Innovative Animal Health Research Identifies Links Between Nutrition

“You are what you eat,” so the saying goes. And just as your diet affects your health, what your pets eat also influences their disease risk.

Morris Animal Foundation’s (MAF) founder, Dr. Mark Morris Sr., recognized the connection between health and nutrition in the early 1940s, long before diet and nutrition were everyday topics. In fact, he was one of the first veterinarians to use diet to control disease. His innovation led to nearly 100 Foundation-funded studies-so far-that have improved the dietary health and decreased disease risk for pets, horses and wildlife.

One of Dr. Morris’s first patients was Buddy, who was among the first guide dogs in the United States. Buddy suffered from kidney failure, and his owner, Morris Frank, then the national ambassador for the Seeing Eye, sought Dr. Morris’s advice. Dr. Morris created a special diet for Buddy that dramatically improved the dog’s health, and soon he and his wife, Louise, were canning the food in their kitchen. When they couldn’t keep up with escalating demand, they partnered with the Hill Packing Company to produce what later became the first Hill’s Prescription Diet.

Dr. Morris used the royalties from that diet to create MAF, and the first two studies MAF funded in 1950 looked at nutrition in cats and dogs. Since that time, hundreds of scientific animal research studies-funded by MAF and others-have proven what Dr. Morris suspected so long ago: nutrition and disease are inextricably linked.

“The role of health and nutrition has infiltrated the media-hardly a day goes by without a report on the latest research about how nutrition causes or prevents disease in people,” says Dr. Kathryn Michel, one of only 54 members of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. “As people become more educated about the importance of a good diet for themselves, they transfer that knowledge to their animals.”

Dr. Michel notes that insufficient nutrients in a pet’s diet can cause serious health conditions, such as orthopedic and neurological issues. She adds that veterinarians see cardiomyopathy in cats that is related to deficiency of the amino acid taurine as well as in dogs that don’t get the right amounts of essential amino acids. MAF has funded a number of studies that have looked at the role of amino acids in maintaining good health.

On the flip side, too much food can harm. Sadly, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of pets are overweight, and 25 percent are considered obese, according to the American Animal Hospital Association. Those extra pounds cause a host of additional health issues.

Dr. Joe Bartges, professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Tennessee and former chair of the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board, says obesity is directly or indirectly linked to respiratory problems, diabetes, osteoarthritis, ligament tears, hypertension, urinary stones, surgical and anesthetic risks, heat intolerance and even cancer.

Perhaps most important, extra weight shortens lives. Results of a 14-year study, published recently in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, showed that Labrador retrievers fed 25 percent less than their siblings lived about 15 percent longer, and the age at which they required medical treatment for osteoarthritis or another chronic condition was delayed by two to three years. This study showed, for the first time, that even a few extra pounds have detrimental health effects. The good news is that proper nutrition can combat disease.

A recent Purdue University study showed that Scottish terriers given vegetables, such as baby carrots, at least three times a week had a 70 percent lower chance of developing bladder cancer. An MAF-funded study earlier this decade showed that a high-protein diet could help cats with diabetes lose weight and reduce or eliminate their need for insulin. Other studies MAF has funded linked nutritional factors to diseases in many species or determined the optimal levels of certain nutrients.

For example, Dr. Bartges is currently using Foundation funding to evaluate whether a high-fiber diet supplemented with potassium citrate can prevent the development of a painful type of urinary stone whose frequency is on the rise. Another study at the University of Minnesota is looking at whether cats with increased concentrations of purine metabolites are more likely to develop urate stones. The information would help to develop more effective therapies.

“There is absolutely no question that health is directly affected by diet, but we still have a huge amount to learn,” Dr. Michel says.

That’s why MAF will keep funding research that gives veterinarians and pet owners the information they need to make good nutritional decisions for their pets-and helps wild animals lead longer, healthier lives.