Feeding your Pet Raw Food Diet | Author: Dr. Cliff Redford, Veterinarian
Over the last 20 years, pet ownership has increased exponentially and the veterinary industry has seen a massive increase in raw meat diets for pets, particularly dogs. We commonly refer to them as Bones and Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Food (both create the acronym BARF). Champions of these types of pet diets are some of the most passionate advocates we veterinarians have ever seen. They believe that dogs, and to lesser degree cats, still share the same digestive system as their wild ancestors. Therefore they conclude, their pets should eat the same way. Many express concerns about commercial kibble containing too many grains and corn, which are nutrient-poor and too high in carbohydrates. In certain circumstances, those concerns are not unfounded.
Reported Benefits of a Raw Food Diet
Pet owners who transition their pet to a raw food diet (BARF) often report that their pets develop a shinier coat and healthy skin, nice teeth, smaller stools and have more energy. Owners of working dogs, like racing greyhounds, commonly feed them muscle meat on the bone. Without a proper scientific study, however, the health benefits of feeding pets a raw food diet remain anecdotal. Even if you strongly believe in the benefits, none of the signs provide a guarantee of better health. To balance the argument, pet owners must also clearly understand the risks that come with raw food diets.
Risks of Feeding your Pet a Raw Food Diet
Countless studies have shown raw food diets to be nutritionally imbalanced and the list of concerns veterinarians have with this matter is endless. So let’s just focus on one of them: The ratio of calcium and phosphorus. A dog’s body requires both of these essential minerals in the right quantity, as well as in an equal 1:1 ratio. Puppies and large breed dogs will suffer serious negative effects of any imbalance in the quantity and ratio of calcium and phosphorus.
Raw food diets are very high in meat and meat protein. They are also so highly loaded with phosphorus that you will not be able to balance even if you add calcium as a supplement. As your pet’s body detects high levels of phosphorus without the ability to level it out, it will start to pump calcium into the blood by leaching it from its bones. This creates a very dangerous situation that can eventually lead to osteoporosis and loose, unhealthy teeth.
Most meat, even the ones designed for human consumption, contains viable parasite cysts. These parasites, usually tapeworms, hookworms or whipworms, lie dormant waiting to be ingested by a creature who loves raw meat and doesn’t know better. Pets with a parasite infection develop diarrhea, blood within the stool, weight loss, a poor coat, a bloated abdomen, vomiting and even a cough. Intestinal parasites can easily transmit to humans and make pet owners very sick as well. Consequently and unfortunately, we commonly treat patients on BARF diets with gastrointestinal parasites and the associated health ramifications.
Everyone knows that raw chicken, beef, fish, pork, all contain dangerous bacteria. It is why we wash our hands thoroughly after preparing the raw meat for the BBQ. We also cook it thoroughly before eating it. When you feed your pet a raw meat diet, you expose them to food covered in germs. These include escherichia coli, salmonella spp, klebsiella spp., and more.
Some will argue that pets are descendants of wolves and wild cats. They can handle the bacteria, and we don’t disagree. Only rarely do we see pets with bacterial infections, but when it occurs, the effects are extreme and serious. The real problem related to this issue is the risk of bacterial exposure to humans.
The University of Guelph conducted a study in the early 2000s with dogs on a raw food diet versus two control groups, one that was fed commercial kibble, and the other that was fed cooked meat. All the dogs on the raw food diet tested positive with pathogenic bacteria swabbed off of their backs. Consequently, if you feed raw meat to your pet, you risk coming into contact with dangerous bacteria every time you touch its fur or allow it to lick you or jump into your bed. You run the same risk as tossing a piece of raw chicken on your duvet. Raw meats are not safe for your pets or you.
If you still remain unconvinced, then here is one last fact regarding modern commercially prepared kibble versus raw meat diets. The average wolf lives only 4 years in the wild. In captivity, where they are primarily fed commercial kibble, they live longer. And that is the most important point we can make in this article!
Reputable commercial pet food brands assess the nutritional status of their products after processing and cooking. When they discover imbalances, they add vitamins to ensure optimal quality. We always recommend commercial pet food for this reason. You might consider a home-cooked meal once in a while when your pet is ill and convalescing, for example. But do not make this a part of their daily diet. Without a doubt, your pet will live a healthier and longer life on commercially prepared foods, plain and simple!
If you are considering transitioning your pet to a raw food diet because of your dissatisfaction with the quality of commercial kibble, come in and see us first for a nutrition consultation. We can recommend brands from your local pet store and even offer veterinarian brands exclusively available to our clients at the clinic and online. We often carry small-sized packages that your pet can sample for free. Ask us lots of questions, expect answers and then ask more questions if you are still unsure. And always remember to be kind to animals!
ABOUT DR. CLIFF
Dr. Cliff Redford, DVM, is an experienced veterinarian and owner/operator of the Wellington Veterinary Hospital in Markham Ontario. Fondly known as Dr. Cliff to his clients, he has tended to the wellness of pets and animals for over two decades. Hands-on experience in his clinic, combined with animal advocacy and rescue missions locally and across the globe, has allowed him to curate a vast body of knowledge on animal health and welfare, including preventative counselling, soft tissue surgery, advanced dental procedures, internal medicine and emergency care.