Raw Food Diet

The following was excerpted from an article published in the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association Newsletter earlier this year.

In recent years, raw food diets have become popular among certain pet owners. Many veterinarians believe that raw diets are not only inferior but can also be dangerous for our pets.

Recently Dr. Lisa Freeman, a veterinarian who is a board certified veterinary nutritionist, discussed raw food diets at a Public Health and Communicable Disease Discussions – Raw Meats Diets. She recommends that raw food diets should not be fed. She gives four reasons not to feed these diets.

  1. Nutritional imbalance:
    Dr.Freeman and another board certified veterinary nutritionist studied all five commercially available raw diets and homemade raw diets. They found all of the diets to be nutritionally deficient. These imbalances (both deficiencies and excesses) could put a pet at risk for health problems, especially growing puppies.
  2. Physical dangers:
    Pets fed these diets are at risk for broken teeth and gastrointestinal obstruction or perforation created by bones incorporated in some of these diets.
  3. Bacterial contamination:
    There is increasing evidence and significant concern about the bacteria in raw food diets including E coli and Salmonella. The risk of exposure exists for pets eating these diets, people handling these diets, and people exposed to pets which eat raw food diets. Studies have shown that 20% – 80% of raw food diets are contaminated with Salmonella. A 2007 study demonstrated that dogs fed one feeding of Salmonella contaminated raw diet shed the bacteria in their stool for up to 7 days after consuming the contaminated diet. Salmonella can cause serious or even fatal infections in both pets and people.
  4. Misconceptions:
    Many proponents will claim nearly miraculous benefits of raw diets, yet many of the perceived benefits may be due to factors other than the raw form. For example owners often feel that their pet’s coat is shinier on raw diets. This observation may be true and probably is the result the high fat content in most of these diets. However this can also be accomplished with cooked diets which also have higher fat contents.

Top Ten Myths about Raw Meat Diets

  1. “Their benefits are proven.” No scientific studies have shown benefits of raw food diets. Their appeal is based on word of mouth, testimonials, and perceived benefits. For example, raw food diets may result in a shiny coat and small stools because they are generally high in fat and digestibility. However, these same properties can be achieved with commercial cooked diets without the risks of raw meat diets.
  2. “This is what animals eat in the wild.” Wolves in the wild do eat raw meat (in addition to berries, plants, etc). However, the average lifespan for a wolf in the wild is only a few years. Therefore, what is nutritionally “optimal” for a wolf is not optimal for our pets that we hope will live long and healthy lives.
  3. “Dogs and cats have short gastrointestinal tracts so won’t get infections from Salmonella in raw meat diets.” Dogs’ and cats’ gastrointestinal tracts are not shorter compared to people when viewed in proportion to their smaller body size. Dogs and cats can become infected with Salmonella and other bacteria found in raw meat diets, just as people can (especially young, old, or immune suppressed individuals).
  4. “Raw food diet ingredients are human grade.” Even meats purchased at the best of stores for people can be infected with bacteria, so purchasing “human grade” does not protect against the health risks of uncooked meats (would you eat raw hamburger?). Also, be aware that the term “human grade” has no legal definition for pet food.
  5. “Freezing raw diets kills bacteria.” Most of the bacteria found in raw meat diets can easily survive freezing.
  6. “As long as bones are raw, they’re safe.” Bones, whether raw or cooked, can fracture dogs’ and cats’ teeth. Bone also can block or tear the esophagus, stomach, or intestine.
  7. “Cooking destroys enzymes needed for digestion.” All the enzymes that dogs and cats (and people) need for digestion are already in the gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, additional enzymes from food are not required for digestion. In fact, enzymes are proteins, so any enzymes that are eaten get broken down by the body and have no benefit in the digestion process.
  8. “Grains are added to pet foods as fillers.” Corn, oats, rice, barley, and other grains are healthy ingredients that contain protein, vitamins, and minerals; they are not added as fillers. There is no benefit of potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, or oatmeal compared to other carbohydrate sources, unless the animal has specific health problems.
  9. “Most commercial pet foods contain harmful ingredients.” By-products. By-products are the animal parts that Americans don’t typically eat, such as livers, kidneys, or lungs. There are specific definitions for what by-products can and cannot include. For example, by-products must be the clean parts of slaughtered animals and cannot include feathers, hair, horns, teeth, and hooves. Basically, by-products are anything other than animal muscle. Note that some pet foods may actually list these ingredients (e.g., duck liver, beef lung) but these are really just “by-products.”
  10. “If bones or chicken necks are added to raw meat diets, they’re nutritionally balanced.” Most homemade (and even some commercial) raw meat diets are extremely deficient in calcium and a variety of other nutrients, even if chicken necks, bones, or egg shells are added. This can be disastrous in any animal but especially in young, growing pets.