The raw food diet is one of the fastest growing segments of the pet food industry. Introduced about two decades ago as a miracle cure for everything from digestive ailments to seasonal allergies, the diet––which emphasizes raw meat, bones, fruits, and vegetables––has been heralded by many in the pet industry. But despite its vocal following, the raw food diet remains a controversial topic among veterinarians and other animal professionals.
In recent years, the ASPCA, the FDA, and the American Veterinary Medical Association have all come out against raw food diets. And yet, thousands of people swear it is the best thing they ever did for their pet.
Why it gets a bad rap
Any diet that’s based around whole, fresh ingredients has to be good, right? Well, it may depend on the source. In a 2001 evaluation of raw dog food diets, headed by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, researchers found that of five raw diets tested––three homemade and two commercially made––all had nutritional imbalances that could cause serious health problems when given long-term.
Beyond the nutritional concerns, there is also the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. In a 2006 FDA study of 20 commercially made raw meat diets, 7.1 percent were found to contain salmonella and 59.6 percent were found to contain E. coli. These bacteria pose risks not just to the pets who eat them, but to anyone handling the raw food––especially the very young or elderly.
Since the time of the study, though, many more commercially made raw pet foods have come on the market, including some that use high pressure processing––a technique that is said to kill pathogenic bacteria without destroying important nutrients and enzymes.
Safe food handling is important. A 2006 study in the Canadian Veterinary Journal found that standard methods of cleaning and disinfecting food bowls, such as soaking with bleach and running through the dishwasher, were ineffective at eliminating salmonella contamination. If you do feed your pet raw food, use a stainless steel bowl, which is less likely than plastic and porcelain to harbor germs over time.
Notwithstanding the risks of raw food diets, pet parents continue to feed raw meat to their dogs and cats with positive results.
Dry pet foods full of carbohydrates and preservatives are difficult for many animals to digest. Pets who have had issues with commercially processed food may greatly benefit from switching to a diet consisting of unprocessed meat, fruits, and veggies.
Raw food diets allow pet parents to more closely monitor exactly what their dog or cat is eating. This is good news for pets who have food allergies or sensitivities, as well as for pets who need to lose weight–– the high water content of raw diets fills pets up without loading on the calories.
How to do it right
If you’re thinking of switching your pet to a raw food diet, consider whether you’d like to go the homemade route or purchase commercially available raw food. Homemade diets are time-consuming to prepare, but allow you maximum control over what your dog or cat is eating. It’s not as easy as just picking up raw chicken from the butcher’s counter, as most of it is designed to be cooked and harbors a lot of bacteria. Meat should be organic and as fresh as possible. Bison, beef, and poultry are all good choices, as are organ meats like spleens, kidneys, and liver. It is best to build a meal plan, at least initially, with the help of a veterinary nutritionist.
Variety is also key, and it is critical that you understand the additional vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that need to be added for optimum health. Grind or mince fresh veggies and fruits to add to your pet’s meals. you may also consider adding a nutritional supplement. Finding the right combination can be difficult, so it is critical to consult with a professional to plan the safest and most balanced diet.
With commercially prepared foods, keep in mind that pre-made raw diets can be more expensive than dry kibble, but it’s worth the added cost for assured quality. Look for brands that have been through high pressure processing, which is the traditional method for eliminating bacteria in animal proteins.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to determine whether you think the benefits outweigh the risks. Always consult your veterinarian before making any major changes to your pet’s food.