What are your thoughts on RAW/BARF foods for dogs- whether pre-made ones you can buy, or making your own?
Many, and hesitant to share them. Pull up a chair. Grab a drink.
The BARF-feeders and raw food feeders are prone to zealotry, and back in my vet school days I was open minded enough to actually read ‘Raw Meaty Bones’ by Dr Tom Lonsdale in order to gain an understanding of feeding non-commercial diets to dogs and cats.
It’s basically a useless book. It paints all other veterinarians as willful conspirators trying to keep pets sick (compare this to anti-vaxxers in your own time) and provides a historical perspective about various veterinary organizations not giving Tom the attention he wanted, and wanting more evidence. Having met many of the people mentioned in his book, I would have taken him a bit more seriously if he hadn’t spent so long complaining that the paragon of cattle medicine, who literally cared about nothing but cows, didn’t care what dogs were eating. That’s just Jacob Malmo for you.
I was quite open to the idea, after all it’s tempting and a little big magical to believe that the creature sleeping by your feet and entirely devoted to you is actually a wolf in some way, it’s like something out of a fantasy novel. I was considering finding a way to do work experience at his practice, but being in Sydney that wasn’t all that easy. So I read his work instead. Only about 3% of the class even got that far. To be fair, he was mentioned in nutrition lectures as an option we could look at, not compulsory.
But I naively reviewed ‘Raw Meaty Bones’ on my vet student blog, ‘Nearly-Dr Ferox’. I expressed the above sentiments, and generally neutral view about feeding raw to dogs and cats. I did however mention that RMB is actually a totally useless book if you actually want information about feeding such a diet to your dog, there’s about two pages that are any actual use and not somebody whining about not being taken seriously enough.
You can see his response in this archived newsletter of his. The site carrying my old blog no longer exists. It’s brief mention, it was probably the closest thing to media attention he was getting, but nevertheless my little blog was SWARMED with angry zealots. Because I didn’t adamantly recommend feeding raw or BARF, I was obviously a stupid, corrupt, evil, uncaring, blind, worthless waste of space.
It was like an attack mob, wanting me to repent and change my ways.
I tried to engage these commenters with actual nutritional facts and knowledge, but it didn’t matter because they were already convinced that I was corrupt. I got way more hate from them than I ever got for saying ‘Marijuana is toxic to dogs’.
So from experience, the ‘movement’ attracts the same sort of people that are likely to support the paleo diet, all organic foods, and think that vaccines and GMOs are bad.
The RAW/BARF diets themselves?
I’ve examined a great many dogs and cats, and can’t say that raw feeding magically makes healthy pets. In fact, I’d probably recommend against it more often than for it, for individual cases.
It’s no guarantee of healthy weight or healthy teeth. Thousands of racing greyhounds on RAW will attest to that, with their sewerage like mouths. Breeders that fed RAW or BARF were the bane of my existence for two years: Summers with the hospital full of their puppies, with bacterial enteritis (Campylobacter specifically, which infects humans too, by the way) because they insisted on feeding raw food to everything.
I’ve treated way too many dogs for constipation because of all the bones it’s fed, and lets not forget the intestinal obstructions.
Getting bones stuck in the mouth is pretty minor, but the bones stuck in the oesophagus will stick in my memory. It’s a big deal if you have to do surgery on the oesophagus to remove a bone. Only had to do it twice when the endoscope couldn’t get it. One patient died, the other was very, very close.
Let’s not ignore the relative tryptophan deficiency that can occur, resulting in aggression or anxiety, of the higher protein levels increasing workload for the liver or kidneys, or in my experience increased risk of struvite urinary crystals.
Oh, and the higher bacterial load carnivores fed BARF or RAW have in both their faecal output and their mouths. That’s a human health risk.
That’s not to say that these diets don’t have some uses. They can occasionally be useful for allergic skin/GI disease if the animal happens to be allergic to a preservative, or a denatured protein that only occurs at high temperatures. It’s physiologically possible to only be allergic to cooked beef, but not raw beef because of the way proteins denature. A raw diet of some sort can be therapeutically helpful in these scenarios. (I don’t ever consider an allergy ‘cured’, just managed.)
So there are two scenarios where I might encourage an owner to consider a raw diet for their dog or cat.
But the scenarios where I would NOT recommend, or actively recommend against a RAW based diet include:
- Immuno-compromised people in the family
- toddler’s or young children in the family
- Urinary tract crystals
- recurring gastroenteritis (seriously, if I see a pet 4+ times a year for vomiting or diarrhoea I’d really like it if you stop feeding raw chicken!)
- Kidney disease, even early stages
- Liver disease, any
- anxiety or aggression
- certain breeds, including basically anything brachycephalic and miniature schnauzers
- If the owner can’t organize themselves out of a paper bag.
But if the patient’s already eating it, and not having problems, I just remind the owner to practice good hygiene and be extra careful in Summer.
Now, I expect to cop a bunch of hate from posting this, as that’s historically what happens when you post about BARF or Raw Meaty Bones and don’t go “YES! Good! Very best! Everyone else is lying or corrupt!” but you did ask.
That said, most dogs and cats will be perfectly fine most of the time eating most foods. Every pet will be a little bit different, so the ‘perfect’ food for them might be different from one to the next, and that’s fine. Purebred dogs are so highly inbred that that’s expected.
Food is the product in the vet clinic that has the lowest markup. They dish out the least incentives to sell (bowls for puppies, free can lids, collars for kittens) and they actively make us the least money. We stock them so that when some new puppy or kitten owner comes in, feeding their new addition the ol’ weet-bix and milk and raw beef mince rubbish, we have a bag of something we can actually hand over and solve that problem before it starts. We stock prescription food because we use it like medicine to treat a problem.
Myself, if weight control is not a problem, and there are no medical indications for anything else, I tend to go mostly quality commercial food supplemented with either safe table scraps or varied cooked ingredients. Bones are always raw and supervised, with the intention that they’re not actually eaten, just chewed on.
And if a dog is big enough to swallow chicken necks whole, it’s getting absolutely zero benefit from eating those.