Monday, July 29, 2013

Study on homemade pet food recipes finds that most are nutritionally incomplete

Flickr photo by EraPhernalia Village

“I can’t believe that as someone who knows as much as you do about the pet food industry, that you don’t feed a homemade diet,” an acquaintance of mine asserted a few months ago.

“Doing otherwise is so risky…”

I think it’s safe to say that the topic of the diet of companion animals evokes a lot of emotion in pet owners.

It’s no surprise, really.

Although the pet food industry was branching and embracing a holistic, natural approach a few years ago, the largest pet food recall in history surely propelled the movement to consider what pets are eating everyday a bit more closely. Then, a far-reaching recall involving Diamond Pet Foods seemed to be the tipping point for a lot of people.

It’s one thing for quality control tests to occasionally find salmonella contamination in a batch of food, but as many of you have noted in your emails and phone calls to me, for one company to overlook such huge lapses in the safety and quality during production is alarming.

Months and months later, I am still getting telephone calls from people regarding the Diamond recall. Several of these calls involved pets that were believed to have died as a result of consuming food produced by the company.

People want to feel empowered that the choices that they are making on behalf of their dogs and cats are the right ones, so it seems natural that they’ll be willing to choose what they deem to be wholesome and healthy — and if they are controlling the ingredients, they feel, ‘so much the better’. There's nothing wrong with that, certainly.

Enter the popularity of feeding raw diets (especially with the availability of formulas that are now commercially available) or at the very least offering food that is made at home.

It seems that one can’t pick up a magazine geared toward pets or surf the web without finding at least one article or blog post touting the benefits of homemade pet diets, right along with recipes.

This prompted researchers at University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine to do a study on recipes for home cooked pet diets, and the results were released in the June issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Jennifer Larsen, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at UC Davis and Jonathan Stockman, a veterinary doctor and second-year resident in clinical nutrition at UC Davis, selected 200 recipes from more than 30 sources, including pet care books, websites — even veterinary textbooks.

The findings are bound to set off some fireworks.

"The results of this study, however, indicate that most available recipes for healthy dogs, even those published in books by veterinarians, do not provide essential nutrients in the quantities required by the dog," Larsen noted.

"It is extremely difficult for the average pet owner—or even veterinarians—to come up with balanced recipes to create appropriate meals that are safe for long-term use."

The conclusion of the study? Out of 200 recipes, only nine provided all essential nutrients in concentrations that met the minimum standards established for adult dogs by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Eight of those recipes were written by veterinarians.

Only four of the 200 recipes could pass muster when it came to meeting acceptable nutrient profiles of the AAFCO and the National Research Council's minimum requirements.

Those four recipes were written by board-certified veterinary nutritionists.

Commonly found nutrient deficiencies were linked to choline, vitamin D, zinc and vitamin E and could possibly result in profound health issues like immune dysfunction.

Many stick to the idea that as long as recipes are rotated, any deficiencies that might occur with one specific recipe can be avoided with the "balance over time" concept.

Larsen, who is lead author on the study, says that’s hard to achieve, since most of the recipes share many of the same nutrient deficiencies.

So how can pet owners be empowered and equally mindful?

Larsen makes clear that "homemade food is a great option for many pets, but we recommend that owners avoid general recipes from books and the Internet and instead consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.”

"These specialists have advanced training in nutrition to help formulate customized and nutritionally appropriate recipes."

Click here to read more on the findings of the study.

Lorrie Shaw is a blogger and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Friday, July 26, 2013

In positive reinforcement training with dogs, which reward is most effective? A study sheds some light

Thumbnail image for gretchenpuppy.jpg
Gretchen, around 8-10 weeks of age. Training had by that time already started.
Ideas in dog training and understanding canine behavior have certainly come a long way in the past 15 years or so.

My Gretchen is almost as old, and I have to say that I wasn't comfortable with every aspect of some of the popular methods that were around back then when she was a puppy. No, let me rephrase that: I wasn't comfortable with most of them.

Those were the days before puppy classes and hiring the expertise of a professional dog trainer were the norm, I should note. But being totally engaged with the prospect of unfolding what would become an adult dog who was able to think independently and control herself with a fair amount of finesse in our very-human world was paramount.

"Doing the hard work now will pay off for a lifetime," was my mantra.

But the lack of what I felt were good resources in dog training back then did get me thinking about what I knew in my gut: forging good communication, trust and a solid relationship with her was the only way.

The former was really the only way for me to attain and keep that solid relationship and trust with Gretchen.

The problem? We didn't share a language yet. But it was my mission to make that happen. And punishment or aversive-based methods weren't going to enable that to come to fruition — they were only going to make her fear me, cause her to retreat and tune out.

Bringing the chubby mass of fur home at five weeks was already a challenge — that was much too young to have been weaned and not have much contact with her mother — so I knew that I had a lot of diligence to put forth. So I followed my gut: I set about establishing a strong bond through daily interaction/positive touch and play, kept a routine and "listened" to what she most favorably responded to.

What I quickly learned is that she not only loved yummy treats, but praise and interaction (including but not limited to games, a walk to her favorite haunts). I knew that the latter two were exceptionally important to cultivate with care, as they were going to be the foundation for great communication in our daily life for many years to come.

Depending on the skill I was teaching, I would use praise, interaction/positive touch, games/play and sometimes food rewards.

Admittedly, I did not use food rewards for everything, and certainly not every time that I wanted to convey that she had gotten something right. I did find that food rewards were especially useful for difficult training like "stay," since the skill is graduated into different distances apart as a dog gains ability to control herself over time.

Gretchen was a eager learner, and did so quickly.

Fast forward so many years later, and Gretchen is a settled, happy dog whom has been able to enjoy her life — and has been a pleasure to be around.

There seems to be considerable dissent between those in the canine training and behavior community with regard to which methods and approaches yield the best results.

Typically, you'll hear discussion in these circles with regard to aversive or punishment-based methods vs. those that employ positive reinforcement only. But as Stanley Coren, Ph.D. discusses in a recent article on, positive reinforcement trainers may not always be in agreement, either.

The question of whether food rewards, verbal praise or positive physical touch is most effective in training can be a sticking point amongst professionals, but hasn't really been formally tested until recently.

Coren talks about results of a study recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior which reported research by co-authors Megumi Fukuzawa and Naomi Hayashi in the Department of Animal Resource and Sciences of the College of Bioresource Sciences at Nihon University in Japan.

The study, Comparison of three different reinforcements of learning in dogs, divided 15 dogs into three sets, and in each set, a different reward was used: praise, stroking/petting and food.

As part of the study, observing the dogs while they were learning the "sit-stay" and the "recall" (or "come") command seemed to make the most sense, since those are core commands. All three groups were trained identically.

Overall, the trainings that employed food rewards were more effective than the other two methods used. Interestingly, early in training for the recall command, there seemed to be a slight advantage in food reward.

Used in tandem with the right timing to reward the dog, as well as keeping training sessions short and fun, food rewards can make all of the difference, especially when introducing a new skill.

There are some out there who dismiss the notion of using food rewards at all in training, but hopefully this study will broaden the conversation with regard to how useful the practice can be, and prompt more studies like it in the future.

Click here to read the article published on

Lorrie Shaw is a blogger and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Excessive licking of surfaces by dogs may not be a behavioral problem, but a clue to something more

Flickr photo by greencolander
What was once thought to be strictly a compulsive disorder in dogs could very well be easily explained, and the problem quickly resolved.

Excessive licking of surfaces , or ELS, is something that I hear families mention when I'm meeting their pet for the first time, as I inquire if there are any health issues or behaviors that I ought to be aware of. 

Dogs who engage in ELS will lick the bare floor, carpeting, furniture, walls -- just about anything.

Often thought of as a behavioral problem, a lot of times, the behavior doesn't meet any resolution and can potentially result in a life-threatening intestinal blockage that requires surgery in a small number of cases as hair and fibers may be ingested.

Researchers now believe that ELS could simply be a clue that something else is up.

A study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior details the outcome of two groups of dogs — 19 presenting with ELS and 10 healthy canines as the control group.

Researchers focused first on evaluating the dogs from a behavioral, physical, and neurological standpoint. Then tests were performed on their gastrointestinal (GI) systems, and based on any abnormalities that were discovered, those were treated accordingly.

This is where it gets interesting: GI disorders were found in 14 of the 19 dogs, and ranged from giardiasis, eosinophilic and/or lymphoplasmacytic infiltration of the GI tract, delayed gastric emptying and chronic pancreatitis.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome was also discovered in some of the pets.

Ten of the 17 dogs saw significant reduction in their presentation of ELS, and in over half of 17 of the dogs, ELS was eventually resolved completely.

Ahh, if only dogs could talk, right? Most of the time, pets exhibit what we think are ‘behaviors’ but are really the animal’s way of saying, “I’m not feeling well.”.

We often look to changes in their willingness to engage, to eat and their sleeping habits in order for us to help ascertain if they are feeling unwell. While those cues can be helpful, it’s a good thing for clinicians and pet owners alike to think outside the box when trying to address a vexing problem.

Click here to read more on the study.

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Swaddling pet rabbits can help make medicating them safer and easy

Flickr photo by pictographic
 The vast majority of animals that I care for are fairly easygoing about my giving medication to them, and if they're not, they tend to not fuss too much and have attitudes toward me that are pretty forgiving.

Medications aren't limited to pills — liquids, injections and even transdermal preparations are all used in veterinary applications, so depending on the type of prescription, technique and speed are often the truck in making the task easy and comfortable.

One species of companion animal can be a little tricky when it comes to administering meds to rabbits and that is true for a few reasons.

First, bunnies are skittish. As prey animals, by instinct they have a strong flight response when frightened or unsettled, so because of that, they do try to fight and get away. This reaction can present a problem when they are picked up — an action that can cause them to be frightened. The fact that bunnies have delicate bones in their back is a cause for concern when the need to handle them in a way that they may not care for (in this case, to administer medication) arises. Pet rabbits tend to kick their powerful legs in an effort to get away. This action can jar the spine, causing it to break.

Because of this, taking special care to support their weight in a way that their legs would when lifting and carrying them, and employing a swaddling technique so to speak when medicating them can help avoid any injury to your pet.

 Referred to as "burritoing the bunny," swaddling the animal in a large towel is an easy way to comfortably and safely restrain them while performing the task. It's easy enough to do: take a large bath towel (larger than your pet), fold it in half, then fold a far corner in slightly. Put the rabbit's head where the corner is, fold the bottom half of the towel up over the animal's back and then wrap each side of the towel snugly over his body, just like you would an infant. This allows better control and keeps the rabbit from kicking and thrashing about. For added control, consider sitting down with the animal in your lap while medicating it.

To see a demonstration on how to swaddle your rabbit, click here. Dr.Jeffery R. Jenkins, DVM, DABVP offers this tip and others on how to properly handle your bunny whether picking him up, or transferring him in or out of a pet carrier.
Lorrie Shaw is a blogger and professional pet sitter. Catch her daily dog walking and pet sitting adventures or email her directly.