Category: Pet health and nutrition

Grain Free Diets and Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Dogs: An Update

Ahead of the Pack

KC Pet Collective was ahead of the pack last year as we provided breaking information about the possible link between grain free diets and cardiomyopathy in dogs, particularly Golden Retrievers.  This post will give you the latest information about this developing topic.  We’ll help you understand the issue and make an informed decision about feeding your dog.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy

Dilated cardiomyopathy  (DCM) is a condition caused by a weakening of the heart muscle that leads to poor contraction strength.  Ultimately, both the left and the right chambers of the heart become dilated, with thin walls.  The disease is most often progressive and fatal.  Dilated cardiomyopathy is linked to genetics, and some breeds are predisposed.  But in some cases, dogs with no genetic predisposition may develop this condition.  Although the cause of the disease is not fully understood, diet may be a contributing factor in some dogs.

Over the past few years, veterinary scientists at several prominent universities, including Dr. Josh Stern at the University of California, Davis,  have observed increasing incidence of DCM in breeds predisposed to the disease, like golden retrievers, and also in dogs with no genetic predisposition.  These investigators believe they have uncovered an association with feeding grain-free diets in certain cases.

What is the evidence for a link between grain free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs?

To date, there are no published studies that confirm a link between grain-free diets and DCM.  However, veterinarians have documented at least 150 cases where they suspect diet was the cause of DCM.  Owners and veterinarians have reported many cases to the to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).   As of July, 2018, the FDA had fully evaluated thirty of these cases. Many of these cases have occurred in dogs that are not genetically predisposed to the disease, and the affected dogs were fed grain-free diets. Specifically, these diets contain legumes like peas and lentils, potatoes, including sweet potatoes.  Derivates of these ingredients like pea protein, fiber, or starches, are also associated with DCM, according to the FDA.

Should dog parents avoid feeding grain free diets?

It’s important to remember that the ingredients found in grain-free diets are also present in other types of dog food. It’s still unclear exactly how these types of ingredients may lead to DCM in dogs.  These ingredients may lack certain types of nutrients, like the amino acid taurine, that are necessary for proper heart function in dogs.  They may affect how dogs process essential nutrients.

The FDA is not recommending that dog parents change their pet’s diet based on the available information.  The FDA is working with veterinarians and pet food companies that produce these diets to better understand the situation.  Always seek advice from a licensed veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet.

What are the benefits of feeding grain free diets?

Veterinary nutritionists are not convinced that there are real benefits to feeding grain-free diets for most dogs.  Grain-free diets are not necessarily more digestible for dogs.  And grain-free diets do not necessarily contain fewer carbohydrates than other types of dog food.  According to Dr. Angela Witzel of the University of Tennessee, about 1/3 of grain free diets are actually low carb, and 1/3 are actually high carbohydrate diets (Witzel, The veterinarian’s guide to alternative diet trends: Grain feree, raw, ketogenic, and more, abstract FETCH DVM 360 Conference, KC, MO, 2017).

Some grain-free diet advocates suggest that these diets are more natural for dogs, because dogs have evolved to be predators.  According to this theory, dogs are not able to digest starches very well.   In fact, scientists have discovered that dogs have evolved to produce more of the proteins associated with starch and fat digestion than their ancestor, the wolf (Axelsson et al, The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet, Nature, 2013: 495(7441)).

Where can I learn more?

You can learn more about this topic at the FDA website.  The FDA has also published a Question and Answer document about dilated cardiomyopathy and grain-free diets.

Begging for Food: the Random Schedule of Reinforcement

Are you fed up with your pet’s constant begging for food? Chances are you are perpetuating the problem without even knowing.  It’s time to get off the random schedule of reinforcement.

Why is your pet begging for food?

Dogs and cats are programmed to respond to food cues.  In the wild, an animal never knows when it will get the next meal.  Instinct tells him that it’s literally a matter of life and death to get to your pot roast.  And it doesn’t hurt that your pot roast smells just as delicious to him as it does to you.

As your faithful subordinate, your pet will most likely wait and watch patiently until you finish that pot roast.  This is also an instinctual response.  Animals in packs or prides take turns eating, and your pet is certain that you will provide some of the leftovers.  But most of us really don’t enjoy being the subject of such intense scrutiny while we eat.  If there’s drool involved, we like it even less.

So we make firm rules, and we promise ourselves never to feed our pets from the table.

Just one bite, please!

The problem is that our pets are cute.  They know how to work us with the melting stare, the upraised paw.  When they beg, we respond.  We make eye contact, or we talk to them.  And, worst of all, we give them a handout.  Just that easily, a pet learns that begging for food is sometimes rewarded.

It doesn’t matter that you do not give in to your dog nine times out of ten, or 99 times out of 100.  What she remembers is that you gave in once.  It’s a little secret that casinos and lottery managers use with resounding success.

The secret is reinforcement

Reinforcement is a behavioral term for the process of encouraging a behavior through punishment (negative reinforcement) or reward (positive reinforcement).  Reinforcement is a powerful tool for intentionally training a new behavior.  Unfortunately, it’s also a powerful way to accidentally teach an undesirable behavior, like begging for food.

When you occasionally give in to your pet and reward begging with a scrap of table food or a treat, you engage in a random schedule of reinforcement.  As casino owners and lottery managers have learned, random reinforcement can be a very powerful behavioral motivator.  It’s what drives people to sit for hours in front of slot machines.  And it drives your dog to keep begging, time after time.

Get off the random schedule of reinforcement

If your pet begs for food, stop randomly rewarding her.  Set a strict no treats at the table rule and stick with it.  Enforce this rule with your children and your guests.   Remember that scolding your pet for begging rewards your dog with your attention. That is also a form of reinforcement.  It’s best to ignore your pet when she begs.

Until you train a new behavior to replace begging, your dog will continue to beg.  Here are some training tips to help curb begging.

  1. Train your dog to go to another room or a kennel when people are eating.
  2. Train your dog to go to a specific location in the room and lie down or sit.
  3. Use a time-out when begging occurs.

Dogs aren’t the only pets that beg for food.  Cats are also notorious beggars.

If your cat is food obsessed, first make sure that there is not a medical reason. Older cats are prone to metabolic diseases, like diabetes mellitus and hyperthyroidism, that may cause them to feel ravenously hungry.

If your cat is healthy, try these tips.

  1. The best response to a begging cat is to ignore him.
  2. If the problem persists, move your cat out of the room at mealtimes.
  3. Feed your cat on a schedule.
  4. Never leave food on the table or kitchen counters.
  5. Never let your cat on the table or kitchen counters.





The New Bar K Dog Bar Brings Joyful Community to Riverfront Park

The new Bar K Dog Bar remains, first and foremost, a joyful and welcoming space. The community-building formula perfected in the Bar K Lab (pets, people, play, potables, and a touch of special Bar K magic) has not been lost in the translation.  Yes, we’re gushing.

The Bar K retains its industrial roots in the container construction and in the use of found space under the Heart of America Bridge.  Look around you, and you’ll find traces of the much-loved warehouse space in the West Bottoms that was the Bar K Lab.  Adirondack chairs still provide a pop of Bar K blue and orange and make comfortable places for intimate conversation in the open play area.  The made in Kansas City Ricochet game table has a new home on the upstairs patio.  Inside, a container door is repurposed as a sliding barn-style door.

But owners David Hensley and Leib Dodell, together with the architects at Clockwork +Design have moved far beyond the limits of industrial warehouse space to create a community gathering place with a modern vibe that pulls together the best elements of downtown Kansas City, from the Rivermarket to the Crossroads.  The team has somehow managed to create the perfect mix of posh and homey.  The blend balances without culture clash the trendy and upscale, yet down home and friendly spirit of this upwardly mobile midwestern city.

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What’s at the end of the rainbow? The Bar K, of course.

The team has considered the comfort and needs of both humans and dogs equally in their design.  Playful canine-themed works by local artists grace the front of the building and create a welcoming atmosphere throughout the facility.  Inside, there are humans-only social spaces, including a coffee bar, full bar, restaurant, lounge, and conference center.  Outside, and on the patios, humans and dogs mingle.

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The beer garden builds community at the Bar K. Photo courtesy Jason Doss.

The architects designed a park that is landscaped for function and beauty.  The team incorporated different types of surfaces to provide visual interest, and also textural interest for the dogs.  Turf, sand, gravel, and wood chips provide places for dogs to run, dig, and play.  A meandering walkway leads through small groves of native trees in the shade of the bridge.  Large boulders and wide concrete steps provide ampitheather-style seating with a view of the park.

Play features for dogs only include a large jungle gym, a climbing area, and a splash pool, complete with doggy cabanas.  There are separate spaces for puppies and small dogs. Humans may choose to linger on the patios,  at the outdoor bar, in the beer garden, or indoors.  Or they may play one of a number of human-sized lawn games.

As always,  dog play is well supervised by Bar K staff.  There are water stations and misters at several locations in the park, and staff keep the water bowls clean.  Recycled containers at both ends of the park serve as shelters for warming or shade.

Ultimately, the new Bar K Dog Bar will be a true community center for Kansas City dogs and their families.  The team plans to host a variety of live events on their outdoor stage, including live music, educational events, and more.  For now, patrons and their pooches can enjoy live music in the evenings. In true Bar K fashion, dogs are part of the entertainment, and you will occasionally find them upstaging the performers.

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As always, the dogs are part of the entertainment at Bar K.

If you played at the Bar K Lab, you will recognize many familiar faces among the staff at the new Bar K, along with many new friends.  “Must love dogs” is a condition of hire, and it shows.  It’s a place where everyone knows your dog’s name.  Come in a few times, and everyone will know your name, too.  That’s the magic of the Bar K:  everyone is truly special here.



This Smart Litter Box Monitors Your Cat’s Health

Imagine a litter box that monitors your cat’s health and reports issues directly to your cell phone.  A new smart litter box in Japan will do just that.

The Smart Litter Box Technology

Cats are prone to many health issues as they age. Many common feline health conditions can be detected through evaluation of changes in weight and urination.  Unfortunately, cat owners often miss subtle changes in weight and the amount of urine their cat produces over time.  Cats often do not get regular veterinary examinations that could detect problems in the early stages.

A new smart litter box from the Sharp company in Japan will help pet parents monitor their cat’s health.  This box includes detectors and software that will monitor a cat’s weight, the amount she urinates, and the length of time she spends in the litter box.  When the system detects an abnormal change, it notifies the owner’s smart phone directly.

Multiple cats?  No problem.  The box comes with optional sensors that will detect individual cats in a multi-at household.

Why are we excited about this technology?

  1. Cat obesity: Weight gain in cats, just like in people, usually occurs slowly.  Pet parents are notoriously unreliable at recognizing weight gain and obesity in their pets.  This technology will provide consistent and objective evaluation of a cat’s weight over time.  An owner who receives an alert is more likely to take action and have their cat examined by a veterinarian. If the company has thought this through, the box will monitor improvement over time, too. Owners could use this to help evaluate the effectiveness of a diet plan for their cat.
  2. Diabetes: Changes in weight and increased urine volume are indicators of diabetes mellitus.  Cat parents may not recognize increased amounts of urine in the box, unless they are paying careful attention to the litter balls.  A tool to alert owners when their cat is urinating more frequently and with a higher volume could revolutionize the early diagnosis of diabetes in cats.   If diabetes is diagnosed early, cats have a higher chance to go into remission when treated.
  3. Kidney disease:  Kidney disease is common in aging cats.  Increases or decreases in frequency or volume of urination may signal the onset of kidney problems.  Early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to managing the progression of kidney disease.
  4. Urinary blockages: Spending a lot of time in the litter box can signal that a cat is having difficulty urinating.  Bladder infections or blockages due to bladder stones can cause this problem.  Cat parents can easily miss this sign, unless they are carefully monitoring the litter box.
  5. Hyperthyroidism: This common problem in middle-aged to older cats can cause them to drink and urinate more.

These are just the most common problems that this smart litter box could help detect.  Alerts to changes in urination and weight will encourage owners to take their cat to a veterinarian for diagnosis.

How much does the box cost?

The box is rolling out at a cost of about $224 US.  The monitoring app will cost an additional $3.00 US each month.

Will the box be available in the US?

Before you get excited, this smart litter box will be rolled out only in Japan at first.  Hopefully the Sharp company will bring this technology to the US market in the near future.  We hope this box will eventually be used with smart litter to detect things like sugar in the urine (glucosuria), an indicator of diabetes.

Help or Hype? Does Your Dog Need Paw Balm?

Does your dog need paw balm?

I see a lot of people pushing paw balm (butter) in all seasons.  My own philosophy of dog skin care is that less is more.  That is, I need to know that a product is truly beneficial before I use it.  Does your dog need paw balm?  Does paw balm help or is it so much hype?

Paw protection in the winter

The most convincing use of paw balm is as a protectant for your dog’s paws in the winter during freezing weather.  In this case, using a wax of some type in the formulation truly seems to provide protection against paw cracking.  The wax also forms a barrier that minimizes contact with de-icers.  These salts can injure your dog’s paw pads.  Anecdotally, mushers and those with working dogs use paw protectants religiously during the winter.

Paw protection in the summer

There is little evidence that paw balm provides useful protection to your dog’s feet during hot summer months.  Keeping your dog off the concrete and asphalt during the hottest parts of the day is a much more effective way to prevent pad burns.  And for those time when you simply must get out during very hot weather, boots may be a better option.

Function over form

Using paw butter to soften your dog’s paw pads may be counterproductive, winter or summer.  Your dog’s pads need to be tough enough to withstand normal wear and tear. That means walking on gravel and occasional sharp objects, as well as hot and cold surfaces.  And to stand up to all that, your dog’s pads need to be tougher than the bottoms of your own feet. It is natural for your dog’s paw pads to feel a little rough.

Think about the last time you went swimming and had to walk across gravel.  Unless you go barefoot frequently, it probably felt excruciating.  People generally work hard to keep the protective callouses off the bottom of their feet.  We get away with this because we wear shoes that protect our feet.  Dogs do not wear shoes consistently (and they shouldn’t except when weather conditions are extreme).

If your dog develops deeper cracks, it may be appropriate to use a healing lotion and a protectant to prevent further damage.  If your dog develops cracked pads, you should also consider making a visit to your veterinarian.  Changes in your dog’s skin may indicate underlying health problems.  Unless your dog has unhealthy cracking in the pads, do not apply moisturizing lotions.  Avoid any lotion that leads to skin softening.  It is a mistake to apply human cosmetic standards to dogs.

A word about safety

Did you know that pet cosmetic products are not regulated by the FDA?  These types of products are considered to be grooming aids.  As such, unless they claim to treat a disease or condition, they are not subject to rigorous testing for either efficacy or safety.  Most companies that make and sell these products are ethical and believe in their products.  But belief is not evidence.  Until a controlled study is published demonstrating that routine use of paw moisturizers leads to better paw health, I will remain skeptical about the hype.