Food for thought? Dogs and Taurine

First, I would like to apologize to every single person to whom I every suggested that a few veggies in dog food could be healthy.

While not wrong, per se, it was the thin edge of the wedge. Back in the early 2000s, which seems like a millennia ago, there was a trend of making the veggies the 1990s popularized visible. Little bits of “fresh” peas and carrots, mostly. Cheap and easy to source, they did also provide a few vitamins and minerals that otherwise might need to be supplemented.

Now they’re everywhere. And not just little bits. It is now incredibly difficult to find a dog or cat food that doesn’t have a significant amount of peas, pea protein, or pea fiber added; and those that don’t simply use lentils or chickpeas instead. While dogs, unlike cats, are not obligate carnivores and some can be healthy on a veggie or even vegan diet, it is not ideal. As grain-free high-protein diets have become popular, we’re seeing more and more legumes used as protein sources. In the past few years, these diets have been increasingly linked to a risk for cardiomyopathy. This may be due to a problem we “solved” in the 1980’s: the critical role of the amino acid taurine. Unfortunately for dogs, they weren’t included in this solution; the role of taurine in feline diets is well recognized, but dogs have some ability to synthesize taurine from cystine (another amino acid), and so there are no requirements for taurine in dog food.

Unfortunately, not only are peas and other legumes low in taurine, but other newly popular ingredients like rice bran and beet pulp interfere with cystine absorption– therefor reducing the ability of dogs to synthesize taurine. Many grain free diets also contain “novel proteins,” which have also been linked to cardiomyopathy risk; however, many, such as lamb and even ostrich had a long use history and weren’t truly novel. They do have low cystine levels, though!

Research is ongoing. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the findings, I would encourage anyone with dogs to do the same– especially at risk breeds like dobermans and all retrievers. In the meantime, I’m choosing to limit legume based foods and treats, and Flora gets plenty of high-taurine organ meat treats during training. I don’t think she minds.

Adopt Don’t Shop? Part II

Three new pups have become regulars at the barn this year.

One is a designer breed, one purebred, and one has unknown parentage. They are all good dogs.

All three are loved and loving. All three share some basic criteria in barn-suitable temperaments and energy levels that their families looked for. They are all different sizes, each selected for different reasons. They are even, all three, healthy, sound, and athletically conformed; and these last aren’t always necessary for pet!

When we consider the ethics of selecting a pet to bring into the family, there are three primary categories:

Is our lifestyle and this pet a match?

One of the three pups described above is of course my own Flora Temple. As some of you may recall, back in April I pulled a horse and a dog from the local county shelter, the day before they had to close to the public due to covid. That closure was absolutely the right choice, but did mean also sending volunteers home for a while- leaving the shelter understaffed. In emergencies such as this, it becomes increasingly important to get animals adopted out (and they did, tirelessly!) and to decentralize care by fostering as many of the remaining as possible. I was a trainer who suddenly had a bit too much free time (and was still teaching on campus, and hadn’t yet had to full stop my lessons), so on April 1st I agreed to an impromptu shelter visit.

If you’ve been here before, you’ve read about Demi and the Pandemic Horse Rescue team. Demi has put on weight, gained some gloss, and been started under saddle (yes, you can put your name on a waiting list for her forever home). I also took home a dog with a behavioral flag. He was 80lbs– not exactly apartment sized! And his flag was for a dog fight, which meant he couldn’t be my barn dog. Our lifestyle wasn’t a great match for him, but we could make it work– if he was ok with the cats. The shelter staff didn’t know his history, as he’d been found stray. But he was 80lb dog with a history of dog aggression and without leash skills, which limited how many of the staff could bring him out to meet potential families.

So I adopted Byron. Technically, “rescued,” not just in the sense of getting him from a shelter, but because his fight barred him from regular adoption. As it turned out, he could not live in a small apartment with cats. We avoided any accidents, but it was stressful for him, the cats, and us. I now think of him as our foster dog. I discussed it with the shelter (by phone, of course) and they cleared me keeping him longer than the usual trial period to confirm his newfound leash skills, and maybe add a few more tricks to his repertoire, and then I could find him a potential new family myself. Sometimes, things really do work out: his new person is a lifelong doberman owner whose old dog had recently passed away. He wanted a dog who would watch TV (Byron’s fave) and hang out while he gardened in his HUGE FULLY FENCED YARD! A perfect match.

For most folks, I wouldn’t recommend adopting (and definitely wouldn’t recommend buying) a dog or any other pet that wasn’t a great match. It’s usually well worth waiting! Like most trainers and farm folks, I’ve ended up with oh so many pets by happenstance. Octavian was supposed to be a horse. I couldn’t just leave the little kitten who kept rolling around under the horses’ feet, so I brought him home to “find him a home.” Of course, I did, it was just my own. He turned out to be a surprisingly great fit for us, winning over our landlady and our grumpy older cat. Lisa, my old farm dog, was one of four that were dropped off at Heritage Harvest when I lived there. I wasn’t ready for a new dog– mine (another drop off, though with more notice) had recently died. Lisa insisted I was her person, and she was right. Part of why I took a second look at Byron (he wasn’t on the list of dogs I was considering pulling) was the face he gave me: his expression matched Lisa’s when she was concerned.

Does my purchase or adoption support markets that disadvantage people or animals?

But what about when you are ready, and happenstance hasn’t happened? Or what if you have very specific criteria, like needing a pet that is hypoallergenic or capable of a certain sport? That’s when it’s time to adopt, or to shop. When I was a kid, I adopted a pup from a local shelter. After Octavian’s grumpy uncle cat passed away, we weren’t initially planning on getting another pet– but Octavian was upset and lonely. We adopted Abdiel from Cat House on the Kings. We visited all the county shelters and a few well-vetted rescues, and Abs picked us. He was worth the search and the wait!

My first stop, or first recommendation, when looking for a pet is the county shelter. Not only can you find an awesome pet, a perfect match, for a very small adoption fee, that adoption fee always goes towards the care of the animals. Animals in county shelters need homes, and have been removed from any incentive structures for the production and sale of animals.

Next it’s good to check out the rescues in your area. You can even find specific rescues for certain breeds or types. For rescues, I do a bit more research, and hopefully get some first hand accounts. Your county shelter might even have some information about them! In addition to the care of the animals, I look at their adoption contracts and statistics, and how they interact with potential adopters. Most rescues are fantastic, and do a lot of good despite chronic underfunding and understaffing. Some perpetuate systemic inequities, consciously or otherwise, by only adopting to certain people– usually those who are wealthy and white. And some become hoarding situations. A little research can help you know you’re adopting from a good organization.

Does my purchase or adoption support inhumane production practices?

The same goes for breeders, of course! Do a little research, get a few reviews, and know who you’re dealing with. As I mentioned in my last post, I do not believe that the only ethical animal production is that of registered purebreds; I also don’t think that all who produce registered purebreds are ethical. Sometimes our criteria are so specific that a dog with a completely known history is preferable, and this generally means a breeder. For most people, this does not necessarily mean purebred, unless you plan to show– this is true of dogs, cats, horses, and even guppies.

When we decided we still wanted a dog after Byron was re-homed (he was amazing and reminded us how awesome having a dog at home is), we were not emotionally ready to take a another longshot risk. That meant we had two choices: an adult dog who was confirmed to be good with cats, or a puppy we could raise with them. The Clear the Shelters campaign was a resounding success, so finding an adoptable dog with an excellent confirmed temperament proved difficult, and puppies are of course the first to be adopted. We debated going to a breeder. We set our budget and extra strict criteria, and set about looking.

I ruled out a couple of listings because they, well, seemed shady. One had no name, no business website or facebook page, the photos looked like a hotel room and the single pup didn’t look like they were in the best health. While I’d be happy to care for a sick pup, I didn’t want to potentially contribute to the breeding of more animals in unknown and potentially poor conditions. I also ruled out a few for nearly the opposite reason. French Bulldogs would have fit our criteria; however, I will not support purposeful production of overly brachiocephalic dogs. The only purebred Frenchie breeder I found that I liked, who had nice balanced dogs whose muzzles were short and angled but with complete unobstructed nasal cavities, was quite reasonably out of our budget.

I did look at crossbred dogs. While one of my criteria was a dog who could practice or possibly even compete in several sports, we wanted a spayed female and have no current interest in the conformation ring. With non-producing pets, there are no universal advantages to purebreds. The crossing of two known purebreds may increase the number of potential genetic health problems, in the case of simple dominant traits, but can also remove the chance of certain recessive problems, and can diminish issues caused by extreme conformation– such as brachiocephalic dogs like the Frenchie.

I apply the same ethical considerations to a crossbred breeder as a purebred one. Are the parents happy, healthy, and generally well conformed? They certainly don’t need to be as magnificent as some of the championship purebreds I looked at, but they do need to be structurally sound. Are the puppies raised in a safe, and hopefully active, environment? One of the things that finally put Flora’s breeder, Heavenly Mini Aussies, on our short list was a picture of her pups with a cat. After food and vaccinations, the most important thing a breeder can do is make sure the pups are exposed to life. And this is true even in the case of unplanned pups, of course! For us, a puppy that had already been around cats was a huge benefit.

After some research and a talk with the breeder, our tax return became a deposit. This time, we bought. This time, we selected a purebred. Next time might be different.

Adopt don’t Shop? Part I

With the spring quarantine, and now the growing possibility of needing to work from home as much as possible into next year, there has been an incredible boom in new pets of all species being brought home. Many folks have found themselves with plenty of time and a great need for non-human companionship.

But where to get your new companion? The process of looking for a new pet is usually broken up into “adoption” and “shopping.” I find this to be a bit of a false dichotomy- and the moralization that often accompanies it can be problematic. What we want to look for is an animal who matches our lifestyle, who we can maintain happy and healthy (to the extent possible); and, we want to avoid contributing to the production or marketing of animals who are purposefully harmed or neglected. That second half tends to be where we err on the side of adoption- which is great!- but does not preclude responsible (or dare I say ethical) breeders.

The “adopt don’t shop” campaign seems to have started to promote humane society adoptions (I’m going to dig more into the origin story, because I find such things fascinating!) It was generally targeting shopping as in puppy stores and the associated puppy mills. Even if puppy mills were completely ended- which would be unlikely as long as the anonymising storefronts are available- the store environment is not really ideally for a growing impressionable puppy. There’s plenty of socialization, but no exposure to home life- and that paper situation makes potty training a nightmare, which is the biggest reason puppies get re-homed or sent to shelters.

Of course, many shelters (especially high volume shelters) have similar environments. The difference, of course, is that shelters are populated by at-risk animals with nowhere else to go. It’s a safety net. Puppies in puppy stores were bred for the stores.

Unfortunately, the adopt don’t shop rhetoric often gets expanded to dogs (or cats, or hamsters, or horses, or even fish) purchased directly from breeders. There are many, many stellar reasons to adopt! There are also sometimes reasons to go directly to a breeder. Part of the ethical consideration of breeding is providing safety nets for all of your animals before they might be shelter bound- which also means that (ethical) breeders are not contributing to shelter overpopulation- often quite the opposite, as breeders become contact hubs for rehoming any animal, not just their own produce.

While I’ve never heard anyone advocate for only buying from a breeder (and never adopting), I have come across vehement lectures about avoiding “backyard breeders” or “buying mongrels” (including established crossbreeds), and of course the one that always catches my eye: that’s not a real breed.

But what makes a breed? Stay tuned for ReProducing Breed, maybe ~2022! For today, I’m going to shift that question a bit: Who makes a breed? The breeders of course. But not those breeders. They don’t count. They’re just backyard breeders.

So what is a backyard breeder? The term has been around for over a century, but didn’t always have the baggage it does today. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the implication of small scale, and a sense of breeding being a hobby rather than a profession.

But there’s the rub. When we talk about “reputable” or “responsible” breeders today, they are small scale- the opposite of a mill. Fewer litters per year, and fewer per animal. And despite the pricetags, breeders often don’t make much on pet puppies. So, yes, they’re hobbyists, too- most breeders have day jobs, so to speak.

I certainly did. I haven’t bred dogs, or cats. I’ve had clients and friends who did. They, like me with horses, bred at home. With back yards, or front yards, or side yards. That’s what we look for in breeders, especially for pets! Dogs and cats raised in homes learn so many skills, simply by being in a home and following their dams around- much like foals that learn to socialize with humans, to lead, and to trailer load simply by following their dams.

While today’s pet and livestock breeds are still dominated by a few large, wealthy establishments, these are both smaller and less influential than their analogs (or, themselves) a century ago; and anyone looking for a pet is unlikely to end up with one of their animals! Pets should all come from backyard breeders. Backyards are healthy and fun for growing pups.

I understand what is meant by backyard breeder: the implication is that they are nothing more than small scale puppy mills, concerned only with profit. But I still wince every time I see the term. It’s rarely true. And, most importantly, the term “backyard breeder” is bandied about with more of an eye towards the people than the animals: it is applied far more often to people of color.

There are also “reputable” breeders, with long lines of champions, who have little concern for the health or longevity of the animal- we see this in any breed, of any species, where a single physical trait becomes the overwhelming goal. I have experience with rescues that became hoarding situations.

And of course there are also breeders- large and small, for showing or sporting, or just for pets- that are fabulous, and who produce friendly, happy, healthy animals. And there are rescues and shelters that not only act as critical safety nets for animals who are lost, but also for those whose owners have health problems, or (as we are seeing here in California) are displaced by disasters, and who provide emergency boarding and veterinary care and low-cost training and education. The ethics of animal care change little whether we adopt or “shop.”

All that out of the way, we return to the question: where to get your new companion?

This is quite long enough, so that will be Part II.