A lot of myths still surround the safety of raw food diets for cats and dogs. Here are the real facts.
“My gosh! You feed your animals raw meat?” This is one of the most frequent questions I get from visitors to my home – and from clients at my veterinary clinic who would like to feed their companions raw food, but are getting an argument from their own veterinarians.
The whole debate about raw food doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Dogs and cats have consumed living, raw meat for thousands of years. To this day, cats catch and kill mice, and no one calls poison control. Dogs and cats are specifically designed to consume raw meat. Their bodies are adapted to process raw, living foods.
Fast food… it’s bad for animals too!
Processed commercial dog and cat food is a relatively new phenomenon, introduced only about 100 years ago. However, your animal’s GI tract has not evolved in those 100 years to make good use of a diet based entirely on poor quality kibble – and it never will.
Fortunately, the bodies of dogs and cats are amazingly resilient and capable of handling foods that aren’t biologically appropriate. Unfortunately, this has led to a situation of dietary abuse in the veterinary community.
Commercial pet foods – especially dry diets – are so convenient that the majority of vets recommend them for all their patients.
It’s easy to feed, inexpensive, and there’s no preparation or cleanup required. You stash the bag in the pantry, scoop out a portion at meal time, drop it in your animal’s food dish and you’re done.
Because commercial pet food has been so successfully marketed (dog and cat food products are a multimillion dollar industry), and because our animals’ bodies are resilient and can survive on this stuff, we have been lulled into a sense of complacency about the food we feed them.
Most veterinary students don’t learn about species-appropriate pet food in vet school. The only foods discussed are the processed, commercial pet formulas. The concept of feeding a living food diet is foreign to many vets.
It doesn’t take much research to uncover the fact that dogs and cats are designed by nature to eat living foods – unprocessed, raw, nourishing foods. Feeding a commercial formula is a bit like deciding your child can be healthy on a diet of meal replacement bars. A meal replacement bar is fine now and then, but no sane parent would ever consider raising a child on those alone. Yet that’s what we’re doing when we feed our animals nothing but poor quality, commercial, processed foods.
Living foods in your companion’s diet are necessary for successful overall immune and organ function.
It seems the biggest problem most people have with raw food revolves around parasites. Roundworms, hookworms and tapeworms are passed up the food chain and wind up in the guts of prey animals. But here’s the thing. We don’t feed guts to our animals! If you buy a commercially available raw food diet, you will not find guts in the formula because guts contain parasites. If you prepare a homemade raw diet for your dog or cat, you don’t include the guts. Those are the parts of the prey we get rid of, because they harbor parasites.
Muscle meat – the part of prey animals used to prepare raw food diets – is sterile except in rare instances when parasites escape the GI tract and travel there.
Certain other parasites, like Toxoplasma gondii which causes toxoplasmosis, can get into muscle meat and make your animal sick, which is why you should freeze raw meat for three days before feeding it to your dog or cat. By freezing meats three days before serving (a lot like how sushi is handled) and removing the guts of prey species, you can successfully avoid exposing your raw-fed animal to parasites.
What about salmonella?
This is the second most frequently asked question I receive. The most important thing to understand about Salmonella, or any other potentially pathogenic bacteria, is that contamination absolutely does occur. It’s a fact of life.
Salmonella is the reason behind most recalls of dry pet foods (and human foods as well). When a Salmonella outbreak occurs, there has been contamination in the food chain.
The word Salmonella is used to describe over 1,800 serovars (species) of gram-negative bacteria. This bacteria lives in many species of mammal. The most common bacteria riding around in your dog or cat is Salmonella typhimurium.
I want to quote from an article titled “Campylobacter and Salmonella-Associated Diarrhea in Dogs and Cats: When Do I Treat?” It was written by Stanley L. Marks, BVSc, PhD, DACVIM (Internal Medicine, Oncology), DACVN, for the Veterinary Information Network (VIN):
“The clinical significance of bacteria such as clostridium and salmonella causing diarrhea or illness in dogs and cats is clouded by the existence of many of these organisms as normal constituents of the indigenous intestinal flora. The primary enteropathogenic bacteria most commonly incriminating in canine and feline diarrhea is Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium difficile, Campylobacter, and Salmonella.
Veterinarians are faced with a quandary when attempting to diagnose small animals with suspected bacterial-associated diarrhea because the isolation rates of these pathogenic bacteria are similar in diarrheic and non-diarrheic animals, and because the incidence of bacterial-associated diarrhea is extremely variable. Salmonella species are commonly isolated from both healthy and hospitalized dogs and cats.”
What this is saying, in a nutshell, is that dogs and cats naturally have some Salmonella in their GI tracts much of the time – it’s not some unknown foreign invader but rather one their bodies are familiar with.
Here’s a quote from another article written by Rhea V. Morgan, DVM, DACVIM, DACVO, for VIN:
“Factors that increase the likelihood of clinical disease from Salmonella include the age of the animal, poor nutrition, the presence of cancer or neoplasia, and other concurrent diseases and stress, as well as the administration of antibiotics, chemotherapy or glucocorticoids (which are steroids).”
The bottom line is that potentially harmful bacteria reside in your animal’s GI tract whether you feed raw food or not. In other words, he is already “contaminated” with Salmonella.
Dogs and cats are built to handle bacterial loads from food that would cause significant illness in you or me. Their bodies are well equipped to deal with heavy doses of familiar and strange bacteria because nature built them to catch, kill and immediately consume their prey.
Your dog’s or cat’s stomach is highly acidic, with a pH range of 1 to 2.5. Nothing much can survive an environment that acidic – it exists to keep him safe from potentially contaminated raw meat and other consumables.
In addition to the acid, dogs and cats also naturally produce a tremendous amount of bile. Bile is both anti-parasitic and anti-pathogenic. So if something potentially harmful isn’t entirely neutralized by stomach acid, the bile is a secondary defense. And your animal’s powerful pancreatic enzymes also help break down and digest food.
Providing your favorite pooch or feline with a balanced, biologically sound diet, a healthy lifestyle, digestive enzymes and probiotics (see below), will optimally nourish him, support healthy immunologic function, and bring overall vibrancy to his body. This is in direct contrast to feeding a low-end commercial formula of highly processed rendered byproducts, chemicals and grains – the typical mainstream pet food sold today. The sooner you transition your companion to the kind of diet he was designed to eat, the sooner he will be on his way to vibrant good health.
Keep his GI tract in good shape
To help your animal’s digestive system remain strong and resilient enough to handle a heavy bacterial load, and to support overall immune function, there are several things you can do.
- Minimize stress by feeding a species-appropriate, meat-based diet, the kind your dog or cat is meant to eat.
- Minimize the drugs your animals takes, such as antibiotics. Re-seed the gut during and after antibiotic therapy with a probiotic. It’s also a good idea to keep your dog or cat on a daily probiotic to balance the ratio of good gut bacteria (gut flora).
- A good quality digestive enzyme will help your dog’s or cat’s body get the most out of his food.