Regular readers may have noticed I’ve become a bit obsessed with canine aging biology lately. I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on, from journal articles and textbooks to popular science books. I’ve also been writing about the subject constantly, including journal articles (JAVMA, in press), columns and website pieces for Veterinary Practice News, and of course blog posts and book reviews here. Most of the scientific literature on aging biology involves animal models (predominantly worms, fruit flies, and mice) or humans, so I am always hunting for more evidence relevant to canine aging.
Imagine my excitement, then, to see the first book specifically purporting to focus on aging and longevity in the dog!
Imagine, also, my disappointment at seeing it was written by two of the least qualified, least reliable promoters of pseudoscience in the pet health space. We need this book, but sadly this is not the book we need.
Karen Becker is a veterinarian who runs the animal-centered portion of uber-quack Joseph Mercola’s misinformation empire. I’ve written about her claims and views many times (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), and the following summary is as applicable to this book as to the Truth About Pet Cancer propaganda project for which I wrote it.
She practices homeopathy, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, and she routinely condemns conventional medicine and nutrition practices as “toxic” and ineffective. To hear her tell it, our pets are living in the most horrible, toxic world possible, suffering and dying constantly due to unnatural and poisonous food, water, air, and medicines, and science-based veterinarians are clueless or corrupt and so only make things worse.
Dr. Becker is one of the more consistently anti-science voices in the veterinary profession, despite paying lip service to science and misusing or cherry-picking evidence when it suits her ideology. The fact that she is one of the drivers of this [book] undermines the credibility of [it] and illustrates the barely concealed anti-science agenda behind it.
Rodney Habib is a social media influencer who has manufactured a lucrative role for himself as a pet health expert entirely out of his communications skills and opinions, with no actual training or expertise in science or veterinary medicine. As I wrote in reference to the same pet cancer propaganda series,
While it is possible to admire Mr. Habib’s passion and success as a manipulator of the media, unfortunately most of what he is selling is pseudoscientific nonsense. He skillfully uses social media to instill fear in pet owners; fear of pet food, vaccines, and virtually anything mainstream veterinary medicine recommends. And despite absolutely no training or expertise in science, he confidently tells the public that vets and scientists have it all wrong, and they should listen to his advice instead.
Mr. Habib is also no fan of the SkeptVet, having used his video production skills to demonize me and imply that my writing somehow contributes to the problem of suicide in the veterinary profession.
Despite the negligible odds that a book on aging by these two authors would be a sound, science-based treatment of the subject, it is likely to be widely read and influential, and one tries never to give up hope. So I committed to reading it thoroughly, and with an open mind. Even when I quickly discovered that it is not really a book about aging but simply a new packaging of the same ideas Becker and Habib have been selling for years, I made a point of carefully reading Forever Dog in its entirety.
As with the other popular science books on aging I have read, there are a few worthwhile things to be found here. Unlike the others, however, there is far, far more misinformation and ideology than legitimate scientific information in the book. Dog owners are likely to learn very little about canine aging biology, and they are likely to come away with a distorted view of what we know and don’t know about how dogs age and how we can improve healthspan and lifespan.
I will share my thoughts in excruciating detail on many specific claims and ideas set forth in Forever Dog below. However, for the majority of you not battling pseudoscience and misinformation on a daily basis, most of that will be of little use or interest, so I will start with a more general review of the core ideas and claims in the book as well as the most critical failures.
As I mentioned, this isn’t really a book about canine aging. There are some sections that review aging biology generally in a cursory manner, predominantly with the goal of setting up specific beliefs the authors want to promote. But the core of the book is the same old tropes that Habib and Becker promote in the Truth About Pet Cancer and on their internet sites. This book is all about using the current excitement about aging and about the potential to use our scientific understanding of it to improve lifespan and health as a shiny new display case for the same old ideology of alternative medicine that they and others have been promoting for decades. There are few new ideas and little real science here, just a new frame for old ideas.
Here are the core ideas Forever Dog is designed to sell:
- Modernity is bad
This is not only an implicit message repeated on most every page, there is even a section entitled “The Hazards of Modernity that Lessen Longevity” and another called “The Modern Unwell Dog.” The same arguments they make in Truth about Pet Cancer and elsewhere against neutering, vaccination, commercial pet food, conventional medicines, electronic devices, “chemicals,” etc. reappear here, dressed up to look like they are connected to aging and longevity in dogs.
The authors are peddling a regressive view of history. They have one leitmotif which they repeat in a dozen different forms and settings: modernity is the root of all evil and we must retreat to some mythical simpler, cleaner past before technology ruined everyone’s life and health.
- The Naturalistic Fallacy
The obvious corollary to “modernity is bad” is, of course, “nature is good.” Nature, as used by Becker and Habib, is a mythical construct, usually centered in the past or in rural environments, in which health was optimal because humans hadn’t discovered or invented anything yet. The idea of nature as benign, even Edenic, is a silly fantasy only possible for people raised and embedded in a safe, technological society greatly distanced from the experience most humans had of nature for most of our species’ history.
- Health is a Personal Belief System
The authors go out of their way to emphasize that what matters most in caring for your dog’s health is what you believe. They have particular beliefs they want to sell you, of course, but they take pains to emphasize that you should “do your research” and “educate yourself” and that your observations and intuitions and feelings are ultimately the most important guide to what is good or bad for your dogs. Pet owners are responsible for their pets’ health (especially since vets and other “experts” can’t be trusted), and they shouldn’t doubt their own instincts or ability to teach themselves everything they need to know to confidently disregard science and scientific expertise. This idea is closely connected to the next,
- Science is Optional
Despite the frequent references to science, from the title to the citations the authors have relegated to their web site, in the universe of Forever Dog science exists only to validate what we already know through other means. Scientific studies are cited when they support the authors’ beliefs, and the exact same studies are ignored when they do not. These authors cherry pick, distort and ignore scientific evidence freely, without any apparent concern for how scientific research works and what the evidence can reasonable be understood to mean. Science is mere window-dressing, giving a patina of legitimacy and seriousness to ideas that are fundamentally ideological and only connected to reality through personal observation and anecdote.
- Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid
The authors paint a terrifying picture of the modern world as a toxic wasteland full of dangers and unscrupulous or misinformed false experts offering you bad advice for money. They need you to be afraid so that you will eagerly embrace the anodyne they offer for the malady they have created. And they do offer a way out of the nightmare, by giving you a sense of understanding, competence, agency, and validation in making your own decisions that they promise will miraculously transform the health of your pet, just like the pets in the numerous miracle stories that open many of the chapters. Marketers of all stripes have discovered the persuasive power of anxiety to undermine confidence in their current sources of information and drive them to seek eagerly after another.
It is not true to say that every point made in the book is wrong. In some ways, it would be a much less dangerous vehicle for misinformation if that were the case. The authors employ legitimate scientific information, plausible and sensible advice, and accurate comments on the many flaws of the human and animal healthcare systems, the pharmaceutical industry, and the pet food industry as part of their argument. They weave reality together with opinion and fantasy almost seamlessly, until it is difficult for the reader to tell them apart.
For example, they may provide a reasonable and accurate summary of the many health dangers of obesity in dogs, and then they tell you how to save your dog from this terrible condition by following their nutritional advice, which is mostly exaggeration and invention not supported by real science or real experts in nutrition. Or they might talk with justifiable enthusiasm about the potential of epigenetics to transform preventative medicine, and then just blithely assume that some specific food or supplement can radically extend healthpsan and lifespan by altering gene expression, even though this has never been tested in dogs, much less shown to work.
One of their favorite tactics is to cite legitimate scientists out of context, ignoring the fact that their words may be pure speculation, radically out of step with most experts in their field, or simply not intended to mean what the authors claim they mean. This was a technique used extensively in the Truth About Pet Cancer. Some of the experts interviewed in that project, such as veterinary oncologist Dr. Greg Ogilvie, were outraged at the way their work and comments were misused to promote ideas they do not support.
A few of their arguments in Forever Dog are plausible and may even turn out to be true. As I’ve said many times, I suspect fresh food diets may have health advantages over conventional pet foods, and I look forward to seeing robust scientific evidence demonstrating this. Once it arrives, I will be happy to change my position from neutral to strongly in favor of such diets. If it never arrives because my guesses about these diets are wrong, then I will accept that as part of the ongoing process of using science to more accurately understand the world and improve the health of my patients. But my recommendations will be driven by the data, not by what I want to be true.
However, even if Becker and Habib provide some information that is accurate and some that is unproven but at least plausible, they provide much more that is purely an expression of their personal beliefs and supported by no more than anecdote and motivated reasoning. In other cases, their recommendations are not only unproven but almost certainly wrong.
They do a masterful job of generating fear and then assuaging it with simple, clear advice. Dog owners naturally want clear directives on how to extend life and health for their dogs, and these authors give many. The problem is that directives based on little or no evidence and largely fabricated out of ideological bias, theory, preclinical data from cell cultures and rodents, or wishful thinking may satisfy our need for agency, but they aren’t likely to have any real benefits for our dogs. A belief-based approach that disdains science except where it can be twisted to support preconceived ideas is not a reliable way to improve healthspan or lifespan.
In Forever Dog, Dr. Becker and Mr. Habib have created a case study in the slick and effective marketing of ideology and misinformation. I have little doubt they believe much of what they say, and that they feel they are doing vital work to benefit the health of dogs and humans. That doesn’t make them any less wrong, and it doesn’t make their misinformation any less dangerous to those who are led into mistrust of legitimate science, scientists, and veterinary health professionals.
I believe enthusiastically in the potential for science to help us extend lifespan and healthspan in dogs and in humans. I also believe that we have a lot of hard work to do to realize this potential. It will come about through rigorous scientific research, not the liberal application of anecdotes, cherry picked evidence, and personal ideology to the problem of aging. We will likely be proven wrong more often than right, as is common in science, because nature is much more intricate and complex than we imagine it to be. Nevertheless, I am, as one of my mentors in the aging biology field often says of himself, a skeptical optimist.
When the true story of how we came to make our dogs live much longer and healthier lives than they do now is written, it will be far more interesting and substantial than this confection of ideology and wishful thinking. The real story of how we solved canine aging will be the fruit of rigorous, painstaking work by thousands of people committed to understanding reality as it is. Scientific progress often lacks the glamor and instant gratification of propaganda pieces like this book, but it does what pseudoscience never can—it reduces suffering and improves the quality of life for us and our dogs.
What follows is a collection of specific claims and arguments made in Forever Dog that are unproven, implausible, or simply wrong. Many of these are ideas I have written about before simply because the book is largely a repackaging of stale alternative medicine beliefs reframed around aging. Where possible, I have provided links or citations to the sources cited by the authors and those I believe provide additional information and clarification. Many of the latter are articles or blog posts I have written because these already include summaries of the relevant evidence. I am not merely citing my own opinions to refute those of Dr. Becker and Mr. Habib; I am linking to work already done elsewhere to find and explain the actual scientific research bearing on their claims.
- Dogs are less healthy than they used to be and are probably not living as long.
The first section of the book is titled “The Modern Unwell Dog” and the first chapter is “Sick as a Dog- Why we and our companions are losing our longevity.”
“By some measures we’ve witnessed a decline in canine longevity…Although many dogs are indeed living longer, like people, many dogs are dying prematurely of more chronic disease than ever before.”
The authors also use much more histrionic language, referring to “the near extinction of the healthy dog in modern times.”
They claim that even if it is not possible to prove canine lifespan has declined,
“certainly their health span has diminished. A dog’s life is not as happy as it used to be.”
“Modern lifestyle often separates humans (and animals) from making direct contact with earth. The research suggests that this disconnect may be a contributor to physiological dysfunction and unwellness.”
“Fifty years ago, vets saw patients primarily for acute injuries and infectious diseases. But these days most patients we see are suffering with GI problems, allergies and skin issues, musculoskeletal issues, and organ dysfunction. It’s an epidemic.”
“When cells are relentlessly exposed to high levels of insulin as a result of the persistent presence of glucose—typically caused by consuming too much refined sugars and simple carbs from processed foods—our cells adapt by reducing the number of insulin receptors. This causes our cells to become desensitized or “resistant” to insulin, ultimately causing insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes… ?Most dogs with diabetes also are born with a perfectly functioning pancreas (or diabetes would be diagnosed immediately, as a puppy). With time and insult, the pancreas stops producing adequate insulin, and once the insulin-producing cells are burned out, they’re done.”
[This misrepresents the pathogenesis of diabetes in dogs, which is largely due to genetic predisposition and diseases that lead to insufficient insulin production. This is very different from the type of diabetes most common in humans, which is due to peripheral insulin resistance associated with metabolic abnormalities. Diet, and obesity due to excess calorie intake, is clearly a risk factor for Type II diabetes in humans. It is not at all clear, however, that diet is a meaningful factor in the development of canine Type I diabetes. Low-carbohydrate diets are not useful in managing diabetes in dogs, as they are in cats, and there is no reason to believe dietary carbohydrates are a risk factor for dogs developing diabetes since they differ in meaningful metabolic ways from humans. (1, 2, 3)
Dr. Becker has previously claimed that dogs are not living as long as they used to, and throughut the book the authors try to frighten the reader with claims that many aspects of modern life have led to a decline if lifespan and health in dogs. This is part of the general argument that modern life is bad for canine health and that some mystical pretechnological golden age existed in which dogs were healthier and happier. They are actually quite clear about viewing the invention of agriculture as the start of most of our health woes, and they idealize a supposed hunter-gatherer lifestyle as the optimal for health and well-being (ignoring the much higher rate of infant and childhood mortality of these groups compared to those of us living in the “toxic” modern world).
I have discussed the claim that dog lifespan has declined before, and the evidence Becker and Habib cherry pick to support it is not compelling. I have also reviewed the data in detail, and while it is not conclusive, it seems more likely that dogs, like humans, live longer than they used to thanks to improvements in disease prevention and nutrition.
As for the claim that dogs are generally less healthy than they used to be, there is no evidence to support that belief, which is merely another expression of the hatred for modernity and the nostalgic longing for a mythical purer past.
The authors acknowledge that we have dramatically reduced causes of disease and death in children, such as infectious disease and trauma (though they assiduously avoid ever mentioning vaccines when talking about this), which is a major reason human life expectancy has increased dramatically. They also recognize that we have had similar success combating these ills in dogs. However, they seem unable to understand that the reduction in acute illness and the resultant aging of the population inevitably means that the proportion of diseases that are age-related and chronic must increase.
People, and probably dogs, used to experience less diabetes, heart disease, and cancer not because they lived in a healthier environment with better nutrition but because they rarely lived long enough! Early death from infection, malnutrition, and trauma precluded the development of such diseases, which represent our success at combating those health problems more than any fundamental degradation of the quality of our environment or nutrition. The predominant evolutionary explanations for why aging occurs at all center on the fact that we cannot have evolved resistance to chronic, age-related diseases when our ancestors rarely lived long enough to experience them. If they did it was long after they had reproduced, so it would not affect the genetic susceptibility to age-related disease in their descendants (us).
Like humans, dogs very likely live longer and healthier lives than ever before, at least in places where they are treated as Habib and Becker agree they should be- as beloved family members given the best possible care. There are many serious health problems that dogs face, and we absolutely must continue to examine scientifically the causes and means of preventing and treating these. Intervening in the core pathways of aging is likely to be a very effective strategy for improving lifespan and healthspan, but we must base our interventions on a sound understanding of how aging works, not on the myth that we live in a fallen world and that the answer is to reject modernity and return to the lifestyle of a mythical natural paradise in the past.
- Commercial Diets are Terrible for Dog Health (except raw and fresh diets)
This is probably the most vehement and consistent message of Forever Dog. The way most of us feed our dogs, using commercial kibble or canned food, is the equivalent of eating nothing but fast food and packaged snacks, and we are killing our canine companions with these foods.
“Understanding how the pet food industry became a $60 billion fast-food engine in less than sixty years will shed light on a large part of the problem.”
Defines “ultra-processed foods as “formulations mostly of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives, using a series of processes (hence ‘ultra-processed’). All together, they are high in unhealthy types of fat, refined starches, free sugars and salt, and poor sources of protein, dietary fiber, and micronutrients.”
When we eat “ultra-processed, pro-inflammatory food, not only do the insulin flow and blood sugar levels run amok, but the trash starts to pile up in your cells.”
“While there aren’t any lifetime studies comparing dogs that eat one ultra-processed diet versus a variety of less-processed foods from birth to death, common sense tells us something is wrong with the nutrition picture Big Pet Food has painted for us.”
Commercial pet foods are ?“ultra-processed fare that threatens the lives and well-being of our companion animals.”
“Let food be your medicine” attributed to Hippocrates
[Interestingly,” this is almost certainly a historical misquotation, as the saying does not appear in any of the recovered Hippocratic documents and scholars argue that Hippocrates and his followers would probably disagree with this principle in the literal sense”]
I have addressed this general argument many times before:
The bottom line is that contemporary commercial diets are likely not the “perfect” diet to maximize health and longevity for dogs. They are also not the toxic waste in a bag bringing death closer with every bite that Habib and Becker claim. While there are legitimate questions to be asked about the relative risks and benefits of conventional diets and other feeding strategies, this book simply assumes the worst without any real, substantive evidence. The authors ignore decades of nutrition research and the lived experience of millions of healthy, happy dogs in favor of careless extrapolation and exaggeration of theoretical concerns and research in humans or lab animals. As with the book in general, the information on nutrition is a mixture of a few facts, lots of untested beliefs and assumptions, and a fair number of outright falsehoods.
- The Satanization of Carbohydrates
An abiding theme in alternative nutrition for many years now is that carbohydrates are inherently unhealthy. This book at least pays some lip service to distinguishing simple and complex carbohydrates, but they misrepresent the composition of commercial pet foods and the evidence concerning the potential health effects of various carbohydrates in dog diets.
The authors make much of the “glycemic index,” a method for assessing the impact of various carbohydrates on blood sugar levels in humans. They also misleadingly refer to all simple carbohydrates as “sugar” which is simply false. The glycemic index has not been thoroughly validated in dogs, and there is certainly no research to support the idea that we can use it to determine which foods raise the risk of disease. The response of dogs to simple and complex carbohydrates is not always the same as in humans, so the use of this measure to decide if a food is “healthy” is not justified.
Unlike humans, dogs and cats don’t require carbohydrates. However, they can utilize this class of macronutrient perfectly well.17,24–28 Some non-digestible carbohydrates can have also beneficial effects on the microbiome, which can influences weight, stool consistency, and other aspects of health.29 There is no reliable scientific evidence supporting claims that dietary carbohydrates cause cancer in pets or that lower carbs will prevent or help treat cancer. And while carbohydrates are often seen as particularly dangerous to cats, research has demonstrated that this species can effectively utilize carbohydrates in food and that these are not a significant risk factor for diabetes or other diseases often blamed on too much carbohydrate in commercial cat food.17,25,30 (see here for references)
The authors also state that “?dogs fed dry and/or canned food were more likely to be overweight or obese” and, unusually, they cite a specific study to support this claim. Unfortunately, this is another example of their selective use of science only to support what they already believe. The study is what is called a “preprint,” meaning it hasn’t been peer-reviewed and published in a journal yet. Such studies sometimes pass review and get published, and sometimes they are withdrawn once experts in the field have a chance to look at them closely (this has happened frequently with influential papers looking at alternative ideas about COVID-19). Furthermore, the author of the paper is a neuroscientist, not a nutritionist or veterinarian, and she works for a company selling a fresh commercial dog food. The potential for bias here is at least as great as in all the research supporting conventional diets, which Habib and Becker dismissed as industry propaganda.
The study itself was another owner survey, mostly of customers buying the diet sold by the lead author’s company. This is more a reflection of what this population of owners believes about their dogs than anything else. The study also found “conventional-only medicine” to be a risk factor for obesity, which shouldn’t be surprising given that one of the other authors was an “integrative medicine” veterinarian. Interesting as these findings are, they are hardly a reliable foundation for a novel and strong conclusion about the role of diet in canine health.
The most recent truly scientific review of the role of dietary carbohydrates in dog health does not support the extreme claims made in this book:
“Despite the large number of dog owners who are averse to feeding carbohydrates to their pets, there is little evidence to support the contention that any negative health effects result from feeding diets that provide dietary carbohydrates in amounts (30% to 60% DM) commonly found in commercial extruded pet foods. There appears to be no association between dietary carbohydrate and the development of obesity, diabetes mellitus, cancer, or adverse food reactions in dogs. In fact, dogs appear to have evolved so that they can metabolize substantial quantities of carbohydrate. Increasing the amount of complex carbohydrates in diets results in the reduction of dietary protein or fat (or both), which may provide benefits for dogs with certain conditions, such as obesity, diabetes mellitus with concurrent pancreatitis, or adverse food reactions.”
- Cooking = ”Heat Adulteration”
The authors are clearly in favor of raw foods, though they realize this may not be an attractive option for many dog owners and so also make allowances for “minimal” heat processing. However, they repeatedly refer to cooking as “heat adulteration,” and they clearly want to make the case that it is a dangerous cause of health problems in dogs.
“Better: Homemade, commercial raw or gently cooked, freeze-dried, and dehydrated real dog foods are all substantially less adulterated pet food choices, and fall into the “fresher” category, when compared to ultra-processed kibble and canned food.”
“Assessing the number of times the ingredients in pet foods are heat-adulterated is an important consideration in selecting which foods to feed your dog.”
“We use the word “raw” sparingly because it’s only one option in the minimally processed pet food category, and it evokes in many people’s minds stereotypical images of contamination, or foul and rotting flesh, instead of images of the neighborhood butcher shop. The unfortunate connotation behind “raw” has stalled the preventive health revolution and distracted many well-meaning pet parents from giving their furry beloveds what they instinctually want and genetically need.”
“Raw food is less metabolically stressful than kibble and that raw-fed dogs have lower levels of inflammatory and disease markers, including homocysteine levels, compared to kibble-fed dogs.”
“Raw-fed dogs can have much lower fasting glucose levels than starch-fed dogs.”
[As if “raw” and “starch” were the only options?]
“Raw diets foster a much richer, more diversified gut community of organisms.”
“Repeated heating also obliterates the “entourage effect” of whole, raw foods.”
“The average bag of dry dog food contains ingredients that have been high-heat processed at least four times; it is literally dead food.”
[As if we should be feeding “living” food? This is classic vitalism]
No evidence of benefits
Plenty of evidence of risks
Sure, plenty of dogs get away with eating raw meat, but some suffer serious harm. Until there is robust scientific evidence for health benefits, there is simply no reason to take such risks. High-pressure pasteurization can reduce the risk of infectious disease in raw foods, but even with the lessened risk it is important to recognize that none of the health benefits these authors claim for raw diets have actually been shown to exist. Raw foods are not the distillation of evil any more than commercial kibble is. They are, however, an expression of ideology more than a science-based feeding choice.
I have also written about so-called “fresh” diets, those “lightly cooked” foods such as Just Food for Dogs. These seem more likely to have some health benefits and fewer risks than raw meat based diets, but the claims of proponents of such diets go well beyond the available evidence. It should be possible to investigate the potential benefits of such diets without the kind of egregious fear-mongering and misinformation used in Forever Dog.
Much of the minimal evidence that is cited in support of raw and fresh diets comes from research by DogRisk, a collection of Finnish researchers this group contributed to Becker and Habib’s notorious Truth About Pet Cancer series, and they have published some studies investigating various types of dog nutrition, including raw diets. These studies are mostly based on online owner surveys, again reflecting the beliefs and perceptions of raw feeders about their dogs’ health more than anything else. This is interesting information, but it does not even remotely constitute validation of the claims made in this book for the health benefits of raw or lightly cooked foods.
- Fasting and Time-limited Feeding
“Cramming all your dog’s calories into a set period of time during the day does amazing things for her physiology. Aside from maintaining “cellular youth” and slowing aging, research has shown that the practice promotes greater energy, increases fat burning, and decreases risk of developing diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, all because fasting activates autophagy, or cellular housecleaning.”
This is certainly one of the hottest topics in the aging field. There is strong evidence, including in dogs, that some kinds of caloric or dietary restriction can extend healthspan and lifespan. However, the differences between various specific feeding strategies and how they affect health in yeast and worms and flies and mice and humans, in males and females, in obese and lean individuals, and in subject with different genetic backgrounds are enormous. We are just beginning to understand how the results of laboratory and exploratory studies of caloric restriction, time-limited feeding can be used to inform strategies that will improve health and lifespan in a diverse population in the real world.
These authors, characteristically, latch on to the enthusiasm and the potential and complexly ignore the complexity and uncertainty. Studies of caloric restriction and various types of time-restricted feeding have shown mixed results, with some strategies having no effect or even potentially causing harm., such as loss of muscle mass or metabolic dysfunction (e.g. 3,4,5,6,7,8,9)
Very little research has been done of caloric restriction and specific time-limited feeding practices in dogs. It is very likely that some version of these practices will ultimately be beneficial for health and longevity in dogs. It is also likely that some versions will be harmful to some dogs. Since we don’t know which is which yet, the blithe recommendations in this book to feed your dog only during an eight-hour window of time is not justified, it is just a wild guess made by the authors.
- The Environment is Horribly Toxic
The authors of Forever Dog make extensive use of the concept of “toxins” to paint a frightening picture of the health danger sin modern life. While there is no doubt that some environmental exposures can increase health risks, the slapdash way the terms “toxin” and “chemical” are used here has nothing to do with legitimate scientific toxicology or epidemiology. It is, once again, merely an expression of the belief that anything modern and technological is bad (except when it isn’t) and anything that meets their vapid criteria for being “natural” is good.
I can’t possibly address every single purported toxin they mention without writing another book, but I will try to give enough examples to illustrate the pattern of exaggeration and misinformation.
We should make sure our pets “eat and drink from chemical-free bowls.”
[as if everything, from the bowls to the food and water, isn’t made of “chemicals”!]
“Exposure to lawn pesticides (specifically those applied by professional lawn-care companies) raise the risk of canine malignant lymphoma by as much as 70 percent.”
“The Dirty Dozen: ethoxyquin, menadione, dyes and colors (including caramel), poultry (animal) digest, animal fat, propylene glycol, soybean oil, by-products, corn gluten meal, BHA/BHT, meat meals, and sodium selenite.”
“?Look for ingredients that do not sound like synthetic agro-chemicals. Some of the organic herbicides use citric acid, clove oil, cinnamon oil, lemongrass oil, d-limonene (from limes), and acetic acid (vinegar).”
[A variation on the idea that somehow things with simpler names are more “natural” and healthier than things with complicated names]
“Modern lifestyle often separates humans (and animals) from making direct contact with earth. The research suggests that this disconnect may be a contributor to physiological dysfunction and unwellness. Reconnection with the physical earth has been found to promote intriguing physiological changes and subjective reports of well-being.”
“There are important relationships between the Earth’s rhythms and resonance and a wide range of human and animal wellness indicators…We hypothesize that it’s important for your dog to have regular opportunities to directly touch the earth on a regular basis. Preferably several times a day… All animals, given the option, will use the Earth’s magnetic fields to their benefit.”
“Living in a city (and oftentimes the ’burbs), generally means a more fast-paced, stressful life for people (ahem: dog owners) who are working long hours and are more likely to spend the majority of their day indoors under artificial light
“Household air can be a toxic cocktail”
“Leaving shoes outside the house can be one of the easiest, free things you can do to help your pets (and yourself) avoid exposures to harmful substances, ranging from those lawn chemicals in your hood, carcinogens in asphalt and petroleum by-products, and fecal matter on pavement to pathogenic (bad) bacteria, viruses, and toxic dust and chemicals…?you. In fact, your shoes may be even more toxic than your toilet!”
Most of the claims of toxic effects for specific chemicals are either extrapolated from lab animal research or too vague to make much sense. Some are plausible but unproven. Others are likely accurate to a point but much more complicated than the authors understand (or admit).
For example, take the claim that “Exposure to lawn pesticides (specifically those applied by professional lawn-care companies) raise the risk of canine malignant lymphoma by as much as 70 percent.” This is based on a case-control study in which owners were asked to fill out a questionnaire about possible exposures their pets had experienced. This is a notoriously unreliable way of assessing environmental risk factors, and it isn’t sufficient alone to establish a causal relationship under the best of circumstances.
In this case, the evidence is especially weak. No overall difference in lawn chemical exposure was found between dogs with and without lymphoma. That means the basic hypothesis, that use of lawn chemicals was more common in dogs with cancer, wasn’t shown to be true. There was also no difference found in the exposure to most lawn chemicals applied by owners, the number of different products dogs were exposed to, or the use of flea and tick products. The only association found was between lawn chemicals applied by a professional service and lymphoma.
The most accurate representation of this study would be that most chemicals investigated had no association with this type of cancer. One subset, those applied by a professional service, might have been a risk factor, and this deserves further investigate. The authors prefer to cherry pick the only positive findings and use it to support a general implication that all environmental “chemicals” are unhealthy.
It was especially interesting that the study found no association between lymphoma and the use of flea and tick products. The authors frequently identify such products as health hazards and even claim that uncontrolled spontaneous reports by owners are evidence for this. Yet when discussing flea and tick products, they somehow fail to mention that an actual scientific study, one they themselves cite in the book, did not find a connection. This is a typical example of how these authors misuse science only to support their case and ignore evidence which does not.
The authors make quite a fuss about the indoor environment being toxic and the benefits of letting your dog outside. Paradoxically, they also warn you to wipe your dogs’ feet and take off your shoes in the house to remove outdoors toxins. In general, they seem to believe that rural environments are healthier than the city or the suburbs and that the outdoors is an antidote to the poisonous indoors. This is clearly another manifestation of the irrational phobia about the modern, technological world and a fantasy of a purer pre-technological time or place.
The evidence suggests this view is not accurate. For humans, at least, rural life is associated with poorer health outcomes, more behavioral problems, and less leisure time. The authors do cite a survey that suggests urban dogs are more fearful than rural dogs, but this is likely due to differences in socialization and other characteristics of how they are raised and treated, not to a fundamentally “healthier” rural environment. Another study cited suggests urban dogs may be more likely to have allergies than those in rural environments. This is plausible but given that it was yet another survey conducted by the DogRisk research group, which shares many of the biases of these authors, there is reason to be skeptical. There is also evidence, which the authors ignore, that rural dogs may be less likely to be vaccinated for rabies and more likely to carry dangerous parasites. As always, the reality is likely complex and context-dependent, and the kind of simple narrative presented in this book is unrealistic.
This is a preservative implied to have negative health effects despite a lack of evidence for the truth of such claims. Much is made of the fact that it is permitted in the U.S. but not in Europe, suggesting real risks have been identified but the FDA has somehow failed to acknowledge them. There is no reason to think, however, that European regulatory decisions are any more evidence-based than those made in the U.S., or more effective in protecting public safety. It is easy to find examples of the opposite being true, such as the case of thalidomide, a drug approved for use in pregnant women in Europe, but not in the U.S., in the 1950s and 1960s which turned out to cause significant birth defects. In any case, the evidence does not support claims that ethoxyquin is harmful at levels used in pet foods: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
A synthetic form of Vitamin K I have written about before. Under normal circumstances, dogs and cats need extremely small amounts of dietary Vitamin K. At the low levels of supplementation in commercial foods, menadione is a safe source of this Vitamin K. Toxic effects can be seen when enormous quantities are given to an animal or when menadione is used injectably, but there are no documented cases of any harmful effects from dietary supplementation of menadione in commercial pet foods. The three veterinary nutritionists and one veterinary toxicologist I consulted on this issue all agreed that there is no evidence of any significant risk from menadione in commercial pet foods. The concerns about this supplement seem to stem almost entirely from the appeal to nature fallacy and from the mistaken belief that substances are inherently either safe or toxic regardless of dose or route of exposure.
- Artificial Colors in Dog Food
This is a common bogeyman of the naturalistic fallacy crowed, which I have written about in detail.
- By-products in Dog Food
Another classic villain that is not what it seems.
- BHA and BHT have been used as preservatives in human and animal foods…for more than 30 years. While many countries have banned them from use in human foods, they are still allowed in pet foods…[and] have been indicated as carcinogenic in animal experiments and are suspected of contributing to cancer and tumor growth.
The purpose of these compounds is to function as anti-oxidants and prevent spoilage, which is itself a potential health risk. Extensive research has been done to investigate any dangers from these compounds, and the research generally does not support a significant risk at levels of exposure likely to be seen with use as a food preservative. In fact, there is even tenuous evidence that these compounds may be protective against cancer under some circumstances. It is never possible to exclude all possibility of risk, of course, but avoiding potentially beneficial products without any evidence of risk is not a rational way to make decisions about food safety.
- Filtered Water
Filtered water is claimed to be safer than tap water no matter how good it tastes or what data the water company has. While there is some evidence that filtration can reduce risk of bacterial GI Dz, though the results are inconsistent, there is no evidence regarding long-term health. Additionally, many home or “point-of-use” filtration systems have been shown not to work. (1)
Epigenetics is a relatively new scientific field which is revealing that expression of the genes we inherit is far more complicated, and potentially more responsive to internal and external influences, than previously understood. As always, proponents of alternative theories of health have seized on this new area of research, just as they misuse the concepts of quantum mechanics, to cast doubt on science-based practices and to support their own beliefs.
We are just at the beginning of learning what epigentic markers can tell us about health and how we can influence gene expression to potentially increase healthspan and lifespan. In a book I reviewed some time ago, Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health by Dr. Jean Dodds, I responded in detail to some wild claims about the impact of food on gene expression. Mr. Habib and Dr. Becker make many of the same unfounded leaps of imagination about epigenetics and how food and other external forces can influence health through epigenetic mechanisms. They take an exciting new idea and skip over all the hard work of investigation and understanding, simply assuming that what they hope and believe is true.
“You need to be utterly convinced that all aspects of your dog’s lifestyle and immediate environment are whispering to his DNA; it’s our job to ensure the space around him ?speaks only words of health, vitality, and resiliency to his epigenome.”
“You’re providing [supplements] to whisper longevity instructions to your dog’s epigenome.”
“We can use our genome to help direct what medicine and chemotherapy protocols are appropriate, and now which vitamins, minerals, and supplements will resonate best—or which should be avoided—with life-changing results.”
?“Already, wellness companies are creating customized nutraceutical protocols tailored to your dog’s DNA test results, breed predisposition(s), and lifestyle and life stage.”
“?Nutrigenomics, or the study of the interaction between nutrition and genes, particularly regarding disease prevention and treatment, is key to the health of all dogs. Nutrigenomics offers our dogs the possibility of reversible destiny.”
There is very little evidence that any specific food, feeding strategy, supplement, or other intervention can improve health or extend life by influencing gene expression in dogs or humans living in the real world. Nearly all the research is from laboratory or pilot studies, and it almost all illustrates interesting differences between limited sets of epigenetic markers associated with whatever variable is being studied—food, exercise, age, and many, many others. All of this is part of the necessary work in building an understanding of what these markers mean and how we can influence them.
What the research does not currently support is the idea that we can extend life and health in our dogs right now by changing their diet or other aspects of how we care for them. It isn’t that these things couldn’t be helpful, it’s that no one has done the studies to find out! Until that work is done, all of us will just be guessing, though hopefully most of us won’t be presenting our guesses as facts, the way these authors do.
- Miscellaneous Statements
This is just a hodgepodge of statements made in the book that are misleading or unreliable.
- “While there aren’t any lifetime studies comparing dogs that eat one ultra-processed diet versus a variety of less-processed foods from birth to death, common sense tells us something is wrong with the nutrition picture Big Pet Food has painted for us.”
This is a nice pre-emptive way of avoiding having to prove their claims and allowing “common sense” to stand in for real evidence. Nearly every chapter begins with or includes some sort of miracle story in which a dog was healed or given extraordinary longevity by some practice the authors support. This use of anecdotes is as misleading as it is effective, because none of these stories prove anything except that we are a species that understands narrative and simple cognitive heuristics better than statistics and data. I have written many times about why reasoning from anecdote and intuition and “common sense” is unreliable, and this is the core flaw behind much of what is promoted in this book.
- “Dogs, for instance, are much more sensitive to electromagnetic fields (EMF), which doesn’t bode well for our highly networked world where Wi-Fi grows more powerful and prevalent. We aren’t tinfoil hat–wearing conspiracists, but we know dogs, including a few of our own, hate being around 5G routers, which tells us we should honor their preferences and exceptional senses.”
“There are important relationships between the Earth’s rhythms and resonance and a wide range of human and animal wellness indicators…We hypothesize that it’s important for your dog to have regular opportunities to directly touch the earth on a regular basis. Preferably several times a day… All animals, given the option, will use the Earth’s magnetic fields to their benefit.”
These quotes are indirect references to both the nonsense about electromagnetic fields causing deleterious health effects and the concept of “earthing,” avoiding or relieving health problems through regular physical contact with the ground. The authors try to both promote these ideas while distancing themselves from the egregiously pseudoscientific BS they represent, but I don’t think they succeed. The statement that “sound is a form of electromagnetic radiation,” made in a section on the dangers of noise pollution, doesn’t help their case since this is clearly wrong and shows a lack of understanding of basic physics.
- “Nourishment is not an exact science, and you can always change your mind, change percentages, or change your brand, depending on your food philosophy and what works best for you and your dog.”
“We trust you already feel empowered and validated by the science, allowing your common sense to reinforce what you already intuitively sensed…Your own personal beliefs ultimately determine the importance of each of these topics; a lower score in one area may be perfectly acceptable to you, and that’s all that matters…There aren’t right or wrong answers; this is about the power of knowledge propelling you to make informed, smart decisions for you, your lifestyle and beliefs, and your dog’s needs.”
“There’s no right or wrong schedule, so do what works for you and your dog’s physiology and your schedule.”
Owner should find their “personal food philosophy” and “core food beliefs” and use these to guide their feeding choices.
The Health Pledge they propose we all take- “?I am responsible for my health and well-being and for that of the dogs in my care. I will become a knowledgeable advocate for myself and my dogs in all realms of life. I understand that life, healing, and health are always changing, requiring me to learn and evolve in order for me to become an effective advocate. I will not abdicate this responsibility to any person or doctor. The emotional and physical health of my dog rests in my hands.”
All of these quotes illustrate the concept I mentioned earlier, that decisions about health are ultimately all reflections of what we believe. It is not surprising that the authors selectively choose scientific “facts” that agree with their beliefs and ignore the rest, or twist and misinterpret and exaggerate scientific evidence freely if they give pride of place to personal belief and intuition. They certainly seem to hold firm opinions about how the world is, but at the same time they cling strongly to the incompatible idea that our beliefs somehow shape reality and to the Shakespearean dictum that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
This allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can present speculation or falsehoods as fact, reject facts regardless of the evidence, and still give their iconoclastic followers the freedom to do whatever “feels right” to them. It also allows them to present themselves as “experts” without any authentic expertise, because we are all experts if we read enough things that agree with what we already think!
It is an effective strategy for marketing ideas, but it has some disadvantages in terms of actually improving the health of our dogs. Reality exists, and it doesn’t much care what we think about it. If our intuitions or amateur understanding of complex scientific issues is wrong, our dogs may well suffer for it. As frustrating as it is to wait for reliable evidence before acting on promising new ideas, it has proven to yield much better results in the long run.
There is also another danger to the idea that we should all become “experts” and take full responsibility for the health of our pets. This view fosters the illusion that reality is always predictable and controllable, and that when things go wrong there is someone to blame. Owners often blame themselves when their pets fall ill, usually without good cause. This causes significant unnecessary suffering.
Owners may also be led into blaming someone else, whether the company that sold them dog food or the vet that gave their dog vaccinations or flea control products. The idea that chance or factors beyond our control cannot be responsible means we must always blame something or someone, regardless of how flimsy the evidence for their guilt may be. This leads not only to more unnecessary suffering for people (including many vets abused by distraught and angry clients), it also leads people to avoid healthcare interventions that actually do much more good than harm.
The illusion we may get of having control over reality and the frightening things than can happen to our pets when we take on complete responsibility for their health and buy into the belief that every negative outcome is preventable has a high price. Many comforting illusions do. Reality is more complex and unpredictable and less amenable to our desires than this book presents it to be. Fortunately, it is also less terrifying and “toxic” than they claim.