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What Kind of Food Is the Best Medicine for Sick Dogs?

Story at-a-glance -

  • My guest again 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 has been collecting a massive amount of dog owner data using her Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ)
  • Dr. Anna’s goal for the FFQ is to see if she can validate her hunch that raw diets are therapeutic for dogs with certain types of disease
  • With funding, the FFQ and other DogRisk studies can be used to validate the use of nutrition as medicine for both the prevention and treatment of disease in dogs

By Dr. Becker

My guest again today is DogRisk founder Dr. Anna Hielm-Björkman, who comes to us from the veterinary faculty at the University of Helsinki. DogRisk is a Finnish research project to learn more about how nutritional, environmental and genetic factors influence disease in dogs.

Yesterday, Dr. Anna talked with us about the overall DogRisk project and the studies her team is conducting. Today we'll be discussing her Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ), which she touched on briefly yesterday.

The Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ)

"This is an Internet based questionnaire," Dr. Anna explains, "that has given us data from about 12,000 dog owners so far. We ask questions about their dog, including what kinds of foods they've eaten during each phase of their lives; as a puppy, as a youngster and as an adult.

We ask what type of home environment the dog lives in, how much the dog is walked, and how long the dog is outside each day. We also ask about the dog's mother and her diet and diseases (if known). Also, we ask about the dog's stress, activity, body mass index, obesity, work or hobbies, and sleep.

If you print out the questionnaire it is more than 15 pages long and has hundreds of drop down boxes that the owner can choose from. The FFQ generates a spreadsheet with 1332 variables and is awesome to work with!"

descriptive data questionnaire

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diseases questionnaire

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puppyhood questionnaire

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food questionnaire

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processing methods questionnaire

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changes in questionnaire

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checking raw food questionnaire

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"We ask about other dogs in the home and how many other animals there are in the family," continues Dr. Anna. "We also ask about 117 diseases, but so far we have been looking primarily at conditions that both dogs and humans share, such as atopy and allergies, epilepsy, osteoarthritis and cancer.

But there are also typical dog diseases such as anal gland infections and genetic disorders. A colleague of mine, [Dr.] Lohi, has the largest dog-DNA bank in the world and we have asked the responders to our FFQ if they have also given a DNA sample to Lohi's group. This way we can combine the dogs' DNA samples with our epidemiological data one day if we get really a lot of money!"

Dr. Anna developed the questionnaire in 2009 after 20 years of work as a veterinarian using raw diets as therapy for many different types of canine diseases, including allergic conditions, gastrointestinal problems, teeth and gum diseases, diabetes, pancreatitis and others.

The data has been collected for eight years now and counting. Her goal was to see if she could prove her hunch that raw food is therapeutic for dogs with certain types of disease. The database is now massive. So far it is available only in Finnish, but one of the research group's international DogRisk members, professor Stella Barrouin-Melo in Bahia is opening up a Brazilian version soon.

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The FFQ Is Revealing a Reduced Risk of Disease in Raw Fed Dogs

"What was interesting," says Dr. Anna, "was that when I put in the dogs' living conditions, their age, gender, sterilization status, how much daily exercise they received, and their diet, I found strong associations between several diseases and the food dogs were fed.

The good thing with this data is we can look at what dogs were eating at a younger age and then later, what diseases they developed. In the case of dogs with atopy and allergies, we could see that having a mother with atopy increased the risk for her puppies. This can be due to a similar not optimal diet at a critical young age, and it can be due to genetics.

Also, dogs with predominantly white coats (over 50 percent white), and dogs living in a too clean house were at increased risk for atopy. Isn´t that nice — hysterical cleanliness is yet once more deemed unhealthy! Another discovery, one that I had anticipated, was that we in fact could see diminished risk of atopy and allergy, osteoarthritis, epilepsy, and many other diseases in dogs fed raw diets. That was so nice!

We haven't published those results yet because we want to validate the food parts portions of the questionnaire separately, since our results are a bit 'controversial.' Now we are out of funding and lost our epidemiologist a year ago, so we have had to wait longer than expected for the results.

But with $1.00 from every dog owner around the world, we can get articles published on all diseases and their risk factors in no time, so let this awareness week special go viral!"

The DogRisk Team Is Conducting the Largest Study to Date on the Effects of Processed and Unprocessed Diets on the Health of Dogs

"We are the only researchers around the globe that have ever studied the effects of processed and non-processed foods on this scale, with over 12,000 dog owner responses," Dr. Anna continues. "The questionnaire asks, for example, about fish, pork, and vegetables and whether they are fed heat processed or raw/fresh.

Since processed red meat products have increasingly been deemed unhealthy for, our results should be very interesting also for researchers of human chronic diseases. Dogs and humans suffer from some of the same chronic metabolic diseases, such as atopy/allergy, IBD, epilepsy, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, cancer and many others.

Our continuing research will investigate why non-processed meat seems to have health benefits while processed meat seems to increase disease. Is the heat-processed food lacking certain minerals, trace elements or vitamins? Are there too many carbs or too little fat or animal proteins in the heat-processed foods?

We are especially interested in ketogenic diets right now. The possible harm of carcinogenic advanced glycation end products (AGEs), advanced lipid peroxidation end products (ALEs), heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in modern food have been evaluated.

It is known there are significantly more of these toxins in heat-processed dog foods that in raw and fresh foods. We also see differences in homocysteine and in gene expression of immune markers after our diet intervention. But funding is badly needed for all of our very novel and multidisciplinary studies."

And all the association studies from this massive FFQ have to be done correctly. We do not want to make a mistake that leaves us with another 40 years of potentially bad diet advice.

We've already published one study from our data related to non-food items and atopy/allergies in dogs. We also wanted to check that it was not house dust mites that had increased the prevalence of atopy/allergy in dogs in Finland. So one researcher organized a vacuum cleaning of atopic dogs' beds (and their owners' beds) to see if that could have been a reason for the increase in atopy/allergy in Finland.

But as you can see in our published study, it seemed not to be the case. What we're working on now is validating that what the owners say they're feeding their dogs is actually what they're feeding them. We're doing this by having the owners answer the questionnaire twice with some time in between, as well as having them keep a diet diary for a week. It will not be a 100 percent correlation since people change their dogs' diets depending on the season."

The DogRisk FFQ Project Needs Funding so the Team Can See It Through to Completion

"We're getting really interesting results. One of the things we need funding for is getting the validation completed because the student who was doing that is not with the group any more. Also, our epidemiologist had to quit because we lost funding for her at the end of last year."

This is certainly one of the largest studies I'm aware of pertaining to food. I asked Dr. Anna what she'd do next if she secured funding.

"With this project, what I would do next is finalize the validation study and have it published in a peer-reviewed journal. After that, I'd look at each of the 117 canine diseases that we've asked about and publish individual papers on the different diseases.

We would look at the association between each disease and the dog's environment, activity, hygiene, etc., plus their diet, and whether these factors provide a protective effect or heightened risk for the disease. Atopy/allergy, epilepsy, hip dysplasia, OCD, IBD, heart disease, hypothyroidism and cancer would be the first diseases I'd look at. We still need some more diabetes and hypothyroidism cases into the data bank before we can do a good analysis."

Studies Are Needed to Validate the Use of Nutrition as Medicine

As a raw food advocate, I firmly believe I'm feeding the best food to my pets, but we don't as yet have the research to validate what we know anecdotally. Dr. Anna's work in looking at the associations between dogs' home environment, lifestyle, exercise and diet relative to the diseases they acquire is invaluable.

Her study would help define some of the parameters and provide answers to questions we all have but no one's been able to correlate. We are certainly hoping that we're able, all of us, to help support Dr. Anna in getting this information out there for all of us to use.

"Veterinarians need research because we're trained to use evidence-based medicine," Dr. Anna points out. "If we're thinking of using nutrition for either preventing or treating disease, then we are using nutrition as medicine and we should know there's evidence that it either helps or increases the risk. This is also important information for pet owners to have."

In the U.S., we're told to feed processed foods to pets, but long-term studies of the effect of processed foods on dogs have never been done. As veterinarians we know food matters, but no one has done lifetime or lifestyle studies to prove what types of foods are healing or harmful for dogs long term. Anna is doing that with her Food Frequency Questionnaire.

The FFQ Could Ultimately Function as a Kind of Canine 'Survival Graph'

"The FFQ project is really the foundation for all our other studies because this is where we make hypotheses," explains Dr. Anna. "What we want to do is find associations that seem logical and then test them in diet interventions. Another thing I would like to do if I had the funding would be to send all the people in our database a new, shorter FFQ follow-up to see what diseases the dogs have acquired since they completed the original FFQ.

We have a lot of dog owners whose pets were only a year old when they completed the original FFQ [six] to [eight] years ago. We have wonderful, very accurate data on what they were eating when they were small. I'd like to get back to those owners and ask about changes to their dogs' diets over the years and what diseases they've developed, including any chronic, on-going diseases.

The dogs in our database can provide us with information throughout their lives. It's kind of like a survival graph. We can see what has happened and what diseases the dogs have or haven't acquired, and we can review the initial diets they were fed when they were young.

Honestly, I could easily take in [five] more researchers just to work on the FFQ data. Just $1.00 per dog owner per year, or per month, would enable us to continue this work. If we can't secure funding, I'll have to go back to treating animals one at a time here at the clinic, when instead, we could impact the health of millions of animals.

Please help the group do what we set out to do — the industry has not yet run to our aid and I suspect they will not. And I actually prefer it that way so our research remains independent and university-based. This is a quest we dog owners have to see through together.

In this quest we do depend on each other because it is regrettably certain that the DogRisk program will die out without us ever getting the research written and published, although we have ALL the data we need already, if we do not get external funding. I'm putting my trust in you, dog parents. Please, and thank you."

Calling All Dog Lovers: You Can Help the DogRisk Team Continue Their Critically Important Research

For any researcher, the biggest hurdle is always funding. There's no shortage of study ideas, especially at DogRisk, and certainly no shortage of dogs and dog owners willing to participate. Finland seems to be an excellent place to get dog owners engaged. The challenge is getting the money to complete the research and publish it for use by pet owners, veterinarians and others.

What we're hoping is that by bringing awareness to some of these programs the DogRisk team is involved in, we can generate interest and in turn, funds so we can begin to learn and apply the results of the research.

We're very excited to support Dr. Anna and her team in whatever way we can this week, financially speaking, to bring some of these projects to fruition. I appreciate her for the years of hard work and passion she's put into her desire to provide research all of us desperately need.

The DogRisk team hasn't published any diet-related work yet but you can check out some of their other research on their publications page. Here's a fun video the DogRisk and Wise Nose groups and Dr. Anna's kids put together. "Research doesn't always have to be so serious," says Dr. Anna!

"And we can assure you," she continues, "the DogRisk researchers are better at making research than videos — and that is good! The meat, organs and big bones in the video were donated by Chef Wotkin's in Helsinki."