Something to Chew On – Raw Diets
Pet nutrition is unarguably one of the largest areas that people spend on their pets. While the majority of people feed a commercial pet diet, there is a portion of the population that chooses to feed a raw food diet. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing as there are pros & cons to this argument that both have validity. Raw diets come in both home prepared forms as well as commercial forms.
People advocate that raw diets have many benefits. Among these are the arguments that pets will have a better coat, less dental problems, “it’s more natural”, and that in general they will have better health. The unfortunate truth is that there isn’t a whole lot of research behind raw diets to substantiate these claims. They are subjective opinions rather than research based science. Now this isn’t to say that there aren’t some benefits to raw diets and I think that over time as more information becomes available, there may be more proven benefits to raw food.
Raw diets were found to have a higher digestibility overall and reduced fecal output. Improved digestibility can lead to better use of the diet and may help with some individual patients, particularly ones with food allergies/sensitivities. This better digestibility is also the likely cause of the reduced fecal matter as more of the nutrients available are utilized.
So if these are the benefits, what are the drawbacks? Nutrient deficiencies is one of the first things that comes to mind. In previous studies of cats eating raw diets, a significant lack of taurine was found to be the cause of the development of heart problems. Taurine is needed by cats specifically to prevent dilation of the heart chambers and can be found in lesser quantities in muscle meat. The additional problem with home formulated raw diets is that if research by the pet owner is not done before just feeding a raw piece of meat, other nutrients, vitamins, and minerals may be lacking. Commercial raw food diets have been formulated to have appropriate levels for specific life stages.
Another argument for raw diets has been better dental health for pets fed a raw diet. As raw diets contain some boney material or there is an actual bone to chew on, the amount of calculus (tartar) has actually been found to be reduced in multiple studies. What is essentially unchanged though is the development of periodontal disease which is likely secondary to trauma from these bones to the gum tissue.
Lastly, let’s touch on contamination issues and microorganisms. Would you eat raw chicken or beef? Surely the human food supply has been inspected and kept healthy but it’s not advisable to eat raw meat primarily due to concerns over Salmonella. The same concern exists for pets. Bowls must certainly be cleaned and disinfected more regularly and people who are immunocompromised should not handle the feeding of the pets. Even if your pets don’t get sick, they can still shed bacteria in their stool or saliva so proper hygiene on your part is paramount.
In short, raw diets can help but also not help…and this is one of the conundrums of raw diets. I don’t doubt that there is some validity behind their use. Use of a commercial raw diet (often times pre-frozen) is what I would recommend if you chose to go this route as it will meet AAFCO standards (discussed last time). It would also be beneficial to consult the Food & Drug Administration’s website on safe handling as well as potentially contacting a qualified nutrition service such as Pet Nutrition Consulting or through a veterinary college. If you’re opposed to commercial diets, I would suggest cooking the food, rather than straight up raw, after consulting with a veterinary nutritionist. Ultimately, it’s best to have a discussion with your veterinarian and do some research before any diet changes for your pets.
For further perspective on raw diets from a veterinary nutritionist, visit Dr. Weeth’s nutrition blog on the topic as well as many other great nutrition related posts.
Disclaimer: All blog posts are my own opinion and do not reflect that of my current or previous employers. Info for this post was accumulated from multiple sources including North American Veterinary Conference notes from a talk by Dr. Andrea Fascetti. This post is intended to help people become informed. I do not receive compensation from any food company.