Pets can be wonderful companions, and the (often unconditional) love they provide can really lift your spirits when things are dark and difficult. Most people want to repay that joy by giving their pets the best training, toys, and food that they can, and for food in particular, the average pet owner is spoiled for choice. A popular pet food in the UK and Ireland is Burns, and make no mistake, it is legitimately popular, because it is a good and well-liked food. The person responsible for Burns Pet Food is John Burns BVMS Lic. Ac. MRCVS, a veterinary surgeon, and in addition to offering a range of foods, he and his team also offer nutritional and health care advice for your pets, and this is where I must sadly become less complimentary.
Burns Pet Food advertises itself as a holistic pet food, and offers advice on its website about holistic health care for your pets. The principles upon which this health advice is based are:
- Good health is the normal state.
- The body will tend towards a state of good health.
- Healing will take place if it is possible.
- Acute illness is a sign that the body is trying to heal itself.
- Chronic illness is the result of failure or suppression of the healing process.
These principles raise alarm bells immediately for their similarity to a number of alternative medicine principles – namely the “healing crisis” myth (common in many CAM therapies, but homoeopathy and chiropractic in particular), and the idea of “optimum health” (common in many CAM therapies). A brief look into Burns’ “Guide to Natural Health Care (PDF)” provides a history of his education, and it becomes clear where these ideas have sprung from:
[...] A few years later, having read some impressive reports about acupuncture I decided to become an acupuncturist. The two-year course on Traditional Oriental Medicine attempted to unite ancient principles of health to our Western way of life. During this time I came to realise that acupuncture suffered from the same important shortcoming as modern medicine – the illness itself was being treated but the treatment did not address the cause of the problem.
At the same time I became a Student of the Macrobiotic movement which was in great vogue in Britain in the seventies but which has now virtually disappeared from view (in the UK at least). Macrobiotics attempted to apply and adapt ancient, traditional philosophy in a way which was practical and appropriate to our modern lifestyle.
At first, the advice given in the guide – based mostly around the idea that a balanced diet is best – seems sound. It isn’t long, however, before we tread into the nebulous region of “toxins”, and their effect on the body. Though the guide does not detail the toxins in question, it assures us that a build-up of these toxins (often a result of poor diet) can cause all sorts of illnesses, from hepatitis to heart disease. I asked Burns what these toxins were, and received some notes on the production of toxins, and a brief definition:
1.) The waste products of normal metabolism but which are produced to excess, in the form of mucopolysaccharides, cholesterol and fatty acids., urea.
2.) Pollutant chemicals which are absorbed from the gut, lungs, even through the skin.
3.) Bacterial endotoxins
4.) Ammonia from bacteria and protein metabolism
5.) Products of cell damage (inflammation, infection, free radical production)
6.) The products of fat oxidation i.e. rancid dietary fat but also oxidation of body fat.
These are the sorts of toxins that are regularly mentioned when discussing detoxification and the associated idea of optimum wellness, and they certainly sound legitimate, but even a cursory examination of the claims is enough to begin to debunk them.
Cholesterol, urea, and other chemicals/compounds/particles/etc can build up in the body and cause problems, but this is often something associated with other, more severe medical problems, rather than the cause of them. High levels of urea in the blood can cause a number of problems, such as vomiting, weight loss, etc., but high levels of urea are most often a result of kidney failure – something which is not caused by dietary (or process waste) toxins. Pollutant chemicals have a hard time affecting our bodies, because they must first pass through a number of barriers. The skin is our first line of defence against disease and “pollutant chemicals”, providing an excellent barrier which keeps out a tremendous number of substances. It keeps out any and all particles that are larger than ~40nm in diameter (pretty small!). Indeed, the development of transdermal patch medications has been limited as a direct result of the fact that many molecules (medicinal or otherwise) are simply too large to pass through the skin (and even if they do, they are diffused within the first few layers, before the molecule reaches the bloodstream). The gut is regularly assailed with foreign material, pollutant chemicals, and indeed, food, but before anything reaches the intestines (and absorption), it passes through the stomach. The low pH of the hydrochloric acid effectively kills many common bacteria, and anyone who has ever had the unpleasant experience of having food poisoning can attest to the body’s ability to expel matter that it believes damaging. These systems are not infallible, but nor are they the paper-thin, sieve-like defences that many alternative medicine practitioners would have you believe. Dietary and stored body fat can be harmful to health, if there is a large amount of it, but it’s not “toxic”. Nor are the products of fatty acid oxidation, which is part of the process of using stored fatty acids for energy. As for the products of cell damage, protein metabolism, and other body functions, any waste material is processed by the body itself.
Just about the only really scary toxin on that list are the bacterial endotoxins – even very small amounts of them can cause severe illness in humans, and the majority of septic shock cases are caused by endotoxins. They are genuinely toxic, but so much so that no adjustment in diet will prevent them from affecting you (or your pet) . I strongly suspect that this particular entry made the list simply to add gravitas to the rest of the entries, because a pet food, no matter how good, will not prevent septic shock, and septic shock does not cause many of the “signs of elimination” discussed later in the guide (and this blog). The “toxins” listed above (even the bacterial endotoxins) do not build up in our body as a result of poor diet, and nor can they be controlled by diet. They are the waste products of normal bodily functions, or things that we encounter daily in our diet, but because of the functions of our liver, kidneys, digestive tract, skin, and other organs, we simply don’t experience toxin build-up unless there is some sort of more serious problem (e.g. kidney or liver failure, genetic disorders, etc.), and if a more serious problem exists, it’s unlikely that dietary change alone will fix it.
The guide, goes on to talk about the development of disease, stating that “as the build-up of toxins continues, the major organ systems will start to show signs of degeneration and failure. [...] One may encounter: Heart Disease, Kidney Disease, Diabetes, Tumour formation”. This is a perfect example of putting the cart before the horse – toxin build-up doesn’t cause kidney disease, kidney disease results in build-up of chemicals such as urea. We’re also told that arthritis and rheumatism are caused by muscle tension which is due to:
(1) the accumulation of waste metabolic products in the muscles.
(2) weakness of a major internal organ system. This is a viewpoint which will be familiar to students of acupuncture, but suffice to say that certain muscles relate to specific organs e.g. a weakness in stomach function affects the muscles on the front of the (hind) leg or the lumbar muscles at the level of the stomach.
This, as you might expect, is in sharp contrast to the stated causes of arthritis, as you might find them in a biology or medical textbook – damage to the joint from disease, wear and tear, or in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation in the joints causing swelling and destruction of cartilage. There is a disorder which does cause joint pain as a result of things building up in the joints, but that’s not arthritis, it’s haemochromatosis.
Throughout the guide, there are plenty of mentions of toxins, and their underlying role in all aspects of animal health. It seems that most conditions are merely “signs of elimination” – the body getting rid of all of these toxins (for example, the warmer weather draws toxins to the surface of the body, which is what causes dogs and cats to moult – a sign of elimination. This is how they expel toxic waste matter.). Ultimately, the main message seems to be that good food will solve a number of behavioural and health problems, and I’m certainly not averse to anyone feeding their pet good food, but I draw the line at questionable medical advice. Moulting (and it’s causes) might not be the most life-threatening or dangerous condition, but it’s not long before the guide reaches more serious conditions. Approximately half-way through the guide, I came across the following paragraphs, which so shocked me that I was rendered speechless:
Holistic Medicine views epileptic fits as a process by which excess energy is discharged. Generally, excess energy is discharged by increased mental and physical activity – hyperactivity or excessively boisterous behaviour. [...]
Holistic treatment of epilepsy is by feeding a diet which is hypo-allergenic, chemical-free, low in protein and fat, and high in complex carbohydrate (brown rice is best for this). It is essential that the quantity of food meets but does not exceed the dog’s energy requirement.
Epilepsy is because you feed your dog too much, and it has excess energy to get rid of.
I can’t think of a more irresponsible thing to say to a pet owner, or a more irresponsible behaviour to encourage. A dog developes epilepsy, the owner thinks the food is exceeding the dog’s requirements and feeds less, the dog continues to have periodic fits, the owner continues to reduce the food given to the dog. I enquired as to whether there was a study I could read which might support this connection between overfeeding and epilepsy, and received the following from John Burns (via another staff member):
There is no source for this; it is my simply me musing on the nature of holistic health based partly on my understanding of traditional medicine, especially Macrobiotics.
I thought that the comments on epilepsy were quite irresponsible, but a few pages on, and I’ve found something equally questionable:
Many pet owners who are interested in holistic medicine or who are concerned about using drugs and chemicals on their pets are reluctant to have their pets vaccinated. In theory if a pet has the correct diet and lifestyle it will be naturally resistant to disease and therefore need not be vaccinated.
However, theories do not always work in practice. My policy is that a puppy/kitten should be vaccinated by conventional methods in the usual way. Distemper, parvovirus and leptospirosis are too dangerous to be treated lightly and I do not have sufficient confidence in Homeopathic vaccination.
You don’t have sufficient confidence in Homeopathic vaccination? Why would anyone have any confidence in homeopathic vaccination, let alone someone who is medically trained?
The guide finishes with an overview of a holistic lifestyle, which includes many more typical alternative medicine ideas and phrases, including lots of mentions of “Western Medicine”, and the suggestion that our society is “fragmented and ill-at-ease”, because we have “replaced the problem of infectious disease with that of degenerative disease”. We are also treated to an overview of Macrobiotics and the Seven Levels of Judgement that it is concerned with. Both sections are too long to include here, so I suggest that you consult the guide to read them.
When it comes right down to it, pets are an easy target for alternative medicine. Adults who choose alternative medicine for themselves may have been taken in by the advertising and false mysticism associated with it, but they have made that choice for themselves. Adults who choose alternative medicine on behalf of those less able to decide (young children, pets, etc.) muddy the waters, as the recipient of the treatment must naturally assume that their primary care-givers mean only the best, and that the treatment will work as promised. In this scenario, pets bring an additional complication – they can’t tell you that it isn’t working, that they are sick or in pain, or that they would rather you medicated their epilepsy than starved them for it.
Since posting my blog, Burns have responded by pointing out that I’m obviously skeptical of alternative medicine. They also have let us know that they can’t share their miraculous healing stories with us for “legal reasons”…