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Raw Meat Based Diets For Dogs & Cats – Dr. Karen Whala

SkeeterWhen asked to write a blog about raw diets for dogs and cats, I came across a recent article in our Vet Journal called Timely Topics On Nutrition, written and compiled by 4 veterinary nutritionist and researchers. It discusses the benefits and risks of Raw Meat-Based diets (RMBD) in dogs and cats with the intention of remaining unbiased. In perusing the article, I would agree they did a great job of not trying to infuse their opinions and I came out not quite knowing what their recommendations were but with the facts presented, I can say that I clearly developed an opinion.

An RMBD is a diet that includes “uncooked ingredients derived from domesticated or wild caught food animal species and that are fed to dogs or cats living in home environments”. They can be in either commercial or home prepared forms. In this article, it was emphasized that there has been very little good data to support the benefits of raw diets for domestic dogs and cats and that most evidence supporting it is based on testimonials and other lower-quality studies. Alternatively, there have been better quality studies conducted to compare the risks of feeding such diets. There have been no reports comparing the long term risks and benefits of feeding RMBD’s.

Now the proponents of these diets tout their benefits as offering better palatability, cleaner teeth, shinier coats and the perception that it is more ‘natural’ and more consistent with the diets our dogs and cat’s wild ancestors used to eat. As a veterinarian, I would love to see cleaner teeth and shinier coats for my patients and my own dog Skeeter. However, I can’t help but notice that my little muttlet (pictured here) little resembles his wolf ancestors! I expect him to live a whole lot longer than his ‘ancestors’ did too. Other reasons for an owner to choose a home-based raw diet is the valid concern about the incidences of non-food and bacterial contaminants in commercial food. I agree that this is a valid concern in that 17/28 recalls in 2011-2012 were for some type of contamination in dry commercial diets for dogs and cats.

The Delta Society’s Pet Partners (dog therapy) Program, American Animal Hospital Association have concerns with the feeding of raw diets for 2 major reasons. The health risks it poses to both pets and their people and the nutritional concerns. A study in 2011 revealed that ALL of the home-prepared and commercial RMB diets that were tested were nutritionally unbalanced in various vitamins and/or minerals. Sixty percent of those diets had major imbalances and 84% had multiple deficiencies! The problem with even mild deficiencies is that they are hard to prove even in a clinic setting and lead to subtle symptoms which may not be evident for months or even years and can mimic other chronic conditions. And what is worse is that these conditions don’t show up readily on routine laboratory tests. For example, excess copper in a diet can slowly build up in the liver leading to damage which will not be detected or suspected until after nearly 70% of the liver mass is no longer functional. Many dietary insufficiencies or excesses commonly lead to vague symptoms of dull, dry, brittle or discolored haircoat, organ damage, gastrointestinal disease, etc. The best way to avoid nutritional imbalances is to have a diet specially balanced for the needs of your pet by a veterinary nutritionist. One of the best resources that I am aware of for pet owners who are interested in feeding home-based diet is to use the nutritionist founded website called BalanceIT (www.balancit.com). It allows an owner to choose ingredients and the condition that their pet may have and obtain a personalized and balanced recipe for their pet formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

Another big concern which can have legal implications is that of health and safety concerns. Raw foods are well known sources of bacterial contamination, including Salmonella, e. coli, Listeria and Campylobacter to name a few. Dogs and cats can and do become ill from contaminated food and just as important, so do their human handlers. Again, in another study published in 2011, 8 out of 10 home-prepared raw diets fed to dogs were positive for Salmonella and 60% of diets were positive for e. coli. To be fair though, 33% cooked commercial diets (dry) were found to be contaminated with e coli! This is higher than I was expecting for a fully cooked commercial diet. The zoonotic potential of contamination of any diet poses a very real and serious health concern especially for the immunocompromised, elderly and the young. This is a big factor driving why vets (as well as public health officials) may be reluctant to recommend any type of RMBD regardless of the potential benefits. Dogs and cats also have the potential to multiply these contaminants in their environment through their feces, thus increasing the health concerns for sensitive individuals.

As a vet, I don’t advocate raw diets because of the concerns mentioned and the evidence for those concerns, but I also don’t discourage those educated owners who wish to take more control of their pet’s health through their diets. Preventive care is very important to me and diet is an integral part of that care. However, I recommend home-cooked recipes in those cases and not raw. Recipes balanced and tailored by a veterinary nutritionist for the unique needs of their pet, because I know that most pet owners want and expect their dogs and cats to live a whole lot longer than their wild ancestors!