Health lessons learned from my dog

An unlikely teacher:  when your pet teaches you how to better take care of yourself

When it comes to charitable giving, Andy Stanley's philosophy is to give to what breaks your heart and to what your heart's grateful for.

For me, there's nothing quite like a dog that's able to both break my heart and fill it with joy.  Recently, on a trip up to Riverside Humane Society, my path crossed with the founder of Bella and Sunshine Rescue, a new rescue in southern California focusing on dobies even though the organization fosters all breeds.

Bella and Sunshine's now the third non-profit that Rain Organica supports, and you'll find a link to Bella and Sunshine's page in today's show notes.

So, what lessons on improving your own health can you learn from your dog?  Let's get into it.

Diet matters

I grew up around rescued dogs, most of them mixed breeds, which usually have some advantage over purebreds and especially interbred purebreds. 

In 2011, my husband and I adopted our first doberman from the Larimer Humane Society (at least he looked purebred, which who cares about papers anyway?) and with that adoption came the responsibility of figuring out common health conditions for the breed.

We researched the diseases most common to dobermans and found they're prone to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which is enlargement of the heart muscle.  Additional research suggested a grain free diet could exacerbate DCM, however, Abe did not do well with dog food containing wheat especially, and I'm not a huge fan of corn as a dietary staple for any animal.

So, this meant additional research to figure out why a grain free diet might contribute to an enlarged heart in dobies, and it turns out, it's because the potatoes and legumes, which are common in grain free dog food interfere with taurine absorption.

Before being introduced to Ayurveda, which happened only quite recently, it was common for me not to consider my diet (and, here, I'm not talking hamburger and fries vs. quinoa, roasted potatoes, broccoli, and organic chicken, I'm talking how often was I eating potatoes in any form and should I consider more beef in my own diet for proper taurine levels?) and not to really think about the bulk of what I was eating and how this might be interfering with absorption of necessary nutrients. 

Learning about the connection between taurine, a grain free diet, and my dog's heart health helped to open my eyes to just how important diet is to health.

Stand up to your doctor

My dog Bogie, a small rescue I adopted in college, was diagnosed with a heart murmur when I first got him.  Years later, following a scary episode on Easter morning 2013, I was in the ER area of the CSU vet hospital with a veterinarian and no less than 2 vet techs who were trying to hold Bogie down while they strapped the blood pressure cuff to his tail.

That still, small voice inside me kept begging me to ask them to stop fighting with a 20 pound dog to wrangle a blood pressure cuff onto him.  I ignored that voice.

When they finally got the cuff on, Bogie's blood pressure was through the roof.  If I'd had that to do over again, I'd have told the doctor to stop fighting my dog and either wait for him to calm down to get his blood pressure or to go ahead and prescribe the specific blood pressure med he wanted to prescribe, and which was warranted anyways based on the other tests they'd already conducted and let's see whether that helped Bogie.

This also leads to the point that there's more than one option for improved health.  Your doctor may say you have to have a biopsy to conclusively prove you have Celiac Disease, but that doesn't mean you have to have the biopsy. 

Stop eating wheat, barley, and rye or anything potentially contaminated with those grains and see whether your health improves.  Actions you take on your own can be conclusive enough.

Granted, this is not always an option, sometimes, it's necessary to have the test performed, and sometimes you don't need the diagnosis to make shifts towards better health.

Consider the alternatives

When Bogie stopped eating, acupuncture helped.  Western medicine offers so much power for both diagnosis and also for symptom relief, however, to use only Western medicine is to completely ignore the ocean of health benefits offered by alternative modalities.

While I've experienced this in my own life as well, seeing how much acupuncture helped my dog was what really sold me on the power held by these alternative healing modalities.

Inaction is a choice too

It's tough to know what to do sometimes.  And, hindsight often feeds guilt.  So does inaction.

When Abe was diagnosed with a bone cancer on his rib, we consulted with the vet oncologist with a course of action.

The osteosarcoma on his rib popped up fast, first becoming palpable in late-November 2021 and at first felt like a lipoma, a benign fatty lump.  It began growing quickly and started feeling different, harder & immovable over just a few weeks.  By time he went in for his biopsy in December, the mass had nearly doubled in size from late-November.

When Abe went back for his rib biopsy in December, I requested that a spot on his leg, one that had been bothering me for a while and continually dismissed by the vet as a lipoma, a benign fatty lump, be biopsied as well, and that spot was also cancerous, which goes back to the earlier point, advocate for yourself.

Once the biopsy results came back, we were referred to vet oncologists who offered surgery including rib removal or radiation as the recommended courses of action.  At this point, Abe was at least 11 years old, since the best guess on his when we adopted him was about a year old. 

Surgical removal of a rib in a dog involves resecting muscles they use for walking, or at least ones Abe used for walking.  As my sister, an NP describes it, in humans, it's a big ass surgery, and it would be at least that big for Abe even if it were just his floating rib.

So, that was out of the question.  We opted for radiation, and if I had it to do over again, we would have chosen the 3rd option:  no treatment.

When Abe went in for his first dose of radiation, he was able to go for walks and play with his brother, another dobie rescue, Moose.  His appetite was also healthy.

By the third day of treatment, all of that changed, and it took two months to get his appetite back.

This leads into some pretty dog specific health lessons.

  1. Stomach tacking in barrel chested dogs who've had their spleen removed should be recommended as a prophylactic treatment for bloat any time an abdominal organ's removed. 

    For radiation, animals are put under anesthesia and rotated throughout treatment. 

    Normally, this doesn't present a problem, however, Abe was a deep chested dog who'd had his spleen removed a couple years earlier to a benign mass that was causing internal bleeding.  Being rotated onto his back while under anesthesia resulted in his stomach transiently going into torsion when he ate resulting in a potentially life-threatening condition, bloat.

    An emergency trip to Veterinary Emergency Group in Encinitas, hands down the coolest vet clinic I've ever been to taught another lesson.  Whenever a deep chested dog has an organ removed in their abdominal cavity, it's a really good idea to go ahead and tack their stomach to the abdominal wall to prevent bloat.

  2. Worsening of neck compression of the spinal column is a potential side effect of radiation treatment.

    After completing radiation, Abe began to have problems with his gait.  At first, it was transient, and we suspected electrolyte imbalance because he wasn't eating well.

    It progressed to severe imbalance and irregular gait.  We thought it might be radiation induced myelopathy, where nerve tissue dies due to the radiation exposure.  The radiologist assured us it wasn't.  What was really happening wasn't evident to me until later.

    Abe's complete radiation treatment included 5 separate rounds, so 5 times where he was put under anesthesia and placed in some kind of rotating machine to receive the radiation.

    He already had a degenerative disc in his cervical spine, something known as Wobbler's syndrome, which can affect dogs of any breed even when it's more common in some breeds over others.

    Even though surgery's an option, dogs have to be kept with restricted movement for 2 to 3 months following surgery to give the discs of the cervical spine time to fuse together.  More often, Wobbler's is treated with NSAIDs. 

    Wobbler's is a degenerative condition, and in this instance, I believe it was made worse by the manipulation of Abe when he was under anesthesia for treatment.

    Ultimately, Wobbler's causes dogs to lose coordination in their front and back legs.  They're unable to control movement, and nerve impulses are affected in both directions, going from and back to the brain.  This leaves the dog essentially unable to get up and once up, unable to walk on their own because they can't feel their legs, and even if they could, they can't control them.

    Progression of the disease includes loss of control of involuntary muscles as well, like the diaphragm for breathing.

And, this goes back to the last point.  If we had chosen the course of no treatment, Wobbler's almost certainly wouldn't have been the cause of Abe's death.  Yes, that osteosarcoma probably would've killed him inside of three months from diagnosis, but he'd have gotten more days of activity and more days of appetite than he had with our decision to treat him with radiation.

As someone who firmly believes in quality of life over quantity of life, I made the wrong decision on this one.  Lesson learned.


What Abe would eat:

  • colostrum in sour cream:  1 tsp colostrum powder in about a tablespoon of sour cream mixed with a teaspoon of warm water.  This was my secret weapon.  Even when Abe wouldn't eat anything else, he'd almost always eat this.  On days when he turned his nose up at the mixture, I'd rub a little bit on his gums, and that would spur his appetite to eat the rest of it. 

    I've linked the colostrum powder I used here, you can choose an alternative, just be sure to check for a BSE (bovine spongiform encephalitis) free statement on the company's page (or contact the company directly if you can't find one) before ordering.

  • Tiki Cat After Dark Chicken & Quail Egg Canned Cat Food:  he ate this after his spleen surgery in 2020, when he was also a really picky eater.  In 2022, he wouldn't touch it.

  • Eggs:  fried, on occasion.  Sometimes, he'd only eat either the white or the yolk, so offer both individually.

  • Bixbi Liberty Chicken Freeze Dried Topper:  he consistently ate this.  You might be able to use this as a topper, and check your local grocery store for larger (and cheaper) bags.  Also available in beef.

  • Rotisserie Chicken from the deli counter at Stater Brothers.  He wouldn't eat any other rotisserie chicken.

  • McDonald's plain hamburger:  patty only.  Be sure to order this plain so it doesn't come w/ condiments and onions.

  • Kibbles and Bits:  yes, that super cheap dog food.  It wasn't what he was normally fed, so he'd eat this one and really enjoyed the Bistro Bites.

  • Cesar's Dog Food:  small dog kibble. 
  • Carolina Prime Sweet 'Tater Fillets
  • Freeze dried chicken fillets: one brand from PetSmart.  I don't still have this bag, so I'm not sure of the brand.
  • Vital Essentials Freeze Dried Minnows
  • Capelin Fish:  Rarely in stock, rich in taurine.  Complain if you get a bag that smells spoiled (it's happened once for us).
  • Freeze dried chicken hearts:  these seem fatty, and I always worry about pancreatitis with too many of these

Mix it up at each meal.  It's common for dogs once they've eaten something at one meal to turn their nose up at the next meal with that same food.  This is especially common when the meal makes them feel sick in any way, so mix it up at each meal if that's an issue.

Invite company over.  Abe was an attention hound, and he loved showing off for company.  He ate a can of frozen baby food (beef flavored) one time when company was over.

Use a treat/topper to get them to eat some wholesome food.  Sometimes, once you spur their appetite, it's possible to get them to eat (like priming a pump).

Be willing to make modifications daily.  Abe wouldn't eat all of these things every day.  And, when we were really struggling, he ate less than half these.

What he wouldn't eat (but still good ideas for trying):

  • home cooked hamburger
  • Just Food for Dogs
  • home cooked chicken
  • rice (with chicken)
  • pasta:  after his appetite lined back out, he'd eat pasta, one of his favorite foods.  Cook until al dente with a splash of olive oil and pinch of salt
  • Vital Essentials Freeze Dried Nibs:  freeze dried chicken, beef, or fish
  • canned fish:  tuna, sardines, mackerel, salmon
  • smoked salmon:  would eat occasionally
  • whipped cream
  • plain yogurt:  vanilla yogurt is okay for dogs as well as long as it's sweetened with sugar.  Double check labels to be sure there's no weird ingredients (especially xylitol)
  • Beggin' Strips:  when he was really anorexic, he wouldn't touch these




Brandy Searcy founder Rain Organica

About the Author

Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding. 

Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on. 

Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.

You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.

Brandy's LinkedIn Bio

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