My Big Fat Raw Food Peeve

The author talks about the argument for and against raw food diets.

If it’s so great or so awful, show me the research.

There’s nothing like hearing of a client’s plan to take their pet to the raw side to stimulate vigorous discussion in the exam room. I’m referring to the raw food diet most commonly typified by the marketing-challenged acronym, “BARF.”

The variously monikered, “bones and raw food” or “biologically appropriate raw food” diet is the bane of many a vet’s existence—including me.

Nonetheless, I often take a fairly neutral stance on the subject, preferring to counsel clients through the process while littering the exam room air (not to mention my medical records) with disclaimers aplenty.

Still, I love this topic. Nutrition is such an un-sexy subject for so many of us that it’s gratifying to find the one area within its purview that has the ability to raise our collective hackles (with the notable exception of the pet food recall, of course).

I offer this disclaimer-ish preface to an article on feeding raw foods partly because I know I’ll be set upon by wolves within a few lines—no matter which way my opinion leans. Because, as many of you already know, raw food is as divisive a topic as it gets in the pet world. In this fiery debate there can be no middle ground, it seems.

Here’s a brief overview (for those of you small-animal types hiding under a rock over the last decade). The raw foodists contend that cats (obligate carnivores) and dogs (omnivores or non-obligate carnivores, depending on your literature) are biologically attuned to chewing (mostly ripping) and digesting their food (mostly meats) in their uncooked, unprocessed state.

Proponents contend that raw food contains the live enzymes our pets biologically require for optimum wellness and disease prevention. Moreover, the delivery and mastication of the food is viewed as better suited for their behavioral satisfaction and dental health, respectively.

The raw-food naysayers are equally firm in their opposition, citing the lack of evidence to support these health claims while offering a wide range of potential pitfalls: gastrointestinal obstruction, severe bacterial infections, zoonosis and a high rate of dental fractures. They scorn the assertion that dogs and cats require the raw foods they once consumed in the wild given their adaptation to cooked human foods over these recent millennia.

The non-committal answer to the debate seems pretty simple to me: To each his own. Do what works for your pet … but know the risks.

I held firm to that stance these last few years, whereas before that time I might have been counted among the BARF diet’s detractors—though never a staunch one, I must admit. The argument never seemed worth the energy.

But I eventually came around to the idea that a vet shouldn’t be so wishy-washy on this subject. After all, we’re talking about potentially major health concerns on both sides of the aisle. It’s not only within a vet’s purview to research BARF diets and develop an informed opinion; it’s practically an imperative given that at least a few of our clients are likely to try raw feeding.

Problem is, there’s not a lot of research for the average vet to look into. The handful of scholarly papers I uncovered (sourced only from peer-reviewed journals) relied on tiny, barely significant studies or on case reports from shocking, raw-food-gone-wrong nightmares.

In view of the scarce array of scientific information, it’s no wonder most of us fear and loathe raw food. It’s not because we’re in bed with the pet food companies and it’s not because we’d rather have more sick pets to treat (as some crackpot raw conspiracy theorists insultingly opine). Rather, I think it’s more to do with the following points:

• There’s little research on raw foods and most of it focuses on the negative (since the positives here are inherently difficult to prove). And food-borne encephalitis is an awful lot more fun to read about than protease activity, anyway.
• We weren’t schooled in raw feeding and the little clinical training in nutrition we do have isn’t an ideal basis for extrapolating what we know about commercial diets to raw foods’ effects. (Note: I stand by our biochemical training in nutrition, but our clinical schooling still has far to go, it would seem.)
• If the standard of care is to feed kibbled foods, every time we allow raw we put ourselves on the firing line for a lawsuit. (“My puppy is dead and I have $7,000 in vet bills from the specialist because you didn’t tell me he could get this sick from eating the food you said was OK.”)
• Why change? Is our current approach so wrong?

And here’s where our hackles start to rise.

It’s no wonder we don’t spend more of our time and energy trying to support a diet that might theoretically be better than what we currently have to work with. In fact, I’ve sourced no statistically significant, peer-reviewed research demonstrating that there’s any benefit to feeding this way (I welcome any help you may provide here). Moreover, the anecdotal findings of a small but growing group of raw feeders are unlikely to hold sway with the veterinary establishment anytime soon—especially considering the high volume of the discussion.

And that’s what troubles me most about this debate. The acrimonious back and forth is no healthy environment for improvement when it comes to clinical nutrition. Research can’t flourish when each side protects its position with a passion sufficient to ensure that any observation will typically serve to support whatever side it’s on. My investigation into this subject may be weak, but on that score I’m pretty clear.

Considering the extent to which some of our clients are likely to flout our recommendations and admonitions on this topic, does it not behoove us to pony up and research it?

I still can’t recommend it, but neither can I yet decry its implementation, save to say that “put one vole in a blender…” is a disgusting, potentially sickening recipe, nutrient-balanced for felines though it may be. But then, it might just do the trick. Who knows?

Dr. Khuly blogs regularly at www.dolittler.com.

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