Raw feeding is the practice of feeding domestic dogs, cats and other animals a diet primarily of uncooked meat, edible bones, and organs. There have been many claims about the advantages of the diet over commercial processed food and this article hopes to bring you some of the arguments for and against this way of feeding your pet to help you make up your own mind. I’ve tried to avoid bias, and present a balanced view.
Those in favour of the diet cite many health benefits to their animals but there have been few scientific studies carried out to prove or disprove these claims.
Proposed benefits for a BARF diet include:
Reduced doggy odour and ‘dog breath’.
Naturally cleans teeth – no need for toothbrushes, de-scaling, helps prevent gum disease leading to improved general health.
Chewing raw meaty bones cleans teeth and supplies minerals, but, very importantly, dogs love it!
The time it takes for a dog to chew raw meaty bones gives their stomach time to get the acids moving.
Produces firmer, more ‘pick-upable’, smaller stools.
Can reduce vet bills (healthier dogs)
Economical to feed in comparison to quality commercial dog foods.
Puppies develop at a more appropriate rate. Quick growth spurts are avoided.
Better weight control which helps to reduce the symptoms of arthritis and obesity.
Some long standing bowel problems (e.g. constant or recurrent diarrhoea) and skin problems (chewing feet, recurrent ear infections or constant scratching) can be cured with raw food and careful selection of ingredients.
In addition to the benefits claimed above, advocates propose there are problems with commercially produced foods, particularly dried kibble. In reference ot cats, kibble is a particular problem as it has to contain some sort of starch, usually grain in order to form the shapes. Cats, unlike dogs are obligate carnivores, they cannot utilize plant protein, so any ingredients from plants are wasted on them. Studies comparing the source of protein in dry cat food concluded that the digestibility of meat-based protein is superior to corn-based protein.
The intense heat used to process commercial pet food destroys and reduces nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Studies with rats showed that the digestibility of amino acids in cat food is changed significantly by heat processing.Pet food manufacturers are required to supplement the food after heat processing to replace those nutrients. Most raw feeders believe that supplements have reduced nutritional value compared to the same nutrients in raw food and that possible nutrients not yet recognized as essential by nutritional science cannot be replaced. The same rationale is used by some to reject supplemented home cooked pet food. Most owners claim a distinct change in pets’ general health once shifting towards a raw food source. Proponents of raw feeding cite as evidence for its success that the oldest dog ever recorded, a 29-year-old Australian cattle dog named Bluey, died in 1939, several years before commercial pet food was invented, and that, of the two oldest dogs in recent years, one was fed primarily on kangaroo and emu meat.
Veterinary surgeon and raw feeding proponent Tom Lonsdale states that food from dry or canned commercial kibble sticks to teeth and enables bacteria to proliferate, causing “sore gums, bad breath and bacterial poisons that affect the rest of the body”. Lonsdale further states that dogs lack the necessary enzymes to digest grains and plant material and claims that grains cooked at high temperature can cause starch, proteins and fats to become “denatured or toxic in variable degrees.” The poorly digested grain is said to support toxin-producing bacteria in the lower bowel which may eventually lead to “poisons pass[ing] through the bowel wall into blood circulation” creating further problems in other organs.
Not such a good idea?
As raw diets can range from meticulously prepared and tested to diets composed of a variety of meats and butchers’ scraps, the nutritional balance of a raw diet can vary greatly depending on the provider. However, supporters of raw feeding believe that not every meal needs to be “complete and balanced”, and that nutritional balance can be achieved over time by feeding a wide variety of meats, fats, bones and organs from several sources, such as chicken, turkey, lamb, cattle, pigs, fish, rabbits, etc., and even wild game. The general belief among the supporters of raw diets is that pets have no more complex nutritional requirements than humans, and that a variety of ingredients over time will provide the pets with a sufficiently balanced diet.
Many who oppose raw diets believe that the standards that many commercial pet food comply with gives an assurance of quality that homemade food cannot give. One study that analyzed the nutritional content of three homemade diets (BARF, Ultimate and Volhard) and two commercial raw food diets, showed that nutritional imbalances occurred in multiple areas.Three of the diets had abnormal calcium-to-phosphorus ratios which can lead to hyperparathyroidism and fibrous osteodystrophy in puppies.
A 12-month study undertaken for the Winn Feline Foundation sought to compare the effects of a whole ground rabbit diet with a high quality commercial diet on 22 kittens and adolescent cats. The ground whole rabbit diet (including fur and organs) was frozen in small batches and thawed prior to feeding. The researchers noted the superior palatability of the raw rabbit diet. Significant stool quality improvements were seen in the raw rabbit diet group after one week. After one month, the raw diet group had firm, non-odorous and well formed stools while the commercial diet group had soft formed to liquid stools. The raw diet group also appear to have better coat quality. There were no differences between the groups in terms of growth rate, degree of inflammation in the intestinal tract and the numbers of bacteria in the upper small intestine, although a slightly higher number of cats in the raw diet group were shedding pathogenic organisms (Giardia and Cryptosporidia) in their stools. Ten months into the study, one cat in the raw diet group died suddenly from dilated cardiomyopathy due to a severe taurine deficiency. 70% of the group had heart muscle change compatible with taurine deficiency. The researcher ascertained that the raw rabbit diet contained the minimal requirement of taurine but speculated that bacteria in the rabbit carcasses might have broken down some of the taurine. The processing and grinding of the rabbit might have also caused some of the taurine to be destroyed due to the low level of vitamin E in the diet. The authors conclude that “a natural diet may not always be as healthy as imagined, and that even measuring nutrient values may not predict how a diet will perform after being fed for many months.” However, this conclusion assumes that pet owners are blindly raw feeding and not researching first. Taurine is found in organ meats, particularly liver. It can also be bought as a supplement, and added to the cats’ diet, as most pet food manufacturers do. Also few raw feeders feed one prey animal exclusively, the vast majority feed from a variety of animals, chicken, beef, lamb, pork as well as rabbit and venison, depending on availability.
While the intense heat used in manufacturing pet food destroys any potential bacteria, raw meats may contain bacteria that are unsafe for both dogs and cats.The U.S. government reported that in 2006, 16.3% of all chickens were contaminated with Salmonella.A study on 25 commercial raw diets for dogs and cats detected salmonella in 20% and Escherichia coli in 64% of the diets.
Raw feeders consider the risk overblown and claim that the stomach enzymes and short intestinal tracts of dogs and cats allow them to handle harmful bacteria. For example, an outbreak of salmonellosis caused by tainted commercial dry dog food led to 62 cases of human infection but no reports of the disease affecting animals fed the tainted food. A veterinarian from the National Animal Poison Control Center suggests that the diarrhoea in animals that raw feeders attribute to detoxing could be caused by pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, Clostridium and Campylobacter.The purchase of good quality meat from reputable sources and proper food safety practices such as defrosting meat in the refrigerator and not leaving food out for too long can reduce the proliferation of bacteria present in the meat.
Raw meats may also contain harmful parasites. As with bacteria, these parasites are destroyed during the heat processing of manufactured pet foods. Some raw diet recipes call for freezing of the final product, which greatly reduces (but does not necessarily eliminate) the potential for parasites.
A survey of accredited zoos worldwide showed a slightly increased risk of parasites and diseases in animals that are carcass fed as compared to commercial food fed. However, the researchers suggested that that may be caused by increased opportunistic preying and infected live preys may be the source of contamination.
Veterinary associations such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, British Veterinary Association and Canadian Veterinary Medical Association have warned of the animal and public health risk that could arise from feeding raw meat to pets and have stated that there is no scientific evidence to support the claimed benefits of raw feeding. More recently in 2007, The Sydney Morning Herald (paraphrasing RSPCA Australia President Dr Hugh Wirth) reported that “the ‘compromise attitude’ of veterinary associations in Britain and Australia is that raw meaty bones should be fed to pets a minimum of three times a week for dental health.”
It is believed by many raw feeders that veterinarians are influenced by academic departments and professional associations that rely upon funding from pet food companies. For example, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, makers of Science Diet and a range of prescription-only food, is a major sponsor of the American Veterinary Medical Association.Many vets also sell certain diets in their surgery and receive an income from it as much as 40% of the retail amount, so it is argued that they are biased in recommended feeding methods for their clients.
Risk for humans?
A possible risk of raw feeding is that of human infection caused by direct or indirect exposure to bacterial pathogens in raw meat and animal stools. For example the British Veterinary Association warns that humans “risk exposing themselves to bacteria like Salmonella”. A small study on the levels of salmonella in the stool of 10 dogs that ate a raw diet found that 80% of the raw food tested positive for Salmonella but only 30 percent of the stool samples from the dogs fed a raw food diet contained salmonella. However none of the control dogs (commercial fed) contained Salmonella. The authors of the study concluded that dogs on a raw food diet may therefore be a source of environmental contamination, although they caution about the statistical significance of their results due to the small number of dogs studied.
Because of the potential animal and human health risks, veterinarian organizations and public health agencies believe that the risks inherent in raw feeding outweigh the purported benefits.Despite such concerns, there is no known incidence of humans being infected with salmonella by cats and dogs fed a raw diet.Again, proper food safety precautions such as wiping down preparation surfaces and careful disposal of stools can reduce the risk of infection.
After the world wide 2007 pet food recall, caused by contaminated grain from China interest in raw and cooked homemade pet food grew tremendously. As a result of that, several pet food manufacturers now offer frozen raw diet products. Some consumers believe that many of the same issues they find with commercial pet foods exist with packaged raw diets, others use it due to its convenience.
Many commercial raw pet food manufacturers now use High Pressure Pasteurization (HPP), a unique process that kills pathogenic bacteria through high-pressure, water-based technology. High Pressure Pasteurization is a 100% natural process, and is allowed for use on organic and natural products.
Want to know more and get menus and ideas please see our other article in the Food and Treat category