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Raw food pet diets present risks

In 1993 a book was released that was to change the feeding practices of numerous pet owners. The author, Dr. Ian Billinghurst, an Australian veterinarian, developed feeding suggestions he called Biologically Appropriate Raw Food or Bones and Raw Food (BARF). His premise was that adult dogs could thrive on the type of diet that was eaten by pre-domesticated canines: raw meaty bones and vegetable scraps. He felt that grain-based commercial foods were harmful.

Since the publication of Billinghurst's "Give Your Dog a Bone," other types of raw food diets including frozen or freeze-dried commercially processed diets have become available. Some of these diets blend grains, vegetables and vitamins mixed with raw meat that can be purchased. Numerous raw food recipes are found in books and on the internet for those owners who prefer to prepare meals for their dogs and cats. A recent study reported that 86% of the recipes found on the internet were nutritionally unbalanced. The typical raw food diet for dogs may consist of muscle meat that is still on the bone, ground or whole bones, organ meats (livers, kidneys), raw eggs, vegetables (spinach, celery, broccoli), fruit (like apples) and yogurt.

Supporters of raw food diets claim that their pets have shinier coats, cleaner teeth, healthier skin, higher energy levels and smaller stools. But note that these benefits are merely testimonials, not peer-reviewed science-based studies according to the Veterinary Information Network (oldest and largest online medical information service devoted to veterinary medicine) from its August 2012 Proceedings Library.

Feeding raw food diets presents many risks to pets. Bone pieces and whole bones may cause tooth fractures and deadly gastro-intestinal obstructions and perforations of the G-I tract. The American Veterinary Medical Association expressed concerns regarding nutritional inadequacy and imbalance with raw diets which can be harmful particularly for feeding puppies and kittens (calcium/phosphorus imbalances can lead to bone deformities and growth problems). Dr. John Kable (Airpark Animal Hospital) feels it is a serious mistake to feed growing puppies an exclusively raw diet (including commercial products) without having it balanced by a Veterinary Nutritionist.

A serious risk from feeding raw food diets is contamination from bacteria that can sicken both pets and humans.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make the following statement on their website: "Raw diets, especially raw meat diets, are not recommended because of the risk for salmonellosis and other infections that can affect pets and their owners." In addition, the CDC provided the following statement to the American Veterinary Association when it was developing a policy regarding raw diets: "Raw diets consist of foods such as meat, poultry, milk, and eggs that have not been cooked or treated to remove harmful germs. These food items can carry harmful bacteria including Salmonella and Campylobacter." Studies have confirmed that pets fed raw diets contaminated with Salmonella can become Salmonella carriers yet don't become ill. They will shed the bacteria in their feces, which can infect humans and contaminate the environment. In addition to Salmonella and Campylobacter, E. coli and Toxoplasma gondi (the parasite that causes birth defects in humans when pregnant women are exposed to cat feces from cleaning litter boxes) also may contaminate raw meat.

Other veterinary and public health organizations that discourage the use of raw food diets include the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine, the American Animal Hospital Association, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians and American Association of Feline Practitioners.

According to the AVMA's Raw Pet food Policy, "raw pet foods are produced with little to no regulatory oversight by the state or federal governments. The FDA published "Guidance for Industry on the Manufacture and Labeling of Raw Meat Foods for Companion and Captive Non-companion Carnivores and Omnivores," however the guide is only voluntary and not legally enforceable by the FDA.

If pet owners choose to feed their pets raw food diets, precautions must be taken to protect themselves and family members. This means practicing good food hygiene and sanitation and knowing that a pet's feces could be a source for infection. Dr. Kable advises that raw food diets should not be used if your family consists of young children, seniors or immune comprised individuals. Some precautions to be implemented include:

Cooking raw food before feeding it to pets.

Not purchasing products with damaged containers.

Keeping products frozen until ready to use and promptly refrigerating or discarding leftovers.

Avoiding cross-contamination of raw meat for pets with food intended for humans by keeping them in separate areas and using different equipment and utensils during food preparation.

Not letting cooked foods come into contact with raw meat unless they are cooked at temperatures that will kill bacteria.

Washing fruits and vegetables prior to feeding.

Thoroughly washing hands after handling raw food.

Regularly sanitizing counter surfaces, utensils, cutting boards and pet bowls.

Vigilantly controlling insects or other pests that could be attracted to raw meat and may spread contamination.

If you are considering switching your pet to a raw food diet, consultations with a veterinary nutritionist (trained at institutions like Tufts or Virginia-Maryland veterinary schools) and your veterinarian with are strongly advised.

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