You may have seen or heard of raw meat based diets referred to as BARF which stands for “bones and raw food” or “biologically appropriate raw food” diet. While we do not know exactly how many families are feeding their pets raw food diets, the growth in the number of BARF-type diets on the market are proof of its growing popularity.
Proponents of raw food diets proclaim many purported health benefits, a few being that it closely resembles the diet of their once wild, undomesticated dog and cat ancestors and that feeding bones is beneficial to oral health. There is no documented evidence that feeding a raw meat based diet has any health or nutritional advantages over cooked foods, however there is extensive research looking at the nutritional profile as well as identifying the possible risks of feeding bones and raw food.
Feeding raw meat and raw animal products, such as poultry products, beef, pork, and fish is of major concern to me as a veterinarian because these have the potential to be contaminated with not just enteric pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli but high numbers of these pathogens that the animal then sheds into its environment. This undoubtedly becomes a public health concern in addition to putting the household at risk for contamination and is of particular concern among children and immunocompromised individuals. The American Animal Hospital Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the FDA have each released a statement discouraging the feeding of raw or undercooked animal-source protein and bones to our companion animal population for the major risks of: contamination with enteric pathogens, increased onset of fractured teeth and increased likelihood of bone fragments causing obstruction of or injury to the intestinal tract.
Another major concern of these diets is nutritional adequacy. Studies identifying nutritional deficiencies among these diets have been published and are very concerning. What many owners are not always aware of is that some of these products are meant to be “supplemented” in the diet and not used as the pets sole source of nutrition making them more prone to developing nutritional deficiencies. This information can be found on the packaging, in small print, and can be very easy to go unnoticed, despite the owner’s best intentions.
As a veterinarian, my job is not only to care for the health and well-being of my animal patients but also their guardians and beloved family members. Concerns regarding nutritional deficiencies, pathogenic bacteria, subsequent environmental contamination and secondary dental and intestinal tract injuries are issues I worry about regularly and there continues to be growing evidence to support these concerns.
While the FDA does not advocate the feeding of raw meat, poultry or seafood to pets (2010), the veterinary community and the FDA recognize that some families will continue this practice and have provided the public with a set of recommendations regarding the safe handling of raw foods on their website.
Knowing that it is nearly impossible to keep up with all the new diets available on the market, it is still always a great idea to raise any questions or concerns to your primary care veterinarian and hope that the FDA recommendations will help families to continue to make the safest and healthiest decisions for their pets and household.