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How and Why Our Dogs Get Sick

November 05, 2017
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Story at-a-glance

  • My guest today is Dr. Anna Hielm-Björkman of the University of Helsinki, founder of the DogRisk research project to learn more about how nutritional, environmental and genetic factors influence disease in dogs
  • Dr. Anna and the rest of the DogRisk team are conducting a variety of studies with dogs, all of which involve nutrition, and specifically, raw food
  • All DogRisk studies are independent and conducted at the University of Helsinki, they are entirely unbiased and only peer-reviewed research is submitted for publication
  • Three DogRisk studies currently underway include analyzing 10 years of data collected from 12,000 dog owners, a diet intervention study involving raw and dry food and a study of cancer-sniffing dogs
  • The DogRisk team hopes to secure funding to complete these studies and begin additional projects

By Dr. Becker

This week, Mercola Healthy Pets is partnering with the team at DogRisk, a Finnish research project to learn more about how nutritional, environmental and genetic factors influence disease in dogs. My first guest is DogRisk founder Dr. Anna Hielm-Björkman, who comes to us from the veterinary school at the University of Helsinki.

About a year and a half ago I was reading a pet food industry journal and happened upon information that a veterinarian in Finland (who turned out to be Dr. Anna) was doing research on raw diets for dogs. I couldn’t believe my eyes, since raw pet food studies are unheard of, so I called my best friend Rodney Habib, founder of PlanetPaws, and we arranged a visit to meet the DogRisk group in Helsinki.

We spent a week at Dr. Anna’s laboratory at the veterinary school, and what we learned was fascinating and very eye opening. I asked Dr. Anna to tell us a little about her work at the university.

“Well, I am what you call a docent here in Finland, which is a kind of research professor, an adjunct professor, and from my teaching I am like an assistant professor,” she explained.

“I'm a PhD, and I mainly conduct clinical trials with dogs involving chronic pain alternative treatments, and nutrition. I also work one day a week with patients because I think it's very important as a clinical researcher to keep up my clinical skills. About 80 percent of my time is spent in research, and right now my focus is on canine nutrition, disease etiology, and disease pathophysiology. We want to know why disease happens and if we can prevent it somehow.”

There Are Millions of Animal Species on the Planet and Less Than 10 of Them Eat Processed Food

I believe Dr. Anna’s is one of the only, if not the only veterinary research facility in the world studying raw food, which is so important and necessary. I asked her how she became interested in the topic.

“I think that a lot of good things come from home,” she explains. “My mother was an excellent cook and we had an organic garden and did a lot of fishing.

So I think coming from a home where food is very important was the first thing. I also have a background in acupuncture, and I think using non-traditional treatments puts you in a mindset of wanting to feed dogs good species-appropriate food so their bodies can heal themselves.

When it comes to raw food and its appropriateness for dogs, as I tell my students, there are 8.7 million species of animals on earth and less than 10 of them eat cooked food. I think that's a good thing to remember and should give you the answer right there.”

Dr. Anna has been recommending raw diets for her patients for nearly 25 years.

The DogRisk Project Started in 2009 With an Online Questionnaire

I asked Dr. Anna to talk a little about how the DogRisk project came about.

“I have a very logical brain,” she explains, “and I wanted to try to use normal Western scientific research methods to validate what I was seeing in my patients. So in 2003 I started my first epidemiological study, which was a questionnaire for dog owners.

The questionnaire asked about dogs' diseases and what they were fed, but I couldn't really use that data because I didn't do the questionnaire in the right way. I was still a new researcher and, so it took me about [six] years to put a really good epidemiology questionnaire out on the Internet.

That was in 2009, and we started gathering data into a databank where we now have over 12,000 dog owner responses. And we are still gathering data.”

What’s Coming Up During DogRisk Week

Throughout this week I’ll be interviewing members of the DogRisk team, and I asked Dr. Anna what we’ll discover during those discussions. She replied that we’ll learn more about the data she has gathered from her questionnaire over the last 10 years on the environments dogs live in, their diets and their illnesses.

We’ll also be talking with several DogRisk researchers about a diet intervention study they conducted with two groups of dogs fed either a raw high-fat, low-carb diet or a dry low-fat, high-carb diet for four months, and the findings they’ve uncovered so far.

A third project we’ll learn about involves scent detection in dogs. The DogRisk researchers are working with dogs who are detecting breast (mammary) cancer in other dogs by sniffing their urine. This study also has a dietary component, because it appears raw fed dogs are better at scent detection, and the researchers want to see if they can confirm their suspicions about this.

The nonprofit group Wise Nose organizes training for the dogs, does research with the DogRisk group and also manages a crowdfunding campaign with the DogRisk team so the researchers can do what they do best, which is research!

How You Can Help

“These are the three main projects that we'll be talking about,” says Dr. Anna, “and we are hoping to get some help in funding them. We would like people who watch or read the interviews to be able to choose the project they would like to help fund.

We’d like to let people choose the project closest to their heart. I know that some people are interested in raw pet food research, while others are more interested in dogs who sniff out cancer.”

One of the reasons I’m personally so passionate about supporting the work DogRisk is doing is because there are several different types of research going on at the same time, and they all involve food. The central theme around everything Dr. Anna and her DogRisk team are researching comes back to food — different types of dog food, different processing techniques, unprocessed food, and so on, and how food impacts the body and the health of the animal.

No one else is doing this research and DogRisk has been doing it beautifully for several years, with minimal funding. I think bringing awareness to the different projects and letting people choose what project they'd like to support based on what their heart tells them and what they’re interested in seeing is perfect.

The goal is to fund all the DogRisk projects because they're all worthy. We're looking forward to implementing the information that comes out of the research to take better care of the animals we love.

So we're looking forward to highlighting each of these projects this week. And we're hoping most importantly that all of you listening and reading here today, all you pet parents and dog owners out there, will partner with us in supporting this great organization and the research we will get out of it. It will benefit all of us.

All Published DogRisk Studies Will Be Peer-Reviewed

“We're doing all our studies at the university, and we only publish studies that have been peer-reviewed,” says Dr. Anna. “In addition, working at the university, we can be totally independent. We don't have to achieve results that would be either good for someone or bad for someone.

And there's one more thing I would like to mention. A lot of dog food companies have been quite stressed about what we’re doing and I really want to emphasize that what we are doing is not against dry or processed food. What we're trying to do is find things in food that can be beneficial to our pets.

Whatever we find, I think the whole pet food industry will be interested in putting into their foods. It's really a plus for everybody and especially for our pets.

One of the things I found very interesting when I visited Dr. Anna is that the team was doing research with home-cooked diets, gently cooked diets, charred home made diets, kibble diets, canned foods, dehydrated diets, etc. They’re interested in looking at all of it, and how all the different types of foods affect a dog's body.

DogRisk Research Is Unbiased

The DogRisk research is indisputably unbiased. The team is evaluating everything and isn’t looking for a particular statistical outcome for a company or product. They’re objectively looking at the data, which is part of the reason everyone is anxiously awaiting their results. And when Rodney and I visited them, we were able to share in their enthusiasm, curiosity and super team spirit for a week.

“We don't have a agenda,” says Dr. Anna. “We just want to find the truth. That's what’s really important and it’s why we’re so happy and fortunate to be able to do this type of research in a university. And Finland is a good place for our research, because we are open and one of the least corrupt countries in the world.”

DogRisk is doing this university-based pet food research in a simple search for facts and the truth about dog food, and for that we will be forever grateful to Dr. Anna and the rest of the DogRisk team. Dr. Anna has published several journal articles on a range of studies with dogs, including:

Dr. Anna and Dr. Johanna Anturaniemi have also published the first studies from the Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ):

You can find a list of most of Dr. Anna’s publications here.

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