Why Prioritize Antioxidants for Dogs

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Home > Blog > Antioxidant  |   Read Time: 10 minutes

As humans age, the skin thins, wrinkles and crow’s feet appear, and hair turns gray. What you might not realize is that very similar changes occur for our pets as they age. Ever noticed how older dogs have graying muzzles? Their muzzles turn gray for the same reason our hair turns gray.

Of course, aging is normal for both humans and their four-legged companions. But what exactly is normal aging? We’ve come to expect certain health problems and life spans for our dogs, but the reality is that we have more control than we think. Many of the problems that can reduce your dog’s lifespan and quality of life can be combated by making healthy choices for your dog. (Heard about the dog in Australia who lived to be 30?)

A huge factor here is FOOD. By feeding your dog real, whole foods — and using some supplements, too — you can make radical (and delicious) changes to help your dog live a longer and healthier life.

Let’s start with the root problem of many age-related health problems called oxidation: what it is, what it does, and how to fight it (hint: real, whole foods and supplementation might be involved…)

On the Agenda

What Is Oxidation

As a result of normal metabolic processes in the body (chemical reactions), free radicals get released as byproducts. Free radicals roam around the body, robbing electrons from stable molecules. This is called oxidation, and it leads to cell damage known as oxidative stress.

Video Credit: Healthspan.

As your dog ages, you might notice her slowing down and losing her youthful bounce. She might even develop a more serious condition like dementia or cancer. (This is true for humans, too).

There are no magic solutions, but we’ll see in a moment that there’s an easy way to fight the oxidative stress that causes so many age-related health problems. (yes, we’re still talking about whole foods and supplementation).

Causes of Excess Oxidation

Since free radicals result from normal metabolic processes, they are expected. Therefore, some amount of oxidation is also expected. However, excess oxidation can occur as a result of multiple factors including:

  • Inflammation (both acute and chronic)
  • Air Pollution (including cigarette smoke)
  • Environmental radiation (like UV rays)
  • Toxin exposure (including pesticides, cleaning products, phthalates from plastics, contaminants like radon in drinking water)
  • Infection
  • Trauma
  • Carcinogens in kibble (wait — what? Check this out)

Lily, a long-haired dachshund, at 8 months, 2 years, 7 years, and 15 years. Photographed by Amanda Jones.

It’s a long list, take a breath. With one or many of these additional factors in place, the body will likely experience excess oxidation — which means more cell damage and more health problems.

Let’s pause for a moment on inflammation. Many dogs are fed kibble. And kibble often contains a lot of carbohydrates, upwards of 40-50% in fact, to bind the kibble together– grains and starches also happen to be cheap.  Such a high percentage of carbohydrates actually isn’t species-appropriate for scavenger carnivores like your dog, and the excess carbohydrates can lead to inflammation (which then can lead to excess oxidation). A high-carbohydrate diet, then, is considered pro-inflammatory. This is just one more reason to make the switch to real food for dogs.

Too many carbohydrates → can lead to excess inflammation, which then can → lead to excess oxidation.

In addition, dogs often eat diets that are low to non-existent in antioxidants. We’ll go into a lot more detail about antioxidants in a moment, but essentially, antioxidants reduce oxidation.

So not only are many dogs eating a high-carbohydrate, pro-inflammatory diet that can lead to excess oxidation, but they are also getting very low amounts of the antioxidants that could fight that oxidation.

Remember, antioxidants reduce oxidation — which means less cell damage and a higher likelihood of a longer and healthier life.

Results of Oxidative Stress

There are numerous consequences of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress leads to DNA damage, which means damaged and mutated cells. Sometimes the immune system just can’t keep up with the cell damage. Unchecked replication of these damaged cells can lead to tumor formation and cancer.

Here are some important numbers about cancer formation:

These numbers are actually good news because they indicate that we can take preventative measures to keep that tail wagging for years to come (yep, this is more antioxidant foreshadow).

Another possible result of oxidative stress is a slew of autoimmune diseases. In the case of tumor formation and cancer, the immune system can’t keep up with cleaning up damaged cells — which leads to replication of mutated cells. In the case of autoimmune diseases, the process is somewhat opposite. The immune system excessively cleans up the damaged cells and actually overflows onto normal cells, causing additional damage.

Here’s another one: inflammation. Wait a minute — didn’t you say inflammation causes excess oxidation? It sure does. But it can also become a result of oxidative stress — particularly chronic inflammation. Any and all organs and tissues can be impacted by inflammation. Even Irritable Bowel Disease is related to chronic inflammation.

And the list goes on. Oxidative stress can also result in diabetes, stroke, respiratory issues, cognitive disorders, and premature aging. A lot of diseases are more connected to oxidative damage than you might realize.

How to Shift the Ratio of Pro-oxidant / Anti-oxidant

Photo Credit: @lyannatheaussie.

Okay, so it’s pretty clear that we want to reduce oxidation and oxidative stress. This is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants fight oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals — which means the free radicals don’t have the chance to steal electrons and the oxidation doesn’t occur. Ultimately, this means that the cell damage known as oxidative stress doesn’t occur either. Antioxidants are pretty incredible.

We want to shift the ratio of pro-oxidants and anti-oxidants to keep your pup doing his favorite things — like leaping for frisbees and expertly sniffing out chicken. So how do we get those prized antioxidants?

There are two sources of antioxidants (for dogs and their humans):

The first type of antioxidant is endogenous, which means it’s produced within the body. For example, Vitamin C is produced by your dog’s liver and Vitamin D is developed when the skin is exposed to UV light (hurray for sunny days at the park!).

The second type of antioxidant is exogenous, which means it’s from external sources — namely, diet. This second type of antioxidant becomes especially important as your dog ages, because your dog’s body produces fewer and fewer antioxidants over time. So as your dog gets older, it becomes more and more important to increase dietary antioxidants.

(However, we can’t stress enough that there’s no need to wait until dogs get older to supplement their diets with antioxidants. In fact, proactive care is ideal. Even young, healthy dogs benefit in a big way from an antioxidant supplement).

For scavenger carnivores like your dog, it is appropriate to supplement the diet with 15-25% nutrient-dense fruits, brightly colored vegetables, and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Let’s start with fruits and veggies. Fresh produce offers a myriad of health benefits, including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and of course antioxidants. Look for bright colors! Orange foods like carrots and sweet potatoes contain flavonoids and beta-carotene (antioxidant alert!). Blue foods like blueberries contain polyphenols (antioxidant alert!). Apples and citrus fruits contain quercetin (antioxidant alert!).

Here are some proven SUPERFOODS for your dog:

A list of superfood: spirulina, pumpkin, blueberries, cranberries, sweet potato, pomegranate, broccoli, spinach
A list of superfood: spirulina, pumpkin, blueberries, cranberries, sweet potato, pomegranate, broccoli, spinach

We’re talking omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Both are essential, because dogs cannot produce either on their own.

Now let’s talk healthy fat.

First, we’ll spotlight the EPA and DHA in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fats are made up of acids EPA, DHA, and ALA. (I won’t bore you with the long-hand of those acronyms.) Dogs need to eat foods that contain the active, ready-to-use forms of Omega 3s (EPA & DHA) because, as carnivores, they lack proper enzymes to convert the inactive form (ALA) as effectively– think greens, flax, and plant oils. When you’re feeding a species-appropriate diet, including fish, grass-fed meats and organs, krill and anchovies, you’re offering your pup a diet rich in ready-to-use forms of Omega 3 EPA & DHA.

Omega 3s are crucial for your tail-wagger because they not only help to reduce inflammation but they have antioxidant properties, too.

Meanwhile, omega-6s are vital for normal growth and development (especially for skin and hair) and metabolism. Just like Omega 3s though, the source matters. Dogs need an Omega 6 called GLA which is found borage oil and evening primrose oil– not exactly common ingredients in kibble.

Omega 6s are easy to get in a diet. They’re readily available and cheaper because they’re found in ingredients like corn, sunflower and safflower oil, which are commonly used in kibble production. Here’s the thing. Omega 6 is also a pro-inflammatory which is why the ratio of Omega 3:6 should be a priority in every dog’s diet.

It’s all about balance.

When omega-6 and omega-3 are properly balanced, you’re reducing your risk of disease. With too much omega 6, which again is pro-inflammatory, there becomes a higher risk of inflammatory diseases, arthritis stiffness, and a weaker immune system. That’s because inflammation, which is a defense mechanism, isn’t turned off. This means our immune cells continue to damage tissues and cells.(This is a bigger topic for another post!)

The optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 5:1, or better yet, a ratio of 1:1. But most kibble-fed dogs receive a ratio of 20:1 (omega-6:omega-3).

Ratio Shifts with Age

When dogs are young, they’re healthy and vibrant because their endogenous antioxidant production is at its highest. Feeding your dog real, whole food diets that include those superfood fruits and veggies simply adds more antioxidants in the fight against free radicals.

As dogs age and their body’s production slows, it makes sense that you’d continue to feed a species-appropriate diet, but then also supplement their diet to make up for that lost endogenous antioxidant production.

We’d suggest adding a daily antioxidant like Nutrients to the bowl, and then supercharging the bowl with krill to fight excess oxidation. Krill contains a super powerful antioxidant called astaxanthin as well as healthy Omega-3s, Phospholipids (which efficiently deliver the Omega-3s), and Choline (which is an essential nutrient that helps with memory, muscle function, and liver health). Three cheers for krill!

Pure Krill is a fantastic choice since it is a single ingredient — no preservatives or additives. It’s also responsibly sourced by a credible supplier committed to sustainability (which is always a priority).

Of course, there are always wild card factors in life. Genetics, disease, and trauma can still cause oxidative stress and health problems. But, we can use tools like antioxidant supplementation to nourish their health and help them thrive.

We can’t stop time or prevent aging altogether. We also can’t eliminate all of the pesky free radicals, since they are a natural byproduct of normal metabolic processes within the body. But we can take steps to reduce excess oxidation. Antioxidants are undoubtedly a powerful way to fight free radicals and oxidative damage and the best part is you can make that radical change just by adding them to the bowl. So, toss a blueberry to your dog, sprinkle krill into your kitty’s next meal. Today is as good as any to start!

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Dr. Chris Besent

Dr. Chris Besent

Chris Bessent, DVM, MSOM, Dipl. OM, L.Ac. has over thirty years of experience in veterinary medicine including certificates in veterinary acupuncture, veterinary chiropractic and veterinary Chinese herbology. Imbued with Eastern philosophy and the knowledge that food is the foundation of health, Dr. Bessent also received her degree in veterinary nutrition and began to formulate recipes fit for a carnivore from nothing but whole foods. Currently, she divides her time between the Simple Food Project and Herbsmith, both of which are owned and operated out of her facilities in southeastern Wisconsin.

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Hayley Zablotsky - Writer

Hayley Zablotsky - Writer

Hayley is a freelance writer based in Northern California. (Writing for Herbsmith is her favorite, but don't spread it around.) She enjoys riding horses, taking road trips, and eating grilled cheese sandwiches. Her foster dogs have mixed feelings about the spinach she keeps trying to sneak into their bowls.

Kayla Behling - Editor

Kayla Behling - Editor

Kayla is the Content Writer for Herbsmith. She has a cat named Professor Cat-Faced Meowmers, who goes by Kitty, and a goof of a dog, named Duck. She stays busy biking trails, losing at board games, and searching for the next best craft beer.

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