Raw Food Diet for Pets

Benefits Versus Risks

Dog and cat

Christine Gowen, Pet HealthZone Managing Editor

I’ll admit it: I’m one of those types of pet owners—you know, the kind who takes her dogs everywhere, has a special bed for each pooch and a basket full of toys dominating the family room.

As a proud “parent” of two rambunctious Labrador retrievers, I worry about their health, happiness, and especially their diet. Labs have a tendency to pack on the pounds if you let them, and mine also have a variety of allergies.

My sister—another no-nonsense pet owner—recently suggested that I feed my Labs a raw food diet. Word around the dog park was that a raw food diet may be a natural remedy for skin ailments, amongst other things. That notion, along with the ongoing buzz about pet food recalls, piqued my curiosity.

If I’m taking the time to make organic, preservative-free food for my infant son, should I be doing the same for my dogs? What are the benefits of a raw food diet? What are the risks?

Two experienced veterinarians, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and a pet food specialist share their opinions on the hot topic.

Raw Food Diet Quick Facts

The basic concept behind a raw food diet for pets is that dogs and cats should be eating food indigenous to their species. In other words, if our pets were left on their own in the great outdoors, what would they eat?

If you’re a dog owner, you may have noticed that your canine companion has a broad appetite: Meat, fruit, dairy—cheese is the No. 1 requested treat in my house—and occasionally the tendency to graze on your prized Marathon grass like a goat clearing a field.

A raw food diet for dogs consists of raw meat; uncooked bones either whole or ground; fruit, such as apples; vegetables including broccoli, spinach and celery; raw eggs; dairy, such as yogurt; and vitamin supplements in the proper dosage.

Cats, on the other hand, can be picky eaters, preferring meat or fish and the associated “parts.” They are, after all, carnivores, not omnivores as are dogs. Cat owners may be all too familiar with the meaty trophies left at their feet by their mouse, bird or lizard hunting felines. When was the last time your cat asked for a side of veggies or fruit?

Raw food proponents believe this indigenous diet improves a pet’s energy level, promotes healthy skin, a shinier coat, cleaner teeth and overall health.

“Commercialized pet food is a one-size-fits-all mentality. The central issue is getting the best nutrition for your pet.”

Why Choose a Raw Food Diet for Your Pet?

“Dogs and cats never mastered fire,” says Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, Esq. “Their natural approach to food is raw, and why not? A raw diet is an excellent source of high quality nutrition that can’t usually be found in commercialized pet food.”

Hodgkins has more than 34 years of veterinary experience, including a 10-year stint at Hills Pet Nutrition. Later, when she was working at Heska Corporation, she helped patent the DM Dietetic Management® Feline Formula, a high-protein, low-carb kibble.

She insists that at one point in time, she considered herself least likely to recommend a raw food diet for pets. “As a vet, I got so busy tending to the medical needs of a pet rather than focusing on nutrition.”

Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins and Eddie

Hodgkins points out in her book, “Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life,” that pet food companies would have a hard time selling higher quality, human-grade pet food to the general public. So, fillers and by-products—which Hodgkins considers nutritiously unsuitable—are used to beef up the ingredients.

In the process, pet food can sometimes become contaminated. Not just with melamine, as witnessed in the Chinese-manufactured pet food recall in March 2007, but also with vitamin deficiencies/overages and e coli poisoning.

“Commercialized pet food is a one-size-fits-all mentality. The central issue is getting the best nutrition for your pet.” If you choose to create your own raw food diet for your pets by shopping for meat at the grocery store, Hodgkins strongly recommends that you include ground up raw bone, organ parts and a pet vitamin supplement.

“Feeding your pet a raw diet isn’t hard,” says Hodgkins, “it just requires some knowledge. Kentucky Fried Chicken bones are not part of a raw diet.”

In fact, cooked bones will shatter when chewed and can cause life-threatening emergencies such as choking or perforated intestines. Uncooked bones are chewable, soft cartilage rich in vitamins.

“Calcium, magnesium and phosphorus are abundant. Giving your pet meat without including raw bone is dangerous,” stresses Hodgkins. “That can create an unbalanced diet with possible long-term side affects.”

She also emphasizes the importance of researching multiple sources before embarking on a new meal plan for your companion. “Always cross research your sources to make sure you’re getting sensible advice and guidance.”

“If you’re preparing a raw food diet for your pet at home, contamination is a major concern."

What Are the Dangers of a Raw Food Diet for Pets?

A colleague of mine offered a different insight on raw food diets for pets.

“The risks well outweigh the rewards,” says Dr. Silene Young, director of marketing for VPI Pet Insurance's veterinary services. Young spent 12 years practicing as a veterinarian, as well as working in the veterinary division for Bayer HealthCare.

Dr. Silene Young with Oberon and Random

“It’s a safety and health issue for both pets and people,” explains Young. “If you’re preparing a raw food diet for your pet at home, contamination is a major concern. You may know how to handle raw meat and clean your counters and bowls, but your pet’s feces still contains live e coli and salmonella which can be tracked back into your house from the yard or a litter box.”

“For most people, creating a balanced raw food diet is too hard. If you’re pregnant, have diabetes or cancer, or there are children or senior citizens in the house, illness from exposure to bacterial contamination is a high possibility due to a suppressed immune system.”

Young also points out other risks: “Calcium, thiamin or Taurine deficiencies—do you know how much to give your dog or cat? A low dose of vitamins is a health risk to your pets, but you can overdose your pets, too. For example, you might notice joint and bone problems due to overfeeding protein.”

Balance is critical, says Young. She believes packaged pet food offers a well-rounded diet for both cats and dogs and, despite the plethora of pet food recalls, thinks that packaged pet food is the safest bet for pet owners who aren’t prepared to manage the risks of a raw food diet.

“If pet owners remain concerned about their pet’s nutrition, I’d recommend they find a packaged food with quality ingredients that meet their pet’s needs rather than switching to a raw food diet and taking a chance on compromising both their and their pet’s health.”

Besides potentially contaminating your home, a raw food diet poses other risks: Toxicity can occur over an extended period of time when you feed your pet an unbalanced diet; your pet can develop anemia due to a lack or excess of essential nutrients, and orthopedic issues such as bone fractures can occur.

“There’s simply no compelling scientific evidence for or against the nutritional performance of an appropriately formulated raw food diet for adult pets.”

Is a Raw Food Diet More Nutritious Than Packaged Pet Food?

Hodgkins and Young present good opposing arguments for the appropriate pet diet, but I wanted the opinion of one more expert.

Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, has a PhD in animal nutrition, was a resident clinical nutritionist at the Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital at UC Davis, and is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. He has been a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine since 1987.

Clearly, when it comes to pet nutrition, Dr. Buffington is your go-to guy. He also has a good sense of humor.

Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD

“If I lined up 10 dogs for you to evaluate—each with shiny teeth and coats—you couldn’t tell me which ones were fed a raw food diet and which ones ate commercially prepared food,” says Buffington with an easygoing banter. “Ask a dog show judge to tell you, based on his evaluation of those competing in Best in Show, what the dogs are eating and he’ll laugh at you.

“There’s simply no compelling scientific evidence for or against the nutritional performance of an appropriately formulated raw food diet for adult pets.”

Buffington points out that most pet owners make an emotional decision to change their pet’s diet. “It’s not objective, because commercialized prepared food is completely balanced, and it’s certainly not economical because the daily cost to feed your pet a packaged raw food diet is 10 times what it costs for commercialized prepared food.”

Carbohydrate “fillers,” says Buffington, “are an excellent source of carbohydrates for pets. Splitting ingredients is like singling out an individual ingredient from a complex dinner and saying there’s something wrong with it. Once those fillers—such as corn, wheat, potatoes, or rice—are baked into the food, it’s a completely different meal. It’s a perfectly fine, balanced diet for pets.”

That being said, Buffington doesn’t have a bone to pick when it comes to the concept of a raw food diet for pets.

“It can be done and it can be easy to prepare,” he explains cautiously. “However, while there’s no evidence that a raw food diet leads to a better outcome for pets, it’s possible that it could lead to a bad outcome which is something people need to consider.

“There are clearly risks associated with preparing food at home. Compare that to the small risk of contamination in commercially prepared pet food. Not to mention, you can have an entire loss of nutrients by preparing food in your own kitchen.”

He recommends that pet owners who prefer to whip up a homemade meal for pets use online tools such as BalanceIt.com or PetDiets.com. These “fresh pet food solutions” were created by Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition to provide formulated diet software and supplements that can be adapted for a raw food diet. For those concerned about bacteria contamination Buffington suggests visiting the USDA Web site for tips on handling raw meat safely.

“In my perception, both a balanced raw food diet and commercially prepared food lead to the same outcome. This is a personal decision based on the health and welfare of your pet, not the ingredients of the food.”

“I agree with veterinarians—if you’re going to try to feed your pets a raw food diet, you’ve got to do it right.”

Alternatives to a Homemade Raw Food Diet

After speaking with the pet nutritionist virtuoso, I decided to take an up close and personal look at raw food options for pets.

Carrie Hyde

Carrie Hyde is the co-owner of The Organic Paw, a boutique pet food store in Southern California. The store is neatly organized as not to overwhelm shoppers; shelves are lined with a few select pet food brands such as Bravo, Great Life, Orijen, Ziwi Peak and Stella & Chewy’s and informational pamphlets and tutorial videos on the products are easy to spot.

Hyde, a former veterinary technician herself, has been studying pet nutrition throughout her 30 years in the pet care industry.

“I agree with veterinarians—if you’re going to try to feed your pets a raw food diet, you’ve got to do it right,” insists Hyde, who feeds her 14-year-old golden retriever, Joy, a raw food diet. Hyde, who also owns a pet spa called The Spaw, believes that she’s seen positive side effects of a raw food diet in her pet clients, such as a healthier coat, cleaner teeth and higher energy levels.

She acknowledges, however, that the risk of bacterial contamination and the potential to overdose or limit your pet’s vitamin supplements is possible, which is why she sells prepared raw food meals for dogs and cats. This pet food, also regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials and the USDA, offers a balanced diet with the proper dosage of supplements such as calcium, phosphorus and Taurine, without grain, fillers, artificial preservatives, colorings, added hormones or antibiotics.

“This takes the guesswork out of the equation for pet owners who are interested in a raw food diet,” says Hyde. “Some of the raw food brands, such as Ziwi Peak, offer freeze-dried kibble for those who don’t want to handle raw patties.”

There’s even an option for immune suppressed pet owners. “Stella & Chewy’s has a patented process that removes all pathogens from the raw food, whether you buy the freeze-dried food or raw patties, so you don’t have to worry about contamination.”

Packaged raw dog food from Primal

Hyde also sells specialized grain-free dog and cat food for those who aren’t ready to switch their pets to a raw food diet. “The benefits of a grain-free food are also positive for pets who may have allergies to fillers, or for owners who want to feed their pets a higher quality food with a few simple ingredients.”

Like Buffington, she thinks pet owners should manage their expectations when it comes to introducing a raw food diet or grain-free kibble.

“The cost of buying packaged raw food or grain-free food is higher than what you might spend if you tried to make the meals yourself or compared to a bag of pet food from a retail chain store,” says Hyde. “Also, you won’t see results overnight. It could take a few weeks before you notice a difference in your pet’s energy, condition of her coat, or whether or not she is still showing the signs of an allergic reaction to something she’s eating.”

The bottom line: Pet owners have a variety of choices these days for feeding their dogs and cats. Being knowledgeable about your options is the first step toward deciding what’s best for your family—fur kids included.

Tonight, mine will be chowing down a healthy, balanced meal. Will it be raw? Grain free? Or mass-produced, commercially prepared kibble? Whichever, they’ll happily lick their bowls clean, as usual.


Return to the Pet Health Zone

Christine Gowen and Shelby

Christine Gowen, managing editor of the VPI Pet HealthZone, has enjoyed a menagerie of pets throughout her lifetime, including dogs, cats and exotic critters such as guinea pigs, hamsters, black-hooded rats, a mouse, and even a chicken. She is the proud parent of four kids—two of which are her beloved Labrador retrievers.

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