Raw food diet: raw deal for dogs?

Perhaps no subject causes more controversy among dog owners than the merits or risks of feeding a raw food diet. On either side of the fence, you’ll find supporters who believe strongly that theirs is the best way to properly nourish our pets.

But is raw food the right food? It depends on whom you ask. The popularity of raw food diets–especially those that are prepared and sold online or in stores–has been rising in recent years. Owners say that raw food keeps their dogs healthier and happier, more energetic and promotes longer life.

If you’re considering this type of diet, it’s not just a matter of buying a pound of ground round and tossing it your pet’s dish. Raw food must provide a balance of vitamins and minerals, so research–and discussions with your vet–are important before starting.

Not all vets, however, are on board regarding raw food. Although the American Veterinary Medical Association does not take an official stance on the subject, a spokesman said the organization generally discourages feeding raw food because of the possibility of nutritional deficiency and disease transmission for pets and humans through the handling of raw meat.

But many proponents are unwavering in their belief that raw food is the only way to keep pets healthy. They claim that dogs, as descendants of wolves, should eat foods that are more natural to them, such as raw meat and bones. They also claim that dogs’ digestive systems are built to break down raw foods.

But Dr. Sally Perea, a member of AVMA and the American College of Veterinarian Nutrition, disagrees. “Animals eating raw food in the wild are very different from our pets today,” she said. “You’re not going to see a Chihuahua chasing an elk. A lot of dogs had shorter life spans because they weren’t eating cooked food.”

Many vets, Perea said, worry that raw food may be missing important vitamins and minerals if meals are not sufficiently balanced. A calcium deficiency is common in some dogs that eat raw food, as are iron, zinc, copper and vitamins A, D and E. “It depends on the ingredients they’re using,” she said. Some owners may feed chicken bones to provide calcium to their dogs, but if bones splinter, they can puncture the gastro-intestinal tract, she added.

Still, supporters believe raw food, if prepared properly, is nutritionally better than commercial food. Lynnet Spiegel, who owns two raw food stores in San Francisco, said sales are up 22 percent over last year, a leap she attributes to the commercial pet food recall in 2007 that sickened and killed a number of dogs and cats.

“Dogs’ and cats’ bodies aren’t meant to break down cooked food,” Spiegel said. “They’re meant to break down raw food.”

She says raw food also provides more nutrients, which are lost when food is cooked or kibble is used. And a raw food diet gives a dog a shinier coat and happier disposition. There’s less poop, too.

But it can be expensive. Spiegel sells prepared raw food, which can be a mix of meat, grains, vegetables and bones ground together in a food processor, in sizes ranging from 8 to 64 ounces. A dog weighing 50 to 60 pounds would require up to 35 ounces per day – and at $16.59 for 64 ounces, the costs can be prohibitive.

One option: Prepare your own meals. Author Ann Martin, author of Foods Pets Die For and Protect Your Pet, has fed her dogs and cats a homemade diet since 1990. Her investigation of the pet food industry and concerns about raw food have led her to believe that her own specially prepared recipes are best.

Martin uses a mix of one-third meat, grains, and veggies, ground together in a processor. Her book includes a number of recipes that, while time consuming, are fairly simple to make.

If you’re considering a raw food diet, Perea advises pet owners to consult first with their vet to make sure the foods they preparing are nutritionally balanced. “You want to make sure they’re getting all their nutrients,” she said. “Humans get a variety of foods throughout the week to balance their diets, but dogs eat monotonous diets.”

Bottom line: If your dog looks healthy and maintains a level of energy and happiness, it might be you’ve found the right food.

by Michael Martinez