Friday, July 3, 2009

Faith based feeding and the defense of science

I’m a clinician, not a scientist. But I’ve known quite a few scientists, starting in college when I worked in a physiology lab, through 4 years of veterinary school, 3 years of post doctoral immunology research, and 2 years of a residency. And one very common characteristic of scientists is that they are very aware of what they don’t know. In fact, one DVM, PhD nutritionist told me that studying for the board examination should be done with an eye to the limits of our knowledge – what we don’t know about nutrition rather than what we do.

I’ve been following a very interesting email dialogue between, on the one hand, a person who is feeding a prey-model raw diet to her dog with kidney disease, and on the other, people who have studied nutrition and are trying to convey what is and is not known about feeding renal patients based on existing science.

What’s interesting to me is that the raw feeder has developed a feeding regime that she thinks is working, and states that she is a die hard raw feeder who is not likely to change her mind about that aspect of feeding her dog. That’s consistent with every die-hard raw feeder I’ve ever met – they know what they know and really don’t want to be confused by facts.

One theme that needs to be explored is why they’re so sure of their facts. This is clearly based on first hand experience and the remarkable improvements we often observe in dogs who are switched to raw. But that certainty, when based on an n of 2 (the two dogs that live in the house) or even 200 rescue dogs, is suspect. Because there are usually other factors at work, such as whether a diagnosis is accurate in the first place, changes in environmental stressors, drugs stopped or started, supplements started, etc. And in the case of rescue dogs, there is inadequate follow-up to know whether improvements were sustained and whether the dogs lived normal (or shorter or longer than normal) lifespans. Veterinarians and other scientists require more information about cases to be convinced by new information, rightfully addressing all other mitigating factors as is done in properly written, peer reviewed case reports.

The other theme here is the raw feeders’ attitudes towards science. What we do know about nutrition of the renal failure patient is that restriction of phosphorus slows progression of the disease, and that in the later stages of kidney disease, restriction of protein reduces the number of uremic episodes that require hospitalization. Prey model diets by definition cannot be restricted in either, and reducing the phosphorus in other ingredients like carbs and veggies (if being used at all) will have minimal impact compared to reducing meat levels.

When confronted with this science, the information is brushed off, but other science is presented to support the contention that the way they feed high protein diets is just fine for these patients.

You see, some die-hard raw feeders are using faith-based care for their animals. They pick and choose the science that fits their faith, but wrap themselves in a pseudoscientific exterior to try and persuade others that they are knowledgeable about the science of feeding. A good scientist remains open to conflicting information and incorporates it into the existing knowledge base going forward. Are die-hard raw feeders the Christian Scientists of the pet owning world?