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Debating raw diets

The popularity of raw meat-based diets for dogs and cats continues to grow

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In spite of resistance from most veterinarians and from public health authorities, the popularity of raw meat-based diets for dogs and cats continues to grow.1,2 Raw feeders have a range of ideas about nutrition, but they typically believe that raw diets are healthier and more “natural” than cooked diets, and they often suspect conventional commercial diets are unsafe or a possible cause of disease.3,4

Unfortunately, it is not only pet owners who hold such beliefs. Though they are a minority, some veterinarians promote raw feeding and attack the safety and nutritional value of cooked commercial diets.5,6

Surveys show that pet owners who feed raw diets are less likely to trust nutrition advice from veterinarians and are also less likely to adhere to other recommendations (e.g. vaccination and parasite prevention) than owners who feed traditional commercial diets.3,1 Veterinarians who promote raw feeding and condemn conventional diets are also often suspicious of vaccines and other science-based medical therapies, and frequently advocate alternative medical practices.5,7,8

Though individual beliefs vary, there is a general trend for raw diets to be appealing to pet owners or veterinarians who believe more “natural” diets and medical approaches are safer and better than conventional medical and nutritional practices. These beliefs are predicated on questionable concepts and are not supported by convincing research evidence.

Arguments for raw diets

The most common rationale for feeding raw is that this is a more natural diet to which dogs and cats have been adapted by evolution and which should, therefore, be healthier for them. Taxonomically, dogs and cats are carnivores (though dogs are functionally omnivores) and their ancestors ate live prey and carrion, so they must be designed for a diet as close as possible to that of wild carnivores. Some raw-diet advocates extend this argument by claiming that anatomic and physiological similarities between domestic dogs and wolves imply dogs should be fed the same diet wolves eat in the wild and domestic cats should ideally eat whole prey as wild felines do.5

Raw diets are also claimed to have specific health effects ranging from better coat and stool quality to a lower risk of diabetes, allergies, cancer, and other serious diseases.8,9 Proponents of raw diets consistently argue that any risks are outweighed by these benefits.

The other major argument for feeding raw diets is that cooked commercial diets are nutritionally inadequate and unhealthy. Proponents of raw diets express concerns about the loss of nutrients in heating and processing, the dangerous health effects of grains and carbohydrates in commercial diets, and numerous purported toxins, ranging from by-products of processing to preservatives and other additives in canned and dry diets. Many chronic health problems are blamed on commercial pet food by raw-diet advocates.5,6,8

The evidence

The idea raw diets should be beneficial because they are “natural” is simply an expression of the “appeal to nature fallacy,” the misconception that anything found in nature is inherently healthier than anything produced by humans. Illustrations of why this is false are easy to find. Consider, for example, that dysentery, smallpox, and rattlesnake venom are perfectly natural, and antibiotics, vaccines, and anti-venin are clearly artificial, yet there’s no doubt the latter are certainly better for health than the former.

It is also clear “natural” is not a synonym for “healthy” from the fact that parasitism, malnutrition, and infectious disease are rampant in wild animal populations and that life expectancy and health are nearly always superior for animals in appropriate captive environments.10 The diet of wild carnivores is simply the food they can get, not a perfect diet designed for long-term health. Experts in captive wild carnivore nutrition recommend commercial foods as a significant component of the overall diet for these species because such foods improve the safety and nutritional quality of the diet and the health of
these animals.11–14

Even if a species-typical diet in the wild were optimal for the health of wild carnivores, it is obvious dogs, at least, have evolved far from their wild ancestors and would not necessarily have the same dietary needs. Evidence shows many genetic, anatomic, and physiologic differences between domestic dogs and wild canids that result from selective pressures associated with living with humans, and these have altered their nutritional requirements and the foods that will best support long-term health.15–19

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There is no compelling evidence for any of the specific health benefits claimed for raw diets, and there has been very little research investigating them.4,20 The few published studies of raw feeding have found various effects on physiologic and clinical parameters, but little sign of any significant health effects, so most health claims are purely anecdotal at this point.21–25

The claims about the hazards of commercial diets vary from implausible and completely unproven to legitimate, substantiated risks. Commercial diets can be a source of infectious diseases, and some cases of serious injury due to adulterants or other toxins have been seen.26,27 However, there is ample research evidence to support the nutritional value of properly formulated diets, and some evidence to support specific health benefits for some diets, such as renal and urolith dissolution diets.28–30 Millions of dogs and cats live long and healthy lives on commercial pet foods, so while they are not perfect or risk free, there is little reason to believe they are a major risk factor for disease in most animals, and there is certainly no research evidence to support this claim.

The risks of raw diets

Unlike the benefits of raw diets, which are theoretical and unproven, the risks are well documented. Commercial raw diets that meet Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards are likely to be nutritionally complete, but many raw advocates feed home-prepared diets, and these diets are frequently nutritionally unbalanced and incomplete.4,31–35 The widespread use of bones in raw diets also presents a significant risk of dental fractures and gastrointestinal injury,36–40 though one study has suggested some possible benefits for dental health.41 Even wild carnivores are at risk for acute dental and gastrointestinal trauma from bones, as well as chronic tooth wear, and this can lead to the “natural” outcomes of suffering or death.42–44 Pet dogs and cats are at least as susceptible to this risk as wild carnivores, and the natural outcomes are clearly unacceptable to owners.

The most significant risk of raw diets is from food-borne infectious disease. Illness and death in cats and dogs, and in their owners, have been caused by pathogens found in raw pet diets.4,45–51 Although such pathogens can contaminate cooked diets as well, the risk is significantly higher for raw foods.27 While healthy, immunocompetent adult pets may be able to resist these organisms to some extent, there is no absolute immunity in dogs and cats to food-borne illness. Young, old, immunosuppressed animals, and their human caregivers, are at even higher risk.

Bottom line

There are no proven health benefits to raw diets, and most of the claims rest on dubious theoretical grounds and exaggerated fears about conventional cooked diets. There are, however, clear risks to feeding raw meat, including nutritional deficiencies or excesses, risk of injury from bones, and risk of severe infection and death in both pets and humans. While properly formulated raw diets can be nutritionally appropriate and the risks of infectious disease can be mitigated by scrupulous food handling, the established risks of raw diets and the complete lack of compelling evidence for any health benefits make the use of such diets a choice based on ideology or personal belief, not sound scientific evidence.

References
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24 Kim J, An J-U, Kim W, Lee S, Cho S. Differences in the gut microbiota of dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) fed a natural diet or a commercial feed revealed by the Illumina MiSeq platform. Gut Pathog. 2017;9(1):68. doi:10.1186/s13099-017-0218-5
25 Sandri M, Dal Monego S, Conte G, Sgorlon S, Stefanon B. Raw meat based diet influences faecal microbiome and end products of fermentation in healthy dogs. BMC Vet Res. 2017;13(1):65. doi:10.1186/s12917-017-0981-z
26 Bischoff K, Rumbeiha WK. Pet Food Recalls and Pet Food Contaminants in Small Animals. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2018;48(6):917-931. doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2018.07.005
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28 Council NR. Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2006. doi:10.17226/10668
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31 Taylor MB, Geiger DA, Saker KE, Larson MM. Diffuse osteopenia and myelopathy in a puppy fed a diet composed of an organic premix and raw ground beef. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2009;234(8):1041-1048. doi:10.2460/javma.234.8.1041
32 Freeman LM, Michel KE. Veterinary Medicine Today Timely Topics in Nutrition Evaluation of raw food diets for dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001;218(5):705-709. doi:10.2460/javma.2001.218.705
33 Lauten SD, Smith TM, Kirk CA, Bartges JW, Adams A WS. Computer Analysis of Nutrient Sufficiency of Published Home-Cooked Diets for Dogs and Cats. In: Proceedings of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum. Baltimore, MD; 2005.
34 Stockman J, Fascetti AJ, Kass PH, Larsen JA. Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013;242(11):1500-1505. doi:10.2460/javma.242.11.1500
35 Larsen JA, Parks EM, Heinze CR, Fascetti AJ. Evaluation of recipes for home-prepared diets for dogs and cats with chronic kidney disease. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2012;240(5):532-538. doi:10.2460/javma.240.5.532
36 Robinson J, Gorrel C. The oral status of a pack of foxhounds fed a “natural” diet. In: Proceedings. Fifth World Veterinary Dental Congress. Birmingham, England; 1997.
37 Rousseau A, Prittie J, Broussard JD, Fox PR, Hoskinson J. Incidence and characterization of esophagitis following esophageal foreign body removal in dogs: 60 cases (1999?2003). J Vet Emerg Crit Care. 2007;17(2):159-163. doi:10.1111/j.1476-4431.2007.00227.x
38 Gianella P, Pfammatter NS, Burgener IA. Oesophageal and gastric endoscopic foreign body removal: complications and follow-up of 102 dogs. J Small Anim Pract. 2009;50(12):649-654. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5827.2009.00845.x
39 Frowde PE, Battersby IA, Whitley NT, Elwood CM. Oesophageal disease in 33 cats. J Feline Med Surg. 2011;13(8):564-569. doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2011.04.004
40 Thompson HC, Cortes Y, Gannon K, Bailey D, Freer S. Esophageal foreign bodies in dogs: 34 cases (2004-2009). J Vet Emerg Crit Care. 2012;22(2):253-261. doi:10.1111/j.1476-4431.2011.00700.x
41 Marx F, Machado G, Pezzali J, et al. Raw beef bones as chewing items to reduce dental calculus in Beagle dogs. Aust Vet J. 2016;94(1-2):18-23. doi:10.1111/avj.12394
42 Steenkamp G, Gorrel C. Oral and Dental Conditions in Adult African Wild Dog Skulls: A Preliminary Report. J Vet Dent. 1999;16(2):65-68. doi:10.1177/089875649901600201
43 Van Valkenburgh B. Incidence of Tooth Breakage Among Large, Predatory Mammals. Am Nat. 1988;131(2):291-302. doi:10.1086/284790
44 VanValkenburgh B, Hertel F. Tough Times at La Brea: Tooth Breakage in Large Carnivores of the Late Pleistocene. Science (80- ). 1993;261(5120):456-459. doi:10.1126/science.261.5120.456
45 Schlesinger DP, Joffe DJ. Raw food diets in companion animals: a critical review. Can Vet J = La Rev Vet Can. 2011;52(1):50-54. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21461207. Accessed October 27, 2018.
46 Investigation into an Outbreak of Shiga Toxin Producing Escherichia Coli (STEC) O157 PT 21/28 Stx2 in England.; 2017. www.facebook.com/PublicHealthEngland. Accessed October 27, 2018.
47 Chengappa MM, Staats J, Oberst RD, Gabbert NH, McVey S. Prevalence of Salmonella in Raw Meat used in Diets of Racing Greyhounds. J Vet Diagnostic Investig. 1993;5(3):372-377. doi:10.1177/104063879300500312
48 Finley R, Ribble C, Aramini J, et al. The risk of salmonellae shedding by dogs fed Salmonella-contaminated commercial raw food diets. Can Vet J = La Rev Vet Can. 2007;48(1):69-75. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17310625. Accessed October 27, 2018.
49 Joffe DJ, Schlesinger DP. Preliminary assessment of the risk of Salmonella infection in dogs fed raw chicken diets. Can Vet J = La Rev Vet Can. 2002;43(6):441-442. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12058569. Accessed October 27, 2018.
50 Weese JS, Rousseau J, Arroyo L. Bacteriological evaluation of commercial canine and feline raw diets. Can Vet J = La Rev Vet Can. 2005;46(6):513-516. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16048011. Accessed October 27, 2018.
51 Strohmeyer RA, Morley PS, Hyatt DR, Dargatz DA, Scorza AV, Lappin MR. Evaluation of bacterial and protozoal contamination of commercially available raw meat diets for dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2006;228(4):537-542. doi:10.2460/javma.228.4.537

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Brennen McKenzie, MA, MSc, VMD, cVMA, discovered evidence-based veterinary medicine after attending the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and working as a small animal general practice veterinarian. He has served as president of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association and reaches out to the public through his SkeptVet blog, the Science-Based Medicine blog, and more. He is certified in medical acupuncture for veterinarians. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

 

16 thoughts on “Debating raw diets

  1. What a load of rubbish this article is! Everyone knows that the vets are in the pockets of the major pet food manufacturers. So much for an expert and unbiased article. Well, I used to feed the commercial crap that you are so enthusiastic about, but had to change to raw because my cats had permanent diarrhea (over 30% of grain filler) and developed allergies. Thank goodness for raw, is all I can say! When researched well and balanced correctly, there is nothing better and the condition of my cats speaks for itself!

    1. I’m sorry but where are you getting your information from? Do you have any idea how low the markup on vet diets are and that if vets relied on selling diets- their clinic would cease to exist? While it’s great that raw diets have worked for your cat, there’s no need to attack veterinarians and falsely accuse them. Veterinarians have to put up with a lot of things – including people like yourself who manufacture untrue statements about them – it’s hurtful and there’s a reason why suicide rates in the vet profession are so high. Before you go spreading, for lack of a better term, lies – check yourself and stick to the facts. I can assure you vets are not making a living from selling diets!

      1. Pet care professionals may very well NOT make a living selling pet diets HOWEVER they make a very handsome living selling DRUGS! Drugs for the ill pets. Pets ill from inappropriate nutrition and the additives in the diet.

    1. I have fed raw since 2000. It stopped my dalmatian from having seizures every week from the from the rime we started to the time she died she only had 8 seizures in 7 years time we started to the time she died at age 14

  2. Snake venom is natural too! Wow. The article actually admits that well balanced raw diets are beneficial. Just not plain homemade raw. Such silliness.

  3. Wow!
    This article clearly advocates cooked diets.
    Looks like it won’t be long and raw meat will no longer be available to purchase for human consumption or otherwise.
    I have great difficulty wrapping my head around canines or felines evolving to a cooked diet in a little over 100 years. That’s pretty rapid evolution.
    What makes sense to me is dogs were not necessarily kept as “pets” for the thousands of years they have been man’s best friend but more likely kept to “clean up” food scraps and to do other jobs around the farm.

    Raw diets are becoming more and more popular therefore cutting into the bottom line of pet food manufacturers. Species appropriate ancestral diets are also well known for far less need for modern veterinary medicines therefore cutting into the bottom line of pet care professionals and the big one, “Big Pharma”. They don’t make money on healthy people or pets.
    I think I agree with Chapter 2, “Natural Nutrition: The Foundation of Holistic Health” in “All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets”

    I do however credit modern veterinary medicine for longer life in animals primarily because of vaccines. I am not totally against modern medicine however, in my opinion, “Big Pharma” is behind the scenes pushing for sales.

    I can’t help but wonder how much education the author, Brennen McKenzie has in nutrition?

    1. Kim, while I do like whole foods, which is entirely different from extruded pet food kibble, you have to think about the companion animal who comes to the fires of the first human to domesticate these carnivorous species. They ate at our fires, and these animals ate our scrap foods which were cooked. Think of the difference between a Purina kibble and a stew. Way different concept. The difference is light years in reality. See my late night run on sentences below.

      1. These same animals also ate the scraps from the kill before any of it was ever cooked. Am sure no man ever took the time to cook the abdominal content for his canine companion, until it became extremely profitable.
        As much time and energy they spent harvesting prey for themselves, I find it very difficult to believe the portions suitable for human consumption would have been fed to an animal which is perfectly happy eating all the abdominal content and bones.

  4. The debate should not be raw vs cooked; it should be about the QUALITY of the food.

    Commercial pet foods (including Rx diets) are legally allowed to include ingredients that for human food are not allowed. Does that sound logical – that it would be a risk for humans but not pets?

    If vets want to help, get on the pet food companies to make pet food that you would not be disgusted to eat yourself.

    1. There are many animals on this very planet that eat all sorts of things which are not suitable for human consumption, some of which could very well be deadly to humans.
      So, just because it’s not appealing or even healthy for humans to consume does not make it a bad choice for animals to eat.
      For example, a wolf in the wild kills a rabbit and consumes every scrap, skin, fur and all. Believe it or not, what is in the rabbit as a meal for the wolf is a well balanced meal and even the fur consumed serves a purpose to the wolf.

  5. “cooked commercial diets are nutritionally inadequate and unhealthy.” The jump in logic is phenomenal. Raw diets are pretty diverse in value. Some are not balanced, some are entirely balanced for pets. But to say that commercial diets are cooked is a huge jump. Commercial diets are extruded. This is where the ingredients are heated to such a level as to be forced through a super heated tube to the point that the original food stuffs are not cooked but super heated. Cooked, whole foods as the diets were originally eaten by companion pets is so far from the extruded kibble that was originally invented to prevent the Germans from poisoning our army dogs and be easy enough to be handled by the army in WW I and II, are so different from a whole food cooked diet that would be more healthy for our pets, is extremely divergent in the comparison. This article totally skipped that step. For companies, such as Mars, Nestle, and Purina, optimizing profits requires that the cheapest food stuffs are extruded to temperatures that obliterate the original food, then spray on nutrients that are heat and time labile. That is the argument.

    If the pet food companies could make diets that are less (army-grade) handled, but still commercially viable, people would be more receptive of the good quality food stuffs and nutritional competence. Instead the boutique companies come up with key words such as “grain free” which is in response to the “Raw” feeders. So, a balanced diet requires carbohydrates and legumes are the substitutions. Now, we have DCM. Having good quality food stuffs in a good quality yet not a maximal profit food would answer all of questions that are raised by the “raw advocates”. Quality whole food diets that are cooked gently for the benefit of companion animals is not a profitable endeavor and might be the balance. Throwing in some TCVM food therapy here: only young, Yang excess animals are going to benefit from raw. Excellent quality, appropriate whole food cooked diets are beneficial for most companion animals. There is a happy medium.

  6. Why don’t you just say “Hey, I need a new Lexus, come big youe food from me. The pet food (aka chemical) company says its fine.”

  7. 2007, I rescued a collie mix. His coat was poor but not knowing how long he’d been ‘on the streets’, I hoped good consistent food would help. His bowel movements from the start were huge, tan and sloppy, all the time. Over a period of 18 months, I tried changing his kibble many times, increasing in cost and hopefully quality. Many vets visits with no definitive DX. I was at my wits end. A friend said, please try raw. Switched him straight over. In TWO days, he had his first ‘normal’ bowel movement. Moderate size and firm. He is now almost 13 and has been quite healthy eating raw for one of his daily meals and a grain free kibble for the other. I also had a Lab/Beagle mix, she was eight when I put them on raw. I let her go 3 weeks after her 18th birthday. My almost 11 year old female is still running agility and enjoying herself immensely. She’s been fed raw since she was just over a year old. A proper raw diet is a PROPER diet.

    1. P.S. I am one of those who does not believe in overloading a dog with vaccines. The 18 year old ONLY got rabies every 3 years after she was 8. The almost 13 year old has been ‘rabies only’ since he was 8 or 9.

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