Imagine a substance that attacks our bodies at the microscopic level, altering cellular structural integrity and directly affecting essential biologic processes. This substance can accelerate the aging process and lead to serious maladies such as arthritis, poor immunity, heart disease, and cancer.
Biologic warfare? Alien invasion? Hardly! These substances exist and we are all exposed to them daily from sources like environmental toxins, sunlight, strenuous exercise, and even normal metabolic processes like breathing. They are known as free radicals, unstable atoms that frequently originate from the body’s own cells. Luckily, our bodies have access to a defense strategy against these little enemies: antioxidants.
While our bodies—and our pets’ bodies—can make some of these antioxidants on their own, some need to come from the diet to meet various requirements. These include vitamins E and C, beta-carotene, selenium, and zinc. Human health experts have long recommended eating a wide variety of fruits and veggies, and for good reason: these “superfoods” are chock full of these disease-fighting antioxidants.
We are finding that our beloved dogs need antioxidants as much as we do.
As a veterinarian, I am commonly asked about antioxidants in pet products. Pet owners ask if they should add multivitamin and mineral supplements to their pet’s diet to ensure that they get enough to meet their needs. While it’s true that pets with special dietary requirements due to disease or lifestyle may indeed benefit from supplements (your regular veterinarian can help determine if your pet falls into this category), for the bulk of the pet population, getting antioxidants directly from food is preferable. Foods contain a variety of nutrients that work synergistically to promote ideal health. Relying on a synthesized vitamin or mineral supplement may lead to missing out on other nutrients that are important for optimal wellness.
I also get asked about the “wild-type” diet for dogs, one that attempts to mimic the ancestors of our domestic dogs who hunted for survival. One might liken this to a canine version of the wildly popular Paleo diet for humans. It’s true that coyotes and wolves (and their predecessors) didn’t graze on a large variety of fruits and vegetables as part of their day-to-day menu. However, it’s a common misconception that wild dogs don’t eat any of these items. The animals that they hunt and consume are typically herbivorous and eat many types of plant species, including antioxidant-rich root vegetables, greens nuts, seeds, and berries. Wild dogs will eat the whole prey, not just the muscle meat, so they end up ingesting a source of complete antioxidants after all.
For most pet owners, it simply isn’t realistic to feed their pets a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables like mangoes, pumpkins, tangerines, spinach, and blueberries on a daily basis. If your pup will eat these, great! If not, I suggest aiming for a high-quality pet food that contains a variety of fruits and vegetables in its ingredient list, along with a protein source, of course. Fortunately, many companies are transitioning to more natural ingredients and these diets are becoming easier to find.
You can also continue to feed treats to your pets, but please read the label carefully to see if the ingredients are actual fruits and vegetables, not just flavoring. Zuke’s products, for example, contain whole foods like cherries, carrots, beets, apples, cranberries, broccoli, peas, kale, and asparagus, all in tasty little morsels. I find them a convenient way to give pets a reward and a health boost at the same time.
Disclaimer: This information is educational in nature and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical prevention, diagnosis, or treatment.