Raw food - is it the healthiest choice for dogs and cats?
Fresh wholesome foods sound like a wonderful thing to feed to pets, and many dogs and cats appear to do well on these diets, but are there hidden risks? If raw foods are your choice for feeding your pet, you should be aware of the potential problems.
What the benefits of feeding raw foods?
What are the benefits? By choosing the foods, you are in control of the ingredients fed to your dog or cat. There are not likely to be preservatives or additives if you are using whole foods and you can match your dog or cat's diet (within reason) to your own ethical eating choices. Some people enjoy preparing foods for their pets and it reinforces their emotional bond. Economy should not be a reason to cook for your pet, as commercial pet foods are usually less expensive than a balanced homemade diet. Some pets have better stools on fresh food diets, although in some pets they may cause diarrhoea.
What is in commercial foods?
There are a lot of false stories about the ingredients of commercial pet foods. They do not contain dead dogs and cats! They may contain animal by-products but these are often nutritious and safe. They are the parts of the animal that humans don't choose to eat, usually for cultural rather than nutritional reasons. Further, people in some cultures do eat intestines, brains, thymus, and other meats sometimes considered by-products or secondary products.
Commercial foods do contain antioxidant preservatives to prevent them from becoming rancid. Some of them also contain textured vegetable proteins that appear to be meat but are not, and some of them do contain colourings to make them appear more appealing to pet owners. These are the same colourings added to processed human foods and must be considered safe for consumption, although each of us need to decide if we want to eat them or feed them to our pets.
Are raw diets a complete and balanced diet?
Studies have shown that the majority of homemade diet recipes, including those published in books and online, are not complete and balanced. Varying the ingredients over several days was not shown to improve nutrient balance as many foods had the same deficiencies. Adult animals may not show signs in the short term as some deficiencies take months to show, and many only show up when the pet becomes ill or otherwise stressed. Growing pets are especially at risk for health problems when fed with unbalanced and deficient diets. There are some (but not all) commercial raw pet foods that are complete and balanced and your vet can help you find one. The label should state that the food is complete for the lifestage of your pet, eg adult, puppy, kitten, pregnant or lactating. Some labels state "complete for all life stages"; be aware that this is a diet for a growing puppy or kitten and may not be appropriate for some older pets.
It's natural, but is it safe?
Studies on bacterial contamination of raw foods and shedding of bacterial in the faeces of dogs fed raw foods have shown that much of the raw poultry and raw meat diets for dogs tested positive for Salmonella and many of the stool samples from these dogs were also positive for Salmonella. Commercial raw food diets have also tested positive for E coli, Campylobacter and Yersinia enterocolitica (bacteria that may cause gastrointestinal upset). While the amount of Salmonella has decreased in human foods, the amount of the bacteria Campylobacter is still high. Otherwise healthy dogs may be able to cope with ingestion of these bacteria, but very young, old, or immunocompromised dogs may not be able to do so. Further, the stools contaminate the environment with these bacteria. Parasites that may be present in raw meat in include Toxoplasma gondii, Sarcocystis, Neospora caninum, Toxocara canis (round worms), Taenia and Echinococcus (tape worms).
Feeding raw or undercooked meats can lead to harmful and potentially fatal health effects to animals (and their human caregivers). Animals with compromised immune systems, such as those with chronic disease or that are undergoing cancer treatment, are at an especially high risk of contracting potentially fatal food borne illness and should not be fed raw meat diets or treats. Feeding under-cooked starches and grains can lead to maldigestion of ingredients and potential gastrointestinal distress (ie vomiting, abdominal pain, or diarrhoea, or any combination of these) and should be avoided.
Raw treats are at an especially high risk of contamination as they often come from areas of the animal most likely to be exposed to faeces, eg hooves, horns, ears, and penises.
Commercial raw foods are generally safer than those which are prepared at home as they should be tested for bacterial contamination similar to other commercial foods, but enforcement of quality control standards is highly variable by manufacturer.
Health and safety of humans and other pets
When handling raw foods, either in preparation for human consumption or for the pet's dinner, the cook must be scrupulous in hygiene, washing all surfaces and hands before touching anything or anyone else. Small children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised (eg anyone ill or on immunosuppressive medications) should not handle raw meat, nor should they be exposed to animals fed raw meat diets.
If your pet defaecates in a public area be aware that they may be contaminating that area. This could affect people or other pets who are at risk of infections.
Your vet should also be aware that your pet is fed a raw diet if it is to be hospitalised so that they can take the necessary hygiene measures to ensure your pet does not contaminate the hospital and infect other pets or hospital staff.
Feeding bones - do they help and are they safe?
Chewing on a large meaty bone does seem a great source of joy for many dogs, and if it is large enough that it cannot be chewed up is generally considered safe. Some advocates of feeding raw meat and bones diets claim that the bones are beneficial for oral and dental health. Chewing bones may decrease the tartar, which is the solid white or yellow material that is visible on teeth, but does not decrease plaque or periodontitis. This means while the teeth may appear cleaner, the gums are not healthier and gum disease is what leads to tooth loss. It is also important to know that any bone hard enough to scrape tartar off the teeth is also hard enough to break the teeth.
Raw bones are sometimes added to the diet as a calcium source. Analysis of many raw diets has confirmed that feeding bones is not an adequate source of calcium.
One of the major risks is that of bones becoming stuck in the oesophagus, stomach or intestines, which is potentially fatal. There is a conception that feeding raw bones is safer than feeding cooked bone, but this has not been proven either way. If you feed bones, either raw or cooked, that can be ingested by your pet, you are running the risk of oesophageal or gastrointestinal obstructions and fractured teeth. It may be possible to chop or grind the bone up small enough (eg less than 0.5 cm) that they are less likely to get stuck. Alternatively, consider consulting a veterinary nutritionist to determine the amount of calcium and other nutrients to add to his diet and skip the bones.
If you chose to feed a diet involving raw foods, it is recommended that a complete and balanced commercial diet be fed or that the diet be balanced by a veterinary nutritionist. It is recommended that very special hygienic care is used in handling the food and the pet's faeces. De-worm your pet regularly, and always tell your vet what diet you are feeding so that if your pet develops gastrointestinal disorders they will know to look for bacteria and parasites from food contamination.