Is Your Pet Thriving or Simply Surviving?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

recipes for life podcast

Story at-a-glance -

  • Today I’m discussing a wide range of pet-related topics with Pete Evans for his Recipes for Life podcast
  • We talk about the power of food to heal or to do harm, and the difference between wellness medicine and disease medicine
  • In addition, we discuss whether dogs have evolved as omnivores (nope), what it means to help your pet thrive instead of just survive and the definition of species-appropriate pet food
  • Another topic: Do dogs need another dog in the family, or do they prefer to spend time with humans?
  • Also discussed: the growing influence of big pet food on the veterinary industry

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Download Interview Transcript

Today I'm flipping the script, so to speak, in that I'm the one answering questions for a change! I'm being interviewed by Pete Evans for a Recipes for Life podcast. Pete is a health coach whose passion is helping people achieve greater health through his books, seminars, podcasts, TV shows and films.

The Recipes for Life podcasts are conversations about his favorite ingredients for a healthy human experience. They're an informed look at topics that include nutritional and emotional well-being, as well as expanded consciousness. You can read some of the highlights of our conversation below. For the full interview, follow the link above to the podcast, or use the link right below it to download the transcript.

The Healing (or Harmful) Power of Food

Pete asked me to talk a little about how I became a proactive wellness veterinarian with a passion for feeding pets optimal nutrition. I explained that I was very lucky to be born into a family that is very conscientious about health and well-being.

My mother was a pathologist by trade, but once she had children, she became a stay-at-home mom who prepared three organic, fresh-from-scratch meals every day. So I was raised in a family that was very forward thinking about food, and I believe it was the foundation for my viewpoints on nutrition and health.

I realized early on that food has the power to heal and also to harm, and this is especially true for pets due to their relatively short lifespans. As a veterinary school student, I was shocked to realize there was so little emphasis on the concept of food as medicine for small animals.

The Practice of Wellness Medicine Versus Disease Medicine

After graduation, I opened the first proactive animal hospital in the U.S., and focused on nutrition as a tool not only to heal pets, but also to prevent disease. My overall goal was to find a way to create vibrantly healthy pets not only through food, but also through a modified vaccine schedule, sterilizing versus desexing and other nonconventional strategies.

I believe true healers should be proactive. As MDs or veterinarians, our goal shouldn't be to simply fix sick patients, but to keep healthy patients well. I believe we need to shift the paradigm and create a system of wellness-driven medicine versus disease-driven medicine.

I've received plenty of criticism over the years for my approach. I was even told early on by the dean of a veterinary school where I lectured that my brand new practice would never survive because "we don't make money off wellness, we make money off sickness." He said, "After all, a sick patient is a revenue-generating patient." I'll never forget those words, or the anger I felt when I heard them.

Needless to say, I didn't follow the dean's advice or let it deter me. Within two years of opening, I had the busiest solo veterinary practice in Chicago.

Intentionally creating wellness in pets requires a close partnership with their owners to help them make the best decisions for their animal companions. I want owners to be responsible and feel empowered rather than relying on their veterinarians for everything — especially when it comes to the food they offer their pets.

Today's Dogs Are Carnivores Being Fed Like Omnivores

Pete asked me to talk about the recent movement to label domestic dogs as omnivores versus carnivores. The argument is that because dogs have co-evolved with humans over thousands of years, they are now omnivores like we are. While it's true dogs have acquired some ability to process carbohydrates, they are still Canis lupus of the order Carnivora. They are scavenging or facultative carnivores — meat eaters with the ability to process carbohydrates, if necessary.

They can produce some, but not enough digestive enzymes in their saliva to process a diet overloaded with plant material. Their GI tracts are very short and designed to handle a heavy bacterial load from raw prey and high meat content diets. Over the last 80 years or so eating a primarily grain-based diet, they've adapted, which is a good thing because otherwise, they'd be extinct.

But if we look at the disease states of dogs and cats in the last 80 years, we see that 50 percent of dogs now die of cancer, and the obesity and diabetes rates are epidemic. The fast food diets we force dogs and cats to eat doesn't immediately kill them, it just makes them sicker and sicker over time.

Thriving Versus Surviving

I was taught in veterinary school that dogs and cats live an average of about 12 years. At midlife, they start acquiring "lifestyle-related illnesses" that will bring them back to the veterinarian six to eight times a year until they acquire a life-threatening degenerative disease, like organ failure or cancer, and then there will be a slow degeneration to death.

I see that as the survival model in which a pet's body never reaches its full potential. Owners of these pets have a relationship with their veterinarian that is emotionally stressful and economically draining. They end up with a broken heart and a pet who dies at 10 or 12 from one of several commonly diagnosed conditions. That's survival. Thriving happens when we're willing and able to intentionally create vibrant health in a pet.

There are millions of pet owners worldwide who no longer accept that their pet must follow the survival model. We're seeing a growing movement of empowered pet parents who recognize it's their job to help their dog or cat thrive. That's my mission. I want to help pet owners make the best decisions to nourish their animal in a way that allows them to thrive.

The Meaning of 'Species-Appropriate' Pet Food

The next topic Pete wanted to cover was the meaning of a species-appropriate diet. Should pet parents make homemade meals? Should the food be cooked or raw or a combination? My number one rule is to feed the best foods you can afford to feed.

Number two, make sure your pet's diet is species-appropriate. For example, dogs and cats don't have a nutritional requirement for carbohydrates. If you can afford to offer food without carbs, do it, because when you eliminate them, you dramatically reduce your pet's glycemic load. You're also eliminating unnecessary calories and providing more nutrition from important fats and protein.

A biologically appropriate diet for a dog or cat is about 50 percent calories from meat, and 50 percent from fat, plus supplementation with appropriate vitamins and minerals.

Rule number three: the closer you can get your pet's food to raw, the more bioavailable and nutrient-dense it will be. If it freaks you out to feed raw meat, cook it very gently. But know cooking decreases the amount of amino acids and vitamins in the food. Rule number four: if you're going to prepare food for your dog or cat at home, you MUST be sure it's nutritionally balanced.

Dogs Need Friends. Are You Your Dog's Best Friend?

Pete asked me for my thoughts on the best lifestyle and environment for dogs. Since they evolved from wolves, do they do better in "packs" of more than one dog in the home? Or do humans take the place of other dogs? This is a great question. It's very important to understand that while dogs came from wolves, they're no longer wolves. They're domesticated and seek human companionship. They rely on us and want to be around us.

If you can be a best friend to your dog, focusing on his emotional, physical and mental well-being, then he doesn't need a dog companion. On the other hand, if you don't have a lot of time to spend with your dog, you might think you should get him a canine buddy. But it's important to realize that picking your dog's buddy is a little like me picking your spouse for you.

People think, "Hey, this is your new best friend. You're going to live in the same house. You're going to like each other." Maybe — but let's be honest, maybe not. If you're going to commit to caring for your dog or cat for a lifetime, I believe you owe it to him to be the best human companion you can be.

And being your dog's ideal companion means making an unbreakable commitment to exercise him and make sure he spends lots of time in nature. It means coming home from work and saying, "Okay, you've have been in your crate or locked in the house, so outside we go. You get to smell 57 things. You get to pee on 86 different shrubs. We're going to create a stimulating sensory experience because you've been locked in the house for 10 hours and that's not how God intended you to live."

It's our duty to do that daily, because we've committed to caring for our pets. What are we doing to make their lives magnificent? They rely on us to make their lives magnificent!

Whatever you do, don't get a pack of dogs and think they're going to entertain each other. Your dogs are relying on you for companionship, motivation, exercise, excellent nourishment, and mental and emotional stimulation. If you can't offer those things, don't get a pet.

Big Pet Food's Increasing Influence on the Veterinary Industry

Pete was curious about big pet food's involvement in the veterinary industry and asked me to explain the connection, because in his experience, most people either don't know about it or don't believe it exists.

Mars PetCare, which produces the vast majority of pet foods on the market, is now the No. 1 owner of veterinary clinics in North America. Said a slightly different way, Mars, who makes the majority of kibble, owns the majority of nationally owned veterinary clinics in the U.S.

The other point I need to make is that in veterinary schools, many nutrition classes worldwide are taught by pet food company representatives. Nutrition classes are taught by pet food representatives who are marketing their products. There is no independent pet food education. Talk about a conflict of interest!

When you have veterinary hospitals owned by pet food manufacturers, it's pretty clear what their relationship is. Pet parents need to be aware of this when they go to veterinary hospitals and veterinarians recommend special diets conveniently sold right there in the lobby.

Love Is the Answer

Pete had one final question for me — something he asks all his podcast guests: "What is the one ingredient for a good life — a practice or philosophy — that you would love to share with our audience? What is something that has benefited you through this journey of life?"

My answer is that I believe the world needs a lot more love. I believe love trumps all. Love brings patience. It brings the ability to work with difficult people. It brings perseverance in tough situations. If we focus more on loving each other, I believe we can eradicate many of our differences, frustrations and anger by recognizing we have far more in common than we realize. I believe when we choose, we should choose love.

Many thanks to Pete Evans for inviting me to share some of my Recipes for Life on his podcast. I can't wait to meet him next year when I visit Australia!