Why have we switched to feeding raw?
After feeding our pet dogs and cats commercially available kibble diets for the past 20 years (and longer if we include time we were kids but not directly involved in the purchasing decisions for the family pets), we have made the switch to raw (ie uncooked) pet food.
We have been been loyal supporters of the Royal Canin brand for many years and we think it is important to point out that our decision to switch to raw is not based on any issues with the Royal Canin brand specifically, but rather with the formulation and presentation of dry dog and cat food as a whole.
My wife and partner in The Bloomin Vet, Belinda, is an agricultural science graduate who majored in animal production and nutrition. However, it was her more recent studies in human nutrition that caused us to finally sit up and take notice that the message she was preaching to her human clients was completely different to what we recommended for pet dogs and cats.
I have accumulated over 20 years of experience as a veterinarian with companion animals and whilst I’ve followed the industry accepted practice of recommending pet foods formulated by the major pet food companies, I’ve had increasing discomfort with these recommendations. So when my wife and I put our heads together to really investigate and challenge our long standing beliefs and practices, it became an easy switch to make as the evidence for change is compelling.
In human nutrition we encourage people to “eat real food”. If you can’t image its path from the paddock to plate then you probably shouldn’t be eating it. If it’s journey has involved some kind of factory then you probably shouldn’t be eating it. If it contains ingredients you don’t recognise or can’t pronounce you probably shouldn’t be eating it. Essentially we encourage the consumption of “real food”, and to minimise consumption of processed “food like” substances.
Our own experience, as well as observing the experience of hundreds of other humans as they transition away from processed foods and incorporate more real food into their diets, has been overwhelmingly positive. Humans (ourselves included) report that they feel so much better when they are eating a diet comprised of mostly real, fresh food and minimal processed food. Of course “feeling better” is a hard thing to accurately measure. But there is also substantial and ever mounting evidence in the scientific and medical communities that diet is inextricably linked with health and that a reduction in the consumption of processed foods leads to better health outcomes, including a reduction in chronic disease. If this is true for humans, then there is no reason to expect that a similar thing wouldn’t also hold true for our pet dogs and cats.
Commercial dry dog and cat food is highly, highly processed. Its journey from paddock to bowl has involved numerous factories and the treatments that the initial raw ingredients undergo leaves them looking nothing like the raw ingredient they may once have been. It is a far cry from the shopping principle we advocate for humans which is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store where all of the fresh, perishable produce is kept. We have heard reports that dry dog food can remain shelf stable for around 25 years despite the use-by date! Let’s think about that for a moment and contemplate the kind of processing and additives that have gone in to that “food” that allow it to remain stable for that length of time. Would you personally consume, as your sole source of nutrition, a “food” that is shelf stable for 25 years?!
The above mentioned reasons alone are more than enough for us to justify the switch. However, for our own peace of mind and no doubt for others who might question our sanity in making this switch, we’ve dug a little deeper into all that we now find unsavoury and indeed potentially damaging when it comes to feeding processed dry kibble (and canned) diets.
The quality of the ingredients that go into commercial dry (and some canned) dog foods is questionable. Many sources of “meat” meal and byproducts come from rendering plants. Rendering plants process animal products deemed “not fit for human consumption”. This might include the offcuts from the butcher shop floor, but can also include animals that have died in transit to the abattoir, are dead in the paddock, meat that has expired or close to expiry from the supermarkets and so on. It also includes any plastic, packaging, tags or chemicals that are on or in those sources as the material is handled in bulk and the removal of these things is not mandatory nor undertaken. Forget the fries…. would you like a serving of styrofoam tray with that?! (check out a recent (June 2018) ABC 7.30 report on rendering processes in Australia if you think these issues aren’t happening here)
What about complete and balanced nutrition? The pet food industry has done a really great job of promoting their processed diets as complete and balanced and it is true that for optimal life pets (and humans) need to be able to obtain adequate quantities of nutrients from their food. Indeed deficiencies in particular nutrients can cause sickness, disease and even death. When commercial pet food first appeared on the scene there were marked improvements observed in general health outcomes for pets when compared with the often ad-hoc pure meat or carbohydrate based home prepared diets that had previously been fed. The thing with “Complete and Balanced” nutrition though is that, not every meal, every day needs to be “complete and balanced”. As long as sufficient variety of biologically or species appropriate foods are presented to the animal across the course of days, weeks, months then that animal will be able to extract the nutrients they require. As humans do we worry if each meal we eat each day is “complete and balanced”? Of course not. However, we know that over the course of several meals, days and weeks (provided we are eating a healthy varied diet and aren’t just eating white bread and jam as our exclusive nutrition source!) that we will tick all of the boxes as to the nutrients we require.
Biological or species appropriateness is an important consideration when it comes to assessing food for our pet dogs and cats and this is another area where dry kibble diets fall short. By design they are too high in carbohydrate for our carnivorous friends (even grain free variants). They have to be in order for the kibble to stick together. In zoo animals it is accepted and understood that for optimal health and wellbeing we should try to mimic the animals natural diet as closely as possible so we don’t go throwing loaves of bread at the cheetahs or chocolate cakes to the wolves. However, our pet dogs and cats get treated differently, even though their evolution from their wild counterparts is not as far removed as the pet food industry would have us believe. You can get caught up in the intricacies of omnivore versus carnivore and gene adaptations to starch in domestic canines if you really want to dive down into the details, but essentially our pet cats and dogs are predominantly meat eaters and they didn’t cook their food either.
Commercial dry dog food is cooked at really high temperatures (this is in addition to the high temperatures that the ingredients may already have been exposed to). This causes changes to the availability of nutrients as well as creates potentially toxic byproducts. Whilst cooking might render meat products safer for human consumption, it is not necessary for our carnivorous friends who evolved to eat their food raw. In fact, it is argued that by feeding commercial dry dog foods, we actually alter the intestinal chemistry and microbiome of our pets, making them more susceptible to pathogens.
A common fear that is perpetuated by manufacturers of dry and canned pet foods is that your pet will get sick if it eats raw meat. While it is true that the bacterial load on a raw product versus a shelf stable product is higher (the same would hold true for a fresh carrot you are eating versus a canned one), this is where the relevance of species appropriateness of the diet kicks in. Cats and dogs evolved as predators and in the case of dogs, also scavengers, so their stomach acid is more than capable of handling correctly stored and prepared raw, fresh product. Whilst the stomach of animals (humans included) is often only given credit for its role in digestion, its role as a filter against pathogens should not be overlooked.
In zoo animals it is recognised that the animals food provides not only nutrition, but also significant environmental and behavioural enrichment. The ripping, tearing and gnawing that occurs when the animal eats biologically/species appropriate food (ie raw meaty bones/carcases or whole prey) takes not only more time than eating a kibble based diet but provides a source of stress relief as well as exercises the jaws and body in the ways in which nature intended. Next time you give your dog a bone, notice the zen like state that comes over them as they get down to business!
Raw meaty bones form an integral part of a biologically appropriate diet for cats and dogs. In addition to their nutritive and behavioural contributions mentioned above, they also provide mechanical abrasion which is necessary for dental health. Whilst various kibble formulations tout their superiority in teeth cleaning ability, they are a poor cousin to the bone.
Commercial dry dog and cat food is… dry. If you compare the moisture content of food consumed by a wild dog or cat who is catching and eating whole prey it is easy to understand that there is a whole lot less moisture being consumed when that same animal is fed a commercial kibble. Whilst we have blindly assumed that it’s ok and they will simply have a drink to make up the shortfall, there is a school of thought that suggests their thirst mechanisms are not that well developed. We then have the situation of chronically dehydrated pets and the associated impact on long term kidney health.
A lack of scientific evidence on the benefits of feeding a raw diet versus a commercial dry/canned is often touted as the reason why it’s too risky to feed raw. However, most scientific research is funded by commercial interests. The government is simply not interested in funding research on pet food when they have bigger fish to fry that have greater impacts on the public purse. So, if there is no profit to be made from the potential discoveries of the research, then the research simply isn’t done. A dive into recently published papers on canine and feline nutrition research finds that a significant proportion (and perhaps indeed the majority) are conducted by either pet food companies themselves, or by researchers that receive funding either directly or indirectly from pet food companies. Hardly unbiased findings! And of course it is not too far fetched to conclude, if the results of the studies prove unfavourable to the pet food company, those studies simply aren’t published. After all, you aren’t going to allow the publication of a research study which shoots your profit making entity in the foot!
Incomplete and unbalanced education (brainwashing?) of pet industry professionals (ourselves included) has meant that there is unquestioning belief that dogs eat “dog food” and cats eat “cat food” which comes as dry kibble or in cans. Dominant players in the pet food industry have secured themselves as major benefactors in the veterinary schools in Australia (and around the world). Nutrition lectures on dog and cat nutrition for undergraduates are provided by these same pet food company representatives, such that the body of knowledge trainee vets receive is almost exclusively based around commercial pet food formulations. Nutrition lectures and training for vet techs and nurses is similarly biased. There is little to no coverage of nutrition in terms of raw ingredients nor discussion of species appropriate nutrition (it’s all taken care of by “the brand” right?!). This is a unique situation unparalleled in any other area of human or animal nutrition as far as we are aware. Just imagine the uproar if the sole source of nutrition training a doctor received was supplied by a processed food manufacturer such as McDonalds or Herbalife!
The infiltration of the major players continues beyond the walls of vet school with most veterinary clinics being aligned with one of the major brands in terms of supplying that brand of pet food exclusively through the clinic. Special staff pricing deals are done to ensure brand loyalty and in house nutrition training and “certification” is provided by the brand reps. Nutrition conferences which might be seen as great professional development opportunities are organised by or sponsored by these same companies with speakers that either work for the brand, or have views that align with the brand. So you can see, for a veterinary professional, getting a true and balanced view of dog and cat nutrition, other than that offered by these pet food companies is very difficult to achieve without a concerted effort on the part of the practitioner.
In our lifetimes our own dogs and cats have been fed dry dog food exclusively for years and they looked great. But were they thriving? And knowing what we now know about the impacts of diet on a whole string of chronic conditions in humans, could the itchy skin, joint degeneration, cataracts, fractured bones, cruciate surgeries, behavioural issues, routine dentistry, digestive issues, diabetes, kidney disease and various cancers suffered by our pets at different times have been avoided or the impacts lessened? Of course we can’t repeat their lives with a different diet, but if you weigh up all of the evidence for feeding a real food, biologically/species appropriate diet, combined with personal experience as a human who has improved their own dietary choices, then I don’t think there can be any question as to what is the most appropriate way to feed our pets.
One final caveat - this article in no way discuss the intricacies of what feeding a “raw” diet actually entails. It’s not complicated, but please don’t take your pets off their current kibble formulation and start throwing them handfuls of mince and boiled rice! The worst diet you could possibly feed your pets is an ill-thought out and poorly planned home-made diet. Do some homework. Talk with us at the clinic and then you can set about making changes.
Curious to read or hear more? This is by no means an exhaustive list and is in no particular order but is a good starting place where you can start to dig a little deeper if you like diving down rabbit holes :)
Raw Feeders Kitchen (manufacturers of Proudi) have compiled a list of articles here:
The Natural Vets have put together a couple of really great e-books which you can purchase for a small donation here:
Check out the Nexflix doco: Pet Fooled
Any of the books by Dr Ian Billinghurst (eg “Give Your Dog A Bone”, “The BARF Diet”), one of the early advocates of species appropriate nutrition and coined the term BARF (biologically appropriate real food / bones and raw food).
Dr Tom Lonsdale’s Raw Meaty Bones for books, articles, advocacy and information
Dr Clare Middles books “Real Food for Dogs and Cats” and “Natural Prescription Diets for Dogs and Cats”