Pros and Cons of Feeding a Raw Diet

Copyright 1999 Adele C. Monroe, DVM, MSPH

In recent years, there has been a great deal of discussion among dog and cat owners about the benefits of feeding a raw diet to their animal companions. I think it is important not only to look at the advantages of such a diet, but to examine the disadvantages as well.

Advantages of Feeding a Raw Diet

In thinking about what the wild relatives of our domestic dogs and cats eat, it becomes obvious that a raw diet is a biologically appropriate diet for dogs and cats. Wolves and wild cats eat raw meat, raw bones, raw internal organs, and the stomach contents of their prey. Nothing is cooked and there is very little grain (the seeds of grasses). By contrast, nearly all commercial foods--both dry and canned--are heat-processed and contain grain as a major ingredient, even if a meat-type ingredient is listed first.

One of the earliest studies on the effects of raw versus cooked foods is now known as the Pottenger Cat Studies. Dr. Pottenger was a research scientist in the 1930s who performed nutritional comparisons of cats in his research colony. For several generations, he fed one group of cats completely raw food (meat, bones, milk, and cod-liver oil). A second group was fed the same foods either partially or completely cooked. Cats on the raw food diet were completely healthy and never needed veterinary attention. Cats fed cooked foods had health problems similar to those commonly seen in cats today: mouth and gum problems, thyroid disorders, bladder inflammation, etc. By the third generation, the cats in the cooked-food group were no longer able to reproduce. When cats from the first and second generations of the cooked-food group were put back on raw foods and bred, it took four generations for their descendants to reach the same level of health as the cats fed raw foods for the duration of the study.

Companion animals fed a properly designed raw diet typically experience an overall increase in energy and activity level, and often enjoy considerable improvement in symptoms of chronic disease conditions such as obesity, arthritis, diabetes, and congestive heart failure. There is growing evidence in the human literature that nutrition is a major factor in the development and progression of degenerative diseases and the aging process, and that proper nutrition can reverse some conditions and slow the progression of others. Dr. Billinghurst, an Australian veterinarian and author of the books Give Your Dog a Bone and Grow Your Pups with Bones, has reported that over their lifetimes, animals maintained on a raw diet typically incur lower veterinary expenses than animals maintained on commercial food.

Disadvantages of Feeding a Raw Diet

When feeding raw meat and raw bones, expect that your companion animal may have episodes of enteritis (diarrhea and/or vomiting) until it becomes fully adjusted to the diet. Susceptibility to enteritis varies; not all animals fed a raw diet will experience diarrhea or vomiting. If you expect it and are prepared, you will likely be able to manage these episodes at home. Have what you need in the house before you begin feeding raw meat or raw bones. (See the article at this web site, "Feeding Raw Meat and Bones: Safety Issues.") During the first month or so of feeding a raw diet, expect formed stools coated with mucus. Your animal is cleansing its intestines; treatment is not needed as long as the stools are well formed and the animal is not vomiting. If your animal companion has an episode of enteritis, be prepared to administer first aid and to transport the animal to your veterinarian if necessary. Be aware that a conventional veterinarian may not be supportive of this diet. He/she may even tell you that you are doing a disservice to your animal and potentially putting your animal at risk of serious illness.

Note: Any animal who is taking medication to suppress the immune system, or who is otherwise immune compromised, should not eat raw meat or raw bones. I do not recommend feeding a raw diet to an animal who lives in a household with a child whose immune system is compromised either due to an illness, such as cancer or AIDS, or due to medication.

In addition to enteritis, there have been reports of dogs developing pancreatitis when eating a raw diet. I believe that middle aged and older dogs, and dogs of all ages with chronic medical conditions, are most at risk of developing pancreatitis. There have also been rare reports of death or serious injury following the consumption of raw bones. I believe that most of these cases involved feeding a bone that was not the appropriate size for the animal. For tips on bone selection, see the article at this web site "Feeding Raw Meat or Raw Bones: Safety Issues."

If you prepare it yourself, the out-of-pocket cost of feeding a raw diet is about the same as the retail cost of feeding a premium dry commercial food, but can be more or less, depending on the ingredients used. Feeding a raw diet does require time for food preparation, although the time needed is minimized with practice and efficient food purchasing and storage procedures. If you purchase a prepared frozen raw diet, the out-of-pocket cost will likely be higher than the cost of feeding a premium dry commercial food.

Very rarely, an animal develops itchy skin, eye or ear discharge, or some other relatively minor complaint during the first few months of eating a raw diet. This does not indicate a need to stop feeding the diet. The problem is usually self-limiting and is considered by holistic veterinarians to be a cleansing or detoxifying reaction. Complaints such as these that persist more than a few weeks may indicate that the animal is allergic to one or more items in the diet.

If your dog or cat is middle-aged or older or it has a chronic medical condition, I recommend that you consult with a veterinarian who is experienced in feeding a raw diet. In this situation, the transition to a raw diet should occur gradually over several months. This allows for a more gradual detoxification process and reduces the risk of detoxification symptoms. The overall process has several stages. First change to a naturally preserved commercial food--either an adult or puppy formula, not a senior food--and add steamed vegetables at each meal. Then replace steamed vegetables with pureed raw vegetables. The last modification is to add raw meat and occasional raw bones. Gradually increase the amount of raw food in the diet until you are feeding 100% raw food.

I have fed a raw diet to my dogs since August 1998. Even though all my dogs were young at the time, ranging in age from 4 months to 4 years, I have seen such an improvement in overall vitality that I cannot imagine ever again feeding commercial food as the basis of their diet. Although feeding a raw diet carries the risk of several acute health crises, I believe these risks are manageable. In return, I am dramatically reducing the risk that my dogs will experience any type of chronic disease, degenerative conditions typically associated with aging, or cancer.

See the Home Page for other areas of this web site that have information on feeding raw diets.

Copyright 1999 by Adele C. Monroe, DVM, MSPH. Except for printing single copies for personal use, reproduction of this article, either electronically or in print, without prior written permission of the author is prohibited.

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