What should I feed my pet?

What is the best food to feed my pet?

As a veterinarian for non-profit organizations, I am asked this question often. This article will tell you exactly how to go about picking a quality pet food without becoming victim to pet food store employees hype or expensive boutique pet food company’s marketing, and will dispel the myths that exist about pet food. 

What I am about to share with you is the culmination of my knowledge of 35 years as a passionate animal lover and advocate who went to veterinary school and took every nutrition class available to me.

The information here also reflects on going discussions I am having with many veterinarians as we face the myths, science, marketing and consumer biases surrounding pet food. It is a frustrating topic for us to deal with, because there is so much information we want our pet owners to have, but no good way of providing it in a short appointment time.

My goal is to educate the public to ensure pets are given the care they need, and avoid entry into the shelter system with expensive and preventable diseases. I strive to make pet ownership as affordable as possible because financial problems are a big reason many animals end up with me in the shelter.

I make no profit from any pet food. The information I provide is non-biased. There is this myth that all veterinarians get a few cents every time a bag of a certain brand sells (I will not mention any brands in this article). I have never seen a single check from a pet food company.

There is also a myth that veterinarians are not well educated in pet nutrition, and we get all of our training from the big pet food companies. This is false. Not only did I take multiple animal nutrition courses before entering veterinary school in order to receive a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Animal Science from UC Davis prior to entering veterinary school. Once in veterinary school at UC Davis, I completed several classes in nutrition.

In addition, most classes that were not specifically nutrition classes, such as feline medicine, canine medicine, internal medicine, dermatology, emergency and critical care, oncology, nephrology, cardiology etc… also focused a great deal on nutrition topics. This is because nutrition is the foundation of many treatment plans for animals. 

Our nutrition instructors in veterinary school were either Diplomats of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition or Residents hoping to become a Diplomat. These are animal lovers that usually complete a 4 year college program, 4 years in veterinary school, went on to complete 1-2 years of an internship and then were accepted into a 2-3 year nutrition residency. They do this because they love animals, love nutrition and love science and want to increase the body of knowledge that exists for animal nutrition. These people are hard-core. They do research, write scientific papers, and council pet owners about nutrition on a daily bases.

If your opinion can’t be influenced by the work of passionate boarded specialists doing peer reviewed international scientific research, then really, whose opinion do you consider more valid?

It may be true that decades ago, much of pet nutrition information given to veterinary students was taught by pet food companies. Historically, pet food companies have used their money and influence to manipulate research. Are there some corporate shills? They exist in every endeavor, but overall, knowing the many passionate specialists I do, I know they are independent minded people, passionate about animals and passionate about adding to the knowledge base in order to improve the lives and welfare of animals. 

Not only do we get extensive training in nutrition, once we graduate, we are bombarded all day long, from all directions by nutrition. Every pet owner who walks through the door, all of our friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances want us to answer this one question “what should I feed my pet?” And they always ask us this in passing, like its something we can answer in 30 seconds.

Instead of trying to answer this question quickly, I am going to refer anyone who asks me about pet food to this very article.

Every pet has their own individual dietary needs, especially if there are underlying medical conditions: itchiness, obesity, IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), urinary problems, kidney disease,  diabetes etc… It is best to consult with the veterinarian treating your pet, and let them advise you about the best food for your pet based on their medical conditions. However, this article will provide you with a foundation to understand why your veterinarian is making the recommendations that they do. 

You might also want to refer to the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) Nutritional Assessment Guidelines that veterinarians use to make dietary recommendations for pets. 

#1 Most Important Rule: Beware of lists that exist on the internet that rank pet food. 

Do not trust internet pet food ranking lists that base their recommendations on the ingredient list. This is not a good way to assess whether a particular pet food is right for your pet. One well known internet list was made by a human dentist who was not formally trained in animal nutrition. He ranks dog food based on what pet food marketers found were important factors for their customers. Marketing research has shown most important thing pet owners look for when making a diet choice was what was on the ingredient list, and this is not an appropriate way to choose a diet.

A diet can have a fantastic looking ingredient list, but can still be a very inappropriate diet and result in vitamin/mineral imbalances, gastrointestinal upset and overall poor health. You need a diet that has undergone diet trials and has a long track record of being fed to thousands if not millions of pets. 

At the non-profits I have worked for, we receive discounts and donations of “premium” brand pet foods from high end pet food stores. These diets ranked very high on the internet lists of “best dog foods.” Despite the ranking, some of our shelter animals did very poorly on these diets.

The young ones were not growing appropriately, and high rates of vomiting and diarrhea. We would switch the animals who were doing poorly on it to a diet I know that was formulated by veterinary nutritionists, passed AAFCO feeding trials and has a great track record in the veterinary community and has been feed to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pets. This diet is not ranked very high on the internet lists, but I know from my work in the veterinary medicine, how well it works for animals that are not growing well and have diarrhea because I have seen the results in my patients, and I saw the results in these shelter animals. 

Pet food companies know some customers want an ingredient list that shows real meat and “natural” ingredients. "Premium" and boutique pet food companies cater to this, and pet food sales people also play up this angle to sell the most high profit margin foods. While this simple way of choosing a pet food may seem appealing, it is not the best way to choose a diet for your pet.

Some of this focus on ingredients stems from the pet food recalls of 2007. Unscrupulous raw material providers, not the pet food manufacturers themselves, intentionally adulterated ingredients by adding melamine and cyanuric acid to raise the perceived protein levels in their vegetable proteins. At that time, members of the pet food industry, did not test for melamine and cyanic acid, and trusted their suppliers to provide the correct ingredients. Now every pet food manufacturer tests for these contaminants as well as others, so this problem is no longer an issue.

The legal definition of “natural” according to Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is “…derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.” All commercial diets are processed, so I would not put too much value in any diet labeled “natural.” This term alone does not make one diet any better than another.

The most "natural" diet for a dog or cat is to kill its prey, eat it whole, reproduce at a young age and die off at a young age so as not to take resources from the younger, healthier generation. I certainly do not want that kind of "natural existence" for my pets. I want my pets to lay on the couch, not reproduce, and live a long healthy life. Do not fall victim to the naturalistic or appeal to nature fallacy that permeates the pet food industry. 

How ingredient lists work

Lists of ingredients are ordered by weight. Every pet food company pads their ingredient list to make certain ingredients move up or down the list to appeal to consumer wants of a “natural” looking ingredient list. Animal protein is expensive, so to make animal protein jump up on the list they have several other ingredients, so they can say “beef is the #1 ingredient!”

Beware of Marketing Ploys

“Premium” refers to the price pet owners are willing to pay, and not necessarily the quality of the food.

Higher profit margin food are distributed to boutique pet food stores, but these diets are not necessarily better for your pet. People attach emotional value to where they shop. Companies target these consumer desires via different distribution channels for different types of pet food shoppers. There are those shoppers who get their pet food on sale at the grocery store, and those who would never dream of doing that and feel better about their purchase if it is made at a higher cost at a boutique pet store. This same phenomena is true of coffee, ice cream and clothing. 

Paying more for pet food does not mean you love your pet any more. 

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

Choose a food that says on the label it is “complete and balanced…” for a given life-stage (growth, adult maintenance, or both). Do not feed a diet that says “for supplemental or intermittent feeding.” Many treats are labeled as “for supplemental or intermittent feeding” to inform customers that it is intended to be feed as a treat and not as the complete diet.

However, there are many foods out there, such as one famous canned diet brand that looks like a regular diet but on the label it says “for supplemental or intermittent feeding.” You want to keep these foods to less than 10% of the total diet so as not to disrupt the nutrient balance of your pet’s overall diet.

Food Allergies

In dogs, the most common food allergens are beef, dairy, wheat, chicken and egg. In cats, the most common food allergens are beef, dairy and fish.

Here is a great article about why you should not rely on over the counter pet foods and blood testing to determine your pet’s food allergy. 

AAFCO: the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

Pet food companies can get at AAFCO approved nutritional adequacy statement of “complete and balanced…” by either generating a diet formula on a computer to make sure that it meets the established nutrient requirements, or they can go an extra step and then feed the diet to a group of animals in a controlled environment to ensure nutritional adequacy before being sold. Diets that have been formulated by computer are labeled as “formulated to meet the needs.”

Diets that have actually undergone testing in a controlled environment to ensure nutritional adequacy before being sold for feeding to other dogs and cats are labeled as have had undergone “feeding trials.” The feeding trials are not very demanding. Just 8 animals, 6 months and they must pass basic physical exam and blood work parameters. That being said, even though its not much, if a pet food has not even bothered to do a feeding trial, I have a hard time trusting it, I do not want my dog to be the one on the feeding trial. 

 I trust diets that have a long track record, are formulated by veterinary nutritionists and have been feed to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pets.  


By-products can actually be good and necessary for your pet. By-products are the nutrient dense glands, organs, sinew, bone and cartilage that humans usually don’t eat. Those treats of pig ears, bully sticks (which are penises), hooves, tracheas etc… are all by-products. Just feeding your pet white muscle meat means that they are not getting the vitamins and minerals they would normally get if they ate the whole animal. 

The specific definition of “meat by-products” is “the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially de-fatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs.” 

There is also this myth that anything labeled “meat” could be road-kill, horse etc… and that just isn’t true. AAFCO has a specific definition for “meat” it must be from cattle, pigs, goats or sheep. Any other animal such as venison or poultry must be labeled as such.

Corn and Grain Free Foods

Pet food companies are capitalizing on the popularity of paleo diet, fear of GMO corn and gluten. In an effort to set their brands apart from larger pet food companies, boutique and "premium" pet food companies are advertising their products as “corn and grain free.” This leads consumers into believing there is something wrong with feeding diets that contain corn and grain.

These companies are not trying to help pets, they are trying to profit from consumer fear and ignorance on the subject.

  • True, corn and wheat are potential allergens, in a small percentage of pets as the chart above shows. However, beef is a far more common allergen and yet the public is not as horrified by feeding their pets beef as feeding corn or wheat. Some humans have a peanut allergy, but the rest of us are not running around afraid of peanuts.

Corn and grains are nutritious sources of carbohydrates. Corn is a good source of essential nutrients such as linoleic acid (LA, the essential omega-6 fatty acid). They aren’t just “cheap fillers” as some claim. However, now even legitimate pet food companies have to offer a “grain-free” or “holistic” line to appeal to the biases of the consumer, so the myth that corn and grain are bad is further perpetuated. 

Corn and wheat are less expensive pet food ingredients, but that does not make them inherently bad. They have been used successfully in dog foods for 100 years and cat food for the past 50 years. Years of digestibility and nutrient data support their use in pet food. Avoiding these ingredients does not result in any health benefits unless your pet has a documented allergy to these ingredients.

Less expensive ingredients mean the barriers to pet ownership are lowered, more people are able to afford keeping pets, and hopefully this will mean more pets adopted from shelters! The more expensive pet foods often means owners are sometimes spending double or triple what they would normally spend on food. I would argue those funds are better spent on things like pet insurance, and working less so you can enjoy more time with your pet.

While some canids may not have ingested corn in the wild, if you walk the trails around here, you will find some coyote poop with corn in it. Either they are eating it directily from the corn fields, getting it from eating squirrels and such that they eat who ate the corn. In fact, dogs did evolve to digest starch. 

Grain free diets can be problematic, because they are so dense calorically and highly digestible, it is easy to over feed and pets often become overweight on these diets.

If your pet is overweight, you can start by cutting back the diet by 20%, and re-weiging your pet every 2 weeks, aiming for 1-2% reduction in body weight per week. However, there is a risk that your pet may not be getting the vitamins, minerals and nutrients they need if you cut back the diet too much. In that case, a prescription weight loss diets may be needed to provide the vitamins and nutrients your pet needs but with fewer calories. 

Now, high corn diets may provide too much LA and not enough alpha-linolenic (ALA, the essential omega-3 fatty acid), however, the new 2017 AAFCO nutrient requirements are now including ALA. Flax seed, for example, is a good source of ALA. While many dogs do just fine with LA, some dogs do better on diets that have a more balance LA:ALA ratio. With a higher ALA, you might see decreased stool production, shinier coat and less shedding in some pets. This is not because corn is bad, it is just not optimal for that individual.

Some dogs may experience more gastric upset and diarrhea on grain-free diets. 

Dogs who experience fiber-responsive colitis and do better on a higher fiber diet. Grain free diets substitute other carbohydrates such as potato, tapioca and pea which do not have the same amount of research proving digestibility as wheat, corn, barley and rice. As a result, some dogs may have a bacterial dysbiosis caused by maldigestion and fermentation of these carbohydrate sources. 

Grain Free Diets and Heart Disease

In 2017 we began noticing a spate of dogs diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart that causes the muscles to enlarge and make it more difficult for the heart to pump. Usually, this is a genetic condition, but the newly diagnosed dogs did not have this condition in their heritage. They did have one thing in common though. They were all on grain free or exotic meat commercial dog foods with limited ingredients containing potatoes, peas, legumes or lentils. Families with multiple dogs all fed the same diet were being diagnosed and dying of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). 

The FDA posted an alert about the problem on July 12, 2018.

Signs of DCM include exercise intolerance, cough, labored breathing and collapse. 

Research is still ongoing regarding the exact cause of the cases of DCM in dogs feed these exotic, boutique grain-free foods. 

This is a fantastic article written by Dr. Lisa Freeman, a veterinary nutritionist and professor at The Cumming’s School of Veterinary Medicine at Tuft’s University. I encourage everyone considering a boutique diet to carefully consider this article. 

Is there horse meat, euthanized pets or road-kill in my pet food?

Many caring pet owners feed home prepared diets to their pets because they heard that pet food companies use horse meat, euthanized pets and road-kill in their diets. 

Most recently in February 2017, one pet food company was involved in a recall because pentobarbital, the drug used in euthanized animals was found in their food. 

There was an FDA report in 2000 that documented trace amounts of barbiturates in pet food. The public, and bloggers immediately assumed pet food companies were using euthanized animals in their pet food.

It is illegal to include dog and cat meat in dog and cat food. If any company were foolish enough to do this they would have to list canine meat or feline meat on the ingredients list. If any company chose to do so illegally they would face hefty fines. While this sort of thing may have happened 20-30 years ago, it is not likely happening today.

The FDA report shows that dogs and cats are not included in pet foods based on DNA analysis. So, it is thought that the barbiturate came from cattle or horse meat. It is illegal to use animals euthanized by barbiturates in pet food.

Using euthanized animals in pet food has a lot of disadvantages. Its not a reliable or consistent product, only a small quantity is available for use, it is a public relations nightmare, and many pet food manufacturing companies owners and employees are pet owners and would not condone this practice. Pet food companies are legally required to list their ingredients on the label and there is no evidence that they are ignoring this requirement and opting to use euthanized pets or roadkill. The Pet Food Institute, an industry lobby which represents the manufacturers of  ~98% of commercial pet foods, specifically prohibits rendered pet ingredients in their members’ products.


 Pet owners are concerned about the use of non-organic or GMO corn in their pet food. GMO corn has gene for resistance to glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) to allow farmers to spray for weeds without killing the corn. Many are worried that the RoundUp sprayed GMO corn will be harmful to people or pets. In response to this fear, organic products have risen in popularity. However, organic labeled products have not been shown to be any safer.

Many believe that organic farming does not use pesticides or herbicides. In fact, there are more than 3000 pesticides approved for use in organic farming and many are more toxic than glyphosate. Many of these chemicals are neurotoxins requiring a “danger” label. 

Chemicals approved for use in organic farming must come from a natural source. The public is under the assumption that natural products are somehow safer than man-made products, but this is not always the case. Man-made chemicals are not more dangerous than naturally derived chemicals. The natural compounds approved for use in organic farming are not actually safer and many have not been tested to pass health and environmental safety requirements. 

Organic foods also are not tested for toxic levels of pesticide residues. While the risks of eating conventional foods are known, the risks of eating organic foods with the chemicals they use, are unknown.

Copper sulfate is one of the most popular pesticides used in organic farming and it is more toxic than glyphosate. In reality, the toxicity of glyphosate is much lower than the levels of any of the "natural" herbicides approved for organic use, and far below the levels of natural pesticides produced by most plants themselves.

    One way to compare toxicity of chemicals is by the LD50, also known as the median lethal dose. The LD50 is the dose required to kill 50% of the members of a population. The LD50 for glyphosate is 5600 mg/kg and is considered “slightly toxic”, while the LD50 for copper sulfate, the common chemical used in organic farming is 300mg/kg and considered “very toxic”.

    Some choose organic believing that it is better for the environment. That has been shown not to be true either. The pesticides used in organic farming are harmful to the environment and organic farms produce less food per unit of land than conventional farming. Each acre of organic farm land only produces 50-80% what a conventional farm produces. It is not an efficient way to feed the world’s growing population, and it leads to the destruction of wildlife habits and poses a threat to endangered species. 


Veterinarians often see pets who are experiencing complications from their owners trying to keep their pets healthy by feeding a raw or homemade diet. Raw diets put pets at risk for salmonella, campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium spp., enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli infections. A myth exists that pets are not susceptible to disease from these pathogenic organisms. Let me assure you that they most certainly are put at risk by these pathogens! Problems with nutritional imbalances as well as foreign body obstructions from eating raw bones can also occur.

A 2 year study by the FDA from 2012 showed that 16% of commercial raw food diets were contaminated with listeria, and more than 7% were contaminated with salmonella. 

Human family members are also put at risk when owners feed these diets. As the animal eats pathogenic bacteria are spread across the floor and feeding areas and pets shed the pathogenic bacteria in their feces. 

Due to the frequent problems veterinarians are seeing from raw food diets, The American Animal Hospital Associationthe American Veterinary Medical Association , the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association have all adopted statements discouraging raw diets.

Consumers are under the impression that packaged raw diets available from the store are safe. In one study, 4 of 60 raw diets tested positive for salmonella, none of the raw diets tested in this study had undergone feeding trials.

Another raw meat diet for zoo animals was tested and found to be contaminated with salmonella. Many minerals present in the diet did not match the label, and copper and manganese concentrations exceeded the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) recommendations for adult cats.

In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sampled a commercial raw diet. These samples tested positive for salmonella. In their response letter to the FDA, this company claimed that it was acceptable that their food contained salmonella, and they did not need to do any microbial testing of their diets because of the fermentation process they used. Many months after the salmonella testing, no recall was ever issued by the company.

All reputable pet food companies test every batch of food for Salmonella and other microorganisms. Preferred companies even swab and culture the environment (equipment, floors, walls, storage bins, etc.). These pathogens are very difficult to control and it takes a great deal of investment and resources to keep it out of the final product.

One report showed 30% of fecal samples from dogs fed a raw food diet tested positive for salmonella. While some dogs may be assymptomatic while harboring a salmonella infection, common clinical signs include fever, lethargy, anorexia, dehydration, diarrhea (mucous or bloody), tenesmus (straining to defecate), weight loss, and abdominal pain. Pregnant dogs may abort, or give birth to stillborns. Some dogs become septic and endotoxic and become pale, and may go into collapse and shock. Pets shedding salmonella in their feces put human family members at risk, especially the young, old and immunocompromised. 

Campylobacter is another pathogen found in raw animal products that can lead to disease in pets as well as humans. Campylobacter can cause gastrointestinal disease and diarrhea and can survive in feces for 3 days. Higher rates of Campylobacter have been found in animals fed home cooked diets and table scraps.

Many pet owners have a distrust of commercial pet food companies because of the media reports of recalls and contamination, especially the 2007 recalls discussed earlier. Many opt to prepare home cooked diets for their pets. Unfortunately, pets have different nutritional requirements than humans and this often leads to nutritional imbalances. Top nutritional problems caused by home cooked diets include rickets, pancreatitis, and nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism.

In cases of nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, the clinical signs include reluctance to move, abnormal gait, lameness, periosteal pain (i.e. pain upon palpation of bones), loose teeth, difficulty chewing food, constipation, dysphagia (difficulty eating), stranguria (abnormal urination), muscle tremors, weakness, posterior paresis, seizures and pathologic fractures of the spine. 

One of the many examples of nutritional deficiency occurred in German Shepherd puppies fed raw meat and steamed rice and resulted in limb deformities.

Another related condition is “rubber jaw syndrome”  where deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D cause facial swelling due to bone resorption in the skull. 

Pancreatitis can occur in certain dogs that are fed a diet that is too high in fat.

If you do want to feed your pet a homemade diet, be sure that you have your diet evaluated or formulated by a veterinary nutritionist. You can check out www.balanceit.com as well as the UC Davis Nutrition Service. They will properly supplement your diet so your pet does not suffer any nutritional deficiencies or excesses. 

Many feel that their pets have better dental health on a home prepared diet. This has been shown not to be true. In fact, one study showed pets were more likely to have dental disease when fed a home prepared diet than when fed a commercial diet. 

One of these boutique pet food companies actually used a dog in their before and after pictures that was diagnosed by my colleague as having demodex, pyoderma and a yeast infection. The dog looked horrible before, patchy hairloss, dull haircoat, and after the medications to treat the demodex, and skin infections the dog looked much better. This company used this dog as an example of how the diet helped, but made no mention of the previous disease and medications used to treat it! The dog would have likely looked better on any commercial diet, the boutique pet food had nothing to do with the results.

How much to feed

Pet food labels are just a guideline for how much to feed your pet and the Calorie requirements for an individual animal of the same weight can range anywhere from 500-1500 calories a day. 

The label cannot give a range that will work for every animal, but it is a place to start. 

The best thing to do is to keep track of your pet’s body condition score (BCS). Take a look at this chart  and see what your pet’s BCS is.

Bottom line

There are an estimated 300-400 new pet food companies created every year. These new pet food companies that popping up are trying to find a niche of pet owners to market to, claims of “natural” “organic” “premium” and “grain free” appeal to consumers desires of what they want to feed their families. Americans spend more than $22 billion on pet food and everyone is trying to get a piece of that market.

Some companies can make you feel like a really conscientious, caring pet owner because you are buying their food. As if your pet is going to live a long, cancer free life with a gorgeous shiny coat, pearly white teeth and minty fresh breath. 

There is no data to support the claims made by these "premium" or boutique  pet food companies. Some have been subjected to pet food recalls, some are in denial about the risks microbial pathogens place, and some sell to too small a population for too short of a period of time to see the potential negative effects of their diets. If you want to ensure that you are feeding the safest, healthiest diet, then feed a diet formulated by veterinary nutritionists that has undergone AAFCO feeding trials and has a long track record of being fed to a large population of animals. 

Understanding Pet Store Philosophies

There is a growing chain of high end pet food stores in my area that has a philosophy of not carrying foods that contain ingredients such as unspecified animal by-product, animal fat, meat & bone meal, artificial colors, artificial flavors, BHT, BHA or propyleneglycol. They also believe the less processing a food has undergone, the higher nutritional value it retains. Now, avoiding artificial colors and flavors is fine if that is what you want, nearly all pet foods nowadays avoid those, not that there is anything inherently wrong with something just because its “artificial” just like there is nothing inherently good about something just because it is “natural.”

Banning foods that contain these “suspect ingredients,” as they call them, does not ensure nutritional value or indicate the quality of the foods they have available. In fact, it removes some of the best, most time tested and researched diets on the market. These criteria do not mean you are getting the better, healthier choice in foods. 

Lets just explore the reasons they do not want each of these products in the pet food they sell, and why these might be misguided.

First, they do not want unspecified animal by-product and by-product meal in their foods. They claim that the proportion of intestines, organs, heads, feet and bones and the species of animals may vary too much from batch to batch and may cause digestive upset. Likewise, consider “animal fat” a suspect ingredient for the same reasons and claim that since it may come from slaughterhouse waste, grocery store fat trimmings that are inedible for human consumption, and recycled restaurant grease, the variability in the sourcing of ingredients may cause digestive problems.

However, animal fat is a very important ingredient in pet food. There is no evidence that different sources of fat can cause digestive problems. It is ironic that they worry so much about the digestive problems caused by variable sources, but are not at all concerned about the high rates of pathogens such as listeria and salmonella in the raw diets they sell (remember 16% of commercial raw food diets were contaminated with listeria, and more than 7% were contaminated with salmonella in the 2012 FDA study).

They also do not sell foods that contain butylhydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylhydroxytoluene (BHT) which are food preservatives. They claim this is because BHA has been shown to cause cancer and BHT may become toxic, or result in toxic combinations when mixed with other substances. The studies showing that these compounds are potentially dangerous, were performed on high quantities of these preservatives. 

There was a post going around Facebook a while ago that Milk-Bones caused cancer in pets due to BHA. This has been proven to be false. Many years of research has shown BHA to be safe in both human and animal food products. 

An improperly preserved pet food may become rancid more rapidly and lose nutritional value, leading to an overgrowth of fungus or bacteria and thus becoming more of an immediate problem than a diet that contains these preservatives. Nowadays though, very few diets contain these compounds due to consumer concerns.

If You Suspect a Bad Pet Food

If you notice your pet food has a foul odor, or is discolored, the can or pouch is swollen or leaking, or if your pet becomes ill while feeding the food you can report it to the FDA.

You can also view a list of recalled pet foods

Characteristics of a good diet

Formulated by veterinary nutritionists

Tested via AAFCO Feeding Trials

Batches and facilities tested for pathogens

Fed to a large number of pets 

Is an appropriate diet for your pet based on their current and ongoing medical conditions

Characteristics of a more expensive, but not necessarily better diet



Corn and Grain-Free


“meat” as the first ingredient

Premium human grade ingredients. 

You can often email pet food companies and ask them questions about their diets. This is a good list of questions from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association compiled to ask any pet food manufacturer.

1. Do you employ a full time qualified nutritionist (Appropriate qualifications are either a PhD in animal nutrition or board-certification by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) or the European College ofVeterinary Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN)). What is this nutritionist’s name and qualifications?

2. Who formulates your foods and what are his/her credentials?

3. Are your diets tested using AAFCO feeding trials or by,formulation to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles. If the latter, do they meet AAFCO nutrient profiles by formulation or by analysis of the finished product. 

4. Where are your foods produced and manufactured? 

5. What specific quality control measures do you use to assure the consistency and quality of your ingredients and the end product? 

6. Will you provide a complete nutrient analysis in metabolizable energy (kcal/gm) of a specific diet when requested? 

7. What kind of product research has been conducted? Are the results published in peer-reviewed journals? 


Some great articles and websites about pet food

Weeth Nutrition 

Dr. Andy Roark: The Biggest Myths About Vets and Nutrition



What To Do When Your Pet Is Itching And You’ve Tried Everything!

An itchy pet can be frustrating for both the owner and the pet.

    I rescued a particularly itchy cat who had scratched herself until she bled. Her owners ended up abandoning her at the dermatologist’s office. I took her home and managed her pruritus (medical term for itchiness) which was likely due to allergies and obsessive compulsive behavior. I won’t judge her previous owner’s reasons for abandoning her. Pruritus can be frustrating and expensive to treat. No doubt, many pets end up in the shelter due to unmanageable itchiness. But, if you know the correct way to approach it, you will end up saving time and money.

    I had a client bring in her nearly hairless dog, who’s skin was red and bleeding in areas from severe itching. She had tried everything, she said… except seeing a veterinarian. This dog had been treated with coconut oil, raw food, diatomaceous earth, itchy dog supplements, homeopathy, benadryl, Vetricyn (which is basically diluted bleach)… Nothing worked. After the severe the pyoderma (skin infection) and underlying allergies were taken care of, the dog was like a new puppy again.

    Don’t become a victim of fancy marketing schemes and sales people. Many companies have come out with a variety of products directed to itchy pets. The problem is, if you don’t know why your pet is itching, these products may only have limited benefit. Many of the products on the market don’t work at all (if they do “work” it is likely your pet’s itchiness went away on its own). This is because Itchiness isn’t a disease in itself. Sometimes, it may appear that your pet becomes less itchy on a particular product for a while and then it stops working, and you have to find something else, because the underlying cause of the itching has not been addressed. 

How To Find Out Why Your Pet Is Scratching

    Common causes of scratching include ectoparasites (fleas, lice, mites etc…), bacterial or fungal infections and allergies. In order to determine what is the cause, your veterinarian will look carefully at your pet’s coat and then likely take some samples of the hair and skin and look under the microscope to look for mites, bacteria or yeast. Sometimes, samples will have to be sent to the laboratory for culture or histopathology. 

Possible Diagnosis And Treatment Options

A dog with demodex, from http://www.leicesterskinvet.com

A dog with demodex, from http://www.leicesterskinvet.com

Demodex Mites

   This is a common problem in young dogs, but can be a problem in older dogs as well. In healthy dogs, small numbers of D. canis mites are normal in dogs, but large numbers causing itching and hairless is abnormal. There is likely a genetic or immunological cause of this disease, as it is a common disease in Shar peis, Pit Bulls, Boston Terriers, English Bulldogs, West Highland Terriers, Old English Sheepdogs and German shorthaired pointers. Because of this genetic predisposition, any dog with demodicosis should not be bred. These mites are not considered contagious. 

Demodex mites are microscopic, you will not be able to see them with the naked eye. From: http://www.petmd.com/sites/default/files/demodex_019.jpg

Demodex mites are microscopic, you will not be able to see them with the naked eye. From: http://www.petmd.com/sites/default/files/demodex_019.jpg

    In the past, demodex was treated with ivermectin daily. However, this treatment often lead to side effects and it took a long time to treat the condition. Now, new products to help protect against fleas, Nexgard and Bravecto, are shown to be very effective in treating demodex, they don’t require daily administration, and have become the treatment of choice due to their safety and efficacy. 

This is a dog I treated for ivermectin toxicity. Slinky was being treated with ivermectin for demodex. He started showing signs of toxicity and was not improving. I treated him with intralipid and he made a fantastic recovery.

This is a pit bull puppy with a common presentation of demodex.

This is a pit bull puppy with a common presentation of demodex.

    There may likely be a secondary skin infection (pyoderma) due to the demodex infestation, so your veterinarian may also prescribe antibiotics and/or a prescription shampoo to help treat the infection. Omega 3 fatty acid supplement is also recommended to help bring down the inflammation and improve the lipid barrier of the skin to prevent drying.


    “But my pet doesn’t have fleas!” Veterinarians hear this all the time. Don’t worry, its not a reflection of you if your pet has fleas. They are the most common ectoparasite of dogs and cats. If your pet is not on a *good* flea prevention regularly, and is itching, we have to make sure that the itching is not coming from flea allergy dermatitis. 

You may not see the fleas, but you will see the "flea dirt" which is flea poop. It is digested blood from your pet, if you dust it off onto a paper towel and add water, it will be bright red.

You may not see the fleas, but you will see the "flea dirt" which is flea poop. It is digested blood from your pet, if you dust it off onto a paper towel and add water, it will be bright red.

    All it takes, is for one flea to jump on and bite your pet, and your pet will be scratching for weeks. Pets who are allergic to fleas are reacting to their saliva. Therefore, just because you have not seen a flea, does not mean that a flea was not the cause of your pet’s scratching. That is why, all itchy pets need to be on a good flea control.    

    “But my pet is on flea prevention!” What kind? If it is Advantage, Frontline, other store-brand, a flea collar you bought at the pet store, then likely your flea control is not enough. We are finding many of these products are just not as effective as the newer products coming out. I really like Comfortis (cats & dogs), Nexgard (dogs)  and Bravecto (dogs). 

     For cats, Comfortis is the best flea prevention. It is an oral tablet you give once a month. Some may find it difficult to give cat's pills, see the video below for one great technique. If you ultimately cannot give your cat a pill, Cheristin is a topical flea prevention that you apply once a month that is almost as good as Comfortis. 

A common presentation of flea allergy dermatitis. Notice the redness and hair-loss on the back, near the tail.

A common presentation of flea allergy dermatitis. Notice the redness and hair-loss on the back, near the tail.

    Additionally, Capstar (dogs & cats) is another good product that gets rid of fleas fast, but unfortunately, in order to really be effective, you have to give it daily in flea allergic pets.

    If your pet is scratching, we have to make sure that fleas are not the culprit, so no matter what, we have to make sure your pet is on a good flea control at an appropriate interval.

Pets can get tapeworms (Dipylidium caninum) from fleas. Animals (and people) become infected with tapeworms when they ingest an infected flea.

Fleas are also involved in Cat Scratch Disease (CSD). Cat Scratch Disease is caused by Bartonella henselae which is ingested by fleas that drink infected cat blood. Live Bartonella henselae are passed in flea poop. Claws of cats contaminated with flea poop then scratch humans, and as a result, over 22,000 cases of Cat Scratch Disease are reported every year.

Other Ectoparasites

    Scabies and lice are other common causes of scratching in dogs and cats. Your veterinarian will be able to determine if this is the cause by looking at hair pluck samples and skin scrapings under a microscope. Appropriate treatment will depend on what kind of ectoparasite they find.

Microscopic image of  Sarcoptes scabiei

Microscopic image of Sarcoptes scabiei

Food Allergy Dermatitis- How to diagnose and treat

    “But, my pet has been on that food his whole life, and its an expensive high quality grain-free food!” Food Allergy Dermatitis is developed over time to common proteins in your pet’s food. The most common food allergies are to chicken, beef, soy, egg, or dairy. Sometimes an allergy develops to a carbohydrate or rarely a preservative. These animals are itchy year-round and may have signs of stomach upset as well such as vomiting, diarrhea or flatulence. Animals usually rub their faces or chew at their feet and are prone to skin and ear infections.

    Signs of food allergies will continue as long as the pet is fed the offending protein, and signs will continue for several weeks after the offending protein is finally removed. 

    Unfortunately, despite what many companies will try to sell you, there are no reliable skin or blood tests available to determine what food your pet is allergic to. The only way to determine for certain what your pet is allergic to is to do an elimination diet trial

    During the diet trial your pet will be fed a homemade or commercial diet that contains a protein and carbohydrate your pet has never been exposed to. These diets contain novel proteins such as kangaroo, rabbit or venison among others. As an alternative, there are “low molecular weight” diets available that contain common proteins such as chicken or beef, but the proteins have been hydrolyzed down to a small size that the immune system is thought not to react to. However, some pets that are very sensitive may react to these hydrolyzed diets too. Unfortunately, nowadays, pet stores sell so many different varieties of food that contain venison, rabbit, lamb etc… and many people offer all of these foods to their pets to give them some variety, and in that case, the pets have developed an allergy to all these proteins and an elimination diet is difficult in this case. 

    To make matters worse, reports have shown that even when a pet owner goes to a board certified veterinary dermatologist, there is only about a 5% owner compliance rate. This is because in order to complete a successful diet trial, the pet has to go at least 8-10 weeks ingesting nothing except for the novel diet. This means no treats, flavored toothpaste, medications, chew toys, pig ears, flavored vitamins or flavored heartworm prevention. You have to pretend the allergy is as severe as a peanut allergy, and anything other than the novel diet is a peanut! Then, you will re-check with your veterinarian and discuss whether or not the itching has decreased. 

    In order to prove a food allergy, you have to introduce the original diet back to the pet. This is known as a “diet challenge.” The scratching and other clinical signs will return within hours or days if the diet is really the cause. Then you can go back to the diet that worked!

    Unfortunately, these pets with food allergies likely have other allergies as well. Dermatologists refer to this as an “allergic personality.” So even though you have discovered that food causes some or most of their itching, they may likely also have flea allergy, allergy to pollens, molds, dust etc… Therefore, they need to be kept on a strict, high quality flea control and be monitored closely for skin infections.

    During the diet trial, it is important to keep a log of any changes that you notice such as appetite, bathroom habits, scratching, redness of ears or skin or changes in weight. Practice keeping a daily log and rate the level of itchiness on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being constant itching.

Atopic Dermatitis

   Pets with Atopic Dermatitis (AD) are allergic to a variety of things in their environment including pollens, molds, yeast, dust etc… They have itchy ears, itchy feet, and dogs may get recurrent “hot spots” they will lick until they are raw. Unfortunately, there is no diagnostic test for atopic dermatitis. Diagnosis is made based on history, clinical signs and ruling out, or making sure that other conditions such as flea allergy (or other ectoparasites) and food allergy are not the cause. Pets usually develop AD after 1.5 years of age.

    Your veterinarian will likely take some samples from your pet’s ears, skin or feet to look for signs of secondary bacterial or yeast infection. This is because pets with Atopic Dermatitis have defects in their epidermal and lipid skin barrier that makes them susceptible to secondary skin and ear infections. 

Breed predispositions

    Boxer, Bull Terrier, Cairn terrier, Chow Chow, Cocker spaniel, French bulldog, Fox terrier, German shepherd dog, Golden retriever, Irish setter, Labrador retriever, Poodle, Rhodesian ridgeback, Shar-pei, Viszla and West Highland White terrier, Bichon Frise, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Jack Russell terrier, Great Dane, and Silky Terrier


    There is no one quick fix for AD. A treatment plan is developed working with your veterinarian and carefully considering your pet’s clinical signs. Pets may have periodic or seasonal flare ups of skin and ear infections that require oral antibiotics or antifungals, prescription antibacterial or anti fungal shampoos or sprays. Avoid “over the counter” shampoos and sprays unless you consult your veterinarian. Many over the counter products can actually make itching worse. Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation can decrease the inflammation of the skin and prevent drying. Antihistamines can help some as well, but may not help much in a severe flare up.

    Allergen-specific immunotherapy- this involves subcutaneous injections of small amounts of allergens given at home or in the veterinary office. You start off giving low amounts of allergen and gradually increasing to larger amounts. Adjustments are made based on the pet’s response. Studies have shown immunotherapy shows greater than 50% improvement in allergen treated dogs over placebo. This is a very safe treatment that does not require bloodwork monitoring. The downside is that it can take up to 9 months to be fully effective.


    If you are concerned about giving injections, now there is sublingual immunotherapy available (http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/using-sublingual-immunotherapy-treat-atopic-dermatitis-canine-veterinary-patients). However, if your pet is not improving after 8 months, you may have to switch to an injectable immunotherapy.


        Apoquel (oclacitinib) - This is a new medication that has shown to be successful in 66% of treated dogs. It is a janus kinase inhibitor, which means it inhibits a signalling pathway that results in itching and inflammation. (https://www.zoetisus.com/bmst-minisite-apoquel/index.aspx) (http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/apoquel-qa-will-oclacitinib-revolutionize-treatment-allergic-dermatitis)

        Atopica (cyclosporine) - This medication was approved for use by the FDA in 2003 for treatment of atopic dermatitis. It has undergone extensive testing and has been shown to block the release of inflammatory cytokines and histamines.  Atopica is an oral pill or liquid that can be given to both dogs and cats. Many respond very well to it and side effects are rare. Some pets may vomit on the drug, so it is best given with a meal. Atopica takes 4-6 weeks of daily therapy to start working, but often you can decrease the administration to every 2-3 days long term.

        Glucocorticoids - These include steroids such as prednisone or prednisolone. This is an older medication, and may be given by your veterinarian as a trial to see how your pet responds, but it may not be a good idea to have your pet on glucocorticoids long term. It is best used as a trial or on an as needed basis, and then you can transition to the newer medications such as Atopica or Apoquel. 

    Sometimes veterinarians give a long acting steroid shot so you don’t have to give oral medications every day. However, this is a more risky approach than medicating with oral pills daily, because once you inject it, you can not take it back if the pet responds poorly to it. Long term use of glucocorticoids can have side effects such as liver problems, skin infections, urinary infections and gastrointestinal ulceration. If the itching is due to a mites or ringworm, the skin condition can worsen. 

    Managing Flare Ups

    It is important to keep your veterinarian apprised of how your pet is doing. If you can, keep a journal, and if you notice the itching has worsened, let your veterinarian know and they can adjust the treatment to best suit your pet. These pets are susceptible to recurrent skin infections and these have to be diagnosed and managed. Antibiotics that have worked in the past may no longer work if your pet has developed a resistant skin infection. A culture of your pet’s skin may need to be performed in order to determine the best choice of antibiotic for your pet. 

Skin Infection (Pyoderma)

    Pyoderma, which means “pus in the skin,” usually presents as a rash, red inflamed skin,  pustules that look like “zits,” or epidermal collarettes which are circular ares with scales around the edges. Chronic skin infections cause thickened and dark pigmented skin. 

    Skin infections are common in dogs with allergies or external parasites, but can also be caused by internal diseases. Diagnosis is based on physical exam findings as well as samples of the skin that is looked at under a microscope. Sometimes a skin biopsy and blood work may be needed to rule out other diseases and identify an underlying cause. 

   Treatment often involves a combination of oral and topical antibiotics will be given and treatment for deep skin infections may take several weeks or months to treat. Oral antibiotics should always be given with food (unless otherwise indicated) for prevent gastro-intestinal upset. Common side effects include vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite. If you notice any GI upset, stop the medication and contact your veterinarian. Once appetite and GI signs return to normal you may try the treatment again after a meal. If antibiotics that have worked in the past appear to not be working, contact your veterinarian, there may be a new or resistant infection forming. Even if the skin is looking better, it is important to complete the full course of antibiotics because the infection may still be present.

Yeast Infection (Malassezia pachydermatis)

    Yeasts are spore-like forms of fungi and Malassezia dermatitis is a fungal infection of the skin. Skin yeast infections are very itchy, crusty and smelly. Many dogs are also allergic to the yeast on their skin, which worsens the condition.

    How do dogs get yeast infections? Yeast on the skin is normal in small numbers. However, increases in skin oils (from allergic flare ups), immune disease and seborrhea (excess oil production in the skin) predispose to yeast infection.

How does your veterinarian diagnose yeast infection?

    Looking at a smear of the skin under a microscope is one of the most common ways of diagnosing a yeast infection.


    Based on your pet's condition, anti-fungal medications and shampoos will likely be prescribed. But, your pet will likely get recurring yeast infections unless the underlying cause (such as allergies) is diagnosed and treated appropriately. Usually, several weeks of anti-fungal treatments are required. Animals will be bathed twice a week and the prescription shampoo will be left on for 10-15 minutes before rinsing.

Breed Predispositions

West Highland White Terrier, Basset hound, Cocker spaniel, Silky terrier, Australian terrier, Maltese, Chihuahua, Poodle, Shetland sheepdog, Lhasa apso, and Dachshund.

Psychogenic Alopecia or Overgrooming

For some cats, obsessively grooming can be a manifestation of some underlying anxiety. Diminishing stressors from other pets, and people is critical. You can also try Feliway, a feline pheromone that helps relieve stress as well as medications such as amitriptyline. These cats also need to be on a good flea prevention as well.


Don’t be a victim of pet store sales people and fancy internet adds marketing cures for dog itching. Those supplements and homeopathic remedies will just waste your time and money. Itching has a variety of different causes and a systematic approach to diagnosing and treating the condition is what is needed for the best results.


The Truth About "Hypoallergenic" Pets

No, that expensive doodle mutt you just paid thousands for is not hypoallergenic. There is this pervasive myth that breeds such as Poodles, Poodle mixes, Portugese Water Dogs, and Airedale Terriers are considered hypoallergenic. Many breeders have capitalized on this myth by marketing their own dogs as “hypoallergenic.” The problem is, people then buy these dogs and cats from breeders instead of adopting from a shelter thinking that they are actually getting a hypoallergenic dog. 

Many people think if a dog doesn’t shed, it is less likely to cause allergies in people. However, the hair has nothing to do with it.

Human diseases associated with allergens include allergic asthma, which leads to difficulty breathing, allergic rhino-conjunctivitis leading to nasal congestion, runny nose, post-nasal drip, sneezing, red eyes (conjunctivitis), and itching of the nose or eyes and atopic dermatitis, leading to itchy skin. 

When someone is allergic to a dog, they are usually reacting to the proteins Can f 1 and Can f 2, produced in the salivary glands, not the skin! The tongue epithelial tissue produces the Can f 1 protein and Can f 2 is produced by the tongue and parotid salivary glands. Can f 1 is also a ubiquitous protein found in public areas, carpets and soft furnishings and is also present in households without dogs.

When someone is allergic to a cat, what actually causes their reaction is a protein (globulin) called Fel d 1, found in their salivary, sebaceous, and perianal glands which is transferred to the skin and fur by licking and grooming. While Fel d 1 is found in higher concentrations in households that have cats, it is a ubiquitous compound that is found in the environment everywhere.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology website states that “there are no truly hypoallergenic breeds.”

One study looked at allergen levels in the homes of people with “hypoallergenic” breeds vs “nonhypoallergenic” breeds and found “there was no evidence for differential shedding of allergen by dogs grouped as hypoallergenic.” They also state that there is no published data to indicate that hypoallergenic dogs exist  (Nicholas et. al 2011).

If you say, but wait, I heard there is this breeder that sells their animals for a ton of money and they say they have these scientifically proven hypoallergenic dogs and cats, and they have a physician saying its true too … no… just read here, first page, its not true. http://allergyasthmadoctors.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Article_Hypoallergenic_Pets_Annals_Publication.pdf. 

How to live with a pet if you are allergic

Bathe the pet regularly- at least twice a week to diminish the allergen concentration. If you adopt an allergic dog, your dog will benefit from the frequent bathing anyway with prescription shampoo! This is shown to be more beneficial in dogs than cats. Get rid of your carpeting and soft furniture and clean your house regularly. 

Allergy shots, or immunotherapy, eradicate pet allergies entirely in 80% of patients completing the full course of treatment. They are administered weekly at first and then monthly over the course of about 3 years.

Morris DO. Human allergy to environmental pet danders: a public health perspective.” Vet Dermatol. 2010;21:441–9.

Lockey, Richard L. The Myth of Hypoallergenic Dogs (and cats). Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Vol 130, Number 4. August 2012. http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(12)01380-2/pdf

Nicholas CE, Wegienka GR, Havstad SL, Zoratti EM, Ownby DR, Johnson CC. Dog allergen levels in homes with hypoallergenic compared with nonhypoallergenic dogs. Am J Rhinol Allergy 2011;25:252-6.

Butt A, Rashid D, Lockey RF. Do hypoallergenic cats and dogs exist? Ann Allergy

Asthma Immunol 2012;108:74-6. http://allergyasthmadoctors.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Article_Hypoallergenic_Pets_Annals_Publication.pdf

Vredegoor DW, Willemse T, Chapman MD, Heederik DJJ, Krop EJM. Can f 1 levels in hair and homes of different dog breeds: lack of evidence to describe any dog breed as hypoallergenic. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2012;130:904-9.


Will Cannabinoid Oil Benefit Your Pet?

Once again, companies are creating bogus products trying to extract cash from conscientious and caring pet owners. The latest fad: cannabinoid dog treats. They claim to treat everything from hip dysplasia, arthritis, mobility pain to separation anxiety. Unfortunately, all of these claims are unfounded and waste pet owners time and money. In fact, the FDA has sent warning letters to many of these companies. 

Entertaining memes shared on social media help quickly spread misinformation to pet owners.   

Entertaining memes shared on social media help quickly spread misinformation to pet owners.


Cannabidiol (CBD) is an antioxidant derived from the cannabis spp. of plants, that is claimed to have many of the medicinal properties of THC without the euphoric effects. While CBD will not make one high, in humans, it is believed that the compound can reduce nausea and vomiting, suppress seizure activity, help psychosis disorders, act as an anti-inflammatory, fight tumor and cancer cells, as well as help with anxiety and depression. 

One study showed that CBD was barely absorbed orally in dogs likely due to the first pass effect, which is a phenomenon of drug metabolism where the concentration of the drug is greatly reduced before it reaches the circulation (Samara et al. 1988).  

In addition, we do not have a handle on what the effective dose would even be. 

Many of these new dog treat products do not even contain the ingredients stated on the label. They don’t have to. They are not regulated by the FDA. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent warning letters to firms marketing these unapproved products. Many of the products did not contain any CBD. The FDA states “Consumers should beware purchasing and using any such products.”

We do not even have toxicity data on the compound.

When you feed these treats to your pet, you have no way of knowing the source of the product or how reliably it was extracted from the other cannabinoids in the source material. Therefore, we do not know the level of purity or the contaminants that may be present in these treats.

These products are just another gimmick to part pet owners with their money with no proven health benefits.

Although products such as these may not be toxic or dangerous to pets, there is always the concern that pet owners may try these supplements to treat a pet’s medical condition instead of taking their pet to a veterinarian to get an accurate, timely diagnosis and treatment plan. Veterinarians commonly see pets as their second or third opinion (after Dr. Google, the pet store clerk or groomer) long after owners have wasted time and money on over the counter treatments while the pet’s condition worsens, often leading to more prolonged and costly treatment.


Samara E et. al. Pharmacokinetics of cannabidiol in dogs. Drug Metab Dispos. 1988 May-Jun. 16(3):469-72.

Food and Drug Administration. 2015 Warning Letters and Test Results. 02/09/2016 http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm435591.htm

The Best Way To Increase Your Pet’s Lifespan While Saving Money

    “You are loving your pet to death!” This is a common phrase veterinarians tell pet owners. We know you love your pets and you want to make them happy. Providing food for your animals is one of the best ways to show your love for your pet. They respond with wagging tails and kisses to your offerings of food, and they learn to become more persuasive, and adorable in their requests for food. 

    Unfortunately, obesity is a huge problem for pets and has been shown to decrease their lifespan. One study in Labrador retrievers showed that slimmer dogs lived a median of 2.5 years longer than overweight dogs. Obesity causes problems such as joint disease, diabetes and breathing problems, and could possibly increase their risk of certain types of cancer.     

    Just as with people, the increasing availability of highly palatable, high calorie foods and a more sedentary lifestyle increases the likelihood that your pet will become obese. Today, more than half of dogs are considered overweight, while 20% are considered obese. The good news is, this is a disease that usually costs nothing to treat! 

Weight Loss Plan

    Wouldn’t it be great to have a personal chef, just like the rich and famous? Someone who would prepare your meals for you so you could achieve your own weight loss goals? Well, you can be that personal chef for your pet, without having to spend hours in the kitchen! All it takes is a little knowledge and commitment. This article will show you step by step, how to assess how much your pet has to lose, how much to feed and how long it will take.

    It is recommended that pets lose no more than 2% of their body weight per week. Ideally, we will shoot for 1% per week. Losing more than that could cause the pet’s metabolism to slow down, they will feel hungry, and could lose muscle instead of burning fat. Decreasing the diet too much results in adaptive down regulation of the resting energy requirement which results in weight rebound, or the propensity to regain after a successful weight loss program.

Consulting A Veterinarian Is The Best Way To Get Started

    It is best to spend some time with a veterinarian to work out a good weight loss plan, but you can start the process at home on your own too. If you feel you are not feeding your dog very much at all, but they seem to be keeping the weight on, then it might be best to consult a veterinarian to help determine whether a disease such as hypothyroidism might be the problem.

     Prescription weight loss diets available that are low in calories but high in nutrition, to ensure that your pet is getting enough vitamins and minerals while reducing their caloric intake. If you simply reduce the volume of the current food they are eating too much, their diet could be deficient in vitamins and minerals. 

    If your dog’s insatiable appetite becomes too much of a problem, a prescription medication called Slentrol (www.slentrol.com) is available that may help when all else has failed. 

Know Your Pet’s Body Condition Score (BCS)

    Just like in people, the number on the scale doesn’t matter as much as the body composition, the balance of fat and muscle. The body condition score assesses the amount of fat build up on your pet’s body, and is a way to numerically express your pet’s body composition.     There are 2 scales to assess body condition; the 5 point scale in which the ideal is a 3, and the 9 point scale in which an ideal body condition is a 4/5. I usually will refer to the 9 point scale.

    Ideally, you want the ribs to be easily felt, and when viewed from above, your pet will have a nice waist visible behind the ribs. When viewed from the side you will see a nice tuck up right in front of the hind legs.

    Research has shown that in dogs BCS is related to body fat percentage, with a body fat of 15-25% being ideal. However, this can be affected by breed. For example, Greyhounds that have a BCS of 5, may only have 7% body fat, while Huskies and Rottweilers have a higher percentage of body fat with an ideal BCS. Using the 5 point scale, each point represents a 10% change in percent body weight from the ideal, while using the 9 point scale each point represents a change in 5% body weight from the ideal.

    Overweight dogs are considered 10-20% above ideal body weight, while dogs are considered obese if they are 20% above ideal body weight.

Click here to see The Ohio State University’s BCS Chart (https://vet.osu.edu/vmc/companion/our-services/nutrition-support-service/body-condition-scoring-chart)

Click here to see The World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s chart (http://www.wsava.org/sites/default/files/Body%20condition%20score%20chart%20dogs.pdf)

Also check out Dr. Sophia Yin’s article on how to body condition score your pet (http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/is-your-dog-fit-or-fat-learn-how-to-body-condition-score-him)

To really geek out on body condition scoring, check out this article in Clinician’s Brief (http://www.cliniciansbrief.com/sites/default/files/sites/cliniciansbrief.com/files/BodyConditionScoresforDogs.pdf)

The Do It Yourself Approach

    Take an account of how many calories a day your pet is currently getting. Calories listed on the nutrition label on your food is the same as kilocalories (kcal). To start, get an accurate measurement of the quantity of food your pet is currently getting, measure dry food in measuring cups, or on a scale. You can usually google “How many kcal in ______ food” to find out how many calories are in your dog’s food if you can not find this information on the label. 

    For example, lets say I feed my dog Royal Canin Medium Adult dry dog food. I find on Royal Canin’s website that this food contains 336 kcal per cup. 

    Lets say my dog weighs 26lbs, and I have been feeding my dog 1 cup of food in the morning and 1 cup of food at night. Therefore, my dog has been getting 672 kcal per day. I am feeding according to what the feeding guide says on the back of the bag for my dog’s size assuming he has a medium level of activity.

    If you were feeding any additional food, treats, or human food you would need to add this into the number of kcal per day you are feeding. 

Do It Yourself Calculations: How Much Should I Feed My Pet (Dog Example)

  In order to determine how much you should feed your pet you need to calculate your pet’s Resting Energy Requirement (RER). This is the energy required to perform basic body functions such as digestion, heart, brain and respiratory functions. 

 The formula for calculating RER is 70 multiplied by your pet’s body weight in kilograms to the power of 0.75.

RER= 70*(body weight in kg)^0.75 = kcal/day

to convert lbs to kg, divide your pet’s body weight in lbs by 2.2. 


So for example my 26 lb dog is 11.8kgs and his RER is:

RER=70*(11.8)^0.75 = 446 kcal per day

    Using an iPhone makes this calculation easy. If it has been a while since you’ve thought about order of operations I will let you know you are going to calculate the exponent first, then multiply by 70 (Remember PEMDAS from school?). So in my iPhone I would plug in 11.8 then press the x^y button, then multiply by 70. 

If you really did not want to calculate using exponents, you can use the following linear equation:

RER = 30*(ideal body weight in kg) + 70 = kilocalories to be feed per day.

However, this is only accurate for medium sized pets. This is not accurate for very large or small pets.

    Normally, we would calculate how much to feed based on Maintenance Energy Requirement (MER), the energy requirement of a moderately active dog in a thermoneutral environment. 

For adult dogs:

MER (intact adult): 1.8*RER = _______ kcal/day

MER (neutered adult): 1.6*RER = _______ kcal/day

For adult cats:

MER (neutered cat): 1.2*RER=______kcal/day

So for my neutered 26 lb dog, this would be 714 kcal/ day, which is way more than he has been getting! However, every pet is different, some are more active than others, and have a different metabolism, which is why many pets will gain too much weight if fed according to MER.

For weight loss you can feed just RER to start.

You can go as low as 20% less than RER. 

RER*0.8= ____kcal/day

    Now I look at my dog carefully, and the BCS chart and I determine that my dog is a 7/9. So, he is about 10% overweight and could lose about 2.5 lbs. 

    My dog has been getting 672 kcal per day and RER is 446 kcal per day. This would be a huge and sudden reduction in calories for my dog. I do not want to decrease the amount I have been feeding him too much all at once, or else this may result in him being too hungry, adaptive down regulation of his resting energy requirement, as well as possible muscle loss, which could result in rebound weight gain after stoping the diet. Instead, I am going to gradually reduce how many calories he is going to get instead.

    I will reduce his diet by 20% and then re-weigh him and assess his BCS in 2 weeks. Instead of feeding 672 kcal/day I will feed:

672kcal*0.80=537.6 kcal/day

    Now remember, the Royal Canin dog food I was feeding was 336 kcal/cup, so I am going to calculate how much to feed my dog by dividing my new kcal/day by the calories per cup of food:

kcal/day/kcal/cup = cups/day

537.6kcal/day/336 kcal/cup = 1.6 cups/day.

    If I look on the feeding guidelines on the bag, I see that they recommend 1 3/4 cups a day for a dog of my dog’s weight assuming a low level of activity, which is a little bit higher than what I plan on feeding now. But, my dog is overweight, and fat requires less energy to maintain, so it should be expected that I will feed less food then the bag says. I will also start walking 30 minutes a day with my dog, he has no health problems that would limit his ability, and this is a small increase from his usual activity. You should always take into consideration your pet’s health problems and current level of activity when considering an exercise plan, and start out slow.

    If the amount of food I have to feed to achieve weight loss is significantly less than what the feeding instructions on the bag say, I would be concerned that the diet I am feeding may be to deficient in nutrients, and may consider switching to a low-calorie diet, or diet formulated for weight loss that has a higher concentration of nutrients and lower concentration of calories. 

    When I re-weigh my dog in 2 weeks, I will also re-assess his body condition score. if I find that he has not lost 2% of his body weight, or he has gained weight, I will also consider his BCS, and if his BCS and weight combined aren’t headed in the right direction I will reduce his food by another 20% or to 20% less than RER (0.8*RER). In this case, a further 20% reduction would be 430 kcal/day. I do not want to reduce his food any lower than 20% less than RER without consulting a veterinarian. 

Therefore, his new daily ration will be:

430 kcal/day / 336 kcal/cup = 1.3 cups/day

    Again, I will continue exercise and re-weigh him in 2 weeks. If he has finally achieved a 2% reduction in body weight and his BCS looks better, I can expect his entire weight loss plan to take 10 weeks to complete. If he starts losing weight too rapidly, I may increase his food by 10-20% depending on what I am seeing. It is important to continue to re-weigh AND assess BCS every 2 weeks to ensure that weight loss is not occurring too rapidly.

    Once ideal body condition is achieved, I will have to determine an appropriate balance of food and exercise to maintain that body condition.

How to select the best food for your pet? Visit WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee: Recommendations on Selecting Pet Foods (http://www.wsava.org/sites/default/files/Recommendations%20on%20Selecting%20Pet%20Foods.pdf)

If you feel like digging deeper into nutrition, please visit the WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee’s Nutrition Tool-Kit (http://www.wsava.org/nutrition-toolkit)

Read WSAVA’s The Savvy Cat Owner’s Guide: Nutrition on the Internet (http://www.wsava.org/sites/default/files/nutrition%20on%20the%20internet%20cats.pdf)

Read WSAVA’s The Savvy Dog Owner’s Guide: Nutrition on the Internet (http://www.wsava.org/sites/default/files/Nutrition%20on%20the%20Internet%20dogs.pdf)

Tips For Feeding In Multi-Pet Homes

    Its not uncommon to have a situation where one pet is obese and the other is thin. The obese pet will eat both pet’s food! Unfortunately, you have to separate them, and you have to pick up the thin pet’s food or put it somewhere where the obese pet can not get to it. 

    Sometimes, this is easier with cats. If the thin cat can jump up high where the obese cat cannot, you can leave food for the thin cat up high on a shelf, counter or book case.

     You can also try a “MeowSpace” (http://meowspace.biz) which is a box with an opening that is controlled by your pet’s tag or microchip that allows only the specified pet to enter. 

    Another device called “SureFlap” (https://www.sureflap.com/en-us/pet-feeder/microchip-pet-feeder) can work well for both dogs and cats. With this device, the lid to the food bowl only opens when the correct pet approaches. 


    Daily exercise is important for weight loss, but if your pet has joint disease, respiratory disease or other problems related to being overweight. It is best to carefully assess your pet’s comfort level before making the exercise program too strenuous. 

    You have to be creative when coming up with an exercise plan for your cat. Find out what they like. Laser pointers and fishing-line type toys can help encourage them to move around. If you feed kibble, you can put it in a toy like an “Eggserciser” which is a toy they can play with and the kibble slowly falls out. Click here for an example: http://www.amazon.com/Petsafe-SlimCat-Meal-Dispensing-Blue/dp/B0018CG40O.


Highly palatable treats make great rewards for training, but they are usually high in calories. Instead, you can take a portion of your pet’s daily ration and use it as snacks and as food reward during training. Low calorie foods like carrots also make great treats for dogs and they enjoy the crunching. Of course, stay away from grapes, raisins, chocolate, macadamia nuts and other foods that can be toxic to dogs. Snacks should be limited to less than 10% of total Calories per day.

Take Action

  • weigh your pet every 2 weeks
  • re-assess your pets body condition score every 2 weeks
  • stick to the plan, avoid extra snacks
  • stick to an exercise program appropriate for your dog’s age, breed, and ability
  • communicate the plan to family members
  • consult a veterinarian









UC Davis Nutritional Management Of Weight http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/vmth/small_animal/nutrition/client_info_sheets/weight.cfm


How To Treat Your Pet’s Dental Disease Without Getting Ripped Off



I work primarily with non-profit organizations, shelters, animal rescues and on Sundays, I work at vaccine clinics in pet stores. My interactions with the public during these Sunday clinics have made me realize there is a great deal of confusion about dental disease in pets amongst the general public. Many owners are unaware of the severity of the disease and suffering their pet is experiencing. Many of these pets get vaccines year after year from these pet store vaccine clinics, and have not entered a full service veterinary clinic for a complete and thorough exam and veterinary advice for many years, if ever.

When I point out the severity of their pet's dental disease and explain how they need to go to a full service veterinarian for treatment, people are often reluctant to take my advice because they are worried about the cost. They ask me if there are any products they can use at home instead. Unfortunately, when tartar and plaque build up too much, and the pet has gingivitis and gingival recession have set in, trying to treat with products at home becomes a futile task. In this article, I will discuss how to get the most value out of dental care for your pet.

As a veterinarian who works for non-profits, and is heavily involved in animal welfare, my goal is to be able to help as many animals as possible, provide them with the best care for the lowest cost. I seek no financial gain in making these recommendations, I don't profit from performing dentals, these are just the facts and my goal is to reduce animal suffering and improve the human-animal bond.

Dental disease is a huge problem causing pain and illness for the pet, as well as bad breath that can limit the closeness you feel towards your pet. Because of this enormous problem, many companies have started to crop up in an attempt to capitalize on this “pain point”. Beware though, many of these new products will just waste your money and not help your pet, and some can do more harm than good.

Before dental disease takes hold, the gold standard in preventative dental care is daily tooth brushing. Be sure to only use toothpaste intended for pets, not human toothpaste. Start when they are young and that will make the process easy and enjoyable. For step by step instructions on how to brush your dog’s teeth visit http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&A=171. Here is a great video about how to examine and brush your dog’s teeth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsNlLLSBWLU.

Additional products such as food, gels, water additives and treats that promote dental health can be effective as well, but beware of those products that don’t work at all. To sort through the weeds visit the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) website (http://www.vohc.org/accepted_products.htm). The VOHC is a group of veterinary dentists and dental scientists that seeks to recognize products that meet standards of plaque and tartar reduction. Their goal was to find an effective means of recognizing products on the market that actually work. Unfortunately though, they are veterinarians and scientists, they don’t know anything about marketing, and sadly their website shows it. But, it contains good information, just no glitz or glamour because they are not trying to sell you anything!

Many products without the VOHC seal of approval can actually be dangerous for your pet. Many water additives available at pet stores have xylitol in them which is toxic to dogs! One good water additive, with the VOHC seal of approval is HealthyMouth, you can check this product out at https://www.healthymouth.com/.

At your yearly veterinary exam, your veterinarian will closely examine your pets teeth. Let them know if you have noticed any changes in your pet’s mouth or breath. If your veterinarian sees build up of tartar, plaque, gingivitis, fractured teeth or other problems, they will recommend a “dental” under anesthesia to investigate further. Severe and prolonged dental disease can lead to bone loss around the teeth, fractured mandibles, heart, liver and kidney problems. Many scientists believe chronic inflammation in humans can lead to cancer formation. Likewise, chronic inflammation in the mouth of your pet may also put your pet at risk for cancer.

For a great list of frequently asked questions about dental disease in pets please visit this page: http://www.wellpets.com/faqs/#15 I am not affiliated with him in any way, but he does have a fantastic website with great content.

Many owners will state that their pets acted years younger after a dental cleaning and treatment. Before the dental, they were living with chronic pain, and their owners never realized it. After the treatment, and painful teeth were treated, the pets suddenly appear happier again.

When preparing for a dental cleaning and treatment for your pet it is important to understand what you are getting for your money. The cost of the procedure can vary widely depending on the level of care your veterinarian is able to provide, and a $200 procedure may not be the same as a $1000+ procedure.

In the past, anesthesia was more risky, you may have even heard of a pet dying during or after a dental in the past. Nowadays with modern technology, anesthesia is relatively safe, but you want to make sure your veterinarian is up to date on the current standard of care. Many older veterinarians, even some with television shows, are not performing dentals using modern standards that increase safety. Modern techniques prevent common problems with anesthesia that include: hypothermia, dehydration and pain. Pre-anesthesia bloodwork is important to determine if your pet’s organs can handle the anesthesia medications and metabolize them effectively. Underlying organ disease can cause problems with anesthesia.

    The following list are the bare minimum services a dental procedure should include:

  • - a full set of dental radiographs
  • - pre-anesthesia bloodwork
  • - an IV catheter and IV fluids
  • - endotracheal intubation, oxygen and inhaled anesthetic
  • - patient warming during anesthesia with circulating warm air (a BAIR hugger or similar)
  • - anesthesia monitoring including SPO2, ECG, temperature and blood pressure
  • - supragingival scaling, subgingival scaling, polishing and lavage of gingival sulcus.
  • - pain medication during and after the procedure
  • - local blocks (like novocaine) if any extractions (removal of teeth) is performed.

Take the above list with you and talk with your veterinarian about what they offer.

Why Does My Pet Need Dental Radiographs?

Many veterinarians point out that dental radiographs increase the cost and make it less likely that owners will be able to afford a much needed dental for their pets. Many veterinarians feel that even if owners are unwilling to pay for dental radiographs, they can still do a decent job and help the pet feel more comfortable while limiting the cost to the owner. This is the nature of the veterinary profession, to want to help animals while limiting the cost to the owner. We want to make it as affordable as possible because we want to be able to help the pet.

However, studies have shown that in a large percentage of cases, dental radiographs uncover clinically significant findings in what would appear to be superficially normal looking teeth. How awful would it be to have just spent hundreds on a dental for your pet and then a week or two later your pet's face is swollen because there was an abscessed premolar that looked normal at the time of the dental, but dental radiographs uncovered that it should have been extracted? Dental radiographs do increase the cost, but it is usually 10-20% of the total cost of the procedure and well worth it. The pet is already under anesthesia for the dental, you might as well do it right. 

To read more about the studies showing the benefit of dental radiographs click here. 

Why are dentals so expensive?

Dentals take a lot of time and expensive equipment, there is no way around that. Many believe veterinarians are getting rich off of recommending unnecessary dental procedures and that just isn’t the case. There are too many animals that need real care and too little time to make up problems that don’t exist. Veterinarians got into this field for the love of animals, not to make money. If they became veterinarians to make a lot of money, they were very unwise. The average salary of veterinarians is declining, while student loan debt and the cost of equipment and medications has gone up.

The average salary of a veterinarian is about $91k a year according to the 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Becoming a veterinarian takes 8+ years of schooling, and most new graduate veterinarians have $150,000+ in student loans and 8+ years of lost earning potential while in school. Veterinarians make the same amount as physician’s assistants and many nurses which takes less education.

The cost of supplies for veterinarians has increased dramatically. For example, just 3 years ago, the cost of a box of IV fluids was about $20, now it is around $100. Many generic antibiotics such as doxycycline have skyrocketed in price by 10x. The cost of anesthesia monitoring equipment and anesthesia machines can cost $10,000 and need to be serviced and replaced periodically. Dental radiograph equipment can also cost $40,000+ and ultrasonic dental scaling and polishing machines and tools can cost $5,000+ and need to be serviced and replaced regularly.

Most veterinarians wish they could provide their services free of charge, and all the supplies, equipment, labor and real estate that goes into providing care would not cost any money, and all pets could be treated for free, but unfortunately, that is not the case.

You can read more about the financial problems facing veterinarians in this article: http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/627812/?sc=swhr&xy=5025791.

Anesthesia-free pet dentistry (AFD) is becoming more prominent. Unfortunately, this service is doing more harm than good to pets. It is tempting to believe their claims because it offers a cheaper alternative, and no anesthesia. But, if it is too good to be true, it probably is. For more information, you can visit Dr. Tony M. Woodward’s website, where he posted a fantastic article on AFD and documented cases he has seen of pet’s suffering from the aftermath http://www.wellpets.com/anesthesia-free-vet-dentistry/.


Why Aren't There Low Cost Dental Clinics Like Low Cost Spay/Neuter Clinics?

I work for low-cost non-profit spay-neuter clinics and have often pondered if it could be possible to set up a low-cost dental clinics. The goal would be to decrease the cost to pet owners and provide the valuable dental treatments these pets need. I have run the numbers and I do not think it is possible to perform this service better and for less money than what full-service veterinary clinics are currently providing without a significant multi-million dollar endowment from a generous donor.

Non-profit spay neuter clinics are able to exist and provide spay/neuter services at dramatically reduced costs and/or free because of generous donations as well as many tax-payer funded programs. When you take your pet to a low cost spay neuter clinic, even if you pay for it, you are likely only paying a small portion of what it really costs to spay and neuter your pets and your friends, family and neighbors are paying the remaining portion. This has all been made possible because the public has realized that intact animals lead to pet over-population, bite injuries, damage to property, and massive expense due to having to house and euthanize these millions of unwanted and sometimes dangerous animals in animal shelters. The public has come to realize that funds spent to spay and neuter your friends and neighbors animals is ultimately, more affordable than the alternative of unwanted litters and hoards of unwanted animals roaming the street wreaking havoc.

Unfortunately, dental disease does not have the same massive public health implications, so funding is not available to start low cost dental clinics. Often your local SPCA, may be able to help you out if you are low-income and on government assistance, but they are being stretched thin.

Luckily, dental disease is usually not an emergency, and is a predictable expense in the life of your animal. So while you have a cute little puppy with healthy teeth, start putting away some funds for the inevitable day when a big veterinary expense will come up. I highly recommend Trupanion insurance, I have it for my own dog, and I am not sponsored by them in any way, I do not profit by recommending them. However, Trupanion and other insurance companies will probably not fund routine dental cleanings, so that is something you will have to save and plan for.

I hope you enjoyed this article. It is a work in progress. If you have any questions, or would like me to clarify anything please comment or email me at vetharmony@yahoo.com.

The Truth About Spaying And Neutering Your Pets

dog licking testicles     Spaying and neutering your pets is an important part of pet ownership. Overall, you are likely to have a more rewarding and longer relationship with your pet if your pet is altered at a young age. Unfortunately, some poor quality studies out of UC Davis have added a level of confusion about the topic. Breeders are now telling new puppy owners not to spay and neuter their dogs and citing these studies as proof that you should not spay or neuter your dog. This advice can be extremely detrimental not only to the pet, but the population as a whole.

Your Pet Will Likely Live a Longer and Happier Life After Neutering

These studies are flawed, and new puppy owners should be careful when conclusions from this information. Poor information has spread through the media, leading many pet owners to express concern regarding spaying and neutering their pets. Media reports claim these studies prove that altering your dog causes cancer and joint disease.

My goal of this blog post is to help explain to lay pet owners, the problems with these studies, how the conclusions they have reached could lead to pet owners making choices that could lead deleterious consequences for their pets and why it is important to spay and neuter your pets, and what age it should be performed.

      The two studies in question are Long-Term Health Effects of Neutering Dogs: Comparison of Labrador Retrievers with Golden Retrievers, authors Hart, B.L et al. and Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Cancers in Golden Retrievers by Hart, B.L et al. Lead investigator Benjamin Hart, professor emeritus in the School of Veterinary Medicine says “We found in both breeds that neutering before the age of 6 months, which is common practice in the United States, significantly increased the occurrence of joint disorders – especially in the golden retrievers.” The study’s data shows that neutering before the age of 6 months in Labrador Retrievers doubles the rate of joint disorders from 5% to 10% of dogs. And neutering in Golden Retrievers before 6 months of age increased the incidence of joint disorders 4 to 5 times. Hart explains these findings by suggesting “the effects of neutering during the first year of a dog’s life, especially in larger breeds, undoubtedly reflects the vulnerability of their joints to the delayed closure of long-bone growth plates, when neutering removes the gonadal, or sex, hormones”. Undoubtably? He says? Not so fast.

Flawed Research Threatens Animal Health

      The major flaw with this study is that it was performed at a teaching hospital. This skews the data quite a bit. Teaching hospitals attract high end clientele that have generally more money to spend on their pet, have had the foresight to obtain pet health insurance, or are generally more closely bonded to their pet. Teaching hospitals have access to orthopedic surgeons and have the ability to treat CCL (cranial cruciate ligament) tears, hip dysplasia, and elbow dysplasia. These surgeries cost thousands of dollars.

     From my own experience as a veterinarian, owners of spayed and neutered animals are generally higher income clients, are more closely bonded to their pets and/or have higher education levels overall. They are more likely to accept my referral to a teaching hospital for surgical treatment of their dog’s orthopedic disease. On the contrary, owners of intact animals are usually lower income, or choose to spend less money on their animal’s veterinary care, are less likely to have pet insurance, and are not as closely bonded to their pet, possibly due to their pet’s hormone-influenced behavior. Many of these owners did not even want to pay to have their pet altered in the first place. They are far less likely to accept my referral to a teaching hospital, so these animals would never be counted in this study’s numbers. Very rarely, an intact dog may be a champion show dog or a valuable breeder, but these are a very small percentage of the intact dog population.

    The study’s data also shows that spaying female Golden Retrievers at any age over 6 months of age elevated the risk of 1 or more cancers 3-4 times the level of non-spayed females. “The striking effect of neutering in female golden retrievers, compared to male and female Labradors and male goldens, suggests that in female goldens the sex hormones have a protective effect against cancers throughout most of the dog’s life,” Hart said. Again we have the same problem. The teaching hospital is not a true snapshot of the population as a whole. For these numbers to be accurate, we need to look at what general practitioners are seeing in their practices, and even then, we might not get an accurate view, because there are many dogs that never come into contact with a veterinarian, and these are more likely to be intact dogs.

Mammary Cancers and Pyometras Kill Unspayed Dogs

      The authors of the study claim spaying dogs has little effect on the incidence of mammary tumors in Golden Retrievers, which is not consistent general practitioner experiences. It should be noted that they did exclude dogs that were older than 9 years old for this study, which is an interesting choice, given that they are studying joint disease and cancer, likely in attempt to decrease noise from confounding age related factors. They also excluded dogs from the study who they could not confirm the date of alteration, so they were also excluding neutered pets from the study.

      Growing up, my family had two intact Golden Retrievers die of mammary cancer, and unfortunately, my family would not have taken them to the teaching hospital for further treatment or surgery, so these dogs would have not been included as part of the study. In general practice, we see quite a few cases of mammary cancer in all breeds and I personally have never seen a case of mammary cancer in a dog that was spayed before one year of age. The mammary tumors we see are in intact dogs, or dogs that were spayed later in life. Mammary tumors represent 42% of the tumors found on female dogs (Johnson, 1993). Previous studies have shown spayed dogs had a 3 to 7 times lower incidence of mammary tumours than the intact ones (Mulligan 1975; Priester 1979; Hahn et al. 1992; Alenza et al. 2000). Studies have also shown that if a dog is spayed before their first heat, the chances of developing mammary cancer later in life is 0.5%. If a dog is spayed between their first and second heat, their chances of getting mammary cancer are 8%, older dogs have a 26% chance of getting mammary cancer if spayed after their second heat (Misdorp 1988; Schneider et al. 1969).

     It is estimated that 60% of Golden Retrievers die of cancer, which is more than twice the average rate for all other breeds (Haven).  While there are no studies looking at cancer rates among European vs American Golden Retrievers, many believe that the reason American Golden Retrievers have such high rates of cancer has more to do with genetics than whether or not they are intact or altered. European bred Golden Retrievers appear to have lower rates of cancer than American Golden Retrievers. Many point out that Europeans are less likely to spay and neuter their pets, so that is the reason for the lower rates of cancer. However, Australian Golden Retrievers are derived more from European lines than American lines, and Australians are more likely to spay and neuter their pets at rates similar to the United States, but their incidence of cancer is similar to that of Europeans. Therefore, cancer tendency appears to have more to do with genetics.

Pyometra Is Expensive To Treat And Life Threatening

    And then there are pyometras, one of the most common diseases of intact dogs. A pyometra is a potentially life threatening infection of the uterus. One study found on average, 19% of all insured Swedish bitches were diagnosed with pyometra before the age of 10 years (Jipean et. al. 2012). Pyometras can be very expensive to treat and result in significant morbidity and mortality in affected dogs.

 Urinary Incontinence Is Only Weakly Associated With Spaying And Can Be Treated Medically

    Many dog owners are concerned that spaying their dogs could lead to acquired urinary incontinence. Several studies have been published that suggest that spaying dogs, especially large breed dogs, could result in urethral sphincter mechanism incontinence, or estrogen responsive incontinence. A recent 2012 review by Beauvis et.al. indicates that the evidence to support this is lacking. The review of the literature concludes "there is only weak evidence that neutering bitches, particularly before the age of three months, increases the risk of urinary incontinence." Unlike mammary tumors and pyometras, urinary incontinence is not a life-threatening disease and can be treated with medication. Therefore, the decision not to spay a dog, should not be based on the risk of post-spay urinary incontinence.

Behavior Problems In Intact Dogs Leads To Pets Being Relinquished To Shelters

    I have spoken to many caring, intelligent owners who have looked at the work done by Hart et. al. and Torres de la Riva et. al. and were considering not altering their animals based on this information, and unfortunately, that would be a huge mistake. For female dogs left intact, the risks of mammary cancer, pyometras and unwanted litters and possible dystocias, are a huge concern that will lead to severe pet morbidity, mortality as well as expense for the owner. For male dogs, the risks of behavior problems such as aggression, roaming, marking behavior, diminished human-animal bond due to testosterone related behaviors are issues that should not be overlooked, as well as the morbidity and mortality caused by prostatitis and perianal adenomas. For both sexes, remember that lifespan has been shown to increase by 1.5 years if the animal is altered (Hoffman et. al. 2013).

    The fact is, 83% of pet dogs are spayed or neutered in the United States, but only 10% of those entering shelters are spayed or neutered. Looking at these numbers, one could say that unaltered animals have a much higher rate of entering the shelters, and 31% of dogs that enter the shelter are euthanized according to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Many factors could lead to this finding. Owners of intact animals are more likely to have lower incomes, spend less money on their pets, be less bonded to their pets due to their undesirable hormone-influenced behaviors, and therefore more likely to give up their animals to the shelter when any barrier occurs, such as difficulty finding housing, a family member does not get along well with the pet, and medical problems.

Intact Pets Have The Hormonal Drive To Breed

   Is it fair to pets to leave them with the hormonal drive to breed and then not allow them to breed? Well then, why not let them breed? Unfortunately, pet population is a huge problem in this country. There are more than 70 million homeless dogs and cats in the United States. Of these homeless animals, only 6-8 million enter shelters every year, and 2.7 million pets are euthanized in shelters every year. Spaying and neutering, a long with educating pet owners, can help mitigate the massive homeless pet problem in this country.

    Many ask, is it fair to them to remove their sexual organs, because I wouldn't want my testicles removed! I believe this belief is mostly formulated by societal influence and has nothing to do with our innate characteristic. There are intact many castrated males and female humans today and throughout history that have lead normal and fulfilling lives. Remember what life was like before you reached puberty, when you got to live under only minimal influence of sex hormones? For many it was a wonderful, carefree time in our lives. What would middle and high school be like if all children could go through it without the influence of sex hormones? In fact, at Guide Dogs For The Blind, all dogs are spayed and neutered before they enter formal training.

Why You Should Not Consider Gonad-Sparing Procedures At This Time

     Many veterinarians are considering spaying dogs but leaving in the ovaries, and just removing the uterus to prevent the chance of post-spay urinary incontinence. When I contacted the California Veterinary Medical Board about this procedure, I was informed that this procedure was performed in the past, but due to the incidence of stump pyometras (infection of the uterine stump left behind) and mammary cancers, this procedure has fallen out of favor in the veterinary profession. Additionally, this procedure has not been well studied and it is not recommended at this time. The dog will still come into heat, and attract male dogs, and hormonal behavior problems (fighting amongst intact female dogs in the same household, which results in one of the dogs ending up in the shelter) will still be a problem. So while this sounds like a good idea, because it appears that you get the best of both worlds, the sterilization effect as well as maintaining the sexual hormones, it is not a good idea.

     Male dogs also have gonad sparing procedures available to them such as vasectomies and Zeuterin injections. A vasectomy prevents the dog from transferring sperm to a female dog but he maintains the ability to produce testosterone. He will still want to mate and will still have problems with aggression, marking, roaming (running away) and attraction to female dogs, but he will not be able to breed. Because of these undesirable male behaviors you still have the problem of owners not being satisfied with their dog, not gaining a close attachment to them and relinquishing them to the shelter. The roaming behavior is also still a problem and results in expensive veterinary costs due to dog fights and hit-by-car injuries.

      Zeuterin is a compound injected into the testicles that causes scarring and decreases the testicle's ability to produce sperm, some testosterone production is spared though, so you have the same problem as vasectomized dogs.

      Overall, these gonad sparing procedures leave the dogs with the ability to continue to produce sex hormones, and these sex hormones result in a shorter lifespan and poorer quality of life.


     Please let me know what you think of this article and how you think it can be improved, and please share with your new pet owning friends. This is a work in progress, thank you for your help!


ALENZA, DP, PENA, L, DEL CASTILLO, N, NIETO, AI 2000: Factors influencing the incidence and prognosis of canine mammary tumours. J Small Anim Pract 41: 287-291

Beauvais, W., Cardwell, J. M. and Brodbelt, D. C. (2012), The effect of neutering on the risk of urinary incontinence in bitches – a systematic review. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 53: 198–204. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5827.2011.01176.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/j.1748-5827.2011.01176.x/

HAHN, KA, RICHARDSON, RC, KNAPP, DW 1992: Canine malignant mammary neoplasia: Biologic behavior, diagnosis, and treatement alternatives. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 28: 251-256     

HART BL, HART LA, THIGPEN AP, WILLITS NH (2014) Long-Term Health Effects of Neutering Dogs: Comparison of Labrador Retrievers with Golden Retrievers. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102241. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102241 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0102241

HAVEN, R. Understanding Cancer in Golden Retrievers. http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/CCAH/local-assets/pdfs/UnderstandingCancerinGoldenRetrievers2.pdf

Hoffman JM, Creevy KE, Promislow DEL (2013) Reproductive Capability Is Associated with Lifespan and Cause of Death in Companion Dogs. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61082. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061082 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0061082

Jitpean S, Hagman R, Ström Holst B, Höglund OV, Pettersson A, Egenvall A. Breed variations in the incidence of pyometra and mammary tumours in Swedish dogs. Reprod Domest Anim 2012;47:347–50.

JOHNSON, SD 1993: Reproductive systems. In.: SLATTER, D (Ed).: Textbook of small animal surgery, 2nd edition. Saunders, Philadelphia, pp. 2177-2192

MISDORP, W 1988: Canine mammary tumours: Protective effect of late ovariectomy and stimulating effect of progestins. Vet Q 10: 26-33

MULLIGAN, RM 1975: Mammary cancer in the dog: A study of 120 cases. Am J Vet Res 36: 1391-1396

PRIESTER, WA 1979: Occurrence of mammary neoplasms in bitches in relation to breed, age, tumor type, and geographical region from which reported. J Small Anim Pract 20: 1-11.

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Why Breeding Dogs Is A Problem, Even If The Breeder Is 'Reputable'

michelle holding dog2015-06-30 13.54.26A great new article came out that echoes my frustrations when people tell me they are getting a new puppy from a breeder instead of a shelter. Please consider a shelter pet if you want to add a new member to your family!

"Despite the fact that nearly 62 percent of Americans have a pet, there are still more than 70 million homeless dogs and cats living in the U.S. Of these 70 million needy animals, only around six to eight million enter shelters each year. Although they only take in a fraction of America’s homeless animals, these shelters are mostly packed to capacity and strapped trying to function with limited funds. Yet, regardless of this wealth of pets looking for loving homes, only around 20 percent of Americans adopt their dogs from shelters.

So where are the other 74 percent coming from? Well, breeders."

"According to the ASPCA, 1.2 million dogs are euthanized in shelters every year because of lack of space, resources, and people who are willing to adopt these animals." Click here to read more.

Why Raw Diets Are A Bad Idea

raw diets An evidence based article listing the problems with feeding raw diets to pets.

"It is irresponsible of the veterinary, veterinary nursing and allied professions to recommend raw diets because of:

  • concerns about nutritional adequacy
  • health risks to pets
  • health risks to humans regularly handling raw foods, or living in a household where pets fed raw foods may shed pathogens into the environment

The first thing I was taught at university was “first do no harm,” so there is no prospect of me endorsing raw diets as it may result in harm to my patient or its owners, family or friends."

Why you need to spay your dog


This is why you need to spay your dog. This excellent article contains the most amazing pyometra surgery video I have ever seen. The excellent veterinarians at San Jose Animal Care and Control amazingly were able to save this dogs life, but in reality, many other dogs are not so lucky. The photo below shows a 15lb uterus filled with pus. The dog was skeletal, totally emaciated and weighed only 40lbs after the surgery. This surgery, and medical care costs thousands of dollars, and the dog could still die. The most affordable and humane option is to spay before this happens! This photo is from www.tailsofasheltervet.com.

Does your cat have litter box problems?

Check out The Indoor Cat Initiative for some environmental enrichment ideas. One common cause of feline urinary problems is feline idiopathic cystitis. Common signs include: bloody urine, straining to urinate (can easily be mistaken for straining to defecate), urinating in unusual places, urinary blockage (life threatening and needs to go to an emergency clinic ASAP), licking the urinary opening. cat litter box