Why does our dog have bad breath? Why do so many pets have digestive issues and even cancer? What’s going on? Billy Hoekman, the Nutrition Science Director for Answers Pet Food, discusses the role that diet plays in pet health. Just as with people, animals could benefit from a dietary overhaul that leads back to what suits their constitution best.
Billy goes over the ingredients in most pet food, and explains how pet food labels don’t tell the entire story. He covers why a raw diet is preferable over kibble. And he gives concrete tips for how to transition pets to a more suitable diet to cultivate good health and avoid disease.
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What do raw milk kombucha and fermented fish stock have in common? Not only are these foods great for us but they’re excellent for nourishing our pets as well. This is episode 290 and our guest is Billy Hoekman, the Nutrition Science Director for Answers Pet Food. He is involved in the formulation and research of pet nutrition. He specializes in developing diets that pertain to specific disease conditions. He is a proud member of the Weston A Price Foundation and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Emily and their dog, Lua.
Billy speaks to us about the benefits of feeding our pets and ancestral diet. He talks about why our pets are so sick these days with issues ranging from bad breath to cancer. He discusses the differences he’s seen between dogs that are fed kibble and those that are on a rawer, natural diet. He gives concrete tips for how to transition our pets to a diet better suited for their constitution and health.
Before we get into the conversation, I want to know, are you enjoying this show? Let the world know. Rate and review the show on Apple Podcast. Positive reviews take a few seconds to leave and they let folks know that the show is worth to listen. Thank you so much. Check out the events page of our website for small regional gatherings that the Weston A. Price Foundation is putting together. Go to WestonAPrice.org and click on the Events tab for details on upcoming gatherings on the East Coast and in Colorado.
Welcome to the show, Billy.
Thank you for having me.
Every day, I go to the dog park in the morning, catch the sunrise and when I’m there with other dog owners, they tell me crazy stories about how their dog needed this surgery, how they need to brush their dog’s teeth and this one has allergies. I’m like, “What’s happening? Is this my imagination? Are our pets suffering these days?”
They are suffering and they’re suffering for the same reasons that we are suffering, which is a modern food system that isn’t giving us the correct nutrients. The average dog is eating most of their diet as grains or very high in grain-like substances like lagoons. Foods that are not only not species-appropriate but they’re the worst, most industrial versions of those foods. They’re getting vegetable oils and canola oil. We can imagine it because a lot of people do before they switched to the Weston A. Price diet. You can imagine how poorly you feel. The funny thing is we work with veterinarians all across the country who have jumped on board with a raw food diet.
The funny thing is you have health professionals all across the country and the human medical world that recognizes and see the difference in humans when they switched to a less processed diet. For some reason, at least in food production, is money. The reason in the vet world is lack of education. For those reasons, people don’t accept that. My friend, Karen Becker, once said that vets are the only health professionals in the world who encourage their clients to eat less fresh food.
What do you mean by that? How so?
A lot of vets are coming around to feeding more species-appropriate diets but most vets would only recommend that an animal gets kibble or canned food. That’s it. Can you imagine living on food as processed as kibble? A good example of that is when most kibbles are made, they’re full of things called chicken meal or something. A lot of people think like, “That’s meat with the moisture removed.” That’s meat that’s cooked so much that it becomes a powder.
Imagine the high-temperature processing of those ingredients and putting that into a dough and processing them again at extremely high temperatures. By the end of the product, you have so little nutrition that you have to spray it with synthetic vitamins which don’t work or even can aggravate the things like kidneys and elimination organs. Imagine only eating that. Taking everything I said in the beginning, all of those foods you don’t want to eat, eating them at their most highly processed stage. That’s all you get for the rest of your life.
I can’t imagine but I find it confusing, Billy. When I go to the pet store, I see labels that say all-natural and grain-free. I’m like, “That’s what I want for my dog,” but I’m not necessarily getting what I think I’m getting for her. Is that right?
All of the claims that they make there are all regulatory claims. When we make our foods, we can only put certain things on the ingredient label. We can only put certain things on the packaging. A good example of that is we know that getting a diverse microbiome is the best possible thing for both dogs, cats and humans. They only allow it in terms of a certain amount of bacteria in pet food. All of those terms are written by industry specifically that make their own laws to deceive you.
I saw in some of your products you do grass-fed and grass-finished beef but on the label, you can only put beef because of regulations or industry-standard or something.
There are many people using such poor quality “beef” that they don’t want people to be able to make that change. Anyone can attend these regulatory meetings. They cost $500. Most people don’t want to pay to do that. 1 of 500 people will attend these regulatory meetings. When people say to me it’s a conspiracy theory that this is all happening, I say, “No because I see it with my own eyes.” If you’re a huge company, you don’t want to spend more money. If people can start putting grass-fed beef on the label, more people are going to want that and then your costs are going to go up. We can put that in other parts of the packaging.
Here’s another interesting one. We use Redmond Real Salt in our food. We do that because we use that Azomite and Redmond Clay because we want to help remineralize what you lose from the soil. Even when you’re farming, getting your organic vegetables that are fermented in the food and these animals, the soils are becoming depleted. We can’t even put sea salt on the label. We can only put the word salt. What does that tell you about the quality of salt? It doesn’t tell you anything.
We get the question all the time. My final example for that will be 1 of 2 things that we use are we put fermented cod liver. Not even the oil, just the livers themselves and raw butter in our food as well. We would love to put grass-fed raw butter but we can only put the word butter. You know as well as I do that most people will read that and go, “Isn’t butter unhealthy?” It’s all at an educational process but we’re in the business of education. We put the best stuff in, we explain things like this and other venues why we have to write them the way we do.
My daughter lived in Argentina for a time and she said they would feed their pets the table scrap leftovers. Is there anything wrong with that? Why don’t we do that nowadays?
That’s how our relationship started with dogs. They fought wolves, followed us into our camps, wanted food and we would feed them scraps. They are following us around, eating our garbage and that stuff. The funny thing about that is the average life span of dogs is going down and you’re talking about processed pet food like I’m describing. It only being around for 100 years or whatever it is. Before that, that’s exactly what people were doing.
I would argue that a lot of dogs were living longer based on that because they were eating things made of pork chop and they have an extra one. That’s much healthier than kibble or something like that. There is something to say about balancing a diet over time but I would argue again that dogs are a lot like humans. You balance your diet over time and you try to eat as many nutrient-dense foods as possible. I would highly encourage any Weston A. Price audience who eats that diet-style to share all of your healthy food with your dog or cat.
That does seem more natural than buying this package thing. Sometimes the package will say, “This is a balanced and complete meal.” We might be fearful that if we gave them what we were eating, it wouldn’t have everything that they need.
That’s one thing if you’re in that mindset and I’m in that mindset. I make my dog’s food insanely complete every day because that’s how my brain works and that’s my passion. If you’re in that case, there are a lot of companies like ours that make a fermented raw diet. We’re the only one that makes a fermented raw diet but you can do that and then share your food. My favorite example of that is one of my dog’s favorite food. She’s a pug, so food is her one and only and my wife before me, which is a sad tragedy.
I always think it’s funny when I get the Weston A. Price Journal because most of the farms are an advertiser in Pennsylvania and we feel lucky to live here. One of the things that Emily loves to eat as a dessert is blueberries with raw cream. As soon as she gets that out, Lua is a foot away from her face and that’s one of Lua’s favorite foods. It’s such a healthy thing to give her. Why would we want to deprive her of them?
It makes me think about how sad I am that what’s considered normal now or because it’s common. It isn’t best for the pets that we would feed them stuff that’s not raw and real and we would tolerate the expensive vet bills, all those surgeries and stuff because we think that’s how it’s supposed to be with these animals.
That’s how people think it’s supposed to be with them as well. I’m guessing a lot of people have been called weird by their family members because of the idea that they’re eating healthier. It’s a paradigm thing. Everyone was raised with the idea that dogs should eat dog food. Remember, just because something has been done a certain way is not a good reason to keep doing it. We have to look at the science behind why that works and how it works. Here’s an interesting study that was done in Helsinki. They took dogs and they were searching for a certain amino acid blood marker. It’s going to escape me which one it was but this blood marker is a marker for a lot of chronic diseases like heart disease.
They took dogs who were fed raw diets and put them on kibble for three months. They took dogs that were fed kibble and put them on raw diets for three months. For the dogs that were fed kibble and put on raw for three months, their disease markers went down by 83% in that short time. The animals that were fed raw their whole lives and then went to kibble for three months, their disease markers went up by either 200% or 300%. You have more empirical proof of what we already innately know which is less processed species-appropriate foods are healthier.
You keep using the word raw. Do you literally mean uncooked? Why raw?
I know for myself, steak tartare is one of my favorite foods. I eat a lot of raw egg yolks and things like that. We know that when we cook things especially when we highly processed things, the nutrient value decreases and it depends on the nutrient. For instance, if you pasteurize milk, protein is going to decrease by 80%. You can take that across all nutrient profiles. A lot of people are concerned with taurine in dog food which is an amino acid. That is good for an animal’s heart. That’s reduced mostly when meat is cooked. We’re trying to give them the most bio-available, the most nutrients and that comes in the form of raw animal foods which we know are the most nutrient-dense healthy foods on the planet.
Before animals were domesticated, they weren’t cooking their meat. They weren’t starting a little fire and roasting their steak over the fire. They were eating raw.
They certainly weren’t going out to a cornfield, harvesting the corn and doing it that way. In our case, we’re using fermentation to make the product safer. We’ve proven through data. We did 77 samples for sixteen-week safety validation that showed that not only do our products, be it anything, that’s fermented. Not only are they safe when you thaw them out but during the shelf life of the product. For instance, for fermented raw dairy is 30 days. For our food is seven days in the fridge. Not only are they safe when you open them, but they’re statistically safer and healthier as they sit in your refrigerator and ferment over time.
That’s how real food works. The diet you’re talking about has a lot in common with what we recommend as the Weston A. Price Foundation market. I see that you include a lot of animal fats organ meats and fermented foods. I remember one time I was at a park and the sign said, “Don’t feed the dogs bread.” When did the fact that the dogs have been getting sick? What’s funny is maybe the same bread that was doing the dog’s harm was doing us harm and we didn’t realize it. In other words, they noticed that their table food wasn’t sitting well with their pet. That’s where that whole thing started about not giving your dog table scraps.
There are a few things with that. A lot of veterinarians disseminated that information because they might’ve been dealing with most people freak out if their animal has diarrhea or they assume they’re doing something wrong, which isn’t true. We see animals detox when they switched to our diets all the time because the body has to get rid of all that stuff. I also think that when you’re dealing with a diet that has supposedly everything your animal needs then in regards to that, it puts that into a box.
We think this is a complete nutritious meal that everything my dog needs so I shouldn’t give them anything else.
The problem with that is you’re putting all your eggs into one basket. How do you know if that company has everything your dog or cat needs? I don’t think that they know that answer. There are AAFCO profiles and NRC profiles. These are minimum nutrient requirements but also, those don’t include thousands of nutrients. That is why we advocate for not only sharing your own healthy food. I wrote an article once about sharing your food with dogs. I said in the section where this is what you should do. I said, “Make sure you share food with your dog. If you’re finding it hard to find items that are healthy enough, it’s time to look at your own diet.” That plays into it as well. That’s why we incorporate things that are very familiar to your audiences like fermented raw dairy, fermented bone broths or raw cheese. These are all things that provide the basis of nutrition that you need especially when it comes to reproductive foods. I’m a big fan of foods that either make a baby or sustain a baby completely. In most cases, that is eggs and milk.
I noticed when I looked on your site that you also have a lot of animal fats and organ meats. You’re right, we have so much in common. What’s interesting to me, Billy is that I sometimes think we feed our animals better than we feed ourselves. What do you think about that?
That’s true. I’m in a specific niche community of people who get into the intellectual idea of how to feed animals, complete diets and things like that. I hear that a lot that my animal eats better than I do. I know in my own personal life, it started for me with Lua who’s my dog and feeding her the best that I possibly could. That extended to my diet, which led me to Western A. Price over time. It’s a great way to honor your dog to say, “I’m going to make myself healthier as well.”
Tell us more about that time. You were giving Lua the best, and when did you realize, “I’m not doing this well myself?”
I started getting into it and you initially buy into the narrative of low fat and if not all plant foods, I went through a small time of being a vegetarian. Once I started getting into doing this for a living and looking at nutrition profiles, I always tell people, “The key to nutrition is not looking at a specific diet type and documentary, it’s looking at how vitamins work.” For me, when I looked at how vitamins work especially fat-soluble vitamins and not precursors like plant versions that are made into the versions that work in our bodies, it was case closed for me. I have a diet that mirrors Lua’s diet. I joke with my wife that I eat the most Weston A. Price side of any person on Earth.
My daughter works at a Farmer’s Market selling meat, and she said there will be vegetarians who will come and get meat from their stand for their pets but they are not eating it. Isn’t that interesting?
That’s better because you wouldn’t want them to feed dogs who are different than us. We’re closer obviously to dogs than we are to herbivores and things like that. Even if you’re a vegetarian, vegan or something like that, you would never want to feed your dog a vegan diet. We developed something that we called Protective Diet. We have whole organic pasture-raised duck eggs and we do a 50/50 split of raw fermented cow’s milk Kefir from Jersey Cows and whole organic pasture-raised duck eggs. We smoothed them together in a blender and that’s a meatless, complete diet for dogs.
Is that to cater to the vegetarian market who wants their pet to eat the same as them?
One of the other things we use, which has been one of the most incredible journeys for us and we’ve been doing this for many years, is a variation of something we do that humans do call the milk diet, which you may have covered on here before. The milk diet is at least 30 days of raw milk and water. We do this with dogs all the time. Dogs with chronic health issues, pancreatitis issues, kidney disease and high liver enzymes. The milk diet is by far the diet that we see the most health turnarounds. To give you an example, we’ve had animals live off raw fermented dairy and water for years and completely thrive. There’s a variation to that.
I’m not surprised because it was the Mayo Clinic that originally had something called The Milk Cure. This was a therapy that they used for sick patients. They used raw milk that way. That is amazing to know.
We work with veterinarians all around the country. We have a program that we run and we have veterinarians that are prescribing our diets. It’s incredible to see a veterinarian in Missouri that is prescribing a diet for kidney disease that’s half raw milk but we make these protocols based on actual data and seeing numbers go down. We saw enough animals that went on that protocol that was in kidney failure that their kidneys went back into regular function, which is incredible, doing this milk diet. It also includes a lot of something that would be near and dear to the president of Weston A. Price Sally Fallon’s heart, which is our fermented fish stock.
She is going to love to know some of your stories because we’re all animals in some sense and we do need this nutrient-dense food to thrive. That’s one of the objectives of the foundation. It’s to help everybody live their best life. Good health should be their birthright is how we see it.
Especially the people who have been a part of Weston A. Price or a part of the group seen the health benefits in yourself. I would challenge anyone to get their animal on a more traditional diet or to start feeding things like raw dairy and raw eggs. I guarantee you, within two weeks, you’ll start to see some positive changes in skin, coat and behavior. If you have an older dog, if you take a chance, switch back to a whole food diet with a ton of organ meat. Ours is 30% organs. Imagine, if you were eating a diet on a daily basis, that was 30% heart, liver and kidney, you’d see a dramatic health shift. You can see that in your dog as well or your cat. It’s a matter of taking the time to do it.
Talk to me about what changes owners do notice. You said something about their behavior and their coat. What are some of the things that the owners talk about noticing when they go with a more traditional diet for their pets?
It depends on the state that they’re in. I used to do a lot of nutrition consults for the company. We changed the way that we do that a little bit. What people would tell me was, “I got a healthy dog except for they do get ear infections a few times a year. They do have some hotspots and they’re starting to lump because they’re 7 or 8 so they’re starting to have some joint issues.” That’s what’s considered regular now which totally should not be the case. I would say if you’re dealing with a lot of minor issues like most people are, you can expect to see those if you commit to keeping that lifestyle and treats the same way everything. Not exactly something like kidney disease but all of those baselines, small medical issues.
You’ll see those disappear. If your dog is generally healthy and you don’t see any of those, the thing that we hear the most for years is like, “My dog who is over eight years old is starting to act like a puppy again.” That’s a huge deal not because we want our dogs to live as long as possible. What I tell people is to focus on quality and hope for quantity. That’s a good way to look at our lives and also our pets’ lives. Think about this. If your dog starts acting happier generally and acting like they were younger, it means they feel better and they don’t hurt anymore. What better thing could you give your dog than that?
I don’t know how old my cat is. I forget. We adopted her from a shelter and she used to jump up on this stool to go out the window. Now, she needs a little stepping stool so she can make it up. We’ve started to think, “She’s getting older, it’s normal,” but maybe we need to look at her diet.
I was looking at a testimonial about a guy whose dog is at MCL surgery. He was giving a bunch of joint supplements. When it comes to joint supplements, they can be effective but you’re isolating certain nutrients like glucosamine or something like that. Bone broth is going to be a better option because you have all those things, they’re all suspended in a high moisture environment. Within three days, this guy’s dog was running through the yard again. There was nothing else that he’d been trying for an entire year that would work and that was on a fermented bone broth. Remember, like us, our dogs and cats stop producing collagens as they get older, so we need that influx of collagen or catch a little bit tougher to get to eat things.
Let’s talk about transitioning to this more ancestral diet. If I’m like, “Billy is singing my song, I want to do that,” where do I start?
The first thing people need to know about transition is if you see a negative, it doesn’t mean you’re not headed towards positive. A lot of people get focused on stool and stool quality. If they think, “If I give my dog this chicken thing and my dog has diarrhea,” they can’t have that chicken thing. We don’t do that to ourselves. We don’t go and say, “I had beef and I had a digestive issue, so I can never have beef again.” That’s number one. When you’re switching to this diet with most dogs or cats, as long as you keep going, their microbiome will get reset because that’s what you’re doing especially when you introduce fermented raw food.
A good example of that is if my dog who’s about 14 pounds goes on our senior protocol with Kifer, she is going to get at least 35 billion good bacteria and at least 2 billion good yeast. Those are hundreds of species because they come mostly from raw milk in a raw way. Imagine a dog that eats processed food its entire life and then you’re influxing with all these amazing bacteria that’s going to fix the microbiome. Number two is to make it more comfortable, you can switch slowly. You can switch over 1 or 2 weeks and gradually introduce the food.
That’s also a man-made thing. When have you ever heard a wolf say, “I’d love to eat this deer but I’ve been eating rabbit so I’m going to do 30% deer?” Animals that go on to our diet or a raw diet in general, can eat something different every day. I’m a huge nerd about nutrition generally. My dog gets something different within our food line every single day. Once you get their microbiome to where it needs to be, you can do half of their diet is milk, chicken one day and beef the next day. They enjoy that more too.
Going back to what you were saying at the top, Billy, our pet seem to be sicker than ever. Can you tell us some statistics about that?
I believe there was a study when it came to labs and the average lifespan. In the ‘70s, they saw the average lifespan is going down. One of the things that make sense for me personally since I’m seeing things through the lens of my job. We were still a small company in Pennsylvania. We never had a huge marketing budget or anything like that. If our food wasn’t making a drastic change in all of these animals, the word of mouth would have never happened. If it doesn’t work, no one is going to buy it in terms of doing that.
It’s a testament to the fact that this is happening. The fact that my boss, Jacqueline, started this trend in the pet food industry along with one of our main farmers in Irvin and 60 goats in Pennsylvania with raw milk. That could have never happened unless animals were in a truly dire situation because when we started doing this, people said, “Why would I give goat milk to a dog?” That speaks for itself in the fact that animals are headed in the wrong direction enough that we need the Weston A. Price-style diet for them as well.
That’s why our stuff is trending too. We were into kombucha and bone broth before all these things started catching fire. It’s because people also are in the same dire situation as these pets you’ve been describing.
It all comes from that modern food system. Look at most kibble fed dogs, they’re getting vegetable oil every day and all of these byproducts. How on earth could that lead to good health? I will say it to your audience about kombucha. Kombucha is great to feed the dogs and cats. My dosage on that is about a teaspoon per 20 pounds per meal. We soak pig’s feet and chicken feet in kombucha for 24 hours to ferment them before we freeze them. That’s another great option as well if you home-brew kombucha or drink kombucha to share it with your animals.
You are blowing my mind. All of us are going to take the time to brew our own kombucha or even to make our own bone broth for ourselves. It’s nice to know that there are companies like yours and a couple of other companies that recommend raw foods because we’re not trying to promote one company in particular but it sounds like you’re doing many of the right things. It’s encouraging. How many pets do you have, Billy?
I’m the only person in the industry that has only one. Lua is a testament to the quality of life because I always brag about the fact that she’s about to be a fourteen-year-old pug and she can still go for 5-mile hikes with us here in Pennsylvania. Most pugs don’t get to do that even for generally their life. For me, regardless of how long she lives, I did my job of giving her the best life possible.
That is nice to know. What’s her name?
Her name is Lua.
Kudos to you and Lua. If the audience could do one thing to improve the health of their pet, what would you recommend that they do?
The easiest thing that people can do is add, at least, one reproductive food. Be that raw milk, fermented raw milk or even eggs. You should buy quality eggs, pasture-raised eggs or organic eggs but even replacing some of their calories with those reproductive foods is going to increase the probability that they will not be dealing with certain health issues. It’s easy, you crack the egg and put it on their food or pour some milk in there.
Billy, thank you for that advice and for all your time. I love this conversation.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate being here.