To BARF or not to BARF: One vet's answer to the question of raw...
Since embarking on this blog almost two years ago, I’ve undergone something of a conversion on the subject of pet food. With last March’s pet food ingredient crisis fresh in our heads, I would imagine that most of you could easily fess up to the same.
Yet this shift in my thinking has come about less as a result of the recall than you would imagine. Rather, the healthy exchange of ideas you’ve participated in on this blog has done most of the work on this thick-skulled, traditionally-schooled vet’s cache of nutrition-minded opinions—not the least because it sent me looking for answers I knew I wasn’t offered in the standard vet school curriculum.
One of the first topics I set out to conquer was the issue of raw vs. cooked pet foods. I have to confess—I was curious to learn more about what fuels this vituperative debate. And as it turns out, I knew next to nothing about it.
I offer this disclaimer-ish preface to a post on raw feeding partly because I know I’ll be set upon by wolves within a few lines—no matter which way my opinion leans. Because, as many of you already know, raw feeding of pets is as divisive a topic as they come in the pet world. In this fiery debate there can be no middle ground, it seems.
The raw foodists contend that dogs (omnivores) and cats (obligate carnivores) are biologically attuned to masticating and digesting their food—mostly meats—in their uncooked state, hence the origin of the BARF diet (variously known as the “biologically appropriate raw food” diet or the “bones and raw food” diet). They contend that raw food contains the live enzymes our pets biologically require for optimum wellness and disease prevention. Moreover, the delivery and mastication of the food is viewed as better suited for their behavioral satisfaction and dental health, respectively.
The raw-food naysayers are equally firm in their opposition, citing the lack of evidence to support these health claims while offering up a wide range of potential pitfalls: gastrointestinal obstruction, severe bacterial infections, zoonosis (the spread of disease to humans) and a high rate of dental fractures. They scorn the assertion that dogs and cats require the raw foods they once consumed in the wild given their adaptation to cooked human foods over these recent millennia.
The non-committal answer to the debate seems pretty simple to me: To each his own. Do what works for your pet. I’ve been holding firm to that stance these last few months, where before that time I might have been counted among the BARF diet’s detractors—though never a staunch one, I must admit.
But a vet shouldn’t be so wishy-washy on the subject I came to believe. After all, we’re talking about potentially major health concerns on both sides of the aisle. It’s not only within a vet’s purview to research BARF diets and develop an informed opinion, it’s practically an imperative given that at least a few of our clients are likely to try raw feeding.
Problem is, there’s not a lot of research for the average vet to look into. The handful of scholarly papers I uncovered (sourced only from peer-reviewed journals) relied on tiny, barely significant studies or on case studies from shocking, raw-food-gone-wrong nightmare cases.
In view of the scarce array of scientific information, it’s no wonder most vets fear and loathe raw food. It’s not because we’re in bed with the pet food companies (though some of us admittedly are). It’s not because we’d rather have more sick pets to treat (as some crack-pot conspiracy theorists insultingly opine). Rather, it’s more to do with the following points:
1-There’s little research and what we do have focuses on the negative as the positives here are inherently difficult to prove. Food-borne encephalitis, on the other hand, is an awful lot sexier (to us, anyway).
2-We weren’t schooled in raw feeding and the little clinical training in nutrition we do have isn’t an ideal basis for extrapolating what we know about commercial diets to raw foods’ effects.
3-If we don’t have solid research backing us up and the standard of care is to feed cooked foods, every time we recommend raw we put ourselves out on the firing line for a lawsuit. (“My puppy is dead and I have $7,000 in vet bills from the specialist because you didn’t tell me he could get this sick from eating the food you recommended.”)
It’s no wonder we don’t spend more of our time and energy trying to convert the world to a diet that may well be beneficial in a majority of cases. In fact, there’s no statistically significant, peer-reviewed research demonstrating that there’s any benefit to feeding this way. Sure, it makes some sense that it might be better than what we can do with cooked foods, but the anecdotal findings of a small but growing community of raw feeders isn’t enough to sway the medical establishment.
And that’s what troubles me most about raw: All this high-volume back and forth is not a healthy environment for change and improvement. Research can’t flourish when each side protects its position with a passion sufficient to ensure that any observation will typically serve to support whatever side it’s on. My investigations into this subject may be weak, but on that score I’m pretty clear.
For those of you truly dedicated to the advancement of pet nutrition in general (all of you reading this) the best place to vent your energies is at the level of your local vet and your vet schools. If you believe in what you feed your pet, impress upon your vet the extent to which you believe his stellar health reflects your methods. And support clinical nutrition training in vet schools—we need it!
Though I still plead the case for my school’s biochemically based nutrition coursework (I was not taught by a Hill’s rep, as I’ve read that others have been), clinical training in small animal nutrition still has far to go in my alma mater (the University of Pennsylvania) as in all the rest. There are some notable exceptions where more ambitious strides are in the works (UC Davis comes to mind based on some recent press) but these pockets of clinically relevant nutrition research and training are still isolated. What’s more, they’re miniscule relative to the size of the pet food industry and fall way short of the pet-owning public’s demand.
Do your best to make a bigger splash by writing letters that reference larger issues like the pet food recall, not your specific feeding preferences. And don’t add fuel to the fire of this debate. Make your point one pet, one letter, one vet, one support group, one coalition at a time…with a view to getting to the bottom of whether raw (or any other feeding method) is right (or not)—not by proving that all you want is to advance a particular position.
I think I’ve said enough for one day, except for this: I still know next to nothing on raw vs cooked. Are those wolves on my heels? Time to feed my dogs.