B.A.R.F. – The Raw Diet Low Down

The practice of feeding raw food to dogs and cats came into the mainstream after the ‘The BARF Diet’ and ‘Give Your Dog A Bone’ were published. Both of these books lack any scientific evidence and are solely based on the author’s beliefs and opinions. Most people are unaware that there is actually no scientific proof to support the claims made in these books. These books have facilitated a rapid increase in the feeding of raw food. Below is a brief discussion on why your vet, especially me, is opposed to a raw diet. If you would like to discuss this more I am happy to oblige.

We are so careful to cook our own meat thoroughly, ensuring the appropriate internal temperature is achieved. Why are we so careful for ourselves and not our pets? Would you eat raw meat? In history, we can see many cases of deaths due to contaminated or undercooked meat. Just google the well known “Jack-in-the-Box” restaurant case that killed many people.

The main concerns I have with Raw fed diets are 1) Infectious Diseases 2) Nutritional Adequacy and 3) Foreign body ingestion (i.e. bone). I will discuss each very briefly below.

Have you ever been to a human-grade slaughter plant? Even when things are done to the book there will be some intestinal content, including faeces, making contact with the meat during the evisceration process (when the Gastrointestinal tract is removed from the body). In non-human grade plants, the risk is even higher. The carcas is hosed off but this is not enough to remove all pathogens, although cooking will kill any that are remaining. A recent inspection of some raw cow meat being used for animal consumption showed contamination with horse faeces.

There are many possible enteropathogens (bacteria that live in the gut) that can potentially harm or kill your pet. In addition to risks to your pet, we need to consider the possible diseases that humans can get from contacting a pet who eats raw, the contaminated environment or the raw meat itself. If you feed your pet raw you need to inform people who contact your pet, especially those that are very young, elderly, pregnant or immunocompromised.

“But I feed frozen raw”! HMMMM, think again, the storage guidelines at present for raw meat are to prevent bacterial growth, not kill contaminants. Freezing raw meat is not a useful method for decreasing or eliminating bacterial contamination. In a laboratory setting, we freeze specimens to preserve the bacteria, except for one type, Campylobacter, which does not survive freezing. So in fact, freezing raw meat just preserves the bacteria so that when it is thawed it is ready to take hold! Some zoos that feed raw meat to their exotic cats will irradiate it to kill the bacteria. This is an expensive process and many raw advocates feel it is no different than cooking and are therefore opposed to it.

In the last 6 years, I have seen 6 deaths from bacterial contamination of raw fed food. I do not see a lot of pets fed raw diets so 1 death a year is too many! I have seen many deaths due to nutritional inadequacy as well. This is worse in those young, growing puppies and kittens. It isn’t enough to add in calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D (which most Raw diets don’t add anyway) but it has to be in the correct proportion. I recently saw a 5-month-old kitten who had only ever been fed raw diet. It came in for back pain and inability to walk. On radiographs, there was osteopenia and osteoporosis with 6 spinal fractures, 2 hind leg fractures and 3 pelvic fractures as a result. This case was worked up and documented by a specialist to confirm nutritional inadequacy as a cause. The result was that I had to euthanise the sweetest kitten. When the diet lacks the appropriate balance of Calcium: Phosphorus it leaches calcium from the bone. This is bad in any age pet but when we have a pet who is still laying down new bone the result is much more drastic and devastating.

If you prefer a non-commercial diet then there are safe alternatives. Buy all the same things in the raw diet but cook it and add appropriate vitamins and minerals in the proper proportion. There is a great textbook on homemade diets and the company sells a supplement that is adequately balanced.

The final reason is the risk of possible foreign body ingestion and resultant intestinal blockage or perforation. Many raw diets contain whole bones or slivers of bone. These bones can fracture teeth, perforate (poke through or tear) the intestinal tract or cause a complete blockage. One case I will never forget is a small dog named ‘Zozo’. She and her housemate were both being fed raw food. At meal time late one Saturday, Zozo frantically swallowed a large bone to prevent her mate from getting it. It was too large to enter the stomach and therefore sat in the oesophagus causing major stress and pain. The edges of the bone were sharp and therefore it could not be pulled out due to the risk of lacerating the oesophagus.

Emergency surgery was needed. No one local had the appropriate equipment so that meant a stressful drive to Guelph from Belleville. I have had many other memorable cases where bones were stuck– a huge chicken bone stuck and stretching a small chihuahua’s stomach! Ouch. A great Dane with a small sliver of bone that poked through the intestinal wall causing severe bacterial contamination of the entire abdomen. These were all serious cases but luckily surgery/treatment could be performed locally.

To end my rant I will say “No, I do not make any commission on selling pet food. I will advise you on a food at your price point from here or your store of choice. Yes, I took a lot of nutrition courses in my undergrad as well as in my veterinary degree. AND I am required to keep up my courses and knowledge yearly”. My only goal is the health and longevity of your furry family member.

Written by Hillcrest Animal Hospital