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Talking the talk—What to say when clients prefer raw diets

Uncooked meat may cause health risks to the entire family, as well as members of the public that come into contact with the pet

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One only needs to pay attention to the news or trending items on Facebook to see the spate of pet food recalls happening in our country. And with an uptick of pet parents feeding their dogs raw or freeze-dried raw food, it is important veterinarians have honest and open conversations with their clients about concerns surrounding these diets.

The following is American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA’s) position statement on raw diets: “AVMA discourages the feeding to cats and dogs of any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process to eliminate pathogens because of the risk of illness to cats and dogs, as well as humans.”

Katy Nelson, DVM, medical director of Pet Health for Stop Aging Now, agrees. “Cooking or pasteurization through the application of heat until the protein reaches an internal temperature adequate to destroy pathogenic organisms has been the traditional method used to eliminate pathogens in animal-source protein, although the AVMA recognizes that newer technologies and other methods, such as irradiation, are constantly being developed and implemented,” Dr. Nelson says. “Most veterinarians are going to listen to the governing body of our profession, as well as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and respected veterinary nutritionists.”

Still, there are some consumers that insist on feeding raw diets. Their reasons for doing so include the belief it is a more primal, natural way for an animal to eat. Marketing of commercially available freeze-dried raw diets aim to fuel this belief, but not everyone agrees.

Robert Trimble, DVM, cofounder and head of veterinary services at San Francisco-based Fuzzy Pet Health, notes many people believe wolves eating a raw diet are in prime health, and therefore, their dog should follow similar feeding standards.

“Many dog food companies have focused on this concept in marketing materials, which continues to perpetuate the idea, despite very different lifestyle and domestication,” he says. “Each pet is an individual, and there is not one feeding regime or protocol that works for every pet. Our job as veterinarians is to educate clients and provide information about potential risk factors.”

Nelson says these choices appear healthier due to people’s perception that cooking destroys bioavailability of proteins. Gently cooked proteins are not only safer, but healthier than the risk posed by raw diets.

Martha G. Cline, DVM, DACVN, president of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) and part of the Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls, N.J., believes misinformation on online posts has led to an interest in these sorts of diets.

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“I don’t think there is any evidence at all to show that feeding a raw-meat diet is going to be superior than feeding more traditional types of dog food,” she says. “The concern I have is the infectious potential to the pets and the people around them.”

Fraught with issues

Raw meat and raw animal products, such as poultry, beef, pork, and fish, can potentially be contaminated with enteric pathogens (e.g. Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli, and parasites). Thus, commercial and/or homemade raw diets and pet treats made with these products could be a potential source of these pathogens.

“Most are nutritionally inadequate and require supplementation,” says Steve Weinberg, DVM, chief executive officer of 911 Vets in Los Angeles. “Pets eating contaminated raw-food diets can shed pathogenic microorganisms and should be excluded from health-care facilities and homes with children and immune-compromised people because of the risk of transmission of zoonotic organisms, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. There are no clinically proven benefits of a raw-food diet, but there are documented hazards and risks.”

Dr. Trimble says raw products are more prone to contamination issues when being processed, as well as being fed, since they are not being heated. This is why production facilities and pet owners need to be diligent about food safety and handling techniques.

“Another issue is nutritional adequacy, particularly in our young growing patients,” he says. “Clients that are feeding bones should also be aware of potential intestinal perforation and fractured teeth.”

Julie Hansen, DVM, cVMA, program chair of Argosy University Twin Cities’ Veterinary Technology program in Eagan, Minn., says contamination with bacteria is dangerous not only for pets, but for owners handling the food. That’s why her recommendation remains to avoid raw diets.

“All living creatures are covered in bacteria—this is normal. Some types of bacteria won’t cause disease in the animals they normally live on, but can cause disease in another species,” she says.

“Our food animals often carry bacteria like Salmonella, and when those animals are processed for food, the bacteria get incorporated with the meat. Cooking/heat kills the bacteria, which makes the food safe to eat. Feeding or eating the raw meat spreads that disease-causing bacteria directly to the pet’s intestinal tract, leading to gastroenteritis, vomiting, and diarrhea.”

Nelson says people scour kitchen counters and cutting boards if raw meat touches anything and would never consider eating raw meats that have been sitting out or may have warmed up during transport to the local grocery or to the home. “Yet, somehow, pet parents feel it is safer and easier to feed this to our pets?”

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“I simply ask my clients what their nutritional philosophy is with their pets. Some people try to go the vegan/vegetarian route with their pets due to their own personal beliefs, in which case I discuss with them the dangers/perils associated with these choices,” she says. “Some people have no philosophy and simply go for the prettiest or cheapest bag in the pet food aisle, and we discuss the consequences associated with this as well.”

Honest conversations

All veterinarians will have their own thoughts on what side of the line they fall regarding these diets, but no matter what they think, it’s important to discuss the risks and problems that could occur with their clients.

There are numerous studies evaluating the potential hazards of a raw-food diet, mainly focusing on the spread of pathogens, such as Salmonella and Listeria. Trimble says the research and science behind this allows veterinarians to have an honest discussion with clients about potential risks to their pets and human family members.

Dr. Weinberg recommends pet parents leave this manner of feeding, and approaches the topic of feeding raw food very gently in a non-condescending, caring manner.

“I cite the studies that show there are no true, verified benefits for feeding raw,” he says. “If [clients] insist on feeding homemade diets that are safely cooked, I would refer them to a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to make sure they are adequately providing the correct balance of nutrients to prevent the onset of nutrient-deficient disease, or I may supply them with an article from a veterinary nutritionist.”

Dr. Cline keeps a list of good resources that she gives to clients and recommends to veterinarians, which provide valuable information about raw meat-based diets, including two blog postings authored by boarded veterinarian nutritionists—Petfoodology by Tufts University Veterinary Medical Center Clinical Nutrition Service (bit.ly/2KipKnl) and one by Lisa Weeth, DVM, DACVN (bit.ly/2AOVkGB).

“There are a lot of boarded nutritionists out there doing continuing education, and some of them, like me, really enjoy lecturing about raw meat-based diets,” she says. “There’s new information coming out all the time, and I am constantly updating my talk to provide the latest information out there.”

Russell Hartstein, CDBC, CPDT-KA, founder of Fun Paw Care, says most veterinarians do not specialize or take course curriculum specifically in dog/cat nutrition and are, therefore, not up to date or informed about why or why not to feed a dog or cat a specific diet.

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“Referring to a board-certified veterinarian nutritionist would be helpful; however, there are very few in the U.S. (approximately 95),” he says. “Education is important, and they should be consulting with a certified dog/cat nutritionists and individuals who have taken master’s level coursework and continuing education units in species-specific nutrition.”

Why so many recalls?

The flurry of activity in recalls in the last year or so derives from a myriad of reasons.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a study from 2010 to 2012 evaluating pet food samples. It found raw pet foods were more likely to be contaminated with potentially pathogenic bacteria. The possible public health risk of handling these products has led to more testing and evaluation.

“Households with immune-compromised pets or human family members, as well as young children, are at a much greater risk for illness due to contamination with raw meat products and are discouraged against this type of feeding,” Trimble says. “If people elect to feed a raw diet, it is very important they are educated about proper handling, bowl cleaning, and food storage.”

Dr. Hansen isn’t sure why there have been so many recalls in the last year, but it does have her concerned there is a lapse in quality control that is allowing these pathogenic bacteria to find their way into so much pet food.

Hartstein cites a lack of oversight, as well as the quality and health of the food products as being the main problems.

“They are typically neither safe nor nutritionally complete and balanced, are laden with pathogen contamination, and are unhealthy for dogs, cats, or humans to eat,” he says. “Uncooked meat may cause health risks to the entire family, not just the dog or cat, but also members of the public that come into contact with the pet.”

Cline is happy to help pet parents who want to get out of the raw or freeze-dried raw-food cycle, but doesn’t turn away those who insist on it.

“I don’t recommend it, but I will work with clients who are going to feed a raw-based diet no matter what,” she says. “Even if you are a veterinarian who does support feeding a raw-meat-based diet and you do recommend this to your client, it’s still our job to inform our patients there.

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