Welcome back to the world of BLOG blog! March is now upon us, and the change in season approaches. If you are not a fan of spring cleaning, here are some more festive occasions to contemplate:
The ceremonial start of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is on the first Saturday of March (the 7th this year) in Anchorage. The race ends in Nome, some 938 miles and 8-20 days later (depending on weather conditions). It is said to commemorate the 1925 Serum Run. This was a dog sled relay that transported an emergency supply of diphtheria antitoxin from the train station in Nenana to the quarantined town of Nome, 674 miles away. Balto, the lead dog for the last leg of the journey, got the majority of the fame, including a movie and a statue in New York’s Central Park. Togo, the lead dog for the longest and most treacherous portion of the trek was not nearly as famous, but his body is on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.
The changing of the clocks known as the onset of Daylight Saving Time takes place on March 8, except in Arizona and Hawaii. The next day is National Napping Day, to offer the chance to catch that lost hour of sleep.
3-14 is traditionally Pi Day. This is the ideal day to salute a mathematical ratio via its round tasty homophone.
The Ides of March falls on a Sunday this year, so if you want to wait until the last possible moment to get your Omaha pet license, you will need to do it online.
On March 20, 2008, there was an Alien Abduction festival in Toronto. Since then, there has been an annual observance also known as Extraterrestrial Abduction Day. This is meant to acknowledge those claiming to have been abducted, not an excuse to kidnap interplanetary visitors and potentially hasten the inevitable invasion and enslavement of the human race.
It is also of note that Robert Wilhelm Eberhart von Bunsen was born on March 31, 1811. In addition to the famous chemistry lab burner, he was also instrumental in the discovery of an antidote for arsenic poisoning (which he personally needed a few years later), the development of chemical spectroscopy (with the help of Gustav Kirchhoff) and the invention of flash photography (aided by his research assistant Henry Enfield Roscoe). In honor of these and other achievements, there are a couple of scientific awards that bear his name, as well as a muppet.
No list of March celebrations would be complete without the mention of a certain holiday when Americans drink green beer to commemorate a saint who drove a particular group of pests out of a certain European country. This is, of course, St. Urho’s Day (March 16) and refers to the man who allegedly drove the grasshoppers out of Finland’s vineyards.
It takes a lot more than saying “Grasshopper, grasshopper go to Hell” loudly in Finnish to counteract such a plague. Over hundreds of millions of years, more than 10,000 species of grasshoppers have adapted to life on every continent except Antartica. Locusts are certain members of the short-horned grasshopper family that are particularly inclined to form swarms. Massive swarms of locusts have not been noted in the US since the early 1930s, but they still occur in other parts of the world (currently in East Africa).
One of the world’s most widely distributed food crops, for people and animals as well as hungry grasshoppers, is corn.
Modern corn (like the Broad Breasted White turkey and the Bulldog), is a construct of humans. It bears little resemblance to that found in the wild, and cannot survive without human intervention. It can, however, survive without bees because it is wind pollinated.
Corn (aka maize) originated in Mexico thousands of years ago as a grass called teosinte that would barely be considered edible. Over the years, it was bred for larger, more closely packed kernels. More recently, varieties have been developed for specific uses (such as flour corn, sweet corn and popcorn). The plant has also been the subject of significant genetic engineering. So far, the only superpowers bestowed upon corn are drought resistance, the ability to withstand the herbicide glyphosate (you know it as Roundup) and the ability to produce proteins that kill moth larvae, especially the European corn borer.
The US is the world’s largest producer of corn. The majority of it goes to feed livestock. Another large portion goes to ethanol production. Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol is the psychoactive ingredient in alcoholic beverages. It is also added to most gasoline sold in the US in the hopes of lowering emissions, preventing gas line freeze at low temperatures and lining the pockets of Archer Daniels Midland. There are potential issues with the widespread use of corn as a renewable energy source. These include such things as lower efficiency vs. gasoline, the environmental costs of production, economics (including government subsidies) and diverting land and water from food production. The use of gasohol is a matter of national concern and should be thoughtfully considered from a variety of perspectives in an appropriate forum. This blog, however, is obviously not the proper setting, so I shall move on.
Many people have preconceived notions of corn, for good or ill.
They may be diehard fans of the nu metal band or the NU football team. Perhaps they enjoy a fall outing in an amazing maize maze. Or maybe they enjoy eating such savory victuals as popcorn, candy corn, corn on the cob and corn-fed beef.
There are also darker connotations of corn. Ill-fitting shoes can cause painful and unsightly bumps on your feet. There are strange and powerful entities like Chicomecoatl, He Who Walks Behind the Rows and the Great Cornholio. In case those are not scary enough, it is also the source of the evil substance known as high fructose corn syrup.
Somewhere between these extremes lies the presence (or absence) of corn in pet food. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find unbiased, factual information on the subject.
The internet has a plethora of opinions regarding the best food for your pet. Of these, there is a subset that vehemently promotes the notion that grains, especially corn, are of no nutritional value and may be harmful to your pet. It is proclaimed that corn is highly allergenic and undigestible. However, the evidence to support these claims is mostly, if not completely, theoretical and anecdotal.
An alternate perspective is provided by veterinary nutritionists (check out the website for the American College of Veterinary nutritionists, acvn.org). They tend to opine that corn, when processed, does offer nutritional value and can be safely included in a complete and balanced diet. Whole corn kernels do indeed pass through the gastro-intestinal tract and appear to emerge intact, as evidenced by Mr. Hankey’s son, Cornwallis. The corn in pet food, however, has been ground and cooked. This means the carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber and vitamins it does contain can actually be absorbed.
Nutritionists also state that true food allergies are not a particularly common ailment, and the occurrence of such is most often attributed to the protein source. There are, in fact, many studies to this effect. However, these studies are almost exclusively funded by pet food manufacturers (aka Big Kibble).
Big Kibble does indeed have a vested interest in minimizing production costs and vast amounts of corn are easy to obtain. They also have (or at least should have) a vested interest in maintaining a sterling reputation for the quality of their products. You need to be able to trust that you are providing a high- quality complete and balanced diet for your beloved companion. You also need reassurance that any discrepancies will be addressed completely and rapidly.
There exists some advertising that plays on the romantic notion that your dog is a wolf, barely contained in the human world, longing to run free through the snowy forest. The imagery may be beautiful, but the reality is a bit different. First of all, in case you have not read it recently, Jack London’s 1903 novella The Call of the Wild is NOT a happy story. Buck is happily living on an estate before he is kidnapped. He changes hands many times and is beaten by men, attacked by other dogs, overworked and underfed almost to the point of death etc. etc. etc. While all the other dogs brought from afar to pull sleds die off due to the harsh conditions of the Northland, Buck persists. He eventually joins up with a wolf pack after his last (and only compassionate) owner is killed. The story implies that Buck then takes up killing humans, so you probably don’t want your dog to emulate him. In real life, according to the International Wolf Center (wolf.org) “Dogs and wolves in captivity have a better shot at making it to a ripe old age because they usually receive routine veterinary care and regular meals.” Wolves tend to die from starvation (pups, usually), injuries from other wolves (or the large mammals they tend to prey upon) and diseases like distemper and parvo. This is not a lifestyle the average house pet aspires to achieve.
While they are very closely related, there are some genetic differences between the subspecies of Canis lupus. The visible difference between a wolf and a pug, for instance, is quite striking. Less obvious is the fact that dogs have more copies of a particular gene related to the digestion of starch. This would seem to be an adaptation to living with, and being fed by humans for thousands of years.
At this point I need to mention that the corn-in-pet-food controversary seems to focus primarily on dogs. It is important to remember that cats are NOT small dogs. They are obligate carnivores and have different nutritional needs from omnivorous dogs. Ideally, they should be fed a high protein, high fat, low carb canned food.
The anti-corn sentiment seems to be a contributing factor to the grain-free dog food trend. If you are considering purchasing grain-free food for your canine companion, there are multiple factors to consider.
To date, there have not been any good (double-blind-placebo controlled) studies published that show a distinct nutritional advantage of grain-free dog food. Until that time, you may want to take recommendations for grain-free food with a grain of salt.
Keep in mind that grain-free is NOT the same as low carb. It is extremely difficult to physically make dry pet food without a significant source of starch. So the makers of grain-free food substitute potatoes, peas, sweet potatoes or lentils for the usual corn, wheat, rice or barley. These carbohydrate sources tend to cost more than grains, which will most likely be reflected in the product price. It can also be a bit misleading if you are thinking of a diet closer to that of the wolf. While wild canids are not known for eating corn, they also don’t have a reputation as potato poachers.
There have recently been reports of a possible link between grain-free dog foods and a condition called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). This is a disease that weakens the heart muscle and decreases its ability to pump blood. While some large breed dogs are predisposed to it, there has been a recent increase in cases reported in other breeds. The FDA is still investigating, and has released a list of 16 foods that have been associated with multiple cases of DCM. Be aware that correlation does not equal causation, and there could very well be other factors involved.
When it comes to choosing the right diet for your pet, it can be difficult to know who to trust. Everyone has an opinion; everyone has a bias. And many of them want to sell you pet food. It can be hard to trust studies that are funded by subsidiaries of Colgate-Palmolive, Mars (the candy company, not the planet or the Roman god of war) or Nestle. It is also daunting to consider the influence of a company like Monsanto (now a part of Bayer) has on the food supply. So talk to your vet. They may have a slight bias towards the pet foods on their shelves, but their larger consideration is your pet’s long-term health and happiness. We want them to come back year after year after year…
This concludes the March 2020 edition of BLOG blog. I hope you found it delightful and insightful and will return next month for another serving. Until then: March on, Bored Surfer
Dr. Debbie Appleby