Food for Milo and me (his is raw)

Milo and I were on the road, camping in our travel trailer, for three months. To deal with the sadness of the end of that trip, I’m trying to focus on the good things about being back in a house.  Good thing #1: having a full kitchen.

I love preparing food, and it is more fun to do that in a full kitchen.

Milo’s diet.

When we were on the road, for reasons of convenience and food safety, Milo ate kibble. Now that we’re back in our house with its big fridge and chest freezer, generous counter tops, abundant hot soapy water, and local butchers he can go back to healthier eating. He gets a raw, prey-model diet, which for him amounts to about a pound and a half of food every day comprised of 45% raw meaty non-weight bearing bones, 45% muscle, and 10% organ meats (half of which is liver).

the beginning

This morning I trundled off to the farmer’s market where I spent about $50.00 buying meat and bones for Milo. This is more expensive than cheap kibble but about the same price as healthy kibble. I came home with:

  • 4 lbs of ground pork
  • 8 turkey necks
  • 6 chicken carcasses
  • a bag of chicken livers
  • (and a roasting chicken for me).

I set up an assembly line to turn that pile-o-meat into two weeks’ worth of meals for Milo. Here’s the process:

  • Step one: clean the kitchen
  • Step two: set out my kitchen scale, freezer bags, and all the food
  • Step three: fill the bags
  • Step four: take the bags down to my freezer
  • Step five: clean the kitchen again, this time with disinfectant.

 

The beginning and the end of the assembly process. It took very little time to turn this whole mess of meat into 14 individually wrapped meals for Milo. Every night I pull one out of the freezer and he has it for breakfast the next morning.


Milo has been living on this diet for years. He has never needed a dental cleaning, his breath is relatively sweet, he is in excellent physical condition, his eyes are bright, his coat is shiny, and he is a bundle of joyful energy.

My diet.

Milo is not the only one who ate differently when we were on the road. My camper is practically perfect in every way, but it has no oven. No oven means no Chicken in a Pot. I suppose I could have nestled a Dutch Oven in the coals of a campfire, but frankly, that just seemed like a big pain in the you-know-what.

While I was assembling Milo’s meals, my dinner was in the oven.

Chicken in a Pot. Mix together a bunch of potatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper (you can use any roasting veg you like) and spread them in the bottom of a big oven-safe pot with a tight-fitting lid. Give a roasting chicken a good coating of olive oil, salt, pepper, and any spices you like (I use sage) and then squish the chicken, breast side down, over the veg. Put the lid on and throw the whole thing in a medium oven until the chicken is done (my six-pound bird took 2 hours at 300 degrees). If you want you can take the lid off at the end of the cooking time and pop the pot under the broiler for a couple of minutes for a crispy skin. Let the whole thing rest. Then eat it. Delicious.

 

delicious

My dinner (above) and Milo’s breakfast (below).

milo's breakfast

 

 

Please, leash your … children

Over the last four days, three children have charged Milo. They squealed, threw their arms in the air, and ran, full tilt, right at him. In the olden days, this is when natural selection would happen.

back and tan German Shepherd Dog standing on a rocky outcrop against a blue sky

This is Milo, the dog those children charged.

These situations turned out OK because Milo and I have practiced staying calm around children. I kept the kids off Milo and Milo under control, but those kids gave him a fright. He barked at one of them (so did I actually) and the parent gave me the evil eye as they collected their progeny.

I am proud to say I adulted very well. I ignored  the parent and put Milo through a little obedience routine. I wanted him to remember that although kids can be irritating they are not a big deal, and that he and I have more interesting things to do than attend to them. I also wanted the parent to see that Milo is a serious and well-trained dog.

It is common to be more strongly influenced by bad events than by events that make you happy, so common in fact, that psychologists have named the phenomenon. They call it negativity bias. I bet Milo and I have met hundreds of kids and hundreds of dogs on this trip and that most of them were perfectly fine. However, my memories of the good interactions are not nearly as strong as my memories of the bad interactions.

And you know what? Dogs dogs suffer from negativity bias too. The kids who disrespect and frighten Milo are going to make a disproportionate impression on him. Just like negative interactions are more likely to stick in your mind, they are also more likely to stick in a dog’s mind. A bad experience with a child can make it more difficult for a dog guardian to nurture a dog who is friendly and behaves well around children.

The bottom line is that if you happen to have access to a child, Milo and I would be very grateful if you taught them how to respect dogs. This makes it easier for people like me to teach our dogs to respect children.

To learn more, check out the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals webpage where you’ll find information about how to respect dogs and help children and dogs live well together.

Can stories about fat dogs hurt people?

I was snooping around the American Kennel Club website when I came across an article called “The Biggest Loser: Canine Edition.” Before I knew it I was scrolling through a set of ‘success stories’ of extreme dog weight loss; stories that included stats, before and after pictures, and heart wrenching personal narratives. The first pup was Denis from Ohio, who went from a hefty 56 to a svelte nine pounds. Before his weight loss we see a picture of Denis sitting alone, beside a tennis ball. After Denis loses the weight and goes through surgery to free him of two pounds of excess skin, we see him happy in the arms of a smiling woman. Fat, sad, lonely Denis became thin, happy, and loved. It is tempting to cheer for Denis, that is until a person realizes how this story reinforces serious and harmful negative stereotypes about weight.

This sort of heroic dog weight loss narrative litters the internet. In addition to the AKC “Biggest Loser: Canine Edition,” the American Dog Club has a “The Biggest Loser: Doxie Edition,” which tells the story of Obie, the 77 pound Dachshund. Obie’s handler hopes Obie “can be an inspiration to any person or animal trying to lose weight.” If you google “biggest loser pet” you can spend an entire afternoon (believe me I know) reading stories, scrolling through facebook pages, and exploring contests and prizes for extreme dog weight loss. The internet, it seems, is very concerned about fat pets.

a very cute grey and white puppy sitting on a hardwood floor. the caption reads, "I'm not fat... I'm just a little Husky."This internet concern echoes warnings from veterinary medicine and science. Alexander German of the University of Liverpool Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease writes that “obesity is now recognized as the most important medical disease in pets worldwide.” And the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) identifies “weight control/management as the number one thing a pet owner can do to increase the length of their pet’s life.” The CVMA documents a parade of health horribles resulting from pet obesity including problems such as high blood pressure, increased risk of kidney, heart and vascular diseases, and increased incidence of arthritis, all of which are also health risks faced by obese people.

Some veterinarians draw explicit connections between human health and fitness, and pet health and fitness. For example, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention‘s mission is to make “the lives of dogs, cats, all other animals and people healthier and more vital.” Founder, veterinarian Ernie Ward, is committed to “developing and promoting parallel weight loss programs designed to help pet owners safely and effectively lose weight alongside their pets.” It is not surprising that my doctor and my dog Milo’s vet are both pleased that Milo and I spend so much time walking together.  We both need the exercise. This focus on the relationships between overweight pets and overweight people, as well as how we think about overweight pets and overweight people, extends from the clinic to the scientific laboratory.

There is a growing body of veterinary research on pet obesity. One concern among veterinary researchers is the absence of a clear standard for what counts as a healthy weight for dogs. Dr. Christopher Byers begins his review article, “Obesity in Dogs,” with a discussion of Body Mass Index (BMI), a research and diagnostic tool developed for humans. Byers points out that the lack of a BMI-like standard for dogs makes it difficult to conduct objective research. This desire for a doggy BMI is troubling because the problems with using BMI as a human health indicator are legion.

But, we can put that worry aside for now because instead of figuring out a dog’s BMI, veterinarians assign a dog a Body Condition Score (BCS) based on their observations of its fat, muscle, and overall shape. Vets will keep track of a dog’s BCS and weight as measures of its overall health and to track health changes over time. The body condition system that I’ve come across most frequently was developed by Nestle Purina in 1997.

A chart showing pictures of dogs ranging from fat to thin from the top and side.Based on this system my vet complimented Milo on being a four or five. I balked, “What do you mean a five, he’s a 10!” My vet quietly let me know that the scale only goes up to nine, and that a four or five is ideal. I’m not the only dog guardian who identifies, maybe a bit too closely, with her pup. The last time I was at the vet’s office, a portly golden retriever came in for her weekly weigh in. The golden’s guardian left the clinic crestfallen—her dog didn’t lose any weight that week. Thankfully, the dog was not fazed by this apparent failure, because losing weight and keeping it off is really difficult for dogs, and for people too.

Back and Tan German Shepherd, standing in profile against a background of green grass and trees. The dog's tummy is tucked up behind its ribcage.

Milo’s body condition score indicates that you can easily feel his ribs and vertebrae when you pet him, you can see his waist from above, when you look at him from the side you can see that his abdomen is tucked up behind his ribcage, and he is well muscled.

Complementing Biggest Loser style online narratives of canine weight loss, the internet provides generous guidance for how to help your dog lose weight. Two themes run through this advice. The first is that we humans have a responsibility to make sure that our dogs aren’t fat, and the second is that weight loss is a matter of calories in and calories out. In her article “The big fat truth about canine obesity,” Christie Keith, science writer for The Bark, tells us that

While healthy, permanent weight loss in humans is hard to achieve, it’s much easier with dogs. They don’t eat a container of Ben and Jerry’s after a stressful day, and they rarely hit the drive-through instead of making a healthy dinner. As long as the human in the relationship manages not to overfeed and under-exercise the dog, weight-loss programs for canines are surprisingly successful.

lets-get-fat-dogsWhile it’s true that most of our dogs eat what we give them, and exercise when we walk them, when we shift our focus from popular to more scientific sources of information it becomes apparent that achieving and maintaining weight loss for dogs and for people is more complicated than avoiding fast food and ice cream. With respect to people, some research indicates that, in the long run, it may be better not to diet at all because most dieters gain back more weight than they initially lose. This often leads to yo-yo dieting, otherwise known as weight cycling. And there is initial evidence that weight cycling may be an issue for dogs as well. Dr. Byers reports a study on weight loss and gain in beagles. He writes that this study

demonstrated weight cycling in dogs in which rapid regain of body weight occurred after successful weight loss. These findings support the phenomenon of metabolic down regulation of energy needs with weight loss, which continues after target weights have been achieved.

With both dogs and humans, there is a significant mismatch between popular and scientific accounts of weight loss. This does not surprise me because the popular story of discipline, hard work, and responsibility spelled out in a heroic personal narrative is catchier than talk of metabolic down regulation and weight cycling. We love our heroic stories, and they sell.

The heroic narrative is foundational to The Biggest Loser TV shows. The trouble with these shows is that they ended when most of the characters had lost a lot of weight. These shows did not reveal how excruciatingly difficult it was for contestants to maintain their weight loss or how many of them regained significant amounts of weight. Research indicates that this is because after their weight loss, contestants burned fewer calories than other people their size, and developed hormone imbalances that left them feeling continually hungry. People, as well as beagles, experience metabolic down regulation after weight loss.

Unfortunately, if we accept weight loss as simply a matter of discipline, work, and responsibility it becomes easy think of not losing weight or regaining weight, as failures of discipline, work, and responsibility. The science shows that this is false. However, this misleading story is common and supports negative attitudes about fat people being lazy and irresponsible.

 


Our stories, the science, and cultural stereotypes about canine weight and fitness, and human weight and fitness are intertwined. As a result, the way we think about one influences the way we think about the other.


I think trying to keep ourselves and our dogs as healthy as possible is a great goal. Milo and I walk, for miles, every day. We need and love the exercise.

2017-01-01 20.42.10

Milo gets me out hiking, even in the middle of winter.

However, the goal of promoting health and fitness is undermined by negative attitudes and stereotypes about fat people.

It is common and easy for stories about fat pets to reinforce these negative attitudes and stereotypes. For example, one of the fat dog stories on the American Dog Club website features a funny/ not funny picture of a roly-poly white bulldog, wearing a towel, and reclining on a sofa with a plate of muffins. The dog’s head is covered in pink curlers and the caption under the image reads, “dogs can become couch potatoes too.” The connection with people is pretty clear: the dog represents the stereotype of a fat, lazy, and ill groomed woman.

flabby cat and slobby dog

Even the names of the characters reinforce negative stereotypes about fat people.

This sort of stereotype is the basis for prejudice and damaging inequalities, inequalities that are stronger for fat women than they are for fat men (the men have to be fatter before they kick in). Fat people get worse medical care, have lower job security, lower earnings, and slower career advancement than thin people. This is not just unfair, it also leads to stress, which can lead to weight gain.

Negative weight stereotypes impact children as well as adults. The book Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog is an example of negative stereotypes about fat pets and people directed at children. In this book, Flabby and Slobby go on a difficult quest and lose weight because

When they were hungry, they had to hunt for food. So they couldn’t eat and eat and eat. When they were thirsty, they had to look for water. There was no time to sleep and sleep and sleep. They were too busy trying to stay alive.

You don’t have to dig too deep in this book to find the message that being fat is the same as being a slob, and that it is worth risking your life to be thin. This is troubling because research in Canada, Iceland, Australia, and the US reveals that overweight children are not just a target of bullying, but comprise the group of children most likely to be bullied, and that adolescent girls who engage in strict dieting are significantly more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who don’t. This book might be intended to help fight childhood obesity, but it reinforces negative and dangerous attitudes toward fat people and weight loss.

Pets are part of our lives and part of our culture. Negative weight stereotypes hurt people. Why on earth would we add to this problem by invoking these stereotypes with respect to our dogs?  The things we do with our dogs, what we say about them, and what we write about them are not separate from the rest of our lives or from our culture. In fact, for many of us, our dogs are an integral part of our homes and our families, and a rare source of unconditional love.

I want our dogs to be healthy and happy, but we need to be careful to talk about canine weight and fitness in a way that enhances human, as well as canine, health. The way we talk about and relate to dogs reflects and reinforces values in our culture because, whether or not we’re a dog guardian, dogs are part of our lives.

How does pet ownership contribute to population health? An interview with Melanie Rock

Check out this interview where Dr. Melanie Rock, an anthropologist at the University of Calgary, reveals how pet ownership contributes to human health.

Dr. Rock starts out on familiar ground explaining some of the concrete human health benefits arising from companion animals. For example, simply being exposed to a dog can lower a person’s blood pressure and walking a dog is good exercise. This makes sense to me, my German Shepherd Milo keeps me calm, happy, and on the move.

However, this interview really caught my attention when Dr. Rock started talking about the significance of human-animal relationships. She gave examples ranging from farm animals to pets, from rural settings to cities, and from the Global North to the Global South of how our sense of our own identities and our health, and our sense of belonging in a place are tied to our relationships with animals. This has a significant impact on human well being.

Dr. Rock says,

If it’s true that even in resource poor countries in which food is a daily concern, that people establish effective relationships with pets and relate to a dog as a friend, as a member even of the family in some cases, then those relationships are important to take into account when we are designing and delivering health services and broader population health initiatives. … so far we have not really come to grips with the fact that our society is not purely human.

 

Melanie [Rock] is an anthropologist and social worker whose research focuses on the societal and cultural dimensions of health, with an emphasis on the importance of nonhuman animals for mental, physical, and social well-being. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary, where she serves as Associate Scientific Director in the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. Her primary appointment is in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Community Health Sciences, and she holds a joint appointment in the Department of Ecosystem and Public Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, she has supervisory privileges in the Department of Anthropology and Archeology, Faculty of Arts and in the Faculty of Social Work. Honorary affiliations include the Institut de recherche en santé publique de l’Université de Montréal and the Human-Animal Research Network (HARN) at the University of Sydney.