As pet owners reeled from the melamine contamination of some commercial brands of pet foods in 2007, many switched to a raw diet for their dogs or cats. But did those pet owners jump out of the frying pan and into the fire?
Raw diets include the whole animal, including organs and ground bone. They can be served in carcass form or ground up and formed into patties.
“Modern dogs are not only capable of eating the food of their wild ancestors, but actually require it for maximum health,” says Dr. Ian Billinghurst, a veterinarian and founder of BARF World, one of the first manufacturers of “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food.” Dr. Billinghurst asserts, “Processed foods are not what the dog was programmed to eat during its long process of evolution.”
But what’s good for the wolf isn’t necessarily good for the dog, says Bernard E. Rollin, professor of philosophy and animal sciences at Colorado State University. “Domestic dogs have been eating cooked food for over 300,000 years and thus cannot be compared with their wild ancestors. Cooked meat is in fact more easily digested by dogs.”
Furthermore, raw diets carry the risk of parasites, toxoplasma, salmonella, and nutritional deficiencies. “Dogs do not do well on a raw diet,” says Rollin.
But raw proponents are rabid in its defense. “He obviously has not had the proper training and experience to know the difference between raw and commercial diets,” Mueller argued. “It’s no different from physicians being against chiropractors.”
Indeed, for now, the medical community is skittish about feeding raw food to pets. The American Veterinary Medical Association has been non-committal on the wisdom of feeding raw meat to pets. The Food and Drug Administration has lightly cautioned against raw meat diets, but mostly out of handling concerns. Indeed, in March, a competitor of BARF, Nature’s Variety, expanded its voluntary recall of Chicken Formula Raw Frozen Diets for pets because of possible Salmonella contamination.
But the biggest threat of a raw food diet may be its inconsistent taurine levels, according to some research. Taurine is an amino acid critical for heart muscle function, vision, reproduction and digestion in cats.
The School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California fed 11 cats ground whole raw rabbit and 11 cats premium commercial cat food. Though cats ate the raw diet with greater gusto, and boasted shinier coats and tighter stool, there was no difference in growth rate, intestinal tract inflammation, or amount of small intestinal bacteria between the two groups.
But there was one disturbing difference. One cat fed raw rabbit for 10 months died suddenly of a heart attack. For the researchers, it was “chilling and unexpected.” They found at its cause a severe taurine deficiency.
And 70% of the remaining rabbit-fed cats, though outwardly healthy, also suffered heart muscle changes from taurine deficiency. The researchers surmised that bacteria or low vitamin E levels in the rabbit carcasses could have broken down taurine. “Caution should be heeded when feeding raw diets due to the potentially fatal consequences from creating a taurine deficiency,” they concluded.
But Mueller maintains otherwise. “You get more than adequate sources of taurine in an all-meat diet,” he says. And as long as bones are ground up first, Mueller contends that the pet’s teeth can stay plaque-free.