Raw Food Diet for Pets

For a majority of pet owners, a quick trip to the local grocery or even pet superstore is the easiest way to pick up their pets’ food.  People might debate favorite brands, but most will use some sort of commercial dry or canned diet for their four legged friends.  For a few pet owners though, preparing a meal for the family dog involves a little more work and a lot of raw meat.  Are homemade or raw diets a good idea?

Take a stroll down the pet food aisle of your favorite store and your eyes will take in every imaginable color, a few cartoon characters and a lot of claims stating the food is “improved”, “natural” or even “organic”.  It’s truly a marketing bonanza!  More than 3,000 brands of pet food fill the aisles and pet owners will spend about $18 billion to feed their pets each and every year.

But, high profile recalls, sick pets and corporate mistrust has moved a small number of pet owners to consider making their pets’ food at home, instead of buying it in a bag.  An Internet search for “raw diets” brings up almost 3 million different results, many of which claim that this sort of food is nutritionally superior to the commercially prepared diets.

The raw food diet trend began in 1993 with the publication of “Give Your Dog A Bone” written by Australian veterinarian, Dr. Ian Billinghurst.  Building on the close evolutionary relationship between our dogs and their wolf cousins, Dr. Billinghurst claims that in domesticating the dog we “changed the wolf’s appearance and mind…but not the basic internal workings or physiology”.  Many pet owners agree with this theory and have flocked to a raw meat type of diet for their animals.

Proponents of raw diets claim the foods give their pets more energy, provide more nutrition and overall, their dogs and cats are healthier than animals fed a typical dry or commercial diet.  During the massive pet food recall of 2007, the number of people opting for homemade diets increased dramatically and many have continued to prepare their pet’s food at home.

Adding more fuel to the fire, advocates of homemade foods persist in claims that commercial diets, especially those with a high percentage of grain, are actually shortening the life span of our animals.

How many of these arguments are valid and which ones lack evidence?

First, it is important to understand that all of the reports of increased energy and healthier pets are simply observations by the owners.  Actual scientific and verifiable evidence supporting these claims is non-existent.  To be fair, there is no evidence to refute these statements either.

Many of Dr. Billinghurst’s basic arguments are answered by veterinarians, both in the clinic with clients and in the media.  For example, the claim that dogs must eat meat because they are related to wolves is discussed and usually dismissed.  As a well respected blog, Skeptvet.com, states dogs are omnivores and will often eat a wide variety, including some fruits and vegetables.  Not to mention that there has been more than 100,000 years of divergence between dogs and wolves as well as intense selective breeding, especially in the last 3,000 years.

Another claim that is used by raw food advocates is that dogs and cats can’t digest grains, especially the corn and wheat ingredients found in many commercial diets.  This contention is also refuted by scientific studies showing dogs use these cooked grains as effectively as other carbohydrate sources.

But, perhaps the biggest reason many pet owners opt for preparing their pets’ meals is a mistrust of the corporations formulating the dry foods.  Recalls due to contamination, excessive or deficient nutrients and bacterial contamination seem all too commonplace.  Although these recalls have happened occasionally and pets have become sick, the reality of the situation is that the vast majority of commercial diets are not only safe for our pets, they also provide an optimum level of nutrition, helping out pets live full and healthy lives.

So, is one type of diet actually better than another?

The answer to that question is complex and should always involve a discussion with your veterinarian.  Raw diets, for all their purported benefits, do come with significant risks.  Bacterial contamination is more prevalent with these diets and the potential for an imbalance of nutrients is very high.  If you do choose to use a homemade or raw diet, talk with your veterinarian and use an approved veterinary nutritional site, like BalanceIt.com to insure that your pet does benefit from your extra work.

Also, remember that many pet food companies have decades of experience, research and testing proving the effectiveness and safety of their diets.  It’s true that occasional recalls have happened, but these unfortunate events have also helped determine how to effectively handle this sort of crisis.  Lessons learned from past situations will help to prevent future issues.

Looking forward, science may give us an answer to this on-going and very passionate debate.  But, for now, your best source of advice is not an online forum or manufacturer’s website with products to sell, but rather you should put your trust in your veterinarian.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Dr. Debra Garrison is a veterinarian at the Treaschwig Veterinary Clinic

Sometimes Good Medicine is Simply Good Nutrition

For pets with chronic health issues, veterinarians might recommend specific therapeutic diets.  Designed to provide the right type of nutrition for the pet’s unique problems, these diets are often used for the lifetime of the pet.   But, when finances are tight, are these “prescription diets” really worth the cost?

j-russell-terrier-pups

Feeding your dog or cat seems like an easy chore, but if your pet is suffering from kidney disease, allergies or even cancer, his nutritional needs require special attention.   Most veterinarians keep an inventory of therapeutic or “prescription” diets on hand to help manage chronically sick pets.   In spite of the benefits provided by these diets, the weak economy and rising prices have many owners thinking twice about staying on the more expensive diets.

In 1940, Dr. Mark Morris, a veterinarian in New Jersey, was treating one of his patients, “Buddy”, for kidney failure.   “Buddy” was one of the first “seeing eye” guide dogs in the United States.  Dr. Morris found that he could improve Buddy’s quality of life by providing him with a diet that helped ease the work of his kidneys.  He named this new diet “k/d” for kidney diet and he quickly became inundated with requests from veterinarians for his special food.

Dr. Morris continued to study how the right foods can benefit patients suffering from a variety of diseases.  His visionary work sparked a multi-million dollar industry dedicated to providing optimal nutrition for chronically ill pets.  Today, companies such as Hill’s Pet Foods, Purina Veterinary Diets, Iams, and Royal Canin all commit extensive resources towards research and production of therapeutic diets.

These special diets differ from routine pet foods by the reduction, addition, or manipulation of key nutrients.  For example, k/d has much lower phosphorus and protein levels than normal pet diets.  This balance helps reduce the workload of the kidneys and actually slows the progression of the disease.  For pet stricken with cancer, high levels of quality fat and protein with lower carbohydrate levels can help starve cancer cells and prolong the pet’s life.

Special therapeutic diets are also available for pets with allergies, urinary bladder stones, digestive issues, heart conditions, liver problems and even arthritic pets.

But, all of this scientific research and expertise does come with a cost.   Therapeutic diets often appear to be unusually expensive when compared to regular diets.   As an example, a 30 lb bag of a prescription diet for dogs suffering from allergies can cost more than $90.  For a typical 60 lb dog, this bag of food should last around 45 days, meaning that the daily food cost is $2 per day.

Some owners are tempted to take matters into their own hands and create homemade diets for their pets.  According to the Small Animal Clinical Nutrition text, homemade recipes are often available for a variety of pet illnesses.  However, once the cost of ingredients is added, along with time spent in preparation and extra trips to the grocery, these homemade diets are often just as pricey as the commercially prepared food.

And, without veterinary guidance, these attempts at cost savings often end up hurting the pet.  Owners take short cuts and buy cheaper meats and/or grains due to personal preference or availability of the ingredients.  These lower quality or different ingredients can adversely affect the pet and even worsen his or her underlying disease.  One study also estimated that more than 90% of homemade diets for sick pets are not nutritionally adequate.

So, how can owners keep their pet’s diets from emptying their wallets?  First, talk with your veterinarian about your pet’s overall health condition.  Some pets are put on certain therapeutic diets for a limited time only.   If your pet is overweight, battling bladder stones, or even suffering from digestive upset, it is likely that you only need to feed the special diet for a limited time.

Next, if your pet does need his prescription food for a longer time, order in larger size bags.   The initial cost is certainly higher, but you will save money on a per feeding basis since large bags cost less per pound.

Many veterinarians stock only one brand of therapeutic diet due to lack of storage space and high inventory costs.   Ask your veterinarian if a competing food manufacturer has a diet similar to the one your pet needs and if a cost difference exists.  If the food is indicated for your pet’s illness, it’s possible to save a few dollars with a different brand.

Finally, consider having the diet shipped directly to your home.   Several of the pet food manufacturers offer home delivery of the foods.  This option could save you time and gas money.

These therapeutic diets have enabled millions of dogs and cats to live longer, happier lives despite their illnesses.   On-going research will continue to discover how we can provide the highest level of nutrition to our pets, no matter what illness or condition they might encounter.  Veterinarians will continue to rely on these diets because of their proven track record.