Feeding Raw

Benefits, Perils and Quandary

By Bernadine Cruz, DVM

A client asked me the other day why I inquired at each examination what their pet was eating.  What significance did the contents of the food bowl have to their pet’s general health?  The adage of ‘we are what we eat’ pertains equally to our pets.  Knowing what goes into your dog or cat can play an integral role in understanding health and disease. In fact, the ‘deposits’ your pets leaves in the litter box or yard can affect the wellbeing of your pet, your family, your neighbors and even the world.

The goal of feeding your pet is to provide a well balanced, nutritious, tasty and disease free diet.  There have been growing movements in recent years toward home cooking for our pets and the feeding of raw foods. Proponents believe that home cooking allows them to manage the type and quality of ingredients consumed. And raw diets are assumed to be more natural and hold health advantages not found in commercially prepared rations.  There are definitely some truths to these sentiments and some serious health perils if precautions are not observed.

Pet owners trying to grapple with conditions such as itchy skin, weight gain or loss, poor coat, flatulence, diarrhea, constipation, bad breath, changes in activity level, dental disease and a host of other maladies will frequently state that they have tried a plethora of diets with little to no effect on these conditions and are desperate to find the perfect diet to remedy them. The salesperson at the pet store recommends one brand but their breeder or best friend advocates another. They are now convinced after scouring the internet for answers that home cooked rations or a raw diet will do the trick; maybe, maybe not.

Preparing your cat or dog’s dinner definitely provides you complete control over the ingredients.  It is also extremely time intensive (why do you think there are so many fast food restaurants…we want to eat and we want to eat NOW!), costly, and insuring that you meet the exacting requirements of proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, essential fatty acids, calories, and fiber for your pet’s life stage and lifestyle can be tricky.  Imbalances, especially in young growing pets, can lead to developmental defects and exacerbate existing diseases.

Only since World War II has the use of commercially available pet food become commonplace. Our pets’ ancestors didn’t have gourmet cuisine or the superfluity of treats and snacks…and they did just fine. They didn’t have all these cancers.  My grandparents never took their pets to the vet.  All of these new fangled problems must be due to the food.  A nod to the fact that the lifespan of pets has increased dramatically with the advent of scientifically engineered commercially prepared diets, better living through medical investigation, and application of these discoveries.

With the domestication of cats and dogs, they have lost many of the digestive characteristics of their wild ancestors. Yes, a wolf gnaws on bones and eats raw meat.  They also have broken teeth that negatively impact their long-term health.  Bone fragments can act like shards of glass in the intestinal tract causing obstructions to perforation in the intestines.  Freshly killed meat may harbor harmful bacteria but to a much lesser degree than processed uncooked meat that goes from the abattoir to market and finally your pet’s dish.  If a coyote or bobcat ingests Salmonella, it might get a bad case of diarrhea but with a limited population density, the impact that it has on other animals is minimized.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA-CVM), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American College of Veterinary Nutritionist (ACVN), the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV), and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) have all endorsed the policy formulated by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA); the Raw or Undercooked Animal-Source Protein in Dog and Cat Diets. These groups are not opposed to pet owners feeding raw or homemade rations but caution about nutritional imbalances, bacterial or parasitic contamination, food poisoning to pets and the people who come in contact with these animals especially the sick, immune compromised, the young or the elderly.

Extensive research is ongoing in the field of animal nutrition, food preparation, packaging, handling, and overall safety.  Despite all the safeguards that have been instigated, food recalls and contamination occurs. It is inevitable, but most food contamination occurs on routine surveillance and recalls are undertaken voluntarily to minimize or totally eliminate having tainted food reach our cupboards. Monitoring websites such as the AVMA’s Twitter feed @AVMARecallWatch will keep you informed.

Advocates for home cooking and raw diets are quick to point out that their recommended feeding programs rarely undergo advisories or recalls.  This stems from the fact that these foods are subject to very little to no regulatory oversight.  Veterinarians are not required to report cases of food poisoning, and many cases of human food poisoning from pet food may be mild and medical attention is never sought or the medical doctor doesn’t appreciate the source of the illness…the pet’s food.

The common contaminates in raw or undercooked animal protein, raw unpasteurized eggs, milk, and yogurt can include Salmonella, E.coli, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Echinococcus, Clostriditum, Neospora, Sarcosystis and Toxoplasma gondii.  Illness caused by any of these organisms can range from no clinical signs to death.  Some of these organisms can be sequestered in the pet’s gut and not found on routine fecal testing due to their behavior of being shed in the stool on an intermittent basis making an accurate diagnosis difficult.

Feeding your pet is more than just putting food into your pet’s bowl…it is part mental and emotional.  Giving food is giving love.  We want to make our pets happy.  Seeing them eat with gusto gives us pleasure.  It can also be a function of peer pressure.  If all of your friends are feeding the trendiest pet food you may feel obligated to up the ante and find the most unique boutique victuals money can buy.  The benefits of raw and undercooked fare is anecdotal and no peer reviewed scientific research comparing the long term health benefits to commercially prepared food has not been performed.

If you do want to feed raw food or home cook for your pet, do yourself and your dog or cat a favor and adhere to the guidelines established by the AVMA and CDC:

If avoiding commercial foods is your goal, consider cooking the raw food before feeding it to your pet.

If purchasing commercial raw diets, select products that have been adequately treated to eliminate pathogens.

Do not purchase the product if the container is damaged.

Keep the product frozen until ready to use and promptly refrigerate or discard any leftovers (Freezing or freeze drying does not kill most pathogens).

Keep the raw meat intended for your pet(s) separate from that intended for your family to avoid any cross-contamination.  Do not handle raw meat intended for your pet in the same area(s) or use the same utensils or equipment used for preparing food for your family.

Never allow cooked food to come into contact with raw meat unless they are subsequently cooked at a temperature that will kill bacteria.

Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw food.

Regularly sanitize pet dishes, surfaces, cutting boards and utensils.

Rigorously control insects and other pests that may be attracted to the raw meat and could spread contamination.

Which food is best for your pet?  Talk to the person who has the knowledge to answer your questions and concerns… your veterinarian.

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