“Look, Buddy,” sighs the doctor. “You’d be in much better shape if you just ate some vegetables.”
His patient, an overweight fellow with thinning hair and a tired look, only replies with a weak “Woof!” as his owner leads him out of the veterinarian’s office on a leash.
You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that dogs can benefit from most of the same fresh foods as yourself. Though canine teeth, digestive tracts, and metabolism differ from ours, the vitamins and minerals available in plant products can be palatable and real health boosters for dogs, too.
Scientists have long debated whether dogs are natural carnivores (animals that eat only meat) or omnivores (animals that eat meat and plants). The carnivore theorists point to the dog’s teeth (designed for tearing flesh and crunching bones) and his short digestive tract, where food is mostly broken down in the stomach; animals that eat only plants (herbivores) have extraordinarily long digestive tracts, which help them break down plant fibers.
But advocates for the omnivore theory point to field observations of wild dogs, who often eat fallen, ripe fruit, berries, herbs, and some grasses.
Both camps agree that the most important component of a healthy diet for dogs is fresh, raw meat. They also agree that grains were never a part of the wild dog’s diet, and that dogs do not digest carbohydrates in an efficient manner.
Holistic veterinarian W. Jean Dodds, of Santa Monica, California, says she considers dogs to be “obligate omnivores.”
“Though they may be carnivores by choice, dogs in the wild must sometimes eat whatever edible material is around: fruits, berries, grasses,” Dodds says.
So, while the argument of whether dogs need anything but meat and bones plays in the background, most holistic veterinarians feel there are benefits to replacing a varying percentage of the domestic dog’s diet with vegetables.
“Feeding your dog fresh, whole foods is vital for overall health,” says Dr. Christina Chambreau, a well-known holistic veterinarian with a practice near Baltimore, Maryland. Fresh, raw meat should provide the majority of a dog’s diet, Chambreau says, feeding the least-processed – and preferably organic – foods does more to support health than almost any other dog-care practice. That’s because nutrients are in their most bio-available state when they are fresh and uncooked.
Supplementing “dead,” cooked foods with synthetic vitamins and minerals simply isn’t nearly as beneficial as feeding whole food sources. One reason is that synthetic vitamins interact differently with minerals in the body.
For example, man-made ascorbic acid can deplete copper levels, but the vitamin C from food sources does not. And in some cases, synthetic vitamins are stereo-isomers (mirror images) of natural vitamins, but can’t bind to receptor sites in the body the same way as natural vitamins.
Vegetables offer other benefits. They are relatively inexpensive (compared to meats, fruits, and whole grains. They are also digested relatively well, especially compared to grains. The high carbohydrates provided by grains provide a substrate for bacterial overgrowth, with the resultant production of toxic metabolites that cause a variety of digestive problems such as gas and diarrhea.
Vegetables are also much lower in sugar than fruits; too much sugar in a dog’s diet can overstimulate the production of stomach acids. And some dog owners find vegetables to be a convenient, nutritious, but lower-calorie replacement for kibble in a dieting dog’s food bowl. (Fills ‘em up without plumping ‘em up!)
Preparation is important
Because dogs have short intestinal tracts, they do need a little help to efficiently break down plant cell walls and extract the nutrients. This can be accomplished without much effort, and the payoff in natural vitamin supplementation is well worth it for your pet in terms of prevention of disease and overall health.
Dr. Pat Bradley, a holistic veterinarian with a practice in Conway, Arkansas, explains. “Each raw fruit and vegetable contains the enzymes necessary to break it down within its cells. That’s what you’re seeing when you drop an apple; the bruising is a release of enzymes. Feeding raw foods is a good idea because all the enzymes necessary to break down that particular food are there. However, because a dog’s digestive system is so short, the digestive process is quick. Feeding raw foods, with the enzymes still present, can speed the process of digestion, increasing nutrient availability with less stress on the system.”
Some people use vegetables such as carrots as snacks to alleviate doggie boredom and for chewing exercise. But in order to help your dog digest plant material, without it passing right through them undigested, you should puree, finely grind, or grate the vegetables. Some dog owners put the vegetables through a blender or food processor to break them down to a smooth consistency.
Any or all of the following vegetables can be used alone or in combination: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, corn, green beans, greens, kohlrabi, okra, parsnips, peas, pumpkin, sprouts, squash, sweet potatoes, turnips, and rutabagas.
While the enzymes, vitamins, and antioxidants present in foods are diminished by cooking, it may be beneficial to lightly steam some types of vegetables to assist the breakdown of cell walls. Some of the vegetables that are more palatable and digestible when slightly cooked include potatoes, rutabagas, and asparagus.
The one vegetable dog owners should avoid is onion, which can cause severe reactions in some dogs, even in small amounts.
Digestion will also be enhanced if you provide your dog with a digestive enzyme supplement such as Florazyme (made by Pet’s Friend, 800-868-1009) or ProZyme (800-522-5537). Dogs produce their own digestive enzymes, but the addition of supplemental amounts increases nutrient absorption.
A natural form of digestive enzyme supplementation is sometimes seen in the wild. After bringing down their prey, predators such as wolves, hyenas, coyotes, foxes and feral dogs often dive into their prey’s digestive organs first, eating the stomach contents enzyme-laden vegetative material.
In many cases, dog owners must reduce the amount of food they give their dogs after introducing digestive enzymes; many dogs gain weight when on the supplement, apparently because the efficiency of their digestive process increases so much.
Veterinarians say your dog may consume up to one third of his total meal by volume in veggies, but watch your dog. Introduce all new foods slowly over time to help your pet adjust to changes in her diet. Notice what she eats first and what she leaves in her dish. Notice too, what passes undigested in her stools; could there be another way to prepare that food to increase digestibility? Evaluate the dog for energy levels, haircoat, overall health and then evaluate her again after feeding vegetables for a month. Reduce or increase the amount of vegetables accordingly.
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-By Susan Eskew