Behold the Mighty Berry: A Nutritional Powerhouse for Dogs

Behold the Mighty Berry: A Nutritional Powerhouse for Dogs

Who doesn’t like those nutritional powerhouses we call berries? Think blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cranberries, strawberries and the like. Lots of things are called “superfoods,” but dark berries truly fit the bill with micronutrients like vitamin C, fiber for digestive health, and beneficial phytochemicals. Wild and domesticated dogs will eat berries given the opportunity. Zoe, my late, great Lab, would daintily pluck blackberries right from the bush, carefully avoiding the stickers while enjoying the juicy berry goodness!

Free Radical Fighters

Aside from tasting great, dark berries are supreme fighters of inflammation and oxidative damage. You can think of oxidative damage as rust in the body; the chemical process is similar. Oxidative damage is caused by free radicals, which come from what we take into our body as well as from our own metabolic processes. What exactly does this mean? Chronic inflammation and oxidative damage are driving forces for many chronic diseases, from cardiovascular disease to cancer to metabolic disorders and dementia. So, berries have the potential to help with many of the issues that plague our pooches and us. And those antioxidants are “getting in there” when berries are eaten. For example, sled dogs who were fed a daily ration of blueberries showed an increase in anti-oxidant (“anti-rust”) capacity in their blood compared to their teammates who were not fed berries (1). This suggests that the berries may have to capacity to help counter oxidative damage to the body.

This potential afforded by berries is due in large part to chemicals that they contain called polyphenols. For you chemistry geeks and functional foods freaks, these include flavonoids (anthocyanins, flavonols and proanthocyanidins), cinnamic acid derivatives, stilbenes and triterpenoids (ursolic acid and derivatives). For people who hate chemistry, ignore the previous sentence. Of the dark berries, blueberries are the best studied scientifically, and cranberries are pretty high up there as well.


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Circulation Protectors

Now let’s talk circulation! Scientific research has shown that oxidative damage and inflammation are the two main culprits responsible for clogged arteries. Herbalists have long used dark berries to support blood vessel health, and research backs this up (2). Both population-based and clinical studies have shown that blueberries, cranberries, strawberries and other berries significantly improve the quality and balance of lipids as well as the anti-oxidant capacity of blood (2). This means that regular consumption of dark berries may be a good way to help keep those blood vessels clean and prevent other issues related to blockages, such as ischemic stroke (3). Dark berries have even been recommended for anemia by well-known herbalist and holistic animal care expert, Juliet de Bariacli Levy (4), again supporting both blood vessels and their contents. Blueberries and their cousins bilberries even improve the health of the smallest blood vessels, microcapillaries. This is one reason that they are used by holistic veterinarians to help improve vision in clients of the pooch persuasion (5).

Anti-Cancer Heroes

Here is another reason for you and your dog to eat dark berries: Cancer is driven by oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. Multiple studies show the potential for blueberries in cancer prevention through various mechanisms. By inhibiting free radicals, blueberries suppress production of inflammatory molecules and may protect cellular DNA from cancer-causing mutations (6). In laboratory studies, blueberries inhibit cancer cell proliferation, induce cancer cell death via a process known as apoptosis and prevent metastases (spread of the cancer) (6, 7, 3). An antioxidant known as pterostilbene seems to be responsible in part for these activities (3), though it’s likely that multiple components of blueberry contribute to these benefits.

Brain Boosters

Moving on to the brain… Here’s something for the gray-bearded pooches out there. Research in neuroscience increasingly supports consumption of blueberries to prevent or potentially reverse age-related nervous system issues such as dementia and cognitive decline. It seems that blueberry polyphenols do this via inhibiting oxidative damage and inflammation, as well as by improving circulation to the brain and influencing direct nerve cell-to-cell communication (8, 9, 3). So berries may help keep your aged furry friend on the go by multiple mechanisms.

Metabolic Allies

Unfortunately, diabetes and other metabolic issues are increasing in dogs as well as in their people. As an herbalist, I encourage daily consumption of a small amount of blueberries and other dark berries. This is because berries improve glucose metabolism in those with metabolic issues as well as in the healthy (2, 10). Related to diabetes, bilberry, blueberry’s cousin, is used in dogs and people to protect against the deterioration in vision that often occurs due to high blood sugar (5, 11).


    Dunlap, KL, et al (2006). Total antioxidant power in sled dogs supplemented with blueberries and the comparison of blood parameters associated with exercise. Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 143: 429-34.
    Basu, A, et al (2010). Berries: emerging impact on cardiovascular health. Nutr Rev. 68:168-77.
    Neto, CC (2007). Cranberry and blueberry: evidence for protective effects against cancer and vascular diseases. Mol Nutr Food Res. 51: 652-64.
  4. de Bairacli Levy, J (1992). The Complete Herbal Handbook for the Dog and Cat. Faber and Faber Limited, Bloomsbury House, London.
  5. Kidd, R, DVM, PhD (2000). Dr. Kidd’s Guide to Herbal Dog Care. Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA.
    Johnson, SA and BH Arjmandi (2013). Evidence for anticancer properties of blueberries: A minireview. Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2013 Jan 24. [Epub ahead of print.]
  7. McCormack, D and D McFadden (2012). Pterostilbene and cancer: current review. J Surg Res. 173:e53-61.
    Shukitt-Hale, B (2012). Blueberries and neuronal aging. Gerontology. 58:518-23.
    Cherniack, EP (2012). A berry thought-provoking idea: the potential role of plant polyphenols in the treatment of age-related cognitive disorders. Br J Nutr. 108 :794-800.
    Basu, A and TJ Lyons (2011). Strawberries, Blueberries, and Cranberries in the Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Perspectives. J Agric Food Chem. Nov 29. [Epub ahead of print.]
  11. Wulff-Tilford, ML & GL Tilford (1999). All you ever wanted to know about herbs for pets. Bowtie Press, Irvine, CA.

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About the Author

Anna-Marija Helt, PhD

Anna-Marija Helt, PhD, is a research scientist-turned-herbalist who practices and teaches at Osadha Herbal Wellness in Durango, Colorado. Marija has been studying herbs and essential oils intensely since 2008. Her focus as an herbal practitioner is a low-tech, simple and holistic approach to health that incorporates both traditional herbal knowledge and the latest scientific research. Prior to that, she spent nearly 15 years as a research scientist, with a focus on cancer and infectious disease.
Anna-Marija Helt, PhD