Having been in veterinary practice for over 30 years, I have seen many pet care fads come and go. Pet owners are always anxious to find new ways to keep their pets healthier and happier. In many cases, this drives the unscrupulous or misinformed to put forward products and ideas that are at best useless and at worst, quite harmful. Feeding raw diets is one of those fads that has become more popular in the past few years. Many of the proponents of raw diets are quite adept at presenting pet owners with seemingly convincing arguments about the advantages of these diets. I would like to present some information explaining the risks of feeding these diets and to dispel some of the misinformation that is used to support this practice.
The most compelling argument against feeding a raw diet is the possibility of food poisoning. We all know the importance of proper food hygiene and proper cooking practices. The effects of eating contaminated and under cooked beef, poultry and pork can be extremely serious. The meats we consume are regulated by the USDA. A piece of meat contaminated due to poor handling practices is removed from the human food chain. Obviously, this system is far from perfect. However, food designated for animal consumption is essentially unregulated. That same contaminated piece of meat could be used in a commercially prepared raw diet without violating any law or regulation. Many of the companies preparing these foods claim to adhere to human food quality standards, but this is impossible to verify. These companies also claim that their processing techniques eliminate most of the infection potential. However, a recent study at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine demonstrated that nearly 8% of commercially produced raw diets were contaminated with either salmonella, e. coli, or listeria. These organism can make pets very sick and have the potential to spread to their owners.
Almost every veterinarian I know can relate a story of a pet who became quite ill after owners started feeding a raw diet. A few of these pets actually died due to either a severe infection or a perforation of the esophagus or intestines by a piece of bone. While some pets are doing well on these diets, there is a risk every time a new package of raw food is consumed. You may get away with eating a large number of raw eggs before you eat the wrong one!
The main argument for feeding a raw diet is that it is “natural” and “just like wolves and foxes eat”. While I can’t argue with that statement, I don’t feel that it is relevant. These animal eat raw because they have no other choice. Before man discovered fire, we ate raw, but medium rare steak and the occasional well prepared sushi is as far as I am willing to go with that concept. There is no appreciable loss of protein quality when meat is cooked. If there were, we would all be protein deficient. Cooking, or over cooking, grains and vegetables may eliminate some of the nutrient content of food, but this is easily replaced or supplemented without the risks of feeding uncooked meats.
Many of the raw diet companies tout customer testimonials and the statements of supposed experts in the field of nutrition, but there has never been a peer reviewed study demonstrating any advantage of feeding a raw diet. In doing research for this post, I looked to see what nutritional experts have to say about feeding raw diets to wolves and other wild canids in captivity. At most major zoos, raw diets were abandoned years ago for captive canids in favor of commercial kibble (dry dog food) with some supplementation. These decisions were made in the best interest of the animals and in consultation with some of the top nutritionists in the world. This alone is a very strong argument against feeding your pet a raw diet.
Most of the discussion thus far relates to dogs. What about cats? Cats are true carnivores. They require more meat protein in their diets. Zoos do feed captive felids raw meat. But, for many of the reasons already mentioned, this is a bad idea for our pets. I have one client who was feeding what appeared to be a properly balanced raw diet using raw chicken as the protein source to her cats. I convinced her to start par boiling the chicken prior to mixing it with the rest of the ration. The cats never missed a meal. It is important to note that this client consulted with a veterinary nutritionist in formulating this diet to be complete and balanced.
If you are interested in formulating a home made diet for your pet, expect to pay 50-100% more for ingredients compared to a premium quality pet food. Let us help to be sure that you are feeding a diet that is balanced and complete. But, don’t take chances with the health of your pet. By purchasing your own meat, you will ensure a higher quality product and with proper cooking you will avoid the potential pitfalls of the raw diet.
Craig Wilson, DVM