Primal Pets: How to Keep Your Best Friends Healthy

Recently, when seeking tips on transitioning my beloved Siamese cats to a real-food diet, I connected with fellow Primal Health Coach, Dr. Jenny Elwell-Gerken.

Though her veterinary practice focuses on dogs, she offered expert guidance on getting my cats off what I call "kitty crack" – conventional food they're clearly addicted to...and which is clearly full of crap and hurting their health. 

A Chinese Medicine doctor myself, I LOVE that Dr. Jenny is not only paleo-primal, but also uses Chinese herbs and acupuncture in her veterinary practice.

I'm delighted to share an interview with her in this space. You’ll see tremendous resonance between how she works with pets...and my own approach to eating and wellness.

Please introduce yourself!

My name is Dr. Jenny Elwell-Gerken, but I usually go by Dr. Jenny:). I am a licensed veterinarian practicing holistic medicine. I am certified in veterinary acupuncture and trained in veterinary chiropractic, Chinese veterinary herbal medicine, reiki, and essential oils. I am also a certified health coach and use many of those principles in my treatment of patients.

  Dr. Jenny

Dr. Jenny

What is "holistic pet care" anyway?

The term “holistic” really just means “whole body.” So instead of looking at a symptom and only treating that one part of the body (such as only looking at the lungs when treating asthma, or the skin when treating a rash), we look at the entire body and how all the pieces play together. Our bodies don’t work as compartmentalized objects. Every single organ and system interacts with every other organ in the body. Therefore, if you have a problem in one area, it's very likely there will be ramifications elsewhere.

This is why, when talking about holistic pet care, our primary goal is to look at the body as a whole and how one piece is affecting another. It’s about realizing that symptoms are often a sign the body is out of balance, so we need to look at how to bring it back into alignment. It’s about looking for the source of the symptoms (why the patient is constantly vomiting, or why the skin always has a rash) rather than just adding more and more medications (just to treat the vomiting or rash), and then needing more medications to treat side effects of the original medications.

By looking at the big picture, we can be much more successful at actually treating and eliminating disease (or preventing it entirely!) rather than the most common scenario today, where each system is treated separately, nothing ever completely resolves, and the patient often has their own pharmacy of medications.

  Boomer and Pickles, Dr. Jenny's companions

Boomer and Pickles, Dr. Jenny's companions

What tools do you use when treating pets?

The absolute first thing I look at is the pet’s diet. So many of the diseases we see today started increasing in prevalence around the time dry kibble diets became popular. And so many of the chronic diseases we see today are related to poor diet.

For example, as we know in the human world, many chronic diseases are tied to gut health. We know vomiting and diarrhea are problems in the intestines.

But did you know that rashes, asthma, autoimmune disorders, and brain conditions (such as seizures) can all be related to diet? The same goes for dogs. 

I assess the diet of every single patient who walks through my door. I then look at environment (including relationships with animals and people, outdoor/indoor pets, etc.), vaccine history, medication usage, and any other details the owners can think to tell me. 

Occasionally, diet changes just aren’t quite enough. In those cases, I also use herbal medicine, essential oils, acupuncture, or chiropractic care as necessary to help tip them over the edge into healing. 

However, the vast majority of my cases can be improved dramatically simply by removing any foods that are inflammatory (grains!), to which they might be allergic, or that simply damage their bodies (kibble is very drying and hot, and can cause a lot of gut inflammation when used long term), and adding in nourishing, temperature-balancing foods.

  Photo by Kristin Lopez, Unsplash

Photo by Kristin Lopez, Unsplash

So diet has a huge role in pet health!

Yes. The connection between diet and health is huge! Most of the chronic health problems I see every day can be improved if not eliminated using dietary therapy.

As Hippocrates said: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

The most common diseases I see in practice are obesity, allergies (skin allergies, food allergies, ear infections, and anal gland problems caused by allergies), autoimmune disease, cancer, and metabolic problems (such as diabetes and adrenal gland disease). 

Every single one of these is related to diet. Every single one can be dramatically improved if not cured (and most can be prevented in the first place!) using proper diet.

For example, we know grains are inflammatory in humans. We don’t have extensive studies in the dog world because most of our studies are paid for by the food and pharmaceutical companies. But in humans, removing grains has been shown to improve everything from weight to cancer to asthma to seizures to gut problems and more!

Once I started removing grains from diets in my canine patients, I saw the same results! I treated the diarrhea in my own dog that had been going on for two years. I resolved autoimmune disease in a dog when other vets told the owner to prepare for the worst. I treated chronic diarrhea, weight loss, skin rashes, and thyroid problems in another dog after euthanasia had been proposed to the owners because no one could get the dog better. 

All of these animals I cured with nothing more than dietary changes. Some were already on medications when I took over, but they all came off them by the time we were done! (I do not, however, recommend that you ever discontinue medications without the supervision of a licensed veterinarian.) 

Diet is the number one player when it comes to keeping our pets healthy. If we have them on an appropriate diet from day one, then we can keep their immune system strong. We don’t see them develop weight problems, metabolic problems, cancer, and allergy problems. We don’t see the slow decline over several years that we’ve come to take as “normal.” No, we can’t stop every disease, but we can dramatically reduce their prevalence!

The biggest problem is we often don’t think to make these changes until it’s too late. We don’t realize we have a problem until we already have a sick dog. We can definitely use diet to improve their health once they’ve been sick, but wouldn’t it be amazing if we could keep them from getting sick in the first place?

What about your own diet? Does it overlap?

Everything I do with my dogs, I learned first for myself. My own health issues started in my teens. By freshman year of college, I was extremely sick and overweight but no one could figure out what was wrong with me. I floated through life thinking that was it. In 2010, my father introduced me to primal eating. The first step was to cut grains and unhealthy oils, and to start eating real foods.

Within a month of starting my new food regimen, I saw dramatic health benefits.

Not long afterward, my dog developed diarrhea. After my conventional treatments didn’t work for him, I started thinking outside the box. At one point, I decided to start using the same diet changes on him that I had used on me. Suddenly, his health was improving. And it wasn’t just the diarrhea. I saw improvements in his itchiness, he stopped chewing at his feet all the time, and the ear infections that were occurring monthly dropped to about once a year (usually after a long swim). 

So the real answer is our diets completely overlap. I actually decided to become a certified Primal Health Coach because I was living the lifestyle myself, but also because I was using every single one of the principles on my canine patients. 

Technically, dogs and humans are different, and lots of other vets disagree with how I change the diets of my patients. But the reality is, I’m getting improvements using these principles that I never saw using conventional medicine, and I’m healing cases that some other vets weren’t able to heal. All using diet changes. It all comes down to diet.

  Photo by Nomao Saeki, Unsplash

Photo by Nomao Saeki, Unsplash

any tips for transitioning pets to a healthy diet? 

Dogs are fairly easy when it comes to diet changes, with the caveat that many of them have previously been diagnosed with sensitive stomachs (which, by the way, is usually a food intolerance). For most dogs, I just recommend switching them to a better quality food over a couple of weeks. 

If I could get every single dog off of dry food entirely, I would. Dry food is very hot and inflammatory to the gut because of the amount of processing it’s been through, plus the nutritional value is debatable (they balance all the nutrients in the food, but whether or not it’s usable by the dog is a different story). I would have every single dog on real food in an ideal world. 

In reality, many people don’t want to deal with cooking for their dogs every day. Lucky for us, there are many great options on the market nowadays. Dehydrated foods simply require a little bit of water, then you have real food! Raw diets are great for some dogs (although not appropriate for all). There are lots of crockpot recipes out there now to help save time as well.

Variety is a good thing for pets. It provides as many nutrients as possible. It helps reduce the risk of developing an allergy. But it’s not something we’re used to doing in a society where we buy the same bag of food over and over. Therefore, especially if the dog has a history of sensitive stomach, adding probiotics (in yogurt, powdered or pill form) and gelatin (helps heal the intestinal wall) can help with the transition. Luckily, dogs typically like real foods so we just have to convince their bodies to handle them.

Cats, however, are a whole different situation. [Ed. note: You're telling me!] Many cats will turn up their noses at the consistencies of other foods, especially cats who have been fed dry food for years. Dehydrated foods often make slurries, but some freeze-dried foods hold their forms a bit better and are a decent transition option. And sometimes you have to mix the foods together a bit longer to convince cats to make the switch.

Three More Notes

  1. Cats need taurine. If you’re going to make your own food, you need to supply taurine for them! Taurine is an amino acid that keeps their heart healthy. Without it, they can develop heart failure.
  2. In general, dogs eat 2-4 percent of their body weight (lower for obese or older dogs; higher for younger, more active dogs). You can use that to calculate when you’re working on transitioning them to real food. (You can also go by the recommendation on the bag/box/can if you’re buying a formulated diet, but the recommendations often run a bit high so watch the weight.) 
  3. I often get asked about the teeth. We’re told to feed dry food to keep the teeth clean. However, this claim is being debated more and more. Plus, dry foods have more sugar, and isn’t that what the dentist tells us to avoid? The real answer is if they’re eating real, whole foods without added sugars (including avoiding fruits) and they have the opportunity to chew on other things, often their teeth will stay even cleaner than previously. That said, my own dog Pickles violates every single one of those rules and, even with all my tricks, needs her teeth cleaned about twice a year. So you’ll still want to watch them. But in general, teeth stay cleaner because of the reduced sugar. 
  Photo by Alexis Chloe, Unsplash

Photo by Alexis Chloe, Unsplash

How can people learn more or work with you?  

The easiest way to learn more is to come over to my website. I write regular blog posts and newsletters about how to keep your pets healthier, can answer questions, and am working on developing some courses that will teach more specific details about keeping our pets healthy long term! There are also details on the site about contacting me if you want individual help for your pet. 

Thank you so much, Jenny! Your holistic, food-forward approach to working with animals aligns perfectly with my approach to working with people!

(Oh, and my cats, however resistant, are slowly but surely making the transition to real, nourishing food:).

want help changing up your own eating style?

Even if you already know what to do, going it alone can be really tough. If you’re in this place, check out working with me one-on-one.

And for free support, check out my e-zine and ebooks.

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