Canine Cancer – a few thoughts on diet

June 24, 2017 at 7:43 pm

This morning I made a comment – accidentally – on a post I saw on Facebook, sharing a highly sensational trailer regarding the power of nutrition with canine cancer. (When I say “accidentally” I mean I thought my comment was on a Friend’s post, but it was actually on the source of the share, so I wandered into a place I would normally not go). My comment was intended to question some of the video – such as the notion we can reverse or eradicate canine cancer with diet, and further to that, the idea there is one optimal diet and one only, for dogs with cancer.  Now, as everyone who knows me is aware, canine cancer is a special interest of mine, and an area I have studied for two decades now. I can’t tell you exactly the number of cases I’ve worked with, but for 17 years now I have made my living doing consultations, and cancer cases makeup *about* a third of my work. I have not completed my  herbal thesis on canine cancer, mostly because I am far too busy consulting…that said, I have worked with every type of cancer imaginable, with vets all a cross North America; vets who range from very conventional oncologists who are highly suspicious of a non-DVM  doing this work, to holistic vets so radical in their approach, I didn’t know how I was going to make their recommendations work. In many cases, thankfully, I am free to formulate both diets and herbal protocols according to my own expertise and assessment of the case. And, the things I have seen and outcomes I’ve witnessed, have been truly mind-blowing.

I can sum it up nicely by saying, nutrition is indeed very powerful, as are herbs – but one-size does not fit all, and there are many – many, more aspects to cancer nutrition than limiting (or God forbid, eliminating) all plant foods(carbs). The objection I made to the video, which was probably futile in the first place, was basically just that. It’s incorrect to say diet can “starve cancer cells” and very misleading to suggest that diet alone can bring about remission. Which diet, which cancer, which dog?  So many variables, and many dogs cannot handle the carbfree/highfat diet popular nutrition sites promote.  Now, I wouldn’t mind this so much….I know, it’s often intended as a way of introducing people to natural feeding…but, the superficial stuff has drawbacks.  It leads people to believe that there is only one correct way to address nutrition for cancer, it creates a kind of cult around eliminating “starch” – and, it’s a very worrisome prospect for those owners whose dogs cannot tolerate the low carb/high fat diet. I believe an introduction to natural health and the power of herbs and nutrition, can be vastly more inclusive and informative. I really do.

Back to my little run-in with Big Business earlier today. The member who responded to my input made some ad hominem attacks (I don’t understand cancer biology, sigh) and my site “sells diets loaded with carbs”..triple sigh, before removing my brief critique and banning me. Both of these accusations are patently false. Aside from the fact I do indeed  know a little bit about cancer, the fact is I  A) don’t  “sell diets”-  I develop protocols, based on the individual case and B) the only time I use higher carb diets is when a case specifically requires that approach. These cases may include dogs with liver disease or pancreatitis, as well as some digestive illness wherein high fat is not tolerated. The classic “cancer-starving” diet is high fat, but that won’t work if the dog is vomiting from pancreatitis or experiencing constant diarrhea from IBD. Many of the cases I handle clinically are referred to me by vets when precisely these combinations of illness are present. And – this is most interesting to me – many of these dogs on higher carb/lower fat diets do fabulously well.

I suspect that what happens is multi-tiered; since any diet I formulate needs to first address the immediately threatening condition, there is an easing of systemic stress that enables the diet to fight the cancer more robustly. That’s one theory. Another might be, that improved digestion and high phytochemical content from plants, provides the body with many tools to fight the cancer. Or, you know, both of those. Easing of chronic IBD/better nutrient absorption/high antioxidant intake/lower toxin by-product from high meat intake…perhaps the switch from a less-than-optimal kibble to ANY fresh food made the difference – a combination of factors. But isn’t that FASCINATING? It surely is to me. And that doesn’t mean, that I utilize a high carb diet for all cancers – in fact,  *most* of the diets I develop for dogs with cancer end up at around the 10-15% mark, with those calories coming from veggies,  a small amount of fruit, sometimes seeds like quinoa or buckwheat, and often a little lentil or chickpeas. Ten to Fifteen percent of  the total caloric intake is super low! But I only start at that level, if the dog is already on a high fat diet and has shown no history of reaction to it. For a dog eating kibble, often around the 50% carb mark, I start at more moderate levels, say 25% carb  and reduce as we go. Doesn’t that make sense? The last thing a dog who is ill with cancer, or feeling the effects of an aggressive treatment protocol, needs to deal with is diarrhea…I work with the whole dog, the reality of his or her unique digestive tendencies, type of cancer, and much more. And yes, I feel that lower carbs (from specific sources, broccoli is not white sugar is not wild rice) is a goal, but also fats, proteins and micronutrients all carefully tailored to the individual – that’s the foundation.

So why take the time to write this all up today? I have a few points I want to make  for those who have heard my words willfully distorted, or who are feeling uncertain about what to do with their own dog after a cancer diagnosis. Yes, diet is key, but it is no guarantee of remission, or even extended time. BUT! even if it doesn’t grant you the time you hope, for it’s still worth doing, for your dog’s comfort and quality of life for your own sense of doing what you can, and always, the reality that optimal nutrition supports the body’s own defenses against disease.  When we see long remissions, there is often a synergy between veterinary care, diet and  herbal support.  Here are a few things to remember.

  1. If your dog has been eating a kibble, especially a higher carb kibble (which most of them are) make sure that you ease into the  lower carb/higher fat diet. Changing too quickly can prove very hard on a dog.  Moving from kibble to a lovely, home prepared diet with 20 – 25% carbs as a transition is not a crisis! Many dogs stay at that level and thrive. The fear-mongering about carbohydrates is scientifically unfounded. Because a dietary approach might be helpful for some dogs in some cases,  in no way means you should slavishly follow it unquestioningly.
  2. Please consider your dog’s diet AS A WHOLE. So, simply put, a home made diet with optimized fatty acids, grassfed meats, correct supplementation AND 25% carbs (or more if indicated) is still better than a kibble or a sloppy home made diet  that doesn’t meet your dog’s requirements, but with 10% carb. Period full stop. Food quality and nutrient requirements COUNT.
  3. If your dog has cancer and a condition such as MVD , IBD or pancreatitis that makes a higher carb diet necessary, don’t despair. Many holistic vets do prefer vegetarian or even vegan diets with cancer – and while that’s not my own preference, I have seen amazing things with the approach – again, to be clear, with some types of cancer. You can still use a home prepared diet with these dogs,  the tricks are to  make it palatable, and to provide all the nutrients (usually, in these cases, that means a fair bit of supplementation). Don’t forget the power of herbal medicine and plant phytochemicals! Some of my own cases that have lived the longest past prognosis and done the best, have been dogs for whom the high fat and protein diets was not viable. Think about nutrition, not “diets”. Think about your dog, not “all dogs with cancer”.

    4.) I would also encourage anyone who is considering the problems with high carb diets, to also analyze issues with the foods we use to provide fat and protein as well. If we are going to look at the potential downside of one macronutrient – why not look at all three? And, take sites that only fixate on the issues with one food group, with a grain of salt. Remember when we humans were all supposed to eat as little fat as possible? That was de rigueur for a while – until we found out how wrong it is. Real nutrition doesn’t fixate on good/bad,  or on generic “diets”. I can’t say that often enough.

    Bottomline here – and I am not in anyway promoting a high carb diet for any dog, much less one with cancer – if it were just as simple as “starch causes cancer so eliminate all carbs” – honestly, we would have no cancer left. We’d have the cure! But in clinical practise – and with respect for the people who have devoted their lives to researching cancer nutrition and would agree with this-  there are no easy answers. Foods like cruciferous vegetables, berries, lentils, leafy greens, even the humble apple and celery – we all know these foods offer profound defense AGAINST cancer. And, they are carbs. We also know that many dogs who cannot tolerate high fat diets, nevertheless do very well with plant-based recipes. And – this is key here – if we are truly humble and interested in learning and doing the best we can for dogs – we remain open to what we don’t know. I’ve helped thousands of dogs with cancer, and often in very dire situations/unexpected ways. I remain humble and open.  Fresh organic food, complete nutrition, manipulations as indicated by the  individual. That’s what helps, dietarily.

    I hope you never encounter canine cancer in your lifetime, but with the stats seeming to rise every year, chances are you will. Limit toxin exposure, don’t over- vaccinate, feed a fresh but balanced diet. And if your dog does develop cancer, consider the diet very carefully. No matter what the diagnosis is, or what restrictions your dog may have, there’s a way to maximize the benefit and support of the diet, even before we start to add herbs.  Every dog with cancer can be helped with nutrition – it simply is not, always the same way.


    Connor, my first cancer client, who lived THREE YEARS after his bile duct carcinoma diagnosis and a maximum prognosis of 8 weeks. Following the vets’ instructions, we used a mostly vegan diet, with a little dairy and fish.

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