In urbanized areas across the country, a growing number of people are buying organic produce, eating less processed foods and seeking out alternative therapies for symptoms that conventional medicine has had minimal success in addressing. Holistic living is becoming mainstream, and as we start to look at our health differently, it’s only natural that we begin to do the same with our dogs and cats—they’re family after all.
“Think about your pet's health care in the same scope that you would ideally think about your own: It's about getting clean [foods], getting exercise and really just enjoying life,” says Gary Richter, an integrative veterinarian, owner of two clinics in the San Francisco Bay Area: Montclair Veterinary Hospital and Holistic Veterinary Care; and the author of The Ultimate Pet Health Guide.
According to Dr. Richter, the best thing you can do to ensure that your pet is happy and healthy is to take a preventative and holistic approach to their care. Approaches such as these can involve cannabis, but they must first and foremost address proper nutrition.
“The conversation always has to start with nutrition. If your dog or your cat is eating badly, it’s going to be extremely difficult for the body to function properly and protect itself against disease,” says Dr. Richter.
According to Dr. Richter, the evolutionary history of dogs and cats indicates that they’re best suited to a minimally processed diet that mainly consists of fresh meats.
“The only reason why dry food and canned food exists is for our convenience,” he says. The heavily processed foods our pets eat today have little to do with what’s best for them, but rather what was established by historical precedent.
It was only in the 1900s that canned food for pets began to appear in stores. During World War II, the need for tin led pet food manufacturers to develop dry dog food. The convenience and low-cost of this feeding method made it popular among pet owners—a trend that continues today.
“Get [your pets] off of processed food and onto a fresh whole food diet. … That’s probably the single biggest thing that people can do [for their pet’s health],” says Dr. Richter. He adds that he’s seen a host of common problems resolve themselves by a simple change in diet.
“We see this happen time and time again: We get a dog that has chronic allergies, and the people have tried every medication, and nothing really helped. … Then you put [these animals] on a fresh, whole food diet and do almost nothing else. Lo and behold, over a month or two their skin starts to clear up; they're less itchy; they feel better; they’re in a better mood; and their coat looks great,” he says.
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“I've seen it happen with dogs and cats with chronic upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea. Diet change can make all the difference in the world. I've seen seizures improve in dogs with diet changes—the list just goes on and on.”
With the correct nutrition, you can optimize the way your pet’s body functions, and ultimately prevent or reduce the chance of disease.
According to Dr. Richter, the best diet for a dog or cat is either a cooked or raw meal prepared at home—you just need to make sure that the meal you’re preparing is complete and balanced. There are a number of do-it-yourself pet cookbooks available, and Dr. Richter’s own pet health guide also contains recipes—a few of which are also available online.
But in today’s world, this type of commitment can be difficult even for our own diets, let alone for our pets. So how do you provide the best care for your furry friend without giving up your life or breaking the bank?
“We try to help [our customers] understand what's good, better and best, and help them do what they can,” says Heidi Hill, owner of Holistic Hound, a pet store in Berkeley, CA, that focuses on health and wellness. Heidi opened her store in 2003 and has established a name for herself in the local community as an expert in pet nutrition.
“If [people] can only afford to feed kibble, or only want to feed kibble because it's convenient and less expensive, then we help them understand how they can make it better,” she says.
Like Dr. Richter, Heidi says that the best meal is a home-prepped one. But barring that, there are now many commercial pet food options that can be healthy alternatives. When discussing these options with her customers, she tends to give the types of foods available a ranking from least to most processed:
There are still ways to make your pet’s diet healthier, even if you opt for canned or dry foods. In the wild, dogs, cats and other animals get a lot of their water from the foods they eat—another reason why kibble isn’t the ideal diet for our furry companions. Heidi advises adding moisture to kibble in the form of bone broth or goat’s milk to help keep your pet hydrated.
Additionally, not all canned foods and kibble are created equal: Some products consist of mostly grain fillers and little meat, while others on the market are made with generic low-grade meat meals and meat by-products. These low-quality ingredients can contain animals that were euthanized or died of certain diseases.
When buying pet food, pet parents should instead look for foods that contain mostly meat and list the specific types of meat used, like chicken, beef or pork. Overall, you should aim to buy the highest quality food that you can afford.
It’s also important to remember that feeding your pet a healthy diet isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. You can vary your pet’s diet: Feed kibble during the day and a less-processed food at night, for example.
“Most of us try to eat healthy, but every now and again you're totally having pizza for lunch—but that doesn't mean that all the other fresh food that you're eating is worthless,” says Dr. Richter.
“Think about raw or cooked food, or something fresh to add [to your pet’s food],” says Heidi. “Even if it’s just a few days a week, even if it's only table scraps … Even just a little bit is better than nothing.” She also adds that variety is important. Just like in human diets, different foods provide your pet with different nutrients.
Providing your pet with a species-appropriate diet is the best way to ensure their health, but both Heidi and Dr. Richter also stress the value of taking a preventative and integrative approach to their care.
Prevention means being proactive. Regular checkups at the vet are important, as are making sure your pet is getting enough exercise, mental stimulation and training. All of these are basic components to having a pet that’s healthy both mentally and physically.
And beyond that, if medical problems do arise, an integrative approach gives pet owners multiple ways of addressing issues, says Dr. Richter.
After five years of practicing veterinary medicine, Dr. Richter began to notice that with some conditions, he’d often exhaust all treatment options to no avail. This led him to seek out and study alternative therapies like acupuncture, herbal medicine and chiropractic therapy.
In addition to these therapies, including supplements in your pet’s diet can be beneficial—it just depends on the individual animal. Some supplements like probiotics and fish oils have benefits for most dogs and cats by promoting gut and coat health, respectively. However, most supplements aren’t completely benign and should be taken under the guidance of a veterinarian or someone well-versed in nutritional therapies, says Dr. Richter.
He goes on to talk about an emerging field of science called nutrigenomics—or the science of how different foods can affect gene expression in the body. “With the right set of nutrients and supplements, we can take advantage of the body's natural defense system,” says Dr. Richter. “You can literally turn on and off genes in the body by adding or subtracting different food ingredients from an animal’s diet. You can decrease inflammation, improve energy and improve the body's cancer fighting ability by utilizing these systems in the body.”
Cannabis is a good example of an herbal therapy that could have potential in this emerging scientific field, he says.
“Cannabis affects the endocannabinoid system, which is a system of neurotransmitters that literally touches just about every bodily system we have,” Dr. Richter explains. “If we can optimize or improve endocannabinoid system function, we can have global effects on the body in ways that we couldn't do in any other way. And certainly not in any way that Western medicine has an ability to do.”
Interest in cannabis and how it can be applied to pet health is rising—and for good reason: Both Heidi and Dr. Richter have witnessed the plant’s benefits. When Heidi began selling cannabidiol (CBD) products in her store four years ago, she received such amazing feedback that she decided to start her own line of hemp-derived CBD products.
“[CBD] is a game changer as far as anything that I've ever seen in 15 years of doing this,” she says. “It’s replaced a lot of our supplements. … We specialize in having herbal remedies, homeopathic remedies or other types of food supplements, and nothing has ever come close to the kinds of testimonials that we get for CBD.”
She adds that the most common reasons people use CBD are for: anxiety, pain and inflammation, seizures and bodily support for animals with cancer.
Dr. Richter also sees cannabis’s potential. “I've seen cannabis improve quality of life and sometimes resolve disease symptoms in ways that Western medicine has no hope of doing,” he says. “Of any herb, supplement or medication that I’ve ever seen, cannabis has the broadest potential to have the most positive effect on patients. … But just like any pharmaceutical, it's not without its risks, and it has to be used responsibly.”
The wide-ranging application of cannabis’s therapeutic properties puts Dr. Richter in a difficult position: He knows cannabis can help with a lot of health issues. But as a veterinarian, he’s prohibited by the California Veterinary Medical Board (CVMA) from recommending it—or even simply discussing it.
“Unless your veterinarian is willing to buck the trend and disobey the Veterinary Medical Board, you're stuck getting medical advice either from the kid working in a pet store, the person working behind the counter at the dispensary or whatever you can find on the Internet—and frankly, that’s a recipe for disaster,” he says.
To avoid a potential disaster, Dr. Richter is gathering signatures in support of AB 2215, a bill that would allow veterinarians to recommend cannabis for their patients. But until this bill or something like it is passed, many pet parents will have a difficult time talking to their veterinarians about cannabis.
Photo credit: Jonas Vincent