by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Our pets are living longer and better these days than ever before. In my opinion, much of the credit for this must go to the foods they are eating. That's why it always seems a bit strange to me that some people are very adamant that alternatives to commercially prepared pet foods must be sought. After all, it's largely these manufacturers who have been responsible for ensuring that the nutritional standards that have been developed for dogs and cats have been implemented in pet food production. However, there are other options for feeding our pets. The two most common other choices are to feed raw foods or prepare home cooked diets. I believe one of these is an acceptable alternative and the other is not.
People often believe raw food diets are better for their pet. They believe they are feeding fresher, better quality ingredients than those in commercial diets. Unfortunately, I believe there are some very serious flaws in feeding raw food. In fact, with now commercially produced raw foods, we may be stepping back in time 30-40 years in the feeding of pets. Of course just handling raw food poses some serious health risks for the people and the pets in a household. Care must be taken to avoid the dangers of bacterial contamination that can threaten the well-being of us and our pets.
However, the major fault with raw food diets is that they are not complete and balanced diets. The idea of complete and balanced nutrition is a universally accepted concept among nutritionists no matter what species is being considered. Human nutritionists use the term "Daily Values" in defining complete and balanced nutrition for people. Information of this sort can be found on the packaging of most foods in the grocery store. The Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats is the source for learning what complete and balanced nutrition is for pets. It is a 400 page book, last published in 2006, compiled by the National Research Council (NRC) and based on 50 years of nutritional research. It is a compilation of data from scientific studies on nutrition that have been done all over the world. It is the accepted international standard (U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, Asia) for the feeding requirements to maintain the health of cats and dogs.
In the U.S. pet foods are regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO translates the NRC information into guidelines for pet food companies. In the U.S. any food that is not complete and balanced must state on the packaging "for intermittent feeding only". In Canada we have the Pet Food Association of Canada. To be a member of this association members must manufacture pet foods to the nutritional standards set out by AAFCO. In other words they must produce foods that are complete and balanced. Raw pet food manufacturers, unable to meet the standards of this association, formed their own association where no mention of AAFCO requirements or nutritional standards is made.
Usually the most glaring imbalances in raw food relate to improper calcium and phosphorous levels and vitamin and iodine deficiencies. When a pet is switched to eating raw food these problems may not immediately be evident. Nutritional deficiencies are slow to develop. There will be residual benefits from eating commercial foods. Minerals are stored in the body and the fat-soluble vitamins - A, D and E - are stored in the liver and body fat. Although not initially evident, inevitably shortcomings (bone disorders, thyroid problems, parathyroid disease) will result. Poor nutrition can be a silent killer. Problems develop in other parts of the body and nutrition is seldom singled out as the cause of illness or death. There are other problems with raw food. Cooking improves digestibility and there are actually anti-nutritional factors in raw meats. Raw food can cause hypoglycemia in working dogs.
Finally, consider reading Catching Fire by primatologist Richard Wrangham. He argues that the evolutionary success of humans is the result of us ending our raw food eating and beginning to cook our food. Would you want to deny those benefits we received to our pets? Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca