Raw Food Diets: High Risk and Little Reward

September 27, 2016
Jenina Pellegren

Organic and clean eating trends may be good for human consumers but, raw food diets put both companion animals and their owners at risk for food-borne illnesses and nutritional deficiencies.

For many people, companion animals are members of the family. Keeping them healthy and active is important, and nutrition plays a large role in maintaining complete and balanced health for pets.

In 1993, Dr. Ian Billinghurst, BVSc, an Australian veterinarian, proposed what he called, a Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet that consists of raw, meaty bones and vegetable scraps. There are many reasons pet owners choose raw and home-prepared diets for their companion animals, one reason being that pet owners are moving towards more organic diet alternatives for themselves.

Additionally, the move to BARF-based diets increased after many pet owners began fearing that commercial products were unsafe. This was in response to several major recalls in 2007. Many animals became ill and 16 animals died as a result. In these cases, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratories found melamine in samples taken from more than 150 brands, including Menu foods, Purina, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and Del Monte. Melamine was also discovered in the wheat gluten used as an ingredient in the pet food. According to the FDA, “The recalled products represent less than 1% of all pet foods.”

However, recent studies show that there are risks pet owners should consider when feeding pets raw food diets. Between October 2010 and July 2012, the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) screened over 1,000 samples of pet food. The Pet Food Study tested for bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. Although raw pet food was not included in the first year, in the second year it was expanded to include 196 samples of commercially available raw pet food. The study found that compared to other types of pet food, raw food is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.

Authors of another study pertaining to raw food diets, said, “Although there is a lack of large cohort studies to evaluate risk or benefit of raw meat diets fed to pets, there is enough evidence to compel veterinarians to discuss human health implications of these diets with owners.”

The American Veterinary Association (AVMA) agrees and discourages owners from feeding their pets, “any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process to eliminate pathogens because of the risk of illness to cats and dogs as well as humans.”

There are several studies that document the presence of infectious agents in raw foods and the potential for shedding these agents in the pet’s environment. Salmonella shedding by dogs or cats can result in illness in humans. In 2009, an outbreak of disease due to multi-drug resistant Salmonella typhimurium in four animal facilities was reported and illness occurred in animals, employees, and clients. Eighteen humans and 36 animals were fecal culture positive for Salmonella.

While there are ways to reduce the risk of infections from food-borne illness, in a conversation with American Veterinarian, Emily Yunker, DVM and Associate Veterinarian with the Branchville Animal Hospital in Alabama, said that with a raw food diet, especially where owners are preparing it at home, “It is hard to determine if the animal is getting a balanced diet. It is also hard to see any deficiencies in the short term.” This means more wellness visits and bloodwork are needed to determine if a pet is enjoying a fully balanced diet and if adjustments should be made, like adding vitamin supplements; this can become costly for pet owners.

Dr. Yunker, DVM does not recommend raw food diets, but she does recommend that pet owners, “learn about the companies making food for your pets. Have they had many recalls? If so, what did they do about it? Can they provide you with information about where they source their ingredients?”

There may be some benefits to feeding your companion animal a raw food diet as part of an integrative or enhanced part of a more conventional diet. However, pet owners are advised to speak to their veterinarians to learn more before they decide to transition their pet to a raw food diet.