By Jean Hofve, DVM
Many proponents tout the benefits of feeding meat raw to our our carnivorous feline and canine companions. But most veterinarians and self-styled “experts” claim that raw diets are highly dangerous to everyone in the household. So who’s right?
The bacteria Salmonella is frequently implicated as a major danger from feeding raw meat. A contaminant of some raw meats and eggs, as well as being common in the environment, this bacterium does not appear to pose as great a problem to dogs and cats as to people, due to the carnivore’s shorter gastrointestinal tract and faster transit time, which does not give bacteria much time to multiply. According to experts, Salmonella exposure does not pose any real threat to healthy animals. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 35% of normal healthy dogs and 18% of healthy cats (most of which eat commercial pet food) are already asymptomatic carriers.
A study on raw diets showed that, despite the fact that 80% of meat samples were positive for Salmonella, 70% of the dogs eating that meat tested negative. It is prudent, however, to avoid feeding pets non-organic raw ground beef, due to severe contamination problems in the meat packing industry. This has recently been highlighted by dozens of cases of human illness from Salmonella from processed dry dog food! Commercial pet foods have a much worse safety record than raw diets, whether homemade or pre-made.
Another bacterium, Campylobacter, is also a risk in raw meat. This bug got a lot of media play when a test was developed a few years ago to find it. However, it had been in meat for many years before that—we just didn’t know how to look for it. It has not been shown to cause significant disease in pets.
Toxoplasmosis is the other major risk commonly cited. Transmission of the protozoa Toxoplasma to humans occurs primarily from eating undercooked meat and contact with infected garden soil. Adequate cooking of meat intended for human consumption, daily cleaning of cat feces from the litterbox (it takes 24-72 hours for any cysts in cat feces to become infectious), and washing hands after gardening or cleaning the litterbox, are all you need do to avoid becoming infected. Freezing to -4ºF (-20ºC) for 72 hours will also destroy Toxoplasma cysts. Up to 40% of people have already been exposed and have natural antibodies to Toxoplasma. Pregnant women need not “get rid of their cats” as many physicians demand; it would be much more reasonable to get the blood test for antibodies. If the mom-to-be already has antibodies, there is no risk whatsoever, even from an actively infected cat. However, chronically ill, immunocompromised, pregnant, or maybe-to-be-pregnant humans must be very careful about hygiene when handling meats as well as soils and animal wastes. In those households, it’s probably best to thoroughly cook all meat for both animal and human family members.
Bones are an issue when talking about raw food. Everyone agrees that feeding cooked bones is dangerous and should never be done. Most raw proponents, such as Dr. Ian Billinghurst, creator of the “BARF” (Bones and Raw Food, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food), encourage the feeding of “raw meaty bones.” Raw bones theoretically do not splinter like cooked bones do. However, there are many documented cases of raw bones causing intestinal impactions or even perforations, which are deadly. At the least, many dogs have fractured their teeth on raw bones; probably either from bones too big for the dog, or from bones left out too long–they dry out and become virtual concrete after as little as a few hours in warm weather. Grinding bones is great option; raw feeders find that even ground bones will help keep their pet’s teeth clean. For super safety, though, human-grade bone meal from the health food store is the best bet.
The other main concern expressed by veterinarians is whether or not a homemade diet is balanced and contains all necessary nutrients. This is where education plays a big role. There are dozens of books and websites and other resources that provide adequate recipes. However, there is justified concern because over time, guardians tend to “simplify” or modify the recipe, dropping supplements or not varying the meats and vegetables used. This is called “diet drift,” and it can indeed get you into serious trouble over time. If you do it, make sure you do it right: follow a balanced recipe, and add appropriate supplements and Omega-3 oils.
To provide a homemade diet correctly takes a real commitment on the part of the guardian. It’s a bit more complicated, and bit more expensive, especially for large dogs. However, in the long run you’ll be rewarded with a happier, healthier pet, and fewer vet bills!
For more info on raw diet safety, see:
Did Purina Executive Influence Delta Society’s Ban of Raw Feeding? (An excellent summary of the scientific support for raw feeding)