Dairy — even in the realm of the “extra” — is one of the least straightforward subjects there is when it comes to feeding pets. Should you feed dairy to your kitchen wolf or feline friend at all? At least that one is relative easy: If your dog or cat really goes nuts for dairy products and it doesn’t seem to cause upset in any way, sure, small amounts are fine. Go right ahead and feed cheese bits for treats and let them have those last sips of milk and yogurt out of your breakfast bowl. Those dishes aren’t going to lick themselves clean, after all!
Often pet owners — raw feeders especially — wonder about the possible nutritional benefits of dairy products, and including dairy as a relatively significant inclusion in the regular diet; More than an “extra”. Many pet owners look to yogurt for it’s probiotic content as a way to supplement or bolster the all-important population of naturally existing gut flora. To analyze this we need to go back to that “prey model” and think about whether or not it makes sense from a physiological standpoint, and, of course consider the common sources of dairy products, specifically commercially available yogurt.
ONCE UPON A TIME…
Dogs, cats, and all other mammals besides some humans become naturally “lactose intolerant” after weaning. It’s all part of the process of separating from the mother and becoming a viable adult. The advent of some humans carrying on the ability to digest milk properly into adulthood is a fairly recent innovation in the grand scheme of things, and one of adaptation. Lactase persistence* in humans has been linked to a gene mutations found in people that are descended from the inhabitants of certain historical geographical regions for whom dairy consumption was an advantage in the ongoing human quest to keep ourselves fed. Human cultures for which dairy was not advantageous (which is to say most of them) had no need to digest lactose beyond infancy and so they simply don’t. More accurately, they can’t. Oddly enough we focus on the very normal inability to process lactose as an adult with the term “lactose intolerance”, which is viewed as a problem — even a disease!
A LOOK INSIDE…
After the weaning process is complete and an animal has ceases to produce lactase (the enzyme that breaks down the milk protein lactose) they can still eat dairy products, but what happens upon consuming dairy products is this: As with anything that enters the digestive system, a complex process involving chemical and physical changes starts to take place. Without the presence of lactase, the lactose in the dairy can’t be broken down into properly digestible elements. This milk sugar is a great source of ‘food’ for natural gut flora, though, and they get to work on the lactose in a process we call fermentation. The metabolites of these microorganisms cause gassy build-up, and affect the way other things are digested. The body expels these by-products in an episode of none-too-pleasant emissions of the sort we’re all familiar with — does your dog get room-clearing farts from milk? Eventually the body has to get rid of everything, and in the usual way of a healthy body, unwanted matter is expelled quickly and efficiently in the form of diarrhea.
In individuals who do seem to tolerate dairy just fine, it’s a matter of the amount fed not being enough to overcome the balance of activity in the gut, and/or a phenomenon of the “iron stomach” one hears about — some individuals are just able to handle more than others, period. Dairy in small amounts may not result in this appreciable unpleasantness, but it is still a misnomer to say that a dog or cat who can handle amount of dairy without catastrophic results can properly “digest” it.
SERVING IT RAW…
There are some exceptions to the general rule of not giving dogs dairy. “Raw” dairy products have not been pasteurized, homogenized, or otherwise treated. There are laws and regulations regarding selling and even giving away raw dairy products in many places and the practice of consuming raw dairy products is actually quite controversial. They aren’t something you’re going to find at your local grocery store. Proponents of raw milk consumption for both people and pets report that raw milk does not have the same effect as pasteurized dairy, and even those beings for whom pasteurized milk is a problem can consume raw milk without incident. This is thought to be due to its unaltered form, which is still rich in ‘good’ bacteria and enzymes. For those of you who like studies, this one being performed by the Stanford School of Medicine might be one to keep an eye on. As of February 2016 results were still pending: Milk Study.
A LITTLE HELP HERE?
Yogurt is a dairy product that most likely originated in India or the Middle East thousands of years ago. It has been a staple of those cultures since, being introduced to Westerners relatively late — only in the last several hundred years [source-1] [source-2]. Yogurt is the product of milk being acted on by certain bacterial cultures. A lot of the lactose in the milk is converted to more gut-friendly compounds during the fermentation process thereby freeing up nutrients in general and making it much easier on the guts of those who can’t digest lactose. Natural unprocessed yogurt is also said to maintain active cultures (commonly referred to as probiotics), which can be of benefit when eaten.
Yogurt is not the only cultured/fermented milk product by far. I think it’s safe to say that every culture that has domesticated dairy animals has a version of a fermented dairy product, which is all based on what species of bacteria and yeast thrive in an area given the climate, soil composition, and other factors [reference]. One that is just now getting its spot in the ‘superfood’ spotlight in North America is called kefir. As with yogurt, kefir is made by active cultures of bacteria, including those that use the lactose in the milk, and a few species of yeast, too. Due to the differences in the types of microorganims that go to work on milk to make kefir, the final product has a different nutrient profile than yogurt.
ALWAYS LOOKIN’ TO THAT PREY MODEL…
Whether it’s pasteurized or raw milk; yogurt, kefir, amasi, or viili, dairy by any name or fermentation process can be examined from the “prey-model” angle. Just because milk comes from a mammal, it would still not be commonplace for a wild canid to come across milk in any significant volume. From a ‘prey-model’ approach, dairy is either out, or one of those “sometimes” treat things. If you don’t subscribe to the prey model approach, one has to consider the overall nutrient profile, especially if feeding dairy to the exclusion of meat. Even if fermented products have had protein and other nutrients “freed up” through fermentation it is not an analog for for the meat portion of the diet (or any other part). Of course our “prey model” does not include substances used therapeutically or medicinally. Dairy’s a tough one when it comes to that, as to confer much benefit you might be feeding a relatively high amount as food.
FARM IT OUT?
Another big issue to consider when deciding if milk and/or milk products could make a valuable inclusion in your dog or cat’s diet — either regular or used supplementally or medicinally — is the source of the product you are making or purchasing. One can easily make cultured dairy products at home. Without a doubt this is the only way to guarantee that the cultures are viable at the time of consumption and the overall product is without additives and of good quality. (Good external article on this here.) Commercially available yogurt and kefir are a different ball of wax. As with processed foods of all sorts, big-name yogurt and kefir are made in large batches destined for long trips to retailers. There’s a need for lengthy shelf-life, and short cuts are taken to create a product that meets these needs. End products are usually pasteurized, with ‘probiotics’ being added back in after! (This would be like taking fresh garden produce, leaching out all the vitamins, and then serving it up with a vitamin pill!) Additives for general palatability are used, which affects quality and vitality. A lot of commercially made products contain large amounts of sugar, texture stabilizers, and artificial and ‘natural’ flavor and color additives, which are questionable for any species!
Dairy is really kind of an “in-between” food, and I, personally, tend to be on the fence when it comes to the idea both on paper and in practice. A few things are sure: If it sits in the gut for a only a bit, then is hastily ejected without proper transit time thru the intestinal tract, it can’t make its contribution. If a nutrient or beneficial element was killed or was never there in the first place, it can not be a helpful part of the final product. Each individual must be assessed and fed accordingly. I think that fermented foods can be an analog for a missing link in the modern diet — that of both people and pet diets — and something like raw and/or fermented dairy does make a lot of sense given its nutrient profile and the fact that it is an animal product versus a plant product. You won’t catch me emphasizing this very often, but the fact of the matter is that dogs are NOT wolves or wild canids, and they can benefit from human innovations in diet when it’s within reason. I think fermented dairy is just one of those innovations that could serve to make our pets healthier and happier when fed in moderation.
With knowledge on your side, perhaps the decision regarding dairy products for your animal companions becomes that much easier. At the end of the day, it’s your pet who will “tell” you whether or not dairy is for them, and in what amounts.
*For more on the phenomenon of lactase persistence you can start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactase_persistence
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