The mainstream media seems to feature a continual flow of new dietary breakthroughs for humans: from high protein to low protein, high glycaemic index, gluten-free, Paleolithic, alkaline, the list goes on and on. The pet world isn’t immune from a similar trend, and a visit to the local pet shop will present you with a bewildering proliferation of options. The standard conventional choice is tinned, sachets or dry food, but within those brackets, there’s anything from the cheapest generic type to the most costly human-style meals. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s the type of feeding that most vets don’t seem to like talking about: raw diets. You can buy raw diets fresh or frozen, and there seems to be a convincing argument for their use.

The rationale for feeding a raw diet to dogs

Dogs in the wild never knew how to cook. Surely the most natural type of diet must be the best, and that means food that’s as close as possible to what wild dogs eat: freshly killed carcasses, whether hunted or eaten as left overs from another predator. Some domesticated dogs – such as sled dogs, racing greyhounds and hunt dogs – have been fed raw diets for centuries, and don’t they seem healthy?
An Australian vet, Ian Billinghurst, back in 1993, was one of the main early proponents of raw food for dogs: he invented the “BARF” diet, referring to either “Bones and Raw Food”, or “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food”. His recommendations included more than just raw meat and bones; he also advised feeding raw fruit and vegetables, mimicking what he believed dogs in the wild would have eaten. There were claims that dogs fed on this type of “natural” diet were healthier, with shinier coats, brighter eyes, less illness, fewer allergies and longer lives. Such claims were sometimes accompanied by accusations that conventional commercial pet foods were so unnatural that they were actually harmful to dogs’ health. Over the years, the raw food lobby has grown dramatically, and there have been conspiracy theorists at the fringes of the movement, with wild and untrue theories that vets are somehow in league with commercial pet food manufacturers, deliberately peddling branded food from vet clinics in the knowledge that this unnatural nutrition would make pets sick, boosting veterinary profits.

The problems with raw diets

These outlandish claims only served to alienate vets from constructive debate, setting up a “them” and “us” mentality, and preventing raw diets from achieving mainstream acceptance. Vets quote research from North America that identified issues with raw diets such as bacterial contamination with salmonella, listeria, campylobacter and E.Coli, zoonotic organisms that had the potential to be passed on to humans. The internet served to magnify and disseminate untrue myths about commercial food, and people were discouraged from talking to their vets (who would traditionally have been their professional pet health advisors) because they were accused of being “in” on the conspiracy.

A balanced view takes the pros and cons into account

Fortunately, in recent years, there has begun to be some reconciliation between the warring sides of “raw” versus “conventional”. The clearest demonstration of this truce happened at last year’s London Vet Show, one of the biggest gathering s of vets in the UK. The Pet Food Manufacturers Association, the representative body of commercial pet food manufacturers, ran a presentation titled “Raw Risks: the myths and the truth”. A UK-based vet who was a proponent of raw diets explained that the studies describing issues with bacteria in raw diets were carried out in North America, where production methods were very different to the UK. Meanwhile, a highly qualified professional veterinary nutritionist outlined the importance of a complete and balanced nutrition for dogs i.e. a diet that includes all the nutrients a dog needs, in the correct amounts. She explained that producers of commercial pet foods are legally obliged to ensure that the diets they produce are nutritionally balanced. And she believed that if people chose to feed raw diets to their pets, there was nothing wrong with this as long as they ensured that the pet’s daily food intake was nutritionally balanced. They’d need to engage a professional nutritionist to do this, but this is getting easier than in the past, with the advent of online nutritional advisory services.

Dogs have evolved to be able to digest starch

Meanwhile, some of the theory of the “natural” way of feeding dogs has been debunked: in 2013, Swedish evolutionary geneticists showed that around the time that dogs were domesticated, they developed the gene that allows them to digest starch.

The bottom line: what’s best for your dog?

So is there an absolute truth about the rights and wrongs of feeding raw diets? My own take is that like many areas of life, it’s best to look at pets as individuals, rather than assuming that one way of feeding is right for all dogs. Most dogs thrive on commercial diets, whether dry or moist, and these products are convenient and economical. If individual dogs have issues that may relate to their nutrition, then there’s no harm in trying a raw type diet, as long as care is taken to ensure that it’s safely sourced and nutritionally balanced.
Raw feeding of dogs has now moved mainstream, with commercial raw producers even signing up as members of the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, alongside the producers of dry and tinned food. The dog food wars may not be over, but thank goodness, the heat of the battle is less intense than it used to be.
By the way, this year’s London Vet Show is taking place next week, and again the Pet Food Manufacturers Association is hosting a seminar on the opening day. Raw feeding is not on the menu this time but it’s an equally intriguing topic? “The humanisation of pet nutrition: Part of the family but not at the table”. Watch this space for an update!