The numerous pet food recalls in recent years has triggered a sort of silent revolution in pet owners, turning their attention to natural pet foods and tiny sub-markets such as commercial raw. A growing number of pet owners like the idea of feeding their pets a fresh, well-hydrated raw diet without altering the enzymes and amino acids that cooking would cause. The idea of a shinier coat, fewer allergies and more energy for their dogs was very appealing. A raw dog food diet consists of raw meat, bones, fruits and vegetables and was proposed by Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst in 1993, calling it the BARF diet, an acronym for Bones and Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. Grain-free, organic dog foods with ingredients like quinoa and cranberries are in high demand now and are sold in every major line of dog food as natural foods. Giant corporations branching into naturals are educating the consumer which motivates them to start thinking about what they’re feeding their dog. This leads the consumer to do research and go online to discover the raw food diet. From the raw food diet, a sub-market called commercial raw diet was created to meet consumer need which combines the convenience of prepared, nutritionally complete diet that has the health benefits of a raw food diet. Commercial raw is only a small, hardly 1%, of total pet food sales but it’s one of the fastest-growing submarkets of pet food. This means more brands on the market making them easier to find and lower in price. Some areas don’t carry commercial raw foods due to freezer accommodations but there are freezer programs available to encourage retailers to stock it and some companies deliver so consumers can bypass the pet store thing altogether.
The advantage to serving a commercial raw food diet to your dog, besides convenience, is nutrition. Most of these diets are complete, with all of the correct vitamins, nutrients, and minerals in balance. Homemade diets sometimes suffer “recipe drift” which is when an ingredient necessary for an essential vitamin or mineral, isn’t available so it’s substituted with something else or left out altogether. After a period of time, this drift can cause deficiencies in these vitamins and minerals. Frozen raw foods come in a variety of forms such as tubes, “Chubs”, burger-style patties or smaller medallions allowing you to preserve their freshness by defrosting only the amount you will use. New to the market are the small nugget pieces and bit-sized pieces called “bites”. Bites are small kibble-sized pieces that go from freezer to bowl without thawing because the pieces are so small they thaw quickly at room temperature.
Dehydration is yet, another form of raw or nearly raw food. Fruits and vegetables can be dehydrated however, meat and eggs are steamed first in order to kill pathogens then dehydrated. Ingredients are steamed or pasteurized at temperatures low enough to be considered “raw” by most people’s standards. Many commercial raw food companies use high-pressure processing and other techniques that destroy pathogens without the use of high heat. Handling raw food for your dog is not any different than the way raw food is handled for your family: with thought and care. Commercial raw food is pricier than kibble but proponents believe the nutritional benefits are priceless.
But with all that a raw or nearly raw food diet for dogs has going for it, there is a down side. Potential risks that go with the diet include bacteria in raw meat which is a threat to human and dog health, an unbalanced diet fed to dogs over a long period of time may damage its health, potential to choke on whole bones or cause an internal puncture on splintered bones, and no scientific proof of benefits. As stated earlier, the raw food diet is made up of muscle meat still on the bone or not, whole or ground bone, organ meat (livers, kidneys), raw eggs, vegetables, fruit, and some dairy like yogurt. The cost depends on ingredients and the way it’s prepared. Costs for a 30 pound dog can range from $2.50 to $5.00 a day as compared to a super-premium quality, commercial dry dog food at about $1.00 per day.
Many veterinarians and Veterinary Nutritionists caution pet owners from choosing raw diets based on online myths and scare tactics about commercial pet foods. If a pet owner wants to avoid commercial food, they advise a cooked homemade diet which has been designed by a certified nutritionist from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. The shiny coat that is attributed to a raw food diet is the result of high fat composition typical of this diet. The same fat composition can be found in high fat commercial foods but without the risk of an unbalanced diet. Supplements can also be used to increase fat in the diet. In an evaluation done in 2001 and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, five raw diets, three homemade and two commercially available, were evaluated. According to the report, all diets had nutritional deficiencies and excesses that were harmful to a dog’s health if given for a long period of time such as poor coats, bad skin, or weak bones. Too little fat produces a bad coat and mild anemia is the product of too much fat and not enough protein. Homemade diets could lack proper amounts of calcium and phosphorous which leads to dental problems and bone fractures. Then there’s the bacterial contamination in raw pet food. A study of 20 commercially available raw meat diets, conducted in 2006, found that 7.1% contained a type of salmonella and 59.6% contained E. coli bacteria. A potential source of human exposure and infection of these bacteria is in the feces shed. The study also found E. coli in commercially process, cooked foods and in one brand of four of dry foods. The FDA suggests that manufacturers of raw-meat diets include enough calcium and phosphorous which is important for bone health. Raw dog food diets are not for all pets because, since the diet is high in protein, is isn’t good for dogs with late-stage kidney or severe liver failure, dogs with cancer, on chemotherapy or other immunosuppressive diseases and should never be given to puppies under any circumstances.
What can a pet owner do to ensure their pet has the best, nutritional diet available? Each pet owner’s situation is different as each pet’s needs are different. With the pros and cons for the raw food diet and commercial raw food diet being just about equal, it’s ultimately your pet’s decision. But for those of us who aren’t ready to commit to any one side, I believe the middle-of-the-road approach is best for us. We must remember our dogs are not wolves but a domesticated version of a wolf, with “domesticated” being the operative word. Perhaps the tolerance for a full raw diet has been tamed by this domestication and the middle-of-the-road approach is more practical meaning, feeding your dog a commercial raw food diet with homemade, dehydrated treats for good behavior.