By Dr. Jacinta D’Andrea DVM
I am a vet AND I believe in feeding raw foods to pets. There. I said it. Knowing this is not an opinion held by many people in the profession, this feels a bit like going to confession. Yet, I can no longer buy into the perpetuated lie, that feeding nourishing real, whole foods raw to animals designed to eat them is bad. In fact, I’ve found the opposite to be true. This doesn’t mean I believe raw foods are right for ALL pets, ALL people and ALL situations, but I do think we need to start taking a good look at what we consider good food.
The subject of pet nutrition is perched on a mountain of questionable research and intense debate. With few experts agreeing on what constitutes optimal nutrition, pet parents are left with the task of deciding what food best will nourish their pet.
I was eating an apple in first year biochemistry class, when I was taught what I now consider to be one of the most relevant truths of my veterinary education: “We are what we eat.” The foods we consume literally become our physical bodies. Our dogs’ dinners become their teeth, joints and bones and our cats’ kibbles are transformed into their skin, fur and friskiness. And while this might seem quite obvious to many of you, to me the link between diet and health did not become clear until I started working in private practice.
It was here I began to see case after case of chronic and degenerative disease. Arthritis. Allergies. Autoimmune disease. Ear infections. Cancer. Animals with horrible breath and teeth literally rotting out of their mouths or skin so itchy they were scratching themselves raw. I was at a loss. Antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and other powerful drugs seemed to be my only defense against these ugly afflictions. And while they eased symptoms temporarily, most animals returned within a few months with a re-emergence of signs.
The unfortunate truth is, these dis-eases are skyrocketing through our pet population. I am sad to report that our beloved canine companions are now known to have the highest rate of cancer of any mammal on the planet. With lives so closely connected to our own, it begs the question, could our furry friends physical conditions be a window into the future of human health???
Regardless of what is going on, we can all agree many, many, MANY factors influence health. From germs, genetics and GMOs to stress levels and the state of the environment, distilling down disease is a daunting task to say the least.
Of course, if we are, truly, what we eat, we can’t ignore the influence of diet on health.
“For 99.99% of their time on this planet cats and dogs have survived eating diets largely based on uncooked meat (protein/fat), raw bones (minerals) and small amounts of vegetation in the form of foraged fruits, grasses, grains, seeds and predigested plant matter found in the gut contents of prey. Classified as everything from scavenging carnivores to opportunistic omnivores, dogs undoubtedly have survived on a wide variety of foods since their domestication.
But Buster! What big (pointy) teeth you have. What wide-opening mouth and forward facing eyes. But Buster! What highly acidic stomach and relatively short digestive tract you have… All the better to digest raw meat and bones and destroy pathogens with my dear.
Although most of the dogs sharing our hearts and homes today are a far cry from the wolves they descended from 15,000 years ago, their digestive systems remain essentially the same. Understanding this, we might want to open our minds to the possibility that carbohydrate-heavy, high-heat processed foods built from the by-products of our human food production systems, may not be as good for our pets as we had hoped. Even if they are ‘scientifically formulated’ to be ‘‘balanced” and ‘complete.’
On that note, do we really believe we can formulate in a lab, what nature has perfected over thousands of years of evolution? While understanding domestic animals, without the freedom to choose their own foods are entirely dependent on us providing all the ‘essential’ nutrients they need to live a long and healthy life, I think it’s important to remember, that these needs are neither static nor fixed. All animals, like people, are individuals. As such, the nutrients they require will change throughout the seasons and cycles of their lives. Although, we accept that what could be considered ‘complete and balanced’ for a sedentary senior dog would not likely be appropriate for an active, growing puppy, we’ve yet to acknowledge that the needs between individual seniors (or pups) can vary just as greatly.
Which brings me back to raw. Restoring Animal Wellness. A better acronym then the previously popular barf, biologically appropriate real/raw foods which mirror what we know of evolutionary diets, provide optimal nutrition for supporting individual needs. It is extremely important, however, the key words “biologically appropriate,” are understood. While real whole foods, with their natural enzymes intact are full of nutrients (both known and yet-to-be discovered) that operate synergistically in the body to promote health and wellness, devastating imbalances can occur if basic guidelines are not followed. Providing variety is our greatest tool for ensuring individuals receive that which they need, to not only survive, but to thrive. Just feeding raw meat to your pet is absolutely not appropriate.
For the past few years I have been working to help establish guidelines for British Columbia meat processors, the animal health care community and the general public to assist in safely creating and feeding raw diets to pets. Seeking to co-create long-term, sustainable change in our food production systems, this project is about more then pet food.
Indeed, whether discussing our furry friends or farmed animals being raised for food, as the nutritional composition of grass-fed beef illustrates, all animals being fed species appropriate diets are both healthier and happier. We are just beginning to understand how these benefits are passed through the food web. Beyond this, choosing ethically raised, locally processed meats has a positive impact on the health of the environment. Consider the carbon footprint of transporting locally raised animals hundreds of miles away for processing, and then back for distribution.
As our awareness increases to the deep connection existing between the health of the individual, the health of the collective and the health of the environment, we are wise to look at the way all animals are being nourished. It is my hope that we begin to consider the wellness of the cow, cat, canine and chicken and their connection to the health of us all. I will leave you with this, the oldest dog I ever knew lived to 17 years on a diet of multicolored kibble, table scraps and love. There are no absolutes when it comes to nourishment. Do the best you can with the resources you have. Provide plenty of fresh clean water, time in the sunshine and whatever you feed, feed it with love. Good luck.