By Katie Marsico
These days, pet-meal plans are as varied and complex as human diets, and pet guardians struggle to keep up with trends and research. One diet that has proven both popular and controversial is the raw-food diet for dogs, a plan rooted in the consumption of raw meat and vegetables. Proponents of the diet proclaim that it produces healthier animals that are more in tune with what canines eat in the wild, while critics claim the plan is riddled with health risks. Everyone seems to agree that more research needs to be done, but in the meantime, what’s best for your pet?
Pet guardians who follow the principles of the raw diet believe that a combination of raw meat, bones, and vegetable matter is superior to pre-cooked kibbles and canned food. They feel it mimics the dietary components canines digest in the wild and is a healthy alternative to the grains and processed elements that are in commercial food. Advocates of raw food say it improves coat quality and reproduction and reduces inflammatory and allergic diseases. According to Dr. Craig Ruaux, DVM, of the Louis B. Acheson Teaching Hospital at Oregon State University in Corvallis, rawfood feeding can also have dental benefits.
“Oral diseases such as gingivitis and periodontal-abscess formation can ultimately prove a significant problem for many pets, and I agree with many raw-food advocates that oral health tends to be better in dogs that chew bones.” Even nutritional experts who don’t advocate the raw-food diet admit that taste preference makes it popular among canines. Linda Case, MS, teaches at the University of Illinois’ College of Veterinary Medicine in Champaign. She is not a proponent of the raw-food diet but concedes that many dogs may prefer the taste.“It’s true that you may put a bowl of raw meat down, and your pet will go nuts for it, but pet guardians too often use food as a way to show love. It’s critical that they also consider all the health issues.”
One concern among critics of the raw-food diet is the risk of bone splinters perforating certain oral and digestive organs. Dr. Claudia Kirk, DVM, associate professor of medicine and nutrition at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, is adamant that she would never feed her dogs a raw-food meal plan.
“Apart from everything else,” Kirk says, “there are health issues related to infectious organisms such as salmonella and E. coli. While most adult dogs have great tolerance to consumed bacteria, certain animals are susceptible to infections, as are pet guardians who prepare the food.” Kirk also warns that high levels of ground-bone intake can sometimes predispose dogs to bloody colitis and constipation.
Ruaux advises pet guardians to look at an animal’s individual needs when considering a raw-food diet. “The dietary requirements of dogs vary dramatically between breeds and are also dependent on factors such as specific health problems, life stage, and an animal’s size. This means that you need to be aware of these issues and tailor a meal plan accordingly.” Should you opt to switch to any new diet, Kirk recommends a short transitional period where new foods are gradually introduced. She also cautions pet guardians who are thinking about mixing raw and commercial food that variety can be both a positive and negative force within a dog’s meal plan. “With picky eaters, a varied diet can enhance appetite and maintain weight. Different foods on a regular basis can be bad if an animal decides it only likes a certain food that is not nutritionally balanced. In this instance, a dog might be prone to an increased risk for obesity.” Regardless of how experts feel about the raw-food diet for dogs, most agree that research and consultation with a pet’s health-care provider are critical to any meal plan. “The ‘one size fits all’ approach simply doesn’t work when it comes to an animal’s nutritional needs,” Ruaux says. “One of the primary benefits I see to the rawfood diet is that it reminds people that managing their pet’s meal plan is complex and involves a great deal of involvement and effort. It’s more than simply dumping food in a bowl.”