Promoting Natural Pet Health

By Healther Granato

Basic Nutrition

For all the love and devotion pets give to their owners, many owners are not returning the favor through nutrition. Nutritional deficiencies are widespread with such visible signs as loss of fur, itchy skin or dull coat. According to Andi Brown with Halo, Purely for Pets, those deficiencies can be just the beginning or an indication of a more serious health issue.

At the base of the problem is pet food. "Lack of proper nutrients in pet foods and lack of proper digestion creates major problems," said Lisa Newman, Ph.D/N.D., with Azmira and the author of a series of pet care books from Crossing Press. Mainstream pet foods often contain meat byproducts, which can include dead or dying animals, or unusable parts such as chicken beaks or organs. Many rely on less expensive grains such as corn meal or ground rice as the base of the food, though those ingredients can be indigestible. Instead, retailers should look for foods with ingredients such as USDA grade, identifiable and digestible animal protein (such as lamb or lamb meal, in which part of the meats water is removed), and USDA whole grains.

Unfortunately, even retailers who become more diligent label readers face difficulties because of the lack of labeling requirements for pet foods. Weiss noted that while there is a guaranteed analysis statement on pet food labels, they only detail percentages of ingredients, not the sources. If fat is listed, for example, does it come from beef fat or tallow-used drippings collected from the restaurant industry and not refrigerated? Instead, ask for documentation from the manufacturer of the type of ingredients used.

Even in quality food, pets can be allergic to ingredients, which leads to nutritional deficiencies. Brewers yeast, for example, is used in many natural pet foods and supplements because it is a good source of B vitamins. However, it can be allergenic to pets and can build up toxins in the system from the yeast byproducts.

In addition to offering pet foods that are chosen from quality companies and that fulfill their labeling claims, retailers should promote a basic multi-vitamin/mineral supplement alongside the food offering. Consumers who are used to taking such a supplement understand the basic "insurance" it offers. There are a variety of products available, though even in this category, the ingredients are important to examine. "If a customer wants cheap pet supplements, they'll seek those out at bargain or warehouse retailers," said Charles Frank with PetMax Naturals. "Health food shoppers expect the best quality, and the pet supplements a retailer stocks should be no exception."

Retailers should review the types of multiples they offer and make sure the products have high enough levels of the basic nutrients, including vitamins A, C, D, E and all the Bs, plus minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, selenium, magnesium and potassium.

Supplementing The Diet

As in humans, a high quality diet and basic multiple can solve many of a pet's nutritional deficiencies. However, as with human diets, the food we eat is not as nutritionally complete as we may believe. Also, higher intakes of some nutrients, depending on environment and other stressors, can help a pet realize optimal health. "Supplements help address underlying problems with a pet's health, rather than just treating the symptoms," said Frank King with King Bio Pharmaceuticals.

Antioxidants are as important to pets as they are to humans. "We know that antioxidants can help pets live a healthier and potentially longer life," Frank said. "But research-proven amounts of antioxidants are almost completely lacking in the average pet's diet. "The king for most pets is vitamin C, which was mentioned by most pet nutrition experts. Vitamin C helps maintain cell and tissue structure, and protects against free radical damage to organs and membranes. It is important to offer supplements that use a high quality, bioavailable vitamin C, such as Ester-C, to realize maximum impact. Vitamin E also works as an antioxidant to counteract free radical damage that can lead to premature aging; it also assists in fat metabolism and supports cell membrane integrity.

Because dogs and cats have very short digestive tracts, digestive enzymes can help them get the most from the supplements and good food an owner feeds them. "Assisting with digestion of processed foods eases the filtration load on the pancreas and kidneys," said Carol Starr with Dr. Goodpet. Digestive enzymes are found either in the body or in the food itself. Because processed foods are heavily cooked at high temperatures, any active enzymes in the raw ingredients are killed. This can" tax the digestive organs and quickly use up any stores of enzymes.

Essential fatty acids are also lost in high heat processing, and are therefore an important nutritional addition to a pets diet. EFAs fall into two groups, omega-3 and omega-6, and work in the body to lower bloodfat levels, assist in nerve function and growth, and promote skin health and wound healing. Among the sources of EFAs are flax, borage, evening primrose and fish oils. EFA supplements should be refrigerated to ensure the delicate oils do not degrade in heat or light; retailers can stock them in the same section as the human EFA supplements and cross merchandise with signage in the pet department.

Amino acids are the foundations of protein, which is essential to tissue growth. The body produces adequate amounts of the nonessential amino acids, but the "essential" amino acids must be supplied through the diet. While most whole proteins, such as meat, do contain all the amino acids, most grains lack some of the amino acids; pets on a vegetarian or grain diet should definitely be supplemented with amino acids. In her book Nutrition (Crossing Press, 1999), Lisa Newman details the most important amino acids for pets, They include glutamic add for energy and nerve functions; branch chain amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine and valine that help regulate red blood cell formation and metabolism; lysine for immune function; and methionine to help with fatty acid assimilation and liver or skin conditions.

Pets that suffer chronic health issues or conditions, such as arthritis or obesity, may need additional specialized supplements. While the pets are not living longer, they are suffering from years of inbreeding and subpar nutrition that has even caused genetic damage. Larger dogs in particular are prone to arthritic and joint issues. Glucosamine, well known for its abilities in humans to ease the pain of arthritis and joint problems, works equally well in pets.

Glucosamine is a naturally occurring substance normally formed from glucose and found in high concentrations in joint structures. Glucosamine sulfate is the primary form found in dietary supplements. Research has found that it helps to form the lubrication matrix of joints, resulting in a gradual reduction in joint pain and tenderness and improved range of motion. Glucosamine is often used in conjunction with EFAs, which have anti-inflammatory properties and aid in keeping cartilage and intracellular fluids smooth.

Obesity has also increased in pets, not coincidentally along with the rise in obesity in the owners. "Pets have become couch potatoes like their owners, "Weiss said. While there are more pet weight loss products coming on the market, some of which use ingredients like garcinia and chromium, consumers should watch their pets carefully to ensure their health is not compromised during a weight loss program. Feeding twice a day, supplementing with high quality nutrients and ensuring the pet has exercise time and attention from the owner can result in overall promotion of health rather than a simple weight loss bullet.

The natural pet area is growing rapidly and offers retailers major opportunities. "Natural foods shoppers are eager to find natural alternatives to meet their pets' health needs," Frank said. This means providing a section of products with choices to emphasize that it is a viable option. Consider positioning the section in a well trafficked area, rather than stuck in a back comer with the laundry detergent.

Finally, as with other supplements, a well-educated staff is the best sales tool. "I encourage retailers to have sales people who both understand nutrition and care about animals," said Estelle Hummell with Coyote Springs. Sales people who are interested in animals can form a bond with shoppers and also recount personal stories of nutritional healing of pets. "Retailers are realizing sales," she added, "and it will become a bigger market if a retailer offers products beyond the basics."  

Article Reference:

Granato, H., (June 2000), Promoting Natural Pet Health, "HSR Health Supplement Retailer".