Raw Food Diets for Dogs and Cats

raw meatWhat are some of the benefits of feeding a raw food diet to pets?

There are many benefits from feeding a raw food diet. Skin and bowel problems in particular can be helped. Raw food diets are available commercially or can be prepared at home. They contain whole animal and plant tissues (fruits and vegetables) that have not undergone processing to denature (break down) their proteins, starches and fats. The natural enzymes and substances such as trace vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are intact and able to be used by the body to maximum advantage. Raw food diets should be fresh and varied to provide a range of nutrients. Fruit and vegetables can be used ripe to very ripe.

A common misconception is that raw food is completely digested by animals, due to its “increased enzyme content”. Research evidence suggests the opposite. Raw foods are likely to be more slowly digested and absorbed. Over time, there is evidence that the animal responds by increasing its own digestive enzyme production, making its digestive tract stronger, not weaker. Rarely, raw foods may cause diarrhoea or vomiting in some animals. This is unrelated to the presence of bacteria, is perhaps intolerance to one of the foods fed and can be easily remedied by altering foods offered.

"A common misconception is that raw food is completely digested by animals, due to its “increased enzyme content”. Research evidence suggests the opposite."

Rather than being a disadvantage, delayed absorption may be the chief reason behind what appears to be impressive clinical benefits of raw food diets. Lower digestibility results in a lower glycemic index, or rate of increase in blood sugar after a meal. Foods with a lower glycemic index play an important role in preventing obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes mellitus. Raw food diets that have minimal carbohydrate content may also help prevent tumour growth and play a role in preventing and treating chronic inflammatory disorders of all types.

Conditions such as Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism) appear to be helped by a low glycemic index diet. Many of the conditions mentioned above are associated with insulin resistance and excessive carbohydrate intake in humans. There is emerging evidence that small animals may be similarly prone to insulin resistance. It seems highly likely that raw food diets could play an important role in preventing these conditions in dogs and cats.

Some common misconceptions about feeding raw food diets?

Advocates of raw food diets, whether they include raw bones or not, generally state that raw food diets represent the natural diet for dogs and cats. Critics suggest that today’s dogs and cats, however, do not necessarily represent their ancestral origins. Thousands of years of domestication, adaptation to diets based on human foods or leftovers, and genetic modification by inbreeding to establish specific breed characteristics have altered the anatomy and digestive physiology of the modern dog and cat, thus affecting their nutritional requirements and biochemical individuality. Veterinary advocates of raw food feeding generally refute this.

Are there concerns about nutrient balance when feeding a raw diet?

Raw food diets may be significantly unbalanced in their mineral content, with excesses or deficiencies in calcium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium and iron being the most common. Some raw food diets are deficient in fibre. Many supporters of raw food diets maintain that the diet does not need to be balanced in the short term because it will become balanced over the long haul. Unfortunately, most of our pet animals are reliant on us to provide all of the components of their diet, and if we don’t provide all of the necessary nutrients, it is impossible for the diet to become balanced over time. Some authors propose that animals will only eat what they require in order to balance their nutrient intake. This contention presumes an owner would see fit to offer a range of choices, varying in nutrient content, which many do not. In addition, if offered a highly palatable food such as raw meat (at least, palatable to the carnivore) at the same time as an offering of vegetables or fruits, most carnivores will preferentially choose the meat. Mixing a minced meat with blended fruits and vegetables can easily overcome this problem in most animals.

Ill-conceived raw food diets may not meet the additional requirements for growth or reproduction. Please talk to us if you have concerns and we can advise on diet and supplements to ensure optimal nutrient intake for all stages of life.

washing handsAre there any risks associated with feeding raw meats to pets?

Healthy pets may be relatively resistant to developing disease from eating bacterially contaminated food. However, some of our pet animals have health problems and may be susceptible to infection by disease-causing strains of bacteria. Similarly, if you have very young or very old people at home or immuno-compromised people, you need to take extra care.

Please discuss any concerns with us or with your family doctor.

Raw foods may themselves contaminate the environment. Even if the pet is in a state of optimal health, it is still possible to contaminate the environment by shedding disease-causing bacteria in the stool. The bacteria of most concern are Salmonella, some species of E. coli species, and Campylobacter. These can be present as contaminants even on human-grade food products. 

In order to minimise these risks, it is imperative that you follow the same sanitation practices that you use in preparing your own foods. 

Wash your hands and all utensils thoroughly before and after handling raw meat. DO NOT use wooden chopping boards. Store the pet’s meat so that it can't contaminate human foods (ideally, you should have a separate freezer for storage of your pet's food). Confine the feeding of the raw diet to one location in the house, or to one location outdoors. Do not allow your pet to lick or kiss your face. Ensure meat is frozen before preparation, and that raw food prepared in advance is frozen until needed. Freezing does not kill all bacteria, but reduces significantly their numbers in food. Liver is an important source of vitamin A for animals. Raw liver in some parts of Australia can be contaminated with hydatids, an internal parasite. Cooked liver or liver treats are one option to include in a raw food diet. The other option is to only purchase human grade, meat inspected liver.

To avoid environmental contamination, always clean and disinfect the spot where your pet ate the meal after it is finished. Simple domestic bleach is very effective. Make sure you scoop up any faecal material immediately after elimination and dispose of it properly.

Is there any benefit associated with feeding raw bones to my dog?

When used properly, the exercise and pleasure that your dog gets from chewing bones is very beneficial, and eliminates the build-up of tartar on the teeth. Raw bones represent a digestible source of calcium as well as containing other minerals that are needed in the body. Cartilage on the bones contains glucosamine and chondroitin that are beneficial to joints throughout life. It is imperative never to feed cooked bones. They can, and will, cause damage.

Is there any risk associated with feeding raw bones to my dog? 

Improperly sized bones could, rarely, cause an intestinal accident such as an intestinal obstruction or blockage. Cooked bones must NEVER be fed; they are brittle and prone to splintering, which can cause tooth fractures, intestinal obstruction and intestinal perforations. 

Raw bones can contaminate the environment with bacteria. Environmental contamination is reduced if bones are fed outdoors and the area that was contaminated should be disinfected before humans are exposed to it. Fresh bones with lots of marrow must be discarded within one day in the summer to avoid rancidity. After you have handled a raw bone you should observe normal, common sense, precautions to protect from possible contamination.

bonesWhat other aspects should I consider?

There can be serious health consequences to humans if animals are fed raw food diets. Young children are more susceptible to bacterial infections, and are more likely to become contaminated by crawling in the feeding areas of pets. They are also more likely to be licked by dogs or come in contact with bacteria shed in the pet’s faeces.

Adults that are immune compromised should be aware of an increased risk of infection associated with this form of feeding.

Overall, there are pros and cons to raw food feeding. It will not suit everybody. Many owners who try it find it satisfying and not at all onerous.

Australian books for reference include: Dr Barbara Fougere Healthy Dogs, A Handbook of Natural therapies and The Pet Lovers Guide to Natural Healing for Cats and Dogs; Dr Ian Billinghurst – The BARF Diet and Dr Clare Middle Real Foods for Dogs and Cats

We are very happy to discuss raw food feeding with you as well as other ways of feeding cats and dogs.

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