Ron Hines DVM PhD
With The Internet Already Full Of Stuff About Raw Diets For Pets Why Would You Want To Write About Them?
Well, I didn’t plan to. But a series of late-summer emails I received got me to thinking. One was from a lady in California whose cat miraculously recovered from IBD when it was switched to a raw chicken diet and a similar one in Seattle – except it was a dog. Two were from dog owners in Australia who swore by raw diets for their dogs and the last was from a heartbroken lady in South Carolina whose dog had died during a tooth cleaning (Over the years, I have learned that pets in Australia tended to have considerably cleaner teeth then here in America). Then there were a series of emails with Dr. Tom Lonsdale over some other issues and an August 2012 decision by the AVMA to condemn the feeding of raw, under-cooked or home-prepared food to dog and cats.
I spent some time reviewing scientific papers that related to the issues of canine and feline nutrition and how a raw, home cooked or commercial diet might affect your pets health. Like all my articles, I did that so I could give you evidence-based conclusions – not conclusions based on my intuition or self-interest. I included those reference papers as links in this article; so if you don’t reach the same conclusions I did, you will at least have that underlying information at your fingertips.
What I learned is that there are exaggerations on both side of this issue (I’ll call them Rawfoodists vs Megafooders). Dogs and cats won’t live forever on raw meat diets, they won’t die tomorrow from eating them and the right decision for you depends on you and your pet’s specific situation. X2X
Why Do Raw Diets Enthusiasts Tell You Their Diets Are Good For Your Pet?
“Dogs And Cats Are Still Basically Wild Animals In Their Nutritional Needs”
Neither dogs nor cats have lived with humans all that long. So we can’t be sure that they have adapted fully to thrive on the foods we thrive on. Humans are omnivores – we eat everything. Our teeth attest to that. Dogs and cats are carnivores. Their teeth attest to that. Raw meat enthusiasts believe that your pet’s health will be better if you feed it the diet it was designed, over the eons, to metabolize; and best when you feed it in a form similar to what it ate when it was wild.
In January, 2013, a study was published in the Journal, Nature. It concerns the genetic differences between dogs and wolves. It’s conclusions are based on advanced genetics that are well beyond my understanding; but they suggest that dogs have evolved over the last 27,000 years (ref) to absorb and utilize plant carbohydrates considerably better than the wild carnivores that preceded them. Their data also suggests that there might be a great deal of variation in how well individual dogs can do that. You can read that study here and a more detailed description of how they came to those conclusions here.
“Raw Diets Preserve Vital Nutrients”
We all know that heat, pressure and time destroy the building blocks of life. And there is really no doubt that the extensive processing that goes into making the dry and canned pet foods you buy do the same. It is true that companies do attempt to add them back – to the extent that they know what those nutrients are. Raw diet enthusiasts often quote a 1933 article in which a small number of rats were fed diets that included raw or cooked meat. Perhaps that article is valid; but it would never pass muster in a scientific journal of today. But you can read it here.
A 2007 USDA study, however, found that the majority of nutrients in beef and chicken survived cooking quite well. Read that one here. Pet food makers will tell you that they deal with nutrient loss by putting back all the lost nutrients after the product is formed and that the NRC guidelines on nutrition for optimal growth in pets are strictly followed. Rawfoodists would respond that we don’t understand enough about dog and cat nutrition to do that. Unfortunately, there is no one in the World today who would fund a well-designed study that would settle this issue once and for all. Megafood has plenty of money to do it; but not the incentive. If the results were in not in their favor, their profits would drop; if the results were favorable their sales would stay approximately the same. Rawfoodists have no war chest to fund such a study and it would be a poison pill for any Veterinary School to do so because anything less than a hearty endorsement of the pet food industry would gut the funding of their Nutrition Departments.
There is no doubt that thorough cooking profoundly changes the composition of food. What we don’t know, is are those changes important to your pet’s health? We know that the fatty acids in meat are altered (ref) – and some are decreased, particularly linoleic and linolenic acids.
Cooking denatures (alters) proteins. That is why you can flip a cooked egg in the pan but not a raw one. The temperatures that processed pet food reach during production is something that Megapetfood companies do not disclose. From what we know about denaturization, the first heat-associated changes only de-link meat proteins into their sub-units (peptides). Only the folded shape of the protein molecule is changed. However, if high enough temperatures are reached, either in the sterilization of rendering plant meat byproduct or in the final pet food manufacturing process, peptides can be destroyed as well. (ref). If pet food manufacturers have looked into that, it is not information they have shared with the public. Considering the pressure put upon these manufacturer by the FDA and USDA to keep their products free of salmonella bacteria, there is a lot of incentive for them to keep their processing temperatures quite high. Another problem is in analysis techniques. Some may not be sophisticated enough to detect subtle chances in the structure of these compounds that might affect their function in your pet’s body.
“Raw Diets Preserve “Essential Enzymes”
You will notice that raw fooders talk about these essential enzymes but nobody says what they specifically are. So I wandered the National Library index looking for the essential “enzymes” that might be destroyed by cooking. Enzymes that work within your pet’s body are not absorbed from the food it eats. Those enzymes are produced by the pet’s own body cells from “scratch” (from individual amino acids, etc. obtained from its food and already circulating in their bodies). There are definitely enzymes that your pet’s body needs to digest and absorb food. But those enzymes are all produced in your pet’s pancreas and by the walls of your pet’s stomach and small intestine. So unless you dog or cat suffers from pancreatic (ref) or intestinal disease (ref) , it should not need whatever enzymes are present in raw meat to digest its food. Even then, the only meat products likely to be rich in those enzymes are raw pancreas and tripe (raw liver, if bile acid availability is of concern).
But there is evidence that raw meat at room or stomach temperature “self-digests” easier than cooked meat due to the proteolytic enzymes within the meat cells. (ref) So perhaps it is true that raw meat diets are easier for your pet to digest.
I never found a scientific study regarding any ill effects of “missing enzymes” in cooked food given to humans or pets. But to my surprise, I found something considerably more interesting to me, bioactive peptides:
Money, or the potential to make it, drives most technical research. Have you noticed your friends are a bit chubby? It has not escaped pharmaceutical companies either, that a fortune is to be made if a safe way to reduce appetite could be found. For some time, scientists have know that some of the smaller chains of amino acids (peptides) that are liberated when meat or plant protein is digested, function just like hormones and can have profound effects on the body. Things like blood sugar and insulin levels, intestinal motility, stomach and gall bladder emptying time, appetite, blood pressure, the immune system and the body’s mineral balance can all be influenced by BAP compounds. You can read about them here. One of the hormones that bioactive peptides in food influence is Ghrelin (a peptide in itself) , a hormone that controls appetite and satiation (after-meal fullness and satisfaction) , and so, might offer us a painless way to diet. (ref) Ghrelin plays a part in the appetite and food intake of your dog as well. (ref)
I know that the peptide bond, (glue) that holds BAP’s component amino acids together is one of the strongest and most durable bonds in living things. (ref) I do not know is how well these compounds survive the pet food-making processes that require considerable heat, or the earlier heat used in making the meat byproducts they contain. (The heat used in the animal rendering/byproduct business is also quite severe.) What I do know is that the pet food industry, the AAFCO and the AVMA do not know that either.
“Commercial Dry Pet Foods Are Chocked Full Of Carbohydrates That Are Bad For Dogs And Cats”
That is essentially true.
Pet food makers are in a bit of a bind here. Despite what they tell you, they all already know that that is probably true. But there are two current problems they have in acknowledging this publicly. The first is the manufacturing process itself. It is the starch in the corn (or other grains) that bind their other ingredients together. Without starch carbohydrate in ample supply, their standard kibble-making extrusion process does not work.
The second problem for the industry is the end product cost of shifting from a corn-based to a meat-based formula. I am not an economist, but I do not believe there is enough wholesome raw ingredients discarded from the slaughtering industry for the volume of dry pet food they sell. To do away with starchy carbohydrates, the price you pay for dry pet food would have to rise significantly. Expensive meat protein would need to be shifted from human to pet use and the profits the companies would have to be content with would be much less. You can read about this problem here . Even the bacteria in your pet’s digestive tract changes when protein replaces carbohydrate. (ref) So your pet’s susceptibility to infections like Salmonella or response to viral infections like parvovirus could easily change as well, depending on the ratio of carbohydrate to protein in its diet.
In the case of cats, we have even greater evidence of the deleterious (bad) effects of high carbohydrate diets. (ref)
Limiting your pet’s exposure to feed corn (but not sweet corn) also limits its exposure to dangerous aflatoxins. (ref) Drought-stressed corn is becoming the norm in the USA, and that corn is particularly susceptible to aflatoxin mold attack.
If you really want to go there, Click here.
“Pets Fed A Raw Diet Are Less Likely To Become Fat”
Perhaps that is true; I do not know. We really have no controlled studies that confirm that in pets. But studies in humans suggest that high protein diets – cooked or not – are more satisfying with more time between meals. (ref) Meaty-bone and raw slab meat diets also take your pet much longer to consume and “appear” to me to provide a satisfaction that kibble and canned diets do not. (puzzle feeders deal with that same issue)
“Pets On Raw Diets Have A More Acid Stomach So They Are Better Protected From Salmonella”
I do not believe that that has been proven. We do know that food that is high in meat protein stays longer in the acid environment of the stomach – the place where salmonella and other germs are most likely to be destroyed. But whether cooking affects the length of time meat protein stays there in our pets or the acidity of their stomachs is unknown. We do know that the composition of your dog’s meals and food chunk size affects how it absorbs its medications. (ref)
You can’t have it both ways though – a more acidic stomach that delays the stomach from emptying and “preservation of vital nutrients and enzymes” are a bit at odds. You can read about the process here.
“Raw Meat Diets Are Easier To Digest”
I mentioned earlier (ref) that raw meat contains enzymes that cause it to “self digest” and that those enzymes are destroyed by heating. However, the only actual study of the digestibility of raw versus cooked beef in cats that I know of, found no difference. It did find that the dry cat chow they used was inferior in digestibility to that of either raw or cooked meat. (ref)
“Pets On Raw Diets Have Cleaner Teeth, Less Doggy Breath, Less Gum Disease”
There is no doubt in my mind that a raw-meat diet, when it is fed in large chunks and strips or on-the-bone, keeps your pet’s teeth clean and its breath fresher. That is due to the normal abrasive cleaning action of tough meat on a carnivore’s teeth and gums while the meat is being torn into chunks small enough for it to swallow (ref) and it is particularly helpful when the meat contains considerable uncooked gristle. Texture rather than content keep your pet’s teeth clean. If you feed your dog or cat raw ground meat or meat diced into small bits and chunks, their mechanical cleansing activity is no more helpful than a commercial canned pet food. (ref) You can see the meat cuts with the most tooth-cleaning ability here. You can read about other natural ways to keep your pet’s teeth cleaner here .
Even raw ground up meat ingredients might have an advantage for your your pet’s dental health through more than simple abrasive cleaning action. Antibacterial compounds are found in all raw flesh (ref , ref). These are compounds like beta-defensins and interleukin-6 . How they might act locally in your pet’s mouth (ref) or how they survive home or commercial cooking processes is unknown – at least to me.
What Does The Veterinary Establishment-Pet Food Coalition Tell You About Raw Pet Diets?
They will unanimously tell you that raw diets and home-cooked food are bad for your pets. For them, there is no middle ground. They include all the heavy hitters: the AVMA, AAHA , the CDC , the WSAVA , and the ACVN, If you look closely at those links, you will see many of the same players appear in several. If you part the fig leaves covering the funding sources of these groups, you will eventually find Megafood or some public health official whose assigned duty is community public health – not the health of your pet. (The position of these allied groups is summed up well in an article by Dr. Freeman. You can read it here .)
“Too Much Time And Commitment For Most Pet Owners – Besides, Ordinary Folks Can’t Be Trusted to Do More Than Open A Can Or Bag ”
I do not agree with either concept. It is true that there will always be uniformed members of the public and those that make errors for one reason or another. You could say the same thing about what foods those folks offer their children; but we have not replaced grocery stores with children’s kibble. It is true that feeding a raw diet takes considerably more commitment and work than picking something off the shelf. The same could be said for TV Dinners. It’s true that not all of us are blessed to have the time and resources to prepare balanced meals for ourselves or our pets. And we Americans tend to devote less time and though about what we (and our pets) eat than other people do. (ref) So, by all means, if you can’t thoughtfully select your pet’s diet ingredients yourself, you are much better off giving your pet a quality commercial product offered by the pet food industry.
“Feeding Raw Diets Is Messy And A Lot More Work”
Can’t argue with that.
Besides the mess, raw meat spoils. And feeding your pet in the backyard is not a good solution – it attracts vermin and all sorts of undesirable things cling to meat chunks.
“Bones Or Large Chunks Of Meat Will Get Lodged In Your Pet’s Mouth, Throat Or Stomach “
Chunks of meat are quite unlikely to lodge in a healthy dog or cat. As for bones, I deal with that elsewhere.
“If You Feed Raw You Will Be Facing Dangerous Bacterial Safety Issues – Particularly Salmonella”
It is not at all clear that Salmonella is any more common now than it ever was; although changes in the way food is grown and distributed in America make that a possibility. But whenever you are looking for something more than you used to, you are more likely to find it.
Before 1990, most human cases of salmonella were attributed to eating contaminated and poorly cooked chicken. But today in the USA, more are traced to contaminated fruits and vegetables than meat. (ref) In 2011, the CDC investigated 15 salmonella outbreaks. They were traced to contaminated: spinach, packaged spring mix salad, peanut butter, ricotta salata cheese, hedgehogs, mangoes, cantaloupe, ground beef, pet chickens, pet chickens again, dry dog chow, raw ground tuna, small live turtles, clover sprouts and an unsanitary restaurant chain.
It is still true, however, that raw poultry is one of the ways we expose ourselves and our pets to salmonella. (ref) We and grandma risked that every time we cooked some chicken up. But the more hands and middlemen it has passed through, the larger the processing plant, the more processed the meat is, and the smaller it is diced or ground, the greater that risk. The same goes for the form you buy your beef and pork in. Whether it sat in the supermarket cooler for an extended time has very little to do with Salmonella risk.
Another reason for increased awareness of Salmonella is improved methods of detection and more frequent sampling. Results come back faster and new tests find it easier than they once did.
If your dog or cat is accidentally fed foods containing Salmonella, the vast majority will never become ill. (ref)
Megafood and the animal health establishment have plenty of scary studies to quote to you. This is one. However, you will notice that they always sample a pre-packaged raw meat diet and never prepare one themselves from wholesome supermarket meat. That inevitably makes their conclusions negative because, as I already mentioned, prepackaged “balanced” raw food diets that have passed through many hands and been prepared in industrial kitchens are always the ones most likely to be contaminated with salmonella and other harmful bacteria. (ref) (The same goes for human foods prepared in an institutional setting.). None of these “authorities” have presented any evidence that salmonella is more common in pets fed properly-prepared raw or cooked home diets than in pets fed commercially prepared kibble diets. It is also quite unscientific for them to lump racing greyhounds who lead a pitiful existence on half-rotten 4-D meat diets, in with pampered house pets. (ref)
Salmonella is a common contaminant in the prepared dry pet foods these authorities urge you to buy in stores. Only a fraction are sampled by the FDA, but you can read about some that they detected here . (Actually, salmonella would persist longer in dry pet kibble that it would in the ingredients you would use to prepare a homemade diet (ref))
One reason commercial dry pet foods have a high incidence of salmonella is the way they are made. When the kibble leaves the heated extruder line, it is usually free of pathogenic bacteria, but it does not taste good and it has little fat in it. Pets would be reluctant to eat it in that form. So the manufacturers then spray it with a good tasting (animal digest) , fatty broth. That is often the point where it becomes contaminated.
Some veterinary teaching hospitals exclude the feeding of raw meat diets to hospitalized pets. One of the most vehement ones is Tufts. You can read their policy here. Rather than scary talk about a salmonellosis bogeyman, it would have been more honest to have just explained to pet owners that continuing a hospitalized pet on such a diet would require an enormous amount of additional labor and storage space on their part ; that some of the food formulas brought in are downright bizarre and that with ill and immunosuppressed pets and health care workers scrambling about at close quarters, that added work would detract from their primary mission which is to cure your pet. You’ve been in a hospital, you know what the food is like there; and it’s that way for the same reasons, not because your nurse is afraid you will catch salmonella.
Healthy cats and dogs are highly resistant to salmonella
They have to be, considering how often they were exposed in the wild and continue to be in parks, kennels, grooming parlors, exposure to contaminated dog/cat kibble and the like. I have been a veterinarian for a very long time. I have only seen one case of salmonellosis in a litter of half-grown cats. Their cattery had been feeding their cats raw, 4-D greyhound meat. Their cats were highly inbred and had a number of chronic health issues that could easily have predisposed them to infection. All outdoor cats that hunt rodents or lizards are exposed to salmonella – as are canine doggy park visitors. Ask you veterinarian how many cases of salmonella he/she has diagnosed in dogs and cats. Many have never done so. Yet veterinary officials often quote a 2003 report of fatal salmonellosis in two exotic short hair cats. (ref) That article tells us nothing about the general sanitation of the cattery, other health issues they faced there or how inbred these cats were. Exotic Shorthair cats are known to be prone to: polycystic kidney disease , runny eyes (occluded or incomplete lacrimal ducts), jaw deformities, sinus and breathing problems. Their average litter size in the Netherlands is 2.7 kittens, (ref) as opposed to a healthy US alley cat’s 4-6. (ref) When you have to use two abnormally-susceptible cats among a US pet cat population of 79,727,000 to make your point, you are skating on pretty thin ice.
Where Does Raw Human-grade Meat , Fed To Your Pet, Fall In The Degree Of Your Own Personal Risk Of Salmonella Exposure?
If you eat out, if you eat uncooked fruits and vegetable, if you attend parties, if you swim at public beaches, the risk of you obtaining salmonella bacteria from an average, house pet when compared to the first risks is quite low. But many other risk factors need to be considered: Did you purchase the raw diet ready made ? What is the strength of your immune system ? What are your personal hygiene habits and the quantity and species of the other pets you own ? What are the habits and health of the other human members of your family ? What is your age, your rural or urban location, the season of the year ? You can read about some of those factors here and here .
Is Salmonella The Only Risk In Raw Meat?
No, there are plenty of other bacteria and parasites that can be found in raw meat. But it is unusual to find them in hygienic supermarket cuts because the way farming is practiced in the Developed World today, reduce on-farm exposure to those diseases. Many of the larger parasites found in raw meat, as well as toxoplasma can be destroyed by freezing. There are other ways to deal with them that I will go over later.
“Your Pet Will Be Subject To Malnutrition And The Diseases They Bring”
That is untrue if you follow common sense procedures and incorporate a balanced vitamin/mineral supplement in your pet’s diet. If you just feed unsupplemented or incorrectly supplemented meat, that statement is true. The secret of success is to prepare these diets from the same foods you eat at home and to then add a balanced supplement obtained from a firm that has a seasoned animal nutritionists on their staff. Too much of these supplements is as bad as not enough – particularly when vitamin A and D are concerned. (If you are a worrywart about your pet’s calcium and vitamin D intake, you can have your pet’s blood sampled occasionally. Normal active vitamin D (calciferol) levels in dogs are about 23ng/mL (ref) Another option is to rely on a service such as the one offered by Michigan State (ref) to check that the diet you have prepared for your pet is nutritionally adequate.
“Industrially-produced Diets Are Just As Nutritious and Healthful, And They Are Safer Than Those You Prepare At Home “
The pet food industry has never funded the simple studies that would prove that, so one really cannot say. This is not astrophysics. My suspicions are that if they could really confirm that statement, those studies would have already been done. Animals and people thrive and tend to remain healthier when their diets have considerable variety – not when food ingredients remain constant.
What has been done are a few very short term studies like this one. Another study compared the effect of a dry kibble diet to one of raw meat regarding oxalate excretion. But since it did not have a cooked meat control or measure water intake, we really did not learn very much. Whether it was the lack of water in kibble, kibble’s high carbs or acidification of the commercial dry formula that increased the risk remains unknown. But you can read that study here.
The Top Secret And Classified Reason – Less Profits When Pet Owners Prepare Their Pet’s Diet From Scratch
Overall global pet food sales are predicted to reach 56.4 billion dollars by 2015.
Both pet food and human food companies are quite crafty in the marketing techniques they use. (ref) They see thoughtful and balanced home-cooking for pets as a major economic threat to them – and rightly so.
Are You Getting Information From Both Sides Of This Issue Fairly And Equally?
You already know that answer – No
I Trust My Veterinarian. Shouldn’t I Just Take His/her Advice?
I have been a veterinarian for a very long time. Most veterinarians in private practice are honest folk who want only the best for your pet. But veterinarians learn to be biased toward caution. That is because clients only come to us when things go wrong. So we don’t see the dogs and cats that lived a long happy life eating raw foods, varied household scraps or gnawing on proper bones. We see the pets that were left to their own devices to eat unsupplemented meat, pizza scraps, Big Macs – or worse, those that got hung up on unsuitable bone fragments or garbage. And none of us, not even me, are old enough to remember the days when commercial canned and dry dog food was not available. (ref) Compounding that is the fact that veterinarians today are mercilessly bombarded with ads and advance men from the pet food industry. We may be nice, but we are no more immune to brain washing than you are. A third major problem is that the nutritional training that current vets receive and the Journal articles that we read are all financed by the pet food industry. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association is one of the last remaining professional journals that does not require a conflict of interest statement for the articles it publishes. (ref)
Enter The Dog And Cat Food Heavyweights
I am going to tell you a bit about Hills Pet Nutrition and Science Diets, one of the larger pet food makers. The goals of Hills are not any different than the other big players in the Industry – they strive, as they should, to be a profitable and efficient business by selling as much dog and cat food as they can. Like most vets, I sold large quantities of their Prescription Diets. Some of those diets, and those of their competitors, are very effective in curing or controlling the health problems they were designed for. Hills began in the late 1920s , as the inspiration of a 28-year-old veterinarian in New Jersey, Mark Morris Sr. In 1928, there were only two small animal hospitals in the US and Dr. Morris’ owned one of them. His interest in dog and cat health and his education in animal nutrition made his pet food enterprise very successful. In 1976, Hills was purchased by Colgate-Palmolive Co. Its products are now available throughout the World. In 1999, Hills sales reached $1 billion.
Players like Hills are not about to take a back seat to governmental decisions that affect their profits. To that effect, they all have powerful Connecticut Ave. lobbyists protecting their interests. (ref)
Hills markets its pet foods in three ways:
1. It has a major presence in Veterinary Schools because it knows that pet owners rely on their veterinarians for feeding advice. Hills knows that the earlier in their careers that they can influence these young veterinarians, the more likely they will be to recommend their products through out their professional lives. So veterinary students, faculty, and staff are eligible for free pet food under the Hill’s College Feeding Program (ref)
2. To thoroughly control the message, it lavishly endows and supports nutrition departments in US veterinary schools. You can read about some of those impressive activities here.
3. It carefully crafts public perceptions about its products, knowing that what goes in the bag is not nearly as important. Here is what they have to say about bi-product in their foods:
Why does Hill’s use by-products in their foods?
“Byproducts are common ingredients found in both human and pet food. In fact Vitamin E, gelatin, beef bouillon, beef liver and vegetable oils are all byproducts. In many countries, “by-products” are very desirable human foods. Chicken by-product meal is a high quality, concentrated source of protein. We use it due to its low ash (phosphorus) content. It is also very palatable. This ingredient consists of ground, rendered, wholesome parts of the chicken. It includes white meat, dark meat, liver and viscera. The chickens are sourced from human grade processing plants. Meat by-products consist of the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat from slaughtered mammals. We specifically use beef or pork lungs, spleens, or livers in our products for consistency and optimal nutrient profile.”
A less diplomatic but more frank way to present this would be to explain that the byproduct in its pet food is actually a mix of discards from the slaughter industry that is unfit for human consumption for one reason or another and that it is incorporated in their diets to keep costs down. You can read what the process really involves here
The American Veterinary Medical Association AVMA
With the pet food companies exerting their enormous influence in veterinary medicine, with their ads helping to fund the Organization, and with its member veterinarians relying on prescription pet food sales, the AVMA had little choice but to get in line and cheer for the pet food industry as well.
So it is not surprising that in August of 2012, they gave the thumbs down to raw and home cooked diets for dogs and cats. In their pronouncement, they had this to say:
Q: What influence did the pet food industry have on the AVMA’s policy?
A: None. Neither commercial nor raw diet manufacturers were contacted during development of this policy because it was based on public health risk, and not on nutritional comparisons, health benefits, or economic factors. None of the pet food companies were aware that a policy was being developed.
“Q: What is your response to allegations that the AVMA is “in the pockets” of the pet food industry?
A: These allegations are false. We are a science-based organization, and this policy is based on scientific research. Veterinarians are pet owners too. We love our animals and have the experience and training to make educated decisions about what to feed our own pets. Veterinarians choose and recommend diets based on what is best for the animal – e.g., it is medically appropriate and nutritionally balanced to meet that pet’s need. Many veterinarians feed commercial diets, and veterinarians are free to make their own choices when it comes to feeding their pets.”
I assure you that no one at the AVMA really believes that. A little video will help you understand why. You can view it here .
Which Of These Groups Is Right?
Both sides paint with a wide brush, provide mostly generalities and predict dire consequences if you don’t do things their way. They both make some valid points. I personally believe that the benefits of dry cat and dog chow are primarily those of convenience and economy. They save time, they are still relatively inexpensive (~60%) compared to human-grade ingredients, they store easily and they free owners from the chore of supervising their pet in consuming a balanced group of healthy food items. The downside of these commercial products are driven by economics and the limitations of food technology: the dubious quality of some of their ingredients , their high carbohydrate content, the insufficient water intake they encourage and the unknown health effects of the processes used to make them.
Even if the companies reformulated their products in light of our newer knowledge of pet nutrition, the logistics of mass production, their multiple suppliers and jobbers of raw ingredients and their complicated distribution channels would make their products inferior to food you cook or serve to your pet at home. So a mass marketed all-meat, canned or frozen product is really not a solution.
As A Veterinarian, What Do You Think I Should Do?
My preference is for you to lightly cook at least the outer surface of the meat ingredients in your pet’s diet. But if you are set on going raw, I am not overly concerned about the possibility of exposing a basically healthy pet to salmonella. (you and your pet’s chances of salmonella exposure are considerably greater if you purchase a commercially prepared raw pet food rather than making it hygienically from scratch from human-grade ingredients you yourself eat [rpt ref]).
In my line of work, I have been in contact with that germ countless times and I do not appear the worse for it. But since salmonella is the club that the commercial pet food industry and their fellow travelers will use to talk you out of the idea of home-prepared diets of any sort, I think we should address it.
I am more cautious than most raw meat advocates. Although it was the accepted practice throughout human history to feed a mix of raw and cooked foods to dogs and cats, raw and home-cooked pet diets are now novel in the USA. So until we know a bit more and are more comfortable with the concept, I would try to provide your pet with the advantages that a fresh or cooked high-meat diet provide without unnecessary exposure to food borne germs like salmonella. I would practice the same degree of hygiene you practice when you prepare your own meals and I would feed only the same items you eat to your dog and cat; always remembering that God created them to eat primarily meat. Many pet owners incline towards feeding raw diets to their pets when those pets face chronic health issues. But preparing meat diets that are not lightly cooked is not only a potential threat to pets whose immune systems are compromised or stressed, it is a threat to your whole family because raw meat and poor sanitation hygiene in preparing it are great ways to introduce antibiotic resistant bacteria into your household. (ref1, ref2)
When a meat or poultry item is contaminated with germs, such as salmonella, it is not because the animal was ill with salmonella (salmonellosis) . USDA inspectors take those animals aside and they end up in the heat-sterilized byproduct meal in the pet chow. When a wholesale lot of meat is contaminated, It was because one or two apparently healthy animals carried the organism in their intestines. In the meat plant, intestinal contents from that animal contaminated some portion of the production machinery or water used in processing. So, in the occasional instances where primal cuts of meat are contaminated with bacteria, the bacteria are most commonly only present on the meat surface. (ref) So just surface browning large cuts in your oven at 400F (204.4C) for 10 minutes will go a long way in reducing salmonella risk. (ref)
That is not true when you purchase meat that has been ground, diced, chopped or injected with marinating agents, tenderizers or flavoring agents as much meat has. (ref) In those items , bacteria can find their way throughout the product.
The first thing to do is purchase a meat thermometer. I am told that the heat used in the byproduct and dry pet food production process is somewhere between 266 – 392F (130 and 200C) ; that for canned pet food at least 300F (149C). You don’t have to heat your pet’s meat ingredients that high.
In most cases, salmonella is killed if the meat you buy is heated thoroughly to 176-185F (80-85C) for one minute (ref) . At 140F (60C), it takes about 18 minutes for large slabs of meat and 10 minutes for ground beef. (ref) (Toxoplasma organisms die at home freezer temperatures below 12F or -12C and in a few seconds at 152F or 67C ref )
Another study accomplished the same when ground lean meat was heated to 136-154F (58-68C) for 5 minutes. (ref) (remember, heat kills bacteria in ground up products faster) In another study, at 160°F (71C) salmonella was destroyed in a few seconds. Bacteria are a bit harder to kill when meat products contain large quantities of fat.
Most of the building blocks (peptides) of meat do not begin to break down however until they reach 356F (180C) for 3 minutes. (ref)
Freezing does not reliably kill salmonella. (ref) , but it does destroy parasites such as toxoplasma.
If I Decide To Anyway, What Is The Best Age To Introduce My Dog Or Cat To A Raw Diet?
The earlier the better. Taste preferences and chewing ability develop early; so does the inclination to tear and rip at food held in the paws rather than gulp it down. This is not just about establishing feeding patterns. The jaw, facial bone dimensions and facial musculature actually strengthen and change in response to chewing tough raw meat early in life. (ref)
Should I Buy A Raw Meat Diet That’s Already Prepared? – Does Anyone Regulate or Supervise What Is In Them?
The more hands and machinery that touch your pet’s diet between the cow grazing on the farm and the package you pick up at your market, the greater the chance for error and contamination. Like a pass-it-on phrase at a party , its not going to be what it was when it left the farm.
More large pet food companies may decide to cash in on the raw pet food market and there are innovative ways to inhibit bacteria without heat or radiation so it can still be labeled “raw”. But anything added that can kill or retard bacteria could have a deleterious effect on your pet’s health as well. Often, these added ingredients seemed like a great idea at the time. But like nitrites, BHA, propylene glycol, and thiomersol they eventually turn out not to be. (The worst, of course, was the Massengill catastrophe)
Is One Form Of Raw Meat Safer Than Another?
Bacteria tend to accumulate on the surface of a cut or portion of meat, the entire portion becomes contaminated when it is minced, diced, or ground. So purchase meat cuts in as large an intact section as possible, rinse it and cut it up hygienically at home. Many large cities have raw meat co-ops just for pets.
Historically, poultry testing discovers more bacterial contamination than beef. But the two are not sampled with the same technique. I really do not have enough reliable data to know if one wholesale source of meat is preferable to another. The critical elements are sanitation from farm to market with the least amount of processing ,handling and fiddling along the way.
Liver, kidney and other organ meats should be fed only in moderation. Liver acts as a filter. It is the first stop policeman after compounds enter the body from the digestive system and because of that it can accumulate undesirable agents. Glandular tissues are rich in various hormones in quantities that could conceivably be deleterious to your pet’s health. Feeding neck thyroid tissue, for example, has been associated with hyperthyroidism. (ref) Rendered fish head ingredients and fish meal in cat foods are rich in iodine and have been associated with hyperthyroidism in cats. (ref)
Is One Source Of Chicken Safer Than Another?
Buy your chickens frozen whole and break them up at home. Rinse them well. Consider lightly baking or boiling them as I suggested, before you cut them up. I can think of no reason that range chicken meat would be safer or less safe for your pet than traditional farm-raised. Purchase one or the other based on your personal philosophy of what you yourself should eat.
Is One Source Of Beef Safer Than Another ?
Buy your beef in as large a cut as is practical. Rinse the piece off well at home before you cut it into smaller pieces. Retail beef, bought from reputable butchers is generally safe. It is estimated that only 1 – 2.6% is contaminated with bacteria that have the potential to be harmful. (ref) The vast majority of us are exposed to these bacteria from so many other sources than primal cuts of beef. It would actually be more dangerous to feed your pet store-bought cantaloupe. (ref)
What About Raw Fish And Game?
Meat has always been the envelope in which various diseases and parasites transfer between wild carnivores. But in good farmed livestock practices, that cycle has been ended. However it continues unchanged in wild animals and fish. So I would not feed any products derived from wildlife raw to your pets. The dangers we think about most now are baylisascaris, toxoplasmosis and trichinella. (and prions in the discarded portions of venison (ref)) If you do elect to feed raw fish, your pet should receive extra thiamine. (ref) , but your pet will still be at risk of pansteatisis if fish constitutes a substantial part of its diet. (ref)
I Suggest That You Never Feed Your Pet Anything That Is Not Fit For Human Consumption
A product, often called 4-D meat is commonly fed to greyhounds, circus and zoo animals. It is notoriously filthy. It is basically the same stuff that goes into meat byproduct meal – but in its raw form. It is a marvelous tribute to the strong constitution of those animals that they survive eating it. (ref) If a food ingredient is not sold on the human food isle I would not feed it to my pet.
Might My Pet Benefit From Plant Ingredients In Its Diet Too?
By all means. Adding reasonable amounts of bulking vegetables like broccoli, carrots and sweet potato can aid in weight loss and satisfaction. When those items are given frozen, they help keep your pet’s teeth clean and its breath fresh.
you might consider avoiding excessive amounts of cruciferous vegetables if your pet has a urinary oxalate problem, the best preventative however is a diet high in water content. Byproduct meal as found in pet kibble can be high in oxalates too because of its high condemned liver content. (ref1, ref2)
In older animals, the high fiber content of vegetables can help prevent constipation. They can also help keep stools of pets on high meat diets large and pliable which in turn helps prevent anal sac disease. In diabetic dogs and cats, diets rich in soluble, fermentable fiber seems to aid in blood sugar control. (ref)
What Will Happen If I Feed My Pet Meat Without A Supplement To Make It Balanced?
Unless you feed a home-prepared meat-based diet that contains all of the animal, you will get into trouble if you do not add the correct amount of calcium/vitamin supplement. Problems will appear quickly in growing animals, they will take longer to appear in adults. There are plenty of supplements on the market that will suit your needs. Some I have used have been around a long time – those are the ones zoos use to supplement the diets of their animals. (source 1) ( source 2) Others are more recent arrivals whose aim is to meet the growing number of house pets, like yours, going onto raw meat diets. (ref) My friends at the meat coop in Hawaii favor this product.
How Should I Make A Change?
I personally suggest that all lifestyle and diet changes occur gradually.
If your pet’s health is fragile, if it is stressed or elderly, I would do so cautiously and quite gradually. Find a sympathetic veterinarian or seasoned pet expert you trust to guide you, during a period of months that are free of other distractions. If you make changes rapidly, have your mop ready because there will often be “accidents” in the home. Old pets and those with bad teeth or abnormal mouth and tooth alignment peculiar to their breed may be more inclined to wolf down portions too large for them to handle. I would not make any diet change in an older or ill pet without first having your vet perform a thorough physical examination and a general laboratory health profile that includes the more common tests.
If those issues are not a concern, just follow Julia’s advice.
What About My Finicky Cat?
Cats seem to suffer more from the high carbohydrate levels in commercial cat chows. Dogs appear to tolerate those grain inclusions better. Many of my clients have seen remarkable improvements in their cat’s gastrointestinal and metabolic issues when they switched over to a fortified home cooked diet that was primarily meat. I cannot say that I have found that raw meat is superior to lightly cooked meat. Many of my clients run lightly-cooked whole Cornish hens through a commercial meat grinder and serve the mix , bones and all. Two of the best articles on the high protein and dietary needs of house cats are a 2007 article by Dr. Malik which you can read here and a 2002 article by Dr. Zoran ,which you can read here.
Not unexpectedly, the pet food industry does not fund research on this subject. What little research that has been done, pertains to the nutritional needs of wild felines. One studies I mentioned previously (ref) found no difference in the health or behavior of cats fed raw meat diets versus those fed dry cat chow. But this study was only three weeks long; so I wouldn’t put much faith in how things would have gone long term.
Expect some surprising behavior changes in your cat (ref) The aroma of lightly cooked meat will drive your cat wild.
Diets containing larger, more natural ingredients like meat, gristle, cartilage and bone are often quite helpful in distracting dogs and cats that over groom and chew on themselves when stress and boredom add to the problem – as they often do.
Are There Some Pets That Probably Should Not Be Fed A Raw Food Diet?
Successfully dealing with the bacteria naturally found in anything uncooked requires a health immune system. Any disease or medication that affects your pet’s immune system is reason enough not to feed your pet a raw diet. Those drugs includes prednisone, prednisolone, Atopica® and many more. Apoquel® could be another of those drugs. Some dogs receiving Apoquel to control itch and dermatitis develop elevated liver test results. There are vets that believe that the livers of some dogs on that medication do not filter out bacteria as well as they should. (ref1, ref2). Antibiotics alter the protective flora of your pet’s gastrointestinal tract. I would not combine the two. You can give them meat – but not raw meat. Autoimmune disease, lymphoma and other cancers also weaken a pet’s defenses. A high stress environment, cage confinement, large numbers of household pets, the normal decline of elderly pets and the immature immune systems of the very young are reasons enough to be cautious. There are also specific diseases, such as failing kidneys or liver in which a restricted protein diet might be advisable. Certain breeds and show lines of cats and dogs have had had their genetics so fiddled with by breeders that they no longer possess the healthy immune systems of their ancestors. (ref) Be cautious what you feed those frailer breeds. Pets taking antacids can loose their primary defense against food borne pathogens – their stomach’s acidity. (ref) Some folks recommend that high-carb pet foods and raw food not be mixed in a single meal because gastric acidity on a high-carb diet is not sufficient. They are right about carbohydrates lessening gastric acidity. (ref) Whether raw meat is more efficient than cooked meat in doing that is unknown. That same problem might occur if natural bones were given to pets on a high carbohydrate diet – stomach acids efficiently dissolve sharp bone fragments. I would avoid feeding raw ingredient diets if a human member of your family is HIV positive or has had an organ transplant – but that is something for your physician to decide. The same goes for therapy pets that visit such people. (ref) Our pet birds are not well equipped to deal with many of the bacteria that normally inhabit dogs and cats – although rodent contamination is the primary way they get exposed to those bugs (ref) , think twice about giving your dogs and cats raw meat if you own a pet bird as well (It would be OK if it was a buzzard