Raw food diets are becoming increasingly popular in the UK, despite their controversy. A recent discussion in the forums shows there is still some disagreement.
Many people who feed their dogs raw food are firm believers in its benefits, and will strongly defend their choices for feeding such a diet. They claim improved health of the coat, skin, teeth and general energy and demeanour of their dogs, and first-hand experiences and pre- and post-diet change photos can certainly be persuasive. Nevertheless, the benefits of the diet are still very much in the anecdotal stages.
So, what is a raw food diet?
Raw food diets first came onto the scene in 1993, when a veterinarian called Ian Billinghurst, from Australia, suggested that it would be best to feed a diet closer to the natural food a dog would eat in the wild. The type of diet was called ‘BARF’ which stood for ‘Bones and Raw Food’ or ‘Biologically Appropriate Raw Food’.
BARF diets tend to compromise of uncooked meat, whole or crushed uncooked bones, raw eggs, vegetables, and fruit. Billinghurst was adamant that this type of diet would be more beneficial for the health of domesticated dogs, and he was vocal about his views against commercial dog food. However, this is a view that most vets now take a negative stance towards.
The British Veterinary Association has a relatively neutral opinion on the topic of raw food, stating ‘raw food and home-cooked diets are increasingly popular but it can be time-consuming to prepare them as well as difficult to ensure that they are nutritionally balanced and safe and that all risks are addressed.’.
So, what are the risks?
There have now been numerous studies on raw food demonstrating the high numbers of dangerous pathogens which can be transmitted to the dog, and the owner, from these diets. These pathogens include bacteria such as Salmonella, E.coli, and Campylobacter. Not only do they stay in the saliva of the dog, but they are also still present in the faeces and coat when the dog grooms himself. This, therefore, means they can be readily transmitted to people. At particular risk are those people who are more vulnerable, such as children and the elderly. In these age groups, infections with these pathogens can be life-threatening. On average, in the UK, there are over 200 deaths per year from Salmonella, and many more hospital admissions. Dogs also can develop illness from infections that derive from these pathogens, however generally the gastrointestinal system of a dog is significantly more robust than humans. Therefore, many dogs can withstand some level of contact without developing disease. It goes without saying that meticulous hygiene during preparation can mitigate some of the risks. Disinfecting the area where the food was prepared, your hands, and the dog bowl after every use will decrease these harmful pathogens in the environment considerably.
There are other risks that come with BARF diets which contain whole bones. Bones can present risks of choking, damage to teeth, internal punctures, and internal obstructions. Most raw food advocates will argue that only raw bones are being offered, which are more flexible and digest better than cooked bones, but regardless, there is still some element of risk.
Finally, the main concern of veterinarians is the lack of balancing BARF diets appropriately. In a study of 95 raw food diets, 60% were found to have a major nutritional balance. The majority of raw food feeders will not have consulted an expert veterinary nutritionist, but rather will have developed their dog’s diet through personal research or advice from breeders or friends who also feed their dogs raw diets. As a result, the diet is not balanced properly, and there are excessive levels of calcium and phosphorus or incorrect levels of other nutrients. This can lead to serious consequences in the dogs receiving the diets, and they can develop conditions such as rickets, bladder stones, and stunted growth, particularly if they are not yet fully grown.
Nevertheless, there are some suppliers of raw food in the commercial market, which have started to produce products that can mitigate many of these potential pitfalls. A few years ago, there were only a handful of suppliers, but now over 80 companies are registered with Defra, of which nine are members of the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA). This is excellent, as the PFMA has set out stringent regulations:
‘Raw pet food manufacturing plants must be registered under the Feed Hygiene Regulations (EC) 183/2005 with their local authority and require approval under ABP Reg (EC) 1069/2009 from the APHA before they begin to manufacture raw pet food.’
Vets tend to universally agree that home-created raw food has the potential to be exceptionally dangerous, however, many will now accept these commercially produced products. This is because these products are tested to ensure that the nutrients are correctly balanced. Many also test their meat for pathogens and therefore can certify that they are pathogen-free and safe for consumption. The production of these commercial foods, therefore, have become more compelling for the veterinary industry to acknowledge safe raw food feeding, even if they cannot yet promote it.
Despite the obvious risks, consumers are still driven towards home-made raw diets through anecdotal evidence, hype, and very persuasive pre- and post-diet change photographs. Unfortunately, a great number of these consumers are pedigree dog breeders, passing on their passion to ignorant first-time puppy owners who are not aware of the risks.
So, what’s the future for raw food diets?
There has been major growth in alternative husbandry practices in the animal world over the past few years, of which raw food is certainly one of those practices, and consumers are moving much closer towards requiring personalised diets and lifestyles for their dogs. Therefore, BARF diets have become extremely attractive.
Whilst many veterinarians are hoping that raw food diets are just a fad, which will soon blow over, it appears that they are here to stay. Luckily the PFMA have recently updated their guidelines and factsheets regarding raw food, so commercially produced raw food diets can be excellent for dogs, and for the foreseeable future, they should only be getting better. With the commercial raw food market improving, it can be hoped that owners will now move away from homemade imbalanced raw food diets to safer, nutritionally complete commercial raw foods.