My Vet said …

This article covers information on important health studies on dogs that is too often missing from your vet's advice.

As I am not a veterinarian I am not permitted to give medical advice regarding canine health. I am not going to. So, what am I going to write about then, you may wonder? I am going to share some publicly available information, published by the National Institute of Health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) and other reputable and well-respected veterinary scientists.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the nation’s medical research agency. It doesn’t get more official than that. The studies I am going to share are something every dog owner should know about. Their findings indicate, that some things we have become accustomed to doing to our dogs, are ill-advised and need a fresh look. We will also review some of my decisions and opinions I formed based on this information.

I am a professional dog trainer and naturally own several dogs myself. In addition, I have seen the health journeys of many client dogs during my time in the business. I also regularly read canine medical studies, and as a result, have adopted some strong opinions on what is and isn’t healthy for dogs. My German Shepherd Max is almost eighteen years old at the time I am writing this article and my boy Sylvester, also a German Shepherd is about to turn sixteen. It would appear I am doing something right, as all my dogs are healthy and rarely need to see my veterinarian.

Appreciate Your Vet's Advice

This article is not intended as a criticism of veterinarians. I value my vet's advice in many areas. Most veterinarians are well-intentioned, good people, and some black sheep exist in any profession. We all need great veterinarians we can rely on in case of need and I love my own veterinarians. I use several different ones for different reasons and I will touch on those later. My veterinarians have saved my own dog's lives after accidents and other medical emergencies over the years. I am very grateful for their skill and expertise and appreciate my vet's advice on many things.

I think we all can appreciate that if you are a busy veterinarian, it is often difficult to stay up-to-date with the latest research in every area of veterinary care; no matter how much one tries or wants to. I simply acknowledge that my veterinarian can’t know everything.

Veterinarians know a lot about animal health, how to diagnose diseases, perform surgeries, etc. It is what they learned in veterinary school. It takes a while to get through that so always listen to your vet's advice. We need to appreciate their expertise in their field. But we also need to acknowledge what is limited or missing in the typical veterinary school curriculum. I.e. most veterinarians can perform spay or neuter surgeries but what if you don’t want to remove the entire reproductive system because it impacts the endocrine system? That has health impacts, especially later in your dog’s life. What, if you just want to get a vasectomy or ovarian-sparing spay for your dog? Usually, only a board-certified veterinary surgeon knows how to perform those, and most veterinarians will easily admit they can’t perform that surgery, as they haven’t learned how to.

Know When Your Vet's Advice May Be Limited

However, many veterinarians don’t seem to feel the same restraint when it comes to assessing or evaluating canine nutrition or dog food; an area that receives little attention in standard veterinary training. This is why we have experts in that field, called canine nutritionists. Veterinarians should be open about not being experts on canine nutrition unless they had supplemental education and refer you to a specialist instead of just suggesting certain brands of foods they may sell themselves. Sometimes your vet's advice requires greater scrutiny.

I feel similarly about the far too frequent, instant prescription of anti-anxiety medication for fearful dogs. Anxiety and fear in dogs are a field I specialize in as a dog trainer. Veterinarians aren’t behavioral experts and usually don’t have enough understanding of canine behavior to prescribe the best possible solution for an anxious dog in the first place. I am not saying it could never include a prescription, but if that is all one has to offer, of course, the answer to every behavior challenge becomes a pill. This is basically what veterinary behaviorists do; they prescribe drugs. Take your vet's advice on behavioral treatments with a grain of salt.

Honesty is the Best Policy

We should all be open and honest about what our area of expertise is and stick to that or if we wander outside of it, offer solid evidence for our opinions, like I am doing in this article. An opinion not rooted in reality and fact—to me—is the most useless thing in the world.

This is what I will do. I will touch on several areas of canine health, provide the relevant published studies regarding current standard practices and share my own approach in each area. I am not calling on anyone to follow my lead, but I do encourage you to review this information. Review your current practices regarding your dog. Maybe have a discussion with your current veterinarian. And maybe have a second conversation with a holistic veterinarian to see the difference. Listening to a different vet's advice can be eye-opening. You may hear very different perspectives. Your dog will thank you.

… My Dog Needs to be Vaccinated / Needs Annual Booster Shots

Yes, your dogs absolutely need to be vaccinated against things that can kill them. Legally, you are required to get a rabies vaccine every three years in most states. There are efforts underway to change the interval to five years (more tests are in progress to prove seven-year immunity) by the Rabies Challenge Fund. Dr. Ronald Schultz and Dr. Jean Dodds, two highly respected vaccination experts, outline on their website the current state of knowledge on established vaccine durations and immunizations. I highly recommend you take a look.

No other vaccine is mandated by law, but Parvo and Distemper are also considered core vaccines and should be administered. Some also consider Hepatitis a core vaccine, but Dr. Dodds disagrees and she is the expert. However, I personally don’t blindly shoot my dogs up with these vaccines every year; vaccinations carry risks. I only get a booster shot when the immunity from the last vaccination is wearing off.

Understanding Vaccines and Immunity

Based on studies, most canine vaccines last between five years and the life of your dog! Yes, studies consistently show that most vaccines only need to be given once for lifetime protection. Has your vet's advice on vaccinations included this information? Luckily, more and more veterinarians (especially holistic veterinarians) are now able to perform affordable titer tests in-house. I found a great local veterinarian who makes this easy and affordable. Titer tests show with absolute certainty if your dog has immunity (antibodies in the blood) or not and needs a new vaccination (Journal of Veterinary Medicine, February 2002). I only vaccinate when necessary. Vaccines, like every medical procedure, have risks and there can always be adverse reactions (Canine Vaccine Adverse Events, Aguirre, 2007).

I don’t give my dogs any other vaccines aside from the core vaccines. The diseases, addressed by all the other vaccines, are either easily treatable, should they occur, or are rare, to begin with. If a veterinarian—especially the ones in veterinary hospital chains are known for this—recommends vaccines against diseases other than the core vaccines, it is always a good idea to spend a few minutes searching online how many cases of this disease were reported in the prior year in the country overall and in your state in particular. The fewer the cases, the lower the risk, and I would never accept a vaccine for a disease with only a few cases in my state.

Keep in mind that most boarding and grooming places require your dog to get a Bordetella vaccine (basically your dog’s flu shot); some, every six months! That is crazy to me. This is one of the reasons I groom my dogs myself and have a great pet sitter who comes to my home when necessary. I am not doing that to my dogs.

Listen to the Experts

Dr. Ronald D. Schultz is the Professor and Chair of the Department of Patho-Biological Sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dr. Jean Dodds, DVM was a research scientist with the New York State Health Department and is the Executive Director of the New York State Council on Human Blood and Transfusion Services. She is also the founder of hemopet.org (thyroid blood tests) and nutriscan.org (saliva food allergy tests). I frequently listen to this vet's advice.

In short, these two experts know what they are talking about.

Links to the studies:

… My Dog Needs Tick and Flea Control

That sounds like a good idea. I highly suggest you take active measures to prevent ticks and fleas from infesting your dog. However, how you go about it matters. Several studies as far back as 1989 have shown that the tick and flea dips, which are applied to your dog’s back pose a measurable risk of cancer; transitional cell carcinoma, and bladder cancer especially. The tick and flea collars aren’t any better. These products absolutely work in terms of preventing ticks and fleas but at what cost?

These products contain poisonous insecticides and herbicides. Similar chemicals used for bug prevention on lawns and in gardens. They are as toxic and pose as much a cancer risk as do the garden products. All of these have shown in many studies to cause cancer in animals and humans. Applying that to a dog’s back doesn’t seem like the greatest of ideas. Why are you being told to not let your dog sleep in bed with you after the tick and flea dip was applied? Because it’s toxic and harmful to humans too. Did your vet's advice on pest control cover this information?

I have used natural alternatives to prevent ticks and fleas with my dogs for fifteen years and never had a tick or flea problem. Here are a few suggestions.

Natural Alternatives

Garlic: What? Are you crazy? Isn’t that poisonous? No, not is small dosages. Too much garlic is toxic, no doubt, but too much of anything is harmful. People have died from drinking too much water. I use two teaspoons of organic garlic powder for an 80-lb dog per week. When I prepare raw food for my dogs once a week, I distribute it evenly during food preparation. If you’re feeding differently, you could set two teaspoons of garlic powder aside in a shot glass each week and sprinkle some over the food each feeding. Wet dry food with a spray bottle (water only) before sprinkling the garlic, so it will stick to the kibble.

A veterinarian once challenged me on that approach, telling me there was a study proving garlic doesn’t work for flea prevention. When I asked for a copy of that study, she couldn’t produce it and revealed the study proved garlic doesn’t kill fleas or ticks. That is correct. Garlic doesn’t kill fleas or ticks, but it repels them, meaning they leave my dogs alone and that is all that matters. What is this obsession with killing things? This vet's advice was more of a biased opinion than fact. She misrepresented the studied science.

Essential Oils: Another approach is making yourself an essential oil spray. Use a small spray bottle, fill it 2/3 with purified water or organic witch hazel and add 10-15 drops of essential oils of d-limonene (use a combo of lemon, orange, and grapefruit), rosemary, and lavender each. Spray your dog with it a few times a week.

More Ideas on natural tick and flea prevention without toxins: Dr. Judy Morgan.

Links to the studies:

… My Dog Needs Parasite / Worm Protection

Yes, they do, but it again depends on how you go about it. Typical ingredients in the most common preventative treatments include Ivermectin and Afoxolaner. While there are certainly worse things on this earth, these chemicals do have side effects. Just look at your current product, google their ingredients and side effects and decide if those are something you want to expose your dog to. I certainly don’t. I’m not a big fan of anything that isn’t necessary.

I have personally used Noni Fruit Leather as a parasite preventative for over ten years and I even dealt with a whipworm infection in my rescue dog Max when he joined the family. He came to me with this infestation and I didn’t know he was ill. Neither did the shelter, as he had no symptoms. I detailed my whipworm story here. Noni Fruit Leather has been working well for me and none of my dogs ever contracted any parasites. Not even my existing dogs got sick when Max joined us. Whipworms are nasty little things that can survive in the soil for seven years. Noni is actually the standard vet's advice on parasite prevention in Hawaii; in the continental United States no so much.

Another way of preventing parasites is food-grade Diatomaceous Earth. A product that makes administering it easy, is Paratrex. It is a parasite treatment and preventative for humans you can also use for your dog.

Links to the studies:

… My Dog Must be Spayed/Neutered

The answer to this question is far more complicated than you might think. Strictly looking at the research data from the last few years, in terms of a dog’s health, the answer seems to be become a clearer ‘no’ by the day. But there are many other factors to consider besides biological health. An unsterilized dog can’t go to most dog parks, often can’t join daycares or dog walkers, and will have to miss out on other adventures. All of that can be psychologically unhealthy for your dog and lead to behavioral issues but spaying or neutering—especially when done too early in life—will most likely affect your dog’s physical health and shorten its life span.

In addition, intact dogs often lead to accidental litters, which add to the pet overpopulation and drive up euthanasia rates in shelters across the country. I wrote a more comprehensive article on this topic, which you can find here: My Thoughts on Spaying and Neutering. Some of the key findings from recent studies include:

A study published at UC Davis in 2013, titled “Long-Term Health Effects of Neutering Dogs: Comparison of Labrador Retrievers with Golden Retrievers” found that sterilization of Golden Retrievers before six months of age increases their risk of joint diseases later in life by 400% to 500% percent! Similarly, for Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds (separate UC Davis study in 2015) by 300%. These are alarming risk factors.

For female Golden Retrievers, spaying at any point after six months has even more serious consequences. The cancer risk increased by 300% to 400% percent. For female Labrador Retrievers, the cancer risk increased only slightly. Similar results were found in German Shepherds in a 2015 UC Davis study. For females, there is also a medium to high risk of urinary tract infections and incontinence.

These Studies Changed My Mind

My personal view on spaying and neutering has changed over the years. All my rescue dogs were spayed and neutered by the shelter. I would have preferred forgoing those procedures and instead have the option of a vasectomy (for males) or an ovarian-sparing spay (for females). These procedures achieve the desired sterility without impacting the endocrine system of the dogs and as such avoid the health risks the studies outline. However, only board-certified veterinarians seem to know how to perform those procedures and they are also more expensive than the common spay and neuter surgeries. I wrote more on this, including information on how to locate a qualified veterinarian in my spay and neuter article referenced above.

Links to the studies:

… My Dog Should Eat Food XYZ

Food has become my biggest concern for dog health. I personally feed my dogs a breed-specific, raw diet. But, I understand not everyone is comfortable with that. There are also many rabbit holes I could dive into on this topic, but I will keep this to three basic dog food facts.

Vet Advice on Dog Food

First, if your veterinarian suggests a specific food brand they sell, ask a lot of questions. If your veterinarian is not also a trained canine nutritionist, their opinion is not informed on that topic. Canine nutrition is a complex field and not included in veterinary school in any meaningful way. Get nutrition advice from someone with the right background. Your veterinarian may advise you need dog food with more or less protein or fat to support a health concern. That is fair, but I would recommend you find that food yourself or work with a trained canine nutritionist to formulate it. I also question food recommendations for weight management. Simply reducing the portion size of your current dog food and cutting out all treats seems easier to help your dog lose weight.

Understanding Dog Food Ingredients

Second, while the FDA regulates human food ingredients, there are fewer controls on pet foods. Understanding some labels and nutrition basics helps. Just like with human food, the first three ingredients listed on the pet food label make up most of what is in the bag. Those should be meat-based protein sources or at the very least meal of meat-based protein sources.

If the ingredient list starts with chicken by-product meal (not the good parts), brown rice, corn, or brewer’s yeast, you are on the wrong track. Also, don’t be fooled by grain-free foods. They just include different starches like potatoes, corn, tapioca, wheat, peas, or oatmeal. They don’t make the food better. A good food ingredient list starts with things like these: beef, wild boar, goat, lamb, lamb liver, beef liver, beef tripe, wild boar liver, mutton, beef heart, whole Atlantic mackerel, pork (Orijen, Regional Red). These are the actual first twelve ingredients of what I consider to be the best dry dog food you can buy: Orijen. I use Orijen on hikes with my dogs when bringing raw food is not feasible.

Keep Carboydrates Low

Third, keeping carbohydrates low is another factor in selecting or formulating a good dog food. Dogs can certainly process carbohydrates but don’t need much if any for a healthy diet. A natural dog diet consists mostly of fat and protein and very few carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates (found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables), as well as simple carbohydrates (found in fruits and milk products), are all turned to glucose (blood sugar) in the body. Carbohydrates become sugar upon digestion.

However, looking at the dog food label to find out how much carbs/sugar is in that bag is a fruitless exercise. The dog food manufacturers have good lobbyists and don’t have to list that information on the bag. But they must list the other relevant ingredients, so the math is simple. Look for the percentage of fat, protein, moisture, and ash (estimate at 6% if not listed). Add those numbers up and subtract them from 100 to arrive at the percent of sugar in your dog food bag. The lower the carbohydrate percentage, the better. Here a few examples of well-known, popular dog food brands. The percentage values below are taken from the respective labels.

Dog Food Review (Select Examples):
  • Purina Beneful Healthy Weight with Real Chicken:

    100% – 25% (protein) – 8% (fat) – 14% (moisture) – 6% (ash) = 47% carbs

  • Blue Buffalo Wilderness Rocky Mountain Recipe with Red Meat Adult Grain-Free:

    100% – 24% (protein) – 14% (fat) – 10% (moisture) – 6% (ash) = 46% carbs

  • Hill's Science Diet Adult Perfect Weight:

    100% – 24% (protein) – 9.5% (fat) – 10% (moisture) – 6% (ash) = 50.5% carbs

  • Orijen Regional Red:

    100% – 38% (protein) – 18% (fat) – 12% (moisture) – 6% (ash) = 26% carbs

As this short sample already shows, there is a lot of sugar in many dog foods, even dogs foods sold for weight management. This example also highlights why I consider Orijen a great food, as far as kibble goes.

… My Dog Needs Anti-Anxiety Medication

Based on my experience, in most cases, I believe the answer to that question to be "no". As I mentioned in the introduction, I am a professional dog trainer and specialize in helping fearful and anxious dogs gain more confidence and overcome their fear. In the last couple of years, veterinary behaviorists have ventured into the pet world offering drug-based solutions to anxiety. These are mostly veterinarians and not actual behaviorists, however. A behaviorist should have studied animal behavior in a meaningful manner and I don’t necessarily mean that must be a college degree. But it can’t be just about prescribing medication that covers up the symptoms. I don’t consider that helping a dog getting better, but I know some people (including other trainers) disagree with that statement.

It is tempting to use the promise of a quick-fix with medication. In contrast, actually helping a dog overcome its fear is a long process and requires patience. I personally don’t work with dogs on anti-anxiety medication and advise people to discuss with their veterinarians how to get them off those drugs first, if they want to work with me. I don’t mind using natural calming products like chamomile or even CBD/THC oil for a short period. Those wear off quickly and training progress can be assessed easily. But for as long as a dog is on anti-anxiety medication, meaningful, lasting behavioral change is not feasible in my experience.

If your dog has anxiety, I recommend finding an experienced dog trainer in your area and try resolving the underlying problem. If you have given it your all, and it didn’t work, you can still try drugs for life-time management afterward. I just would not start there. If your vet's advice on anxiety is drugs as the first step, more research is in order.

… My Dog Needs Allergy Shots

Maybe. That really depends on the types of allergies your dog has. My personal view is that you should investigate what kind of allergies your dog has first, before using allergy shots or steroids trying to manage something you don’t fully understand. But the first rule in medicine is, stop the bleeding. If you must get a serious infection under control, you must do what makes the most sense immediately. Let your veterinarian guide you on how to best deal with any sores or wounds possibly caused by allergies.

I had to give my own dog Sylvester steroids once to deal with a nasty infection driven by allergies, I didn’t know he had; for a week, not months or years. But in the long-term, a more methodical approach seems better for your dog’s health. I always want to understand it fully before choosing a treatment approach. Too often, I hear the default comment, “just change the food”. Change it to what? If you don’t know what your dog is allergic to, that is a silly suggestion.

Allery Tests

I started with a comprehensive food allergy test. I personally like NutriScan.org. A comprehensive saliva-based food allergy test. You will find out what food ingredients your dog is allergic to and can then make an informed food change. If it turns out that your dog is not allergic to anything in their food, I would perform an environmental allergy test with your veterinarian to identify what in your environment is causing the issue. It may be removable. It might not be. But now you know for sure what you are dealing with.

If you learned your dog is allergic to something you can’t change (i.e. dust mites), over-the-counter, generic allergy medication is your cheapest bet for long-term management. Obviously, discuss this with your veterinarian. Most human antihistamines can also be given to dogs in the correct dosage. Your veterinarian should be able to advise you. Only if all of this fails, would I personally consider regular allergy shots for my own dogs.

That’s it. I hope you found some of my own canine health choices worth reviewing and I hope I gave you some food for thought.

This article was also published on 4Knines.com PART 1 | PART 2.

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