By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
I can't tell you how happy it makes me to read headlines like this in a pet food industry journal: "Raw pet food positioned for market growth,"1 as well as, "Raw pet food growth continues despite concerns."2
Despite all the dire warnings from the processed pet food industry and the traditional veterinary community, raw pet food sales (which includes frozen, freeze-dried and dehydrated raw pet food, and "kibble+" — kibble mixed with raw freeze-dried ingredients) in the U.S. have more than tripled in the last five years.
And this really shouldn't come as a surprise given how many pet parents these days are educating themselves about species-appropriate nutrition for dogs and cats. As one of the articles states:
"Raw pieces of meat inherently contain no fillers, preservatives, gums, thickeners or other pet food ingredients that a growing number of customers avoid. Plus, raw pet foods tend to be high in protein and nutrient rich, thus meeting the criteria of other pet food trends."
Of course, the downside is healthier food is always more expensive, for you and your pets. But the extra cost of preventive medicine in the form of healthy food often translates to fewer medical issues down the road. Raw dog and cat food is more expensive than processed diets, but a growing number of pet parents are willing to spend more for their furry family member's food when it results in improved health and fewer veterinary visits.
Stepping Into the Gap Created by Big Pet Food and Many Veterinarians
The rise in the popularity of raw pet diets is partly due to the growing awareness among pet guardians of the link between processed pet food and many of the diseases suffered by today's dogs and cats. In my experience, one of the biggest motivators in changing an animal's diet is a very ill dog or cat whose veterinarian has run out of ideas.
A desperate owner makes the decision to transition a sick pet to a raw diet, with positive results. It's almost as if they've fed their pet back to good health. Other pet parents, concerned about the ongoing issue of processed pet food recalls, decide to go raw.
In addition, more and more people are growing distrustful of the science behind processed diets, and doing their own research. They learn about the ingredients and manufacturing methods used to produce processed pet food, and ultimately decide an unprocessed raw diet is a much healthier option for their cat or dog.
Pet Parents Want to Treat the Root Cause, Not Just the Symptoms
The pet food industry likes to describe consumer interest in raw diets as the "humanization" of pet food (which is weird because most humans don't eat raw meat). I disagree. My belief is that more people are simply doing for their pets what the pet food industry and many veterinarians will not, which is to connect the dots between processed diets and ill health, which often starts very early in the life of a puppy or kitten with itchy skin or digestive issues.
You bring home a precious, perfectly healthy, recently weaned puppy or kitten, and soon you notice she's scratching a lot, or having diarrhea a few times a week, or vomiting for no apparent reason. You take her to the vet, tests are (or aren't) run and you're sent home with drugs and a bag of "prescription" processed pet food.
This is too often the beginning of a vicious cycle for many pet parents and their long-suffering animal companions. But more and more, people are unwilling to simply treat the symptom without looking for the root cause of the problem, and common sense tells them to start with the first building block of health, which is nutrition.
Pet parents are also seeking out pet food brands and companies that are open and transparent about where their ingredients come from and how the food is manufactured, something the big brands of the last hundred years have not done.
Ideal Nutrition for Dogs and Cats
Dogs and cats need quality protein, fats and a small amount of vegetables and fruits (roughage). 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 (better) or a pantry (more risky), decreases critical essential fatty acid levels in foods, and introduces the risk your pet might be consuming toxic oxidized or rancid fats.
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 first choice for optimal nutrition for dogs and cats is a nutritionally balanced, fresh homemade diet (served raw or gently cooked). Of course, it's very important not to use guesswork when preparing your pet's meals at home.
Pet food nutrition expert Steve Brown and I have analyzed many homemade and commercially available prey model diets and found they fall far short in trace minerals, antioxidants including nutrients like manganese, magnesium, vitamin E and D, copper, zinc, iron, choline and essential fatty acids.
In addition, if the diet doesn't have a proper fat or calcium to phosphorus balance, it can cause a long list of health problems, especially in growing animals. So, it's critically important that you know your homemade diet is balanced.
Making your own pet food provides peace of mind because it's becoming more difficult to find ethical pet food companies that use locally sourced or even U.S.-grown ingredients. With homemade food, you're in complete control of every ingredient that enters your pet's body.
Raw food also contains all of the enzymes and phytonutrients that are typically destroyed during extensive pet food processing. And homemade food gives you the flexibility to include a lot of nutritional variety in your pet's diet. You can buy seasonal fruits and veggies on sale. You can use produce that comes from your local supermarket, your local farmer's market or even from your own garden.
An Alternative to Homemade: Commercially Available Raw Pet Food
If you're not able to prepare homemade meals for your pet, an alternative is a commercially available nutritionally balanced raw food diet. Again, it's critically important that the diet be balanced. There are a lot of raw diets on the market these days that are nutritionally incomplete.
They are often substantially cheaper than balanced diets and for good reason; many are comprised of inexpensive fatty ground beef or poultry carcasses and liver. These unbalanced foods should say right on the label, "For supplemental or intermittent feeding." Unfortunately, many of them don't. I don't recommend feeding unbalanced diets without adding in the missing nutrients, or your pet can develop nutrition-related health problems that can be difficult to identify until they're too profound to fix.
I foresee the selection of poor quality raw pet foods continuing to expand in response to the growing demand for fresh foods, so do your homework! If you don't know if the raw diet you're feeding is nutritionally complete, I recommend contacting the manufacturer and asking how they verify that their products meet minimum nutrient requirements for dogs or cats.
The quality of these products ranges from excellent (ethically sourced, organic and verified GMO-free foods) to terrible (made with factory farmed meats, Chinese-sourced synthetic vitamins and pesticide-laden produce), so it's still important you do your homework when screening raw food companies.
For a list of additional considerations when selecting a prepared raw pet food, I encourage you to review my updated list of best-to-worst pet foods, as well as my three-part series on raw food diets.
Since commercial raw diets are a fast-growing category of pet food, you should be able to find a food that fits your requirements, with the added convenience of not having to make the food yourself. The downside, of course, is the cost. You're paying to have someone else do the work for you.
As with all pet food manufacturers, you'll need to investigate the company you're buying from to make sure you're feeding the correct product for your pet's specific nutritional and medical needs. The great news is there are more and more fresh food companies to choose from, and the competitive market for these healthier pet foods means they could become more affordable for all pet parents over time.