Pet Foods – an Introduction

April 14th, 2009

By George Burns

I am often asked two questions, either individually or at the same time. How did I get my business started – and what exactly is ‘Holistic Nutrition’ ?  The two questions are linked like a chain, inseparable for me with neither a beginning nor an end! It is a subject matter which is constantly evolving in relationship to my knowledge and understanding. In this respect the two questions have completely different answers but relate directly to one another in my story.

I have been involved in the philosophy of diet and health since my mid twenties.
Thirty years of interest stemming from repeated visits to my GP with eczema which I was plagued by for about 4 years. I still can remember the half-sleeping, half-waking feeling and clawing at my legs or arms. Getting up in the middle of the night, looking for the cream for some relief and then back to sleep. Another month would pass and back at the GP for some other cream until I finally asked for an appointment at the Homeopathic Hospital in Glasgow – my GP’s response was sharp and to the point…. as was mine “ I don’t think that will do much good” to which I replied “well neither have the creams so it’s worth a try”

In those days the demand on the Homeopathic hospital was very limited so the appointment came in a week later for the following week. It was an experience I will never forget! The Doctor sat me down and asked questions about my diet, lifestyle and took about 20 minutes  to complete the questions, writing everything down and then he asked to look at the eczema.  He looked me over then asked if he could bring in a colleague who spent less than 2 minutes looking me up and down.  He asked me to dress and then sat me down and explained that major lifestyle changes which were needed, including diet. He handed me 2 sheets of paper – one listed foods to avoid and the other had suggestions for various meals. He explained that the homeopathic sulphur tablets were to be taken until my whole body was covered in a rash and that I should stop them immediately this happened. All being well, he explained, if I followed the diet and took the tablets, then the resulting rash would clear away the eczema. He even gave me his direct phone number should I have any questions or concerns. It was a Saturday morning I stopped the homeopathic sulphur – I was covered from head to toe in a terrible rash and in a panic – I phoned the number and sure enough he answered, explained again and reassured me everything would be fine in a day or so. The Eczema was gone by the Monday! My own GP never saw me again for about 4 years!

I had a passionate hobby at that time – I owned, trained and raced greyhounds.
Morning noon and night was spent with these lovely animals but one thing which prevailed was that they too would have bouts of weeping eczema, scratching etc.
I changed their diet – I cut out the refined foods, the chemicals, the milk. I introduced brown rice, I was cooking it anyway, I cut way back on the protein and the dogs started to change shape. The changes in my dogs  were unbelievable.
One of my dogs won thirteen races in a row. Other dog owners were bringing their dogs to me explaining they could not get them to race, and asking if I could help. I told them I would need the dog for about 6 weeks. They were subsequently accused of using drugs when their dogs started winning races.
That said, it wasn’t all about the diet. It was clear to me then as it is now, that spending time walking, grooming, massaging, talking and developing their natural interest in the open countryside, contributed to their spiritual and physical wellbeing.  I didn’t really know it then but what I was doing was looking after these dogs in a holistic way and they thrived!!!

My brother had trained as a Vet and had studied Macrobiotics. It gave meaning to what I had experienced personally and with my dogs. A dog food was developed and off we went. I spent the next 12 years working with people and dogs, reading books and attending lectures. I finished up in the USA where I met and spoke with some of the world renowned practitioners of holistic veterinary medicine including Dr Ian Billinghirst, author of “BARF”. Dr. Martin Goldstein, author of “The Nature Of Animal Healing” Dr Gregory Tilfors and his wife, authors of “Herbs for Pets”. Dr, Jean Dodds, an authority and fierce advocate for stopping vaccine administration.  I spent four days in the company of Professor Lon Lewis who was one of the original authors of “Small Animal Clinical Nutrition” – the precursor of the Hills Prescription diets. His co-author, Professor Mark Morris went on to form the Morris Institute – probably the largest animal nutritional organisation in the world.

I was reading books like “Healing with Whole Foods”  “New Foods for Healing”, “The Textbook for Natural Health” “The Encyclopaedia of Natural Medicine”. I simply couldn’t get enough; it was fascinating and absorbing and each one of them had something to offer towards both the health of humanity and our pets.

Life has turning points, things that change your focus and direction in life and sometimes those little changes add up to a huge life change. My eldest brother was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma – Cancer! I read and talked to many people about it and by good fortune met Geoff D’Arcy, ironically at the American Holistic Vet Conference in Durham, North Carolina. Geoff was originally from Bristol, so we had a common thread in our heritage, and I explained my brother’s predicament. I got an amazing lecture on herbs and how combinations of herbs can impact on the body. He made up a collection of herbal formulas and sent them to my brother in Ireland.  Even the Doctors were asking what he was on by the time his treatment was finished. The results had been astounding and my interest in herbs was once again revived. (I had been invited by the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine to do a degree in herbal medicine a few years earlier)

Reading up on cancer combined with what I had already learned gave me insight to the array of developing philosophies which encompassed old with new.   The Gerson therapy, herbal therapy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, modern science – they were all having an influence on how I looked at the health of both humans and dogs.  Macrobiotics, a diet and health philosophy which I had been used to working with, was good and although based on a historic concept it was almost revolutionary as far as pets were concerned in the UK.  As my reading continued, I realised it had limitations and flaws when compared to emerging knowledge and experience. I was unhappy with not only the limitations of the existing philosophy but the emphasis on the rewards of business activity rather that what I felt was the true purpose – that of enabling pet owners to make informed choices for the health of their pets. The real turning point for me was the emergence of a product a good friend nicknamed Pork Scratchings’ – Pig skin deep fried in fat – it had all the idiosyncratic features of Mars Bars deep fried – a special menu-item in Scottish chippy’s in the 70’s! This was commercialism no different from any other pet food company where profits became the driving factor. For me it was a betrayal of what we had represented.

It was that priority which led me to establish The Land Of Holistic Pets and the process of separation of involvement with my brother and his business, began.
I felt then that my principles were in danger of being compromised – time to move on!

Holistic is fast becoming the buzzword these days for our animal companions – pet food companies have latched onto it and everywhere we turn we hear the term, but its meaning and use has no universal definition.

Travelling around the country a few people would pose the question “what did I understand by the term Holistic Nutrition ?”. I then began to realise that very few people actually understood the concept in its proper fashion – I started to ask people what they thought it meant and was surprised to hear answers like natural, healthy, whole foods etc.

A true Holistic approach is about balance – emotional and spiritual, as well as physical.  Nutrition is about creating a food or range of food which will create those conditions for dogs, young and old alike.  Disease or ill health on the other hand is about imbalance so holistic nutrition creates the conditions to avoid imbalance or disease.  Equally important in this approach is a recognition that the body has the ability to correct imbalance or disease if given the correct conditions.

Consider a water lily which we plant in the sand – we would be running every day with water to correct the imbalance – if we then moved the water lily back to the pond it will regain its composure and thrive. We have created the correct conditions for the water lily to regain balance.

Everything in terms of food and water, good or bad, works its way through the digestive process. Proper function of the digestive system and everything else that follows on from that is dependant on so many variables and diet is at the heart of it all.  This is what makes holistic nutrition so important – simply put, it has the greatest influence in terms of balance or health within the body.

Foods have the ability to warm or cool the body, create dry or damp condition and lastly but equally important create acid or alkaline body fluids. So each ingredient in the diet is considered so as they complement each other.

If one ingredient creates a warm condition it should be matched with a food which cools.

If another ingredient creates damp conditions (fat) then it should be complemented with one which dries the body. (Too much fat creates very damp conditions.)

Holistic diet should not create conditions which are either too warm or cool, too dry or damp.

Each ingredient in the diet is also considered for its impact in terms of the Ph level it creates.  Ph stands for potential hydrogen ranging from 1 – 14 with 7 being neutral.
Animal or fish protein for example creates very acid conditions in the body.

Brown rice is acid forming in the body ( more hydrogen, less oxygen)   Spinach
is alkaline forming in the body (more oxygen, less hydrogen)   Thus we need to
balance the ingredients to produce the correct Ph level in the body. A point worth noting is that although lemons are very acidic in themselves they are very alkaline forming in the body!

At first glance the Ph level may not seem important but growing evidence suggests that cancers, kidney, urinary and arthritic conditions will thrive in acidic body fluids whereas they struggle in slightly alkaline fluids. The target for holistic diets is slightly alkaline.

We then look at the potential for ‘Excesses’ Is there too much protein, fat, salt or sugar?

Excess protein in the body is converted to nitrogen waste which is supposed to be excreted in the urine but when not – long term kidney problems can develop in conjunction with creating acidic conditions.

Deficiencies is another major factor despite pet food companies claiming their products are complete and balanced. For example, it is simply not good enough to throw in a range of ingredients that will keep you dog alive. For example there should be enough chlorophyll (the green in greens) in the diet to help with digestive process.
I was astounded by a visit I made to a coyote rescue centre in Indiana a few years back. The coyote’s were scoffing down the grass cuttings thrown into their run. The grass was obviously part of their subsistence diet. Having personally seen these wild animals hunt down animals made this observation all the more potent.

I digress again! So many stories and experiences that when I start, I forget to stop!

The quality of the ingredients – whole brown rice, millet, oats, compared to say corn gluten meal, sugar beet pulp etc. When brown rice is refined to white rice it is estimated that it loses anything between 26 – 86 % of its nutrient content dependant on the nutrient.

Is there enough protein and fat, also is the quality good enough? For example when I see taurine in dog food, then warning bells are ringing – why? Dogs make their own taurine but only if the amino acids in the protein are correct – this brings about the question of quality. Pet food companies in their pursuit of profit have been known to  use potato, wheat or rice protein extract which does not have the essential amino acids that meat contains. But dogs so badly need !!

So how does the digestive process work?

Think of a Juicer – you put fruit or vegetables in a juicer, switch it on and the fruit or vegetables are reduced to tiny fragments.  The juice comes out one side and the pulp comes out the back.

The whole purpose of juicing is to reduce the products to a condition which will cross easily through the wall of the digestive track. In other words, the nutrients are so small that the cell walls open up to let them through into the main body.

The Animal Juicer

The same thing happens in the body, animal or human! The process is different in that digestive enzymes are the body’s juicer in combination with Peristalsis ( a distinctive pattern of smooth muscle contractions that propels foodstuffs through the oesophagus and intestines.)

As the food travels down the oesophagus then into the stomach the digestive enzymes get to work preparing the food for its onward journey and at the same time extracting what it can in the process. As the food continues down the digestive track, more enzymes go to work and the nutrient extraction or absorption through the digestive wall continues. The food is simply being reduced to a state which can be absorbed through the wall of the digestive track. (Juicing does this for you)  At the same time the waste or pulp is being processed and finishes up being excreted as urine or in the stool.

When the wrong types of foods are being absorbed through the digestive wall this gives rise to toxic/waste accumulation in the body prompting an immune response to rid the body ( rebalancing the body naturally) of them. Hence, excessive shedding, scratching, eczema, hot spots, chewing feet, waxy ears, runny eyes, occasional digestive upset, strong smelling urine, anal gland problems etc.

As mentioned earlier, buzzwords and advertising by the large pet food companies have a very powerful influence with their hype.  One small example is food for pups or older dogs. Ask yourself this question – when did we ever purchase special foods for our children beyond infancy? Yet we as pet owners do it for our growing pups. I can never imaging a mother pushing a shopping cart through the supermarket with her son and her saying to her friend that she was looking for a lower protein food because Charlie, her 4 year old son was a bit on the big side.  The over 55’s menu I see in many restaurants is not any different from that of the main menu other than it is smaller portions. We eat less food as we grow older not a different kind! My own mother passed away when she was 93 but still did her own shopping – she didn’t go looking for food for older people – she simply ate less.

It is true that Holistic should involve natural, healthy ingredients but for me it goes much further. I can only influence the diet and suggest what quantity to feed. I can even suggest a range of herbs which will support your dog as it attempts to restore balance. The rest is up to the owner in terms of developing a lifestyle which fits into the psyche of both owner and dog. Health, physical, mental and emotional is greatly influenced by diet but it is the caring owner who complete the cycle of holistic wellbeing – for me, helping to facilitate that is extremely satisfying. I feel there is nothing more rewarding than being able to support dog owners in their pursuit of finding solutions.

Holistic is in fact a very definitive term and it  is not enough to say that food is natural, that it helps rid the body of toxins or that a vet has developed it. It is something which can only be achieved in conjunction with the owner in term of providing all the correct conditions for overall health and wellbeing – remember, as humans, we have choices, our domesticated dogs do not – we make the decisions for them – Go Holistic!

© George Burns Jan 2009