Should Dogs and Cats Have Raw Diets?
Public Health Issues That Go Beyond Nutrition Are Cited
At the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) 2012 annual convention in San Diego, a policy position was adopted against feeding raw diets to pets. News of the policy, adopted by the AVMA’s House of Delegates (HOD), brought a barrage of negative comments to their website and press releases from manufacturers of raw diets for pets.
Quoting from the AVMA website: “The AVMA recommends the following:
- Avoid feeding inadequately treated animal-source protein to cats and dogs.
- Restrict cats’ and dogs’ access to carrion and animal carcasses (eg, while hunting).
- Provide fresh, clean, nutritionally balanced and complete commercially prepared or home-cooked food to cats and dogs, and dispose of uneaten food at least daily.
- Practice personal hygiene (eg, handwashing) before and after feeding cats and dogs, providing treats, cleaning pet dishes, and disposing of uneaten food."
In the first bullet point, the word “never” was originally used but the delegates voted to replace that with the word “avoid.” Again, quoting from the AVMA website:
Animal-source proteins of concern include beef, pork, poultry, fish, and other meat from domesticated or wild animals as well as milk* and eggs.
*The recommendation not to feed unpasteurized milk to animals does not preclude the feeding of unpasteurized same-species milk to unweaned juvenile animals.
In the House of Delegates wrap-up on the website, Dr. Kimberly May writes:
"Please keep in mind that this policy is NOT a ban on raw foods for pets and it is not a regulation that requires veterinarians (regardless of whether they’re AVMA members or not) to comply, or even agree with it. It’s not a debate on the healthiness of or risks associated with raw foods versus other commercial pet foods. Nor is it an attempt to force a ban or restrict pet owners’ rights to feed their pets how and what they want."
Another veterinary trade group, The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) also chimed in on the subject. From the AAHA statement at that time:
"Past proponents of raw food diets believed that this was the healthiest food choice for pets. It was also assumed that feeding such a diet would cause no harm to other animals or to humans. There have subsequently been multiple studies showing both these premises to be false.
Based on overwhelming scientific evidence, AAHA does not advocate or endorse feeding pets any raw or dehydrated nonsterilized foods, including treats that are of animal origin." Further down they say, "Feeding a raw protein diet no longer concerns only each individual pet, but has become a larger community health issue; for this reason, AAHA can no longer support or advocate the feeding of raw protein diets to pets."
Consider Empirical Evidence
Is it just me, or is this all much ado about nothing? Certainly, it’s controversial and the debate will rage on. It seems that the organizations' objections are based on sanitation issues rather than nutrition issues. The sanitation point is well taken, and echoed by the USDA, FDA, and just about every other health agency and organization. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m on the fence over a controversy, I like to look through the “broad-view glasses” and do a reality check.
How many of us aren’t religious about following those sanitation guidelines, yet don’t get sick? How many of us thaw meat on the kitchen counter, contrary to the advice of health officials, yet don’t get sick? How many of us could be considered careless about the way we handle and prepare raw meat, yet don’t get sick? At backyard barbeques, how many of us eat the potato salad at dinnertime that’s been sitting unrefrigerated on the picnic table since lunchtime, yet don’t get sick?
Please don’t think I’m marginalizing the benefits of good hygiene or advocating reckless disregard for prudent sanitation practices. To the contrary, I’m married to a nurse who threatens to call OSHA on me if I don’t clean the sink and utensils with ammonia every time I handle meat. She has me so paranoid that I do it even when she’s not home!
The fact remains that we, and our pets, are not dropping like flies. Most people have a few gastric or intestinal episodes each year, where the feeling is, “Jeez, I must have eaten something that didn’t agree with me.” Maybe. Maybe you were the victim of your own poor sanitation practices when preparing last night's burgers or fried chicken.
You take some OTC meds or just tough it out, and you’re back to normal pretty quickly. Sure, some of us get seriously ill I suppose, but you have to admit, the odds are pretty much in our favor. The veterinarians I know have been opposed to feeding raw diets, not only for the reasons cited by the AVMA, but also out of concern that pets get a complete and balanced diet.
A Missing Link
In all the reports I've read on the topic, the one thing that's missing from all of them is a statement to the effect that veterinarians nationwide are reporting abnormally high instances of salmonella poisoning connected to the feeding of raw diets to pets. That's because, other than some isolated cases, it isn't happening. If it was, it would be a public health issue that would be addressed by the appropriate regulatory agencies and widely reported.
During the summer of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sounded the alarm after confirming 961 victims in a Salmonella outbreak that had been traced to backyard poultry flocks in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Only Alaska and Delaware had so far escaped. I've never seen such a report of Salmonella outbreaks traced back to raw food diets for pets. Personally, I lean towards commercially prepared foods, or home-cooked meals as formulated by board-certified veterinary nutritionists. But I have to admit, in my job I've encountered a lot of people who feed or supplement raw and haven’t had any problems. Yet, anyway.
A Word About the Importance of Taurine to Cats and Ferrets
Taurine is an essential amino acid which the domestic cat (and ferrets) cannot synthesize. It must get its taurine, found in animal flesh, from it's commercially prepared diets. Taurine supports the proper functioning of muscles, the nervous system and the reproductive system. Deficiencies in the acid can result in poor fetal development and stillbirths.
The two most common conditions resulting from inadequate taurine, however, are cardiomyopathy and retinal degeneration. In cardiomyopathy the walls of the heart muscle become thin and flaccid, rendering it unable to sufficiently pump blood throughout the body. In retinal degeneration, a potentially blinding condition, the membrane that lines the interior surface of the eyeball is affected.
Interestingly, the pet cat's wild counterparts, such as lions and tigers, get sufficient amounts of taurine simply by consuming their wild diet of animal flesh. Even in meat-based cat foods, however, manufacturers are required to add sufficient concentrations of taurine to ensure compliance with the AAFCO nutritional requirement for the cat's life stage. That's to compensate for taurine that may be destroyed during the cooking process.
In the March, 2014 issue of Catnip, a publication of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, entitled Are Raw Diets Healthy For Cats,? Cailin Heinze, M.S., V.M.D., who is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, writes: "In theory, you could make a raw diet that is nutritionally adequate, but many raw diets are not. One study looked at a raw diet composed of whole ground rabbit, “but they had to stop it because the cats were dying of taurine deficiency."
Things to Consider If Your Pet's Immune System Is Compromised
If your pet is immunocompromised, there are situations you should avoid. Confine your daily walks to your yard. Wherever you are, your dog is constantly sniffing. This exposes your dog to a cornucopia of potential diseases. Don't take your dog to the dog park or on shopping errands. If you must kennel your dog for a trip, inquire about the protocols the facility has in place to protect immunocompromised pets. The same goes for groomers and other service providers you may patronize.
For those of you who feed raw diets, be aware that some veterinary clinics may require you to switch to a cooked diet for a period before your pet will be allowed to stay at the clinic overnight for treatment. If you have friends or co-workers with immunocompromised pets, be extra careful about your sanitation practices at home. Carelessness in the preparation of your pet's meals can allow harmful bacteria to contaminate your skin and clothes. You can then transfer those contaminants to skin and surfaces at a friend's home or in the workplace.
Where Do You Stand On The Raw Debate?
- American Veterinary Medical Society: Raw or Undercooked Animal-Source Protein in Cat and Dog Diets
- American Animal Hospital Association: Diet do's and don'ts for your pets
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Disease Detectives at Work---Detecting Salmonella Infections from Backyard Flocks
- United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service: The Big Thaw—Safe Defrosting Methods for Consumers
- Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University: Catnip, Are Raw Diets Healthy for Cats? March, 2014
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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© 2012 Bob Bamberg