The month of August is also known as “Rawgust” for both people and pets. Have you wondered if all the hype about raw food for your four legged friend is real? Have you considered switching from commercial kibble to raw food for your pet? The practice of raw feeding is still highly debated in veterinary, behavioral, and nutritional circles. There are many anecdotes about how well a pet has done with a raw diet and there are just as many veterinarians who do not recommend it.
There’s no “perfect” pet food out there. We all have to decide for ourselves with the help of the experts (of which I am not one!) what is best for our four legged family members. But if you have been curious about the new raw feeding trend, then read on my friend!
What is raw food?
The concept of a raw food diet is based on the carnivorous nature of dogs and cats. We know that dogs are pretty good scavengers (especially when you have steak thawing on the counter) and cats are obligate carnivores, meaning meat is biologically essential to their survival. Therefore, many people have seen a reason to start feeding their pets closer to what their ancestors would have eaten in the wild, raw meats and plants. A raw food diet consists mainly of animal protein, including muscle meat, bones (either whole or ground), organs (such as liver or kidney), and raw egg or eggshell. In addition, raw diets should also include fruits and vegetables, some dairy (like yogurt), and supplements to balance the meal.
According to a US News article, a study on pet diets performed in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom is showing a new trend. “New research found that only 13% of dog owners and about one-third of cat owners exclusively fed their pets conventional pet foods as their main meals all of the time. Nearly two-thirds of dogs and about half of cats were given homemade meals at least some of the time. And more than two-thirds of pooches and more than half of kitties sometimes got raw meals.”Fewer dogs and cats are being fed conventional, heat-processed foods,” said study author Dr. Sarah Dodd, a veterinarian and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College in Canada. “There’s nothing wrong with feeding different food sources, providing that you can obtain assurance that the diet meets nutritional requirements,” states Dodd.”
What are the pros and cons?
- According to Pets-WebMD proponents of raw diets have seen benefits such as:
- Shinier coats
- Healthier skin
- Cleaner and healthier teeth
- Higher energy levels
- Smaller stools
- Raw food diets do not contain additives, sugars, or dyes that could lead to potential digestive issues or health problems.
- If you feed a homemade raw diet you know exactly what is going into your pet’s diet. You can also adjust the amount of grain in your pet’s food. Many of us have heard about the Dilated Cardiomyopathy scare in dogs in relation to grain-free food. While I am not going to touch on that here, providing your pet with either a grain free or a whole grain inclusive diet can be easy with raw feeding. Whole grains are typically better for dogs nutritionally than highly processed grains such as corn meal, that have often lost many of their nutraceutical benefits.
- Raw feeding can potentially reduce the risk of bloat, a very serious and often fatal condition most common in deep-chested, large dogs. One study showed that dogs were less prone to bloat when eating wet food and more prone to bloat when eating dry food.
- Some pets who eat dry food tend to be dehydrated. Raw food has enough moisture to keep your pets hydrated and to reduce the strain on their liver and kidneys that dehydration can cause.
- Many veterinarians and conventional pet food experts cite the danger of raw food pathogens in both commercial and homemade raw food diets. This is a legitimate concern and there is always a risk of pathogenic contamination that is rarely present in processed canned or kibble foods. Although, all of us who feed our pets kibble know about pet food recalls as a result of contamination, so there is no completely “safe” pet food. (For more information about potential contaminants in pet foods, check out this blog post from the Holistic Pet Radio.)
- Veterinarians are also concerned about the unbalanced nature of raw food. The raw food industry is fairly unregulated at this point, much like the pet food industry as a whole was when it was developing. There are no rules, requirements, or restrictions for any commercial raw food supplier. Veterinarians worry about that lack of regulation in providing complete and balanced nutrition for our pets. Feeding your dog a whole chicken or cutting up a steak for them is also definitely not a nutritionally complete meal. There are a lot of parts to a nutritionally balanced diet for cats and dogs and vets may justifiably worry, particularly with homemade foods, that the diet is not being prepared or balanced properly.
- Raw feeding is unsuitable for some pets. Dogs with liver disease or kidney failure should not eat raw food due to the high protein content. Dogs with cancer or who are taking immunosuppressant drugs are more susceptible to bacteria and infection. Many experts caution against puppies under a year, especially large breed puppies, eating raw food. It is difficult and extremely important to balance the calcium and phosphorus in a raw diet. If they are not balanced properly the puppy could grow up with bone loss or bone deformities.
- The final concern with a raw food diet is the potential for an animal to crack a tooth or receive an internal puncture from a bone in a raw meal. Bones can potentially lodge in airways or cause bowel perforations as well. This is a legitimate concern for pets frequently eating whole bones, however, raw bones are much softer than cooked or dehydrated bones and do not often splinter when eaten. Many raw feeders will grind the bones and add them to the pet’s food to get the benefits of bone meal without the dangers of a broken bone.
- Not to mention that feeding your pet raw food is both time consuming and expensive!
How is commercial different from homemade?
According to Dr. Karen Becker, DVM, the biggest mistake that pet parents make when feeding raw to their pets is not understanding nutritional requirements for canines and felines. Many homemade diets and even some commercial raw diets can be nutritionally unbalanced, resulting in deficiencies in minerals or vitamins and ultimately causing problems for your pet. However, most commercial pet food diets are made to AAFCO standards and include all necessary nutrients for your pets. Pet parents making their pet’s diets at home must learn how to vary protein types, include fiber or roughage as well as fruits and vegetables, and add necessary vitamins, minerals, and supplements to keep their pets eating a balanced diet.
Another difference between commercial and homemade raw food diets is the protein processing. When you purchase meat from the store for your pet you can run the normal risk of having non-sterile meats in your home, just like when you do when you purchase chicken or hamburger for your dinner. There is always the chance of contamination or inclusion of pathogens in human-grade meat. However, many commercial raw diets are created using High-Pressure Pasteurization (HPP) to sterilize the food to reduce any possible pathogens. I’m not saying that process is perfect but it does carry a somewhat lower risk, than accidentally coating your kitchen counter in chicken necks.
Where can you get it?
Many commercial raw foods (either freeze dried or frozen) are available now at your local pet stores. Brands like Stella and Chewy’s, Nature’s Variety Instinct, and Primal are frequently sold in local or small chain pet supply stores like Chuck and Don’s, Bentley’s and Pet Valu.
Another option for purchasing raw food is a delivery service. Some raw food brands provide a delivery service right to your door. Companies like Darwin’s, Nature’s Logic, and Raw Bistro will deliver frozen raw meals nationwide. For a more comprehensive list of raw food providers look at Primal Pooch’s guide.
The third and final option for purchasing a raw diet instead of making it yourself is a local store. Those of us who live in the Twin Cities are lucky enough to have Woody’s Pet Food Deli, which provides nutritionally balanced and customized raw diets with a variety of proteins. Many of these stores are opening in urban areas and some in smaller rural areas as well. Check with your local pet food store to see if there are any near you.
What are veterinarians saying?
This is one of the most debated subjects in the pet world. (Although don’t even get a veterinarian started on immunizations!) Many conventional veterinarians are opposed to raw food diets. Lisa M Freeman, DVM, PhD, evaluated several raw diets and cautions owners against them due to a lack of science-based research. She states that several of the benefits raw feeders claim, such as shinier coat, are a result of a high-fat diet, which most raw diets are. A commercial high-fat diet would have the same results without the danger of being unbalanced. Freeman recommends a cooked homemade diet with proper supplements created by a veterinary nutritionist for those pet parents who do not want to feed their pets commercial foods.
On the other hand, veterinary clinics like Holistic Veterinary Healing in Maryland utilize pet food therapy on a daily basis and support the feeding of BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) to minimize digestive issues, behavioral issues, allergies, and skin/coat problems. Lisa Pierson, DVM, a well respected holistic veterinarian who focuses on feline care fully supports raw feeding for cats and has even developed specific recipes for pets with Irritable Bowel Disease, Chronic Kidney Disease, or Urinary Tract Infections.
Ultimately, there is no real consensus between the experts in the pet food industry on what is the best type of food to feed your pets. But most agree that varying your proteins and brands to provide a wider and more interesting range of food and doing your research before switching to a new trendy diet is important. Raw feeding is not for every pet and every owner. The vast majority of commercial pet foods, both kibble and canned, are made to be nutritionally balanced and abide by AAFCO standards. There’s nothing wrong with feeding your dog these diets, and in some cases, your vet may recommend a specific kibble diet. You can also supplement their diet with snacks like raw bones and fruits and veggies that pets can eat. They’re healthy and are also a great way to reward your furry family members for being awesome!
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