By Clint Pumphrey, Animal Planet
Scientists believe that all domestic dogs descend from a single pack of gray wolves that roamed China about 15,000 years ago, and all domestic cats descend from five felines that lived in the Middle East more than 100,000 years ago [source: McGourty, BBC News]. But with so much evolution between today’s pets and their ancient ancestors, should Spot and Whiskers be eating the same raw food diet as their forefathers? This question became an especially hot topic of debate after a 2007 recall of more than 100 brands of processed pet food in the United States. The concern was over food containing wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, a substance used to make plastics and fertilizer. About 2,000 dogs and 2,000 cats died from ingesting tainted food [source: Mann].
Because of the melamine scare, many owners have begun feeding their pets less-processed foods, including raw food diets. While this approach has many forms, the most popular is the Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods diet, or “BARF” diet. It recommends a menu of bones, fleshy meat, organ meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs, flax seed, garlic, kelp, alfalfa, and cod liver oil, vitamin E, zinc oxide, and manganese oxide supplements. Some owners swear by this diet, suggesting it’s closer to what their pets’ ancestors might have eaten in the wild. They claim animals on this diet are thinner, fitter and happier, with fewer allergies, fleas and everyday aches and pains than animals that eat processed food. While researchers haven’t produced any studies that test these assertions, the anecdotal evidence is compelling. But are there risks? And how do you prepare the meals?
Raw Pet Food Risks and How to Prepare the Cuisine
Before you go out and get your pet a T-bone to munch on, consider the risks and drawbacks of the raw food diet. Foremost among these is the threat posed by salmonella and E. coli. Present in a frighteningly large percentage of raw meat, these bacteria can cause illness and death in animals. Owners can also become infected either through direct contact with meat or through indirect contact with pet feces. Raw bones can also be hazardous. They can chip or fracture an animal’s teeth, or worse, shards of bone can break off and get lodged in, or puncture, its gastrointestinal tract. Experts also question the nutritional value of raw food diets, specifically the balance of potassium, calcium, phosphorus and zinc they provide. Finally, raw food diets are expensive. Owners can expect to pay upwards of $70 a month for raw meat, fruit and veggies, while processed food can cost as little as $10 a month.
If, after considering the benefits and risks, you choose to put your animal on a raw food diet, the switch can typically be made right away. However, if your pet is older or has digestive or immune problems, you’ll want to introduce the raw food slowly. The key to the raw diet is variety, so there are endless ways to prepare it. A typical meal might include some type of meaty bone (chicken backs, chicken wings, turkey necks), ground meat (beef, turkey, lamb), organ meat (beef kidneys, chicken liver), whole eggs, pulverized fruits and vegetables, and supplements. For owners short on time, some companies sell prepackaged frozen patties with all of these ingredients already mixed together. Animals react in various ways to the new diet; some will eat everything you put in front of them, while others may never develop a taste for raw food. You’ll have to experiment to see what they like.
Remember to consult your veterinarian before making any major changes to your pet’s diet.
Another Alternative: A Middle Ground between Processed Kibble and Raw Food
If you want to feed your pet something a little better than heavily-processed kibble, but you’re wary of the raw food diet, you might look into high-quality bagged and canned pet food. These products can typically be identified by their labeling, which often promotes “human-grade” ingredients.
The more specific the ingredient list, the better. For example, “beef” is better than “beef byproducts.” You should be the most suspicious of vague ingredients like “meat byproducts meal,” which may contain euthanized dogs and cats, or even road kill!