Dr. Karen Becker (DVM), resident pet ‘expert’ on Dr. Joseph Mercola’s very popular alternative health site, commented in a blog post recently that it’s very difficult to find information about therapeutic fasting for pets. She’s right, of course. If you go looking for information on how to fast your dog or cat, you will likely find nothing at all. Dr. Becker apparently wanted to remedy that situation and seems on board with the concept, but unfortunately only revealed her own lack of understanding and created more confusion by making these inaccurate statements:
“Therapeutic fasting involves sufficient nutrient intake to maintain vital tissues, organs and muscle, along with liver enzyme co-factors to help with fat breakdown and the release of toxins. In contrast, starvation involves no nutrient intake and depletes all reserves in the body, at which point vital tissues begin to break down.”
Therapeutic fasting is called “therapeutic” because it is utilized in response to illness. This term is meant simply to differentiate between extended or long-term fasting and routine abstinence from food for one day per week as practiced by many raw feeders. In reality, therapeutic fasting involves NO nutrient intake. That’s why it’s called “fasting”. Any method of feeding that involves the ingestion of nutrients is categorically NOT therapeutic fasting or any other kind of fasting, it’s just a therapeutically modified way of feeding. Fasting is refraining from the intake of ALL nutrients except water. It is only under these conditions that the body is able to divert all its available energy to cleansing and healing.
Dr. Becker is also incorrect in her attempt to distinguish between fasting and starvation. The difference is not that one involves “nutrient intake” and the other doesn’t.
During a fast, the body subsists on stored nutrients
All bodies reserve fuel! It could not be the case that death would be the immediate consequence for any species in the wild temporarily unable to find food. If that were the reality, there would be no mammalian life left on this planet. Dogs particularly are set up for long periods of prey scarcity, since that’s the kind of environment they developed in. Wolves have been observed going months without a kill and there are many documented cases of lost or abandoned domestic dogs living months without food. Further, it cannot be refuted that a sick or injured dog cannot hunt and therefore cannot obtain food. To fast when sick or injured is as natural to them as breathing.
A fast may continue until bodily reserves are used up. In the case of most domestic dogs, that would take months, literally. At the point when stored reserves are used up and food is not partaken of, THEN starvation ensues. Fasting is extremely beneficial; starvation is damaging and potentially fatal if not corrected in time.
Fasting or therapeutic feeding?
All this is not to say that the kind of “fasting” Dr. Becker is referring to — more accurately described as therapeutic feeding — cannot be helpful. When long-term mis-feeding creates health problems in dogs, it constitutes removal of cause to feed very dilute foods closer to what is ideal for dogs (such as raw milk, vegetable or meat broth) for a 30 or 60 day period in order to give the body a leg up. Many dog owners do this thinking this is the best way to respond to disease, and it does very often have a successful outcome. It can be argued, however, that although this kind of treatment fits with civilized humanity’s misguided belief that good “doctoring” or “nursing” involves spooning bland liquids into the afflicted, it does no favor to them. In fact, such scant offerings only keep the stomach active and wanting more. This is particularly true of dogs, who, when left to their natural devices, tend to eat large quantities of food followed by no eating at all for several days. Feeding just enough to keep a dog hungry seems much more cruel than fasting. If the benefits of fasting are desired with as little discomfort as possible, it’s best to feed no food at all.
Fasting is power granted to us by nature
It’s impossible to overstate the empowerment that the knowledge of fasting can endow to dog owners if they will but put it to use. Fasting is the kindest, most compassionate, natural, painless, stress-free, cheapest, least invasive, most effective (by an incomparable measure) way to approach constructive sickness such as skin rashes or eruptions, ear inflammation, digestive issues (diarrhea or vomiting) and most others.
In the case of chronic or degenerative disease, fasting is always beneficial as well. However, if no serious or debilitating symptom is present, a dog will most likely be able to heal comfortably just by having the diet optimized, without fasting. If a dog has been habitually medicated over a long period of time, as many dogs are, the residues of these substances will be liberated back into the bloodstream during a fast and this can sometimes cause discomfort. For this reason, some dogs will be more comfortable continuing to eat proper foods while they heal. This makes detoxification more tolerable. So although fasting is almost always the best way to approach illness, there are some situations where it’s not really necessary. After a dog is healthy for a period of time but relapses into some acute symptom like flaky/itchy skin or ears, then fasting can be used comfortably.
Misplaced guilt and how to avoid it
The emotional toll of fasting a dog on the part of owners is always the primary factor in determining whether a fast can be administered, and how long it should go. This is potentially much more limiting than either the dog’s reserves or how long it would take for a symptom to resolve itself. Owners typically have a difficult time fasting their dogs. Anyone who has missed a meal and felt the growly stomach, irritability and weakness, projects these negative feelings onto their dogs when food is withheld. It is news to most people to realize that these feelings are not hunger, but the body attempting to heal itself from previous bad habits. That’s why they are usually felt most severely in the morning following a particularly indulgent evening meal. Anyone who has done an extended fast himself knows that since these feelings go away after the first couple days, they could not possibly be real hunger. Real hunger only ensues when reserves are decreased to a normal level and the body genuinely needs re-fueling.
In addition to gaining an understanding of what happens to the body physiologically during a fast, dog owners also need to do the serious work of changing how they talk to themselves. Appropriate emotional responses require rational thinking, and often our thoughts about our dogs are not rational, to say the least. In other words, people must learn to tell themselves things that will lend support, veracity and substance to their actions. In the case of fasting a dog, owners need to repeatedly remind themselves that fasting is KIND and compassionate, much easier and stress-free than a visit to the vet and unlike said visit, EFFECTIVE and FREE. You will find that if you do this, you will no longer be plagued by irrational guilt when fasting your dog.
Fasting is not dangerous
Despite all the fear and ignorance surrounding this topic, it should be realized that fasting is never dangerous unless a dog is already emaciated. And before you decide your skinny dog fits in this category, you should look at some photos on line of truly emaciated dogs so you can see how much reserve fuel even skinny dogs retain on their bodies.
It is hard to find truthful information about fasting dogs, but the good news is that fasting as it is applied to humans is almost entirely applicable to dogs. There are plenty of great books about fasting and likely even some good websites. The best two books I know of about fasting are by Dr. Herbert Shelton and Paul Bragg. The more understanding a dog owner has of this very powerful healing tool and the more s/he is willing to put it into practice, the healthier his/her dogs will be.
Can cats be fasted?
There is a great deal of fear surrounding fasting cats as well. The difference is that an indeterminable percentage of it may be justified. Cats are so ill-suited to the consumption of fat that even the fat that is self-digested from their bodies during a fast can overburden the liver. This would likely be a problem only in obese cats with compromised livers, but since we don’t know for sure, we must proceed conservatively. A cat with a chronic disease has obviously been mis-fed. So all that needs doing in a situation like that is to correct the dietary mistakes and wait for healing to occur.
Kittens should not be fasted before weaning but acute or constructive symptoms that afflict older kittens weaned onto commercial pet food tend to clear up quickly with fasting, and there is no risk since kittens are not typically overweight. Cats are often inadvertently rewarded for vocalizing or doing other behaviors that signal to the owners that they want food. Sometimes they do this out of boredom, particularly if they are indoor cats, so it should not be assumed that it’s indicative of real hunger. Nevertheless it can be problematic enough to make the owners legitimately want to avoid fasting their cats.
What We Can Learn from the REAL Experts
Unfortunately, I’m not aware of a single conventionally educated animal health practitioner who isn’t entirely clueless about fasting. The system that trains people to do this work seems completely owned and controlled by profiteers who have no interest in keeping dogs well. So we have to look to those pioneers of the past who had more freedom to think critically within their fields and express their findings and results openly. Dr. Herbert Shelton was one such ground breaker, a human health practitioner whose understanding of the power of the body to heal itself is unparalleled in modern history. Following is a quote from Dr. Shelton about fasting animals:
“Biologists, physiologists and research workers of all kinds are very fond of animal experimentation. But all of these workers are in the habit of ignoring important parts of the regular activities of animals. For example, they ignore, never mention, in fact, the numerous instances of dogs and other animals having fasted ten, twenty or more days when they, have received internal injuries or a broken bone. That a sick animal refuses food is well known to all laymen, but physiologists and biologists seem to think that this fact is unworthy, even, of mentioning. Can we not learn from observing the normal and regular activities of animals living normal lives–must we assume that animals are capable of teaching us something only when under artificial conditions, and subjected to processes that they never encounter in the normal course of their existence?”
And this, from Dr. Donald Ogden, who understood fasting and fasted many animals in his veterinary practice in the 1940s and 1950s:
“Every practitioner who will give this meritorious function due concern will realize that ten to thirty days’ abstinence from all food except water is nothing monstrous. I have fasted dogs and cats for periods of time ranging from one to fifty days, depending upon the pathology with excellent results and amazing recoveries being effected”.
I have personally fasted for 18 days so I know firsthand how beneficial and powerful it is. Just after my long fast, I sat down and made a video about proper feeding and fasting for dogs and cats with the founder of the fasting clinic. If you are wanting more information about fasting pets and haven’t watched it yet, it may be helpful.