Dear Doctor


Concerns about Alabama Rot

Q: I have recently heard about a deadly canine disease called Alabama Rot. My understanding is that it’s spreading. I’m kind of freaking out because I live with my dogs very near Alabama in the Florida panhandle. Can you tell me how I can make sure my pets avoid this illness?

Simon Poss
Destin, Florida

Dear Mr. Poss,

A: You do not need to be freaking out. Yes, the disease known colloquially as Alabama Rot is usually deadly. But the illness does not appear to be the issue in the United States that was once feared. Even a veterinarian we contacted at Auburn University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama had only cursory knowledge of it, saying he had “never seen a case.” And when we reached out to the American College of Dermatology to see if we could speak to an expert on the disease, a spokesperson told us that she “checked with several dermatologists in different areas of our country, and this is quite rare to non-existent” — to the point that she could not find someone with “experience of actual cases.” Where Alabama Rot does seem to be more of a concern is the UK, but even there, there’s no cause for alarm.

So what’s the deal? Back in the 1980s, researchers reported in the journal Veterinary Pathology about a disease of kenneled and racing grey-hounds that affected their skin and kidneys and was given the name Ala-bama Rot because of the high number of afflicted dogs at Greenetrack Racing Park in Eutaw, Alabama, in the western part of the state. The disease was also found in racing greyhounds in Florida, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Colorado. It is characterized by swelling in the skin anywhere on the body that turns to a red patch or something that looks like a particularly nasty wound or ulcer. In the majority of cases, this is followed by life-threatening kidney failure.

The technical name for the illness is Idiopathic Cutaneous and Renal Glomerular Vasculopathy. “Idiopathic” means the cause is unknown, “cutaneous,” stands for skin, “renal glomerular” for kidney involvement, and “vasculopathy” for the fact that something goes wrong in the blood vessels that compromises blood flow and creates the skin lesions and kidney problems.

Scientists in the U.S. believed that it might have had something to do with dangerous E. coli bacteria found in raw meat, since racing greyhounds are known to be fed uncooked beef. (Consider that the kidney failure in dogs is akin to a deadly human condition called hemolytic urea syndrome that people can get if they eat undercooked burgers or other foods that contain the toxic E. coli strain of bacteria.) Researchers also thought there might be a genetic predisposition since some dogs who got sick were closely related.

But then it kind of went away — and seems to have resurfaced in the UK, where the first cases were reported in late 2012. Interestingly, although the signs of the illness are the same — a skin lesion followed within several days by acute kidney problems characterized by vomiting, reduced appetite, and fatigue — E. coli is not suspected as a culprit. Researchers are not sure what the culprit might be, however. They just know that some dogs seem to get sick after walking in muddy, wooded areas and advise owners to wipe their pets’ feet after excursions into such topography. What’s also different in the UK is that all breeds are affected, not just greyhounds.

That said, Alabama Rot, while usually fatal, is far from an epidemic there. Over the last five years, only about 100 cases have been reported. Your dog’s risk in the Florida panhandle, or anywhere else in the US, is minuscule at most.

Coconut oil or fish oil in the dog’s food?

Q: Okay, so now I am confused. I have been mixing coconut oil with my dog’s chicken breast dinner (along with some strained veggies) for many years. I thought the oil (expeller pressed, organic virgin, unre-fined coconut oil) was good for their skin and coats. But lately I’ve been hearing that coconut isn’t all that good. Should I switch to fish (ugh) oil? Thank you in advance.

Patty Hughes
Casa Grande, Arizona

Dear Ms. Hughes,

A: Coconut oil is not easy to fit healthfully into the human diet in large amounts on an everyday basis because it is very high in saturated fat — the kind that can predispose people to heart attacks because too much saturated fat can result in clogged arteries that impede blood flow to the heart. Saturated fat does not present those same issues for dogs. Their heart disease is usually not about dietary ingredients that block the flow of blood but instead about congenital problems with the valves between heart chambers. In some dogs, those valves deteriorate over time, caus-ing blood to flow backward instead of forward and leading to fluid buildup around the heart and lungs that makes it difficult to breathe.

While coconut oil does not appear to play a role in that process and therefore does not present the same problems for dogs as for people, it does not contain any of a dog’s essential nutrients. And fish oil may in fact have some health benefits and is sometimes recommended for dogs with certain diseases, including heart disease.

Still, we remain concerned about what you feed your dog. You say you give your pet chicken breast, vegetables, and oil, but you don’t mention any nutrition supplements. Are you working with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to make sure your canine pal is consuming the optimal amounts of all required vitamins and minerals and things like protein and carbohydrate? Several published studies, as well as the personal experience of the board-certified veterinary nutritionists at Tufts, point up the fact that nearly all home-cooked diets that pet owners are feeding to their dogs have dangerous nutrient deficiencies or imbalances.

We get it: you cook for your pet because you love her and feel no com-mercial dog food company can put into its dog food the concern that you do. And it’s true; they can’t.

But regardless of the amount of love that you put into the diet, your dog will not be as healthy as she could be if her meals are not meeting her nutrient needs. She could in fact suffer from debilitating and even life-threatening health concerns due to nutrient deficiencies.

Why take the chance? We understood that you have been devising your dog’s diet for years and all seems okay, but isn’t it better to give her the optimal nutrition in dog food made by a large manufacturer with a veterinary nutritionist on staff to insure that her meals contain the best of what nutrition research has deemed most healthful?

Remember that old add for Welch’s? “We can’t match the love Mother put into her jams and jellies, so we settled for a little extra flavor.” We believe the same concept applies to what you feed your dog: “Commer-cial dog food can’t match the love you put into your pet’s homemade rations, but it’s worth settling for a little extra nutrition science.” If you still feel strongly about continuing to home-cook for your dog, we encourage you to set up an appointment with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. You can find one at


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