Whole Food Nutrition: A Healing Prescription for Pets

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Nancy Martin is a mixed animal veterinarian in Northern California who started out as a large animal vet
  • Dr. Martin is passionate about species-appropriate nutrition, which is why she eventually opened her practice to small animals as well — she saw dogs and cats getting progressively fatter and sicker eating processed pet food
  • A big challenge in feeding animals a healthy diet is that much of our soil is depleted of certain nutrients. In addition, many plants and animals intended to live outside, live indoors instead
  • The right species-specific diet and appropriate supplements have the power to heal illness and maintain wellness in animals

By Dr. Becker

Today, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to talk with Dr. Nancy Martin, who runs a mixed-animal veterinary practice in Northern California.

Dr. Martin started her career as a large animal veterinarian and then eventually morphed to a mixed animal practitioner. Like me, Dr. Martin is passionate about the importance of nutrition for her patients.

"My experience with nutrition started with food animals," she explains. "In that realm, it's very important to be holistic.

It's very important to deal with deficiencies in your own environment and problems with genetics, and address those as you work with people to create a healthy herd of animals.

It was kind of natural for me to move on into small animal medicine, looking at the same issues and trying to help people with the same suggestions and knowledge."

Interestingly, Dr. Martin received extensive large animal nutritional training in veterinary school. It's interesting because very little training in nutrition occurs in the small animal realm. In my experience, small animal veterinary students don't receive an adequate education in species-appropriate nutrition.

Dr. Martin was able to take her educational background and experience in large animal nutrition with her as she moved toward a mixed animal practice.

Poor Health in Small Animals Provided the Inspiration

I asked Dr. Martin why she decided to start treating small animals as well. "Ill health," she answered.

"Forty percent of dogs are obese. Cats become obese within four months of moving inside, and of course, indoor living is what we now advocate for all cats.

In fact a lot of shelters won't even adopt out an animal unless it's going to an inside environment. The convenience of dry kibble has been this strange convergence of marketing and nutrition.

Seeing all these animals with ill health and metabolic disease related to those diets has made me want to fix that. I think every veterinarian is inspired to want to fix that."

Dr. Martin recommends species-appropriate nutrition for both her large and small animal patients.

"The argument that dogs are omnivores has been beaten to death," she says. " Dogs are obviously carnivores. Cats are carnivores. They both live and exist in the wild in a prey model nutrition environment.

Our job as veterinarians is to make sure we can provide them a mostly meat diet that meets all the essential vitamins and minerals they need and do it in a healthy way."

Nutrient Deficiencies in the Soil Move Up the Food Chain and Land in Your Pet's Bowl (and on Your Dinner Plate)

Dr. Martin treats range beef cattle in her practice. Because California is a volcanic shelf, in 48 out of 50 counties the soil has low levels of selenium and copper. All large animal veterinarians in the state know that to raise healthy, fertile and productive herds of cattle, these mineral deficiencies must be addressed.

The deficiencies can be seen in young steer feeder cattle with diarrhea, and in adult cattle with dry, non-shedding hair coats. Dr. Martin explains how the missing minerals are replaced:

"Every managed cow herd should have their cattle go through a cattle chute at least once a year. Fortunately, the nutrition industry for livestock has produced supplements that can be given in bolus form for sustained release over the year. People also make supplements.

Of course, cattle on range have to be moved. You use salt and mineral supplementation as a way to get them to move where you want them to on the range. The thing they are always looking for is water, so you put mineral supplementation around water."

What Dr. Martin and other large animal practitioners in California are doing is tremendously beneficial. They're fortifying the diets of food animals, which not only maximizes the health of the cattle, but also produces more nutritious meat.

When nutrient deficiencies in soil aren't identified, those deficiencies are passed to the plants that grow in the soil, to the animals who eat the plants, and ultimately, to the human and pet food produced from the animals and plants. Many of our meat and vegetable sources are deficient in nutrients. Dr. Martin agrees.

"In California, if range line grasses are deficient in selenium and copper, it only makes sense that vegetables grown on the same soil would be deficient also. When we fertilize, we're not fertilizing with nutrients. Except in the case of vineyards, because they want perfect wine so they do probably the best job!"

Plants and Animals Raised Indoors Versus Outdoors

When we feed dogs and cats a species-appropriate, meat-based and balanced prey model diet, often those meats, even if they're organic and free-range, are deficient in a host of nutrients that in theory should be contained in the food.

"It may not even be the meat that's your biggest concern," explains Dr. Martin, "but whether they're getting the correct proportions of bone, fat and meat. Almost every prey model diet has at least 18 to 25 percent vegetable material. Those are more likely to be nutrient deficient diets, depending on where they are produced."

Interestingly, chickens raised indoors have no vitamin D in their liver, but chickens that live outdoors do, which is another area of concern — plants and animals that live or are grown entirely indoors.

"Last night," says Dr. Martin, "I attended a mushroom seminar. The speaker pointed out that all of the so-called fabulous mushrooms such as the shiitake and reishi varieties, are now being grown indoors as China becomes more advanced in their cultivation.

Sadly, mushrooms that were once high in vitamin D are no longer, because they need sunlight to convert their provitamin D to vitamin D. We make lots of changes to the way we grow and raise things, but we often have no idea how it's going to affect the overall nutrition of that plant or animal."

Whole Food Nutrition Has the Power to Heal, but It's Not a Quick Fix

Dr. Martin has been using whole food nutrition with small animal patients for about eight years now. I asked her what kinds of changes she's seen after moving an animal from an entirely processed, dead diet to an entirely fresh, living diet.

"Recently I had a newly rescued Labrador Retriever patient whose skin was in horrible shape," she said. "It was wrinkled, greasy and so sticky he left wet, sticky paw prints on the floor. He had a terrible yeast infection. He also had infections all around his eyes. His new dad said, 'I don't know why I adopted him. It just felt like I should.'"

The dog's prior owner had fed him a processed, vegetable-based diet. He wound up at the shelter because the owner couldn't afford the medications the vet prescribed to deal with the dog's skin condition. At the shelter, the poor dog remained on those same medications for 30 days with no improvement.

Dr. Martin put the dog on a carb-free, commercial prey model diet available in California, plus a vitamin and mineral supplement and a probiotic. The horrible yeast infection cleared up.

"He just looks beautiful now," she says. "The owner almost gave up because it's tough. That's what I have to tell people. This is a tough road."

It's true that dietary changes to improve an animal's health aren't a quick fix. The dog's not going to be better next week. "I gave him a year," says Dr. Martin, "but we actually got there in eight months. It was very satisfying."

A Single Nutritional Transformation Can Set Off a Chain Reaction

Often a single success story like this sets off a chain reaction. The Lab's owner will probably tell dozens of other people about how the right diet caused an amazing transformation in his very sick dog, which will motivate some of them to reconsider what they're feeding their own pets.

"The nice thing about it, too," says Dr. Martin, "is this man is also going to be thinking about his own diet. Families improve their health when they realize how important nutrition is when they see a case like that."

I want to thank Dr. Nancy Martin for joining me today for a chat. I think what she's doing in focusing on species-specific nutrition for every animal who comes to her practice is fantastic. She's making a wonderful contribution to the fresh food movement!