Kim Latham talks to Dr Karen Shaw Becker and Rodney Habib on influencing young vets, fresh food diets, and their new book, the forever dog.
With a combined Facebook audience of nearly six million people on their pages, one could be forgiven for wondering if the recent global publicity following their new book, The Forever Dog, the first ever number one book on dog health to hit the New York Times bestseller list in the history of books, might have changed their down-to-earth personalities even just a little. But in a recent zoom call, Dr Karen Shaw Becker and Rodney Habib remain just as friendly, passionate, and caring as their millions of loyal fans will attest. In fact, they were joyfully shocked by the roaring success of their first book, The Forever Dog, which was translated into 13 different languages before the book even hit the market. On the day of release, their book sold out in just 90 seconds.
“We’ve heard from our incredible publisher, Harper Collins in the United Kingdom, that our book made The Sunday Times best seller list over in your end of the world and we’re the only foreign authors to make the list. I thought like maybe 10 people would buy the book and that those 10 would be bought by my mother,” said Rodney Habib, Founder of Planet Paws, the most popular pet health page on Facebook.
“The conversation is going to shift very quickly, and I’m so interested to see what happens because that’s the beginning of fresh food not just being accepted but now being actively marketed by some of the biggest companies in the world”. – Dr Karen Shaw Becker
“Mars just bought nom nom, a fresh food company for us$1 billion because of the movement that people and pet parents are making. The largest manufacturer in the entire world who has told people for decades to never feed fresh food to pets. It has purchased its first fresh food company because of demand by pet parents so change has come.” – Rodney Habib
Appealing to Young Vets
The pair have certainly had a whirlwind of a year which included turning up at dog parks and handing out books to dog owners and young vets.
“Dr Karen Becker and I were trying to figure out how to pay it forward in a world where we couldn’t travel so we were just going to our favourite dog parks and we were putting out tables and benches and we took all the books we could get and put them out in libraries and parks and the vet students were going to the parks to get the books but they were gone so fast so we surprised some and turned up with loads of books and that was very well received in the vet community and that is of course because of Dr Karen Becker and her brilliance in talking back to her fellow peers”, said Habib.
It is suggested to Dr Becker that it must be very satisfying knowing The Forever Dog is potentially broadening the minds of young vets and providing them with a new way of thinking.
“Of course, we would like the next generation of dogs to be healthier and personally for me as a veterinarian, the best gift I can give the next generation of veterinarians is less stress, more options, healthier patients. How can I contribute my one little bit into the ocean of my profession?I can help new vet students currently understand that our profession has the highest rate of suicides, we have the least number of nutritional options, we are working off an archaic reactive system of waiting until our animals get sick before we do anything. We are not using food as medicine. If I can touch on all those points, I can improve these young doctors’ quality of life, their quality of practice, their ability to practise medicine excellently but most importantly they will have healthy happier patients because they’re doing things different. That’s the best gift I can give my profession”, said Dr Karen Becker, the most followed veterinarian on social media who is embraced by millions of pet lovers around the world.
A Life of Longevity and Wellbeing
One of the things that strikes a chord with readers of The Forever Dog is that Dr Becker and Rodney Habib have stayed true to their own voice. There is no patronising preaching or boring narrative. You can clearly hear their own voices talking through the pages as if you’re having a cup of tea and a chat with friends.
“It was part of our plan, says Dr Becker. In fact, when we talked about who do we want to reach with the book, the biggest challenge I think we had was first of all, either you love me or you hate me, there is no in between, either you’re all in or you can’t stand either one of us, or both of us, and we wanted to write for those people. We wanted to write for our critics because we know they’re out there, the naysayers, there’s no science, this book doesn’t have two legs to stand on, so we wanted to write for the people who were saying, where’s the research, and most importantly we really wanted to think about the 21-year old who just got her first Westie from the pet store (not the best place to get a Westie or any dog,) and in turn we wanted to make sure that she understood the depths and breadth of what she just did, not in a guilt way, but in the way that the onus is on her as a guardian to now pick up the pieces of a puppy mill Westie and make a life of health, longevity, and wellbeing for a puppy that has no voice and no choice.
“So, Rodney and I were very focussed on writing in a way that invited young first-time pet owners in to not feel intimidated or overwhelmed, while at the same time, knowing that half our audience would be PHDs and researchers and people who were saying I need more than what you’re writing for her, so, yes, the tone was intentional and we wanted it to be relational, we wanted our voices to come through, we wanted people to know there are people on the other side of the book who were typing, typing, typing. We wanted people to see our hearts, but we also wanted people to see the hard-core science, so we meshed it altogether and we tried really hard not to make it an intimidation”, said Dr Becker.
Fans of the American and Canadian authors will already know how passionate the pair are about feeding fresh, natural ingredients to pets, so when asked if they thought huge pet food manufacturers of kibble are starting to become old-fashioned in their approach when it comes to marketing their dog food products, here’s what they replied.
“It’s already happening,” said Habib. “Mars just bought Nom Nom (www.nomnomnow.com)
now a fresh food company for US$1 billion because of the movement that people and pet parents are making. The largest manufacturer in the entire world who has told people for decades and decades to never feed fresh foods to pets. It has purchased its first fresh food company because of demand by pet parents so change has come”, he said.
“I knew it would happen”, said Dr Becker, “partly because I formulate commercial diets so all my little family-owned companies are being approached by giants so I could see this coming 10 years ago and they’re like guess who called me and I said, ‘oh, they’re going to have to call you because they can’t go back and make their own fresh food under their own label because they’d be throwing their core products under the bus and they can’t do that’. All they can do is buy up good pet food companies and that is exactly what they’re doing. Now, that’s a different set of scariness but the fact is, ultimately, will it result in people having better options for feeding their dogs, better quality food worldwide? It will!” she said.
It is put to Dr Becker that the purchase of Nom Nom by Mars could potentially have a knock-on effect in years to come on the current sponsorship of veterinary conferences and could influence the way vets are taught about nutrition.
“So, of course all the multinational conglomerates are going to have to come together in some back room because they’re the people feeding money to veterinary schools in terms of their programmes, sponsorships, and free vet food and they’re not going to offer free ultra-processed food over free fresh food because they can’t bash it when they’ve just bought fresh food companies. Quit bashing a type and a new category type of feeding that you’ve just purchased. This purchase alone is going to shift the conversation in veterinary schools because money has the ability to shift perspective pretty quickly, so we are going to watch this unfold. It will be very interesting”, she said.
And is appears this isn’t the only thing that might shift the direction of the industry in the coming years.
“I think the biggest change we’re going to see is microbiology”, said Habib. “That’s what’s going to shift this industry. Because any time somebody said, ‘prove it’, you have such a hard time proving it, right? You have the microbiology, and now you can look under a microscope and without a shadow of a doubt you can see this shift. Even in the Mars purchase, I was reading, the scientists were saying they started to see a shift in raw food because Nom Nom now is the only company, very cleverly, that was funding studies (of fresh food,) and hopefully this inspires more companies to fund studies because its only Mars and Purina and these big companies that are funding studies and it becomes very hard to shift an industry because nobody, no farmer is going to go out and grab a carrot and say here’s US$2 million prove that this carrot is better! Nobody is going to do that, right? But these companies now, hopefully, will create a small mould to show how to invest a bit in your company, invest in research, they were showing feeding ultra-processed food and then feeding Nom Nom which is a lightly cooked diet, and looked at the difference in the bio of the dogs. Science is going to shift it,” he said.
Dr Becker agrees. “We need lifetime studies, but it’s millions and millions and nobody is ever going to do that. Here is a little research on raw food and a little research on ultra-processed food and let’s track them for the next 50 years. We’re a long way off that. But health research is front and centre and incredibly telling so the beautiful part about using microbiome research is while it doesn’t take the place of lifetime studies it is an amazing stand-in for it as it allows very intelligent companies to trying to reposition their products. It allows them to start a conversation and then diversity the SKUs and offerings when it comes to the types of foods that they’re selling and marketing. The conversation is going to have to shift very quickly, and I’m so interested to see how that happens because that’s the beginning of fresh food not just being accepted but now being actively marketed by some of the biggest companies around the world,” she said.
“I AM A PET PARENT, AND I LEARNT THE HARD WAY THAT FEEDING RAW FOOD TO A DOG FROM BIRTH TO DEATH DOES NOT MAKE THAT DOG LIVE UNTIL THEY ARE 30”. – RODNEY HABIB
The Defining Moment
With so much knowledge between this animal welfare couple, fans around the world have waited for years for a book to appear.
“We were talking about writing the book for a couple of years, but we never pulled the trigger. In my mind, we could make a video and talk to 100 million people so why on earth would we waste our time with a book? But Dr Becker was coming up and literally getting into her car, flying to the airport, flying from the airport, getting onto a stage, talking to so many people, getting back into her car, and doing it over and over and it didn’t seem like it was going to happen. We were able to pull ourselves together eventually. I think it was the pressure from pet parents who were like for the love of God please write a book along with the publishing houses. Typically, you have beautiful writers who are gifted and talented like Dr Becker that want to write and go to the publishing houses and who say look I have an idea, but this was something where Harper Collins said to us ‘there has never been a book like this of its kind and we want it so please just write it and put it out in the world’”, said Habib.
“When I went about trying to figure out how I was going to write about these massive concepts, I was using a 19-year old in my brain that I had a fictious relationship with that was young and wanted to learn and who was hungry for knowledge but had no knowledge right now, and I asked myself how could I help her understand in a way that was not belittling or degrading but which got the concepts across in a way that she could implement them. She wants to do best for her dog so how can I help her do little things, just one step a day in a way that will allow her to feel empowered without being overwhelmed. I like my section on how to choose foods because I believe it crystalises the book down to some basic concepts that every pet owner needs to be aware of. We should know how to choose basic foods regardless of brand, regardless of processing, how we choose the foods that we have is important, and to also develop a food philosophy. Even when writing it, it caused me to go back and rethink about how I’ve evolved from when I was a pre-undergrad when I was a wildlife biologist, I thought differently about food then than when I become a vet. When I was a young veterinarian, I had a different food philosophy than now at 50. So, for me, food philosophy was a big A-Ha moment but the entire section on how to choose foods for me is my favourite part of The Forever Dog.
Ultimately, every pet parent wants their own dog to live forever, but quality of life perhaps needs to be looked at along with how long our dogs are living.
“My favourite part of the book was definitely the breakdown of what it would take to get a dog to live forever, right? Because longevity is a good balance between health span, how well you live and lifespan, how long you live. I am a pet parent, and I learnt the hard way that feeding raw food to a dog from birth to death does not make that dog live until they are 30. And a lot of other raw feeders have experienced that themselves. I remember sitting down with a lot of good, illuminating veterinarians who told me that ‘you feed your dog raw food and they’ll live forever’ and it couldn’t be any further from the truth. You can lock down your nutrition, have the best nutrition in the whole world but if your environment is off, if where you live is off, if your neighbour beside you is spraying stuff, if you live in a household with chronic stress, it’s like, hey man, if you think you’re just going to go out and buy raw food and your dog will live to be 30 you’ve got another thing coming. You’ve got to check off these four boxes! I think that’s the big one for me”, said Habib.
The Forever Dog is available from all good bookstores and costs £16.99.