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Get the Skinny on Raw Food Diets

Raw food diets are becoming increasingly popular among pet owners, and they may offer several advantages over traditional commercial pet food diets. Most notably, they tend to be more palatable than traditional diets and can have better digestibility (depending on the cut of meat used). This translates into lower stool volume (always a major plus for those of us in Minnesota when the snows thaw in the spring!)

Choosing to feed a raw diet, however can carry significant health risks to both pets and people, and if the diet is not formulated properly, raw food and homemade diets can cause serious nutritional deficiencies and predispose pets to a variety of chronic illnesses. Pet owners should thoroughly educate themselves on the pros and cons before feeding a raw diet.

As you’ll see below, I don’t recommend feeding raw food diets for a number of reasons. Home prepared diets can be a very appropriate way to feed your pet, and they can even be tailored to fit the individual pet’s nutritional needs (for example, pets with kidney disease need to have reduced protein levels, dogs with portosystemic liver shunts need certain types of amino acids and not others.)  These needs can certainly be satisfied by home prepared diets, but I ALWAYS recommend that a board-certified veterinary nutrition specialist or primary care practice veterinarian with a strong background in nutrition meticulously formulate a home-prepared diet.

Balanced Nutrition:

  • A well-balanced home-prepared diet should include appropriate levels of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins (both fat and water soluble vitamins) and minerals.
  • Not surprisingly, only half of recipes used by owners making home-prepared diets provide a complete and balanced source of nutrients for a healthy adult pet. Now, account for young pets, geriatric pets, and those that are immunocompromised or have diseases.  Suddenly, the challenge of providing an adequate home-prepared diet for your pet becomes even more daunting! Again, this is where a veterinary nutritionist becomes an invaluable resource.

Raw Diets and the Risk of Exposure to Pathogens: Fair warning, this section may be a little tough to stomach (wink):

  • Bacterial infection (E. coli, Campylobacter, and Salmonella): Raw meats from the grocery store are regulated by the USDA not the FDA, and are assumed to be contaminated by bacteria. This is not a concern for people, because these raw meats are sold for human consumption and are designed to be properly handled and then cooked, thus eliminating the risk of bacterial infection.  Recall general safety standards/hygiene for handling and cooking raw chicken for dinner. So, if you feed raw meat from the grocery store your pet could get really sick from a bacterial gastroenteritis (stomach and intestinal infection.)
  • Bacteria are not the only nasty little organisms we have to worry about in raw meat.  Raw meat can also contain roundworms and tapeworms, and can contain protozoan parasites (Toxoplasma, Neospora, Cryptosporidium) that can cause severe neurologic disease, vomiting/diarrhea, muscle pain and weakness, and that can predispose to or cause autoimmune disease.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has stated, “CDC recommends against feeding raw food to dogs and cats because of the risk of illness to the pet as well as to people living in the household.” When you feed a raw diet, everyone in the household is at risk for acquiring an infectious disease.

Risk of Gastroenteritis, Gastrointestinal Obstruction/Perforation/Fractured Teeth:

  • Feeding your pet bones GI tract’s version of Russian roulette.  Yes, maybe 85 percent of the time everything is fine when you feed a bone, but remember that there’s still a bullet in the chamber. In other words, bones can and do cause tooth fractures, gastrointestinal obstruction requiring emergency surgery, and gastrointestinal perforation which can lead to death!

Before you choose to put your pet on a new diet, consider the pros and cons. Consult with your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary nutrition specialist to ensure that you’re making the best decision for your pet’s health.

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