The Food is the Dog: Nutrigenomics

The way dogs eat may radically change, thanks to the fusion of nutrition and genetics, two sciences that, until now, maintained a clear separation. Not long ago, this partnership would have been a good basis for a science fiction story.
  • genetics
  • medicine
  • nutrition
  • science
Dog & Kennel in December 2005

You just adopted a Labrador Retriever, and you learn he has a family history of arthritis. Instead of anxiously waiting for the condition to appear and using medications, you ask your vet for a special food that changes your Lab's genes so that he no longer has the potential to develop arthritis. It is as if the family history never happened. This new class of food is referred to as "nutrigenomics." It has the power of two hard sciences, but it reveals a philosophy about holistic health and the flow of living systems.

How Did This Develop?

Genes have the power to turn our bodies from well to ill, depending on their "expression." When a person, or a dog, develops arthritis, what is happening is that certain genes express themselves by sending out powerful but harmful instructions. The body's cells bear the direct brunt. Under the duress of the genes' inescapable instructions, a cell makes a decision to produce harmful enzymes and other chemicals. As millions of cells produce enormous amounts of these substances, it causes ligaments to weaken. You notice that your dog walks painfully and does not want to jump or play. While all of this is going on, your dog eats every day. Some fats and proteins in the food get to the genes, slightly improving their expression and offering some relief for the cells. Unfortunately, the normal dog diet does not contain enough helpful elements to change the course of the disease.

Although there is now a new term, nutrigenomics, the melding of nutrition and genes is a natural process that has been going on inside all creatures since the beginning of life. But, explains Dr. Steven Hannah, head of molecular nutrition at Nestlé Purina, it has always invisible to us. "Before, we never had the ability to measure it. Now we can look at biology on a comprehensive, holistic level." Dr. Jim Kaput is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and president of NutraGenomics, a Chicago-based biotechnology organization that is currently researching nutrigenomic foods for people. He also advises pet food companies. "There has been a reluctance in the nutritionist community to understand genetics," he explains, "and the geneticists thought nutrition was too complicated. So geneticists studied genes to the exclusion of everything else, and nutritionists studied diet to the exclusion of everything else."

Each science made progress in its own area. Geneticists figured out, for example, which genes cause arthritis in dogs; nutritionists figured out that foods must be able to help. But all along, the geneticists and nutritionists did not realize how much their potential success relies on knowledge the other one possesses. How can laboratory genetics be more relevant to the life of a dog? How can nutritionists recommend diets that make lasting changes? Rather than remaining apart, Dr. Kaput says, "We have this exciting new development. For the first time, we are evaluating the nutrients and at the same time evaluating the genes. We are getting people to stop using the Western thought of 'it's either my genes or my diet.' We are starting to think in Eastern philosophy, where it's the relationship between them."

Nutrigenomics not only unites nutrition and genetics, it is also a way for each science to review itself. Dr. Hannah says, "The old model was to look at one enzyme or one organ and say, 'OK, what can we do to change this?' Now, we can view every decision the cells are making, and then we let the cells tell us what we need to do. This is a paradigm shift." Dan Carey, DVM, a trained veterinarian who now works as a scientist at Iams, says, "We are working with the system. It's kind of like boxing versus judo—you can try to knock your opponent out, or you can take advantage of your opponent's own forces. It's very interesting philosophically, because as we learn that this way works better, we have to question everything we did before. Maybe it's not even working with the system. Maybe it's just how we should have done things all along."

This new vision has shown nutritionists and geneticists how to create foods with high amounts of helpful proteins and fats that convince the genes to stop expressing themselves harmfully, which means the cells do not produce harmful chemicals, which means the ligaments are no longer weakened, removing the signs of arthritis. Dr. Dru Forrester, scientific spokesperson for Hills Pet Nutrition, sums it up this way: "If your dog has arthritis, you can use anti-inflammatory drugs to control the pain. But nutrigenomic foods are not just treating the results of a disease, we are preventing the dog from having it." Even more, those healthier cells make better use of the nutrigenomic foods, improving general health. What matters to you is that your dog is not in pain, and happily runs and jumps and plays.

What Does Nutrigenomic Food Look Like?

This may sound like medicine. But nutrigenomic foods are vastly different. Even though medicines have potent chemicals, they do not change the basic mechanics of a disease. Instead, medicines intervene after a disease sets in and try to combat the results. By contrast, nutrigenomic foods are comprised of food ingredients your dog is already accustomed to. Dr. Hannah says, "We're not going beyond the nutritional world. We're not developing synthetic drugs. And we're not giving amounts outside the normal dietary range."

Opening a bag of nutrigenomic food, you would not see anything unusual. It just looks like food. Dr. Kelly Swanson is a professor of comparative nutrition at the University of Illinois. "It has the same ingredients," he explains, "but we alter the levels and the blends. We might use different sources of proteins or fats, since not all fats and proteins are the same." Mr. Carey says, "When you think about it, using natural food ingredients makes perfect sense. The biochemistry of today's dogs evolved to where it is by what they ate in the wild." Nutrigenomics embraces what has always been available naturally, but intensifies it using science to tightly determine exact concentrations and ratios. But in the end, Dr. Forrester explains, "All the work is done behind the scenes. On a day-to-day basis, the average pet owner won't notice anything different."

Right now, arthritis is the only condition that scientists can claim is treatable with nutrigenomic food. "This is just the beginning," Dr. Forrester says. "Arthritis is showing us that nutrients can really affect genes unique to dogs." Several of the large pet food companies are already working on nutrigenomic foods for other diseases. The culprit genes have been isolated, and scientists are testing to see exactly which nutrients bring positive health changes in the dog. It is a time-consuming process, requiring careful tests that are different for each disease.

Because nutrigenomic foods are designed to create a systemic change, it is important that they become the dog's diet. Dr. Forrester explains, "It is recommended that this is all the food the dog eats. But the dog can still have treats." People should also be aware that nutrigenomic foods act in a subtler, slower fashion. There will not be drastic, obvious changes in your dog's body, as with medicines. But over the life of your dog, eating nutrigenomic foods may make a bigger difference. Because it is still new, Dr. Forrester says that the nutrigenomic food for arthritis must be obtained through a veterinarian. "We want veterinarians to confirm that your dog has the body type and size so he'll benefit from this diet." Even more, Mr. Carey says, "We want to encourage people to work with veterinarians so they continue to get good general advice about their dog's health." Dr. Forrester also wants people to go through a veterinarian to prevent the rise of inferior imitations. "Everything in these foods is the result of detailed work. We don't want to see nutrigenomic foods being copied and sold in grocery stores, where there are fewer controls on the contents."

Dogs Get to Go First?

Usually, health breakthroughs are offered to people, then, perhaps, to dogs. This might get you wondering if you missed the nutrigenomics revolution. In fact, the science of human nutrigenomics is stalled in the theoretical stages. Why did dogs get to go first? The answer is simple, according to Dr. Hannah: "People cheat." For nutrigenomics to work, you must eat the specific foods that have been developed for you, and do it faithfully. "Animals try to cheat," Dr. Hannah continues, "but we can control that. We give them a very uniform food with everything they need in it. People could do this too, but we're not going to. I wouldn't eat kibble." Dr. Forrester concurs, adding, "It's easy for us to open a bag of pet food for our dogs. But with ourselves, there are just way too many options." Mr. Carey adds that, "With humans, we get into behavior patterns, the way we eat, and how we prepare it. But with dogs, we can change all of that overnight."

Dr. Kaput is primarily concerned with developing nutrigenomics for people, but even he admits that nutrigenomics will at least initially be more applicable to dogs. He thinks the success with dogs will loop back to support his work for people. "Dogs will show us the concept of nutrigenomics," he says, a living example of what happens when nutrition and genetics are combined in a healthy diet. If large populations of dogs are relieved of the pains of arthritis, it is certain to make people want it for ourselves. Dr. Kaput believes that in the process, "The nutrigenomics conversation will no longer be just be about disease. It will be about better health in general."

Where Are We Heading?

Dr. Swanson says that he and other researchers are "finding that diets will help specific breeds, but also groups of breeds that share characteristics." He predicts that dog breeds once thought to be very different from each other will be shown to have a lot more in common. As a result, nutrigenomic foods will reach much farther than just arthritis. Dr. Forrester says, "There is great potential for new foods that affect the genetics of heart disease, obesity, and forms of cancer." Further out, it is possible that nutrigenomic foods will be developed to improve behavior and cognitive function. Mr. Carey says, "As we continue to understand more about canine genetics, we will have even more definitive nutritional breakthroughs."

Before it can gain widespread acceptance, nutrigenomics must create a positive image of itself. Dr. Hannah laments people's negative reaction to hearing "genetics" and "food" in the same sentence. "We do focus groups, and when we bring up the subject of genetics, people act as if we are talking about cloning or radioactivity." Dr. Forrester responds to the public-relations issue this way: "It's kind of like drinking green tea to reduce your likelihood of breast cancer, or eating broccoli, just more of it. The sounds of the science can sometimes scare people. But I think the more people hear, the more it will allay their fears."