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How Reactive Medicine Can Make a Bad Situation Worse

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

conventional veterinary medicine

Story at-a-glance -

  • Entirely too often, when young pets are presented to a veterinarian for digestive issues, the treatment they receive is more harmful than helpful
  • Many pets today have food intolerances at an early age, yet identifying those intolerances is rarely addressed in conventional veterinary practices
  • If you have a young pet who develops ongoing diarrhea, for example, consider refusing antibiotics and a processed prescription diet, and instead, ask your vet to test for food intolerances, or alternatively, do it yourself
  • Pets with identified food intolerances often benefit from a temporary novel diet, followed by a slow re-introduction of a broader range of proteins and carbohydrates

Recently, my colleague Dr. Jean Dodds published a NutriScan case study of an Australian Shepherd named Cinch who developed severe diarrhea at the age of 18 months.1 Before Dr. Dodds got involved, the dog was put through the usual conventional veterinary “standard of treatment” ringer, which I know will feel familiar to many of you reading here today.

For the record, Dr. Dodds passed no judgment in her published case study on the treatment the dog received before she got involved — but I think it’s important that pet owners learn to discern good medicine from guessing, for the sake of improving the health of our patients as quickly as possible.

A Textbook Example of How Guessing at a Diagnosis Can Make a Bad Situation Worse

Cinch’s owner took him to a veterinarian who guessed based on his symptoms that the dog had eaten something he shouldn’t have and prescribed two antibiotics. Cinch immediately improved, however, when the 10-day prescriptions ran out, the diarrhea returned.

Most of you know I’m not a fan of wantonly prescribing antibiotics without knowing if they are required to treat an identified infection (in this case, a Diarrhea Panel from a national veterinary lab would have identified if there was a treatable gastrointestinal infection present before the administration of unnecessary antibiotics).

A second veterinarian took an x-ray, but it turned up nothing, so Cinch was put on a canned prescription diet for gastrointestinal (GI) health. The morning after he started his new “treatment,” the dog pooped “straight, bright red blood and grass” per Dr. Dodds. It seems that whenever Cinch ate something that didn’t agree with him, he was driven to ingest lots of grass, to the point that he would wake his owner up in the middle of night to take him outside so he could eat more.

Vet number two’s answer was to put the dog on a different prescription diet designed to “treat” food sensitivities and intolerances. However, every time Cinch’s owner tried to give him a different food, the diarrhea returned, so she was advised (by vet number two, I assume) to keep him on the second prescription diet “forever until it did not work.”

At some point during this medical misadventure, further tests were finally recommended (endoscopy), and Cinch was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Although this expensive diagnostic test revealed inflammation in the GI tract, it didn’t identify why the inflammation was present.

It Was Up to the Dog’s Owner to Find the Root Cause of the Problem

Fortunately for Cinch, his owner wasn’t a fan of the prescription diet he was to stay on “forever,” so she visited a third veterinarian who recommended a freeze-dried beef-based raw diet. Cinch did extremely well on that diet, but his smart owner wanted to take things a step further and nail down exactly what food sensitivities he had.

That’s where Dr. Dodds’ food sensitivity test came into play. Thankfully, this dog’s owner discovered what many functional medicine veterinarians also know; this non-invasive, comparatively inexpensive diagnostic test is a smart (hopefully first) step in identifying the cause of a pet’s GI problems.

Cinch’s NutriScan panel showed he had sensitivities to corn, chicken, duck, cow’s milk, turkey, venison, wheat, white fish, barley, quinoa, and rabbit. The test results verified that the dog had no problem with beef, and his owner decided to leave him on the freeze-dried diet.

Eventually, she switched Cinch to a fresh raw beef diet to help him gain weight, and according to Dr. Dodds, he continues to do very well and hasn’t had any further bouts of diarrhea.

Why Insisting on a Diagnosis Is So Important

We’ll never know whether Cinch had GI inflammation due to his food sensitivities, or whether the IBD was the result of the antibiotics he was prescribed that disrupted his microbiome, creating dysbiosis, coupled with the first prescription diet that contained ingredients his GI tract couldn’t tolerate, coupled with weeks or months of cumulative damage to his digestive system.

Not confirming the presence of an actual infection before prescribing not one, but two antibiotics often means further GI trauma. This continues to be a common practice in conventional veterinary practices, despite the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, and the fact that antibiotics have long-lasting side effects on the gut’s microbiota.

Not confirming what foods Cinch was sensitive to before putting him on the first prescription diet resulted overnight in poop full of bright red blood and a miserable patient. This is a common scenario for many animals; unknowingly cycling through pro-inflammatory foods that exacerbate their GI symptoms.

Fortunately, Cinch’s owner was an empowered pet parent and sought out more answers than she was getting, so she ordered a NutriScan panel from Dr. Dodds. Ideally this recommendation would have been at the top of the first veterinarian’s list of suggested diagnostics, which would have saved this dog months of unnecessary suffering.

When Your Pet’s Diet is Probably the Problem

Pets fed the same food day in and day out for a period of months or years often develop a sensitivity to the protein source. But grains and vegetables can also be culprits. If the food is made from inexpensive feed-grade raw materials (the vast majority of pet food) and highly processed (the vast majority of kibble has been cooked 4 times before reaching the bag), chances are the meat can be loaded with advanced glycation end products, antibiotics and hormones, which can also cause the immune system to overreact.

These pets also often grow sensitive to reactive ingredients in the food, typically grains and other refined carbohydrates. Many grains have been genetically modified and sprayed with glyphosates, which can compromise your pet’s gut barrier and contribute to leaky gut.

The first thing I recommend for animals over the age of 12 months who I suspect are dealing with a food sensitivity is a NutriScan saliva test. If the first thing your own veterinarian recommends is antibiotics and/or a processed prescription diet, I suggest you order a NutriScan test instead.

I also suggest finding an integrative or holistic veterinarian who will work with you to find the root cause of your pet’s condition and develop a customized healing protocol. The NutriScan panel tests for 24 purified food extracts that recognize 56 food ingredients:

Beef (bison, buffalo)

Chicken (chicken fat, necks, flavorings)

Millet

Soy (soy isoflavones)

Pork (pork fat)

Rabbit

Venison (deer, elk, treats/chews)

Barley (barley water)

Rice

Sweet potatoes (yams)

Salmon (salmon oil)

Quinoa

Hen eggs (fertilized hen eggs)

Wheat (wheat germ meal)

Potatoes

Oatmeal

Lamb (lamb dairy, goat, goat dairy)

Lentils (peas, pea fiber, pea protein)

Corn (cornstarch, corn gluten meal)

Turkey (turkey necks, turkey fat)

Peanuts (peanut oil)

Cow milk (cow dairy)

Duck (duck fat)

White-colored fish (white-colored fish oils, herring, sardines, tuna)

As was the case with Cinch, NutriScan test results can often identify the specific ingredient(s) in your pet's food that are causing a problem, which makes it much easier to customize a diet to resolve the issue.

Novel Diets for Pets With Food Sensitivities

When an animal is having a reaction to something in her diet, her body needs a break from that food. After determining a pet’s food sensitivities with a NutriScan test, my recommendation is to introduce a novel diet to promote healing. This means transitioning your pet to a different food containing ingredients her body isn't familiar with.

It's very important that all reactive foods be avoided for at least several months. Oftentimes animals experience a reaction to both the primary protein and carbohydrate sources in their diet. In addition to avoiding all reactive foods, it's important to reduce or eliminate any “filler ingredients” (as well as synthetic nutrients) that can play a role in food sensitivities and inflammatory conditions.

I also believe pets with food intolerances do best on a very low-starch diet. Starch (aka soluble carbohydrates) are pro-inflammatory to the body and can exacerbate GI inflammation. Microbiome expert Dr. Holly Gantz has also seen beneficial changes in pets’ microbiomes when excessive carbs are reduced.

Until new labeling standards are fully in effect, pet food manufacturers aren’t required to list carbohydrate content on their labels, so you have to calculate it yourself. It's worth taking the time to do this before choosing a novel diet (less than 20% carb content is the goal).

Returning Your Pet to a Regular Diet

A pet with food sensitivities should remain on a novel diet for a minimum of 2 months and preferably 3, to allow the body time to clear out the allergenic substances and begin the detoxification process.

During this 3-month period I also typically address dysbiosis (leaky gut syndrome, which results from the inflammatory response in the GI tract) with the appropriate probiotics, microbiome restorative therapy and nutraceuticals necessary to address the root cause of the problem.

Because each case of food intolerance is unique, again, I recommend a custom formulated protocol created by an integrative or holistic veterinarian. Once a patient has completed 2 to 3 months on a novel diet, other foods are slowly reintroduced one at a time, and the animal's response is closely monitored.

Some pets show dramatic improvement on the new diet, and in those cases, I often don't rush the reintroduction of food that could be problematic. When the animal is stable and doing well, I encourage pet parents to find at least 1 and preferably 2 other protein sources their pet tolerates well so that every 3 to 6 months, they can rotate proteins and hopefully avoid further intolerances.

In addition, I believe the “cleaner” the proteins, the less chance your pet will become sensitive to them over time. Clean animal proteins are non-toxic. For example, food animals raised on a natural diet (grass-fed, not factory farmed), as well as hormone-free animals, are better food sources for sensitive pets.

+ Sources and References