A Raw Food Meal Plan May Fine-Tune Your Dog's Immune System

Story at-a-glance -

  • My guest today, Dr. Johanna Anturaniemi of the University of Helsinki, is involved in the DogRisk research project to learn more about how nutritional, environmental and genetic factors influence disease in dogs
  • Dr. Johanna is involved in a DogRisk nutrigenomics diet intervention study in dogs with allergic conditions
  • Study results to date suggest raw diets may upregulate genes related to immunity and antioxidants, enhancing and activating the immune system in dogs’ skin
  • Dr. Johanna’s work will be instrumental in advancing veterinary knowledge about the causes and treatment of canine allergies and other disorders

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.

Today's guest is Dr. Johanna Anturaniemi, who joins me from the University of Helsinki in Finland. Dr. Johanna's background is in animal breeding and nutrition. She's also currently a veterinary student, works at the nutrition clinic at the university and is a member of Helsinki Animal Hospital.

The DogRisk Team Is Studying the Ways in Which Diet Influences Dogs' Genes

Dr. Johanna's work with DogRisk involves the field of nutrigenomics, which is the study of the relationship between diet and genes.


"Every time a dog eats food it affects the genes and how the genes are expressed," explains Dr. Johanna. "This means that the genes can be more active or inactive because of the diet or the nutrients in the diet. At the end, this means that the proteins that are produced from those genes, the amount of proteins can be either increased or decreased in the body.

Those proteins are used as enzymes in different kinds of metabolic events in the body, or they can be used in cell membranes as a transporter for the nutrients, or they can be proteins that activate some genes or inactivate others. They are very important to the functioning of the body.

Dietary nutrients change gene expression and I'm interested in which diets change the expression in a good way and which change it in a bad way. So which are healthy for the dog and on the other hand, which can be unhealthy for the dog."

Dr. Johanna extracts RNA from tissues in blood and skin to study gene expression.

"This is a pretty expensive method to use," she explains, "but it is essential in our study because there hasn't been much research on the effects of different kinds of diets (e.g., raw or kibble) on dogs.

We don't really have previous studies to use as a starting point for our studies. We don't know which genes we should be looking at. By using RNA, we can sequence the whole genome and the genes that are active in the body at that moment. We don't have to have any candidate genes. We can just sequence them and see what we can find."

DogRisk Study Suggests Raw Diets May Upregulate the Immune System

When I visited the DogRisk team last spring, Dr. Johanna and her colleagues were doing some great research on atopy (allergic conditions), and were also planning to study epilepsy along with several other diseases. I asked her what they've learned so far.

"We did a diet intervention study with atopic and healthy dogs," says Dr. Johanna. "We got some interesting results with the RNA sequencing. We used just [eight] dogs because the funding needed for this type of analysis didn't allow us to use a larger sample.

Half the dogs ate raw food and half ate dry food. We found several genes that were upregulated in the raw food fed dogs, and it appears those genes are related to immunity and antioxidants.

The raw food may enhance and activate the immune system in the skin, which is really interesting and makes me wonder if raw food might be beneficial at a young age when the immune system is developing. Perhaps it needs something to do so it's not just hanging around in a really clean environment with nothing to do.

We know in humans that the risk for atopy and allergies increases when children are raised in really clean environments. This is really interesting I think."

There are so many dogs in the U.S., and probably worldwide, that suffer from terrible allergies. Holistic and integrative veterinarians know from experience that allergic dogs switched to fresh food diets often have dramatic improvement in their symptoms. That's why the DogRisk research is so exciting.

DogRisk Needs Additional Funding to Complete the Diet Intervention Study and to Conduct Research Into Other Canine Diseases

I asked Dr. Johanna what types of studies she would do if she had the funding.

"Well, regarding the atopy study, we still have about 20 skin samples we need to analyze but we need money for those so we can validate the results we already have," she answered. "One sample costs about 1000 to 2000 euros with all analyzing steps included, so this one thing is already very expensive.

In addition, we have blood samples from all those dogs and it would be really good to also do the RNA sequencing on those samples to see if we get the same effect in the blood as we see in the skin. And in the future, of course, we'd like to do studies on epilepsy and other conditions.

RNA sequencing is a very expensive method of testing, but as I said, it is a good starting point because we don't have to have any candidate genes and we really don't have any candidate genes because nobody has studied this."

Traditionally, university studies are indeed expensive, but relatively speaking, the DogRisk team can do a lot for a reasonable cost. In fact, it's some of the least costly research out there. This is mainly because the big job is done already. They have data from the Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ) and from the diet intervention study Dr. Johanna has been working on.

Many of the lab analyses are also already done, so now the costs mainly come from the work needed to analyze the results that have come back from the labs and to write the studies. The researchers must analyze the data, then write a manuscript and submit it for peer review to a journal.

When the comments come back the study is rewritten. When it's accepted by the journal, it's published. The whole process can take a year or longer. For example, analyses of the difference in blood values between raw and dry food fed dogs have already been done and are awaiting comments from the reviewers.

Dr. Johanna and her colleagues are doing a great job developing solid, unbiased research and have whittled their costs down to a bare bones minimum. All the funding must come from outside the university since the DogRisk researchers work independently. There are no big pet food, or big pharma sponsors.

I could not be more excited to partner with the DogRisk group to help them raise enough money to complete their studies. I appreciate Dr. Johanna joining me today and explaining a little bit about the very complex but exciting research she and her colleagues are undertaking.

Dr. Johanna has published a study on the non-food related variables in the DogRisk Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ), as well as a study on the nondiet related risk factors for atopy/allergy in dogs from the FFQ data. Dr. Johanna, along with Dr. Anna Hielm-Björkman and others have also published articles on fish oil and oxidative stress in dogs with osteoarthritis, and campylobacter in the feces after diet intervention.