Clients frequently sniff out the benefits of feeding their pets minimally processed food, so it’s up to veterinary professionals—particularly technicians—to help owners select raw dishes that are formulated correctly and prepped safely.
For an expanding batch of owners planning raw diets for their pets, the thought is that rations consisting of uncooked whole ingredients like muscle, organs, bones, eggs, dairy, grains, legumes, veggies, and fruits are healthier alternatives to commercial kibble and canned food.
The health benefits of minimally processed foods are widely published. “Raw diets are not the big, bad, scary thing they used to be,” said Stephanie Striar, CVT, education and training manager at Instinct Pet Food, at the Fetch Coastal Conference in Atlantic City, NJ.1
There are raw food companies out there excelling at their craft, yet the trickle-down effects of their research—and food talk in general—are absent from conversations most veterinary professionals have with pet owners. “Our clients are looking for these nutrition recommendations from us, but they’re not really getting them as often as they should,” Striar said.
Practitioners need to refine their nutrition skill sets, she explained, and boning up on raw food choices is pivotal in meeting their clients’ evolving preferences in pet feeding.
While nutrition conversations should be broached in every appointment, owners exploring the raw food world are often reticent to fess up to their unconventional forays. “Their previous vet may have been bristly when they brought up raw diets,” said Striar. “For a long time, the mention of raw food brought horrifying shame.”
She advocates a few strategies to help steer honest discourse about alternative diet choices. First, she said, ask clients open-ended questions like “What foods are you offering your dog?” and “What do you like about raw foods?”
Also, listen reflectively, and incorporate non-verbal communication when possible. While the owner is sharing his or her thoughts about different foods, be careful not to discount these ideas. Rather, operate from a place of mutual respect by acknowledging their beliefs and showing empathy.
Many pet owners opt to construct raw rations in their own kitchens. Sticker price is a major factor. But Striar pointed out that homemade options done right—working with a nutritionist and sourcing quality ingredients—is not necessarily cheaper. “It takes a lot of effort to balance a diet at home,” she said.
She often redirects clients from home-prepared to commercial raw foods. For one thing, corporate producers have safety protocols for pathogen mitigation that households lack. Buying rather than making saves time, and commercial distribution networks offer availability.
The main ingredient missing from mass-produced raw foods, she said, is unwanted variability. “Every bite, every bowl, every bag is going to be consistent.”
Raw diets should be complete and balanced, free of pathogens, and adherent to nutrition standards set forth by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA). This is where brand comes into play.
While it’s easy to affix a quality value to different commercial varieties—think store brand versus private label, grocery aisle versus pet food store, bargain versus bougie—comparing raw food makers is a murkier feat. But veterinary professionals should be prepared to help clients in this quest.
From product labels, customers can glean key data, including the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutritional adequacy statement, ingredient listing, calorie content, and manufacturer information. For instance, is the food formulated for all life stages? Or specifically for growth?(Striar prefers the tailored life stage approach.) Does the ingredient listing say “chicken,” for instance? Or, optimally, does it specify the included chicken parts by name?
The analysis doesn’t stop at the label, Striar cautioned. “The most important pieces of information are not going to be on that bag.” What’s absent from the label are the intangibles, like formula testing for palatability and digestibility, ingredient qualifications, and sanitation processes.
Raw pet food companies, she said, should espouse an “elevated culture of food safety and quality.” Because they don’t use pathogen chasers like cooking and preservatives, these producers should meet a high bar for microbiological testing on incoming raw materials and calculations for sanitation effectiveness.
Striar recommends online tools from organizations like the American Animal Hospital Association, Pet Nutrition Alliance, and WSAVA. WSAVA’s pet food selection guidelines list questions to ask of any pet food company, conventional or raw. The prompts concern things like whether they employ board-certified nutritionists to formulate foods, product research or nutrition studies they conduct, and quality control processes.
Commercial raw diets take different shapes, from chunks to patties. They come frozen, freeze-dried, and fresh/refrigerated. Manufacturer recommendations for proper storage and product handling should be strictly followed.
Frozen foods are to remain in the freezer until portioned out for thawing, after which they should be consumed within the recommended 24-48 hours. These foods are served cool but adding warm water may render them more desirable. Freeze-dried raw varieties can function as meal enhancers for regular kibble. Owners should be alerted that frozen and fresh raw diets are high in moisture, so may alter a pet’s drinking habits.
Food bowls and storage containers must be washed frequently to meet the increased hygiene demands associated with uncooked foods. Transitions to any new diet, particularly the move from processed kibble or wet food to raw nutrients, are best done in graduated steps over a 7-day period.
Striar concluded by reminding the audience to incorporate nutrition assessments into hospital visits using an “every patient, every time” model. A comprehensive diet history should accompany an initial physical exam and be evaluated in light of the animal’s weight trends, current weight and body condition (BCS), and muscle condition (MSC) scores. A feeding plan can then be assembled based on an individual’s caloric needs, nutritional recommendations, and feeding methods.
Because of their role in taking patient histories and communicating at-home instructions, dietary education and feeding protocols are often best left in the hands of the veterinary technician, she said. “Technicians can own wellness nutrition in practice.”
Striar S. Navigating raw nutrition conversations. Presented at: Fetch dvm360® Conference; Atlantic City, New Jersey. October 9-11.2023.