I knew that a discussion regarding raw diets was sometimes a contentious issue, but I never knew how controversial it was until I started blogging. Whenever a popular veterinary website or blog site posts something about raw diets the comment sections goes crazy. People on both sides of the issue sling mud as political candidates vying for office. So why did I blog about this topic? Well I felt it was important to share my perspective despite the controversy. I will admit that I am a little nervous publishing this but whatever the response so be it. As a blogger I realize my goal is just share my perspective not to get everybody to agree with me. This is not meant to be a persuasive essay.
So what is behind the hype of a Raw Diet?
People who feed their dog a raw diet list a host of benefits they see in their pets after starting it. I will say I don’t debate these benefits since they are based on the composition of the diets.
- Improved coat quality: This diet has a higher fat content then traditional which may contribute to the coat quality.
- Highly digestible. This diet is generally lower in fiber making them more digestible leading to reduced fecal volume. Also something that is more digestible will yield more nutrition per volume.
- Improved allergy symptoms – Of course raw diets are grain free, therefore eliminating exposure to food allergies that may be caused by grain. Pets can have allergies to meat proteins as well. But it is believed that a pet may be more allergic to a cooked vs a raw meat from the same source because how the protein changes during the cooking process. More studies need to be done to confirm this.
- Longer lifespan- This is difficult to confirm scientifically due to a lack of long term studies comparing dogs on a raw diet vs another diet. If there is a longer life span the attitude of owner may play a role as well. I discuss this in further detail.
- Improved dental disease –if a raw diet includes the bones then it is likely to decrease the amount of dental tartar on the teeth as they cause a brushing effect when the pet is chewing on it. Those on raw diets are also less likely to get treats that often contribute to dental disease in dogs.
- Attitude of owner – This is actually an indirect benefit. At the risk of overgeneralizing, owners that are invested in the nutrition of their pets, whether it is a raw, grain free, or home-made diet etc. tend to exhibit certain behaviors that benefit the health of their pet. These are the people who walk or run with their dog providing regular exercise. They are more likely to brush their dog’s teeth. Their pets are often well trained, and less likely to show aggressive tendency because of it. Any health problems are detected quickly and addressed by a veterinarian if necessary. Vaccines are updated in a consistent manner and flea and heartworm prevention is consistent. They are less likely to overfeed their pets. They are less likely to have dogs tied to tree outside being exposed to the elements. All these behaviors as a whole improve the general health of these pets.
So with all those great benefits why do veterinarian overall dismiss these diets?
Well let’s look at some of the myths perpetuated in the blogosphere first then look at some facts.
Veterinarians don’t know nothing about nutrition.
That is a common cliché I have seen on the blogosphere. In my opinion that is code for “I don’t agree with your view on nutrition”. I know when I was in veterinary school, I wish I didn’t have to know anything about nutrition. Even though it is important, it is not the most exciting subject. Learning about amino acids, crude analysis, formulas involving energy requirements, and protein metabolism in one word is “boring.” I pretty much figured it was just one of those subjects that was included in the veterinary curriculum as a filler. Something I probably did not need to worry about once I got out into the “real” world. Boy I was wrong. I learned that during my first year of working experience as a veterinary intern at a Veterinary Teaching hospital. Many of my patients had feeding tubes for various medical conditions. Based on these medical conditions, I had to come up with the appropriate nutrient profile to assure proper feeding for the fastest recovery. Even now I deal with many medical conditions where nutrition is a major component in the treatment protocol. Some of these included diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease, liver shunts, gastroenteritis, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Veterinarians push kibble to increase their profits.
I don’t make much money pushing kibble on owner even if it is for a medical reason. To explore this issue we have to follow the money. There are 3 main ways how veterinarians are paid: salary, a base salary plus production or commission, or production only. Veterinarians who are paid salary get paid the same regardless of how much food is being sold. How about the veterinarians who are paid production? Most veterinarians who are paid production either receive little or no commission on pet food. The reason for this is to keep food prices comparable to costs in the pet store, commission is often sacrificed. This is a case whether the food is a prescription diet or not.
Veterinarians are paid by pet food companies
While many pet food companies attempt to court us by providing dinner presentations promoting their products, their main goal is for us to choose their brand over rivals. The three main companies we deal with are Royal Canin, Hill’s, and Purina Veterinary diets. Their presentations are often focused on newer products for various health issues, and why their company is the better product when compared one another. So while we may get a free dinner once in a while these presentations rarely focus on maintenance foods vs prescription diets.
The one major reason veterinarians are not in favor of raw diets is due to the bacteria Salmonella
Most healthy pets are resistant to the effects of Salmonella even if exposed to it. There are not too many dogs or cats that will experience symptoms. The primary concern that many veterinarians have is the shedding of salmonella in the feces. There is also an increased risk of salmonella in the handling and preparation of the food since it is most likely handled every day. Most of the concerns is with the very young, very old, or immunocompromised individuals being exposed to this. Some farm animals such as horses can be sensitive to this bacteria as well.
So why the battle between raw diet vs kibble diet?
This is a major issue. I personally dealt with the aflatoxin contamination in a popular pet food while I was in veterinary school. Since then there have been several instances of toxin contaminations in other popular dog food brands. Mycotoxins and aflatoxins have had the major roles in these outbreaks which has caused major illness and even death in pets involved. Obviously this has caused major distrust among pet owners toward the pet food companies. Sometimes these concerns are further highlighted by those who are raw or natural diet proponents. Even with the best quality control, sometimes contamination still can’t be avoided. This is often a challenge with anything that is mass produced. Typically, the lower the quality of the food the lower the quality control and the greater the risk for contamination. So cheaper is definitely not better. Raw diets are not immune from risk of contamination. But these tend to be more controlled by owner behavior. If contamination occurs, it is typically due to poor storage of food, and poor sanitation of food bowls or eating areas.
Misinformation being spread via the internet
The internet is well known for spreading misinformation on many topics and pet nutrition is not immune from this. The problem is that many people are claiming to be experts on pet nutrition. They claim that are experts because they have done extensive research. The problem is the extensive research has been mostly bad information from the internet. Many times they have no other formal training or education in the field to justify their proclaimed expertise. If I could have skipped school and become a veterinarian with just extensive research on the internet, I would have saved a lot of money. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. In order for someone to have a true authority on pet nutrition they would need to have knowledge on not only pet nutrition, but a good understanding of animal physiology as well. There are very few people who would qualify for this yet you still see many blogs making bold claims about pet nutrition. Animal physiology is necessary to understand how a dog’s or cat’s body works. Nutrition in pets does not always work the same way it does in humans so it be wrong to assume so.
So who should you turn to if I have questions regarding raw diet?
Well you can still reach out to those who have fed their pets the diet but remember just because it works well for one pet does it mean it will do the same for your pets. There are many factors to consider. Traditional veterinarians are not likely to recommend the diet and are more likely to discourage it. So if you are seeking a knowledgeable person, you may seek out the advice of a holistic veterinarian. At least they may have knowledge of both nutrition, and animal physiology.
Does a raw diet guarantee good health?
No diet can guarantee good health for your pet. Just like no diet can guarantee ultimate doom for your pets. I often have clients who are surprised when their pets have an illness even though they are feeding a high quality diet. Not to downplay the importance of a diet in a pets health. However, these pet owners are unaware of other factors that can contribute to a pet’s health. You have genetic conditions, exposure to carcinogens, breed dispositions that contribute to health as well. I have seen on blogs where pet owners are so confident of their pet’s health that they don’t feel the need to take their pets to the veterinarian anymore. They just do blood work and when the results come back normal they know they are healthy. I can tell you of many cases of where I discovered cancer in pets and if I only did blood work alone, I would never know. Also there is no diet that can effectively prevent heart disease which often detected on physical exam. When it comes to allergies, though raw diets can reduce the incidence of food allergies, environmental allergies can still be a factor.
There are a couple of things you should consider before changing your pet to any extreme diet
Any diet change should occur gradually, typically over a 3-5 days period unless directed otherwise by a veterinarian. Changing a diet too quickly can cause major gastrointestinal upset leading to diarrhea and sometimes vomiting. I have seen some websites describe this as normal part of the “detoxification” process. It is never normal for any pet to suffer with diarrhea or vomiting.
Have a veterinary check up prior to a diet change, especially if your pet has been on the same diet for a few years. There are some medical conditions where certain diets may be contraindicated.
My final perspective
Though a raw diet is not my first choice for pets, I am always encouraged by owners who are invested interest in what their pets eat. I believe that a well balanced diet is most important. Most of the diet problems I see in my career is not typically related to someone just feeding a particular diet. It is when they decide to feed outside of the diet. The most common digestive medical condition I see in dogs is pancreatitis. This is often due to people feeding their dogs fast food, junk food, or other high fatty foods because they believe they are feeding their dog a treat. My concluding thoughts are that I am less impressed by what food a pet owner feeds their pets vs how one treats their pets. Not everyone can feed their pets the best food, but everybody can give their pet their best. This best looks different from owner to owner based on their socioeconomic status. But providing the best to your pets will be the most important factor in enriching their lives.