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Questions for Dr. Shawn - Food, Toxins, Diet and Treats

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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"I was wondering if you could provide me a list of items my dog and cat should not eat. What products might be harmful? I like to give them small amounts of anything I eat, but I want to do so safely."

Answer:
“Dogs, and sometimes cats, chew almost anything. Unfortunately, certain foods and everyday substances that are perfectly fine for people can be toxic for pets. Even a small quantity of the following substances can put your pet's health at risk:

  • Alcoholic beverages. Because alcohol can be fatal to pets, no amount of alcoholic beverage, including beer, is safe.
  • Chocolate is toxic to pets. The darker the chocolate, the more harmful. The methylxanthines (caffeine and theobromine) in chocolate can cause pets to vomit, have diarrhea, experience rapid, irregular heart beats, and experience muscle tremors and seizures. The effects can be serious. Death from chocolate toxicity can occur with 24 hours. Likewise, coffee, tea and sodas can also cause problems.
  • Macadamia nuts can temporarily cause muscle weakness, often in the hind legs. Other signs include vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. The mechanism of the toxicity is unknown. Affected pets usually recover with symptomatic treatment.
  • Onions and garlic have a chemical that damages red blood cells and can cause anemia. Even one small whole onion can cause death. So be particularly careful when disposing of left-overs that contain a significant amount of onions, such as pizza or Chinese take-out. The small amounts of onion and garlic powder used in pet foods is safe and well below the toxic levels. Additionally, small amounts of garlic do have health benefits in pets.
  • Raisins and grapes cause vomiting, diarrhea, and kidney failure in dogs. The minimum safe amount is not known, so keep these foods well out of reach of curious muzzles.
  • Sugarless gums and candies are certainly sweet, but in large amounts the sugar substitute xylitol can cause a rapid drop in your dog's blood sugar.
  • Moldy or spoiled food and garbage should stay safely in the trash. They can contain multiple toxins causing vomiting, diarrhea, and damage to internal organs.
  • Yeast dough, used in making bread or desserts, is designed to expand. If swallowed by your pet, it can expand and produce gas in the digestive system, causing pain and possibly rupture of the stomach or intestines.
  • Medications such as Ibuprofen, Tylenol (acetominphen,) and Naproxen can be deadly to pets. Keep all prescription and over-the-counter drugs - including painkillers, ant-inflammatory drugs, cold medicines, diet pills, antidepressants, anti-cancer drugs, and even vitamins, in closed cabinets out of your pets' reach. Never give your dog medication unless directed by a veterinarian.
  • Plants are pretty but possibly deadly for your pet. Many common yard and houseplants can be poisonous, including lily, Easter lily, daffodil, oleander, rhododendron, azalea, yew, foxglove, rhubarb leaves, and cycads."

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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"Should my older cat Freda eat a senior diet? She’s 10 now and my friends are telling me she needs to eat a diet for older cats. I have her on a great natural diet that she’s always enjoyed. What are your thoughts?"

Answer:
”First, I applaud you on trying to feed Freda a natural diet. The proper foundation is the basis of any preventive health care program, and it’s my starting point before prescribing supplements or medications. In the past, pet food manufacturers have made a big deal about “life stage” diets. Unfortunately, I don’t really see any convincing scientific proof behind these recommendations. I’ve been feeding puppies, adult dogs, and senior dogs the same food for years; the same is true with my cat patients. All of them do well as long as I prescribe a natural diet for them. So no, I don’t think you need to make a switch to any different diet for Freda.

Having said this, I do believe in the value of twice yearly checkups and blood and urine testing for pets 7 years of age and older. If these biannual visits reveal an underlying problem for Freda, such as kidney disease, a different diet may be indicated. Special diets can be very helpful for pets with various diseases. In general though, if Freda is healthy I don’t see any particular benefit associated with a diet designed for older cats.”


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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"Are supplements really necessary if my dog Katie eats a natural diet? I’ve followed the advice on diet in your book The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats. You’ve listed many different supplements in there, and I’m not sure what if anything my dog needs."

Answer:
“Excellent question. Just as I believe that all people can benefit from supplements, I believe all pets can also benefit from supplements. While natural diets don’t contain the potentially harmful byproducts and chemicals found in some foods, no diet contains every possible ingredient that is needed to maintain optimum health. Keep in mind that dietary recommendations for people and pets are designed to provide a MINIMUM daily allowance of nutrients for the “average” person or pet (I’ve yet to see an “average” person or pet!) Supplements are designed to complement a great diet, supply nutrients (such as various fatty acids, enzymes, and immune boosting supplements) not found in the diet, and supply nutrients a pet may not digest and absorb from the diet for a variety of reasons. As long as your not supplementing individual vitamins and mineral, which could cause an imbalance, you’re OK. Readers are encouraged to email me for my general list of supplements I like for people and pets.”


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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"Our 2 dogs eat an organic dry dog food. We supplement their diet with fish oil, vitamin E, vitamin C, glucosomine, and a daily vitamin-mineral pill. Have we gone overboard? Is there a better combination product out there for our 2 dogs, ages 3 (a lab-mix) and 4 (German shepherd) years old?"

Answer:
”Wow! It sounds like you’re doing a fantastic job. In my book, 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog, I devote one week each to discussing diet and supplements (the other weeks are devoted to grooming, exercise, the veterinary visit and examination, treating diseases naturally, parasite prevention and control, and saying No to drugs for your pet.) The diet sounds like a good one. E aware that many well known pet food companies are now jumping on the “natural” bandwagon and making what they call “natural” diets. Be sure to read the label, avoiding by-products and chemicals whenever possible; many of these well known companies might advertise a new diet as “natural” but it may not be what you and I consider “natural.” (Readers who want to know what to look for on a pet food label can email me a request and I’ll email you back a handout on the topic.)

Regarding supplements, it’s hard to overdo it but sometimes it’s easy to duplicate ingredients. You mentioned vitamins C and E as part of the supplements. My guess is your vitamin supplement already contains these vitamins and additional C and E are not needed; adding these extra vitamins can actually throw the delicate balance of vitamins and minerals out of balance, which is why I prefer owners not simply start adding individual vitamins and minerals to their pets’ diets.) I would recommend a good quality fish oil liquid or capsule (I like Ultra EFA) for starters; fish oil reduces inflammation in the body and has numerous health benefits. A balanced vitamin-mineral supplement that also contains digestive enzymes and immune-boosting ingredients (colostrums, ginseng, coenzyme Q-10, etc.) is important. I like Vim & Vigor, Canine Plus, or NutriPro. Glucosamine or other joint supplements are great for larger dogs to try to prevent arthritis. My favorite products include Glycoflex, Megaflex, Nutriflex, and Cholodin Flex. As your pets age, preventing cognitive disorder becomes important as well. I suggest that all pets 7 years of age and older take Cholodin or Cholodin Flex to help in this regards. I’ve seen many positive results when owners feed their pets the proper diet and supplements. Yes, it does cost a bit more to do this, but the savings come when your pet has fewer illness that require veterinary care. Keep up the great job!”


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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"I’ve read that cats don’t really need carbohydrates in their diets. Yet all of the foods I’ve looked at have carbohydrates in them, and some of the pet foods have a lot of carbs. Why is this? Is it OK to just feed my cat meat?"

Answer:
”You’re absolutely right. Unlike people and dogs, cats are true carnivores. They do not have a specific requirement for carbohydrates in their diets. They must, however, have large amounts of animal protein in the diet or they can suffer a number of fatal problems such as heart disease and liver failure. Carbohydrates are included in pet foods as an inexpensive source of energy. Digested carbs are used to provide fuel (blood glucose) for people and pets; if the energy is not needed immediately, then the carbs are stored as glycogen in the muscle or liver to be used later. While dogs and people can use protein for energy, this is less efficient.

Cats, however, have developed to be able to use protein as their main source of energy. Dry food must contain more carbohydrates than canned food in order to be formed into pellets. Even though your cat needs a lot of meat in order to obtain the large amount of protein that he requires, feeding only meat is a bad idea. Meat as the sole food is too low in calcium and other vitamins and minerals. However, the ideal food for cats is based upon animal protein as long as it contains adequate amounts of fats, vitamins, and minerals. Even though cats don’t really need carbohydrates in their diet, I don’t think feeding dry food is harmful to most cats as long as it’s a natural diet. Some of my holistic colleagues might disagree, and some do in fact only recommend wet or canned food.

In my practice, I’m not quite that stringent. However, there are some cats that I believe should probably not eat dry food as their sole diets. Cats with kidney disease, chronic bladder disease, diabetes, cancer, and heart and liver disease do better in my opinion when eating a wet or can diet. Work with your veterinarian to determine what food is best for your pet at this stage of his life.”


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"Dear Readers:
I’ve had a lot of responses from vegetarians who objected to my recent article on the potential problems of feeding dogs and cats a strictly vegetarian diet. Here are some of the points made in their emails and my comments to them.

1. The argument you made about the quality of the animal protein [mix of amino acids] being better than vegetable protein is not true.

There are many factors that determine the quality of a protein, including the various amino acids that make up the protein, as well as the digestibility of the protein. Eggs and milk are considered perfect proteins by many nutritionists. Vegetables and fruits can contain good proteins just like meat and fish. However, they are typically deficient in certain amino acids that are required by dogs and cats.

2. You said you prefer to give dogs and cats animal protein because it closely resembles what they eat in the wild, but this is not true.

Actually this is true. I’ve never seen a dog or cat hunt down and kill a plant, but I have seen them hunt down and kill birds, rodents, and small mammals. Why? Because they are programmed to seek prey that meets their nutritional needs. As an experiment, I offered my dog and cat a choice of fresh meat or a piece of fruit? Guess what they ate first? My cat showed no interest in the fruit.

3. Cat’s don’t need animal protein. They do fine on vegetables.

I don’t want my patients “doing fine,” I want them thriving, and the proper diet is the foundation of any health care program. Cats, unlike dogs, cannot meet their nutritional needs unless animal protein is in their diet. They have requirements for high amounts of protein, taurine, and pre-formed vitamin A, only found in animal tissue. Cats eating diets deficient in these nutrients will become blind and die from liver or heart disease.

I did agree with 2 statements in the emails I received.

1. Diets (for people) high in vegetables and fruits are healthier than diets high in meat-based protein devoid of vegetables and fruits.

2. Many of the animal-based proteins in pet foods are not healthy. This is why I recommend natural, organic pet foods free of byproducts and harmful chemicals."


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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"I am a vegan and strive to improve my nutrition. I feel it important to do the same for my dogs. Both are adults at 7 and 10 years of age. Is it safe to slowly change their diet from their existing brand of dog food to a vegetarian diet? I also feed them carrots and broccoli with their dinner meal, which interestingly enough they eat first! What is a safe protein I can feed them that is not an animal by-product? Can they eat soy? Can I make them tofu? Can you give me some advice?"

Answer:
”While dogs are not strict carnivores like cats, I prefer they eat animal protein in their diets as this closely resembles what they eat in the wild. While I respect your decision to not eat animal protein, in reality animal protein has the best ratio of amino acids (more important than the “protein” value of food) when compared with vegetables.

Even vegetarians must work hard to properly balance the diet to prevent vitamin and amino acid deficiencies. Giving your pet extra vegetables is a great idea. It serves to fill them up due to the fiber content, provides potent cancer-fighting antioxidants, and they are very low in calories which make them perfect as a treat for dieting pets. I’m not a real big fan of soy especially in large amounts as soy can cause extra intestinal gas and contains high amounts of glutamine, which is an excitotoxin that may cause nerve damage. However, for variety small amounts of tofu can be fed if the dogs will eat it.

Finally, I agree with you about avoiding animal byproducts which are found in many brands of food. These are low quality sources of protein and should not be fed to any animal unless absolutely necessary. You can find some great recipes to prepare for your pet in my book The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats.”


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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"I have a question about by-products in pet food. Everyone says not to feed your animals a food if the ingredient label says by-products, which could include animal parts such as liver, kidneys, lungs, hooves, pregnant uterus, hair, skin, mammary glands, connective tissue, or intestinal tract. But I'm wondering - why is that bad? If our pets lived in the wild and had to kill to live, wouldn't they be eating that stuff from whatever animal they eat?"

Answer:
”Excellent question, and one that I’ve not been asked before! The term by-product, when used on pet food labels, can be a good thing or most commonly a bad thing. Good by-products include organ meats like liver and kidney. Bad by-products include those tissues you mentioned in your question. These ingredients have little nutritional value and serve as cheap sources of protein (and poor sources of amino acids.) In the wild, even if an animal were to consume these bad by-products, that is not their only source of protein but only a part of the meal. Also, if given a choice, animals prefer to eat muscle tissue or organ tissue of the prey they kill.

I recommend avoiding animal and plant by-products when purchasing pet food, unless a specific organ meat is mentioned. There are many choices of good foods available, and there is no reason to feed any food containing by-products, no matter who recommends the food. The only exception I ever make is if the diet containing the bad by-products might be the only diet the pet will eat or is needed for a specific medical problem. There are not many natural diets designed to treat illnesses, but I hope this changes.”


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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"I’m frustrated with trying to help my pet lose weight. We’ve been using the diet recommended by our veterinarian but nothing seems to work. Do you have any suggestions?"

Answer:
”Here are a couple of tips that may help. First, exercise your pet if possible. Mild aerobic exercise (leash walks, supervised swimming, etc.) daily or every other day is fine for most pets. Exercise is good for the pet’s overall physical and mental health, burns off calories, and decreases the pet’s appetite. Next, make sure your pet’s diet is appropriate, both the amount of calories as well as the amount of food fed per day. Your doctor should be able to help you with this. Try feeding the total daily amount that is recommended into several small snack meals feed throughout the day. This means most pets should eat 3-6 small meals per day. Frequent eating of small amounts helps prevent the pet from becoming hungry and begging for more food, and burns off more calories than if the pet only ate 1-2 larger meals.

Finally, consider supplements that may help. A product called Vetri-Lean combines several ingredients such as green tea and chromium that reduce carbohydrate absorption, extract boosts metabolism, helps maintain normal blood insulin levels (which promotes the burning of fat,) and helps to control appetite. Since obesity can contribute to many undesirable health states like diabetes, joint dysfunction, orthopedic problems, heart disease, and liver problems, reducing unwanted weight is important in pets.”


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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"Is there anything I can do to help my overweight cat Millie? We’ve had her on a light diet for several months but she still hasn’t lost any weight."

Answer:
”Obesity is the most common nutritional disease in people and pets. It is much easier to prevent than treat, and there are no easy solutions. Still, here are some things to try. Diet is important. While I don’t like the weight loss diets on the market since they don’t fit my definition of natural or holistic, I will use them short term to help the pet lose weight. When the desired weight is achieved, I’ll switch to a better natural diet. It’s important to feed the daily recommended amount of food in 3-6 small smack feedings throughout the day to maximize weight loss.

Exercise is also important, although this is more challenging for cats than dogs. Some things to try include chasing your cat around the house, making your cat chase a string or toy connected to a fishing pole, and having your cat chase a laser pointer directed at the floor. Finally, supplements can be helpful in burning off calories and reducing appetite. Vetri-Lean is a new product that has shown promise. When used with diet and exercise, it can be helpful in many patients.”


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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"What are your thoughts on rawhide chew treats for pets? My dog loves them but I’ve heard some bad things from friends about rawhide. Do you have an opinion on cow hooves as a chew treat?"

Answer:
”Rawhide is the processed skin of cattle. It provides dogs with a satisfying chewing experience. However, I’m not a big fan of most rawhide products for several reasons. Rawhide, especially those from another country, can be contaminated with potentially harmful ingredients such as arsenic often used as a preservative, antibiotics, lead, or insecticides that could adversely affect your dog's health. Dogs can easily choke on rawhide when the original large piece of rawhide is chewed. Choking is a hazard, and rawhide can cause gastric irritation is some dogs

Cow hooves might pose more of a problem than rawhide treats. They are hard enough that dogs can break their teeth when chewing a hoof. Rarely, a piece can become lodged in the hard palate (roof of the mouth) or in the esophagus, stomach, or intestines, which may cause a partial obstruction.

Finally, the popular pig ears chew treats can also cause GI upset, although obstructions are less common because the ears are not usually shaped into solid chunks. There is, however, a less widely known danger associated with pig ears: reports of contamination with bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella may pose a risk to both the pet and the owner handling the treat. For these reasons I don’t usually recommend these objects as chew toys. Safer options for chewing include large fresh meaty bones (supervise your dog when offering these to make sure the bone doesn’t splinter which could cause a problem.) Also, there are some companies that make bone-shaped treats from food sources such as soy or rice flour. These hard “bones” are enjoyed by many dogs and are totally digestible.”


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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
"I breed and show Labrador Retrievers and have been feeding the BARF diet, using a well-know raw food (BRAVO) for 6 years. I supplement with Flax Seed oil or Fish oil. I also following the Shultz-Dodd vaccine protocol and titer all my dogs, choosing only to booster if necessary. I vaccinate for rabies every 3 years. I'm really trying to keep my dogs' immune systems running at an optimal level, having lost 2 dogs to cancer that I think began with tumors in an area that was the primary injection site for many of years of vaccines (before I became better educated.) The argument I continue to face, however, it that the dogs are being subjected to bacteria from the raw food. I even had one vet say I was going to kill them if I kept up the raw diet. I've not had a problem in 6 years, but continue to have to defend my choice of diet to vet after vet. What are your thoughts?"

Answer:
"It sounds like you’re doing a great job and on your way to developing a super holistic health plan for your dogs! By feeding fresh food and limiting vaccines, I expect your labs will be healthy and live a very long life (especially if you’re breeding for health and not simply appearance or skills.) It is true that ANY food, raw, cooked, or processed, can become contaminated with bacteria, although I worry most about raw food. In people and in pets, most cases of food poisoning occur because of improper storage and handling. Therefore, I would make sure you:

  • Freeze the organic meat and only thaw out enough for a few meals
  • Don’t leave the food in the pet bowls for more than 30 minutes (although most labs will
    devour their meals quickly.)
  • Wash all utensils and the vegetables and fruit you feed.
  • Find a holistic veterinarian who agrees and supports your health care choices.

Life is too short to continue to argue with a doctor who disagrees with the way you care for your dogs. YOU are responsible for your health care choices, not any doctor. I wouldn’t argue with him as close-minded people don’t really care about facts and you won’t change his mind. Let him continue to overvaccinate his other patients and recommend to their owners the lower quality foods full of byproducts and chemicals. Change will only occur when the rest of his clients also learn, as you have learned, what’s really best for their pets and they too find a health care provider who responds to their needs."

 

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