Should You Heed Your Vet’s Warnings About Raw Food?

By Dr Karen Shaw Becker

STORY AT-A-GLANCE

  • The campaign against raw pet diets continues unabated, and many misinformed veterinarians remain on the wrong side of the argument
  • It would be helpful to pet parents everywhere if vets learned much more about companion animal nutrition than most are taught in veterinary school, often by manufacturers of ultra-processed commercial pet food
  • Dogs and cats are carnivores who do best eating nutritionally balanced, minimally processed foods that fit their innate macronutrient preferences for fat, protein and carbohydrates
  • The types of pet food I recommend for most dogs and cats are a variety of nutritionally optimal, minimally processed, whole food diets that mirror their ancestral diets as closely as possible

There’s no shortage of people in the pet health community, often veterinarians, who’ve climbed aboard the “raw diets are dangerous” bandwagon. In fact, I recently ran across an article in a Canadian publication that covered the usual litany of reasons why raw pet diets should be avoided, most of which I debunked in this video and article: How Can Raw Pet Food Contain No Bacteria?

A veterinarian being interviewed for the article was asked why, if they’re so dangerous, raw diets are becoming so popular with pet parents. His response was typical, and typically misinformed:

“My guess is that it’s all based on this false belief that wild animals are healthier,” says Dr. Robert Pepper Jones. “They think: ‘This is what they eat in the wild, so it must be better.’ But wild animals are starved and parasitized. There’s nothing pretty about being a wild animal.”1

In my experience, most raw feeders don’t assume wild animals are healthier than domesticated pets. Most people I know are not trying to feed their dog like a wolf and understand wild animals die prematurely of all sorts of preventable diseases, including being poisoned, parasitized, hunted and hit by cars.

There is nothing pretty about the hardships wild animals face trying to carve out an existence on earth right now, but that isn’t what this conversation is about. It’s about food choices. Pet parents who choose to feed less adulterated or raw meat-based food assume that canines and felines do best eating what nature designed them to eat, which means minimally processed (and maybe partially fermented) meat, balanced with micro and phytonutrients.

In essence, fresh feeders tend to be better educated than the average pet parent and understand that we all do better eating less-processed foods. Many veterinarians, including Dr. Jones, still advocate feeding pets a sole diet of fast food for their entire lives. I wonder if he eats only ultra-processed foods to maintain his health?

The point in offering pets food that closely mirrors their ancestral diets is that in a perfect world — a world with ample prey and few if any challenges to their health and safety — wild dogs and cats would have long, healthy lives eating their natural diet. Unlike their cousins in the wild, pet dogs and cats don’t have to fight and struggle each day to survive, and when fed the diet their bodies were designed to eat, can and do thrive.

Interestingly, Jones admits that when he began seeing patients in his practice whose owners had switched to raw diets, the pets’ skin conditions had cleared up. He thought initially there must be something beneficial in the diet, but ultimately decided those benefits “had more to do with switching away from commercial processed food than the fact that it wasn’t cooked.”

This is what we call a clue — the part about how switching away from commercial processed food improves pets’ skin conditions — but it seems Jones didn’t think it was important enough to investigate.

This is a common problem with fresh food-illiterate vets: if they didn’t learn about it in veterinary school, they disregard it. Many vets don’t even know there’s a zero-tolerance policy for pathogens in commercial raw diets: they must be free from salmonella to be sold in the U.S.2

Another Clue: Your Dog or Cat is a Carnivore

A recent journal article described the traits of a carnivorous animal as:3

  1. Requiring the consumption of vitamin D from the diet (unable to produce vitamin D from sunlight)
  2. Lack of salivary amylase production
  3. Very short GI tract

Dogs and cats meet all these requirements. They also don’t have a carb requirement; that should tell us something, as doctors and nutritionists, about what macronutrients we should be focusing on when it comes to appropriate nourishment.

As a carnivore, your animal companion’s genetic makeup and internal workings remain essentially the same as his wild carnivorous ancestors. Despite domestication, dogs still eat poop, lick their backsides and kill rabbits — they just aren’t as refined as some veterinarians would like them to be.

Domestic cats still kill mice, given the opportunity. This doesn’t mean those of us who promote feeding biologically appropriate foods advocate feeding mice, but rather, the concept of mimicking nature’s macronutrients.

When given a choice of what to eat (fat, protein or carbs), research shows domesticated dogs and cats choose carbs last, despite the fact that the entire pet food industry promotes the excessive feeding of starch. Dogs aren’t wolves, but they still prefer to consume protein and fat as their primary energy source.

Indoor and outdoor feral cats choose slightly different macronutrients, with indoor housecats choosing to eat more carbs than feral cats or large exotic cats. Note: domestic cats choose not to consume carbs in excess of 12% of their daily caloric intake, yet the majority of dry cat foods on the market exceed 30% carbs. This is why so many kitties today suffer from diabetes, obesity, dental disease and a host of other metabolic issues.

Fresh-feeding veterinarians remain united in our attempt to educate our peers: domesticated dogs and cats choose to eat protein and fat as their primary fuel source and appropriate pet food macronutrient ratios should be based around what is best for their metabolic machinery (approximately 50% of calories coming from protein and fat and very few calories coming from carbs).

Why, as doctors, are we forced to argue that these animals deserve to eat biologically appropriate foods that resonate with their innate physiology, when in reality, Dr. Jones should be defending why he feels feeding a lifetime of high-heat processed, dry carb-balls (kibble) is in his patients’ best interest.

The Diet I Recommend for Dogs and Cats

If you’ve watched my best-to-worst pet foods video, you know I advocate feeding your dog or cat the highest quality, least-heat processed diet you can afford. The top five types of pet food I recommend are a variety of nutritionally optimal, minimally processed whole food diets. That’s because the goal in offering pets food they can truly thrive on is to mimic their ancestral diet as closely as possible, without breaking the bank, and by applying common sense.

If your veterinarian is freaked out about pathogen-controlled raw food, feed sterile raw food or gently cooked fresh food. All of these options are substantially healthier than fast-food from a bag, and the health-disruptive byproducts they contain.

My essential recommendation is to feed your pet as much unprocessed, nutritionally balanced fresh food as you can afford. If you can’t afford to feed an entirely fresh, living, raw or gently cooked diet, offer fresh food snacks instead. Research shows that providing any amount of healthy foods to dogs and cats is better than no healthy food at all.

In fact, Purdue University vet school found that replacing a handful of kibble with a handful of dark green leafy veggies and other colorful fresh veggies just a few times a week dramatically reduced the incidence of bladder cancer in susceptible breeds.4 This is what we mean when we say “add a little fresh food to your dog’s bowl.”

Other options to consider: Feed, for example, two to four fresh food meals out of 14 in a week, or do a 50/50 split, meaning one meal a day is a processed pet food, and the other is a fresh food meal. Take baby steps toward providing the best diet you can afford for your dog or cat, and keep in mind that any amount of species-specific fresh food snacks and meals is better than none.

5 Superfood Add-ins

1.Fermented vegetables — Fermented foods are potent detoxifiers and contain very high levels of probiotics and vitamins. Beneficial gut bacteria provided by probiotics break down and eliminate heavy metals and other toxins from the body and perform a number of other important functions.

Adding 1 to 3 teaspoons of fermented veggies to your pet’s food each day (depending on body weight) is a great way to offer food-based probiotics and natural nutrients. Find out more about this powerhouse addition to your pet’s diet.

2.Mushrooms — Mushrooms are incredibly powerful; they range from cancer-fighting and life-extending to toxic. Life-extending mushrooms include shiitake, reishi, maitake, lion’s mane, king trumpet, chaga, turkey tail and himematsutake mushrooms. All mushrooms that are safe for people are safe for pets.

Mushrooms can help regulate bowel function and improve cognition, but even better, they also contain potent anti-cancer properties and immune system enhancers. You can either lightly cook the mushrooms in a very small amount of olive or coconut oil before adding them to your pet’s meal, or try out my mushroom broth recipe.

3.Pumpkin — Fresh pumpkin, either steamed or boiled (or canned 100% pumpkin), is relatively low in calories and high in soluble fiber, which is beneficial for pets with gastrointestinal (GI) upset. Pumpkin helps regulate bowel function, which relieves both diarrhea and constipation. Pumpkin is also an excellent source of potassium. Don’t throw out the seeds! Raw, ground pumpkin seeds are a mineral-rich topper.

4.Sardines — Fish are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to your pet’s well-being. If you supplement your dog’s or cat’s diet with fish, I suggest you use sardines packed in water. Sardines don’t live long enough to store toxins in their bodies, and they’re a terrific source of omega-3s.

5.Kefir — Kefir is a fermented milk beverage that contains beneficial probiotics that support the immune system. Although regular, pasteurized cow’s milk can be irritating to your pet’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract, fermented milk is different. One of the best and least expensive ways to add healthy bacteria to your pet’s diet is to convert raw milk to kefir yourself.

All you need is one-half packet of kefir starter granules in a quart of raw milk (preferably organic), which you leave at room temperature overnight. Add 1 to 3 teaspoons of this super probiotic to your pet’s food one to two times daily for overall improved GI defenses.

Superfood toppers, like all additions to your pet’s diet, should constitute no more than 15% of the overall caloric intake.

The point I’d like to make to Dr. Jones and other veterinarians who fear real food is that it’s time we stop promoting a fear of real food, and instead, promote eating more foods we can identify as real food.

When we look into our pet’s bowls and see little brown balls, kibble, what food is that? Where did it come from? It’s ultra-processed, great tasting food-like substances, fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals, that some health professionals recommend as a sole source of sustenance from birth to death.

I think it’s time, as doctors, to reassess how we view the role of food as medicine and what constitutes our definition of food. We should be able to recognize what food we are eating; pets are rarely given that opportunity.

Dr Karen Shaw Becker