Mace Dekker: Which is better for pets, raw or processed diet?

What are raw food diets?

Raw food diets for pets may consist of raw meat, organs, bones, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. They may be home-prepared or commercially available. Commercial raw food diets can be purchased fresh or frozen. Home-prepared raw diets are variable, depending on the education, availability of ingredients, time, and sanitary processes of the pet owner.

What are commercially processed pet foods?

Commercially processed pet food uses varied, tested recipes consisting of animal renderings, grains, cereals, and vegetables. They are cooked to create consistency among batches, to control pathogens, and to decrease spoilage. The process allows for flavor and texture enhancement and refortification of any lost nutrients. Commercially processed pet foods are often made to meet the specific dietary needs of pets’ various life stages, including puppy/kitten, adult, active, senior, and more. Some also help meet the dietary needs of pets who suffer from various health conditions.

Which food is best for pets?

Supporters of raw food diets point out that the wild cousins of dogs and cats thrive on raw food. They note that raw foods have been used for years in zoos, mink farms, and dog racing facilities. They attribute modern pet health problems, such as periodontal disease, allergies, obesity, digestive problems, and more, to today’s highly processed, grain-based commercial pet foods.

But several major veterinary and human health organizations, including the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), discourage feeding raw food diets. AAHA specifically does not advocate nor endorse feeding pets any raw or dehydrated nonsterilized foods, including treats that are of animal origin.

Why? AAHA notes that studies on both commercially available and homemade raw protein diets have found that 30–50 percent of them are contaminated with pathogenic organisms, and up to 30 percent of the dogs that are fed such diets may shed pathogenic organisms in their stool.

Many pathogens found in raw protein diets can be transmitted to any humans who come into contact with the food itself, the pet, or environmental surfaces.

What’s a pet owner to do?

With both sides of the raw food diet debate advocating so strongly, what is the average pet owner to do? What is the best and safest option when it comes to pet food?

Some experts believe that raw food diets can be fed safely and effectively as long as owners are counseled correctly on preparation and handling and the situations are appropriate. One might be cautious, however, about feeding a puppy or kitten a raw food diet as a fast-growing animal has significant nutrient requirements that may not be met. Likewise, a raw-food diet may not be a good idea for a pregnant animal.

Other experts point to the problems. Raw food can increase the risk of health issues. The issues can be limited—gastric, vomiting, flatulence, diarrhea—or they can be fatal, depending on the degree of the situation. Cooking food reduces the risk of bacterial contamination and helps break down the food so that it is more digestible for the animal. Pet owners also need to be cautious about removing any bones, which can cause obstructions.

The larger risk, however, is whether the home-prepared raw diet is nutritionally complete. Over the lifetime of an animal, a chronic shortage of certain nutrients can lead to conditions such as vitamin deficiencies and abnormal bone growth.

Raw food proponents point to pet food recalls and note that commercial pet food can pass along diseases as well. However, there is no way to track problems with pets on homemade diets.

If you are considering a raw food diet for your pet

Talk with your veterinarian about creating a nutritionally balanced and complete diet for the long-term health of your pet. If your veterinarian is not trained in nutrition, ask for a referral to a veterinary nutritionist. Don’t rely on texts and websites as they are often inadequate. Be aware, however, that many veterinary nutritionists do not believe in feeding raw diets.

Ultimately, what you feed your pet is your decision. Most of the experts, however, recommend a nutritionally balanced, commercially processed pet food to keep your pet happy and healthy.

Excerpted from PetsMatter, the blog of the American Animal Hospital Association.

Grass Valley Veterinary Hospital’s Mace Dekker, D.V.M. will consider your questions each month in Vet Tips. Have a question? Submit it to [email protected].

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