Is Raw Food Better Than Commercial? Or is it Worse?

 |  Apr 14th 2009  |   112 Contributions


I want to start by setting guidelines for comments on this post. The subject of pet food in general, and raw food in particular, has a knack for triggering strong emotions. People on both sides of the raw food debate have been known to post comments to this blog when they are angry or offended.

I strongly encourage you to comment on this post. I want to hear your opinions. You are free to disagree, respectfully, your fellow commenters or with me. However, I insist that all comments be respectful. They must be respectful to fellow commenters, and they must be respectful to me.

Thank you in advance for not forcing me to delete any comments.

And now, as promised, here is what I think about raw food.

In my opinion, raw diets are neither better nor worse than commercial diets. Raw diets undoubtedly work better for some individuals. Commercial diets work better for others.

Let's break this subject down by analyzing some of the arguments that have been cited against and for raw diets. I'll start with the argument that my malpractice insurance provider never lets me forget.

Raw diets pose health threats to humans and pets.

This claim has been the subject of much ballyhoo over the years. It is true that improperly prepared raw meat can spread parasites such as tapeworms (although not the most common type of canine and feline tapeworm), Toxoplasma gondii, and Trichinella to pets and humans. Improperly prepared raw meat can spread bacterial ailments including Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter.

The above statements are facts. Whenever a client asks me about raw food, I feel compelled to bring these facts up. If I do not and a client or patient becomes sick from raw food, I could be sued.

But if one looks a little harder at these risks, it turns out that with care they can be managed. The phrase improperly prepared is critical. A client once confessed to me that she had contracted Salmonella three times from her dog's raw diet. That confession said more about her than about the diet.

And let us not forget that any food, if not properly prepared, can spread disease. The most recent outbreak of Salmonella in the United States was due to contaminated peanut butter. Inadequately washed raw vegetables are thought to be the most common means of Toxoplasma transmission. Commercial pet foods occasionally are tainted with Salmonella or melamine.

Life is full of risks that must be managed. I love carpaccio, steak tartare, ceviche and sashimi. I realize they have the potential to make me sick, so I only eat them when I feel that I can trust the maker. People who feed raw (or, for that matter, commercial) diets should be no less cautious.

Raw diets often are not nutritionally complete and balanced.

Any home made diet (and, for that matter, many a cheap commercial diet) has the potential to be nutritionally inadequate. If people who make raw food for their pets do their homework, then this shouldn't be a problem.

Commercially prepared raw diets are overpriced.

This argument is neither here nor there for me. It is every person's right to decide how much to spend on pet food. As long as the commercial raw diets are balanced and nutritionally complete, then in my mind price is a private matter between the manufacturer and the consumer.

And, of course, one could argue that plenty of conventional commercial diets also are overpriced.

Studies have shown that cats and dogs can survive for many generations eating nothing but one type of high quality commercial food. This proves that the food in question contains all of the nutrients that cats or dogs need.

Indeed, these studies have been performed. And in my opinion they are significant.

However, most of these studies were funded by the manufacturers of the food in question. Such conflicts of interest cannot be ignored.

Furthermore, these studies do nothing to prove that pets can't survive equally well or better on other diets.

Dogs and cats evolved to eat raw food. Wolves eat raw food. Therefore, raw diets are superior to commercial diets.

People who employ this argument occasionally throw in tidbits about digestive enzymes. For instance, I have heard it said that cats lack the necessary enzymes to digest carbohydrates. (If that were true, then the carbohydrate content of cat food would be irrelevant. Carbs would simply pass through cats undigested, like cellulose does.)

I also have heard the argument that canine and feline digestive enzymes are tailored to raw protein. Therefore, according to the argument, raw food is more digestible than cooked. (In fact, the enzymes that digest protein are very versatile. They generally can handle either type of food.)

In my opinion the evolutionary argument in favor of raw food is weak on a couple of levels. First, dogs aren't wolves any more than humans are chimpanzees.

Second, even if dogs and cats descended from strictly predatory creatures, the current incarnation of both species survives mostly by scavenging. If you doubt this, I recommend that you spend some time (as I have) observing unowned dogs and cats in developing countries. That is as wild as either species gets.

In countries such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Laos, Botswana, Swaziland, Cambodia, Peru and El Salvador I have observed the behavior of feral cats and dogs. They subsist largely on human leftovers. I have never seen a dog or a cat living independently on a prairie or in a jungle, forest, swamp or nature preserve. They generally live among people.

Both species have evolved to live among humans. We generally eat cooked food, and they often eat our leftovers. It is highly likely that their recent evolution has adapted both species to eat both cooked and raw foods.

Frankly, I don't really care what cats and dogs evolved to eat. I care whether what they eat can lead to optimal health. In my experience, both commercial and raw foods are capable of meeting this expectation.

Raw food prevents and treats canine (or feline) allergies (or autoimmune disease, or inflammatory bowel disease, or some other dreaded problem).

To this argument I say prove it. I am not aware of any well-run studies that document definitive health benefits from raw food. I am skeptical about health claims that are not backed up by hard evidence.

Might the claims of raw food health benefits some day be proved? Sure. And if they are, I reserve the right to endorse raw food. In fact, if the claims are proved, I promise to endorse raw food.

But until I see good scientific studies proving the superiority of any type of food, I cannot in good conscience advocate the use of one food over another.

A note to commenters: I welcome links to studies that cite health benefits of any type of food. However, I will be skeptical of any link that points to a pet food manufacturer's website or a raw food advocacy site.

My pet had constant problems with allergies (or dental disease, or autoimmune disease, or inflammatory bowel disease) until I switched to raw food. Now my pet is in perfect health.

That's great, but it doesn't prove anything about raw food or commercial food in general. There is no doubt that some pets enjoy better health when fed a particular type of food. But one pet's experience with a particular food does nothing to prove that the food will have benefits for other pets.

The other day I met an 18-year-old dog who had eaten nothing but Alpo his entire life. I don't generally recommend Alpo, but I couldn't reasonably claim that Alpo hadn't worked well for that pet. And, even though that dog had thrived on Alpo for so long, I still don't recommend the use of Alpo in general.

And that leads me into my take-home message. Raw food is probably better for some pets. Commercial food is probably better for others. Neither has, in my opinion, been proved conclusively superior in general.

Feed your pet what works best for him or her. There's nothing wrong with properly prepared raw diets. But there's also nothing wrong with high-quality commercial food.

Live and let live.

Photo: my pal Buster eats nothing but Science Diet and table scraps that Aunt Laurie sneakily gives him.

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