I have been troubled this weekend, saddened, and feeling conflicted about the safety of food we purchase for our animals. My sister’s dog Molly, a small and lovable rescued Westie was found to have liver enzymes so elevated that the vets couldn’t safely give her anesthesia to clean her teeth. Molly has some tartar build up. My sister took Molly to the vet to get her teeth cleaned and was hit with a devastating diagnosis of elevated copper in Molly’s system, stored in her liver, blamed on a genetic condition that makes it hard for certain terriers, notably Bedlington terriers, West Highland Terriers, and also Doberman Pinchers to metabolize copper in the body. Or, so we thought. Molly is also approaching seven years old, or middle age, for a dog, which in medical speak also coincides apparently with end of life. Blood tests revealed Molly’s liver was so stressed that her liver enzymes had almost tripled in the last few months, indicating that her liver was being weighed down by the copper her body couldn’t process. Oh, and Molly also had a heart murmur, possibly a sign of stress on the body, but chest x-rays revealed that Molly’s heart was not abnormally enlarged or struggling.

Molly had a rough beginning. My neighbors and I noticed Molly running the neighborhood in a week when other neighbors had family visiting. We assumed she was the neighbor’s family, but when the camper left with the family, Molly remained. No one knew where Molly came from, so I took the group of neighborhood girls with me as we walked little Moll on a leash asking who might know her. I thought I was teaching the girls to help return a lost pet. I didn’t know what I was getting into.

It was  a hot day, in July in Michigan, which meant it was mid-80’s and something like 90% humidity. We were walking through a sauna, but all the better to get the little dog home, right? We had walked about four blocks, which with small children and a small dog in the sun and heat is quite an accomplishment. We were followed for a block by a man in his mid twenties with his hand down his pants, jeans low at the hips, wearing a tank top and using his other hand occasionally to scratch the stubble on his face and his scalp. I had a number of little girls, a lost dog, and a strange man following me. I couldn’t run. I didn’t know why he was following me, but finally I put all the kids on neighbor’s grassy side lawn, had them hold the dog and finally confronted the man to ask why he was following us.

The girls stood on the corner, silent, watching, and listening. I would say a hush fell over them, but the second I walked away, they had been mute, not just quieted. The man said that the dog was his sister’s. He said he was looking for her. I told him that the dog had been in our yards for a week. I asked where he lived, and he pointed a block up a busy road nearby. He said he didn’t want the dog anymore, although she ran to him when I went and took the leash. He pushed her down and said it was his son’s dog, and his son was caring for her. His son was 3 years old. Then he asked me if I wanted her, that I could come to his house and get her things. He never took his hand out of his waistband. I declined. The girls, still silent, started to tear up. Then the man said that if I didn’t take her, he was going to let her run into the street and get hit by a car. This time I heard audible gasps and a few small sobs, but no speech.

I finally told the man that I would go and get my car and see if my husband had any problem with me bringing home another dog. I asked him where he lived, and he pointed out the house. I took the crying girls by the hand and walked away as if I wasn’t brooking any argument. They began to cry in earnest, saying they didn’t want the dog with that man. The seven-year old girls asked me why I would bother to save a dog by walking around the neighborhood only to leave it with a man who was going to send it to busy street to kill it. They asked me why I wouldn’t save the dog. They cried and begged me. They had good logic in their argument, but I will admit I was afraid to be near the man any longer. I didn’t tell them that, only told them that we don’t ever go into strangers’ homes, nor did we ever go places alone with people we didn’t know. There really are so few times in our children’s lives when we can be their savior  and so few in an animal’s really, that I wanted to be the savior. I just didn’t know how. I walked the girls home, and I told them I would not leave the dog with the “man who hurt her,” as the girls said.

Long story short, I went to my husband and told him that we needed to get into the car and go and get the dog and quickly. I didn’t know what to do after that, and while I wouldn’t put the dog’s safety above that of the children or my own, I wanted to bring the dog home. My husband and I retrieved the dog without incident. The man loaded her crate into the back of our truck, and I brought her home to joyous children who gave her repeated baths over the course of the day to remove fleas embedded in her coat and skin.

We named her Molly, to give her a new start, and we commenced to shaving her matted coat. I found long burns on her skin, possibly from a rope or leash, crisscrossed on her back and stomach. She ducked when surprised, indicating she had been hit, and like a true abuse victim, never made a sound if something hurt. I found that out when trying to brush a mat out under her armpit. The skin began to pull, but Molly laid limp in my arms. I decided to just shave her coat off, to heck with brushing and possibly hurting the dog who didn’t move in the face of what I perceived to be painful.

Molly recovered, and I began to look for a home for her after she and my other little female dog began to have “discussions” about which dog owned the yard. My sister had bonded with Molly and kept her. They have been inseparable ever since, through my sister’s different apartments, boyfriends, jobs, and school, M and Molly have always been together. So, imagine the shock when a teeth-cleaning appointment turns into a devastating diagnosis.

My dog who had lived to be 16 years old had had a heart murmur, possibly as a result of a parvo infection she had when she lived on the street, and I had treated that successfully for years with Hawthorne. I started there. I looked up Hawthorne, and while I trust an herbs long use in human history as general testament to its safety, feeling that we have made it to this point on our human journey due to the intelligence of our ancestors, I still always look up whatever information I can find on hawthorne, again, just to be sure no new information had been found. I wanted to recommend hawthorne for Molly, but I wanted to make sure that nothing had changed in the last two years since I had lost my Mandy (16-year old Beagle mix).

When I look to see if I can find any scientific studies on a topic, I usually use Google to search PubMed, and although Google probably collects ever private information known to exist in the digital world, with the exception of using the bathroom (although this might be searchable through FitBit uploads), I needed scientific information, and PubMed has a terrible search string formulation. In other words, Google does that better. Hawthorne (Crataegus) offers a good number of heart benefits, including helping to normalize heart rhythms. PubMed had information.

Evidence is accumulating that hawthorn may induce anti-ischemia/reperfusion-injury, anti-arrhythmic, hypolipidemic and hypotensive effects. These beneficial effects may in part be due to the presence of antioxidant flavonoid components.

Another study demonstrated that “stable” heart attack patients who combined hawthorne and exercise showed improved health, calling it “an effective strategy” for lowering the risk of heart problems and atherosclerosis, or hardening of arteries. Since our bodies require a liquid transport for all of our nutrients, as in blood moving oxygen or carbon dioxide, hardening of the heart structures or supply lines to it or from it means less liquid moves through, causing us problems. Keeping the heart structure softened certainly helps move our necessary blood through our body. Hawthorne helps with that.

Hawthorne contains polyphenols (micronutrients in our diets) that help prevent the oxidation that can cause heart problems. Hawthorne is an antioxidant. Hawthorne helps protect the heart and is prescribed for heart failure.  There are more studies. Hawthorne may reduce the “incidence of sudden cardiac death,” or in other words, may protect people from dying from heart attacks. Sold.

Molly’s current vet seems to think that diet plays no role in Molly’s illness; however, when I investigated a news story written by a vet located in Battle Creek, Michigan , it appears that the addition of copper sulfate to dog foods has caused other white terriers to die from liver failure, namely the vet who did the investigating’s 6 1/2 year old white terrier (so similar to Molly). Here is an excerpt from Dr. VanVranken’s discussion about the dangers of copper sulfate in dog food.

For long-time Battle Creek veterinarian Dr. Pete VanVranken, it began with listening to a presentation about the amount of copper in baby pigs.Now, VanVranken wants people to listen to him.

“Nobody seems willing to say, ‘I want to be the head of the light brigade,’ ” he said. “Somebody’s got to wake up.”The issue for VanVranken is personal but it also goes to the heart of who he is and what he does.A fixture at the Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic for four decades ago, he has been a passionate and outspoken advocate for animals and their proper care.

So last February, when his 6-year-old mixed breed dog Cookie developed signs of hepatitis, he had a colleague biopsy her liver.

“I was too emotionally attached to do it,” he said.

His colleague diagnosed liver cancer, but VanVranken had the biopsy sent to Michigan State University for confirmation and that diagnosis came back as hepatitis, a liver disease.

But what stunned VanVranken was the amount of copper in Cookie’s liver — more than 2,000 parts per million.”It should have been under 300,” he said. “Actually, it should have been between 50 and 60.”

Eventually, the disease killed his beloved dog and reinforced his belief that copper levels in dogs were too high and, very likely, fatal.

He contacted MSU and asked the vets how much copper they were seeing in dogs and their answer was that almost half had too much.That was enough for VanVranken, who recalled the talk in 1993 about copper in the diets of baby pigs and how it now appeared in all forms of dog food.

“Somebody wrote an article back in 1993 about replacing cupric oxide,” he said. “They did some tests and decided copper sulfate was a more biologically available source of diet for pigs. So someone decided to go across the board to all (animals with one stomach) and replace it with copper sulfate.” Since 1996, VanVranken said the number of dogs with copper storage in their livers was rising and he was convinced it was because of the copper sulfate that had no place in a dog’s diet.

“There’s no such disease as copper shortage in dogs,” he said. “There’s no benefit. It occurs naturally in most grains and organ meats. This was all based on a paper about baby pigs.”

That belief was further bolstered by Dr. Sharon Center of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, who offered a similar warning. “She said, ‘You guys need to watch out for this,’ ” he said.

VanVranken said copper sulfate is an ingredient used in foot baths for cattle to help keep them from getting infections and to keep hoof rot at bay.


The pet food industry issued a rebuttal, calling the paper that published the article a “tabloid,” which it is not.The “Enquirer” in the The Battle Creek Enquirer is not related to the nationally syndicated tabloid, “The Enquirer,” but it seems this titular difference has been played up by the pet food industry to malign an independent vet’s report on the dog food industry’s use of copper sulfate in food, namely that the copper sulfate added is the same type used in the battery manufacturing business and that the copper guidelines were based on a piglet study, having no relation to actual dogs.

The personal interest story that was recently published in a local tabloid appears to base its warnings about copper sulfate on a hypothesis proposed by one well-meaning veterinarian.

And his theory is certainly worthy of further investigation.

Yet it’s important to keep in mind that as long as copper — or any other nutrient — is confirmed through testing by its manufacturer to be present in a dog food in a healthy amount, your pet should be considered safe.

For an enlightening scientific explanation on this topic, be sure to read this pet food industry article about copper sulfate.

It was researched and written by a respected animal nutritionist, Dr. Greg Aldrich of Kansas State University.

Why the pet food  industry’s vet is supposedly more reliable than an outside vet is anyone’s guess.

So, I looked up the pet food industry article about copper sulfate, and here is what it says copper sulfate is also used for in the industrial manufacturing. Note that there is currently no safe amount of copper sulfate determined for cats. There is no citation for the method of supposedly determining a “safe” amount for dogs:

Thus, the inclusion of copper sulfate to meet the target amounts in the diet remains very small if you compare copper needs and the safe upper limit. For dogs and many other species, the maximum tolerable level is 250 mg/kg (no upper limit has been identified for cats). To accurately weigh and mix something that is 25% copper (250,000 mg/kg) into a complete diet to achieve a 5 to 15 mg/kg target (0.04 lb. to 0.13 lb. copper sulfate per ton of petfood) amount and not exceed 250 mg/kg (2 lbs. copper sulfate per ton of petfood) is not within the normal tolerances in a full-scale petfood production facility.

To make this work properly requires well-controlled dilution steps. For this process, it is common to utilize the services of a premix manufacturer to help dilute the copper concentration and achieve a uniform distribution of the ingredient over a wider base of raw materials. Petfood manufacturers also commonly make a “premix” with these trace mineral premixes before adding them to the base mix/dry blend and then producing the finished food. These serial dilution steps and checks and balances help add a measure of safety to the use of copper sulfate in normal petfood production.

Another concern expressed about the use of copper sulfate in petfood stems from its many other reported applications. For example, in agriculture, it has been used as a pesticide, germicide, soil amendment and feed growth promoter. Medically, it can be used as a fungicide, bactericide and astringent. Industrially, it is used as an electrolyte for batteries and as an electroplating agent, as a floatation reagent to recover zinc and lead in mining, and as a mordant in preparation of azo dyes in textiles.

While these industrial applications may seem odd to the uninitiated and perhaps erode copper sulfate’s public relations, it is a very common practice to develop as many markets for raw materials as possible. It is smart for business and smart for quality and consistent supply. So, multiple uses should not diminish the value of this important ingredient.

For any pet owners  out there that might read this article, you’ve got a lot more issues to worry about than copper sulfate at fractions of a percent in your pets’ diet, like whether or not the dog is chewing on your shoes or the cat coughed up a hairball right where you just stepped. For the petfood industry, there are other options to nutritionally fortify the diet with supplemental copper, but each has similar mixing and handling requirements. Copper sulfate has been the tried and true form of this trace mineral and handled properly should continue to be a vital ingredient in our formulation toolbox for many years to come.

Just because there are multiple uses for a product and it’s “smart business” to include it in pet food doesn’t make it safe for dogs to consume. The article is condescending in its address of owners’ concerns about copper poisoning. The argument that we pet owners have more to worry about with our dog chewing our shoes than our dog dying of copper accumulation in the liver is a specious argument if the food we buy kills them.

Supposedly the pet food industry says it’s safe to add copper sulfate to foods, but I wanted to see if there is a pet food that doesn’t contain copper sulfate, and while I found one, you can only get it by prescription, and guess what it’s a prescription food for? Liver failure. You heard that right. While the pet food manufacturing industry claims it’s safe to include an ingredient in dog food that is also used in batteries, it also has found there is a market for making dog foods for dogs with liver failure from copper build up in the liver, and guess what? Those foods don’t contain the copper that the industry says is safe for a dog’s liver.

The pet food without the copper sulfate additive? According to Dr. VanVranken, it’s Hill’s Prescription L/D diet. The ingredient list doesn’t state that copper sulfate is an additive. I checked out the actual food from Hill’s Prescription, a pet food industry manufacturer, and by the sounds of it, the industry has created a food with a known market, dogs with liver failure from copper toxicity. The food is advertised as a prescription food to protect the liver, with low copper levels:

The liver is your dog’s largest internal organ with many functions, including the digestion and conversion of nutrients, the removal of toxic substances from the blood and the storage of vitamins and minerals. The liver has an amazing ability to repair and regenerate itself, and nutrition plays a vital role in this process.

Hill’s nutritionists and veterinarians developed Prescription Diet® l/d®, clinical nutrition especially formulated to support your dog’s liver health. In fact, l/d is formulated to help protect vital liver function

How It Helps:

  • Helps reduce liver workload allowing liver tissue to regenerate
  • Helps maintain normal fat metabolism in the liver
  • Helps avoid nutrient deficiencies commonly related to liver issues
  • Supports a healthy immune system

How It Works:

  • Moderate levels of high quality protein

  • High L-carnitine & L-arginine levels

  • Appropriate level of zinc

  • Low copper

  • Clinically proven antioxidants

It takes a long time to manufacture and produce a dog food, and it takes a large market share for a manufacturer to invest in the dog food product line creation this way, which means that the dog food industry knows that there are dogs who will be impacted by copper levels, have liver problems and thereby ensuring there is a steady market for a food designed to help with a liver damaged by copper levels.
The local Battle Creek, Michigan newspaper wasn’t the only one to cover Dr. Van Vranken’s cautionary tale about how much copper sulfate is added to dog foods. Fox News Online also covered Van Vranken’s story and there is a video interview with Van Vranken about his findings of liver toxicity from the copper exposure (which is really heavy metal toxicity).
What is the treatment for liver failure, even that caused by the ingestion of heavy metals, like copper sulfate? Allopathic medicine doesn’t have a replacement for cirrhosis. Herbs like silymarin (milk thistle) and nutrients like SAM-E are some of the only treatments. Honest disclosure: I never believe someone when they say that what we eat doesn’t affect our health. If what we eat can cause heart diseases, diabetes and cancer, in we humans and copper toxicity liver failure in our pets, then what we eat definitely affects our health.
I have always considered our diet, herbs, which are often food, a part of our health. The vet Molly saw recommended a supplement called Denamarin. I had used it when both of my old dogs had developed organ failure, and one had been diagnosed with liver cancer (from which that dog’s mother also died). My dogs were old, over 10 years old for my 110-pound lab mix (large breeds life spans tend to max out around 8-10 years) and another very old rescue Beagle mix who lived to be almost 16 year old, but when my old dogs began having problems, herbs helped them ease into their next grand adventure in Squirrels in the Sky. I trusted the herbs listed in the supplement.

Just to be informed, because I do love Molly and my sister so much, I started to do research. I have 25-pages of it, actually. I guess you could say “luckily for us,” but I don’t really believe testing on animals is lucky, most supplements and herbs and medications are tested for years on animals, lots of dogs, before giving them to humans. It’s a part of a drug testing process to test on animals. Herbs don’t always get tested, but in the case of silymarin, one of the active ingredients in Denamarin, not much else has been proven to heal the liver in people or other animals like milk thistle can. Silymarin/milk thistle has been proven to help the liver regenerate, has a protective effect, and here is a sampling of a PubMed article about how Silymarin works:

Silymarin offers good protection in various toxic models of experimental liver diseases in laboratory animals. It acts by antioxidative, anti-lipid peroxidative, antifibrotic, anti-inflammatory, membrane stabilizing, immunomodulatory and liver regenerating mechanisms. Silymarin has clinical applications in alcoholic liverdiseases, liver cirrhosis, Amanita mushroom poisoning, viral hepatitis, toxic and drug induced liver diseases and in diabetic patients. Though silymarindoes not have antiviral properties against hepatitis virus, it promotes protein synthesis, helps in regenerating liver tissue, controls inflammation, enhances glucuronidation and protects against glutathione depletion.

Pretty amazing what plants can do. But does silymarin work on livers that are already injured, like Molly’s? The answer is, of course, yes. We animals are exposed to toxins in our environment frequently, probably from all sorts (plants we may have ingested, but also possibly minerals from our rock tool roots, and chemicals naturally occurring in Nature that we may inadvertently ingest or come into contact with, alcohol with has a history of thousands of years of human consumption, even mushrooms), so it makes sense that Nature has a way of lessening these effects, or all we susceptible animals would have died out long ago. Thistle is a potent detoxifier. (Think also in the thistle family: artichoke, milk thistle, Canadian thistle, part of the sunflower family, Asteracea, including calendula and echinacea, a huge plant group!)

Silymarin/ Milk Thistle (stock photo)

Silymarin is an antioxidant for the liver. It helps liver cells regenerate “promotes hepatocyte regeneration,” stops the liver from getting so brittle or hardened, “fibrogenesis in the liver” that it can’t filter, and acts as an anti-inflammatory for the liver. Another PubMed article for your perusal, also states that silymarin can help reduce the rate at which tumor cells grow:

In chronic liver diseases caused by oxidative stress (alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver diseases, drug- and chemical-induced hepatic toxicity), the antioxidant medicines such as silymarin can have beneficial effect. Liver cirrhosis, non-alcoholic fatty liver and steatohepatitis are risk factors for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Insulin resistance and oxidative stress are the major pathogenetic mechanisms leading the hepatic cell injury in these patients. The silymarin exerts membrane-stabilizing and antioxidant activity, it promotes hepatocyte regeneration; furthermore it reduces the inflammatory reaction, and inhibits the fibrogenesis in the liver. These results have been established by experimental and clinical trials. According to open studies the long-term administration of silymarin significantly increased survival time of patients with alcohol induced liver cirrhosis. Based on the results of studies using methods of molecular biology, silymarin can significantly reduce tumor cell proliferation, angiogenesis as well as insulin resistance. Furthermore, it exerts an anti-atherosclerotic effect, and suppresses tumor necrosis factor-alpha-induced protein production and mRNA expression due to adhesion molecules.

Denamarin was tested on animals receiving chemotherapy. Chemotherapy works on the premise that cancer cells grow without an off switch, meaning cancer cells replicate faster than normal cells, making it almost impossible for our normal cells to attack a cell that has almost a suicidal intent to reproduce. Chemotherapy stops cell reproduction, and by this method, stops all cell replication, cancer cells and normal cell reproduction alike. Stopping normal cell replication is stressful to the body, and since the liver is part of our cleaning mechanism, the liver is often uniquely stressed by chemotherapy. Denamarin helped support the liver, even in the face of chemotherapy, allowing more dogs to complete their cancer treatments when Denamarin was subjected to scientific study.

We started Molly on Denamarin. We don’t have any test results, but Molly did seem more energetic after a few doses of Denamarin. I will keep you posted. Let’s hope for good news. Little Molly needs all the help she can get.