Who doesn’t like those nutritional powerhouses we call berries? Think blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cranberries, strawberries and the like. Lots of things are called “superfoods”, but dark berries truly fit the bill with micronutrients like vitamin C, fiber for digestive health, and beneficial phytochemicals. Wild or domesticated dogs will eat berries given the opportunity. Zoe, my late, great lab, would daintily pluck blackberries right from the bush, carefully avoiding the stickers while enjoying the juicy berry goodness!
Aside from tasting great, dark berries are supreme fighters of inflammation and oxidative damage. You can think of oxidative damage as rust in the body: The chemical process is similar. Oxidative damage is caused by free radicals, which come from what we take into our body as well as from our own metabolic processes. What exactly does this mean? Chronic inflammation and oxidative damage are driving forces for many chronic diseases, from cardiovascular disease to cancer to metabolic disorders and dementia. So, berries have the potential to help with many of the issues that plague our pooches and us. And those antioxidants are “getting in there” when berries are eaten: Sled dogs who were fed a daily ration of blueberries showed an increase in anti-oxidant (anti-rust) capacity in their blood compared their teammates who were not fed berries (1). This suggests that the berries may have to capacity to help counter oxidative damage to the body.
This potential afforded by berries is due in large part to chemicals that they contain called polyphenols. For you chemistry geeks and functional foods freaks, these include flavonoids (anthocyanins, flavonols and proanthocyanidins), cinnamic acid derivatives, stilbenes and triterpenoids (ursolic acid and derivatives). For people that hate chemistry, ignore the previous sentence. Of the dark berries, blueberries are the best studied scientifically, and cranberries are pretty high up there as well.
Now let’s talk circulation! Scientific research has shown that oxidative damage and inflammation are the two main culprits responsible for clogged arteries. Herbalists have long used dark berries to support blood vessel health, and research backs this up (2). Both population-based and clinical studies have shown that blueberries, cranberries, strawberries and other berries significantly improve the quality and balance of lipids as well as the anti-oxidant capacity of blood (2). This means that regular consumption of dark berries may be a good way to help keep those blood vessels clean and prevent other issues related to blockages, such as ischemic stoke (3). Dark berries have even been recommended for anemia by well-known herbalist and holistic animal care expert, Juliet de Bariacli Levy (4), again supporting both blood vessels and their contents! Blueberries and their cousins bilberries even improve the health of the smallest blood vessels, microcapillaries. This is one reason that they are used by holistic veterinarians to help improve vision in clients of the pooch persuasion (5).
Here is another reason for you and your dog to eat dark berries: Cancer is driven by oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. Multiple studies show the potential for blueberries in cancer prevention through various mechanisms; something appreciated by our friends at the Dog and Cat Cancer Fund. By inhibiting free radicals, blueberries suppress production of inflammatory molecules and may protect cellular DNA from cancer-causing mutations (6). In laboratory studies, blueberries inhibit cancer cell proliferation, induce cancer cell death via a process known as apoptosis and prevent metastases (spread of the cancer) (6, 7, 3). An antioxidant known as pterostilbene seems to be responsible in part for these activities (3), though it’s likely that multiple components of blueberry contribute to these benefits.
Moving on to the brain... Here’s something for the gray-bearded pooches out there. Research in neuroscience increasingly supports consumption of blueberries to prevent or potentially reverse age-related nervous system issues such as dementia and cognitive decline. It seems that blueberry polyphenols do this via inhibiting oxidative damage and inflammation, as well as by improving circulation to the brain and influencing direct nerve cell-to-cell communication (8, 9, 3). So berries may help keep your aged furry friend on the go by multiple mechanisms.
Unfortunately, diabetes and other metabolic issues are increasing in dogs as well as in their people. As an herbalist, I encourage daily consumption by my clients of a small amount of blueberries and other dark berries. This is because berries improve glucose metabolism in those with metabolic issues as well as in the healthy (2, 10). Related to diabetes, bilberry, blueberry’s cousin, is used in dogs and people to protect against the deterioration in vision that often occurs due to high blood sugar (5, 11).
Dark berries are included in many Zuke’s products: in Hip Action, Jerky Naturals, Z-Bones (Clean Berry Crisp), Supers (Berry), Natural Purrz and G-Zees. Cherries share many of the same beneficial properties, though technically they are fruits and not berries. Cherries can be found in Power Bones, Mini Naturals, Z-Bones (Clean Berry Crisp), Mini Bakes (Chicken n’ Cherryz ) and Supers (Berry).
Anna-Marija Helt, PhD, is a research scientist-turned herbalist who practices and teaches at Osadha Herbal Wellness in Durango, Colorado. She is also Zoe and Milo’s human.