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Nutrition – Raw Food Diets

What are some of the benefits of feeding a raw food diet to pets?
Raw food diets are available commercially, or can be prepared at home. They contain whole animal and plant tissues that are left in their raw state, and have not undergone processing to denature (break down) their proteins, starches and fats. The natural enzymes and cofactors such as trace vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are intact and available to assist in nutrient digestion and absorption.
“A common misconception is that raw food is completely digested by animals…”
A common misconception is that raw food is completely digested by animals, due to its “increased enzyme content”. Research evidence suggests the opposite. Raw foods are likely to be more slowly digested and absorbed. Over time, there is evidence that the animal responds by increasing its own digestive enzyme production, making its digestive tract stronger, not weaker. In the short term, some animals may show symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting that is not related to the presence of bacteria in the food. These symptoms will usually resolve over time.
Rather than being a disadvantage, delayed absorption may be the chief reason behind what appears to be impressive clinical benefits of raw food diets. Lower digestibility results in a lower glycemic index, or rate of an increase in blood sugar after a meal. Foods with a lower glycemic index play an important role in preventing obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes mellitus. Raw food diets that have minimal carbohydrate content may also help prevent tumor growth and may play a role in preventing and treating chronic inflammatory disorders of all types.
Even conditions such as Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism) appear to be prevented by a low glycemic index diet. Many of the conditions discussed above are associated with insulin resistance and excessive carbohydrate intake in humans.
“There is emerging evidence that small animals may be similarly prone to insulin resistance and its sequelae.”
There is emerging evidence that small animals may be similarly prone to insulin resistance and its sequelae. If true, raw food diets and diets low in carbohydrate content may play an important role in preventing these conditions in dogs and cats.
What are some common misconceptions about feeding raw food diets to pets?
Advocates of raw food diets, whether they include raw bones or not, generally state that raw food diets represent the natural or ‘paleolithic’ diet for dogs and cats.
“…modern dogs and cats are not necessarily the same as their ancestors.”
What they often forget is that modern dogs and cats are not necessarily the same as their ancestors. Thousands of years of domestication, adaptation to diets based on human foods or leftovers, and genetic modification by inbreeding to establish specific breed characteristics have altered the anatomy as well as the digestive physiology of the modern dog and cat, thus affecting their nutritional requirements and biochemical individuality.
Are there concerns about nutrient balance when feeding a raw diet?
Raw food diets may be significantly imbalanced with respect to their mineral content, with excesses or deficiencies in calcium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium and iron being the most common imbalances. Some raw food diets are deficient in fiber. Many supporters of raw food diets maintain that the diet does not need to be balanced over the short term because it will become balanced over the long haul. This idea overlooks the fact that most of our pet animals are reliant on us to provide all of the components of their diet, and if we don’t provide all of the necessary nutrients, it is impossible for the diet to become balanced over time. Some authors propose that animals will only eat what they require in order to balance their nutrient intake. This contention presumes an owner would see fit to offer a range of choices, varying in nutrient content, which many don’t. In addition, if offered a highly palatable food such as raw meat (at least, palatable to the carnivore) at the same time as an offering of vegetables or fruits, most carnivores will preferentially choose the meat.
“Typical raw food diets may not meet the additional requirements for growth or reproduction…”
Typical raw food diets may not meet the additional requirements for growth or reproduction, especially for puppies or kittens, and pregnant animals. Veterinary advice is very important to ensure a balanced diet is being fed.
If you are using or considering using a raw diet for your pet, we STRONGLY encourage you to consult wtih a board certified veterinary nutritionists for guidance (see article at end of this handout). For a fee, they can evaluate you and your pet’s priorities and help you come up with a diet which minimizes the risk of problems. Resources for this service include North Carolina State University’s Veterinary School: http://www.cvm.ncsu.edu/vhc/vhwc/nutrition/index.html, University of Tennessee Veterinary School: http://www.petnutritiontn.com, University of Florida Veterinary School: http://smallanimal.vethospital.ufl.edu/clinical-services/nutrition/nutrition-services-offered/, and Tufts Veterinary School: http://www.tufts.edu/vet/nutrition/, PetDiets.com, Balanceit.com and the website for the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, ACVN.org.
Are there any risks associated with feeding raw meats to pets?
Healthy pets may be relatively resistant to developing disease associated with contamination of foods with bacteria or their toxins. However, many of our pet animals have health problems and may be susceptible to infection by disease-causing strains of bacteria.
Raw foods may themselves contaminate the environment and even if the pet is in a state of optimal health, it is still possible for him or her to contaminate the environment by shedding disease-causing bacteria in the feces. The bacteria of most concern are Salmonella, some species of E. coli, and Campylobacter jejuni, any of which can be present as contaminants on human-grade food products.
In order to minimize these risks, it is imperative that you follow the same sanitation practices that you use in preparing your own foods. Wash your hands and all utensils thoroughly before and after handling raw meat. DO NOT use wooden chopping boards. Store the pet’s meat so that it can’t contaminate human foods (ideally, you should have a separate freezer for storage of your pet’s food).
“Confine the feeding of the raw diet to one location in the house…”
Confine the feeding of the raw diet to one location in the house, or to one location outdoors. Do not allow your pet to lick or kiss your face. Ensure meat is frozen before preparation, and that raw food prepared in advance is frozen until needed. Freezing does not kill bacteria, but may reduce their numbers in food, or delay their rate of multiplication.
To avoid environmental contamination, after your pet is finished eating, always clean and disinfect the spot where your pet ate the meal. Make sure you scoop up any fecal material immediately after elimination and dispose of it properly.
Is there any benefit associated with feeding raw bones to your dog?
When used properly, the exercise and pleasure that your dog gets from chewing bones is beneficial, and may minimize the build-up of tartar on the teeth. Raw bones represent a bioavailable source of calcium as well as containing other minerals that are needed in the body. The cartilage contains glucosamine, chondroitin, and other glycosaminoglycans that are beneficial to joints.
Is there any risk associated with feeding raw bones to your dog?
Raw bones may be fine in a diet, depending on the size of the pet being fed and the size of the bone. An improper size of bone may cause an intestinal accident such as an intestinal obstruction or blockage. Cooked bones must NEVER be fed, since they are brittle and prone to splintering, which can cause tooth fractures, intestinal obstruction and intestinal perforations.
Caution must be used when feeding raw bones to avoid contamination of the environment with bacteria, and to minimize spoiling of the bone marrow. To minimize environmental contamination, bones should be fed outdoors and the area that was contaminated should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before humans are exposed to it.
“Fresh bones containing lots of marrow must be discarded within one day, especially in the summertime, to avoid rancidity.”
Fresh bones containing lots of marrow must be discarded within one day, especially in the summertime, to avoid rancidity. After you have handled a raw bone, you should thoroughly wash your hands and use routine sanitation practices.
Is there any other concern I should have about feeding raw food diets to my pet?
Under certain conditions, there can be serious health consequences to human companions of animals fed raw food diets. Young children are much more susceptible to bacterial infections, and are more likely to become contaminated by crawling around in the feeding areas of pets. They are also more likely to be licked by dogs or otherwise come in contact with bacteria shed in the pet’s feces. If there are adult family members with compromised immune systems due to serious diseases or chemotherapy, these family members will be at increased risk of contracting bacterial infections. In any of these circumstances, it is extremely risky to handle or feed raw foods to your pet.
Addendum: In August 2012, both the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) released statements discouraging the feeding of raw protein diets. Part of the AAHA statement reads as follows: “Past proponents of raw food diets believed that this was the healthiest food choice for pets. It was also assumed that feeding such a diet would cause no harm to other animals or to humans. There have subsequently been multiple studies showing both these premises to be false. Based on overwhelming scientific evidence, AAHA does not advocate or endorse feeding pets any raw or dehydrated nonsterilized foods, including treats that are of animal origin.”
Addendum: November 2013
The FDA released results of a two year study on raw diets for pets. The study identified potential health risks for the pets eating the raw food, and for the owners handling the product. Owners who feed their pet a raw diet may have a higher risk of getting infected with Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. For more information visit the FDA’s website at http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/AnimalHealthLiteracy/ucm373757.htm#The_Pet_Food_Study
July 2013 Addendum from UC Davis Veterinary School:
Dog owners who cook food for their pets at home may be putting a lot of love into the recipes, but they are likely not adding enough nutritional value, according to researchers from the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
The researchers analyzed 200 recipes for homemade dog food to determine how many of them meet established nutritional standards. According to the results published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, very few of the recipes were nutritionally complete.
“The results of this study, however, indicate that most available recipes for healthy dogs, even those published in books by veterinarians, do not provide essential nutrients in the quantities required by the dog,” said Jennifer Larsen, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at UC Davis and lead author on the study. “It is extremely difficult for the average pet owner – or even veterinarians – to come up with balanced recipes to create appropriate meals that are safe for long-term use.”
Most recipes have nutritional deficiencies
For the study, researchers analyzed 200 recipes from 34 sources including veterinary textbooks, websites, and pet care books. They used a computer-based program to evaluate recipes for the nutritional content in the food as well as the specificity of the instructions, UC Davis said. The researchers’ findings included:

  • Out of 200 recipes studied, only nine contained essential nutrients in concentrations that met the minimum standards for adult dogs established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Eight of the nine recipes were written by veterinarians.
  • Five recipes – all written by veterinarians – featured essential nutrient concentrations that met the National Research Council’s Minimum Requirements for adult dogs.
  • Only four recipes were written by board-certified veterinary nutritionists, and all of those recipes had acceptable nutrient profiles for adult dogs.

According to Larsen, 95 percent of the recipes produced food that lacked the necessary levels of at least one essential nutrient such as choline, vitamin D, zinc, or vitamin E. Eighty-three percent of the recipes lacked multiple nutrients, she said.
Vague or incomplete instructions for majority of recipes
In addition to the nutritional deficiencies discovered, researchers also determined that 92 percent of the recipes had vague or incomplete instructions. The faulty instructions left pet owners to make at least one guess regarding ingredients, preparation methods, or the use of supplement-type products, UC Davis reported.
Researchers also reported that 85 percent of the recipes did not supply owners with calorie information or specify the size of dog for which the recipe was meant.
Researchers’ recommendations regarding homemade food
According to Larsen, preparing homemade pet food isn’t a bad idea for pet owners – she just believes her group’s research shows that it should be done under the guidance of experts.
“Homemade food is a great option for many pets, but we recommend that owners avoid general recipes from books and the Internet and instead consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist,” she said. “These specialists have advanced training in nutrition to help formulate customized and nutritionally appropriate recipes.”
This client information sheet is based on material written by: Steve Marsden, DVM ND MSOM LAc DiplCH AHG, Shawn Messonnier, DVM and Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH
© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.


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