Following the trend in human nutrition, raw food diets for pets have gained popularity in recent years, touting benefits anywhere from minimizing poop volume to curing cancer and skin allergies. While making the effort to reduce preservatives and increase the proportion of whole foods in your loved one’s diet is an excellent decision, feeding raw food is not the best solution.
The BARF, or ‘Bones and Raw Food’ diet made its way into the pet food scene back in the early 1990s. Raw diets, which may be homemade or commercial, constitute about 1% of all pet food made in the USA, and normally consist of a range of foods including: muscle and organ meats (such as liver and kidneys), whole and/or ground bones, raw eggs, vegetables, and sometimes dairy or fruit. There are numerous anecdotal reports of benefits not only to pets, but to their carers, too: easier weight management, reduced stool volumes, shinier coats and skin, elimination of allergies, better breath – you name it! Unfortunately, none of these claims have been scientifically validated, meaning that we’re unable to draw any universal conclusions from these declarations.
Advocates often favor raw food diets because they better reflect what dogs would be eating in the wild. This claim seems reasonable, although fails to account for the 10,000+ years of domestication during which time dogs were exposed, and congruently evolved to eat, cooked starches and grains, offered to them by their human companions. We also need to question how much they truly mimic the ‘diet of the wild’ given how protein-heavy they are: high-value muscle and organ meats would’ve been much harder to come by for this historically scavenging species.
Diets may not only be too rich in protein, they may also lack essential nutrients such as the correct calcium: phosphorus ratio, or be too high in vitamin A, leading to toxicity. This is in comparison to commercial diets, which undergo rigorous scientific testing and scrutiny to ensure that they are nutritionally balanced and food safe. Bones or bone fragments in raw diets can also result in intestinal obstruction or perforation, gastroenteritis and fractured teeth.
But the biggest concern by far is food safety – not only for your pet, but also for your family. Meat (including beef, turkey, chicken and pork) farmed using modern agricultural practices has higher levels of bacterial contamination due to the way the animals are raised. This is normally not an issue when it’s cooked properly, because cooking kills bacteria. But when fed raw to your pet, the bacteria can not only make them sick, but also carry through their intestinal system and contaminate your family’s environment – posing a life-threatening risk to you. A two-year study of 1000 dog and cat food samples conducted by the FDA showed that, compared to other types of pet food tested, raw pet food was more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes (no commercial wet or dry dog food tested positive). Listeriosis has a mortality rate of 20 to 30 percent in people, so this is not something to be taken lightly. Salmonella has been the proven culprit of illness in dogs fed raw diets and Salmonella has been found in the stool of sled dogs and racing greyhounds fed raw diets.-5
If the Centre for Disease Control, American Veterinary Medical Association, and Food and Drug Administration, all feel the benefits of feeding raw diets are not worth the risk, perhaps it’s something for us pet parents to be appropriately cautious about, too.