I’ve always been a strong proponent of feeding my dogs the healthiest diet possible. I love to listen to ‘old time’ breeders tell me about how their dogs were raised on healthy, home cooked diets – rare was the kennel that used commercial food. In the late nineties, as I researched pet food safety more closely, I became interested in the idea of feeding a ‘raw diet’ – raw meaning meats, some fruits and vegetables, and bones which had not been cooked or processed in any way. It seemed to make sense on a number of levels, and the researchers who were championing this new return to an old diet had strong statistical facts as to why this would increase the lives of our dogs, and reduce the number of illnesses they were facing on commercial diets.
I began – cautiously, at first – to introduce raw foods into the diets of my pregnant and lactating bitches. Nothing is more stressful for a dog than this stage – it taxes their nutritional stores at an alarming rate, and any diet which can help them to better utilize the nutrition in their food is a God send for breeders.
When my foundation bitch Tara was ready for her final litter, we were overjoyed to be able to breed her for a second time to Ch Sonlit Pelshire Mario. Not only was Mario a gorgeous dog, but this would be a repeat of the breeding which gave us Tessa. I began to feed Tara raw liver, hard boiled eggs in the shell, cottage cheese, yoghurt, chicken – a carefully planned combination of foods designed to give her the best chance to produce strong, healthy puppies. We were successful – Tara whelped three beautiful, healthy, red fawn pied boys.
Tara’s boys were thriving – vigorous eaters, lots of movement, great weight gains. Everything was going as well as any breeder could ever hope for in a litter. At seven days, we took some lovely pictures of each of the puppies, but our favorite was the little boy we called Tear Drop, due to a tear shaped fawn marking on his body. We didn’t know when we put this nickname on his birth charts how appropriate it would soon be.
Tear Drop one day before his death
Eight days after the pups were born, I made a quick trip to the store. When I returned, my bitch was distressed, and an inspection of the whelping box showed that Tear Drop was dead. We were utterly shocked. How could a puppy go from being vigorously healthy to dead, in a few short hours? We considered the idea that she might have suffocated him, but she was an experienced bitch who took the utmost of care around her litters, and we had serious doubts that this is what had happened. Our only possible way of solving this mystery seemed to be an autopsy.
Tear Drop was sent to the Ontario Veterinary College Laboratory in Guelph for examination. The initial results left us even more distressed – they said that Tear Drop had been infested with the Toxoplasmosis protozoan. Toxoplasmosis has a complex life cycle, with cats as its definitive host. It can also be carried by humans who have come into contact with infected felines. This finding was devastating for us, as it meant that whoever in our household was carrying it – we had no cats at the time, so they were ruled out as the source – could potentially infect every other breeding bitch in our house. This would literally mean the end of our breeding program. We immediately all were screened via blood test, and the findings were negative. Desperate for answers, we had Tear Drop shipped to the National Agricultural Laboratories in Alberta. There, he underwent thorough testing for other possible answers.
Their results differed from those at Guelph. Tear Drop had not been infected with Toxoplasmosis, but with Neospora Caninum. Neospora Caninum is a coccidian protozoa that causes abortion in dairy cattle, and closely resembles Toxoplasmosis. Tear Drop’s brain, heart and liver were all found to be infested with the protozoans. It was the infestation in his heart which ultimately killed him – myocarditis meant that his poor little heart was unable to beat properly due to the valves being filled with these virulent invaders. Neospora is a frightening and economically devastating parasite – the leading cause of abortion and early calf death in dairy herds, it has been estimated to cost the California dairy industry more than $35,000,000 per year due to failure to start lactation due to early abortion. Researchers at several institutions in the USA, including the US Department of Agriculture Dairy Research Facility and at the Protozoan research department at Cornell University all were notified of the finding by the Alberta laboratories, so that they could both share findings as the were uncovered, and help us to find answers. Dairy operations in the US are desperate to eradicate this most costly of parasitic invaders, and information to help them do this is vital.
While we now had an answer as to what had killed Tear Drop, we still needed to know how – how did he come to be infected with it? The chart below helps to explain it.
Neospora is passed by vertical transmission – from dam to fetus via the placenta. Therefore, we had to assume that Tara had somehow come into contact with the organism. Since we are not a rural kennel, contact with infected livestock was ruled out. We then began to consider the raw meat we had been feeding Tara during her pregnancy. I was primarily giving her fresh raw Provimi veal liver, obtained at an exorbitant cost from a gourmet butchery nearby our house. By coincidence, I still had two packets of this liver frozen in my freezer, which we duly shipped off to Alberta to be tested. Both packets were found to contain Neospora Caninum. The path of infection was explained – Tara ingested the protozoans from the fresh, unfrozen meat, and passed them via the placenta to Tear Drop while he was in utero. Why the other two puppies were not affected will never be clear, but is something we are eternally grateful for.
When I first posted these finding onto several raw food lists, I was immediately attacked by some raw diet supporters. They saw this information as threatening to their own feeding programs, and myself as questioning their integrity. Several leading Raw diet researchers, including Ian Billinghurst and Larry A. Bernstein, VMD wrote papers stating that the death had obviously occurred due to immune weaknesses in my bitch and her offspring. Protozoans are not limited to those with immuno suppressive conditions – even the healthiest of individuals may contract them.
Our findings do not illustrate a need to cease feeding raw food, but rather the need to approach feeding raw with care and diligent food preparation. At the time, I and many other raw food proponents were not fully aware of the need to either clean the meat with grapefruit seed extract or food grade hydrogen peroxide, or to first freeze and then thaw it. These simple measures would have killed the Neospora, preventing it from being passed from Tara to her puppy. In effect, it would have saved Tear Drop’s life.
We still feed our dogs a modified raw diet, but the lessons Tear Drop taught us through his short life have enabled us to do so with no risks to the health of our dogs. We urge anyone who feeds their dogs a raw dog food diet to ensure that they follow proper protocol when preparing their food.
Read more about Neospora Caninum here – http://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/infectious-parasitic/c_dg_neosporosis