Raw diets for dogs and cats are becoming increasingly popular and there is a lot of confusing information available online and elsewhere. Many owners believe that this type of diet is healthier than commercial foods available for small animals.
Currently there is no evidence that a raw diet provides health benefits for animals compared with commercial foods, despite popular belief that recreating a ‘natural’ diet should promote longevity. Conversely, life expectancy in most wild species is considerably less than their relatives in captivity, and they suffer from a much higher incidence of disease. Clearly this can be attributed not only to improved nutrition, but also other factors such as vaccinations, parasite control, reduced environmental risk and healthcare.
Dogs and cats that are fed raw food can develop serious diseases associated with their diet. People feeding raw meat to their pets are also at risk.
- Access to pieces of meat containing bones, or whole carcasses such as chicken, can cause potentially life threatening complications.
- Bones can damage or become stuck in the mouth, throat, stomach or further along the intestines. This can cause inflammation and even perforation, which is often fatal.
- Exclusively meat based diets lead to severe calcium and phosphorus deficiencies. The body reacts to this by taking minerals out of the skeleton, causing weakened bones and spontaneous fractures.
- Raw liver is extremely high in vitamin A and over-frequent consumption can cause a build up of this vitamin in the system. This results in bony growths in the joints and vertebrae of the neck, causing pain and mobility problems. In pregnant bitches there can be developmental problems in the embryos too.
- The lack of taurine, an amino acid, may cause heart problems such as dilated cardiomyopathy. In a Glasgow study 70% of cats fed a raw diet as kittens showed significant dilation of the heart chambers, with fatal results in some cases. Taurine deficiency during pregnancy can cause structural defects in fetuses too.
- Dogs and cats can be infected with various bacteria and parasites present in raw meat, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. A clear link has been shown in certain studies. In the UK 65% of raw chicken contains Campylobacter.
- Pets exposed to these pathogens through a raw diet pose a risk to humans in the household too. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US stated that “To prevent infection with Salmonella or Listeria avoid feeding your pet raw food”. Listeria in humans can cause symptoms ranging from gastroenteritis or flu-like signs to meningitis, sepsis and death
Some owners freeze raw food to try and reduce the level of bacterial contamination. However, this is often ineffective.
- Freezing does not kill E. coli or Listeria.
- Salmonella is not killed in the freezer and can actually multiply during defrosting. In a 2004 study, dogs fed defrosted raw meat were infected with Salmonella after just one meal, and were found to be spreading the bacteria into the environment.
- Freezing reduces the population of Campylobacter but does not eliminate it.
- Freezing does not affect the spores and toxins of Clostridia which can lead to gastrointestinal disturbances or botulism (paralysis).
- Preservation methods such as chilling or freezing do not eliminate the risks of disease for animals or humans. Reliable methods of killing bacteria are cooking and pasteurization.
In summary, raw diets can endanger the health of both the animals being fed it and the humans in contact with them. Raw food can cause nutritional deficiencies and diseases in animals, and there is also a risk of foreign bodies becoming lodged in the intestines where bones are involved.
The role of a veterinary surgeon in society is to “safeguard the health and welfare of animals and human health”. In our opinion there is no basis to approve the use of raw diets in animals due to the health risk they pose.
Do feel free to ask us any further questions you may have.