The saying “you are what you eat” does hold some truth.
Food is the fuel for the engine: our body and organs. Eating a balanced nutritional diet, while avoiding excessive calories, can reduce the risk of illness.
In an attempt to maximize the benefits of nutrition, many different diet trends are marketed for dogs and cats. One such trend is the feeding of raw diets: mainly uncooked protein and bones with or without vegetables and vitamins.
Anecdotal reports on the benefits of raw diets describe “longer, healthier lives”, “healthier coat and fewer skin problems” and “more energy and better body condition”.
Although some pets may achieve the above benefits following a change to raw diets, there is no scientific evidence to support these widespread claims.
Some benefits, such as improved coat appearance, may simply be the result of the high fat content typical of these foods. In general, feeding a raw diet is more costly, unless it is made at home. Many veterinarians are not comfortable recommending it to their clients without scientific evidence to support the potential benefits.
Raw diets can also pose significant risks to both pet and pet owner.
It is well documented that raw diets have a higher risk of bacterial contamination. Bacteria such as salmonella, E.coli and campylobacter are all known to cause serious and potentially life-threatening infections in both people and pets.
All have been found in high levels in many raw diets. Infections in pets occur with direct ingestion of highly contaminated diets, while infections in people may result from improper handling of contaminated raw food and feeding bowls.
Young, elderly or immunodeficient people are most at risk. Infections can also arise through close interactions with pets, as feces from dogs fed raw diets have been shown to have higher than normal bacterial counts.
The raw pet food industry is unregulated in Canada.
This allows the risk of bacterial infections to grow even higher depending on the source of the food. Owners choosing to feed raw should research the company providing the diet carefully to ensure all precautions are taken to reduce the risk of high bacterial loads.
Lack of regulation can also lead to nutritionally incomplete feeding.
Excessive or inadequate calcium and phosphorus levels can cause severe mineral imbalances, leading to bone and growth defects. Young puppies and kittens are most susceptible because of their rapid growth. Even advocates of raw diets recommend home-cooked or even commercial diets for growing puppies and kittens to reduce the potential for devastating complications.
Elderly pets with failing livers or kidneys often cannot tolerate the high protein content of raw diets. Dogs with pancreatitis or other gastro-intestinal disease may have problems with raw foods and dogs with cancer or immunosuppressive disease or medications such as chemotherapy should not eat raw diets.
Raw diets, like many trends, likely have some benefits for a select group of pets. Unfortunately, the lack of supporting scientific evidence and the potential for serious complications make raw diets unsuitable for most pets.
Raw pet food is a $100 million industry (in the U.S.A. alone). It is time for the industry to provide scientific evidence to support the benefits of raw diets and develop guidelines to ensure a safe product is produced.
Dr. Krista Nelson is a graduate of Ontario Veterinary College. She currently practices emergency medicine at Toronto Veterinary Emergency Hospital, a 24-hour emergency and referral hospital in Scarborough. Visit us at www.tveh.ca or 416-247-VETS (8387) or find them on Twitter at twitter.com//TorontoVetEmerg