Raw food can be good for some pets, but owners should be aware of potential health issues


The feeding of raw meat to pets appeals to many people: there seems to be something pure and natural about it that makes intuitive sense. If you imagine dogs and cats in their natural state, they’d obviously eat raw meat. And if you ever feed your pet raw meat, you see them hungrily tucking into it with enthusiasm. So why on earth do we choose to feed them on processed food, like kibble, that has been thoroughly cooked?

 

Why is kibble the most popular form of pet food?

There are many logical and historical reasons why kibble has been so popular and successful over many decades (e.g. it’s nutritionally complete, it’s been proven by many feeding trials to be good for pets’ health, it’s an economic way of mass producing pet food and it’s safe for pets and people). However, some people feel strongly that they prefer to feed their pets on raw meat, and as a consequence, there’s an increasing market for this type of pet food.

Raw food proponents are often ultra-passionate about their choice of pet food

For some reason, there is sometimes an almost evangelical attitude that goes along with raw meat feeding: proponents of this type of feeding often believe that it is the only proper way to feed a pet. The feeding of raw food is sometimes even believed to have remarkable powers, such as curing itchy skin, gastro-intestinal disorders and other types of ill health.

And there’s no doubt that it can be a good way to feed pets: if a dog or cat has an allergy to an ingredient in a kibble or packaged, pre-cooked moist diet, then a raw meat diet may be the way to solving the problem. Itchy skin due to food allergy, and inflammatory bowel disease are two examples of this.

However it’s wrong to think that a raw meat diet is a panacea that it’s guaranteed to cure a multitude of health problem. And it is definitely not the only good way to feed pets: there are many different ways, and the ideal diet for one animal may be completely different to that for another animal.

The truth is that pets can thrive on a wide range of different food types

I have seen dogs and cats thriving on dry food, moist food, home-cooked diets and raw diets. The best type of diet for an animal is the diet that they thrive on, and that varies from animal to animal (just as humans can thrive on a range of different diets).

However that does not mean that “any diet is great”: it’s important that a chosen diet fits three parameters, in particular: it should be complete for your pet (so that they do not suffer from nutritional deficiencies), it should be palatable (so that they enjoy eating it) and it should be safe- for you and your pet.

Pet food should provide complete nutrition that’s palatable and safe

The nutritional balance of a diet is easy to ascertain for commercially produced pet food: if it says “complete pet food” on the bag/tin/sachet, then it is legally obliged to provide all the nutrients your pet needs. For home-prepared diets, it’s important to double check with a veterinary nutritionist that all of your pet’s required nutrients are provided in the rations you’re feeding them.

Palatability is easy to assess: your pet either likes eating the food, or they don’t.

Safety is the third parameter. Again, commercial food producers are obliged by law to ensure that their products are safe, and while there have been some well publicised contamination issues with kibble in North America, these have been very much the exception rather than the rule.

The issue of bacteria being carried in raw food has been highlighted in the media

Kibble and pre-cooked moist foods are generally safe from bacterial contamination, because they are heated during preparation, a process which kills bacteria. It’s more complicated when it comes to raw food, because the food is not heat treated, so any bacteria present in the meat can multiply, and can potentially be passed on to humans and animals. There have been two reports in the media in the past month which have highlighted this issue, and those who choose to feed raw meat to their pets should be aware of these issues, so that they can avoid problems.

A cluster of four cases of humans falling ill, with one person dying, linked to the feeding of raw pet food

The first report was in the UK’s Food Safety News, where it was reported that four people were infected with Shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC) O157 last year, from exposure to raw pet food, in a cluster of cases. One person died, and the other three were hospitalised. This is still a very rare condition, but nonetheless, the incident served as a reminder to owners feeding raw food that they need to take routine hygiene precautions when preparing their pets’ dinner to protect themselves from this – and from other – bacterial diseases.

Three cases of TB in young cats, again linked to the feeding of raw pet food

The second safety issue was to the pets was in a letter to the Vet Record where three clinical cases of feline tuberculosis due to Mycobacterium bovis were recently confirmed in two households in England. The researchers stated that notably, the cats were indoor cats, so they were not hunters (huntingis the common link in most cases of TB in cats), and all three cats were fed a commercial raw food diet. This is the same bacterium that can cause TB in humans. There is a TB control system in the UK, but TB infected cattle carcasses are permitted into the food chain as long as they are inspected to remove all visible infected material. The normal nature of TB in cattle is in the form of abscesses that can be trimmed out and the rest of the carcass can be used.  The TB bacterium is killed by thorough cooking of meat, but this report suggests that there may be a risk of TB infection when apparently healthy meat is fed raw to cats. This is a new potential hazard of feeding raw meat to pets that has not previously been reported.

Rare cases like this do not mean that everyone needs to worry; they are simply facts that people should be aware of when choosing what to feed their pet.

Is there an ideal way to feed dogs and cats? I would argue that there are multiple ideal ways: find out the facts, talk to your vet about potential positive and negative health issues, and make your choice accordingly.

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3 thoughts on “Raw food can be good for some pets, but owners should be aware of potential health issues

    1. That is a really good question Adam, Im not sure. That would be worth looking into, would need to take into consideration the number of dogs fed kibble vs the number fed raw but that should be easy enough. Will try and get an answer for you

    2. We don’t have good data for this in the UK – the best dataset we have is from the American FDA.
      For 2018, there have been 30 recalls for bacterial contamination of pet food. Of those, 2 were homeopathic remedies, 1 is a “lightly cooked” home-made diet, 6 are treats and chews of various types, 1 is a sugar-glider seed diet, and 20 are raw foods. You can see the data here: https://www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/safetyhealth/recallswithdrawals/default.htm

      This is consistent with previous data demonstrating that cooked food (either tinned wet, dry, or semi-moist) is at much lower risk for bacterial contamination than raw diets. There are some good papers on the subject from the UK and FDA surveillance reports from the US:
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4152787/
      https://www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/resourcesforyou/animalhealthliteracy/ucm373757.htm
      https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/182/2/50
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1140397/

      As Pete said in his blog, most vets have no problem with people feeding raw diets – it’s a perfectly reasonable choice, and some animals do seem to do better on it than any other option. However, we mustn’t close our eyes to the possible risks either, if we’re to give our pets a happy and healthy life – and not put us or our families at risk.

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