What is your opinion on "raw diets" for dogs and cats? If you support it do you suggest the prey-predator model or the biologically appropriate raw fed (aka the BARF diet) for dogs? I've been wondering if it would be better for my dogs because all the big name food brands are absolute burning garbage that just poison dogs and cats more often than not and I'm really tired of it.
Oh boy I’m about to open a huge can of worms so buckle up! The short answer is no, I don’t support raw diets. The long answer to follow, I just want to say that this is a topic I’m very passionate about, so if anything I say comes across kind of harsh, it’s not directed at you OP, it’s just my general frustration about this whole topic.
1. Feeding raw is a public health concern. It is estimated that around 30% of dogs that are fed raw diets are carriers for Salmonella at any time. Salmonella can cause illness in both humans and animals. Proper environmental hygiene is imperative if you’re going to feed raw, and unfortunately most people do not have a thorough disinfection protocol nor do they understand how to make one. People generally disinfect bowls (though not necessarily thoroughly enough), but neglect to consider the other surfaces raw food may have contacted. Prep counters, wall or floor splatter, sinks, utensils, poorly washed human hands, collars or accessories on an animal, and the animal itself can all be sources of contamination. Another factor is that a lot of dogs like to pick up part of their meal and eat it in a different room, or away from their bowl, which could potentially contaminate other areas of a house. And think about cats, who like to groom themselves after a meal. Other potential harmful (and zoonotic) pathogens found in raw meat include E. Coli, Campylobacter, Sarcocystis, Clostridium, Neospora, Toxoplasma gondii, Echinococcus, and Cryptosporidium. This is is a risk that is especially serious for immunocompromised individuals, and there is a very problematic lack of discussion about this factor amongst proponents of feeding raw. Now, you might be thinking “hey, there have been processed food recalls due to Salmonella contamination!” That is true, but the difference is that there are sampling protocols in place to detect for Salmonella, and protocols in place to deal with positive samples. There is no such oversight for raw pet food.
2. Raw food diets are often not nutritionally complete. Diets that are not nutritionally balanced place a pet at risk of serious complications from nutrient deficiencies. The fact is, most owners do not have the educational background to properly formulate a diet, and neither do the people that often recommend them. Just because a diet “worked for my pets for X years!” doesn’t mean that it will work for you. It doesn’t even mean that the diet was balanced. The owner may not have been aware of the signs of deficiency in their pet. Or, their pet may have been able to compensate, but that doesn’t mean another pet will be able to. At the very least, look for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal of approval that the food is suitable for all stages/whatever stage of life your animal is in.
3. There are no peer-reviewed studies that have proven the benefits of raw food. At this point, evidence in favor of raw pet food is anecdotal. I like science. I like real, repeatable proof that something works. And here in lies the problem. There are all these potential issues with feeding raw, and NO proof that it has any of the benefits proponents claim. This right here is why, in general, veterinarians are not fond of raw diets. Owners choose to feed a diet that is a public health risk, potentially unbalanced, and even dangerous (if you feed bones there is a risk of obstruction and tooth fractures) without any solid evidence that there are any benefits for their pet.
4. Kind of going along with #2, the majority of the information about raw diets is gathered over the internet is from people who are not qualified to be giving nutritional advice. Proponents of feeding raw often have limited or no training in animal physiology, PROPER diet balancing, or animal nutrition. “I have X years of experience” is not a good enough qualification. Yes, experience is great, but if you have been practicing incorrectly for X years it means nothing except that you have a false sense of confidence in your abilities. Bonus: even if they are qualified, they do not know your animal’s health or the status of immunocompromised individuals in your environment. I actually have a HUGE problem with veterinarians that offer specific nutritional advice over the internet. As a veterinarian, we cannot give medical advice to an animal we have not seen in person–there has to be a doctor-client relationship. So it makes me absolutely furious that professionals in my field give blanket statements about “food A is better than food B always”. Nutrition is medicine. There is no way for a veterinarian over the internet to know that raw food is the best option for your pet. They don’t know your animal’s health status (particularly if the high protein diet is safe for them). They don’t know if you have kids, or elderly, or immunocompromised people in your life. I’m actually really angry that I’ve never seen a warning to immunocompromised individuals from a veterinarian giving nutritional advice online, and I rarely see good food safety advice. Sorry. Side rant.
5. The argument that raw diets are just “more natural” and therefore better just does not make sense. “Natural” is kind of a buzzword that human and animal food companies use to sell you their product. AAFCO states that “natural products cannot contain chemically synthesized ingredients, except for trace nutrients, the presence of which must be declared.” That’s super vague. It’s becoming a popular mantra that “natural is better”, but “natural” is poorly defined and benefits are often based upon anecdotal evidence (see number 3).
With all that in mind, I do want to point out that it is possible to feed a raw diet correctly and responsibly. How? Talk to your veterinarian. They know your animal’s health history and they can advise you on public health concerns. Yes, most veterinarians will try to steer you away from feeding raw. Why? See above. But if you are adamant that you want to feed raw anyway, your vet will absolutely prefer that you work with them to ensure that you, your animal, and the public are safe. You can also refer to a veterinary nutritionist, who will have extra training and education relating to pet nutrition to help you make a decision that is right for you and your pet. There are also situations where feeding raw may absolutely be the best option for your pet, but strangers over the internet (myself included–I don’t know anything about you or your pets), or Joe Schmo down the street are in no way qualified to make this decision for you. It’s also worth noting that raw diets are a concept that older vets may not be familiar with. It is only in recent years that they have become more popular, and therefore are just starting to be incorporated into our education.
With regards to your final statement about big name brands “poisoning dogs and cats”, I’m honestly not sure what you mean. Are you referring to recalls? There are certainly companies that seem to be more prone to recalls than others, but as discussed above, that doesn’t make raw diets any safer. I don’t really know where this “pet foods are poising pets” idea came from, as I do not know of any evidence of a particularly high or increased incidence of pets being killed from contaminated pet food. Are you referring to the lower standards of regulation of pet food as compared to human food? Raw food is significantly less regulated than processed food, so you won’t be any better off there. Are you referring to pets developing allergies? Most allergies are to animal products, so feeding raw won’t be useful there either.
You don’t have to feed popular brands if you don’t want to. There are TONS of different brands of food, none of which I’m going to endorse in particular because a. I haven’t reached a point in my education where I feel comfortable comparing labels, b. I don’t want to unintentionally make a “professional” (ok, soon-to-be professional) recommendation, and c. I have no idea what the best option is for your situation. Assuming you’ve cleared any health issues with your vet that would prevent your animal from eating a particular kind of food, just find something you like. Check out online reviews. Sample different kinds (with gradual transitions of course, to avoid GI upset). Alternatively, if you really don’t like processed food, you can provide your own COOKED diet. Again, consult your veterinarian because you can just as easily provide an unbalanced diet as you could have with raw.