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The Biggest Myths About Raw Food (And Why They're Mostly Nonsense)

Story at-a-glance -

  • In part 2 of a 3-part video series on raw food diets for pets, Dr. Becker defines optimal nutrition for dogs and cats and lists her nutritional goals for her patients.
  • Your pet’s overall health is heavily influenced by two factors -- genetics and environment. Environmental factors include diet, antioxidant intake, exposure to chemicals, and water and air quality. Your pet’s weight, sex, age, breed, prior illnesses and injuries, hormonal status and fitness level are also part of the equation.
  • Pet food recalls are on the rise, but did you know most of the recalls are because something was found (often salmonella bacteria) that could pose health risks to humans – not necessarily pets? And have you noticed the vast majority of recalls involve processed foods, not raw diets?
  • Fear of the presence of salmonella remains a big hurdle for pet owners considering raw diets, but the risk of handling raw meat for dogs and cats is no greater than the risk of handling raw meat for human consumption. The same safe handling precautions apply. And sterile raw foods are widely available.
  • Dr. Becker also puts to rest pet owner concerns about trichinosis, toxoplasmosis, salmon poisoning, GI parasites and unidentified pathogens in raw pet food.

By Dr. Mercola

Welcome to part two of my three-part video series on the myths and truths surrounding raw food diets for pets. In part one, I discussed the origins of pet dogs and cats, and the fact that, like their ancestors and wild counterparts, Fido and Fluffy are carnivores.

I also discussed the fact that while dogs and cats have been able to survive diets of biologically inappropriate pet foods for many years, processed diets have caused significant metabolic and physiologic stress, resulting in many of the degenerative diseases we see in today’s animals.

Optimal Nutrition for a Pet Carnivore

I typically break the list down into necessary and unnecessary foods.

Dogs and cats need quality protein, fats, and a small amount of vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits provide antioxidants and fiber to animals that no longer hunt whole prey.

Natural sources of trace minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids must be added, since the soils in which foods are grown are depleted of many of the nutrients pets need. Also, food storage, whether it’s in a freezer or a pantry, decreases critical essential fatty acid levels in foods.

Pets need unadulterated, fresh, whole foods that are moisture dense. They don’t need grains, fillers, artificial preservatives, colors, additives, chemicals, byproducts, or processed foods. Although animals can eat some processed foods, they aren’t designed to consume a lifetime of dry or canned diets.

My Nutritional Goals for My Patients

  • A diet that is as species-appropriate as possible (low in carbohydrates, high moisture content, and unprocessed)
  • A variety of fresh, whole foods that are nutritionally complete and optimal for the species
  • Providing everything their body needs and nothing it doesn’t
  • Helping my clients understand the difference between biologically appropriate and metabolically stressful diets. This means we must put aside our religious and/or political beliefs and recognize that most of us have preconceived ideas we must address in order to provide the best possible food for our companions.

The reality is most pets live their entire lives without consuming any living foods. They eat an entirely processed diet from birth to death. There are a wide variety of reasons for this.

Not everyone believes food matters to overall health. Many people don’t correlate disease with diet. And there are also people who realize there’s a connection, but just don’t care. In fact, I regularly hear at my practice, “Well, you know, they got to die of something.”

Another huge issue is that veterinarians don’t receive an objective education in animal nutrition. As a result, they aren’t doing their job of helping clients make wise nutritional choices for their pets. In fact, many people virtually never discuss their dog or cat’s diet with their veterinarian.

Your Pet’s Health is Determined by Genetics and Environment

I believe health and wellness are based on two factors: genetics and environment.

Nutrigenomics is the emerging field of study that links our lifestyle choices to genetic expression, which means the food you feed your pet has the potential to either up- or down-regulate target genes. What this means is that early identification of cell markers can allow doctors to provide nutritional intervention and return the patient to cellular health, avoiding genetically predisposed disease. This is huge.

Environmental factors that influence genetic expression include not only the foods you choose to feed your pet, but also antioxidant intake, exposure to chemicals, and overall toxic load. Chemicals include topical flea and tick preventives, yard and household chemicals, and medications (including vaccines).

Water and air quality also play a role, as does your pet’s weight, sex, age, breed, prior diseases and injuries, hormonal balance and level of physical fitness.

Research shows the best way to reduce metabolic stress and chronic inflammation is through lifestyle choices, in particular the food your pet eats. The classic anti-inflammatory diet most holistic vets recommend is essentially a low-carb, high-protein diet that eliminates refined foods.

But in addition to all of these considerations, pets also have a unique hurdle – the serious quality control issues surrounding “pet food.”

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergiesClick here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergies

Pet Food Recalls are Increasing

As a pet owner, I’m sure you’re aware of the vast number of recalls occurring in the pet food industry. What many pet owners do not realize, however, is that pet foods are recalled for two reasons. Either something has been found that could harm pets, or much more commonly, something has been found that is a potential health risk for humans.

Last year, the FDA launched a national effort to test products for the presence of potentially harmful microbes. The goal was to evaluate the prevalence of salmonella in pet foods and treats. This is because humans and animals handle this organism very differently. The identification of salmonella in pet foods is responsible for the majority of recalls due not to pet health concerns, but human health concerns. Many people have become sick by touching or accidentally consuming salmonella in dry pet foods or treats over the last several years.

Interestingly, there have never been any reported human or animal outbreaks of salmonella from consuming or touching raw pet food.

So salmonella isn’t a problem for most dogs and cats, but contaminants certainly are. In addition to foreign substance-related impurities, pets regularly become ill from dry foods manufactured in this country that are contaminated by aflatoxins.

In 2006, 76 dogs died from eating aflatoxin-tainted dry food. And in 2011, there were many brands of foods recalled for the same problem. Aflatoxins are a type of mycotoxins or fungal toxins that come from grains. So another benefit of feeding a grain-free or raw diet is you eliminate your pet’s risk of mycotoxin poisoning.

Speaking of Salmonella …

It seems many pet owners are still concerned about feeding raw foods because raw meat can contain salmonella bacteria.

It’s important to note that salmonella can be found in up to 36 percent of all healthy dogs and 18 percent of healthy cats regardless of the food they consume. Many pets harbor these bacteria as a part of their normal GI flora and naturally shed salmonella organisms in feces and saliva regardless of what food they eat.

All non-typhoid salmonella species are ubiquitously present in the environment and reside in the GI tracts of many animals, including pets. The fact is the majority of human salmonellosis cases are acquired through ingestion or handling of contaminated dry pet foods and treats – not raw meat. In fact, as I mentioned, there’s no known incidence of human beings being infected with salmonella by raw-fed cats and dogs.

The points I want to make about salmonella are:

  • Dry food and raw food can certainly harbor salmonella, so awareness is important.
  • Regardless of what food you feed your pet, animals can naturally harbor salmonella which can be a risk to humans, especially if they are immunocompromised.
  • The raw meat used in commercially available raw food diets is USDA-inspected and is no different from the steak and chicken purchased for human consumption from a grocery store. It should be handled with the same safety precautions you use when you prepare, say, burgers for your family. It’s all the same meat. Your counters, bowls, cutting surfaces and utensils should be disinfected whether the raw meat is intended for your pet or human family members.
  • The FDA’s Safe Handling Tips for Pet Foods and Treats page recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap right after handling dry pet foods and treats. They also suggest you wash your hands before preparing human food and before eating. They recommend infants stay away from pet food areas and pet feeding stations, and that kids not be allowed to touch or eat pet food. The FDA also recommends washing pet bowls after feeding and sanitizing eating surfaces regularly.

So the takeaway on salmonella is that you should follow the same safe handling precautions regardless of what you feed your pet.

Other Raw Diet Concerns Put to Rest

Trichinosis. Trichinosis is a parasitic disease caused by eating raw or undercooked pig or wild game infected with larval Trichinella. There are eight species of this worm.

The majority of human infections in the U.S. are a result of eating undercooked wild boar, bear, or fox meat. So, I recommend not doing that.

According to the FDA’s website, Trichinella larva may be inactivated by heating, freezing, or irradiation of meat. One interesting point: freezing may not be entirely effective for inactivating Trichinella nativa, which is a species of Trichinella found in the Arctic. Reservoir hosts include the polar bear, Arctic fox, and the walrus.

The important thing to remember about Trichinella is this: if you freeze pork for three weeks prior to feeding it, all will be well. And of course, don’t feed your pet any raw polar bear, Arctic fox, or walrus!

Toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is caused by the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite can infect most mammals. Between 30 and 60 percent of all people worldwide are thought to be infected with toxoplasmosis. Infection occurs through the ingestion of oocysts found in raw meat, especially venison, pork, and lamb. Oocysts are killed by cooking or freezing meat for 24 hours. You can also acquire toxoplasmosis through infected feces.

So to avoid toxoplasmosis, freeze meat for 24 hours prior to feeding. And disinfect all surfaces and utensils after preparing raw food, whether it’s for the humans or pets in your family.

Salmon poisoning. Salmon poisoning is also sometimes mentioned as a concern for raw fed pets. Salmon and other anadromous fish (fish that swim upstream to spawn) can harbor a parasite called Nanophyetus salmincola. The parasites can harbor a rickettsia organism called Neorickettsia helminthoeca, which causes salmon poisoning.

The good news is freezing fish meat can inactivate both organisms, but it does depend on several factors including the freezing temperature, the length of time needed to freeze the fish tissue, the length of time the fish is held frozen, and the fat content of the fish.

So, the takeaway here is to deep-freeze salmon for at least seven days if you’re going to feed it raw, or cook it before feeding it to your pet.

GI parasites. Intestinal parasites are also sometimes mentioned as a concern with raw pet food. The good news is parasites such as roundworm, hookworm, tapeworm, and coccidia are primarily found in the GI tracts of prey species. Since we don’t feed the guts of prey to pets, there’s no risk of contracting GI parasites through eating USDA-inspected, human-grade meat.

Most animals get GI parasites from eating poop, so you want to avoid allowing your own dog or cat to do so. Also at risk are pets that catch and kill whole animals, as they can get parasites from consuming the GI tract of their prey.

Unidentified pathogens. Generally speaking, raw pet food manufacturers have two different ways of dealing with salmonella, E. coli, and other pathogens sometimes found in raw food. Some companies have adopted a technology called high pressure processing, also called high-pressure pasteurization or HPP, which exposes meat products to very high water pressure of up to 87,000 pounds per square inch. HPP achieves microbial inactivation of pathogenic bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. What you end up with is essentially “sterile” raw food.

Raw pet food companies that don’t want a sterile product perform quality control through batch-testing for pathogenic bacteria. This is an effective method that the USDA also uses to inspect our human meat supply. Because most raw pet food manufacturers use USDA-inspected meats in their products, the pet food ends up being inspected twice, which actually surpasses human inspection standards. 

A third method that a few pet food companies have used to address potential microbes in food is through herd health. Research has shown that pastured, happy, drug-free livestock shed significantly less E. coli and salmonella than stressed, feedlot cattle. A few raw pet food companies have gone to great lengths to purchase meat only from farmers of pastured food animals, which means there is significantly less risk of opportunistic bacteria in the meat these animals produce.

Stay tuned next week for the final segment of my 3-part raw food series. I’ll discuss why raw food diets for pets get a bad rap. I’ll also offer tips and tricks for feeding a raw diet safely, and how to successfully transition a pet from processed food to wholesome raw nutrition.