Consider the (Caregiver) Placebo Effect

Most people are familiar with the concept of a “placebo effect”, the perception of improved health while unknowingly receiving a sham (placebo) treatment that in reality should have no benefit at all. Growing up, my mother referred to this as “giving someone a sugar pill”. The assumption is that because we believe that we are receiving an actual treatment, our mind tells us that we should feel a bit better. Then amazingly, we do feel better. We notice a reduction in symptoms and ultimately conclude that the “medicine” must be working. The irony is that placebos actually can be powerful medicine (or something), at least for some people, for some diseases, some of the time.

placebo-comic

Placebos and Us: The effects of placebos in human medicine are well-documented and are described with human diseases of almost every type. The highest level of placebo effect is seen with diseases that have subjective symptoms that are patient-reported and difficult to measure directly, that tend to fluctuate in severity, and that occur over long periods of time (i.e. are chronic). Examples include depression, anxiety-related disorders, gastric ulcer, asthma, and chronic pain. In medical research, an average placebo response rate of 35 percent is reported, with rates as high as 90 percent for some health conditions. By any standard, that is a whole lot of sugar pill response going on.

placebo

Placebo Control Groups: Although the reasons that we respond to placebos are not completely understood, medical researchers universally accept the importance of considering them when studying new treatments. Studies of new drugs or medical interventions include placebos as control groups to allow unbiased comparisons with the treatment or intervention that is being evaluated. Any effect that the placebo group shows is subtracted from the effect measured in subjects who are receiving the actual medication. The difference between the two is considered to be the degree of response attributable to the treatment. If a placebo control group was not included, it would be impossible to differentiate between a perceived response (placebo) and a real response to the treatment. Today, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials are considered to be the Gold Standard of study designs by medical researchers. The “double-blind” part refers to the fact that in addition to having both a placebo group and a treatment group, neither the researchers nor the subjects know which subjects are getting the treatment and which are getting the placebo. (For more information about double-blind research trials with dogs, see “Thyroid on Trial“).

What about Dogs? Can a placebo effect occur with dogs? Possibly, but things work a bit differently where our dogs are concerned. Most obviously, while highly communicative in many ways, dogs cannot specifically tell us what part of their body is in pain, how intense that pain is, if it is abating, or by how much. Rather, we use our knowledge of a dog’s behavior and body language to determine how he is feeling. As their caregivers, we are the recorders and the reporters of our dogs’ health, symptoms, and response to treatments. Similar to human studies, this is most relevant when the symptoms are things that are not easily measured using medical tests and that are more subjective in nature.

A second important difference is that dogs are basically always blinded to treatments. Although they may understand that something different is being done to them (or that there is a strange pill buried in that piece of cheese), most people will agree that dogs do not have an understanding that they are being medicated for a particular health problem or are on the receiving end of a new behavior modification approach. As a result, unlike human patients, dogs lack the specific expectations and beliefs about health interventions that may be necessary for a placebo effect to occur directly. However, because it is the owner who reports many symptoms and changes in health to their veterinarian and also who conveys subjective information regarding the dog’s response to a given treatment, a different type of placebo effect may be in action with dogs. This is called a “caregiver placebo effect”. As with human maladies, the conditions for which this type of placebo effect has been described in dogs are those that involve subjective measures of health (pain, activity level, appetite) and that have a tendency to fluctuate in severity.

Let’s look at two examples – the caregiver placebo effect in dogs with osteoarthritis and in dogs with epilepsy.

Does Your Dog Hurt Less? Osteoarthritis is a painful and progressive health problem that can seriously impact a dog’s quality of life. A variety of medical and nutritional treatments are available today for afflicted dogs. These range from NSAIDS (ex. deracoxib, meloxicam), nutrient supplements (ex. glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate) to alternative medicine approaches (acupuncture, cold laser therapy). Researchers who have studied these treatments use subjective measures of lameness in which dogs’ owners and veterinarians numerically rate their dog’s degree of pain, mobility, and interest in daily activities in response to treatment. Some, but not all, studies also include objective measurements of arthritis that quantify the amount of weight-bearing in the affected legs and weight distribution in the body.

Arthritis Studies: In virtually all placebo-controlled studies of this type, a substantial proportion of owners and veterinarians have reported improvement in the placebo-treated dogs. However, when measured using weight-bearing techniques, the dogs in the placebo group showed no change in or a worsening of disease. Michael Conzemius and Richard Evans at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine decided to quantify the actual magnitude of the placebo effect in this type of experimental trial (1). They analyzed the data from 58 dogs who were in the placebo control group of a large clinical trial that was testing the effectiveness of a new NSAID. All of the enrolled dogs had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and had clinical signs of pain and changes in gait and mobility. This was a multi-centered design, which means that each dog’s own veterinarian conducted the bi-weekly evaluations of gait and lameness. Both owners and veterinarians completed questionnaires that measured whether the dog showed improvement, no change, or worsening of arthritis signs over a 6-week period. Neither the owners nor the veterinarians knew if their dog was receiving the placebo or the new drug.

Results: Half of the owners (50 percent) stated that their dog’s lameness decreased during the study, 40 percent reported no change, and 10 percent said that their dog’s pain had worsened. When these reports were compared with actual change as measured by force platform gait analysis, the caregiver placebo effect, (i.e. thinking that improvement occurred when there was either no change or an actual worsening of signs), occurred in 40 percent of owners. The veterinarians performed no better. A placebo effect occurred 40 to 45 percent of the time when veterinarians were evaluating dogs for changes in gait or pain. This means that not only were the owners strongly invested in seeing a positive outcome, so too were their veterinarians. This effect occurred despite the fact that all of the human participants were aware that their dog had a 50 percent chance of being in the placebo group or the drug group, and that there was no way to be certain which group their dog was in.

Seizure Study: This study used an approach called a “meta-analysis” which means that the researchers pooled and then reexamined data collected from several previous clinical trials (2). Veterinarians from North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Minnesota reviewed three placebo-controlled clinical trials that examined the use of novel, adjunct treatments for canine epilepsy. During the treatment period owners were asked to record all seizure activity, including the length of the seizure, its intensity, and the dog’s behavior before and immediately following the seizure. The pooled results showed that the majority of owners of dogs in the placebo group (79 %) reported a reduction in seizure frequency in their dog over the 6-week study period. Almost a third of the owners (29 %) said that there was a decrease of more than 50 percent, the level that was classified in the study protocols as indicative of a positive response to treatment.

What’s Going On? Well, several things, it appears. The most obvious explanation of the caregiver placebo effect in dogs is owner expectations of a positive response when they assume an actual treatment is being administered to the dog. Whenever we introduce a new medication or diet or training method and anticipate seeing an improvement in our dog’s health, nutritional well-being or behavior, we naturally tilt toward seeing positive results and away from seeing no change (or worse – a negative effect). This is a form of confirmation bias – seeing what we expect to see and that confirms our preexisting beliefs. In fact, an early study of the caregiver placebo effect in dogs found that when owners were asked to guess which group their dog was in, the owners who said that they were certain that their dog was in the treatment group (but was actually in the placebo group) demonstrated the strongest placebo effect (3).

Such expectations may be an especially strong motivator when we are dealing with maladies that have affected our dog for a long time, infringes upon the dog’s ability to enjoy life, and for which we feel that we are running out of options. Osteoarthritis and seizure disorders were the health conditions studied in these papers, but I can think of several other problems with our dogs for which we may easily succumb to the power of the placebo effect. These include chronic allergies, adverse reactions to food ingredients, anxiety-related behavior problems and even cancer.

Cognitive Dissonance: Another factor that may contribute to the caregiver placebo effect is finding oneself in a state of contradiction. When we invest time and money (and hope) into a new treatment for our dogs, it follows that we will naturally have high expectations that the treatment will work. Indeed if it does not, we may experience cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradicting beliefs in one’s mind at the same time. For example, “I was told that giving my dog dehydrated gooseberry rinds would cure his chronic itching; these rinds are expensive and hard to find. He does not seem any better…… Uh oh. This is not a good feeling….”

Psychologists tell us that our brain reduces this discomfort for us (without our conscious awareness, by the way) by simply changing our perceptions. “Oh look! I am sure that the dehydrated gooseberry rinds ARE finally working. It just too some time – several months in fact. Still the effect MUST be the gooseberry rinds. YAY!”  In this case, convincing oneself that the dog does seem a bit less itchy, her coat is a bit healthier and overall, she does really seem to be feeling better, immediately solves this problem for the brain and for our comfort level.

cognitive-dissonance

The Hawthorne Effect: Finally, a related phenomenon that is common enough to have earned its own name is the Hawthorne Effect, also called observation bias. This is the tendency to change one’s behavior (or in our case how one reports their dog’s behavior) simply as a result of being observed. The Hawthorne Effect suggests that people whose dogs are enrolled in an experimental trial may behave differently with the dog because they know they are enrolled in a trial that is measuring many aspects of the dog’s life. In the case of the arthritis studies, owners may have altered how regularly they exercised their dogs, avoided behaviors that worsened the dog’s arthritic pain, or began to pay more attention to the dog’s diet and weight.

The point is that when people are enrolled in a research trial or are starting a new medical treatment, diet, or training program and are being monitored, they will be inclined to change other aspects of how they live with and care for the dog as well. These changes could be as important (or more important) than the actual treatment (or placebo). This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, and is another reason why we always need control groups, but the occurrence of the Hawthorne Effect emphasizes the importance of recognizing that the thing that we think is working for our dog may not actually be the thing that is doing the trick.

Take Away for Dog Folks: When trying something new with our dogs, might we, at least some of the time, in some situations, be inclined to see improvement when it does not truly exist? When interpreting our dog’s response to a novel therapy or supplement or training technique are we susceptible to falling for the sugar pill? It seems probable, given the science. It is reasonable to at least consider the possibility that a placebo effect may be influencing our perceptions of our dog’s response to a new food, a new supplement, a new training technique or a novel treatment. This is especially true if the approach that we are trying has not been thoroughly vetted by research through double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. While the development of new medications and foods and training methods is exciting and important, we must avoid the tendency to see improvement from something that is novel simply because we expect and desire it to be so.

CITED STUDIES:

  1. Conzemium MG, Evans RB. Caregiver placebo effect of dogs with lameness from osteoarthritis. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2012; 241:1314-1319.
  2. Munana KR, Zhang D, Patterson EE. Placebo effect in canine epilepsy trials. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 2010; 24:166-170.
  3. Jaeger GT, Larsen S, Moe L. Stratification, blinding and placebo effect in a randomized, double blind placebo-controlled clinical trial of gold bead implantation in dogs with hip dysplasia. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 2005; 46:57-68.

Excerpted from: “Beware the Straw Man: The Science Dog Explores Dog Training Fact and Fiction” (2015).

Beware Straw Man Cover

Happy New Year from The Science Dog! (The 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge)

Happy New Year from The Science Dog!

To start the year off, I am participating for the first time in The Pet Blogger Challenge that is organized by the travel site, Go Pet Friendly. Many thanks to my friend Eileen Anderson for alerting me to this annual event. Below are this year’s queries and my responses. I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about The Science Dog!

  1. When did you start your blog and, for anyone who is just seeing it for first time, please provide a description of your site. Would you say your blog focuses more on sharing stories with your readers, or providing a resource for your audience? Answer: I created The Science Dog in September of 2013, shortly before the publication of my fifth book, “Dog Food Logic“. The purpose of The Science Dog is to provide up-to-date, evidence-based information to dog folks and pet professionals about dog training, behavior and nutrition. My focus is primarily on original scientific research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals. I try to find studies whose results are relevant to trainers and dog owners and then summarize these in what I hope is a “user-friendly” style. Oh, and yeah, sometimes I editorialize a bit.

    soapbox

    GETTIN’ UP ON THE OL’ BOX

  2. What was your proudest blogging moment of 2016? Answer: I published the second Science Dog book in July of 2016, entitled “Only Have Eyes for You“. Both writing and promoting it has been a lot of fun! My husband Mike designed the cover for the book (as he did for “Beware the Straw Man“), and I was especially tickled that he used a photo of four of our dogs, posed in our garden. The oldest girl, Cadie, has since passed away, so this photo is very near and dear to my heart.

    Cadie Chip Vinny Cooper May 2013

    CHIPPY, VINNY, CADIE AND COOPER

  3. Which of your blog posts was your favorite this year and why? (Please include a link.) Answer: I enjoyed writing all of the posts, especially the nutrition essays, as I had focused the first two years of the blog on topics related to behavior and training. In 2015, I started to include more essays about nutrition and feeding practices. However, my personal favorite of 2016 has to be “The Perfect Dog“, because it reviews two recent papers that provide some insight into the gap between what people think a dog should be versus who dogs actually are (and also, to some degree, places the responsibility for this exactly where it lies).       Unrealistic Expectations
  4. Year after year, one goal that we all seem to share is that we want to reach more people. What one tool did you use or action did you take this year that had the most impact on increasing traffic to your blog? Answer: I use FaceBook quite a bit, and have a FB Science Dog page that gives dog folks access to the blog and allows readers to chat and to contact me directly. I love to hear from readers, especially when they have ideas for new science-based topics for the blog! (hint-hint).
  5. Which of your blog posts got the most traffic this year? (Please include a link.) Have you noticed any themes across your most popular posts? Answer: The essay that received the largest number of hits (~ 18,000) was “When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it“. Catchy  little title aside, I think that it resonated with shelter professionals because it presents a set of research studies conducted by Alexandra Protopopova’s team that both challenged a prevailing belief about training and adoption rates and presented some unique solutions that may be more effective as predictors of dogs’ chances for adoption.   Sit Ubu
  6. What blog do you find most inspirational and how has it influenced your blog? (Please include a link.) Answer: There are a number of dog-related blogs that I follow regularly and enjoy. Two that are among the best are Eileen Anderson’s not-to-be-missed essays about dog training at EileenandDogs and Julie Hecht’s excellent research summaries at Dog Spies.
  7. What is one thing your readers don’t know about you or your pets that would surprise them? Answer: What my readers may not know (but all of my friends do) is that while I hold a Masters Degree in Canine/Feline Nutrition, I cannot cook a human food meal to save my life. I started volunteering two years ago at our local soup kitchen, The Daily Bread, and the other volunteers quickly learned this little secret. I am now a designated dish-washer and happily report that I excel at that particular task, keeping everyone safe (and well fed).

    daily-bread-people-2

    SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SOUP KITCHEN! 

  8. What is something you’ve learned this year that could help other bloggers? Answer: Not to point any political fingers (interpret this as you like), but my advice to other writers (and citizens) is: Don’t lie and stick to the facts that have evidence to support them.    just-the-facts-maam-2
  9. What would you like to accomplish on your blog in 2017? Answer: The biggest challenge that I may have in 2017 is finding enough time to work on all of the writing and dog training projects that I am excited about. I am currently writing a new dog training book that presents evidence-based training and the applications that we use at our training school, AutumnGold, plus developing a few new training courses with several of AutumnGold’s instructors and writing essays for The Science Dog (many of which will appear, in some form, in the new book). Add in training and enjoying time with my own dogs, and it looks like it will be a busy and fun year!

    Cooper and Alice Standing Platforms

    PLATFORM TRAINING AT AUTUMNGOLD!

  10. Now it’s your turn! You have the attention of the pet blogging community – is there a question you’d like answered, or an aspect of your blog that you’d like input on? Answer: Thanks to GoPetFriendly for sponsoring this blog challenge and hop! This is a Blog Hop!

“Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” – Kindle Edition Now Available!

The Kindle edition of Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order.

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

coversnip

New Book! “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog”

Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” (paperback version) is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order. (Kindle version will be available soon!)

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

coversnip

Dog Food Marketing – Science Weighs In

Marketing researchers know a lot about advertising strategies that successfully increase sales. This is no less true for pet foods than it is for any other consumer goods. Some of the more obvious approaches to attracting dog owners to a particular brand are advertisements that appeal to our emotional attachment to dogs, capitalize on our desire for expert approval, or that exploit our fascination with the lives of celebrities.

Appeal to Emotion 3    Appeal to Authority 1

                    APPEAL TO EMOTIONS                                             APPEAL TO AUTHORITY

 

Appeal to Celebrity

APPEAL TO CELEBRITY

One of my personal favorites of the “I love celebrities” category is an ingenious brand of Nestle’-Purina’s in which the celebrity to whom the product refers, supposedly a famous chef, does not, um, actually exist…….

Chef Michael

The Ad: It’s not just dog food. It’s Chef Michael’s. Crafted with great care, attention to detail and inspiration from our executive chef”

The Disclaimer: In the spirit of full disclosure (and to avoid litigation), the company provides the following response to inquiries about the whereabouts of the personage who is Chef Michael: “Chef Michael is not a real person, but a reflection of the many people inspired to make mealtime special for their dogs”.  I dunno. I think I would still like to get the guy’s autograph.

So, pick your poison – there is a dog food advertising campaign out there designed to appeal to just about every dog owner demographic. And, even though each and every one of us will insist that these schemes do not work on us (and that we select a dog food based solely upon its nutrient content, ingredient quality and suitability for our dog, thank you very much), these campaigns do indeed work very well.

Marketing’s Holy Grail: One category of advertising claims that has been shown to work particularly well, increasing human and pet food sales more than any other, are health claims. Because of the cumulative effects of a series of three laws that were passed in the 1990’s, the regulatory oversight of health claims on foods has been drastically curtailed over the last 35 years. Over time, the loss of regulatory oversight over health claims in human foods has led to labels that look like this:

Health Claims Human Foods

Dog foods quickly followed suit.  And pet foods are no different. As it stands today, pet food companies may include general health claims on their labels with no legal obligation to substantiate those claims. In other words, they neither have to prove the claim nor provide any evidence supporting the claim to any regulatory agency. Marketers must simply word their brand name or advertisement carefully enough to prevent the FDA from considering it a drug claim (which are regulated).

The difference between a general health claim (allowed and no proof needed) and a drug claim (not allowed; regulated by FDA) for pet foods turns on just a few words and phrases, as shown in the table below from Dog Food Logic.

Claims Table

TABLE EXCERPTED FROM “DOG FOOD LOGIC“, by Linda P. Case, page 175

Here are a few product examples:

Skin Coat 3                 Skin Coat 5            Skin Coat 7                        Skin Coat 8

Might these health claims be confusing to pet owners? A recent study asked exactly that question. 

The Study: A group of researchers at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine examined the nutrient profiles and ingredients list of 24 brands of dog food that all were marketed for skin and coat health (1). The objective of their study was to identify consistencies (or inconsistencies) among different commercial products making claims of promoting skin and coat health in dogs.

Results: They examined 15 dry (extruded) foods and 9 canned foods, representing 11 different brand names. Here are their results:

  • Its all in the name: All 24 products included the terms skin, coat plus a descriptor of skin/coat health in their brand name. They also included additional health-related terms on their labels and on websites. The most commonly used were sensitive, skin sensitivities, digestive sensitivity, digestive health, and limited/unique ingredients.
  • Ingredients: If you had thought there would be a handful of specific ingredients that are known to be beneficial to skin and coat, think again. The protein sources in the 24 foods were all over the map and included chicken, fish, egg, venison, beef, pork, duck, lamb, soy, peas, and turkey. A similar cornucopia was found for carbohydrate sources, with rice, potato, wheat, oats,  barley,  millet, corn, quinoa and tapioca all making an appearance.
  • Not so special fatty acids: Thirteen of the 24 foods (54 %) identified fatty acids as nutrients that are important for skin and coat health. While this may be true for certain specific omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (and their ratios), 10 of the 13 foods did not identify these by name but instead used vague (and meaningless) terms such as “omega fatty acids” or “omega oils”. Less than a third of the foods provided information about the amount of any specific fatty acid in the food. When this information was provided, the range in EPA and DHA (two important omega-3 fatty acids) concentrations overlapped with those found in foods not labeled for skin/coat health.
  • More nothin’ special: The essential nutrient content and caloric density (number of calories per cup) of the 24 foods varied enormously and overlapped with other brands that are sold for adult dogs but which are not specifically marketed for skin health. (In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, there was nothing that was consistently special or unique about the nutrient content of these foods. Even omega-3 fatty acid concentrations were all over the map, making the claims of “Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids” essentially useless to consumers).

Conclusions: The researchers were rather circumspect in their conclusions, stating that the wide variety of ingredients and large range in nutritional value of products marketed for skin and coat health make product selection for owners who are interested in these foods confusing. (Personally, I go further than “confusing”).

 

soapbox

OUT COMES THE OL’ BOX….

Up on My Soapbox: I could be wrong, but I rather doubt that a concerned owner, whose dog is experiencing skin or coat problems and who sees a food that is specifically labeled “Sensitive Skin“, stops and ponders: “Well, the company does not actually state outright that this food cures sensitive skin problems. Nor do they say that they have proven that the food supports healthy skin. Therefore, I know better than to expect this food to do much of anything at all to help my dog”.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe this owner is much more likely to be thinking “Oh, look! A food that is designed to help Muffin’s sensitive and itchy skin! I will give it a try because poor Muffin’s skin has been terribly bad lately. I bet this food can help her!”. Ka-ching. Another day, another unregulated and misleading pet food claim, another sale. Poor Muffin.

Take Away for Dog Folks: If your dog is continually or excessively itchy or has skin problems, please make a visit to your veterinarian, not to your local pet supply store. It is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis for skin problems because the majority of these are not related to food. Rather, the most common causes of excessively itchiness in dogs are allergies to environmental allergens such as house dust mites, pollens and molds or fleas. Only after these causes have been eliminated should food be looked at as a potential underlying cause. (Note – The diagnosis of food allergy can only be made through the use of an 8 to 10 week elimination feeding trial, which is a topic for another blog at another time).

(By the way, if you find Chef Michael, get an autograph for me).

Cited Reference: Johnson LN, Heintze CR, Linder DE, Freeman LM. Evaluation of marketing claims, ingredients, and nutrient profiles of over-the-counter diets marketed for skin and coat health of dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2015; 246:1334-1338.

 

 

 

Dogs are Carnivores, Right?

There is a great deal of confusion (and opinion) today regarding how to classify the domestic dog. Those who identify dogs as carnivores (meat-eating) animals tend to focus on the predatory nature of the dog’s closest cousin, the wolf. Conversely, those who are inclined to classify the dog as an omnivore (consumes both plants and meat) rely upon the dog’s scavenging nature and ability to consume and digest a wide variety of food types. So, which is it? And, perhaps more importantly why does what we call the dog, carnivore or omnivore, seem to matter so much to us? (And why do discussions about this issue seem to quickly escalate into shrillness, name-calling and spamming?)

That Escalated Quickly

First, let’s all just calm down. From a scientific viewpoint, it appears that some confusion may arise from the dual use of the term “carnivore”. This term is used as both a taxonomic classification and as a description of a species’ feeding behavior and nutrient needs. Both dogs and cats are classified within the taxonomic order of “Carnivora”, a diverse group of mammals that includes over 280 different species.

Taxonomy

Some eat meat…..some don’t: While many of the species within Carnivora hunt and consume meat, not all are predatory or nutritionally carnivorous. The species within the order Carnivora vary considerably in the degree of dependency that they have upon a meat-based diet. For example, all of the cat species, including our domestic cat, Felis catus, are obligate carnivores. In contrast, bears and raccoons consume both plant and animal foods, while the Giant Panda subsists on a vegetarian diet. Therefore, while all of the species within the order called Carnivora can eat meat, their typical feeding behaviors exist along a broader spectrum, ranging from the obligate carnivores at one end to animals that are almost completely herbivorous at the other end.

So, where does the dog fall along this spectrum?

Cats vs Dogs: Let’s consider this question by comparing our two best animal friends, the dog and the cat. The label “obligate carnivore” (sometimes called true carnivore) means that the cat is incapable of surviving on a vegetarian diet and must have at least some meat (animal tissue) in its diet. This means that a diet that is composed of all plant materials cannot meet all of the cat’s essential nutrient needs. Specific nutrients that are problematic if Fluffy is fed a vegetarian diet include Vitamin A, a type of amino acid called taurine, and an essential fatty acid called arachidonic acid. All three of these nutrients are found in a form that cats can use in meat products and but are not found in plant foods. During evolution, cats either lost or never developed the ability to produce these nutrients in the body from the precursor forms that are found in plant foods.

The Adaptable Canine: In contrast, most of the canid species, including the domestic dog, are more generalist in their eating habits and subsequently in their nutrient needs. In the wild, wolves and coyotes exist as opportunistic predators, hunting and eating the type of prey that happens to be available. In addition to the flesh of their prey, wild canids readily consume viscera (stomach, intestines) which contain partially digested plant matter. Canid species also scavenge carrion and garbage and regularly consume fruits, berries, mushrooms, and a variety of other plant materials. Similar to its wild cousins, the domestic dog is a predatory species that also consumes plant foods and scavenges, and is capable of consuming and obtaining nutrition from a wide variety of food types.

Not only does the dog naturally choose a wider variety of foods to eat than do cats; the dog is capable of deriving needed nutrients from plant foods more efficiently than do cats. Let’s look at the three nutrients that we mentioned earlier; Vitamin A, taurine and arachidonic acid:Dogs vs cats

Finally, anatomically, dogs’ gastrointestinal tracts, from their mouths to their intestines, are consistent with other predatory species (i.e. meat-eating) that consume a varied diet. They have some ability to grind food (molars), and possess a small intestine that is longer in length (relative to body size) than that of obligate carnivores, but that is shorter in length than that of herbivorous species.

Altogether, the nutrient, metabolic, and anatomical characteristics of dogs place them on the omnivorous side of the spectrum within the wide range of species who hunt prey, scavenge, and consume plant foods

Carnivore Evidence

When we look at the evidence, we see that both nutritionally and taxonomically, the dog is best classified as an omnivore, an animal that consumes and derives nutrition from both animal and plant food sources. More specifically, the dog evolved from a species that made its living primarily through hunting and consuming prey but that also consumed whatever was available through scavenging. (Anyone who lives with a Golden Retriever is well acquainted with the scavenging part).

Time to drag out the box.

soapbox

UP ON MY BOX

So, why is it that we read multiple websites, listen to certain “experts”  and talk to Joe next door (who happens to know a lot about dogs) and they insist that the dog is an (obligate) carnivore? Why are some folks so incredibly (and one might venture, obsessively) invested in this belief? Not to put too fine a point on it, many proponents of the “dog as carnivore” hold on to this conviction like a dog with a meaty bone. One may wonder, why is this distinction even important, except perhaps for academic interest?

My own opinion is that the keen interest that we see in recent years is caused by an unusual and somewhat unprecedented focus on a desire to “feed dogs naturally.” Oddly enough, prior to the development of commercially prepared dog foods in the early 1900’s, domestic dogs were fed naturally – they were fed scraps of human food…..in other words, they scavenged. So, we appear to have come full circle, with the only difference being that the fervent adherence to a mantra of “feeding dogs naturally” now focuses on the dog’s hunting and meat-eating history rather than on its equally significant existence as a proficient scavenger.

dog at table

I’D LIKE SOME OF WHAT YOU ARE HAVING, PLEASE.

Do dogs thrive on diets that include animal-based ingredients (i.e. meat, poultry, fish) – Yes, definitely (and especially if those ingredients are of high quality). Do dogs enjoy (and probably prefer) meat in their diets. Probably. Do dogs have a nutritional requirement for animal-based ingredients in their diets? No, they do not.

EXCERPTED FROM: Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case (click below for purchasing in formation).

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“Dog Food Logic” Wins Maxwell Award!

My publisher, Dogwise, informed me last week that my book “Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices” has won the Dog Writer’s Association of America’s Maxwell Award for Best Health Care Book of 2014! For more information about “Dog Food Logic” and about my newest book “Beware the Straw Man” click the links below.

dog-food-logic-cover-final               Beware Straw Man Cover