The FDA recently announced it would send field staff out to collect samples of commercially-manufactured raw dog and cat food. The samples will be analyzed for Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli, all of which have been found in raw pet food, in the animals who eat it, in their feces, on their bodies after eating it, in the areas they inhabit, and on their owner’s bodies. Not surprisingly, this has led to both pet and human infection and illness. If the FDA finds pathogens, it could result in a recall, a press release and Reportable Food Registry Submission. The next day, the CDC joined the effort to curb illness caused by pathogens in raw pet food by posting information on safe handling.
Because of the risk to public health, and the lack of any proven benefit of raw pet food diets, the FDA does not recommend them.
However, we understand that some people prefer to feed these types of diets to their pets.
And why is that? For some of the same reasons humans follow absurd diet fads: the “lone genius” discovery, it’s “natural,” anecdotal evidence, appeal to antiquity, anti-corporate sentiment, and “holistic” practitioner recommendations.
The “lone genius” discovery
Although he may not have been original inventor of the raw pet food diet, Australian vet Ian Billinghurst is its most ardent popularizer, in the form of his trademarked “Dr. Billinghurst’s BARF Diet.” BARF is an acronym for “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food,” although other gastrointestinal-related events are called to mind.
Billinghurst recounts how the health of his own dogs declined after he started feeding them high quality commercial pet food. (Oddly missing from this story is information about what he was feeding his pets before he started them on commercial pet food and why he didn’t just go back to this diet.) However, it took him two years to realize his error. That realization came only when he switched them to a diet of raw meat, including bones, and household scraps. The results, as you might imagine, were “immediate and dramatic.” He urged his clients to switch their pets’ diets as well, with the same amazing results.
He reasoned that raw meaty bones and vegetable scraps were “very close to the evolutionary diet of cats and dogs.” He was also influenced by his study of acupuncture, although it is unclear how that led to the BARF diet, other than a willingness to trade the scientific method for anecdotal evidence as a basis of one’s practice.
Billinghurst wrote a book in the 1980s, catchily titled Give Your Dog a Bone, setting forth his unique pet nutritional theories. It became something of a pet-owner cult hit and was followed by more books. He later partnered with Robert Mueller, a pharmacist (not the former FBI director) who wrote the similarly lone-genius discovery book, Living Enzymes: The World’s Best Kept Pet Food Secret. Together with another partner, they created “BARF World,” which sells, among other things, commercially prepared raw pet food. We’ll return to this enterprise in a moment.
Billinghurst makes big claims for BARF, or at least the “raw meaty bone-eating” element:
Raw meaty bone-eating dogs lived much longer than their commercially fed counterparts, . . . Bone-eating dogs have the wonderful benefits of clean teeth with no periodontal disease, wonderfully improved digestion, a reduction in obesity, fabulous eating exercise, healthy stools, no anal sac problems, and the wonderful psychological, emotional, and immune system benefits that eating raw meaty bones has conferred on dogs for millions of years.
The raw food diet for dogs is based on a combination of the naturalist and appeal to antiquity fallacies: the notion that your dog is really, at heart (and stomach, I guess), a wolf. And cats are tiny tigers, I suppose. While raw cat food is promoted as well, the whole “theory” appears to be largely dog-centric. Because wolves ate a raw diet, it must necessarily follow that raw meat, with a few herbs, is best for your dog. (Wolves got their plant matter by eating the stomach contents of their prey.)
In this, the diet also is a form of evolutionary medicine, which is based on the faulty assumption that chronic diseases and degenerative conditions arise from a mismatch between our (and our pet’s) Stone Age genes and recently adopted lifestyles, including diet. It is the same fallacy that lies at the heart of the paleo diet for us humans.
- Yes, dogs and wolves are both in the order Carnivora, but so are giant Pandas, who are almost exclusively herbivores.
- Dogs have not been wolves for a very long time — like 100,000 years or so.
- The claim that dogs and wolves are anatomically identical with respect to an appropriate diet is simply untrue:
If you try to picture a pack of Chihuahuas bringing down and savaging an elk, the impact of thousands of years of artificial selection is obvious. . . . Dogs have lived with humans, eaten our table scraps, and been intensively bred for features we desire, none of which is likely to make them ideally designed for the diet of a wolf.
- Wolves don’t have such a great life in the wild anyway. Disease, parasites and malnutrition are major factors in wild wolf mortality and they don’t live as long as captive wolves. And captive wolf breeders have found that the best diet for their wolves is – guess what? – commercial dog food.
An analogous argument has sprung up that feral dogs and cats eat raw meat, as if this is some conscious healthy lifestyle choice on the animal’s part instead of the result of appalling neglect and irresponsibility on the part of pet owners. Of course, feral dogs and cats also lead terrible lives, subject to malnutrition and early death, and don’t live as long as pet dogs and cats.
Bad, bad commercial dog food
The other main argument in favor of raw pet food has the flavor of “death by medicine.” Like that argument, trotted out to demonize “conventional medicine,” the failings of the commercial pet food industry do nothing to make raw pet food more nutritious, less risky, or otherwise better for your pet.
It is also underpinned by some grossly exaggerated and downright false claims about the commercial pet food industry. (And here we use the term “commercial pet food” to mean “conventional” commercial pet food, even though raw pet food has become plenty “commercial” as well.) While the commercial dog food industry has its problems, it is not the bogeyman that raw pet enthusiasts make it out to be. Dr. McKenzie has shredded these arguments for us as well. Briefly:
- No, commercial pet food doesn’t make your pet sick. Like humans, pets live longer because of better nutrition and medical care. This means that illnesses of the aging pet, like cancer and degenerative diseases, are more prevalent. Coupled with the lack of a full understanding of what causes these diseases, this leaves raw food enthusiasts an opening to claim it must be the food.
- No, commercial pet food is not “toxic.” This is based on the fact that commercial pet food contains preservatives and artificial coloring, two favorite boogeymen of the “natural food” crowd.
- Yes, dogs can digest the grains used in pet food, contrary to claims otherwise.
- No, cooking does not destroy all the nutrients. Some, but not all, by a long shot. It also kills bacteria and parasites, two big plusses in any food.
- No, dog food is not made from dead pets. This offensive urban myth was investigated by the FDA and found wanting.
There are other myths raw pet foodies like to promote, such as veterinary schools not teaching nutrition, and what little they learn is controlled by the pet food industry. But let’s get to the facts.
Once fully digested, the raw pet food movement doesn’t seem so palatable.
As noted, the FDA plans to send agents out into the field for testing. Why? Because:
the scientific literature indicates that feeding raw foods to household pets such as dogs or cats carries a risk to human and animal health. Even if the pets do not appear to be sick after consuming raw pet foods containing pathogens such as Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes, they can become carriers of such pathogens and transfer the pathogens to the environment. Humans can be infected by contacting pathogens in the contaminated environment. Raw pet foods containing pathogens can also contaminate food contact surfaces and human hands that increase the risk of human exposure.
But that’s not the only risk. Julie Churchill, DVM, a specialist in companion animal nutrition at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, strongly disagrees with the BARF diet, because eating bones can be fatal.
Bones, even raw and ground ones, can perforate the [gastrointestinal] tract. This can lead to peritonitis, severe infections, require emergency surgery, and dogs die from this each year…
Risks aside, what about evidence that a raw food diet is better for your pet? There is none. In fact,
on the basis of published diet reviews, most home-prepared diets (both raw and cooked) are deficient in 1 or more essential fatty acids, vitamins, or minerals or a combination thereof. Although the perceived benefits of home-prepared diets may be reinforced daily to owners through a pet’s appetite or coat quality, nutrient deficiencies and excesses in adult animals are insidious and can lead to long-term complications if not detected and corrected.
In addition to the FDA and the CDC, the American Veterinary Medical Association, American College of Veterinary Nutritionists, American Animal Hospital Association, National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians and American Association of Feline Practitioners have all warned of the lack of benefit, as well as the dangers, of raw pet food diets. The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association doesn’t take a position, in deference to the “holistic” vets who recommend raw diets and sell raw pet food products.
So, risks to pets and their owners from infections and, to pets, from bone fragments and nutritional deficiencies, and no evidence to support it supposed benefits.
Billinghurst rejects the lack of evidence with that ubiquitous CAM practitioner claim – “I’ve seen it work.” As far as the risks, he blows them off with the unfounded assertion that eating pathogens is no big deal, because dogs are “designed” to eat these things. It’s even ok for immune-compromised animals.
All of this is nonsense, but Billinghurst has his reputation and a raw pet food empire to think about. For example, you can get two 3 lb. bags of BARF World “Juicy Chicken Nuggets,” which contains not only chicken, but also vegetables, fruits, cayenne pepper and garlic, for a mere $37.97, plus $15.50 in shipping costs. If this is really what wolves eat, they are surely the unheralded gourmets of the animal world. Who knew animals used herbs and spices? But wait – there’s more: if you sign up for the BARF World automatic shipping plan (meaning, they’ll automatically send you the right amount of food, expertly calculated for your pet, in perpetuity) you get free shipping.
But what if your dog or cat doesn’t tolerate BARF World pet food? Not to worry. Some may exhibit brief symptoms of “detox,” like diarrhea and vomiting, but this is normal, especially when converting from a “processed diet.”
BARF World also sells a lot of other CAM stuff for your pet, such as Kefir and “Eastern Medicine” herbal supplement formulas. For example, “G.I Tract Herbal Formula for Dogs,” “harmonizes the stomach,” and, as an added bonus, “helps maintain contentment during travel” for dogs that have digestion issues, as well as those who “don’t want to travel in a vehicle.” You can even get a consultation with a “holistic” vet.
Although BARF World may have the imprimatur of Billinghurst himself, several other raw pet food companies have gotten on the gravy train, and at similar prices. No benefit, more risk, and higher prices. Yep, sounds like CAM to me.
If you want to subject yourself to unproven raw food fads, I suppose that’s your business. But leave your poor pet out of it.