There has been an undeniable rise in food and health awareness, be it simply an adjustment to fit a more active lifestyle, or even adopting more environmentally sustainable eating practices. This seems to have also trickled into our approach to feeding our pets, now an intricate part of many families.
Between expensive brands, specialised dietary foods, and particular pet requirements, many people are turning to the raw-food diet phenomenon, the most prevalent of which is making the rounds online as the BARF diet.
Originally sprouting up as the ‘Bones and Raw Food’ diet popularised in the early 2000s, this has since evolved into the ‘Biologically-Appropriate Raw Food’ diet, a shift to perhaps match the changing ideals for pet food in today’s society. The question remains, however, is your pet benefitting from a raw food diet?
Risks and benefits of a raw-food diet
There is currently little research on the risks and benefits of applying raw-food diets to pets. What studies are available thankfully reflect both its pros and cons, which have been primarily divided into three overarching categories.
Infection and disease
As with warnings against the human consumption of raw uncooked and unwashed foods, the same can be said for pets. Several studies document the presence of bacterial contaminants in raw food to a greater extent than commercially canned food. One such example is seen in a 2006 study by Strohmeyer, Morley et al., where Salmonella sp. and E. coli were found in higher concentrations in raw food as opposed to commercially-prepared canned food.
Stressing the need for hygiene if raw-food diets are the preferred choice for the pet owner, a separate study by Weese and Rousseau showed that most common cleaning methods for pet food bowls were ineffective in eliminating Salmonella.
Other studies still shed light on the possible effect on human heath that raw food preparation could have. Particularly if hygiene is lax and the appropriate precautions are not taken, a pet owner could themselves get infected, however there are very few conclusively documented cases.
Randomised-controlled trials and cohort studies are currently lacking in this field, but there is certainly enough evidence for veterinarians to caution their clients.
Foreign body contaminants
Providing your dog or cat with raw unprocessed cuts of meat means that you might be exposing the pet to small bone fragments and large foreign bodies. Sharp bone fragments that are ingested by pets could become lodged within the digestive tract of your pet and may lead to perforation or obstruction. These are medical emergencies and could potentially be life-threatening to the animal.
Veterinarians advise that should you wish to proceed with BARF diet, all prepared food should be cleaned and checked accordingly.
In terms of benefits, few if any high quality studies exist to back the nutritional benefits of a raw-food diet. One 2011 critique by Schlesinger and Joffe reviewing both sides of the playing field referenced a single paper that swayed in favour of BARF. Even then, it references the positive correlation between raw-food diet owners and their perception of high-quality pet health (which was not the purpose of the study).
On the flip side, nutrient deficiencies or dangerous excess can result from an improper understanding of balanced pet diets when preparing raw-fed meals. A study published by World Small Animal Veterinary Association showed that a BARF diet can result in deficiencies of calcium, potassium, zinc and phosphorus, and Vitamin D excess. Cases of hypervitaminosis, hyperparathyroidism and osteodystrophy have all been documented in instances where pets (including litters of younger animals) were on raw-food diets.
In less severe cases, some animals recovered when changed to commercial processed foodstuffs. To this, proponents of BARF suggest varying foods lessens the risk of this imbalance, despite veterinarian disagreement.
There is enough evidence to compel veterinarians to discuss human health implications of these diets with owners
Schlesinger and Joffe, Canadian Veterinary Journal (2011)
While there are certainly loud voices within the pet community in favour of part or complete raw-food diets, several professionals advise caution. Case studies and reviews published by the British Medical Journal, Veterinary Record, and La Revue Vétérinaire Canadienne (The Canadian Veterinary Journal) all reiterate the abovementioned points, with particular emphasis on how this could also extend to human health.
Schlesinger and Joffe went so far as to say “there is a lack of large cohort studies to evaluate risk or benefit of raw meat diets fed to pets [however] there is enough evidence to compel veterinarians to discuss human health implications of these diets with owners.”
Other concerns include those raised during a 2017 debate at the British Veterinary Nursing Association congress. The difficulty in getting a correct nutritional balance for your pet when preparing a homemade raw-food diet was universally acknowledged by participants. Raw-food advocates championed improved health outcomes from supporting veterinarians, while sceptics added that when considering commercially available raw-food preparations, it was important to highlight a lack of their appropriate evaluation with feeding trials.
What do you think about raw-food diets?
We understand that certain pets may need strict dietary regimens that are found in only select commercially available preparations, however we advise you speak to your local vet and read up on the pros and cons of raw-food diets before taking the plunge.
Have any experiences with BARF or similar dietary plans for your pet? Let us know in the comments section below.
For a detailed list of references used in this article, please contact us on [email protected]