Pet Parents Push Back Against Misguided Nutrition Advice

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • CANWI is a non-profit organization I co-founded with Dr. Donna Raditic; our mission is to conduct independent, unbiased pet food research and share our findings with every interested pet food company, veterinary school, pet parent and veterinary staff member
  • The focus of this year’s fundraising efforts is our latest endeavor, the SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition) program, which will bring unbiased small animal nutrition education to veterinary students and veterinary technicians across North America
  • Today’s guests are forward-thinking pet parents Sharon Castle and Morgan Hickey, both of whom have first-hand knowledge of the incredible healing power of fresh pet food — and both of whom have had to push past veterinary roadblocks to get their pets the help they need

Welcome to the final day of Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute's (CANWI) annual fundraising week here at Mercola Healthy Pets. This week we're introducing a new program we're very excited about called SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition). Dr. Raditic and I created it to fill a tremendous need for unbiased small animal nutrition education in veterinary schools across North America.

Our first guest today is Sharon Castle, a pet parent with a very personal story about the healing power of fresh homemade dog food. Following my chat with Sharon, I'll be talking with Morgan Hickey, another pet parent who is determined to do what's best for her animal companions, despite the significant hurdles and roadblocks she encounters along the way.

Below are some of the highlights of our discussions, which you can view in their entirety in the video above, or by reviewing the downloadable transcripts linked above.

Sharon's Goal: To Keep Her Dog Healthy and Happy

Sharon Castle is retired from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where she worked for many years. During her career, she didn't have many pets, but she's now sharing life with her third dog, Wolf.

"He's very important to me," says Sharon. "After I retired, I went to a lot of dog activities. We did rally. We've done agility. We've done nose work and my favorite, dance. It was very important to me to keep my dog healthy and happy. I also know it's very important for bodies to have the right nutrition in order to heal, and since I've always been very inquisitive, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the subject."

Sharon's first dog came from a puppy mill, and at the time, she didn't know about puppy mills. She also didn't know much about proper nutrition for dogs, and so she fed kibble. Over the years, she progressed to feeding a combination of kibble, canned food, and freeze-dried raw. Currently she's trying her hand at homecooked diets.

Specially Formulated Homemade Meals Have So Far Doubled Wolf's Life Expectancy

Sadly, Wolf, who's 14 years old and has always been healthy, was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and given only 1 to 3 months to live. Sharon was devastated, but the news was a wake-up call. She wanted to do as much as she possibly could for her dog. Her regular veterinarian recommended she see Dr. Donna (Raditic, my CANWI co-founder).

"I talked with her," says Sharon, "and it became obvious that I could do a lot more for Wolf than I had been doing. She really helped me with that. I know it's important for people to have fresh food, and I knew that commercially available dog food would never be as fresh as the food I could find."

Sharon decided to start making Wolf's meals herself, and she became very passionate about planning his diet — researching and sourcing the right proteins, vegetables, and other ingredients that could benefit him.

"Wolf was very excited," Sharon says, "He loved his new food. He's always been a voracious eater. But this, in particular, he really loved. And I felt good about giving it to him because it was real food — human food."

Sharon's regular veterinarian did a smart and relatively uncommon thing in referring her to Dr. Raditic, who is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. Many veterinarians aren't aware there are nutritionists out there who can formulate and customize diets for specific medical conditions, including cancer.

"It has been a very positive experience to work with Dr. Donna," says Sharon. "My dog was given 1 to 3 months to live. I had a visit with Wolf's oncologist recently and he was very surprised. He admitted he hadn't thought nutrition would be a big factor, but we have had 6 months of healthy quality time that we wouldn't have had."

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Food is Medicine and We Need to Get the Word Out

It's amazing to see how food can so dramatically impact a pet's overall well-being and sometimes, his longevity. Wolf is a good example, but of course it wouldn't have been possible if Sharon hadn't felt compelled and empowered to seek out options to keep him healthy and by her side for as long as possible.

This is one of the many reasons Dr. Raditic and I want to launch our CANWI SPAN (Student Partnerships in Animal Nutrition) program. Our hope is that SPAN will help veterinary and vet tech students understand how nutrition affects every aspect of an animal's life, including disease prevention and treatment.

"I really look to you guys to empower more veterinarians to do exactly that, to look for answers, to look for alternatives and to look to expand the traditional nutrition curriculum," Sharon says. "As somebody from a science background, I know there is so much more to be learned. There's so much more we can bring to bear to help our animals."

A Sick Pet is Often What Prompts Pet Parents to Learn About Species-Appropriate Nutrition

My second guest today is another pet parent, Morgan Hickey, who has quite a menagerie. Currently she has 3 dogs, 2 bunnies, and runs a sanctuary for community cats out of her home in rural Eastern Colorado.

Morgan has had dogs for many years. Her first was a German Shepherd adopted from the local shelter who was sick all her life. Her second dog had pancreatitis. Having 2 dogs with chronic illnesses ultimately drove Morgan to go in search of alternatives beyond what conventional veterinary medicine offered.

"My first German Shepherd, the one from the shelter, was very, very sick when I adopted her," Morgan explains. "Within her first few weeks with me, we were at the vet several times. It didn't get much better. She had all kinds of chronic allergies. She also had hip dysplasia. We did everything we could do for her using a traditional veterinary medicine approach.

I was a college student at the time, using my student loan money to pay my veterinary bills. I was doing the best I knew how with her nutrition, which at the time meant feeding the best kibble I could afford. Time went by and she didn't get much better.

We kind of managed some symptoms, but there wasn't much healing taking place. She got progressively worse and died at the age of 6, which I felt was too young. Then I lost my second dog to pancreatitis. I was still feeding the best kibble I could afford and taking her to the vet. They couldn't find anything wrong with her until we made an emergency visit and they discovered the pancreatitis.

With my third dog, who also started off with problems, I decided I wasn't going to go down the same route again. That was about 8 years ago, and I decided we needed to do something different."

Raw Diets are Giving Morgan's Dogs Longer, Good Quality Lives

Morgan began researching and learning through trial and error. She learned about the benefits of probiotics and digestive enzymes. She learned about human-grade and dehydrated diets and ultimately, about the benefits of raw diets.

Living in a really rural area, Morgan has had to learn on her own about species-appropriate nutrition and how to meet the nutritional needs of each individual animal. After she transitioned all her dogs to raw diets, she felt as if she was getting more time with each one, and good quality time as well.

"I really didn't want to go the route of continued symptom management as I had with my first dog," says Morgan. "I spent thousands of dollars on treatments. Ultimately, she didn't live very long. In contrast, my dogs today are living longer, healthier lives — the youngest one is 10, my second German Shepherd. I just know that none of my animals would be alive today if I hadn't decided to make changes and learned on my own how to make them. I'm very grateful."

Encountering a Veterinary Brick Wall

Sadly, Morgan's fresh food approach hasn't been well-received by her veterinarian, who like many vets who have no experience with raw diets, is adamantly opposed to them. Instead, she recommended Morgan feed one of her cats who was sick a processed kibble by Science Diet. Because she didn't want to offend the vet who is one of very few in her small town, Morgan felt obligated to buy the kibble.

However, she also felt she owed it to her animals to continue to do research and find better answers and do the best she can on her own. I'm sure this story feels very familiar to many of you out there who've found yourselves in a similar situation. You know there are better answers than the ones you're getting from your veterinarian, but you can't afford to sever the relationship because you still need a vet in certain situations. Currently, Morgan is helping one of her cats recover after being hit by a car.

"Bodies are engineered and programmed to heal when they are fed the right nutrients," says Morgan. "It's amazing to see how it all works. That's what I've evolved to. I also do a lot of Reiki work with my animals. I can still visit my veterinarian if I need to, but our relationship isn't what it could be because she's not open to different ideas."

Instead of spending thousands of dollars on conventional treatments, Morgan spends most of her money on high quality nutrition for both preventive and rehabilitative purposes.

"I really wish my vet was more open," she says. "But she's all I have out here and I'm very grateful for her. I'm sure she has valid reasons for feeling the way she does. But with the research I've done, I just cannot, in good conscience, feed my animals something that I don't feel is the best nourishment for their bodies."

The Knowledge and Communication Gap Around Emerging Fresh Pet Food Trends is Damaging Veterinarian-Client Relationships

Fresh food is the fastest growing segment of the pet food market, but unfortunately, it's one of several types of so-called "alternative" diets most veterinarians know little or nothing about. This is what our CANWI SPAN program is designed to address: the huge gap between what pet parents are learning on their own about small animal nutrition and what veterinary staffs are willing and able to discuss with their clients.

In the case of Morgan's veterinarian, her lack of knowledge and refusal to discuss fresh food diets has damaged her relationship with her client. She doesn't understand why Morgan is making the nutrition decisions she's making because she didn't learn anything about them in veterinary school. This is the gap we want our SPAN program to bridge.

The excuse my peers in the veterinary community use is that they didn't graduate from veterinary school being fresh-food literate. They don't have the tools, the resources or the knowledge base to carry on an intelligent conversation, so they don't engage. But by not engaging, they're not building confidence.

They're not building trust. They're not building client relationships. Above all, it's not supportive to the animals involved because veterinarians can't, won't or don't engage with this category of pet food because they weren't trained. The goal of our SPAN program is to provide a training platform so vet students and vet tech students can receive the unbiased nutrition information they need to have the kinds of unbiased, balanced conversations Morgan and so many of you out there have gone without.

Many thanks to both Morgan and Sharon for being so transparent with us today. I think their words will resonate with so many people watching this interview. Our goal in sharing this information is to advance the cause of more education and good communication around small animal nutrition, and better client-veterinarian relationships as a result.

Dr. Raditic and I invite you to join us in supporting this important work with a donation to CANWI, either online through PayPal or via the mail. We can't do it without you. Thank you!

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