The disappointment down the phone line was almost audible, and I didn’t enjoy having caused it. I was giving an interview to a filmmaker wanting to show the benefits of raw food diets but I had to start by clearing the air.
“I’m really sorry,” I said, “there just isn’t any evidence for health benefits in dogs on raw diets.”
Of course, I immediately added that I’m not against raw diets either. It’s just that we’re in a knowledge vacuum. I would be overjoyed if a peer-reviewed study showed that dogs on raw diets had improved health outcomes.
I also know dogs who have definitely benefited from a switch to raw diets. Here are some examples:
Possible Raw Diet Benefits
- Dogs’ coats do seem to get shinier. This is probably due to higher fat levels in raw diets.
- Weight management may be easier.
- It’s quite common for dogs with unexplained chronic diarrhoea to get better on raw diets.
- Some skin cases also improve, like the filmmaker’s dog.
Dogs in the last two groups probably have intolerances to ingredients in commercial diets not found in home prepared foods.
But the fact remains: where is the evidence? A big part of the problem may be how hard it is to collect the evidence in the first place. You can read what makes a good scientific study here but particular problems may be:
- Lack of funding: no big wealthy company ‘owns’ raw diets so there’s a smaller pot of research funds. There isn’t much money for pet care research in the first place.
- Study design: to show health benefits a study needs good numbers of dogs in paired groups to have the statistical power to detect differences.
- Opposition: many members of the animal care industry are against raw diets and aren’t likely to support such research.
- Uncertain effect: it’s also possible that despite individual successes raw diets may not actually benefit dogs as a whole.
My opinion is that a well-designed raw diet is likely to be at least equal to feeding a complete and balanced commercial formula. Notice, however, that I said well-designed. The complexity of nutrition means it’s easy to make mistakes.
I’m not talking about relatively minor matters, like whether the diet has grains or not, I’m talking about diets bad enough to kill. Four great examples immediately come to mind.
Example 1: Pancreatitis
Most normal dogs can tolerate higher fat levels in their diet but for some dogs, it can lead to pancreatitis. Whenever vets see a vomiting dog with a sore abdomen, the first thing they think about is this common disease.
Example 2: Puppies and kittens pre-1970
I have the great advantage of being able to draw on the experience of vets who worked in the 1960s. Yes, that’s my parents. If you ask them what were the major problems in the time before pet foods one of their answers will be “diet”.
Simply, diets need a very precise ratio of calcium to phosphorus. Both too high or too low have their own negative effect on bone development. The minute you separate meat (high phosphorus) from bone (high calcium) you’re in trouble without analysis.
If you get these levels wrong, especially in growing animals, their bones will weaken. While a bowed leg is itself a permanent problem, when the spine collapses it can be fatal.
Example 3: Cats on certain pet meats
Australia has an ongoing problem with pet food regulation or the lack of it. One cheery example is that if you feed a certain ‘fresh’ pet meat to your cat without adding other foods, they will die of thiamine deficiency. It’s a terrible way to go.
Then there’s the recent debacle with BFF foods or the previous one with Orijen foods. It keeps happening because cats are both picky eaters and highly specialised at the same time. That’s a recipe for disaster if you don’t get it just right.
Example 4: Kids with Salmonella
It’s been shown that when pet foods contain Salmonella kids also catch it and get sick. Dogs and cats actually hardly show the signs, but it’s very serious in young humans I’m told.
Now consider the fact that around 38.8% of any fresh poultry sold for human consumption in Australia is contaminated with Salmonella. It won’t be any lower in pet food store products.
Should I Feed A Raw Diet??
An overweight dog on a raw diet is like a smoker being a fan of superfoods. The biggest nutritional threat to dog and cat health isn’t which diet you choose, it’s how much you feed. This represents a real health emergency and is only getting worse. While it’s possible that raw diets may cause less obesity, I see overweight dogs and fat cats on all diet types and this has to be our first focus.
I’m very comfortable that dogs on well-made raw diets are healthy but costs and inconvenience are a factor. For the majority of dog and cat owners, commercial foods are a safe and reliable base for good nutrition. For those that prefer to use raw diets, it’s important to accept a higher risk if you go it alone.
How To Make Raw Diets Safer
Here are some easy ways to reduce the chance of accidental harm.
Don’t Use Poultry
Tests on Australian meats at the retail level show that lamb and beef have a Salmonella contamination rate of only 0.1 to 0.6%. That’s not zero, but it’s a lot better than 38%. Our meat inspection and hygiene system generally works well, just not for chicken. Raw mince is also more likely to be hazardous and is best avoided too.
Commercial raw BARF diets utilising poultry have been shown to be contaminated by Salmonella as well.
Buy Only Human Grade Meats
I love the independents and I’m very sorry for what I’m about to say. The only thing you have to go on when buying fresh pet meats in Australia is trust. Our pet food industry has no recall or reporting system, and food hygiene standards are not enforced. That means we’re all in the dark.
I’ve looked at the raw food company websites and I can’t find any that test their batches for microbial contamination. The low Salmonella figures above only relate to meats from your local butcher or supermarket. The whole human supply chain from farm to you is tightly regulated.
Batch testing may not matter if food is prepared obsessively. Excellent manufacturers will meticulously clean their equipment, only use quality meats, adhere to best before dates and practise strict hygiene. We should be shouting their names from the rooftops. If your shop leads by this example, leave us a comment below telling us how!
Wait Until Adulthood
As I said earlier, growing animals are at much higher risk if the diet isn’t balanced. Adults can be a lot more flexible without harm.
Don’t Feed Meat Alone
Too many raw diets are essentially just meat and treat diets. That’s not good. Dogs are adapted to a more varied omnivorous diet than their wolf cousins. I would add rice, but if you don’t want to use grains, try pumpkin, carrot, peas or sweet potato. You can also add fruits except for grapes. I also recommend raw bone feeding for most dogs.
This finding should be interpreted with caution, with regard to the question of whether commercial food per se is protective against mammary tumors, because of the potential influence of other factors. For example, in most of the dogs eating homemade food, a high frequency of consumption of table scraps and treats occurred.
I see cats that manage to get by on mainly raw chicken necks but it’s not safe enough for me. Plus cats usually will only eat chicken so you have to accept the whole Salmonella thing (as I do).
A good compromise is to give cats at least 50% commercial food just as a safety net for all their odd requirements. And grass too!
Avoid Extra Fats
Despite the popularity of coconut oil in human nutrition, vets advise against its use in dogs. Addition of any fats or oils to diets will inevitably increase the risk of pancreatitis.
Are Vets Biased?
In conclusion, I would also like to say a word about vets and conflicts of interest. Much has been said about vets selling the same foods they recommend, and I agree it looks bad. The best and worst thing that happened here to vets has been the rise of the big pet stores like PetStock and PetBarn, and more lately the online sellers.
The funding of vet courses by food companies is also unfortunate, but given the needs of universities, that’s unlikely to change. However, I don’t think it’s money well spent. The intelligence and independent-mindedness of the students that come through our practice speak highly of their ability to make up their own minds. Vets aren’t one giant homogenous mass; in fact, it’s more often our differences that stand out, not our similar views!
Yes, plenty of vets are opposed to raw diets, but they will honestly believe in the advice they give, just as others believe raw diets are great. We can only hope time will tell.
Behravesh, C. B., Ferraro, A., Deasy, M., Dato, V., Moll, M., Sandt, C., … & Urdaneta, V. (2010). Human Salmonella infections linked to contaminated dry dog and cat food, 2006–2008. Pediatrics, 126(3), 477-483.
Fearnley, E., Raupach, J., Lagala, F., & Cameron, S. (2011). Salmonella in chicken meat, eggs and humans; Adelaide, South Australia, 2008. International journal of food microbiology, 146(3), 219-227.
Finley, R., Ribble, C., Aramini, J., Vandermeer, M., Popa, M., Litman, M., & Reid-Smith, R. (2007). The risk of salmonellae shedding by dogs fed Salmonella-contaminated commercial raw food diets. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 48(1), 69.
Phillips, D., Jordan, D., Morris, S., Jenson, I., & Sumner, J. (2008). A national survey of the microbiological quality of retail raw meats in Australia. Journal of food protection, 71(6), 1232-1236.
Rhoades, J. R., Duffy, G., & Koutsoumanis, K. (2009). Prevalence and concentration of verocytotoxigenic Escherichia coli, Salmonella enterica and Listeria monocytogenes in the beef production chain: a review. Food microbiology, 26(4), 357-376.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. Like or follow our page or subscribe via email to read the latest.