BARF Mythology

January 20, 2009

I came accross an interesting article by Steven E. Crane that argues against Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) feeding for dogs. This article takes fundamental issue with the logic of BARF because the premise that wolves are dogs and that BARF is a natural wolfe diet appropriate for all dogs is wrong on several levels.

Crane’s anti-BARF argument, in a nutshell, is that dogs are not wolves any more than people are chimpanzees. Even if dogs were wolves; wolves, unlike cats, are not obligate carnivores. The order Carnivora is defined by dentition, not dietary habits. (The giant panda, for instance, is a member of the order Carnivora but subsists on a largely herbivorous diet.) Wolves are omnivores with a penchant for meat and, in any case, wild wolves live lives that are, to use the words of Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short.

A very small segment of pet owners have accepted the opinions of a vocal fringe minority of individuals who are currently proponents of feeding raw foods. The diet is commonly called the BARF diet, (Bones And Raw Food). Individuals within this group often make unsubstantiated claims that sound plausible but are typically unsupported in fact. The barf diet is extolled based primarily upon several myths claimed to justify the feeding of this diet.  

Myth 1 – Claimed similarities between modern wild canids and the domestic dog, and thus modern domestic dogs therefore have identical genetic development and nutritional needs as wild canids.

Myth 2 – Claims of increased disease levels and shortened life spans in pet dogs versus claimed lack of disease and increased life spans in wild ancestral canids like wolves and coyotes.

Myth 3 – Claimed reduced levels of parasites.

Myth 4 – Claimed reduced levels of food intolerance, adverse reactions to foods, and or “allergies”.

Myth 5 – Claims that feeding “raw meaty bones” are good for domestic dogs.

Myth 6 – Claimed increased value of uncooked foods versus cooked foods and subsequent loss of trace micro-nutrients by the cooking process.

Popular discussion of BARF in the US is based to a large degree on myths promoted by superficial and hyperbolic promoters of one product or another, or those selling the latest version of video tapes, books, supplements, foods and other materials. Barfers’ typically denigrate any information that is derived from solid scientific studies as having been “tainted” by some supposed conspiracy of involvement between commercial pet food companies, veterinary teaching universities, the FDA, USDA, CDC, WHO, and any other evidence knowledge based organization. At the same time Barfers accept at face value opinions promoted by purveyors of Barf products and scaremongering media. No level of competence or proof is demanded of those who state facts in favor of Barf feeding; while multiple, peer reviewed published university research studies are often denigrated by Barfers’.

This paper seeks to examine some of these myths. As a confirmed Barfer once noted, the decision to feed BARF is an emotional one, not a science based decision. As we shall see, making decisions based on emotions can lead one astray.

continue reading…

My wife discovered xylitol as a exchange student in Finland. She tends to seek out xylitol gum. I’ve just learned that the stuff is extremely poisonous to dogs, like antifreeze or rat poison. It’s much worse than chocolate.

According to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC), dogs ingesting greater than 0.1 g/kg of xylitol should be considered at risk for hypoglycemia. At doses exceeding 0.5 g/kg, there is risk of liver failure and other more serious effects. Eating a couple of pieces of xylitol gum could be enough to kill your dog.

Azawakh are not Odorless

November 21, 2008

I’ve read in a number of places that Azawakh do not have a “doggy odor”. This strikes me as marketing hype. The implication is that the dogs are odor-free and that’s not true.

They have a smell but it is very different from the Labrador retriever dog smell that a lot of people are familiar with. The labrador smell is primarily caused by natural oxidation of the heavy oils in their coat. Basically, those dogs smell rancid.

Back to Azawakh.

Their basic smell is a kind of musk, somewhat horse-like. I find it a reasonably pleasant and earthy smell. My wife and daughters definitely do not always agree. If the dogs start to have a strong offensive odor it is invariably because of something they encountered outdoors and I’m sometimes obliged to give the dogs a bath.

Depending on the personality of  dog, bathing ranges from easy to a battle royal. I don’t recommend bathing Azawakh any more often than you need to to have peace in your house. They have sensitive skin that isn’t very oily (hence the absence of the Labrador smell) and the shampoo will tend to dry them out and make their skin itchy and flaky.

I’ve had the best luck with detergent-free shampoos that also contain a source of fat, like Shea butter, lanolin and/or emu oil (from the flightless ostrich-like bird). These shampoos are obscenely expensive, which is another good disincentive for over-bathing.

Shea Pet shampoos contain fair trade Shea butter which is purchased from women’s cooperatives in Uganda. I got this stuff at a doggy day care around the corner from my house. Kenic (Glo-Marr) in Kentucky makes Kalaya Emu Oil Pet Shampoo. A friend recommended it to me and it works well, without unfortunate side-effects. The Kalaya stuff is less expensive than the Shea Pet stuff, but harder (for me) to find. I called around to all the local stores but finally bought a bottle on-line.

Freaky Tropical Parisites

November 6, 2008

The Sahel can be a very harsh place for animals. Living there, I came to really appreciate the power of a little hard frost from time-to-time. In addition to familiar parasites like roundworms, tapeworms and heartworms there are other-worldly parasites that can give you nightmares.

In particular, I’m thinking of “tumbu” worm. This thing is actually not a worm at all but rather a general term for bot fly. These flies lay their eggs on an animal (or clothes) and the maggot burrows into the skin where it takes up residence until it matures into an adult fly which crawls out of the skin. Ugh.

Botfly are common all along the Niger, Gambia and Senegal river basins, particularly after the rains come. Most sheep, goats, cattle, dogs and even people have these maggots crawling in their skins.

It turns out that Ivermectin, which is marketed as Heartguard, is totally effective against botfly. If you are living in an area where botfly is endemic, regular doses of Ivermectin will prevent your dog from being infected.  In part because we were careful where we hung our laundry and also because we gave our dog Ivermectin (labelled for cattle), I never had to extract any maggots from anyone in my household.

I have extracted the damn things from dogs and people, though. It’s enough to give you nightmares.

Think Aliens.

The video below was shot in Costa Rica, but the horror is the same.

The Reminder

I received a postcard in the mail recently from our veterinary hospital. Azelouan is due for his vaccinations. I was under the impression that annual booster shots were no longer de rigeur so I called up the vet. It turns out that his initial vaccine doses were designed by the manufacturer for puppies and have a guaranteed efficacy period of one year. All the research I have seen suggests that a final booster should be given at one year, but that isn’t enough to be legal.

DC Law requires valid vaccinations for Distemper, Parvovirus and Rabies for all dogs.* In order to be valid the vaccinations have to carry a guarantee of efficacy from the manufacturer. The longest efficacy guarantee available is for three years. He has to get boosters every three years in perpetuity. Why not measure whether the vaccinations are actually necessary through antibody titers? While they are happy to do titer tests on Azelouan, the District of Columbia will not accept them as legal proof of vaccination. The law requires that vaccinations are valid only if there is a manufacturers warranty of efficacy behind them.


Supplicant Look

Azelouan's supplicant look.

Perverse Incentives

Vaccine manufacturers and Veterinarians have an incentive to sell vaccines to pet owners. This is the reason that for many years we all had annual vaccination visits. Recent public concerns about the potential connection between excessive  vaccination and cancer and immune disorders has led to the development of 3-year vaccines.  I have a strong suspicion that there is no difference between the 1-year labelled vaccine and the 2-year labelled ones.

The point is that both the providers of the vaccine and the veterinarians have no incentive to stop giving vaccines. Quite the contrary, they get paid every time someone brings in a dog to get vaccinated. Mandatory vaccines are a guarantee that clients will show up to the office and spend money.

There is strong evidence that after the core vaccinations series is complete at 1 year, most dogs have lifetime immunity.

First, Do No Harm

The first principal in human medicine is to do no harm. We don’t give children antibiotics for a sore throat unless a throat culture indicates the presence of a streptococcus infection. We shouldn’t be vaccinating just in case or as a way to incentivize clients to show up for well-puppy visits. Vaccines are not risk-free.

Instead of vaccinating in perpetuity, the law should be modified to allow an antibody titer instead.

Below is the minimal vaccination schedule developed by Jean Dodd, DVM.

Recommended Vaccination Schedule
Vaccine Initial 1st Annual Booster Re-Administration Interval Comments
Distemper (MLV)
(e.g. Intervet Progard Puppy)
9 weeks
12 weeks
16 – 20 weeks
At 1 year MLV Distemper/ Parvovirus only
None needed.
Duration of immunity 7.5 / 15 years by studies. Probably lifetime. Longer studies pending.
Can have numerous side effects if given too young (< 8 weeks).
Parvovirus (MLV)
(e.g. Intervet Progard Puppy)
9 weeks
12 weeks
16 – 20 weeks
At 1 year MLV Distemper/ Parvovirus only None needed.
Duration of immunity 7.5 years by studies. Probably lifetime. Longer studies pending.
At 6 weeks of age, only 30% of puppies are protected but 100% are exposed to the virus at the vet clinic.
24 weeks or older At 1 year (give 3-4 weeks apart from Dist/Parvo booster) Killed 3 year rabies vaccine 3 yr. vaccine given as required by law in California (follow your state/provincial requirements) rabid animals may infect dogs.

Perform vaccine antibody titers for distemper and parvovirus annually thereafter. Vaccinate for rabies virus according to the law, except where circumstances indicate that a written waiver needs to be obtained from the primary care veterinarian. In that case, a rabies antibody titer can also be performed to accompany the waiver request.

*I was told yesterday by the veterinary technician that DC law required Parvo, Distemper and Rabies vaccinations. Today, I got clarification from the actual veterinarian that DC only requires Rabies. The hospital is willing to perform titers in lieu of vaccination upon request but does not accept responsibility for any legal rammifications with a failure to comply with city orndinances. It’s obvious that nobody knows what the real rules are. I looked it up in the DC code 8-1804: “the owner of the dog shall have the dog vaccinated against rabies and distemper”.


October 7, 2008

Frustrating Drips

For the past few months, my juvenile male Azawakh, Azelouan, has been dripping “semen” all over the house. At one point, I mentioned the dripping “semen” problem to a few people who I thought would be knowledgeable and they chalked it up to “testosterone poisoning.” I didn’t think too much of it. We figured the poor guy was loaded up with testosterone and just way oversexed. It was starting to drive my wife crazy, though, because cleaning up the waxy drips is a monster chore that requires a kind of degreaser to remove them from hardwood floors. When he shakes himself the drips are often flung onto the walls for an extra disgust-factor. Suffice it to say that if a way could be found to turn off the dripping faucet of dog “semen”, it would make me a hero.

To cut quickly to the chase, the stuff dripping from my dog’s penis was not actually semen, it was pus. The poor guy was suffering from a condition in dogs called Balinitis: an infected penis sheath. Fortunately, there is an easy home remedy that almost always cures the infection.

Balinitis in a male Greyhound from iCare of the Racing Greyhound/i

Balinitis in a male Greyhound from "Care of the Racing Greyhound."

Stumbling upon a Solution

A few months ago, I purchased an out of print book, used, on the marketplace. It is called Care of the Racing Greyhound. My dogs are not Greyhounds, but this book is very interesting because it is dense with information about canine sports injuries, particularly coursing injuries. It also has medical information not normally found in books for the general population. This book is extremely dense and I had set it aside, having read about half of the thing. I was bogged down in sprains, strains and massage therapy. After running the 10-miler, I happened to pick it up and the book fell open to page 314 which, unbelievably, had a picture of Azelouan’s problem (shown above).

Balinitis can apparently have a number of root causes from masturbation to anabolic steroid use to excessive vitamin E in the diet. The end result is an infection in the penis sheath that can also lead to cystitis and even kidney infection. Most dogs that have balinitis with a discharge also develop tonsillitis. Fortunately, the cure is pretty simple and usually does not require antibiotics or a trip to see the veterinarian. In the vast majority of cases, just rinsing the sheath out with an antiseptic disinfectant cures the problem.


Flush the penis sheath out with a dilution of 1 part Betadine in 9  parts water, 1 teaspoon of Hibitane in 1 pint of water or quaternary ammonium disinfectants. Use a syringe without a needle or a pediatric enema bottle to flush the area for at least a minute. The program calls for cleaning the penis sheath once daily for three days followed by every other day for two to three weeks. According to the book, the vast majority of dogs resolve with simple rinsing. If the infection is resistant, it recommends trying a switch to a different antiseptic. If the infection is stubborn, it may require an antibiotic like amoxicillin with clavulanic acid (Clavamox).

I opted for Betadine dilution because we have that in the house. The day after the first treatment, the discharge was nearly gone. After the second treatment, the drip was gone and the tip of his sheath has become much less red.

Azelouan doesn’t really enjoy having his penis washed out and I can’t say that I’m that excited about it either. On the other hand, he is clearly less agitated and is spending a lot less of his time peeing and licking himself. He seems quite relieved. Actually, he’s overjoyed. Christie, too, is overjoyed that Azelouan is no longer splattering disgusting waxy drips all over our house.

Score one for biblioholism!