By Dr. Becker
There are actually many valid reasons why raw pet foods come under scrutiny by traditional veterinarians and people who have had bad luck trying living foods. But all of these pitfalls are, fortunately, avoidable.
Reason #1: Many Raw Pet Food Diets are Unbalanced
First, many homemade and prey-model diets and a few commercially available raw food diets are unbalanced. This means pets have been brought to veterinarians, including me, with nutritional imbalances that could and should have been avoided. These animals are deficient in antioxidants, or the correct amounts of trace minerals and vitamins, or the right fatty acid balance for appropriate and balanced skeletal growth, and organ and immune health.
Usually, these well-intentioned owners don’t correlate their pet’s medical issues with nutritional deficiencies, but their vets do. And many veterinarians develop very strong opinions against all homemade and raw diets because of these cases. There are many well-meaning people who feed unbalanced diets out of ignorance and, in some cases, stubbornness.
I’ve had several clients tell me they don’t care that the analysis of their pet’s current diet – let’s say, chicken wings and burgers – demonstrates deficiencies in certain critical nutrients. They believe that “This is the diet I’ve fed for X number of years and my dog is doing fine, so there’s no need to change it.”
These types of statements tell me these clients are waiting for disease to occur before they will change what they’re doing. And in these situations, the pets always lose. This type of attitude causes many veterinarians to loathe any attempts at homemade diets and to lump all raw diets into the same category.
Reason #2: GI Issues
Another reason raw diets get a bad rap is because gastrointestinal problems often develop when a dog or cat is switched from processed to raw food. There are two main reasons pets acquire GI issues from dietary transitions: the speed of the change in foods, and dysbiosis.
Changing an animal’s diet too quickly can result in diarrhea. I’ve had several dozen clients that either learn what’s really in their pet’s food, or realize the brand they’ve been feeding is actually quite terrible, and they go home and throw it out. They drive to the local upscale pet boutique and purchase a human-grade raw food, and their pet loves it.
But then the dog or cat becomes very sick after a few days, and off they go to the veterinarian. Most vets erroneously blame all cases of diarrhea on the bacteria in the raw food versus the sudden dietary change, causing the veterinarian and the owner to panic unnecessarily.
Also, dogs and cats process raw foods and kibble very differently. Raw food is processed as a protein, held in the stomach for an acid bath, unlike kibble, which a dog or cat’s body views metabolically as a starch. If raw foods are added to dry foods for a meal, there can be digestive confusion, resulting in gassiness and belching.
When introducing any new food to a pet with a healthy gut, I recommend using the new food as a treat for a day, and keeping an eye on the condition of the stool. Increase the number of new food treats over the next several days and continue to watch the stool.
If the stool remains normal, replace one whole meal of old food with new food. Do this for several more days, and if the stools remain normal, it’s safe to discontinue the old food and feed only the new food.
Now, if a dog or cat has eaten just one type of kibble her whole life, this process may need to be extended for several weeks or months, which is totally fine. However, if the pet has a sensitive stomach, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), intestinal disturbances, or gut inflammation – conditions that plague most of the pet population – the transition steps are very different and sometimes require GI support throughout the process.
I have a friend who claims she’s allergic to all healthy foods. Whenever she eats fresh fruits or vegetables, she has serious GI problems and must run to the bathroom if she consumes any type of fresh food. When she eats ice cream and donuts, she’s good. But when she eats fresh vegetables and fresh fruits, she ends up running to the bathroom.
When I tried to explain to her that living foods are not toxic to her system but that her gastrointestinal health is so poor she can’t tolerate the foods her body was designed to eat, she laughs and says, “Well, whatever.” But actually, her body’s poor reaction to any healthy food is her excuse to not eat well. And I see this very same scenario in veterinary medicine.
Vets say things like, “I guess your pet wasn’t meant to eat human-grade food.” Or I’ve heard them say, “Some animals just can’t tolerate a diet change or healthy food.” And while it’s true these cases take much more time to successfully transition, it is certainly worth the effort. Often there must be an accompanying medical protocol to treat dysbiosis and an inflamed GI tract, but again, the results are worth the effort.
Changing the Diet of a Pet with GI Disease
Working with a veterinarian who understands functional medicine and leaky gut syndrome is critical for successful dietary transitions for most animals with GI disease. It’s important to accomplish the transition without negatively affecting your pet.
Just like my friend who could choose to put the time and energy into making a lifestyle change that over time would heal her body and allow her to consume nourishing foods without side effects, most people simply choose to continue the lifestyle that caused the problem.
This is certainly true with pet owners as well. It appears to be too much work or too much trouble to put forth the effort needed to make a lifestyle change for a pet, which can take up to a year for many of these animals. My view, of course, is that health is on a spectrum, and pets are always moving one way or the other (toward health, or away from health). So a year from now, will your pet be healthier … or just a year older?
Pets with an overactive immune system or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) will probably need professional assistance, perhaps a detoxification protocol and also a leaky gut protocol to transition to a better diet. Lots of patience will also be required.
The road to recovery is not linearly positive. It’s not a beautiful line of daily positive progress until your pet achieves wellness. There will be bumps in the road. Your pet will have ups and downs. But certainly, creating gastrointestinal health is critical if you want your dog or cat to thrive. So, the end result will be well worth your effort.
Pets with gastrointestinal disease will need their food thoroughly ground up (that means no bones, only bonemeal) and gently cooked for many months in the initial transition phase. I often recommend beginning with only two ingredients in a home-prepared diet and slowly adding nutrients one at a time as the animal’s health improves.
Some people argue that transitioning this way -- starting so slow and taking so long to complete the process -- is not what nature intended. And I totally agree. But with gastrointestinally debilitated animals, we must “meet the patients where their bodies are at.” Many animals must be on special protocols initially to assist in healing.
These pets are fragile. And if a seasoned holistic veterinarian isn’t participating in the dietary transition, it can go so poorly for some of these animals that they end up being hospitalized. These unsuccessful attempts at a dietary transition are why traditional vets will say, “Some pets just can’t tolerate raw foods or fresh foods. You just need to leave well enough alone and continue feeding kibble.” But it’s important to recognize that with good effort and professional guidance, these animals, too, can be transitioned to better, healthier diets.
What to Expect When You Transition Your Pet to a Raw Diet
One of the more common myths perpetuated about raw food is that dogs and cats can’t get food poisoning. Pets can and do get food poisoning from eating rancid meat. Undoubtedly, this also occurs in the wild, but it acts as a means of population control when predators die from consuming toxic food.
There’s actually a website out there that advocates feeding spoiled meat to pets. This is absolutely terrible advice. It will only be a matter of time before this advice kills pets. There’s a huge difference between normal opportunistic bacteria loads in fresh healthy meats and spoiled meats filled with endotoxins that will kill any mammal if ingested. So, don’t feed your pets any type of spoiled food.
Commercially available raw food diets do not contain any fillers, extra fiber, and certainly no hair, which would be found on any prey animal wild dogs and cats consume. This lack of hair can also mean a lack of roughage or fiber. This means some animals aren’t supplied the additional nutrients they need. And sometimes, pets can get constipated. Oddly, instead of simply addressing the fiber issue, some veterinarians tell owners to stop feeding living foods altogether.
Raw food diets usually produce small, hard balls of poop that are easily passed and turn white and crumble and blow away in a day or so if you forget to pick them up. This is totally normal. I’ve had some people go back to feeding kibble, because no one explained that their pet’s poop would radically change on a raw food diet, and that multiple huge piles of stinky poop from dry food diets would be a thing of the past. So, feces will change – and for the better. Raw food poop is entirely different from kibble-fed poop.
Oftentimes, after one to three months on a fresh food diet, pets go through a detoxification process. This is totally normal and is actually something to celebrate.
Detox for your pet will happen through the bowels and skin. During a detox, your pet will act completely normal. He’ll be happy, bright, and alert. But you might find that he’s shedding a tremendous amount of hair. Pets shed out their old, dead, dull hair, and begin growing a shiny, soft coat. You might also see a lot of earwax or debris being produced from the ear. That needs to be cleaned out. And some detoxing pets will pass blobs of mucus in their stools.
These symptoms of detoxification will pass on their own. They’re nothing you need to worry about, but are something you should anticipate or it might freak you out. Pets on a fresh food diet also consume far less water than pets eating an entirely processed diet. You need to anticipate that your pet’s water intake will diminish.
Raw Feeding Mistakes to Avoid
I’ve also seen websites suggesting you introduce raw food by throwing a whole chicken to your kibble-fed dog, because she’ll naturally know what to do with it. They’re dogs -- they know exactly what to do. So, just throw them a chicken.
Whole chicken or any bony meat can be a choking hazard. And while some dogs do fine with whole chickens, some don’t. At my house, we buy chicken wings in 40-pound boxes from the butcher. I know my dogs well. I know that when I offer them a wing, they’ll chew it thoroughly. They don’t attempt to swallow wings whole, so I feel comfortable handing them a chicken wing. It’s great for their teeth. It helps remove plaque and tartar. Their breath is great.
One day my husband brought home a box of chicken wings that were in the back of his truck. He got distracted with a phone call and didn’t realize that Ada (one of our dogs) had jumped into the back of the truck and started helping herself. Ada ate about 15 pounds of chicken wings in five minutes. By the time my husband turned around, she looked like a bloated tick. Needless to say, she did not eat dinner that night. But she was fine. We fasted her. This episode would have sent many dog owners to the animal emergency clinic just to make sure everything was okay.
If I had X-rayed Ada, her films would have shown a tremendous amount of bones in her GI tract. And for a traditional veterinarian not used to looking at bone fragments on X-rays, this would have been very concerning. In fact, surgery would probably be recommended. I’ve seen several cases in my practice of animals that were rushed to surgery, and all the surgeon discovered was tiny bone fragments from the pet’s raw food diet in a totally healthy GI tract. So, it’s an important point to make.
I’ve had a few cases of dogs choking on giant pieces of raw food or getting pieces stuck in their throats when they tried to swallow the bony food whole. You have to use your head and common sense when you begin a raw food diet. If you don’t know if your dog is going to gulp versus chew, then you need to grind up the food or feed a commercially available raw diet that is pre-ground.
Safely Feeding Raw Bones to Your Pet
Recreational chew bones like knucklebones can also fracture teeth. Lots of dogs end up with terrible teeth fractures from the misconception that all dogs do well chewing raw bones. And you’ll see that on the Internet. You’ll even see that in comments on my Facebook page. “Oh, just throw your dog a knucklebone and everything will be fine.” Lots of dogs can chew raw bones with no problem. But there are dogs that chew raw bones and do substantial oral damage. My veterinary dentist says he has financed an entire wing of his hospital from removing painful broken teeth after people have followed the misguided advice to “Just throw him a soup bone, and he’ll love it.”
Most dogs do best with recreational bones (bones that are chewed for enjoyment and dental health, not nutritional health) that actually match the size of their head. Small bones like rib bones or very small femur bones tend to cause more tooth fractures for an aggressive chewer, because the dog is able to bite down vertically on the bone, which can snap teeth right off. Other dogs chew bones down to teeny, tiny pieces, then swallow the golf balled size piece that is left, which can get stuck in their GI tracts.
Taking sensible precautions, like always supervising your pet when she has a raw bone, weaning her onto raw bones, removing the bone when the pieces are broken off or it gets too small, and discontinuing raw bones if your pet has weak or fractured teeth, are all good suggestions.
Also keep in mind raw bones contain marrow. Marrow is primarily fat. When I first heard of offering raw bones to dogs, I was in college. I was one of those people that went about it without really thinking. I just threw Gemini (my dog) a raw femur bone in the morning before I went to class. I got home about eight hours later, and she had not moved. She was still by the front door. She was still chewing the bone. Her whole mouth was cut up – it was raw, inflamed, and bleeding. She was completely obsessed with her very first raw bone.
This is an example of what not to do. Gemini was wildly ecstatic about the bone, but it caused trauma to her mouth. So while there are numerous health and psychological benefits from offering raw bones to dogs, you must offer them wisely. I recommend initially offering raw bones for only a few minutes at a time, once a day, until the dog’s GI tract has adapted to the high fat content.
You also want to remove the marrow before giving a bone to a pet with pancreatitis or poor digestion, or you will likely be managing a case of severe diarrhea.
I don’t recommend offering bones communally to a dog pack, because each dog needs his own bone and his own space to chew it in. I recommend picking bones up after each session to avoid resource guarding.
Also keep in mind that a fresh, raw bone quickly becomes a gooey, sloppy mess as your dog chews on it. I recommend you not feed raw bones on your brand new white carpeting, because you will be distraught.
I hope these videos have clarified many of the misconceptions you might have about raw food for pets. And I hope that you’re able to use this information to easily and successfully transition your pet to a more natural diet.
As I always say, there’s no such thing as one best protein, brand of food, or type of food that all pets do well on. The best food you can feed your pet is the freshest, most natural food you can afford to support your pet’s overall health, well-being, and vitality.