…But Also, Please See Your Vet

I lurk in a few holistic groups on facebook, and  I see post after post from people looking for a remedy in order to avoid going to the vet. Many of these are from people who feed cheap, processed food and follow all of their conventional vet’s advice, but have decided that they don’t want to take Lucky to the vet for this pesky infection – surely there’s a natural remedy that someone on facebook can recommend, while they continue to feed cheap, processed food, and follow all of their conventional vet’s advice.  No, facebook isn’t exactly the pinnacle of awareness and intelligence in our culture, but I think this trend is far more widespread than it should be, and it’s harmful for at least a few reasons.

First, the approach of holistic medicine is not merely to utilize a “natural” remedy in place of an allopathic one.  Those who are looking for a natural ear solution to clean out gunk but are continuing to feed Nutro are missing the point, as are those looking for an herbal answer to anxiety, yet leaving the dog alone all day while they’re at work. It seems that people pop in to these groups to get a quick fix without ever realizing that there is a bigger picture or an underlying cause or a whole other concept of approaching health.  Unfortunately, a lot of the responses they receive perpetuate this by answering as though there really is a natural quick fix.  “Oh, your dog has IBS?  Give some Slippery Elm for that.”  Never mind looking at diet or antibiotic history or any number of other factors that could be contributing (or any of the other herbal options applicable to IBS!).  No, between turmeric and coconut oil, most of your problems can be solved easily on the internet.

Second, veterinarians are far more knowledgeable about your dog’s health than you or I or a group of people on facebook (where the saying “Never underestimate the stupidity of people in large groups” has never been more true).  You think that you are looking at a hot spot when in fact your vet can look at it, see a staph infection or demodex, do a skin scraping, and voila.  By not recognizing the actual condition, the underlying reason is overlooked (such as immune function in the case of staph), and by treating it inappropriately, you could be fostering the growth of something far more harmful.  Or, yes, it is a hot spot, but your vet begins to ask many more questions and examines the dog and notices something off that you were not aware of.  “Did you see this tartar way up here behind the front canine?  Let me scrape that off before it gets worse and leads to gum disease, as well,” or “Hmmm, these SNAP test results do show anaplasma.  Let’s address that.”  In either case, you may not have noticed any evidence, but you can address it now so that it doesn’t become a health issue later.

Recently, a question was posted to a raw feeding group, asking if others take their dogs in for bloodwork.  I know that groups of raw feeders like to think that they can throw their dogs nothing but random body parts based on what is available at the time and their dog will always remain impervious to any health condition, but I expected some to answer responsibly and say “oh, yes, I do in order to ensure that the values are right where I want them,” or “yes, so that I can show it when critics of raw feeding voice concern,” or “yes, I think it’s important to have a vet do a full examination on occasion.”  But no. The general response on that group was that there is no need for bloodwork when you can see how healthy your dog is.  Sadly, I think that’s indicative of a lot of raw groups.

On the contrary, it seems that we who feed raw and utilize herbs and other natural health approaches and refuse to overvaccinate should be even more responsible in taking the steps necessary to ensure the health of our dogs – even if merely to prove the naysayers wrong (I’m stubborn like that).  Those who avoid vets and then insist that their dogs are healthier for it while in fact their dog is harboring a parasitic overload or a nutritional deficiency will only draw more suspicion and criticism – and rightly so.

This past Friday, I took my own dog up to see his vet.  (I try to do annual bloodwork near his birthday, but sometimes things get in the way and he goes much longer.  No big deal.)  She gave him a veterinary examination – something I am nowhere near qualified to do.  She looked in orifices and used instruments and machines and I was able to ask questions about things I am not learned in and she offered feedback based not only in her extensive schooling and experience, but on the countless other dogs she has seen.  No vaccines were given, no flea & tick, no heartworm.  Instead, she drew blood to send to Dr. Dodds for a full CBC, chem, and thyroid panel.  All in all, she said that he looks fantastic and to keep doing what I’m doing.  I paid a lot of money at the counter before we left; money that I would rather have in my pocket the week before Christmas.  But that money was spent on the wellness of my dog, which is far less expensive than disease.

Support your holistic vet.  If you are not comfortable with your current vet’s recommendations, or find that (s)he doesn’t agree with your choice of diet, or are tired of having to refuse unnecessary vaccines, find a vet who is more aligned with your approach.  One excellent source is the AHVMA’s (American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association’s) search function at their website (www.ahvma.org).  Feeding raw or administering natural remedies is not license to avoid veterinarians.  Find one that you can feel comfortable with!  I travel an hour to see my vet; not only because I know that she supports me in my decisions, but because I only see her once a year, at most.  I think I can swing the hour once a year for the continuing health of my dog.


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Understanding Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics

th-3Chances are that in recent years you’ve heard about digestive enzymes and probiotics. Why all the buzz?  What are they, actually, and why are they being touted as so crucial?  Researchers are really only just beginning to understand them and their important roles in the body.

Enzymes are catalysts made up of amino acids that enable chemical reactions to occur in the body (such as the breakdown of food, in digestive enzymes).  There are different types of enzymes (metabolic and digestive) and, within these types, enzymes are further broken down.  For example, digestive enzymes are broken down into the different food types that they help to digest; i.e., protease breaks down proteins, amylase breaks down carbohydrates, and lipase breaks down fats.  When not aiding digestion, these enzymes perform other crucial roles; for example, lipase supports hormone production and gallbladder function.

th-2While the pancreas does make some digestive enzymes, they should ideally come from food. Researchers now believe that the body starts out with a supply (or, bank), which is drawn from when the enzymes needed are not available with the food entering the digestive tract.  Food consumed by animals in the wild contains the enzymes necessary for the breakdown and digestion of that food. Unfortunately, enzymes are destroyed at temperatures of 118°F or higher, so food that is processed or cooked contains no viable enzymes to help digest it.  What happens then?  A withdrawal will need to be made from the enzyme bank!

To further complicate things, metabolic enzymes function throughout the body to enable biochemical reactions in the cells (remember the Krebs Cycle in high school biology?).  They are responsible for every function in the body – including fighting disease.  When enzymes are not available for digestive processes, metabolic enzymes are utilized to aid in processing the food instead of performing the role they are designed for. This is called enzyme robbing.  With the increase in our pets’ chronic health issues since the introduction of processed food, many are linking it with the lack of enzymes.


Farther down the digestive tract, we meet the probiotics, which are live microorganisms that live in the intestines.  Also called the “good bacteria” or “flora,” they are continuously interacting with each other and with the cells lining the intestinal walls, aiding in the assimilation of nutrients.  These organisms are also involved constantly with the immune, endocrine, and central nervous systems.  While there are over 500 species of bacteria in the gut, probiotics usually fall into two groups, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.  These overpower and crowd out the bad or pathogenic bacteria which may otherwise wreak havoc in the system.  Probiotics also stimulate the intestinal immune system and produce some vitamins, as well as short-chain fatty acids, amino acids, and antioxidants.  Some increase the production of intestinal anti-inflammatory modulators, which is why they are indicated specifically for conditions such as IBS and IBD.

Probiotics are destroyed by the use of antibiotics, but they are also destroyed by chemicals such as chlorine, and even stress.  So, a pet treated with amoxicillin or doxycycline would benefit by a 30-day regimen of probiotics, but many would benefit by having them on a continual basis, since even something as seemingly harmless as drinking tap water may be wiping out your pet’s good intestinal flora.

While digestive enzymes and probiotics are distinctly different and function separately in the body, they play significant roles in the digestion and assimilation of nutrients, helping to keep your dog healthy.  If you have any questions regarding how they may benefit your dog or to better understand them, just ask!  If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out for you.

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The Natural Weight Loss Secret No One is Talking About


thYes, I totally stole the ridiculous headline from some internet site.  But, I have a stubby-legged little client that prefers to spend his time curled up on the couch than actually moving his little legs.  He was being fed a grain-free food, but his treats started coming more frequently and his harness was slowly getting tighter and tighter.  A veterinary check-up resulted in the recommendation to lose a few pounds.  And yes, once again in the world of nutritional advice dispensed by veterinarians with a waiting room full of Hill’s Science Diet, they sent him home with a bag of – you guessed it!  Science Diet r/d, their weight loss formula.  The list of ingredients starts “Whole Grain Corn, Corn Gluten Meal, Chicken By-Product Meal, Soybean Mill Run, Powdered Cellulose, Soybean Meal, Chicken Liver Flavor, Dried Beet Pulp, Lactic Acid, Soybean Oil, Caramel Color…”

Hill’s says right there on their website “Factors contributing to weight gain include age, lack of exercise and overfeeding,”  but instead of suggesting more frequent exercise and smaller portions, they want to sell you a bowl of corn and gluten and by-product.  Now, I’m not a veterinary nutritionist, or a scientist of any sort, and I don’t think I need to be to guarantee that if you’ve got a chubby dog, he or she does not need a bowl full of corn, gluten, and by-product meal.  Your dog needs less food and more exercise.  I think that’s science.

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artpeeping: Redbones


So, we are starting a new project with the dogs: artpeeping.  The Historic (dog) Walking Tours have been very educational and will continue; but, these days, we are spending increasing time in Somerville.  Now, Somerville has plenty of history, but the dogs can barely stop to pee without hitting spotting public art in some form.  So, artpeeping is born.

I’ll mention here that the address of each work is revealed by rolling the cursor over the image.  I should also mention that the dogs are careful to avoid peeing on the artwork.  Mostly.

The photo above is an oldie but a goodie.  Coco, Rosa, and Blue led me to Redbones one day.  You may think that they were lured by the smoky aroma of pulled pork and Memphis ribs, but I know it was really the art.

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Food as Preventive Care

ImageOne of the things that surprises me the most about dog care is the continued lack of awareness when it comes to dog food ingredients. We have learned to read ingredient panels for ourselves and our families, yet our dogs somehow don’t merit that same level of attention.  It also baffles me that so many people fail to make the connection between what goes into their dog and the resulting health of that dog, as though they’re little machines that just need refueling a couple of times a day rather than mammals with nutritional requirements.

I think of diet as a major part of preventive care.  As nutrition from food is digested, it sources the fuel for the cellular and chemical actions that drive the body, and influences gut flora, which has a huge effect on immune function.  Nutrition is the foundation of health.  Sure, cheap chain-store food will contain sufficient nutrition to sustain your dog, but if optimal health is your aim, you may want to try reducing some of the cheaper ingredients. Minimum guidelines that I use in advising food choices include

  • two forms of real meat (not by-product) in the first several ingredients
  • free of corn, soy, or wheat (they are the cheapest grains, not well-utilized by dogs and more likely to cause inflammation)
  • species-specific ingredients (e.g., “chicken fat” rather that “animal fat”)
  • no grain-splitting (when they list more than one form of a grain to avoid having to list it as the first ingredient); likewise, too many grains.  Combined, they may make up more of the food than meat

Not surprisingly, the dog foods which are owned by the big companies (like Nestle, Colgate-Palmolive, Heinz, Del Monte, Mars) are those using the cheapest ingredients and fillers (not to mention color dyes and carcinogens like BPA).  A very general (and grossly incomplete) breakdown of who own which foods is…

->    Nestle owns Purina, ALPO, Mighty Dog
->    Colgate-Palmolive owns Hill’s (Science Diet)
->    Del Monte owns Natures Recipe, Kibbles ‘n Bits, Gravy Train, Cycle
->    Mars owns Kal Kan, Nutro, Pedigree, Royal Canin
->    Procter & Gamble owns Eukanuba, Iams, California Natural, Evo, Innova

In contrast, an independent dog food manufacturer is focused on producing just dog food, and runs lots in smaller batches, generally making it more conducive to tighter quality controls and fresher ingredients.  Many were started by people with a passion for or background in canine nutrition.  When considering dog foods, go to the manufacturers’ websites to look up the ingredients, and you’ll see the difference. When you come to an ingredient that’s questionable, or one you can’t pronounce, google it.  If you have questions, call the manufacturer and ask.  I once called Royal Canin to ask the difference between their Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever formulas (it’s just a marketing ploy).  The Customer Service Rep didn’t know how to answer, but tried to talk her way around it.  I’m not suggesting that you call to harass companies, but that’s an example of how you can tell who’s producing a quality food and who just wants your money.  A trusted and unbiased online resource is The Dog Food Advisor, where the foods are rated and the rating explained.

A puppy will continue to do fine on a crappy food, much like the neighbor’s kid can continue to do fine eating Happy Meals and frozen pizza.  The young body is resilient.  As they mature, subtle signs may begin to develop which may not be immediately attributed to food.  Hot spots, itchy ears, gas, dull coat, flaky skin, soft poop, lipomas, fleas, and more are often considered a normal part of having a dog, but they should never be seen as “normal” –  they are signs that your dog is not in a state of health; usually, they indicate a diet that does not agree with or is not optimal for your dog. Every single one of those conditions can often be corrected (or prevented!) by merely upgrading foods rather than making another vet appointment to get more antibiotics or steroids or chemical treatments.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather put my money in prevention than in treatment.

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The Greater Dog


One of the literal translations of the latin canis major is “the greater dog” (as opposed to lesser, in size).  Yes, it’s true that I prefer big dogs and so that fits nicely, but as I’ve been evolving in my Work, I started to think about what it is that I’m aiming for, in dog care, and I realized that I’m pursuing the greater dog, in all respects.

When I was studying canine herbalism, I envisioned myself more as the community herbalist that people heard about through word of mouth. (“She’s a little odd, but she knows her stuff!”)  I pored over my books and attended lectures and classes and symposiums with some of the best herbalists from around the world. After becoming certified as an herbalist, I worked in a local veterinary office in the hopes of seeing exactly which health conditions were most common in my community, and to learn more about the conventional approaches to them. (This proved to be an almost comically poor choice for me.  As an honors student and Dean’s list graduate and all that, I was a complete nincompoop in trying to decipher the practice’s unending vaccine schedule, advise patients in proper chemical flea treatments, and recommend Hill’s Science Diet.)  Not surprisingly, this turned out to be very short-term employment, though I appreciate the patience of the staff for asking me to stay and give it a shot.

Working with a nutritionist and in small local retail settings, I realized that many common health conditions in dogs could be resolved (and prevented) through diet alone.  Here I was, thinking that I was settling for a retail job while I was getting myself on my feet, when in fact it proved to offer the best experience I didn’t know I needed.  Dogs came in with dull coats and flaking skin and itchy ears.  Petting dogs, I felt lipomas; trimming nails, I handled inflamed paws.  People came in off the street looking for dog food and after asking a few questions, I learned that the dog had loose poop or lots of poop or needed to lose weight or gain weight or stop farting or stop shedding or …!  Way too often, the person didn’t realize that there was any health condition to address.  They just wanted to know how to resolve separation anxiety or which collar works best for a dog who pulls or if they should use flea & tick preventive in the winter or is there a local trainer?

So, in trying to maintain a blog on canine herbalism, I found myself wanting to post about diet and mental stimulation and chemical treatments and physical activity and the importance of training with distractions and all sorts of things that are not necessarily plant-related.  But they do have to do with the greater dog – the whole dog in its potential as vibrant and healthy and happy.

Now, in walking dogs, I am enjoying a closer relationship with each dog, and it has been adding to a really fascinating and rewarding journey, so far.  I started taking them hiking for the kind of exercise that dogs need, and then to historic sites purely for fun, and realized how much fun we weren’t having, until then!  I know how they poop and if they’re eating and what they’re eating.  I know their preferences and what makes them anxious and that sometimes they need a good wriggle in the grass.Image

After doing obedience and drafting and therapy work and then getting involved in shelter work and the paths that opened up from that, and starting to settle into health care in the form of nutrition and herbs as the focus of my canine interests, I have found instead that as my journey flows and morphs, it comes full circle.  In pursuing different paths, I was building a more well-rounded foundation in my pursuit of The Greater Dog. I now find myself circling back to the obedience that my first Swissy led me into, back to my books on understanding canine cognition, back to engaging dogs in fun, and weaving those tools into a wider approach to The Greater Dog, which is found not just in nutrition and herbal support, but in learning new words and having a job and in positive relationships and environmental stimulation and in enjoying a laugh (yes, dogs laugh, too).

It is serving us well, and I am serving dogs in the community far better than I had imagined.

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Purslane. It’s What’s for Dinner.

purslaneOne of the best things about summer is the abundance of fresh produce.  Here in the city, there is a farmer’s market to be found every day of the week.  In fact, I was making a quick stop  at the art supplies store mid-week, and bumped into a bustling market right there in the parking lot.  I parked the Tail Wagon and wandered over, curious what I might find this week to add to Rupert’s meals. I roamed from vendor to vendor, eyeing their wooden boxes loaded with leafy greens and berries and radishes and garlic scapes and…  and my eyes fell upon clear bags of fresh, damp, fat little Purslane leaves.  Bunches of them.

Portulaca oleracea is a succulent that grows wild all over the city – in yards, in parks, in cracks in the sidewalk, even bursting where it sees an opportunity in the pavement.  Though we can’t eat it from the roadside or from city soil loaded with heavy metals, its plump little leaves are easily recognizable.  Nutritionally, it’s quite a little powerhouse.  Known mostly for being so high in omegas, it also contains beta carotene, alpha-linolenic acid, vitamins C and E, alpha tocopherols, magnesium, and potassium.


Energetically, it is a very cooling herb (a refrigerant), making it ideal for a hot week in the life of a dog happiest when there’s snow up to the windows.  Herbally, it is used to dispel heat conditions and is especially soothing to skin inflammation such as hot spots or other types of hot dermatitis (mash up some leaves and apply as a poultice right against the skin).

Many raw feeders choose a prey-model diet (animals only), but I like to add plant sources to my dog’s food (pureed or steamed is best), more in the manner of Billinghurst’s BARF model; not only because I’m an herbalist, but because I see him nibbling on plants while we’re in the woods, and I believe that they offer a great source of nutrients for dogs.  Although I feed raw meat, I do cook the vegetables and herbs in order to break down the outer cellulose, making them more bioavailable, but also to extract the medicinal constituents of the roots and herbs in that week’s brew.  Anyway… Purslane.  Yes.  This week, with temps heading back up to the 90s, its what’s for dinner.

Rupert’s not particularly thrilled about it, but I am.


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