The raw food diet controversy

Dr. Julie Hunt

Recently there has been increased interest in feeding pets a raw food diet. Advocates of raw food diets claim the benefits include longer lifespan, better dental health, and improvement in skin and gastrointestinal conditions. However, most support for feeding raw diets comes from testimonials. No clinical studies have been done comparing long-term feeding of raw diets vs. cooked commercial foods.

What is a raw food diet? Raw diets contain raw meat (with or without bones), plant ingredients (fruits and vegetables), and less commonly, grains. Raw food diets can be prepared at home or are available commercially.

Veterinarians have two main concerns about feeding raw diets to pets: nutritional balance and food safety. Recipes for home prepared diets must be balanced and nutritionally adequate for pets. Even commercially prepared raw food diets do not necessarily provide a complete and balanced diet for your pet. Both commercial raw food diets and homemade diets should be analyzed by a qualified nutritionist. The websites www.balanceit.com and www.petdiets.com are reputable sites available to confirm the nutritional adequacy of your pet’s diet.

The safety concern about raw diets is that they may be contaminated with bacteria, most commonly Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli. These bacteria can cause serious disease in pets such as diarrhea, vomiting, and even death. Improper handling of a raw diet and contact with feces from animals eating a raw diet are both sources of illness in people. These food safety concerns have been documented in many studies and the FDA guidelines for preparation of raw food diets published in 2002 state, “The FDA does not believe raw meat foods are consistent with the goal of protecting the public from significant health risks, particularly when such products are brought into the home and/or used to feed domestic pets.” There is increased risk of human disease in immune-compromised individuals. Raw diets containing uncooked bones have added safety concern due to the potential for bones to cause dental fractures, intestinal perforation, and obstruction.

If you decide to feed a raw diet to your pet despite these concerns, safe handling is imperative. Do not feed raw food diets in the kitchen area! After handling the raw food diet, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly and disinfect all utensils/surfaces carefully. These recommendations also apply to dog treats of animal origin such as rawhide, pig ears, and hooves. If you choose to feed whole bones, grind into small pieces. Lastly, be sure that the raw food diet has passed an AAFCO feeding trial and is nutritionally adequate for long-term feeding. If you are preparing a raw diet at home, check your recipe with a qualified veterinary nutritionist.