune system thereby increasing susceptibility to infectious agents and other medical challenges.

Socialization, the act of familiarizing our pets with anything and everything in the environment is one of the most important things you can do to assure proper development. Socialization must start as early as possible in order to assure the best results. It is said that human babies brains are 80 % developed by age three. This equates to around 12 weeks of age in the typical puppy. Failure to socialize properly can produce an animal that fears other people, other pets, various objects, loud noises, separation or travel. Fear creates a constant stress that over time will overwhelm the immune system and precipitate life threatening disease.

Golden Retriever Puppies

Training, work, and performance all have stress components to them, which are compounded by the amount of work required and the environmental situation that is present, i.e. hot or cold temperatures, high humidity, the length of the training session, degree of work, level of noise and amount of confinement. Physical signs of good stress are enhanced condition and performance while signs of bad stress include diminished activity, poor performance, dehydration, weight loss, anemia and slowed recovery.

The psychological signs of stress are many. At low levels, good stress enhances alertness, attitudes and responsiveness. At high levels (bad stress), we see maladjustment, dissociation, irritability, depression, apathy, unsociability and a reluctance to eat and drink. Every single pathological condition has a component of stress that unless controlled will make the condition worse and delay healing.

Stress, in effect, causes an animal system to work harder. This increased output creates an increased need in their nutritional requirements. When stress is allowed to persist, nutritional needs continue to increase while the usual animal response is to lose its appetite. This creates what I call the “nutritional stress gap.” If levels of bad stress (distress) are allowed to persist, the nutritional stress gap widens. This can present a serious problem to any pet owner who may not recognize the signs or effects of stress and yet, desires optimum performance and health for their pet.

One of the first consequences of stress is an increased demand for protein, particularly high biological value protein – that is protein with high amounts of essential amino acids. During stress, protein reserves are rapidly depleted requiring steady replacement to prevent the breakdown of body tissues. Numerous studies have demonstrated that stress is directly linked to anemia. Without a constant fresh source of high quality protein, the replacement of blood cells and other critical tissues is often compromised.

During stress, many vitamins and minerals are rapidly depleted. Calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, copper and zinc are excreted in the urine. Blood levels of iron,  copper and zinc and the vitamins A, E and C are markedly decreased and the normal synthesis of vitamin K in the gut is suppressed. Replacing these nutrients is essential to maintaining a healthy pet.

I have been highly successful in overcoming the nutritional deficiencies caused by stress by replacing the lost nutrient content with a highly concentrated, completely balanced nutritional supplement. With a little training, you can lessen the effects of stress by anticipating it and providing higher levels of protein and other essential nutrients prior to increased activity, work, or performance. For disease, trauma, surgery and throughout any and all other stressful events or stressful periods in an animal’s life, a complete, concentrated and fully balanced supplement is an essential part of maintaining optimum nutritional health.

Dog and Human Running on the Beach