Raw food diets for dogs have always sliced and diced public opinion. Most recently, they have been back in the spotlight with many major pet food companies trying to imitate a dog’s ancestral diet by adding free-dried raw inclusions in kibble, to home delivery services offering human-grade frozen raw options that just need to be defrosted and served.
Medical Professional Opinions
According to the Association’s official website, “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. 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.
Animal-source proteins of concern include beef, pork, poultry, fish, and other meat from domesticated or wild animals as well as milk and eggs. Several studies reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals have demonstrated that raw or undercooked animal-source protein may be contaminated with a variety of pathogenic organisms, including Salmonella spp, Campylobacter spp, Clostridium spp, Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus. Cats and dogs may develop foodborne illness after being fed animal-source protein contaminated with these organisms if adequate steps are not taken to eliminate pathogens; secondary transmission of these pathogens to humans (eg, pet owners) has also been reported. Cats and dogs can develop subclinical infections with these organisms but still pose a risk to livestock, other nonhuman animals, and humans, especially children, older persons, and immunocompromised individuals.”
Raw diets have been a food choice for high energy and performance dogs such as racing greyhounds and sled dogs dating back several decades. Then, in the early nineties, an Australian veterinarian named Ian Billinghurst proposed extending the diet to family dogs. He called this the BARF Diet — Bones and Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. While these terms are still around, it’s now more current to refer to raw diets as a dog’s ancestral diet – what they would eat in the wild.
Nathan Elam, Ph.D., a consulting nutritionist for Nutrition Service Associates and Inline Nutrition, who also advises Merrick Pet Care agrees with AVMA’s stance on raw diets.
“Dogs that perform well on ‘ancestral diets’ live less sheltered lives than dogs who are literally one of the family. For lack of a better way to say it, most ranch dogs with access to ‘road kill’ do very well with the additional protein they scavenge, and less fortunate dogs who survive on their own often have this as their only nutritional opportunity. The reason these particular cases are seemingly unaffected by this exposure is their homeostatic microbiota are well prepared for this opportunity,” explains Elam.
What it Means to be Your Canine’s Nutritionist
Extending on what AVMA has to say, it can be really tough to be a canine nutritionist in your own kitchen. It’s not simply a matter of simply going to the butcher or the supermarket and buying bones and raw meat and adding some veggies. There are certain vitamins and minerals that domesticated dogs need. Thus, trying to ascertain the right amounts of fresh food whether its meat, poultry and fish is quite an undertaking to confidently ensure your dog is getting the right amount of nutrients to maintain overall good health. And there is the risk of over-feeding too unless you know accurate amounts of everything your dog needs.
With the regard to the safety aspect of preparing and serving raw food in a home kitchen, it’s hard to ensure that typical domestic kitchen surfaces are completely sterile to avoid any contamination. It’s a fact of life; bacteria lurk everywhere! And this applies to human food preparation too.
“Even though irradiation and other pathogen suppressing technologies are available, pathogenic bacteria are opportunists and the safe handling and storage of raw foods after their initial packaging protections are breached place a large burden on the pet parent to maintain the integrity of the food before it is served,” says Elam. “Consider this. If you wouldn’t eat it raw because it may be compromised, why would you serve it to your dog?” He adds.
Plus, from a pet parent standpoint, it’s also important to factor in time spent in food preparation and, of course, the actual cost of such a diet; feeding raw costs more.
Commercial Recreation of The Ancestral Diet
The latest technology available to commercial pet food manufacturers has allowed them to revisit the issue of raw proteins in an attempt to recreate the canine ancestral diet and find a way of adding it to a pre-packaged diet. Freeze-drying raw meats and poultry is a stable, safe and convenient way of offering domesticated dogs a taste of the wild and the benefits of raw protein as a part of their regular diet. Also, small amounts of raw (freeze-fried) protein morsels don’t cause stomach upsets.
Commercial pet food manufacturers believe that frozen raw inclusions provide a boost of additional protein, providing enzymes and minerals in their most natural state. This combination creates a flavor-rich, nutrient-dense meal that supports lean muscle, healthy weight and extra energy so your dog can have more fun playing with favorite toys – and you — as well as enhancing your pooch’s shiny, healthy coat and overall good looks.
Consequently, such diets have become a popular way of giving dogs a safe “taste of the wild.”
In the past couple of years, the pet food shelf has become a food maze with so many competitive offerings. Along with freeze-dried raw in kibble, canned options and dehydrated food options, the wave of premiumization that this sweeping the pet food industry has also resulted in a number of home delivery services offering balanced frozen raw food options delivered on the doorstep. There many niche companies doing this. However, they have definitely caught the attention of bigger manufacturers who have stepped into this marketplace by purchasing such companies to have under their umbrella in order to be competitive on this front too.
Home Delivery Frozen Raw
With this growing trend, some pet retailers even have kitchens in-store so that pet parents can see their pet’s food being prepared. This, to their credit is all in an effort of transparency to show the process every step of the way. But it’s important to remember that in any food arena, no ingredient, it seems, is exempt from toxic bacteria. Most recently, there was even an issue concerning Romaine lettuce in California!
Delivery services that offer home-styled food recipes for pets, although not cheap, are gaining a loyal following as the humanization trend of the pet industry continues to promote such options. And, even for those pet parents that can afford to have their pet’s meals (and no doubt their own too) delivered in a box on the doorstep, it’s important to be vigilant and take good care of the food once it’s in your kitchen. It has to be kept frozen and only defrosted to be served.
However, the plus to feeding your dog a customized diet that will even arrive with his name on it, is that it helps pet parents to feed the correct amounts; if you run out of food before the next delivery, you are over-feeding!
Something to Chew On
Another reason that AVMA takes a firm stance against raw diets in general, is that ancestral or not, raw food doesn’t necessarily agree with every domestic dog. Domesticated dogs, like humans, are subject to variety gastrointestinal sensitivities and allergies. The raw food pundits may counter by saying its commercial foods that bring on such issues in the first place! But putting that argument aside, there are dogs that simply don’t thrive on raw food! Also, a dog that has been brought up on commercial foods may have a really hard time transitioning over – even if it’s done slowly over a period of 10 days. Some dogs are also neophobic. This is a fear of new things and can include new food options. Consequently, a raw food diet may not be the answer for your dog.
“If a pet parent believes ancestral diets are the best option for their dog then a good prophylactic direct fed microbial supplement containing live yeast, and Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus licheniformis, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Enterococcus faecium bacteria can help to develop ‘good’ microbial populations in the digestive tract that serve the purpose of reducing exposure risks when pathogenic bacteria are present,” suggests Elam. “This type of preventive management is not the solution for poor handling of raw foods and is not a ‘silver bullet’ but everyone benefits from a healthy gut…even furry family members.”
Because there are so many food options available to pet parents, it’s really important to do your homework and take advice from your veterinarian and your veterinary team who is most informed about your pet’s general health and wellbeing. Fortunately, all reputable pet food manufacturers have veterinary nutritionists on staff and calling consumer hotlines and asking questions is a great way to improve your general knowledge of food options along with the specific needs of your dog.
There’s nothing quite like obtaining a lot of food for thought …