by Laura Weis
What if there were a single way to help pets with such diverse chronic diseases as inflammatory bowel disease, allergic dermatitis, hypothyroidism, food sensitivities, leaky gut, periodontal disease and anxiety disorders, and even aid in cancer prevention and treatment? Pharmaceutical companies would be delighted to sell a pill that addressed such a wide range of problems. Instead of buying another medication, pet parents can reach for the same foods that are foundational in the human ancestral diet: fermented vegetables, dairy products, grains, fish and meat.
Fermented foods have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years, and originally the process was used as a means of preservation. There are two types of fermentation: alcohol fermentation and lactic acid fermentation, the latter yielding the products that can enrich the diets of pets and people.
During the fermentation process, carbohydrates are broken down into alcohol or lactic acid by bacteria, yeast and molds under anaerobic conditions. The food being fermented is slightly “pre-digested,” which means less work for pets’ digestive systems. This process mimics the partial digestion of the gastrointestinal (GI) contents of prey species consumed by wild canids and felids.
The Connection Between Fermented Foods and Health
Seventy percent of the immune system is based in the gut, and the bacteria in the GI microbiome comprise an integral part of that system. Immuno-modulation is the key to avoiding chronic diseases that represent hyper-reactivity (allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, leaky gut) at one end of the spectrum and impaired functioning (periodontal disease, Helicobacter overgrowth and cancer) at the other.
Environmental inputs in the form of antibiotics to treat diseases in our pets, antibiotics and hormones in the meat and fish we feed our pets, synthetic preservatives, pesticides and chemicals in foods, all disrupt the normal functioning of the GI microbiome. Combatting these inputs and normalizing beneficial bacterial populations is an ongoing process that can be aided by ingesting prebiotics and probiotics—not as a pill or supplement, but in the form of fermented foods. These foods contain a vastly more diverse population of bacteria, and in far greater numbers than those found in supplements. A single serving of lacto-fermented vegetables contains as many bacteria as found in an entire bottle of most supplements.
The process of fermentation not only results in trillions of beneficial bacteria, it also makes the nutrients in foods more bioavailable. Fermentation produces vitamins C, K2 and several B vitamins, and it creates several enzymes that aid in the digestion of fats and proteins. These super foods are also chelators and detoxifiers, helping to rid the body of a wide variety of toxins and heavy metals. It is in this realm that some of the most exciting research is finding mechanisms for the prevention and treatment of cancer.
Fermented foods help to detoxify ingested carcinogenic compounds, create a metabolically inhospitable environment for cancer cells and aid the immune system in destroying abnormal cells. Studies have identified compounds in kimchi, a spicy Korean traditional food, that break down the preservative sodium nitrate and help to eliminate organophosphate pesticides from the body. From the Netherlands is another study focusing on decreased risk of bladder cancer with the regular consumption of fermented dairy products.
The Best Fermented Foods for Pets
The resurgence of interest in fermented foods has created readily available choices in the refrigerated sections of most grocery stores. Many holistic pet stores have fermented products available in the freezer section. Dairy products such as kefir, yogurt and buttermilk, and vegetables such as sauerkraut, ginger, carrots, kimchi and beets are just a few of the options. Dairy products should be made from whole, unpasteurized milk when possible, and not contain sweeteners or thickening agents.
Make sure that vegetables are traditionally fermented, not preserved in vinegar; the label may say “raw”, “perishable” or “keep refrigerated”, and the only ingredients should be the vegetable, salt and possibly spices. Kombucha is a delicious fermented product for people, but with an alcohol content around twelve percent, it is not a good choice for pets. Fermented meats and fish should not contain sodium nitrates or nitrites as preservatives.
Introducing Fermented Foods
Fermented dairy products are usually well-accepted by pets, and a teaspoon or less mixed with a pet’s regular food every other day is enough to start. Gradually increase the amount to about two teaspoons daily for cats and small dogs, and up to a quarter cup for large dogs. Fermented vegetables have stronger flavors, and sometimes adding a small amount of the juice from the vegetables is the best introduction. Most pets become acclimated to these new foods and eventually accept healthy diet additions.
Numerous resources are available for more adventurous cooks that want to make their own fermented foods. A good starting place is with the videos and books of Sandor Katz, and with the website Ferment.Works. Some chopped vegetables, salt and water can be the simple beginnings of better health for pets.
Dr. Laura Weis and her husband, Dr. Ransome Weis, own and operate Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care, and Holiday House Pet Resort & Training Center, in Doylestown. She focuses on homeopathy and nutrition counseling for her clients within the full-service veterinary practice. Call 215-345-6000 to request an appointment. July 2019