Fast Growing and Far from Just a Fad - So Why Do These People Discredit It?

Raw Pet Food

Story at-a-glance -

  • A veterinarian at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital wrote an article recently taking a stand for the university against raw food for pets. This is discouraging, but not unexpected, since nutrition instruction in U.S. veterinary schools is often “delegated” to major pet food companies. As a result, most of the nutritional information veterinary students receive involves processed pet food.
  • With growing interest among consumers for healthier food choices for pets, in response, processed pet food manufacturers seem to be taking one of three tactics: 1) develop a raw food product themselves, 2) buy one from another company, or 3) campaign to discredit the feeding of raw food. Unfortunately, a number of professionals in the traditional veterinary community are also working on behalf of the processed pet food industry to scare pet owners away from raw feeding.
  • In her article, the Colorado State veterinarian uses a number of standard anti-raw tactics to scare off pet owners. These include referring to raw feeding as a new and passing fad; discrediting anecdotal evidence provided by vets and pet owners who have seen first hand the value of raw food; and advising pet owners to search for scientific research (which doesn’t yet exist) on the benefits of raw feeding.
  • Additional typical anti-raw arguments also found in the CSU article include exaggerating the risks of feeding raw, and suggesting to pet owners that dogs have evolved over time and should now be fed grain-based diets.
  • There are innate risks to feeding all types of commercially prepared pet foods. In 2013 the overwhelming majority of recalls were from bacterial contaminants in dry pet foods, something anti-raw proponents never discuss. Dr. Becker recommends that if you’re already feeding raw or are thinking about making the switch, it’s important to keep in mind that the campaign against raw pet food is primarily driven by those with a financial interest in the processed pet food industry. It’s important to do your own research, and consult with a holistic or integrative vet or veterinary nutritionist who is knowledgeable about raw diets for pets.

By Dr. Becker

According to an article I ran across recently, veterinarians at the highly regarded Colorado State University James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital do not recommend feeding raw diets to pets. This is disappointing, but not surprising.

Many veterinary schools tend to gloss over the entire subject of nutrition, leaving it up to a handful of major pet food industry players to conduct seminars for students that are heavily slanted toward the products they sell.

The information (and misinformation) contained in the CSU article is typical and predictable, touching on five common arguments used by the anti-raw movement to discredit raw feeding and scare off pet owners.

Anti-Raw Tactic #1: Marginalize Raw Feeding as a Trend or a Fad

According to a CSU Pet Health column written by veterinarian Dr. Camille Torres-Henderson in June:

“We often hear about new trends in diet and exercise for people, so it may not be surprising to encounter dietary trends for pets. One gaining interest is the raw food diet.”

I first have to ask, how is it that raw food for pets is a “new dietary trend?” Feeding raw isn’t some new-wave movement; in fact, I call it a return to common sense. It’s about feeding animals food that contains natural ingredients with names you can pronounce, that aren’t rendered, and are minimally processed. Feeding pets a raw diet isn’t some quirky new trend, it’s what animals did before “pet food” came into existence. It’s feeding them in accordance with what medical doctors are now encouraging people to eat: real food.

Secondly, raw pet food diets aren’t just “gaining interest.” The natural/fresh/raw pet food market saw the biggest growth rate in the industry last year, posing a notable threat to the dry pet food industry.

Anti-Raw Tactic #2: Discredit Testimonials of Pet Owners, Holistic Vets

Torres-Henderson describes a typical raw pet food diet and says that advocates of raw feeding point to “shinier coats, healthier skin, cleaner teeth, improved immunity and easier weight management” as proof of the value of the food. She says such “impassioned testimonials” often include anecdotal information that “might seem persuasive.” But, she says, there is no scientific evidence to support such claims.

It’s true that in today’s world, we are told not to believe our own eyes (especially when corporate profits are at stake), but to demand scientific evidence to prove one thing is better than another thing. I was asked to “prove” wolves were carnivores by a group of veterinarians three years ago… absurd, but true. The good news is that the holistic veterinary community is actively raising the tremendous amount of money it takes to fund unbiased nutrition research. This will ultimately allow us to hand skeptics and naysayers the scientific proof they demand so that they, too, can recommend nutrition for pets that pre-dates the low-quality, biologically inappropriate diets the pet food industry has produced since the 1920s.

The vast majority (90 percent) of pet foods on the market today are produced by just five giant pet food companies: Mars, Nestle Purina, Colgate-Palmolive (Hill’s), Proctor & Gamble, and Del Monte (now Big Heart Brands). Those of us who have doubts about the quality of most commercially available pet foods have done our own research on the nutritional needs of the animals in our care.

And then there are those people with pets with health issues that require nutritional intervention, who have learned that by switching from processed to real food, they are able to dramatically improve their pet’s health. I have transitioned literally thousands of patients from poor-quality dry food diets to nutritionally balanced raw foods, and their owners can see with their own eyes the positive changes in their pet’s health. This is all the proof they require.

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Anti-Raw Tactic #3: Demand Non-Existent Scientific Research on the Benefits of Raw Diets for Pets

Next Torres-Henderson advises pet owners thinking about feeding raw to “look for references to research that has been both published and peer-reviewed,” as “this approach is built on scientific rigor and helps ensure valid data.”

This is rather disingenuous, as I’m sure this CSU veterinarian is well aware that almost no research exists on raw diets for pets. The reason is simply lack of funding, as scientific studies are enormously expensive. It’s also not surprising that virtually all the research “proving” the dead, inorganic, over-processed foods studied are the only safe options, is funded by the five richest pet food companies that monopolize the industry and can afford to complete research that validates the “benefits” of what they are selling.

The scientific research the major pet food companies and traditional veterinary community rely on is funded by the companies themselves or similarly motivated “independent” sponsors. Since pet food manufacturers are only interested in selling more processed pet food and are certainly not interested in studying the benefits of natural foods for pets, very little research has been conducted.

Anti-Raw Tactic #4: Overplay the Risks of Feeding Raw

Predictably, Dr. Torres-Henderson then moves on to a litany of the “risks” associated with raw feeding. The first item on her list is contamination with harmful bacteria like salmonella, listeria, and E. coli. “These pathogens can cause dangerous illnesses in pets – and the people who handle raw pet food,” she says.

What she doesn’t say is that over 50 percent of the commercial raw pet foods on the market are sterile, and in fact, the cleanest foods available are high-pressure pasteurized (HPP) raw foods. There have been countless recalls of dry pet food for potentially pathogenic bacteria, and only a handful for raw foods. And if you choose to feed a non-HPP raw diet to your pet, it carries precisely the same risks as the raw ground beef you buy to prepare hamburgers for your family. In fact, most raw pet food is inspected twice, a higher standard than most human foods. The majority of raw pet food companies that choose not to sterilize, perform batch testing to ensure their products have not been contaminated.

Next Torres-Henderson points out that raw food diets have been shown to have nutritional imbalances. It’s absolutely true that poorly prepared homemade raw diets can be unbalanced – which is why pet owners must follow recipes when preparing homemade pet food, raw or cooked. I completely agree that an unbalanced diet (raw, cooked, canned, dehydrated or kibbled) does a complete disservice to our animal companions.

However, if Torres-Henderson is referring to commercial raw diets as well, she’s misinformed. All of the raw food diets sold in big box stores, upscale pet boutiques, and vet clinics require the same nutrient analysis testing that any other pet food undergoes in order to be AAFCO compliant. I don’t know of a single widely available raw pet food that doesn’t meet AAFCO standards. If the package of pet food (any type of pet food) you’re about to buy doesn’t state that it is nutritionally balanced, don’t buy it. And if you are preparing your pet’s food at home please, PLEASE don’t just assume the meals are nutritionally complete. Follow a recipe that has been analyzed so you know you’re nourishing your pet correctly.

Torres-Henderson also mentions that the bones in raw diets cause damage to a pet’s teeth and “intestinal trauma.” Again, if she’s referring to commercially available raw pet food, she’s misinformed. Commercial raw food diets use finely ground bone or bone meal, so there’s no risk of fractured teeth or an intestinal blockage.

Anti-Raw Tactic #5: Dogs Have Evolved to Eat Grains

Finally, Torres-Henderson makes the increasingly popular but misinformed claim that dogs, due to their close companionship with humans over thousands of years, have evolved with different nutritional needs than wild canines. This argument is usually given in an attempt to justify the heavy use of grains and other carbohydrates in pet food, especially dog food.

This argument is, in a word, baloney. Today’s dogs and cats have no more nutritional requirement for grains than their ancestors or wild counterparts, as is evident by the fact that their bodies are not designed to process grains. Dogs may be expressing genetic adaptations for a starch-rich diet after being fed starch-rich diets over many years (and thank goodness their bodies have that capacity), but this is not proof dogs are omnivores or moving towards vegetarianism.

And speaking of grains, they are not “harmless” fillers in pet food that provide “energy” (empty calories). One of the first things I do when I have a patient with any sort of digestive or allergic issue is insure the pet is eating (or is transitioned to) a grain-free, moisture rich (this means no dry food) diet. Very often, this one simple but powerful change clears up the problem completely and permanently.

What This Means for You and Your Pet

The only way processed pet food manufacturers and their advocates can respond to the growing demand for healthier, natural pet foods is to develop a competing product, buy one from another company, or try to discredit raw food diets, as Dr. Torres-Henderson has done in her article.

I encourage you, if you’re already feeding raw successfully, to believe your own eyes when it comes to the health and well being of your pet. This is especially true if you’ve transitioned to raw to solve a health issue.

If you’re thinking about switching to a raw diet for your pet, it’s important to put all the anti-raw hype aside, do your own research, and get guidance from a holistic or integrative veterinarian or animal nutritionist who is well-versed in raw feeding.

You might also want to view my three-part video series on raw diets for pets:

+ Sources and References