Navigating the pet food market can be intimidating. The number of options available at the pet store is over-whelming, let alone considering the products promoted by veterinarians and then the options of raw feeding or cooking homemade, fresh cooked meals. Regardless of the type of food you decide to feed your dog, or how you choose to administer it, what really matters is the ingredients that make up the food.
We have known for a long time that the quality of our dog’s food can affect their health in positive and negative ways. The higher the quality of ingredients in the food, and the more balanced the diet is overall, the better chance we give our dogs at living a healthy and disease-free life. Nutrigenomics takes the study of the impact of food on health a little deeper. It is a relatively newer word that is used to describe ‘the science of how diet effects the epigenome, which in turn alters our genetic predisposition toward health or to disease.’ (Dodds, 2015)
The epigenome is a structural layer surrounding our DNA that dictates which genes in the body need to be used at which time. It controls the expression of those genes through chemical reactions within cells and determines what proteins the body will produce. Cells will be either healthy or diseased thanks to the epigenome and this is an innate decision that is based on signals from the environment (including diet). We can change the epigenome over time based on what we expose ourselves to, and this also applies to our dogs. Nutrigenomics looks at how to get cells to respond in a healthy manner by feeding our dogs a diet that is geared towards their individual needs, age, lifestyle and health…’nutri’ = nutrition and ‘genomics’ = study of genomes.
One important aim of nutrigenomics is identifying the early stages of a diet-related disease so that we can make changes to the diet in the hopes of preventing further illness. In addition, nutrigenomics can help in making decisions about what foods are needed in order to maintain a healthy state and prevent illness or disease from happening. There is a genetic component to many nutritional diseases that affect our dogs and nutrition plays a role in managing and treating them. Certain vitamins and minerals directly affect gene expression and other diet components, such as fibre have an indirect effect by changing hormones. Tailoring a diet for a dog based on its genome can optimize their health.
Dogs are suffering more and more from several debilitating conditions – arthritis, cancer, heart disease, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, skin irritations and diabetes. It can take years before an outward problem manifests itself in signs that we can notice. By feeding an appropriate diet that will result in healthy cells, we can diminish the amount of inflammation that happens beneath the surface and will be less likely to see “sudden” physiological and behavioural changes. ‘Functional Foods’ are “nutritional ingredients, such as certain botanicals, amino acids, vitamins and phytonutrient (plant chemicals that have been shown to convey beneficial affects on health) that send signals to the epigenome to trigger healthy gene expressions (Dodds et al, 2015). Not all functional foods are created equal though…added chemicals and hormones can result in a food having a negative effect on the body, and because all dogs have their own individual genome, they may benefit from different ingredients than others.
Our dog’s diet can consist of many different foods, but the majority consists of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Functional carbohydrates contain vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that will promote health in our dogs at a cellular level. Phytonutrients are chemicals occurring naturally in plants that work as antioxidants, immune response boosters and cancer cell fighters. Cruciferous vegetables, fresh, whole fruits, gluten-free grains, green leafy vegetables and legumes are all functional carbohydrates that we can give to our dogs. Protein is something that our dogs cannot live without and it is responsible for building and repairing muscle and tissue and providing structure for joints, tendons, ligaments and cartilage. Amino acids essential to the body are supplied by protein, as is nitrogen, which is needed to synthesize the amino acids (and this can only happen if the amino acids are present in a sufficient amount). High quality, functional protein free from hormones, minimally processed and easily digested can be organic cheese and eggs, wild-caught salmon and muscle and organ meat from novel animal sources (turkey, rabbit etc.). Functional fats and oils are those that are unsaturated such as omega-3 fatty acids and coconut oil, and play a necessary role in promoting a healthy nervous system.
If by making the right decisions about what to feed our dogs can help us prevent health issues and extend their life as much as possible then learning as much as possible about quality foods can help. The ripple effect that one health condition can have on the body is huge. Take obesity for example. Obesity is unfortunately very common in dogs and they become obese for many of the same reasons that humans do – a decrease in exercise, poor diet and potentially having a genetic predisposition to it. Obesity can often lead to osteoarthritis, which is the most common cause of lameness in dogs. Adding omega-3 fatty acids from fish and flaxseed to a dog’s diet helps to control the inflammation associated with this and decrease the amount of cartilage degradation that occurs, by turning off the gene that normally causes this. We can use food to affect genes in a way that will result in our dogs experiencing less pain and increased mobility, and can even possible prevent things even getting to that point if we feed functional foods to minimize weight gain.
Improving the quality of life of our older dogs can also be accomplished when we understand gene expression. As dogs age their brain tissue shrinks and there is a resulting decline in brain function due to damage from free radicals. Dogs fed diets supplemented with antioxidants such as vitamin E and C, selenium, beta-carotene, carotenoids and flavonoids showed improvement in signs of cognitive dysfunction. Taking preventative measures with respect to our dog’s diet can mean that we do not have to take as many reactive measures with respect to their health as they age.
Some 'canine functional super-foods' include:
-blueberries, cranberries help combat cancer boost memory
-coconut oil for healthy brain aging
-curcumin (antioxidant and antimicrobial)
-raw, unpasteurized honeybee products to aid digestion
-bananas to strengthen bones
-omega-3s to work as an anti-inflammatory
-pomegranates to help cardiac oxygenation
-spirulina for added minerals, vitamins and antioxidants
Choosing a food that consists of high-quality, functional ingredients ensures that we are doing what we can to help our dogs live a long and healthy life. The book, "Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health" by Dr. Jean Dodds is an excellent resource for what to look for in a quality food, and for what foods we can supplement our dog's regular daily diet with.
I also give my dog a daily supplement called Prime K-9, a blend of amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, spirulina and kelp to make sure that she is getting enough of the vital functional ingredients that she needs every day. You can find out more about the Prime K-9 supplement at the link below.
“Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health” (Dodds, et al, 2015) Dogwise Publishing.
“An Explanation of Nutrigenomics” Dr. Jean Dodds (Feb 2015): https://www.hemopet.org/nutrigenomics/
“Know About Nutrigenomics” Dr. Jean Dodds (Jan 2013):
“Clinical Nutrition – The Buzz on Nutrigenomics” Karen M. Burns (March, 2019):