Are raw meat-based diets right for your cats and dogs?

feeding your pet - concept of choosing between raw and kibbleIn recent years raw meat-based diets (RMBD) for pets have increased in popularity due to nutritional and health benefit claims from some pet owners.  While The American Animal Hospital Association and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association have recently adopted statements discouraging this type of diet, there previously has been very little published data that would allow pet owners to make an informed decision.

However, an evaluation of current knowledge regarding feeding of raw meat based diets for dogs and cats was recently undertaken by Lisa Freeman DVM, et.al. in the Journal of Veterinarian Medical Association. The authors of the study reviewed current literature and studies involving feeding RMBD to dogs and cats, and found that while some pets can consume raw diets without developing any health problems, these diets still have several potential risks to both the health of pets and their owners.

What are raw meat-based diets?

The authors defined a raw meat-based diet as that which includes uncooked ingredients derived from domesticated or wild-caught animal species and that are fed to dogs or cats living in home environments. These ingredients can include skeletal muscles, internal organs, and bones from mammals, fish, or poultry, as well as unpasteurized milk and uncooked eggs. RMBD can also be divided into two main categories: commercial and home-prepared.

Commercial RMBD are fresh, frozen, and freeze-dried diets intended to be nutritionally complete and balanced. These diets are often formulated to meet values listed in the AAFCO Dog or Cat Food Nutrient Profiles. Commercial RMBD are made in large quantities in pet food manufacturing facilities or industrial kitchens, and then packaged into smaller volumes for purchase and feeding by pet owners.

On the other hand, home-prepared RMBD include a variety of highly publicized feeding regimens and are typically based on opinion which has not been subjected to rigorous peer review. A variety of recipes and programs for home-prepared RMBD have been developed, some by  general practice veterinarians, trainers, breeders, and others by pet owners themselves.

Motivation for feeding RMBD

Proponents of feeding commercial or home-prepared RMBD often claim nutritional superiority of these diets and important health benefits. However, many claims of benefits are not based on scientific evidence. Anecdotal benefits for RMBD include a shinier coat for the animal, more energy, a stronger immune system, and cleaner teeth from chewing on bones. Some owners also believe they are providing their pets with a more natural diet and say this type of feeding reinforces the human-animal bond.

The study also states that there appears to be a growing number of consumers who are suspicious of large pet food manufacturers due to recalls of commercial pet foods for bacterial contamination, mycotoxicosis, thiamine deficiency, and vitamin D toxicosis. These concerns can be justified as previous pet food recalls have sicken thousands of animals in the past decade and resulted in the death of some pets. Unlike food for human consumption, recalls for pet food currently are initiated voluntarily by a pet food manufacturer, although the FDA can request a manufacturer to initiate a recall.

Health Risks to RMBD

Health risks to pets fed RMBD include nutritional concerns, safety concerns, and other health risks. First and foremost, a study from 2001 revealed that all of the home-prepared and commercial RMBD tested, each had multiple nutritional imbalances. These ranged from higher amounts of protein and fat, to low total carbohydrate and dietary fiber amounts.

Risk of pathogen contamination is another area of concern when it comes to RMBD. A variety of potential pathogens are present in raw meat, including Salmonella spp. which was recorded in 21% of 166 commercial RMBD samples in one test. However, contamination of pathogens is not only limited to RMBD as commercial dry extruded foods can also become contaminated with Salmonella spp. and other pathogens as well.

Contamination of RMBD with E. coli was evaluated in two studies mentioned in this article. Non type-specific E.coli was found in 143 of 240 (60%) commercial RMBD, but in only 8 of 24 (33%) commercial dry extruded diets and 2 of 24 (8%) commercial cooked moist diets. A 2001 study revealed that one in five RMBD tested (both commercial and home and prepared diets) was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Other studies have also indentified Campylobacter and Listeria present in RMBD, although in smaller percentages.

In addition to the health risks these pathogens pose for pets, environmental contamination caused by shedding of these organisms by pets is a risk factor for human infection. Direct contact with infected or carrier animals, or their feces, is a risk factor for illness such as salmonellosis in humans.

In addition to the previously mentioned health problems, RMBD that contain bones can potentially result in fractured teeth and gastrointestinal injury. Bones can cause obstruction or perforation of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, or colon. Bone foreign bodies were present in 30% to 80% of dogs and cats with esophageal foreign bodies, the article states.

In conclusion, the authors stress that pet owners who elect to feed a commercial or home-prepared RMBD should be counseled on the risks to them, their pet, and other animals and humans around their pet. While store-bought commercial pet food is not without its risks either, research has shown that there are a great number of risks associated with RMBD, which in most cases outweigh the potential benefits.

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