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Want a Healthier, Happier and Longer-Lived Pet? Here’s Where to Start

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Susan Klein is an integrative veterinarian with a passion for nutrigenomics, which is the study of the effects of foods and food components on gene expression
  • Unlike conventional veterinarians who often don’t address the diet at all, Dr. Klein begins most treatment protocols with a gradual change in diet
  • In her lectures on nutrigenomics, Dr. Klein also discusses the disease states that are created by feeding highly processed commercial pet food to companion animals
  • Dr. Klein believes it will be pet parents, not veterinarians and certainly not the pet food industry, who will continue to push for changes in the way pets are nourished

By Dr. Becker

Today I'm talking with Dr. Susan Klein about a subject we're both passionate about, nutrigenomics, which is the study of the effects of foods and food components on gene expression.

Dr. Klein earned her veterinary degree in 1988 from Colorado State University and after graduation, spent several years in a conventional veterinary practice. These days she runs Alpine Meadows Animal Clinic, an integrative practice in the Vail Valley.

We Are What We Eat: Good Food Is the Foundation for Good Health

Dr. Klein's passion for nutrition started about 15 years ago with a patient who had severe, chronic gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Her patient's condition prompted her to begin investigating commercial pet food.

The things she learned, coupled with the fact that she had received no useful nutrition training in vet school, caused her to dig even deeper into the topic and begin experimenting with different nutritional approaches.

"I got completely fascinated with the field of food," says Dr. Klein, "and then with genomics. I was so excited to read Dr. Jean Dodds' book, 'Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health ' as soon as it was published.

Then it all just started to make so much sense. Because especially with regards to nutrition's impact on genetics, you are what you eat. If you're eating 'bum' food, you're getting 'bum' DNA, then you're going to have some disease problems down the road."

One of Dr. Klein's first adventures in nutrition was learning just how important a real food diet is. But she ran into many hurdles not only in trying to transition her GI patient to fresh food, but her own two dogs as well.

There were many times she was left wondering why it seemed so difficult for some dogs to do well on their ancestral diet.

After researching the topic of epigenetics, which describes how environmental factors can affect the tuning of our genes and our response to nutrients and environmental stressors, Dr. Klein was able to put more of the pieces of the puzzle together.

"It makes so much sense to me that a species-appropriate diet is the foundation of health," she says, "so that's where I start with patients at my clinic."

If You're Upgrading Your Pet's Diet, the Change Should Be Gradual

I asked Dr. Klein how she helps sensitive animals recover and stay well. By "sensitive," I mean those pets with sensitive GI tracts, sensitive skin and other sensitivities.

She replied that the approach must be multimodal because pets are sensitive for multiple reasons. "In my belief system, there are three dimensions that the body functions in: emotion, physiology, and structure," says Dr. Klein.

Her approach might be to start with, for example, Bach flower remedies. Down the road she might consider consulting an animal communicator. "If I'm not getting anywhere with a case, I often bring in an animal communicator to see if the problem has something to do with somebody at home," says Dr. Klein.

She also upgrades the pet's diet, but does so gradually. "If they're already on, say, Science Diet, I might say 'Let's step up to a food that's wheat-free and potato-free first.'

Then we're going to start adding in some cooked foods that are easy to digest, and then gradually work toward less cooking of the food with the understanding that a pet who is in an extreme state of sympathetic nervous system stimulation may have a difficult time with a raw diet."

Dr. Klein takes a customized approach to each patient because each is unique from a genomic perspective. "I start with some general recommendations, and then make changes along the way as we discover what works and what doesn't for that individual animal," she explains.

It's important to understand that if either you or your pet can't seem to tolerate your evolutionary diet of fresh, whole foods, there's a problem in the body. I've had people tell me they're "allergic" to vegetables.

I've actually had people say, "I can't eat anything healthy. I do fine with processed foods, but I can't eat any healthy foods."

The problem isn't the healthy foods — the problem is with that person's or pet's body. If you feed your dog or cat his evolutionary diet and he doesn't respond well, we need to ask why. The answers can be found in nutrigenomics, but it's a fairly new concept and interested veterinarians are trying to learn it on the fly.

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'It's Easy to See Where We've Gone Wrong in the Way We Feed Pets'

Dr. Klein is lecturing on the topic of nutrigenomics here at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) conference, so I asked her to talk about what she covers in her presentation.

"My purpose in the lecture today was to stay pretty general," she answered, "because most of us did not get any formal education in nutrition. As I was doing research for this presentation, I was blown away by how much misinformation is out there."

"Nutritionally, it's pretty easy to see where we're going wrong in the way we feed pets. From a genetic perspective, it involves looking at the coevolution process between people and animals dating back 12,000 years, and understanding the concept of evolution and its impact on our DNA.

As we move through life, we are primarily affected by our external environment. The gut and lungs, from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, are external surfaces. We want to be cautious about what we put in there, so as not to add fuel to the fire.

The biggest challenge is to figure out how to control the amount of information, both physical and non-physical, that is overwhelming the body to the point where the body says 'No more. I can take no more.' When the body reaches that point, just the simple act of switching from white rice to brown rice, for example, can cause diarrhea."

Most Treatment Protocols Should Start With a Food Change

In her practice, Dr. Klein has to learn which patients need to make dietary changes in baby steps, and which can make a faster transition.

"Often I can look at a patient, learn her history and know that this is a pet I really need to go slow with, while this other one over here I can push a little bit more.

And it's not just about diet, but also about which supplements to use and which treatment modalities might work. It's about learning to trust your intuition and getting feedback from the pet that, 'acupuncture is what I need,' or 'osteopathy is what I need,' or 'good food is what I need.'

And of course it's also about discovering how all those elements will interact to support the body and bring the animal back to good health."

Dr. Klein usually begins a patient's treatment protocol with a food change.

"The way I look at it is if each cell is a factory worker, you have to give that factory worker all of the bits and pieces it needs in order to do the job. All of the wonderful modalities that we practice in holistic medicine are much more effective if all those little cells are stocked with all the things they need."

I know for a fact that many veterinarians, especially conventional practitioners, never address the diet at all. They might incorporate holistic therapies like acupuncture, which is great, or probiotics or other supplements, which are also great, but they don't address the diet.

It's been my experience that with many patients, especially those with deep-rooted problems, no amount of supplements or environmental manipulation will be effective if the diet is not also addressed. You simply can't achieve true healing with these animals if you ignore what they're eating.

When it comes to nutrition and dietary supplements, Dr. Klein and I agree there can be "too much of a good thing." Too much nutrition put into a dysfunctional body can be as harmful as not enough nutrition. If you're giving your pet multiple supplements, her body has to process all of them.

It not only feeds energetic chaos, it can also overtax the liver and the entire body. Supplements aren't bad, but they should be used for specific reasons. And if they're not improving the situation, they should be stopped. Supplements can never replace species-appropriate food.

Feeding your furry companion a diet that creates disease in his body and then trying to fix the problem with supplements isn't a good approach.

How Pet Food Creates Disease

Next I asked Dr. Klein to talk about commercial pet food and the disease state it can create, which is a topic she touched on during her lecture.

"From a nutrigenomics perspective," she explained, "we understand DNA is made up of tiny bits and pieces of protein. Everything in the body runs on a protein-based metabolism. It's really important that the body is taking in proteins it can recognize and utilize in an efficient manner."

"What's happening with commercial pet food is it's sourced from ingredients unfit for human consumption, including the remains of '4D' animals — dead, dying, diseased, disabled. One of the worst statistics I came across in my research was that 5 million pets were rendered as pet food in the 1990s. The cycle of life is such that a cat eats a mouse, but I don't want my dog to be eating a dead dog.

The process involved in making the average dry pet food is that marginal ingredients are poured into large vats and heated at high temperatures. Most of the core nutrients in the ingredients are destroyed, so they are added back in in synthetic form. Synthetic nutrients are xenobiotic, meaning they are foreign to pets' bodies.

Then the food is dried and pressed into cute cookie cutter shapes, poured into a bag, and stamped with a shelf life of up to two years. From a nutritional perspective there's nothing living in that food anymore, but we're putting it into living bodies. Protein functions in DNA to turn genes on and off. If we want to transcribe for healthy genes, we have to have healthy proteins, meaning live proteins.

Pet food contains a number of byproducts as a result of the manufacturing process. The most significant is advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Simply put, this means there's way too much sugar in the food that is coating the proteins in the food in such a way that the body doesn't recognize it as a food source.

It also coats the tissues of the body such that the immune system doesn't recognize them, and we start down the path of autoimmune disease and cancer."

Pet Parents Must Continue to Push for Change

I asked Dr. Klein if she thinks any of this information will be taught in veterinary schools in the future.

"Because the epigenome dictates individual genetic expression, it will never be replicated in a research setting," she replied. "And it won't be taught in vet school, because where would the funding coming from? 'Follow the money,' because it always dictates what we're taught or told."

"I just don't feel veterinary schools can wrap their heads around teaching nutrition because both food and animals are biologically complex. When you mix two complex organisms, there's no way to arrive at a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem."

The veterinary profession is the only healthcare profession that advocates feeding entirely processed foods versus fresh foods. And we're definitely the only healthcare profession with practitioners that tell clients fresh food could be risky and harmful to animal companions.

The conventional veterinary advice to feed only processed food is archaic and frightening. At some point, there has to be a shift in thinking. I asked Dr. Klein if she feels that day will ever come, or will vet students 50 years from now still be graduating with no training in nutrition and still recommending an entirely processed diet?

"What I see from my practice," said Dr. Klein, "is that pet parents will be the ones to push for change, because people will increasingly understand that if it's good food for me, how come it's not good food for my pet?"

Good Food Is Good Medicine! Pass It On!

"The bad news is most people rely 100 percent on what their veterinarian tells them," Dr. Klein continued, "and when it comes to nutrition, misinformation about processed pet food will be perpetuated. It will take a very long time, I think, in the conventional realm, to see a change."

"There's also a lot of money being made in the processed pet food industry. It's going to be a long time before the powers that be back up and say 'Well, maybe we got it wrong.' But the public is a larger driving force.

If Mrs. Jones is very concerned about Fluffy and she sees a difference in Fluffy when she's fed a good diet, she's going to tell someone else. And that person will tell someone else. Then when their veterinarians try to push Science Diet on them, they'll say no. They'll walk out."

For the foreseeable future, it looks as though information about the importance of a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet for pets will have to continue to travel by word of mouth from people who've experienced the benefits and tremendous healing power of fresh, whole food.

And as Dr. Klein points out, many pet parents see the healing power of food in a dog or cat, and it prompts them to start eating better themselves.

"There are parallels between, say, a diabetic pet and a diabetic pet owner," she says, "so as vets, we have the opportunity to touch people's lives through their pets."

Pets evolve faster than us. I tell veterinarians, 'You are going to see [four] to [six] generations of animals in your practice. If it takes [three] to [six] generations to change DNA, it means we can have an impact, but it's going to take time. So stay with it and let the animals teach you about what works.'"

Finally, I asked Dr. Klein to explain the concept of nutrigenomics in plain English for people who've never heard of it. Her response:

"Nutrigenomics is the science of taking the nutrients in your food and combining them with your biological blueprint to maximize the optimal function of your body so that you can live a long, healthy life."

Common sense and brilliantly said, in my opinion! It's exactly what we're trying to do as integrative veterinarians in shifting to a fresh food model for pets. Many thanks to Dr. Susan Klein for her time and terrific insight on this fascinating topic!