Along with politics and religion, meat is fast becoming one of those topics no one can seem to agree on. The latest argument concerns the quality of commercial pet food fed to dogs and cats.
Some people, including a few veterinarians, believe that raw meat is much healthier for a dog or cat. According to the argument, commercial pet food is over processed and tainted with toxins, which are used to preserve the food and to give it an attractive smell and taste.
They advocate feeding fresh, raw meat (and other raw foods, such as vegetables, if appropriate) to pets. The debate is becoming passionate, with claims and counterclaims hurled through cyberspace and in between the pages of magazines. This article explains the arguments pro and con.
Incidentally, a third argument opposes feeding any meat to dogs, cats or people. Vegetarians and vegans (people who refuse to consume any animal product, even milk) believe they can formulate the proper plant-based diet for dogs and cats. This is a fallacy; while a dog can eat a carefully formulated vegetarian diet, cats are strict carnivores and cannot digest plant matter.
There are three major types of raw meat diets:
- Commercially available complete raw food diets. Sold frozen, the diets are supposed to be complete and balanced.
- Homemade raw food diets. Suggestions for homemade raw-meat diets abound on the Internet, in magazines and in books. One of the more popular is the Bones And Raw Food diet - which goes by the unappetizing acronym BARF. For a dog, the diet consists of 60 percent raw, meaty bones, and the rest comprising a variety of foods that a wild dog would eat, like green vegetables, eggs, milk and some organs such as liver or kidneys.
- Combination diets. Commercially available grain and supplements are mixed with raw meat.
It should be pointed out that, as a matter of policy, veterinarians recommend that dogs and cats be fed prepared meat from high quality brands such as Eukanuba or Science Diet.
On the One Hand…
Proponents of raw meat argue that many commercial pet foods contain numerous toxins that impair the health of the animal, such as sodium nitrate, artificial flavorings and other impurities. Proponents contend that meats have been so overprocessed that they don't contain the right nutrients required by pets. According to Jean Hofve, DVM, in Cats magazine (July 2001), “Doctors and nutritionists have told us for years how important it is for us to eat fresh, raw fruits and vegetables. Similarly, it is better for our cats to eat fresh, raw, species-appropriate food than to be exclusively fed processed, preserved foods.”
Dogs and cats who eat an all-fresh food diet are supposed to have better coats, fewer dental problems, fresher breath and less body odor. Furthermore, dogs and particularly cats are natural predators - they simply do better eating fresh, species-appropriate raw meat instead of processed and persevered foods. Cats, for instance, have thrived on hunting and eating their prey raw for eons. Hundreds of thousands of years cannot be waved away by a few generations of eating commercial pet food, they say.
In the same vein, proponents argue that cats and dogs are much more resistant to bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella, than people. One of the reasons pet food is so processed is for the safety of the pet owner, not the pet. Careful handing can minimize the risk of human infection.
On the Other Hand…
Opponents dispute the notion that dogs and cats naturally do better on raw meat diets. There is only “anecdotal” evidence that raw meat is better; in other words, claims made by individuals, which aren't backed up by hard clinical trials.
On the contrary, feeding your pet a raw-meat diet that you balance yourself is dangerous for many reasons. Among them:
- High quality pet food is already balanced for the stage of life and health condition of your pet. Trying to “wing it” by formulating the right balance is very difficult and can easily lead to nutritional deficiency, especially in young, growing pets.
- Raw bones in meat can splinter and become lodged in the throat or digestive system, where they can block passage or cut tissue. They can also fracture teeth.
- Bacteria in raw meat IS dangerous to pets, as well as owners. Dogs and cats may have persistent diarrhea that their owners just accept as normal. However, this is a sign of illness and can cause other problems down the road, besides the discomfort suffered by the animal.
In the case of cats, proponents of raw meat claim that a cat's digestive system is more acidic and can process food faster, so bacteria does not have time to duplicate and cause illness.
That's nonsense, according to animal nutrition expert Rebecca Remillard, DVM, DACVN, Ph.D. “Everyone's stomach is acidic,” she says. “That's how we digest food.” Remillard, of Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, said the dietary theories proposed by raw-meat advocates are too vague and are causing a lot of problems in pets. “They're basically, 'open the fridge and feed what you want, whenever you want.'”
An article in the March 2001 issue of JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) compared raw meat diets with high-quality commercial diets. The raw meat diets used in the comparison were well researched and carefully balanced - a big assumption because many people do not have the nutritional experience to formulate such diets.
Even so, the comparison showed that raw meat had significant risks: “The results of the small number of diets analyzed here indicated that there are clearly nutritional and health risks associated with feeding raw food diets. All the diets tested had nutrient deficiencies or excesses that could cause serious health problems when used in a long-term feeding program.”
Remillard hopes the raw meat issue is just a passing fad. “There's a general distrust of big business, and the pet food industry is big business,” she said. “Add to that, food labels are not understandable and scary. But the risks of raw meat are there. Is the risk worthwhile? No, it isn't.”