Today I'd like to discuss the reason why dogs and cats can, and should, eat raw meat.
This is one of the most frequent conversations I have with startled visitors to my home who say, 'My gosh! You feed your pets raw meat?' … as well as clients at my Natural Pet animal clinic who already feed or would like to feed their pets raw, but are getting an argument from their own veterinarians about raw food diets for dogs and cats.
The whole debate about raw food doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Dogs and cats have consumed living, raw meats for thousands of years.
To this day barn cats catch and kill mice, and no one calls poison control. Farmers also don't call poison control when their dog finds a litter of baby bunnies and pops them in their mouth like little Tootsie Rolls. In these cases, no one thinks to induce vomiting or say, 'Oh my gosh! My pet just ate raw meat!'
The truth is both cats and dogs are designed specifically to consume raw meat. Their bodies are adapted to process raw, living foods.
Fast Food is Bad for Pets, Too
The first bags of commercial pet food entered the market about a hundred years ago. From a historical perspective, processed dog and cat food is a relatively new phenomenon.
However, your pet's GI tract has not evolved in those hundred years to make good use of an entirely kibble-based diet – and it never will.
Fortunately, the bodies of dogs and cats are amazingly resilient and therefore capable of handling foods that aren't biologically appropriate, like most dry pet foods. Unfortunately, this adaptability has led to a situation of 'dietary abuse' among the veterinary community.
Commercial pet foods – especially dry bagged foods – are so convenient the majority of vets recommend them to all their patients. Processed dog and cat food is convenient, inexpensive, and there's no preparation or cleanup required. You stash the bag in the pantry, scoop out a portion at meal time, drop it into your pet's food dish and you're done.
Because commercial pet food has been so successfully marketed (dog and cat food products are a multimillion dollar industry, after all), and because pets' bodies are resilient and can survive, if not thrive on the stuff, we have been lulled into a sense of complacency about the food we feed our precious four-legged companions.
Most veterinary students don't learn about species-appropriate pet diets in vet school. The only food discussed is processed, commercial pet formulas.
The concept of feeding a living food diet is foreign to many vets. If a client mentions he feeds raw, the vet will ask, 'Why don't you just feed your cat regular cat food, for crying out loud? Why do you need to make food? Why do you need to feed living foods?'
It doesn't take much research to uncover the fact that dogs and cats are designed by nature to eat living foods – unprocessed, raw, nourishing foods. Feeding a commercial formula is a bit like deciding your child can be healthy on an exclusive diet of meal replacement bars. No real food, just meal replacement bars.
A meal replacement bar is fine now and then, but no sane parent would ever consider raising a child on just those alone. Yet that's what we're doing when we feed our pets nothing but commercial, processed foods.
Living foods in your pet's diet are necessary for successful overall immune and organ function.
It seems the biggest problem most people have with a raw meat diet revolves around parasites.
Parasites – roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms – are passed up the food chain and wind up in the guts of animals.
We don't feed guts to our pets! If you buy a commercially available raw food diet, you will not find guts in the formula because guts contain parasites.
If you prepare a homemade raw diet for your dog or cat, you don't include guts. Do not feed the stomach and small and large intestines. Those are the parts of the prey we get rid of, because those are the parts that harbor parasites.
Muscle meat – the part of the prey used to prepare raw food diets – is sterile except in rare instances when parasites escape the GI tract (guts) and travel there.
Certain parasites, like toxoplasmosis, that get into muscle meat can make your pet sick, which is why you should freeze raw meats for three days before feeding them to your dog or cat.
By freezing meats three days before serving (a lot like how sushi is handled), and by removing the guts of prey species, you can successfully avoid exposing your raw fed pet to parasites.
Salmonella and Your Pet
The second most frequently asked question I get about raw meat diets is, 'What about salmonella?'
The most important thing to understand about salmonella or any other potentially pathogenic bacteria is that contamination absolutely does occur. It's a fact of life.
Salmonella is the reason for most recalls of dry pet foods (and human foods as well). When a salmonella outbreak occurs, there has been contamination in the food chain.
The word Salmonella is used to describe over 1,800 serovars (species) of gram-negative bacteria. This bacteria lives in many species of mammals. The most common bacteria riding around in your dog or cat is Salmonella typhimurium.
I want to quote from an article titled Campylobacter and Salmonella-Associated Diarrhea in Dogs and Cats: When Do I Treat? It was written by Stanley L. Marks, BVSc, PhD, DACVIM (Internal Medicine, Oncology), DACVN, Davis, CA, for the Veterinary Information Network (VIN):
"The clinical significance of bacteria such as clostridium and salmonella causing diarrhea or illness in dogs and cats is clouded by the existence of many of these organisms as normal constituents of the indigenous intestinal flora. The primary enteropathogenic bacteria most commonly incriminating in canine and feline diarrhea is Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium difficile, Campylobacter, and Salmonella.
Veterinarians are faced with a quandary when attempting to diagnose small animals with suspected bacterial-associated diarrhea because the isolation rates of these pathogenic bacteria are similar in diarrheic and non-diarrheic animals, and because the incidence of bacterial-associated diarrhea is extremely variable. Salmonella species are commonly isolated from both healthy and hospitalized dogs and cats."
What this is saying, in a nutshell, is dogs and cats naturally have some Salmonella in their GI tracts much of the time – it's not some unknown foreign invader but rather one their bodies are familiar with.
If you're familiar with reptiles, the situations are similar. Reptiles are known to naturally harbor Salmonella in their GI tracts.
In an article written by Rhea V. Morgan DVM, DACVIM, DACVO for the VIN, the doctor asserts the following about illness resulting from salmonella:
"Factors that increase the likelihood of clinical disease from Salmonella include the age of the animal, poor nutrition, the presence of cancer or neoplasia, and other concurrent diseases and stress, as well as the administration of antibiotics, chemotherapy or glucocorticoids [which are steroids]."
The bottom line is potentially harmful bacteria reside in your pet's GI tract whether you feed raw foods or the processed stuff. In other words, your pet is already 'contaminated' with Salmonella.
Dogs and cats are built to handle bacterial loads from food that would cause significant illness in you or me. Your pet's body is well equipped to deal with heavy doses of familiar and strange bacteria because nature built him to catch, kill and immediately consume his prey.
Your dog's or cat's stomach is highly acidic, with a pH range of 1-2.5. Nothing much can survive that acidic environment – it exists to keep your pet safe from potentially contaminated raw meat and other consumables.
In addition to the acid, dogs and cats also naturally produce a tremendous amount of bile. Bile is both anti-parasitic and anti-pathogenic. So if something potentially harmful isn't entirely neutralized by stomach acid, the bile is a secondary defense. And your pet's powerful pancreatic enzymes also help break down and digest food.
Keeping Your Pet's GI Tract in Good Shape
To help your pet's digestive system remain strong and resilient enough to handle a heavy bacterial load and to support overall immune function, there are several things you can do.
- Number one, minimize stress by feeding a species-appropriate diet, the kind your dog or cat is meant to eat. It's important to feed vegetarian food to vegetarian animals, and meat-based food to your carnivorous dog or cat.
- Minimize the drugs your pet takes, such as antibiotics. Reseed the gut during and after antibiotic therapy with a probiotic. It's also a good idea to maintain your dog or cat on a daily probiotic to balance the ratio of good to bad bacteria (gut flora).
- A good-quality digestive enzyme will help promote your dog's or cat's body to get the most out of the food you feed.
Providing your favorite pooch or feline with a balanced, biologically sound diet, a healthy lifestyle, digestive enzymes and probiotics, will nourish your pet, support healthy immunologic function, and bring overall vibrancy to her body.
This is in direct contrast to feeding a commercial formula of highly processed rendered byproducts, chemicals and grains – the typical mainstream pet food sold today. The sooner you transition your dog or cat to the kind of diet she was designed to eat, the sooner she will be on her way to vibrant good health.