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What's Behind the Campaign to Condemn Raw Diets for Pets?

Raw Pet Food

Story at-a-glance -

  • Not too long ago, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) took an oddly timed and misguided stand against raw diets for dogs and cats.
  • Shortly afterwards, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) followed suit, using similar fuzzy logic to the reasoning given by the AVMA for their peculiar anti-raw resolution.
  • Both the AVMA and the AAHA seem to be using the inherent and widely recognized risks associated with handling raw meat as their basis for discouraging raw pet diets.
  • Pet owners have been feeding raw diets to dogs and cats for decades, and yet to date, not one documented case of raw pet food causing illness in humans has been reported.
  • If you’re already successfully feeding your pet a raw diet, we hope you will disregard the new anti-raw positions of the AAHA and AVMA and continue to offer your dog or cat real, fresh, living foods.

By Dr. Becker

A few months ago I wrote about the flawed logic behind the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA’s) decision to publicly denounce raw food diets for pets. Many raw feeders and veterinarians with backgrounds in species-appropriate nutrition were angered by the AVMA’s position and questioned the motivation behind it.

Following on the heels of the AVMA’s condemnation of raw pet food came a similar position statement by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) that it “does not advocate or endorse feeding pets any raw or dehydrated nonsterilized foods, including treats that are of animal origin.”

AAHA Borrows AVMA’s Flawed Logic

This is an excerpt from the AAHA’s position statement:

“Homemade raw food diets are unsafe because retail meats for human consumption can be contaminated with pathogens.”

Yes, human grade raw meats can contain pathogens. That’s why most people cook their meat before eating it. It’s also why people wash their hands, kitchen utensils and food prep surfaces after handling raw meat.

What the AAHA neglects to mention is the GI tracts of dogs and cats evolved to handle heavy bacterial loads from food. 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 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. And 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.

The excerpt from the AAHA statement goes on to say:

“Studies that have been done on both commercially available and homemade raw protein diets have found a high percentage (30–50%) of them contaminated with pathogenic organisms, and up to 30% of the dogs fed such diets may shed pathogenic organisms in their stool.”

There are a number of pathogenic organisms in the stool of all dogs and all animals, not just those fed raw diets. So the risks associated with handling or otherwise coming in contact with dog poop are the same no matter what food the dog eats.

Why Doesn’t the AAHA Name the Pathogens It’s So Concerned About?

The excerpt continues:

“Many of the pathogens found in raw protein diets can be transmitted to the human population by contact with the food itself, pet or environmental surfaces.”

It’s frustrating that it appears neither the AVMA nor AAHA have done their research into the types of raw food currently on the market. There is a whole class of raw foods currently available that are sterile at the time of purchase. Just as much of the human meat supply has been treated with a sterilization technique called high pressure pasteurization (HPP), many raw commercially available pet foods have also opted for this sterilization technique to reduce potential pathogens. All of these raw foods meet AAHA and AVMA criteria for “safe” pet food, according to their own “standards.”

At the risk of repeating myself … yes, handling raw meat carries the potential for contact with the usual pathogens found in raw meat, which is why appropriate sanitary measures are important whether you’re handling your pet’s raw food or your own. These risks are no different than the risks of handling burgers prior to grilling them, or making fresh chicken soup for your family. Raw meat can carry bacteria that can affect humans.

If the AAHA is aware of some type of rare, deadly bacteria lurking in raw food for pets, it would be helpful if they named it, don’t you think? Otherwise, the non-specific dire warnings contained in their position statement appear to be an attempt to scare people away from raw meat containing normal amounts of normal bacteria.

As for people picking up pathogens through contact with their pets, I assume the AAHA means contact with pet feces, not the pet itself, and I don’t know a single pet owner who picks up his dog’s or cat’s poop – or any other elimination product -- with his bare hands. I also don’t know a single pet owner who, if she inadvertently touches poop with her bare hands, doesn’t immediately wash thoroughly with soap and water. The vast majority of responsible pet owners also do an excellent job cleaning up pet accidents.

As for the risk of contamination of environmental surfaces … again, any feces deposited anywhere, indoors or out, has the potential to cause illness if handled improperly or ingested. The poop of raw fed pets is no more or less hazardous than the poop of pets fed processed commercial diets.

Raw Pet Diets Have a MUCH Better Safety Record than Processed Pet Food

I didn’t have time to look up the 50 (yes, FIFTY) references the AAHA cited for their position statement. (And for the record, I’m still scratching my head as to why an under 400-word position statement requires 50 references.)

However, as I mentioned in my earlier article, one of the references the AVMA cited for its position – one the AAHA also used in its 50-item list -- actually argued against the dangers of raw food diets.

The study, published in 2006 and titled Human Health Implications of Salmonella-Contaminated Natural Pet Treats and Raw Pet Food1 states (emphasis mine):

“The increasing popularity of raw food diets for companion animals is another potential pet-associated source of Salmonella organisms; however, no confirmed cases of human salmonellosis have been associated with these diets.”

That was 2006, and seven years later, despite the continued growth of raw food diets for dogs and cats, there has been no outbreak of salmonella in humans as a result of raw pet diets. Compare that safety record with the number of processed pet food recalls in recent years, and it’s hard to understand why the AAHA and AVMA felt compelled to take a position against the method of feeding with the better safety record.

That’s why the oddly timed, publicly declared anti-raw feeding positions of both the AVMA and AAHA leave lots of room for speculation as to what prompted their actions, and whether their relationships with major pet food companies are a factor.

If you’re already successfully feeding your pet a raw diet, I hope you will disregard the new anti-raw positions of the AAHA and AVMA and continue to offer your dog or cat real, fresh, living foods.