Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Food Hopping: Why I've Stuck with Inconsistent Feeding

In my pantry right now
For over three years now, I have been exploring the wide world of dog food. In that time, I have never bought two bags of the same food in a row. As soon as I begin to run out of one bag, I transition over to another brand. This means that, at maximum, my Labrador is eating a certain food for about thirty days. I've had some interesting discussions with the workers at the pet store within walking distance of my condo, and they think it's simply bizarre that I would do what I do. It's unusual, sure, but I think it's had a positive effect on my fella.

Before this journey began in early 2012, Ebon hadn't really eaten that many foods in his life. When I first brought him home, he and our old dog Charlie ate Purina One and I was not the major decision maker in what sort of food was bought (I was only sixteen at the time). When Iams became cheaper at the grocery store we went to, we switched to Iams. Ebon was fed Iams for maybe three years. I got older and wiser and Ebon was eventually switched to Nutro's Natural Choice, then to Blue Buffalo. Purina One and Iams did Ebon no favors, and the changes when he stopped eating them were pretty fantastic. I finally switched him to the PetSmart-exclusive Simply Nourish, which was the food he was eating when I decided I wanted to try something different. I started doing single-bag trials and reviewing the food based, in part, on how well Ebon did while eating it.

The funny thing about this, though, is he has been generally more stable in terms of coat quality, digestive health, and energy than he was when being fed a single food for an extended period. Sure, there's been some duds that upset his stomach and so on, but he also had more than a few incidents when he had been eating the same kibble for months. There's a reason why I worry so much about his stool and call his stomach "a bit touchy." For the longest time, it seamed like so little could set him off. But since my little experiment started, he's had fewer problems and the ones he does have tend to be more minor. This could very well be a coincidence, but I suspect it's more than that.

For people, it's not generally considered healthy to eat the same thing day in, day out. So, why wouldn't that same rule apply to our pets? A person shouldn't eat turkey on rye for every meal, so why should a dog eat lamb and brown rice for the rest of its life? While pet foods are meant to be complete and balanced for long-term nutrition, it is still very possible that a certain food would lead to some sort of deficiency thanks to things like digestibility, ingredients, and nutrient bioavailability. For example, I've discussed before my concerns about the inclusion of plant-based protein boosters in pets foods. Nutritional information on pet food is very limited, and one of the few things that we do get are things like the percent of food that is protein. The problem with this is that plant proteins, due to being more difficult to digest, have a lower bioavailability than animal proteins. That means that the amount that can be measured in the sources is different than the amount that a body can actually absorb and make use of. Since dogs, being carnivores, have short digestive tracts, bioavailability is a very valid concern when discussing food quality. A food with a large amount of plant protein may mean that a dog isn't able to actually utilize as much protein as it should. In addition, plant proteins are generally not complete, meaning they're missing one or more essential amino acids: the protein building blocks that a body cannot manufacture itself. Those amino acids have to come from somewhere, and deficiencies can cause pretty serious side effects (see Kwashiorkor).

Due to all of that, it's not unlikely that even a very well formulated food has flaws. So, switching between foods on a regular basis may have the positive effect of mitigating whatever nutritional deficiencies a certain food may have. Considering what I've seen with Ebon, this very well may be what has happened with him.

It's also been fascinating to learn more about how my dog ticks. Comparing him to my parents' dogs has also contributed to my current opinions of dog food. One main thing? Every dog is different. Ebon does better on more calorically dense foods than my parents' greyhounds. For Ebon, fish-based foods are more likely to set him off than mammals and birds. Grain-free and grain-inclusive foods aren't any different for him even though a lot of dogs do best on grain free. The greys can't go grain free because it gives them the runs. Then again, a lot of things give them the runs. They have the notoriously awful stomachs that are so common in the breed. Ebon has his issues, but they're pretty exclusively linked to nervousness, while for the greys it could just be a Wednesday.

After all this time jumping brands and knowing that Ebon does well as long as the food fits a fairly short list of criteria, I've been shopping sales and picking up whatever hits the right balance of quality and price. One major advantage to this is I can often save several dollars a bag versus if I was constantly buying the same brand every month. I also have a few other criteria. I watch how much rice Ebon eats, since there is some concern about levels of arsenic. I am careful about my own rice intake, so I'm careful about his too. I never feed two bags of dog food that contain rice in a row, so it tends to alternate between grain-free and grain-inclusive. I also try to rotate out proteins, but this isn't as easy to do. He tends to get a lot of chicken, but I buy non-chicken food as often as I can.

When my little experiment first started, my goal was to find a food to settle on for the rest of Ebon's life. Now, however, I think I'll continue to switch it up indefinitely.

Ebon recently, still as happy as ever. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Facing Reality: Old Dog Problems

Update: I had a chat with them. I had forgotten about another accidental death. Ebon is the last one left. I'm going to go give him a big hug now. 

Happy boy. Tag by Aggie's Anvil

Ebon, my field-bred Labrador, turned ten years old this January. He's arthritic is both hips and one knee, making him have a hitch in his stride. He's developing cataracts. He tires easily, so he's playing less. However, this isn't what has bothered me the most. After all, for his age and size he's still doing rather well. It's been the loss of his brothers.

Ebon's brother Roscoe, lost this month
As long-term readers may remember, Ebon is part of a litter of five black boys from a chocolate mother and a yellow father. One pup died in an accident, but the others lived to adulthood. In the past six months, two brothers had to be euthanized. The reason? The big c-word: cancer.

Of course, this wasn't entirely unexpected, with the average life expectancy of the breed being ten to twelve years. But even so, finding out last October that one of the brothers hadn't made it to his tenth birthday saddened me. This month I was informed of the loss of another, and I really started to worry.

Cancer is distressingly common in retrievers, though Labradors as a whole have a lower incidence than other retriever breeds. Ebon's litter was blessedly free from those ever-common hip, elbow, knee, and eye problems, though they all wound up being epileptic. I still suspect this was due to maternal stress, however, as the breeder was robbed and the dogs were drugged while Hellon (the mother) was pregnant. Ebon hasn't had a seizure in over two years, and the ones he has had were comparatively very minor.

Since Ebon is from field lines, breed statistics, due to the sheer popularity of non-field Labs, are probably a bit misleading. It's difficult to say how well those statistics apply to field lines specifically. I know Ebon's father came from lines that didn't have the best longevity, but it was mostly due to hunting accidents, so there's no way of saying how long those dogs would have lived or what they would have died of otherwise. Since Ebon was a gift, I got what I got, but I do wish I knew more. I have never seen his pedigree because I never registered him, so I don't know anything about his COI. Since his mother was from Texas and his father was from Georgia, it's very possible that the litter was born of a highly unrelated pairing, but for all I know the parents were half-siblings. I don't know what happened to his father. I know his mother had cancer, but she was almost fifteen when she was euthanized. Just looking at her, he probably inherited some really good genes. But that's only one part of the picture.

If Ebon winds up being the last one standing, I really don't know how I'll feel. But I do know I'm going to cherish every moment we have left.

My old man

Monday, February 2, 2015

Hashimoto's Disease: Working to Understand my Diagnosis

The thyroid gland
Late last year I discovered I had developed a goiter. For those who don't know, a goiter is an enlargement of the thyroid gland, often becoming a visible bulge at the lower part of the front of the neck. It scared me a bit. This was a combination of me thinking about the neck being a sensitive area and my mind immediately jumping to lump = bad. It kept getting bigger, and right now I can feel it when I swallow. After testing, I showed clearly elevated thyroid auto-antibodies. After a lot of poking, prodding, blood tests, and questions I was told it was pretty definitive that I had Hashimoto's disease: an autoimmune disorder also known as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis. I am now in the very early stages of treatment using levothyroxine, a synthetic thyroid hormone.

The curious side of me, of course, wanted to know more. Especially as this is going to affect the rest of my life.

The endocrine system
The thyroid is one of many glands that make up the endocrine system, which is a complex of hormone-secreting organs that control major aspects of normal body function. The endocrine system controls a body's development from child to adult. It keeps levels of certain substances, like insulin and calcium, in balance. It helps regulate your sleeping patterns. It also controls your metabolism and body temperature. The thyroid is involved in those last two. For proper function, the thyroid requires iodine as both thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3)--two hormones produced by the gland--contain iodine. Consuming too much or too little iodine can exacerbate existing thyroid problems, or even cause them under certain circumstances.

When it comes to maintaining levels of thyroid hormones, there is a feedback loop involving the thyroid, the pituitary gland, and the hypothalamus. It's a classic negative feedback loop. The hypothalamus produces thyroid releasing hormone (TRH), which then triggers the pituitary to release thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). This then triggers the thyroid to produce T4 and T3. When levels of T4 and T3 in the blood reach a certain level, this then signals the hypothalamus and pituitary to stop releasing TRH and TSH, respectively. When testing to see if someone has a thyroid problems, looking at levels of TSH and T4 will generally tell the most about about what is going wrong. If someone has low TSH and high T4, it would indicate hyperthyroidism (over-activity of the thyroid gland). High TSH but low T4 would be due to hypothyroidism (under-activity of the thyroid gland).

In many ways, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism cause symptoms that are opposite of each other. Hyperthyroidism includes things like difficulty tolerating heat, sweating more, restlessness, anxiety, and weight loss. Hypothyroidism, on the other hand, has symptoms that involve difficulty tolerating the cold, depression, and weight gain. One speeds everything up while the other slows it all down. However, both ends of the spectrum will make you tired.

Hashimoto's disease is pretty typical of hypothyroidism, but with a few interesting caveats. As it's an autoimmune disorder, but a very specific one, it involves someone's own immune system attacking the thyroid gland. Over time, the thyroid is killed off. Hashimoto's tends to have a gradual onset because it takes time for the thyroid to be damaged to the point that it enlarges or a person starts experiencing noticeable symptoms. It can be years before someone is diagnosed, if they are diagnosed at all. There is also no cure, and the only current treatment is thyroid hormone replacement therapy.

My goiter
In my case, I'm honestly not quite sure whether I've been having symptoms for an extended period of time. I gained some weight after some setbacks kept me from exercising as much as I had been and since then I've had difficulty losing even a single pound. Over the past few years it has seemed like I've been more tired, feeling less and less able to be as productive as I once was. My iron levels tend to be low, so I usually would chalk it up to needing more iron in my diet again. Now I can't help but wonder if it's been more complicated than that. My feet tend to not retain heat well, but I don't know if that is just the nature of my circulation or if it was an early sign of Hashimoto's. Lately I've definitely noticed how cold I've been feeling. One day my feet were so cold I lost feeling my toes and, after checking my thermostat, I was startled to discover it was 70°F inside. That is pretty definitively not normal. I've also been very tired, on more than one occasion sleeping through most of the day. I've actually woken up, gone to work, come home, and almost immediately fallen asleep again on more occasions than I care to count. With how much this has interfered with things, this is the biggest symptom I want to stop.

The good thing? The medication does seem to be starting to help a bit. The doctor and I just need to work on dialing in the right dose. 

Hashimoto's disease is diagnosed at a rate of three to fifteen per ten thousand people. It is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. There are two major risk factors: having a family history and being born female, with only one male being diagnosed for every twenty females. Looking at my family history, it's really not overly surprising that I have a thyroid problem. On my mother's side, my grandfather took synthetic thyroid hormones. On my father's side, I have two aunts with hypothyroidism of some sort and a cousin who I know has Hashimoto's. That's a lot of malfunctioning thyroids!

Sources are Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions Autoimmune Disease Research Center, National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information ServiceUniversity of Maryland Center for Diabetes and EndocrinologyAmerican Medical AssociationColorado State University, Medline Plus: Chronic thyroiditis (Hashimoto disease), Medline Plus: Hypothyroidism, Medline Plus: Hyperthyroidism. Images one and two are from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licenses (one, two). The third image was taken by me.