The idea of starving cancer before it starves your dog is an intriguing one, and the subject of much research in the last few years. These studies in dogs have led to breakthroughs in the nutritional treatment of both human and canine cancer patients.
Dr. Gregory Ogilvie, DVM is a professor at the Colorado State Univer-sity College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. His research into how cancer affects nutritional needs is continuing, but has already led to some important discoveries.
Dr. Ogilvie says, “We have shown that dogs with cancer have dramatic changes in their ability to use nutrients for energy.” His early studies have determined that the energy requirements for dogs with cancer are not higher than in healthy dogs. The difference is that cancer alters the way the body uses nutrients, in effect shutting down the body so it can’t utilize its food. Those body changes continue even after the cancer is sent into remission. “Cancer changes the body and the body doesn’t recover from it even after the cancer is eliminated from the body,” Dr. Ogilvie says.
“Cancer in the body causes significant alterations in carbohydrate, protein, and lipid metabolism,” he continues. “These alterations result in decreased quality of life and decreased response to therapy. The need to reduce the lactate and insulin levels in dogs with cancer is of paramount concern to allow the body’s metabolic processes to work more efficiently to the host’s benefit.”
Glucose is the sugar the body makes from food. It’s incredibly important to the body, as it is the only nutrient which can cross the blood/brain barrier to feed the brain. Because supplying energy to the brain is the single most important function for the rest of the body, glucose production takes priority over nearly every other body function. Protein is broken down by the body into amino acids, some of which are used to make glucose. Fat gets stored for later use instead of being used for glucose production. But most of the glucose made by the body comes from digesting carbohydrates.
Cereal grains, such as corn, wheat, and barley, contain carbohydrates in the forms of sugar and starch. Digestion breaks these down to make glucose.
Immediately after a meal, high levels of glucose in the blood cause the rapid secretion of insulin, which causes the rapid uptake, storage and use of glucose by almost all tissues of the body.
That’s how things are supposed to work. With cancer patients, though, it’s different. The glucose isn’t put to work, but is instead converted to lactate. The body attempts to convert lactate back to glucose, and that requires energy. Instead of the glucose being used by the body for energy, it is diverted into this energy-draining lactate loop. Now you know why fatigue and “starvation” are major cancer symptoms.
Dr. Ogilvie’s team has determined that it’s critical to reduce the lactate and insulin levels so the dog can use the energy in the form of glucose.
Insulin levels can be controlled by feeding a food that’s relatively low in simple carbohydrates. As for protein, Dr. Ogilvie says, “Because cancer competes with the host for specific amino acids (from protein), we recommend that highly biodegradable yet modest amounts of proteins be provided to the cancer patient.”
For adequate calories, fat may be the best bet, according to Dr. Ogilvie, because there is some evidence that cancer cannot utilize fat.
He also recommends a diet containing omega-3 fatty acids, which have been demonstrated to be of value for the cancer patient. A number of studies in rodents and people have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce lactate and insulin levels. The omega-3 fatty acids also have anticancer properties, including the ability to reduce or eliminate metastatic disease.
Dr. Ogilvie says that there is no commercially-available diet which is ideally suited for the cancer patient. He also says that it’s difficult to create a homemade diet which fills the bill.
Some foods that meet many of the requirements for dogs with cancer are the Eukanuba Veterinary Diets® Nutritional Recovery Formulas®. Made by The Iams Company, these have excellent flavor and are packed with energy, which encourages the sick dog to eat. But more importantly, the foods have a different composition than most, with an emphasis on protein and fat rather than carbohydrate, and high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Dr. Glenna E. Mauldin, DVM, MS, DACVIM and Staff Veterinarian at The Donaldson-Atwood Cancer Clinic of The Animal Medical Center of New York has also written about the best diet to feed the cancer patient. She says that “Weight loss has been shown repeatedly to be an independent determinant of prognosis in the human cancer patient. Severe debilitation and eventual death from malnourishment may result in affected individuals.”
Dr. Mauldin, in a paper titled “Feeding the Cancer Patient,” concurs with Dr. Ogilvie that it’s possible to take advantage of the differences in metabolic style that set tumor cells apart from normal tissue.
Dr. Mauldin says,“A diet high in fat and protein but relatively low in carbohydrates should selectively supply energy to the host and meet potentially increased protein requirements, while denying tumor cells the readily available carbohydrate required for continued growth. Beneficial effects have been documented in human cancer patients fed such diets, including improved weight gain, improved energy and nitrogen balance, improved preservation of body adipose stores, and decreased glucose intolerance.”
Dr. Mauldin is currently conducting a study at The Animal Medical Center with the Eukanuba Veterinary Diet Nutritional Recovery Formula to see whether it, in fact, can starve the tumor, yet feed the dog.
Mauldin, G. E. Feeding the Cancer Patient, Recent Advances in Canine and Feline Nutritional Research: Proceedings of the 1996 Iams International Nutrition Sym-posium: The Iams Company, Dayton, OH.
Ogilvie, G.K. and Moore, A.S. Managing the Veterinary Cancer Patient: A Practice Manual. Published by Veterinary Learning Systems.
Additional material supplied by Morris Animal Foundation, Englewood, CO., including January, 1997 letter from Dr. Gregory Ogilvie.