Raw Food Diets for Cats and Dogs

Filed Under: Dogs, Cats, Diet & Nutrition

Most pet owners feed their pets traditionally-prepared commercial food. Due in part to the recent pet food recall, more people are turning to home-prepared diets for their pets. Some individuals are now advocating raw meat diets that may be prepared at home or are commercially available.

Dr. Lisa Freeman, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist from Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, claims that there are no scientific studies that conclusively show any benefits from a raw meat diet versus a cooked diet. When raw food benefits are obtained they may be explained by the quality of the ingredients rather than by the method in which they are fed. A single protein source may be of benefit with a food-allergic animal, and a higher protein and fat content may improve the condition of the coat. The choice of the protein source and the concentration of protein and fat are the influential factors making the new raw diet appear superior to the older, traditional, cooked one.

Some owners feel a raw diet is superior because it will not destroy enzymes that are essential for digesting food. The enzymes in question are digested by the animal’s own body and normally become nonfunctional, making this an irrational argument. Raw food diets are most commonly referred to by the acronym “BARF.” "BARF" stands for “bones and raw food” or “biologically appropriate raw food” diet.

Proponents of raw food diets also contend that cats, which are obligate carnivores, and dogs, which are non-obligate carnivores, are biologically attuned to chew their food by ripping and digesting it in an uncooked and unprocessed state. These same proponents further argue that mastication of raw food is better for dental health, as it acts much like dental floss, and in turn also leads to improved behavioral satisfaction.

Major concerns with a raw food diet include whether they are nutritionally balanced or not. The biggest problems usually involve a calcium and phosphorus imbalance. Cat diets are actually more complicated, requiring taurine, niacin, choline, and certain essential fatty acids (arachidonic acid) that the animal cannot manufacture. These imbalances occur even when vitamin supplements are given.

Raw diets often contain bone for calcium which may lead to tooth fractures and gastrointestinal obstruction or perforation. Even ground bone may act as glue, cementing the bone together to form larger compacted bone enteroliths (any concretion found within the intestines).

One of the greatest concerns about a raw food diet involves the public health implications that come with preparing and feeding the diet. Raw meat diets may contain pathogenic bacteria or parasites that may in turn be transmitted to humans (zoonotic infection). Freezing does not kill bacterial or viral disease-causing agents. Most raw diets are contaminated with parasites such as toxoplasmosis or bacteria such as E. coli, Clostridia, or Salmonella. One Canadian study found that a dog fed a single raw food meal containing Salmonella could shed the bacteria for 7 days and yet not show any clinical signs of infection. Dogs and cats can be clinically affected by these bacteria as well, with infection leading to a generalized sepsis.

Proponents claim that the cat’s digestive system will kill most pathogenic bacteria and parasites, which is simply delusional. Not only is the cat at risk, but other animals and people in their environment are as well. Three large human outbreaks of toxoplasmosis have been epidemiologically linked to oocyst-contaminated surface water. There is also strong evidence linking Toxoplasma gondii infections in southern California’s sea otter population by land-sea water runoff. Sea otters in the Morro Bay area of CA were 5 times as likely to be seropositive for T. gondii as were otters from the more remote and rocky Big Sur area. In Morro Bay, 38% of the households owned cats. This toxoplasmosis epidemic developed in the California sea otter population simply from the run-off from soil in housing developments becoming contaminated by outside cats defecating in their environment. This epidemic has resulted in severe losses within the general sea otter population, especially around highly populated areas.

Salmonella requires a very small number of organisms to cause infection in humans. Humans may become infected through the preparation of the food, contaminated surfaces that come into contact with the raw meat during the feeding of the pet, or contaminated litter boxes. Pets having just consumed a raw diet that want to snuggle or kiss could also be capable of transmitting pathogenic agents directly from nose to facial contact with others.

Further arguments against raw diets include the prevention of gastrointestinal obstruction and dental fractures, especially from the inclusion of bone.

In order to prevent disease, home-prepared meals should be cooked and the diet should be balanced. For those wishing to develop home-cooked meals for their pets the American College of Veterinary Nutrition has a website: www.ACVN.org.


American College of Veterinary Nutrition website (www.ACVN.org).

Dabritz, Haydee, Melissa Miller, Robert Atwill et al. “Detection of Toxoplasma gondii-like Oocysts in Cat Feces and Estimates of the Environmental Oocyst Burden.” JAVMA, Vol 231, No. 11 December 1, 2007.

Ettinger, Stephen and Edward Feldman. Veterinary Internal Medicine. 5th Edition Vol. 1. W.B. Saunders Co. 2000. Pp. 239-240.

“My Big Fat Raw Food Peeve, if it’s so great or so awful, show me the Research.” Veterinary Practice News. January 2008. Pp. 30-31.

Sanders, Justin. “Raw Deal.” Cat Fancy. March 2008. Pp. 34-36.

Yin, Sophia DVM, MS. “Raw Food Diets”. Veterinary Forum. November 2007. Pp. 53-68.

Topics: BARF, bones, diet, raw food

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