Raw food diets are suggested by some individuals as a preferred diet in dogs and cats for many health benefit reasons. These diets are sometimes referred to by the acronym “BARF” diet, which stands for “bones and raw food” diet or “biologically appropriate raw food” diet. The premise behind raw food diets is that dogs and cats are carnivores and evolved eating raw food and that is what they should be fed naturally. One claim regarding raw diets is that it results in benefits to oral and dental health by preventing dental disease such as calculus, gingivitis, and periodontitis. However, there are no studies at this time that support the idea that feeding raw diets has any proven long-term health benefits over feeding other types of pet foods.
Types of raw food diets for pets
There are 2 types of commercial raw food diets available. The first type of raw food diets are “complete” foods that are intended to be nutritionally complete fed by themselves. This type of product comes in several forms such as fresh raw food, frozen raw food that is defrosted by the pet owner prior to feeding, or freeze-dried raw food that may or may not be rehydrated with water prior to feeding, depending on the owner’s preference. The second type of raw food diets are combination diets. Combination diets involve the use of a supplement that is mixed with raw meat that owners purchase themselves to provide a nutritionally complete diet for the pet. Combination diets allow owners to alter the protein source to their liking such as use of organic or locally grown meats, or the ability to rotate the protein source for example between beef, lamb, or fish.
Risks associated with raw food diets for pets
Various risks can be associated with the use of raw food diets. Since raw food diets are not AAFCO certified, there is the potential for nutritional imbalances (excesses or deficiencies). One study
looked at the nutritional adequacy of several commercial raw food diets and found that they fell below the minimum AAFCO recommendations. Some factors to consider are excessive vitamins D and E and inappropriate calcium to phosphorus ratios. The level of the amino acid taurine can vary greatly in animal protein with muscle generally containing less taurine than organ meats. Taurine levels are extremely important in cat diets as deficiencies can be fatal.
Some diets contain bone particles that could potentially cause fractured teeth, or intestinal obstructions or perforations. Raw bones are less likely to splinter than cooked bones, but grinding bones would be the most effective means of reducing the risk of trauma to teeth or intestinal perforations and obstructions. Raw diets could be potentially contaminated with disease causing bacteria such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E.coli. This can be a risk not only to the pet being fed the diet, but also to the pet owners from the handling of the raw food or from exposure through fecal shedding of the organism by the pet. Nature’s Variety’s Chicken Formula Raw Frozen Diet for dogs and cats is an example of a raw food diet that was recalled in 2010 due to possible contamination with Salmonella. The FDA website has information regarding steps that can be taken to promote safe handling and preparation of raw food diets.
Commercial alternatives to raw food diets for pets
Safer alternatives exist to feeding raw food diets that provide nutrient profiles similar to those desired from raw food diets. These diets do not contain grains and tend to offer natural ingredients and no artificial preservatives. An example of such diets are the EVO (The Ancestral Diet)™ line of pet foods, which are grain-free, low carbohydrate, protein-rich diets that are produced by Natura Pet Products, Inc. and are AAFCO certified.