Gluten Intolerance & Pets
The following is an article I wrote for the newsletter of Celiac.com when asked about the prevalence of celiac disease (gluten intolerance) in the dog and cat. This piece has since been reprinted in a number of pet-related publications.
Gluten intolerance has been definitively diagnosed in the Irish Setter but not in many other breeds of dogs as of this writing. I was taught about gluten enteropathy in the Irish Setter in the late 70’s. Sadly, even my instructors in veterinary school have forgotten this. Perhaps that is why the veterinary profession allowed the pet food industry to make the biggest blunder in the history of commercial pet foods – the transition from corn to wheat-based dry foods. This horrible mistake took place in the mid-80’s and ushered in the dark ages of veterinary medicine, at least from the pet’s standpoint.
I will not be surprised at all when researchers find that this insidious yet potentially devastating condition is ubiquitous among breeds of dogs and cats, even the lovable mutt and “domestic short haired cat”. Celiac researchers are now telling us that all who consume today’s man-made gluten are likely to become sensitive to it. Yes, it is now clear: Gluten is not “good” for anyone, only better tolerated by some than others.
But…as this article explains, gluten is only the beginning of our dietary woes.
Gluten Intolerance and Your Pet
by Dogtor J
© 2002 DogtorJ.com
“Chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp….GULP. Slurp, slurp, slurp, slurp….BELCH.” This is the sound of “Fido” eating his scientifically formulated, well-balanced dog food. It can be purchased at the grocery store, but the discerning owner travels to the local pet shop to buy the better quality food. Most people know that you get what you pay for in a pet food and that the higher grade foods come from certain recognizable manufacturers and can only be found at specialty pet supply outlets. But, is that axiom true? Does purchasing the most expensive food guarantee that your pet will be receiving the best in nutrition that the industry has to offer?
The unfortunate truth is that pet food is not as scientifically formulated as most would like to think. For the most part, Fido’s food is made with convenience and cost of manufacturing in mind more than science. Yes, the first few ingredients look appetizing enough and there are essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals added to the mix. But are these ingredients natural for the pet and are they readily available for absorption and use by their body? Here in lies the crux of the matter.
The wake-up call comes when one realizes that once the meat source is removed from the diet, the remaining ingredients are mostly unnatural for the pet. If we exclude the beef, poultry, fish, and lamb, the remaining calorie sources are mostly wheat, barley, corn, rice, and oats, all of which are man-raised crops that the dog and cat would never consume in the wild. I love to inquire of my clients “How would a pet get rice? Swim to Viet Nam?”
But what is the problem with these complex carbohydrates being in the diet? Humans consume these with every meal and they are doing just fine, aren’t they? Ahhhh. Are we? If we were, those reading this paper would be reading something else right now, wouldn’t they? The problem is that the grains listed above have some universal problems among humans and pets alike, as do a couple of other problem foods that eclipse even the grains in health issues.
To digress for just a moment, I am a recovered celiac. For forty-something years, I suffered like most other celiacs of a myriad of symptoms, including allergies, heart burn and intestinal problems, depression/chronic fatigue, memory and balance difficulties, joint pain, and even fibromyalgia. I was taking at least four drugs twice daily; caffeine addicted, and was quite frankly not having any fun anymore. I am now two and a half years gluten and casein-free, off all drugs, symptom-free, and feeling better than I did when I was twelve. This miraculous recovery got my attention as a patient and as a doctor. How could this be? How could I be suffering from what millions of people and pets were experiencing but be well in such a short period of time? How could all of these conditions be linked together?
Well, “Fido” is about to teach you something. The fact is that the celiac is a “who’s who” of what is wrong with human beings but the conditions that we suffer from are not limited to those who walk upright. When I read the list of conditions that we as gluten intolerants experience, my first thought was that “This is me. This describes me to a T.” My second thought was “…but this describes everything that is wrong with everyone, including their dogs and cats.” And it does. Suddenly, medicine through the eyes of celiac disease (and other similar food intolerances) made sense. I tell everyone that it was like someone had finally put the right program into a stalled computer and it began operating at lightning speed. All of the idiopathic conditions that are so poorly understood in medicine became “open season” for this medical headhunter.
And, the answers did come one after another. I launched into two years of intensive research while applying the newly unveiled principles to my patients as well as myself. Miracles started happening around me. Allergies abated, intestinal problems cleared up, older pets became less painful and more active, and yes, even their epilepsy stopped. “Wait a second! Epileptic seizures stopped?”, you may be asking. Yes, 100% of my epileptics have stopped having seizures, just like many celiac children that were placed on gluten-free diets have responded. I got the idea from the celiac literature. How that occurs is totally explainable but beyond the scope of this article. It can be found in my paper entitled The Answer on my Website, www.dogtorj.com.
In a nutshell, after all of my research into so many of the medical problems and conditions that plague pets and mankind, I decided that the center of our health universe lies in the stretch of small intestine known as your duodenum and jejuneum, the first two segments of bowel after the stomach. I decided that the center of our health universe lies in that stretch of intestine known as your duodenum. Most celiacs are aware of the pathophysiology of their condition and are familiar with the terms malabsorption and “leaky gut syndrome”. But, many are like I was in that they don’t understand all of the fine details.
There are three food ingredients that adhere to the villi of the duodenum and induce the change that is characteristic of celiac disease known as villous atrophy. These four substances are gluten (from the grains), casein (from cow milk products), soy protein and corn gluten. Oh oh. Did you know that the last one was on the list? Hopefully so.
What is it that links these substances together? For one, they are all use as adhesives, either as non-food glues or as binders in the foods we consume. Gluten, casein, soy and even corn are all used in industry as adhesives, some even being waterproof. Put “gluten”, “casein”, “soy protein adhesive” or “corn adhesive” in the search engine of any computer and read the responses. Wow! They are not only used in the food industry to hold items such as oats together but they are put to use in industry to hold just about anything together.
As we all know, it is the nature of the starches to be sticky. And, as it turns out, the foods that are the “stickiest” are the ones that cause the most problems. This should not be a surprise once this issue is introduced. Casein and gluten are used for the most powerful adhesives. Therefore, it should be not be a shock that they are the number one and number two childhood food allergens according to the FDA. What is number four? Soy. What is number three? Eggs. (This is the first secondary allergen brought about by the damage done to the gut by the first two. Google “zonulin” for some interesting reading.)
Now, imagine these proteins leaving the stomach of a human or their pet. I have always used the illustration of three slices of pizza leaving our stomach. But, for this sake of this article, I will use a wheat, barley, or soy-based pet food to drive the point home. Now that you have an idea of where we are headed, you can imagine the stomach is filled with “glue-containing” food. This “glue” leaves the stomach after it has been worked on as much as possible by that organ. Of course, not being a ruminant like a cow or sheep, these foods are not completely broken down any more than the cellulose that they eat that non-ruminants are unable to digest. As simple-stomached animals, our pets and we are not designed to eat grasses like the ruminants do and all of the grains are in the grass family. They are all grasses that man has chosen to consume, with those in Asia picking their grass (rice), the Europeans choosing their grasses (wheat and barley), and those in central America picking corn. Here in America, we consume them all and in abundance.
In an attempt to digest these grasses and their “glue” (along with dairy and soy), our stomach adds as much acid as possible to break them down. Heart burn, anyone? (Yes, my two years of acid reflux abated after just one week of being gluten- free. This, again, should be no surprise.) But, the increased acid is inadequate to eliminate the “glue”. It is this sticky substance that adheres to the villi of the small intestine. Whether it be from wheat, cow milk, soy, corn, or the others mentioned, it adheres to these finger-like projections of the intestine- particularly those of the duodenum and jejunum, which are vital for the absorption of nutrients- effectively reducing the amount of those essential ingredients that would be absorbed into the bloodstream.
What are those nutrients? The vital substances are calcium, iron, iodine, all B complex, vitamin C, most water-soluble vitamins, and most of our trace minerals such as zinc, boron, manganese, magnesium and more. In other words, just about everything that is important other than our fat soluble vitamins is absorbed by the duodenum and jejunum. How well can the intestinal tract function when it is coated with “glue”? The important thing to realize here is that this happens to some extent in everyone and every pet that eats these foods.
That bears repeating: This happens to some degree in everyone and every simple-stomached creature that eats these foods. We have simply focused on the worst-of-the-worst- as in the celiacs, casein intolerants, and soy intolerants- in which an immune response is mounted against the glue leading to severe villous atrophy. This immune assault also generates the warning antibodies that we call “allergies” to tell you that this is process is taking place. Otherwise, it would be a “stealth operation” that goes on undetected for years and years until the bottom falls out. Yes, this is all too familiar of a scenario as well, isn’t it? It happens in pets all of the time, I’m afraid.
So, the ultimate question is whether pets suffer from celiac disease? My answer is that it doesn’t really matter whether we find that gluten intolerance affects all breeds of dogs and cats. In the pet, every bite of the average commercial food has this “glue” in it, whether it is of wheat, barley, soy, corn, or dairy origin. Yes, there are better glues” than others and they are in line with what we see as the principle allergens in the pet, just as one would expect. Wheat and soy are the worst (now that dairy has been eliminated from pet foods) while oats and rice are the best…the least sticky. Corn is in the middle. This is exactly what we see as the main sources of food allergies in the pet, a problem of huge importance in dogs and cats. Now people can understand why lamb and rice foods have become so popular. Rice is the least sticky of the adhesives and thereby less allergenic while lamb is (or at least used to be) a novel protein source compared to beef and others, which have become the main secondary allergens in the pet. It does all make sense.
But celiac disease has occurred in the dog. It has been definitively identified in one breed, which is almost extinct now- the Irish setter. This hapless breed was effectively sent the way of the buffalo when the industry added wheat, the number one dog and cat food allergen, to the pet foods about 15 years ago. Thanks to the wheat glut in this country, corn-based diets were quickly replaced with wheat and the subsequent decline in our pet’s health began. Veterinarians found themselves wondering why the immune system of the dog and cat were having such problems, ranging from worsening allergies to a rapid rise in immune-mediated diseases. The answer was right before us: you don’t add the number one dog and cat food allergen to the diet without having some major repercussions. The veterinary profession was just as shortsighted as the medical profession is today about the ramifications of consuming the top food allergens as the bulk of the diet. 60-70% of the American diet is comprised of cow milk products and wheat alone, with 40-50% being the number one food allergen, dairy products. There is a price to pay for this sort of ignorance and it is heavier than most realize.
The main cost is the disruption of duodenal and jejunal function. Once the essential nutrients have been malabsorbed for a long enough time, Pandora’s Box is opened. This may occur every early in life or very late, partly governed by the degree of immune-mediated component. The worst of the worst will experience severe problems by the time they are adolescents while the more resilient will not be affected until late in life. But, as I tell my clients, I believe that with the top three foods…wheat, dairy and soy…it is a matter of when they cause problems, not if. The “glue” will eventually affect everyone and every pet with it’ nutrient-blocking qualities.
Suddenly, conditions such as hip dysplasia, elbow and shoulder problems, intervertebral disc syndrome, cruciate ligament ruptures, and even heart valve failure all have better explanations. All of these problems are caused by failing cartilage and connective tissue, both of which are structured similarly and made up of calcium and collagen. Collagen is the building block of most of your skeletal support structures. The principle component of collagen is vitamin C. Therefore, when it is understood that calcium is absorbed primarily by the duodenum while vitamin C and other vital vitamins and minerals are absorbed by the duodenum and jejunum, then it is easily seen that inadequate amounts of these in the diet or failure of their absorption will compromise the integrity of these structures- all of them.
Imagine that a German shepherd puppy begins eating a wheat, barley, corn, or soy-based diet from the moment it is weaned. If inadequate levels of calcium and vitamin C are absorbed, what are the chances that its hips, elbows, spine, and other cartilaginous structures are going to form properly? I would say “Not good”. Most people familiar with dogs know that this breed has a reputation for horrible hip dysplasia. But, they also have serious allergies and other immune-related disorders. This, of course, is no coincidence. Once it is understood that the allergies form in the area of the gut that is being damaged or coated by the “glue”, it is easy to see why the trouble breeds like the German Shepherd, Cocker Spaniel, Shih Tzu, and others have their “genetic” tendencies such as allergic skin and ear problems, orthopedic abnormalities, intervertebral disc ruptures, and cancers. Once again, Pandora’s Box is opened and unleashed upon these poor breeds through one basic mechanism: malnutrition via malabsorption taking place in the small intestine.
I used to be concerned that the veterinary profession had somehow missed the incidence of celiac disease in breeds other than the Irish setter. But, now that I understand the effects of the “glue” on the absorptive ability of the small intestinal villi, I believe this possible oversight to be much less important. I believe the same to be true for humans. The “glues” affect all that consume them. Certainly, the “worst of the worst”- the celiacs, casein intolerants, and soy intolerants- have the most to be concerned about. But, with these trouble foods, it is a matter of when they will create a problem, not if. Those who test negative for these food intolerances should not be lulled to sleep with a false sense of security. These fortunate souls will just be healthier longer. This is clearly one of the things that make us individuals, placing us on a spectrum of wellness that ranges from serious illness during the first year of life to a clean bill of health well into the twilight years. The same is true of our pets.
One important determinant will be the length of time it takes for an individual to deplete their reserves of these vital nutrients. We must realize that a condition like osteoporosis is an end-stage result of chronic calcium deficiency and that there existed less identified but significant symptoms that preceded this dreaded outcome. Certainly we can affect the pace of these syndromes through supplementation and eating correctly in other regards. However, if we continue to consume the blocking agents, the “glues”, I am afraid that we will eventually lose the battle.
If we don’t understand this, it is a matter of when…not if.