Plenty of owners rave about raw food diets, plenty of veterinarians seem to be against this and plenty, like myself, sit on the fence in these debates and wonder whether we are not being 'good parents' for our pets in feeding them easy food from a bag or tin. The following is slightly adapted from my research for an assignment for year 1 of the COAPE diploma...
Natural diets are intended to mimic the diet of animals living freely in the wild and are often referred to as raw or BARF (bones and raw food, or biologically appropriate raw food) diets. Many pet owners feel raw is better suited and healthier for their pet, as evidenced by shinier coats, smaller stools and their pet's preference for the diet (Weeth, 2013). Some switch to it attempting to resolve health or behavioural issues that they feel may be caused by commercial dry or cooked food diets. Many owners note success from this, but unfortunately there appears to be little research available to confirm this.
There is however plenty of evidence to suggest raw diets should be approached with caution. Studies demonstrate raw food is frequently contaminated with salmonella (Joffe & Schlesinger, 2002) and escherichia coli (Lefebvre et al, 2008) potentially causing gastroenteritis and illness in some pets (LeJeune & Handcock, 2001, Stiver et al., 2014) and posing a human health risk (Strohmeyer et al, 2006). Opinion on the best natural diet composition varies - some feed pre-packaged, minced diets, neglecting more abrasive foods (such as raw bones) that clean teeth and minimise risk of periodontal disease (Watson, 1994). Others construct home made diets based on questionable research and opinion - Weeth (2013) stated less than half home prepared raw diets comprise a full, balanced diet, which could dramatically impact health and behaviour. For example, cats are unable to produce taurine, an essential amino acid and must consume this within their diet. Taurine can usually be derived from raw diets, however, levels can vary and may be low enough to cause deficiency (Glasgow et al., 2002) potentially resulting in irreversible eyesight damage (Hayes, 1982) heart muscle damage and even death (Pion et al., 1987). A poorly constructed home diet may also be dangerous if pets have underlying health issues or a current physical condition that the owner neglects, or does not understand enough, to take into account, such as pancreatitis or pregnancy.
A natural diet composed largely of protein could cause calcium excretion, fluid imbalances and therefore house training issues, bone and joint pain leading to reluctance to exercise and weight gain, touch sensitivity (Strong, 2009) and even aggression (Dodman et al., 1996, DeNapoli et al., 2000). Lack of carbohydrates and B6 in the diet could reduce the production of serotonin, contributing to increased aggression (Lindsay, 2000) sleep cycle disruption and an inability to learn new behaviours. A low carbohydrate diet may also result in protein being burned for energy, increasing the load on the kidneys and increasing water intake, again affecting house training (Strong 2009) as well as producing toxins that could cause depression and loss of energy.
So what's the verdict? Well for me the jury is still out. There are more than enough reasons above to never give raw food another glance for me, except... I know plenty of people who simply love feeding raw and I still am not confident that the feeding of a genuinely well researched and complete raw diet is a bad thing for your pet, provided you can ignore the potential risks to humans (I can feel my Dad shuddering as he reads this!). However, good research on canine and feline dietary requirements is hard to come by, meaning that it is difficult to know with certainty that you are feeding your pets a nutritionally complete diet that suits their individual needs and requirements. Is that a risk you can take?
For me that's a no, so I feed good quality dry and wet foods to my pets and am happy in the knowledge that the pet food manufacturers have done research on their foods and that my pets are receiving the nutritional care that need free of my amateurish tampering with it! However, they do on the odd occasion get a bit of a treat - which gets a big thumbs up! What are your thoughts?
DeNapoli, J. S., Dodman, N. H., Shuster, L., Rand, W. M., Gross, K. L. (2000) Effect of dietary protein content and tryptophan supplementation on dominance aggression, territorial aggression, and hyperactivity in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 217:4, 504-508.
Dodman, N. H., Reisner, I., Shuster, L., Rand, W., Luescher, U. A., Robinson, I., Houpt, K. A. (1996) Effect of dietary protein content on behaviour in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 208:3, 376-379.
Glasgow, A. G., Cave, N. J.., Marks, S. L., Pederson, N. C. (2002) Role of Diet in the Health of the Feline Intestinal Tract and in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. [Online] Available at: http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/ccah/local-assets/pdfs/Role_of_diet_feline%20health_Glasgow.pdf . [Accessed: 7 May 2014].
Hayes, K. C. (1982) Nutritional problems in cats: taurine deficiency and vitamin A excess. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 23:1, 2-5.
Joffe, D. J., Schlesinger, D. P. (2002) Preliminary assessment of Salmonella infection in dogs fed raw chicken diets. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 43:6, 441-442.
Lefebvre, S. L., Reid-Smith, R., Boerlin, P., Weese, J. S. (2008) Evaluation of the risks of shedding Salmonellae and other potential pathogens by therapy dogs fed raw diets in Ontario and Alberta. Zoonoses and Public Health, 55:8-10, 470-480.
Lejeune, J. T., Hancock, D. D. (2001) Public health concerns associated with feeding raw meat diets to dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Association, 219:9, 1222-1225.
Pion, P. D., Kittleson, M. D., Rogers, Q. R., Morris, J. G. (1987) Myocardial failure in cats associated with low plasma taurine: a reversible cardiomyopathy. Science, 237, 764-768.
Stiver, S. L., Frazier, K. S., Mauel, M. J., Styer, E. L. (2014) Septicemic salmonellosis in two cats fed a raw-meat diet. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 39:6, 538-542.
Strohmeyer, R. A., Morley, P. S., Hyatt, D. R., Dargatz, D. A., Scorza, A. V., Lappin, M. R. (2006) Evaluation of bacterial and protozoal contamination of commercially available raw meat diets for dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Association, 228:4, 537-542.
Strong, V. (2009) Applied Canine Nutrition - The Implications of Diet on Behaviour.
Watson, A. D. J. (1994) Diet and periodontal disease in dogs and cats. Australian Veterinary Journal, 71:10, 313-318.
Weeth, L. P. (2013) [Online] Home-prepared diets for dogs and cats. Compendium: Continuing Education for Veterinarians, March 2013. Accessed via:https://s3.amazonaws.com/assets.prod.vetlearn.com/8f/4a259085a711e2935e005056ad4734/file/PV0313_Weeth_FN.pdf . [Accessed at 7 May 2014].