The Downside of Feeding a Raw Food Diet

“Nurse to reception – stat – with a gurney!” booms over the PA system. Immediately the vet hospital mobilizes and an already busy Saturday night begins to take on the controlled but manic pace that comes from thousands of hours of unfortunate practice. As two nurses wheel the gurney through to reception, they see the car, back doors open, worried faces looking on, and a Golden retriever, tongue lolling laying flat out on the backseat. Without stopping to ask the receptionist or the second worried owner at the desk, they head outside, load the barely responsive dog onto the gurney, and head to the back where an emergency veterinarian and team of animal health technicians wait to assess, diagnosis, and hopefully save this latest patient.

As the team takes the dog’s vitals, the receptionist rushes back, paperwork in hand.

“Two year old Golden Retriever, seemed normal all day, went for a 2 hour hike this afternoon, was fine post walk,” her voice is controlled, almost monotone. She knows her job – the vet wants the facts without hesitation. “Dog had dinner, seemed fine. Slept all evening and when owners went to wake him up to go to bed, they noticed him wobbling and seemed dopey. By the time they got him here, he couldn’t walk or hold up his head.”

“Find out if he could have gotten into anything on the walk, what he had for dinner and whether he has presented any of these symptoms before,” asks the vet. “Ask if he could have injured himself in anyway or if he could have been kicked by someone or something!” He shouts as the door closes behind the receptionist.

With a weak, racing but erratic heart rate and dangerously low blood pressure, the vet’s hunch is the dog is bleeding out but this is not a common occurrence in young healthy dogs. The other option is he ingested something toxic. Both alternatives are potentially fatal if he does not come up with a diagnosis quickly.

Within a minute, the receptionist returns.

“He was only out of their sight a few times so they don’t think he would have had time to eat anything or injured himself without them knowing, he’s on a BARF diet, and no, he has not show…”

“Get permission from the owners to do a series of abdominal radiographs and find out what he ate tonight…,” the vet interrupts.

The techs wheel the gurney to X-ray, knowing that asking permission from the owners is only a formality – who would say ‘no’ to the vet when their dog is dying?

Minutes later, the abdominal radiograph hangs on the backlit screen, showing a small, hard sliver of something where nothing hard should be, alongside the esophagus and an abdomen full of fluid, presumably blood. More slivers are visible in the dog’s abdomen.

The vet rushes to speak to the owners, knowing that it was his responsibility to ask permission from the owners to open their dog up to stop the bleeder. Without being told, the techs begin to prep the dog for emergency abdominal surgery.

“Something has pierced an artery in your dog’s esophagus,” the vet begins while half way through the door that connects reception to the back room. His usual relaxed, friendly, and capable manner dropped, seconds matter and he has no time to hold the couple’s hand while they make critical decisions. “I need to open him up immediately to find and stop the bleeder – do I have your permission?”

“Yes,” the husband whispers, eyes wide. “What could it be?”

The receptionist pops her head through the door and tells the technicians it’s a go ahead, allowing the doctor a minute to speak with the owners.

“It looks like a bone fragment and he has a gut full of them. Why he does I can’t tell you,” he says calmly.

“That’s his dinner,” says the man, obviously puzzled at the vet’s concern. “He is on a BARF diet.”

“Ground bones…” the vet’s voice trails off, a barely concealed look of disgust shadowing his tense features.

“Yes, he gets it added to his dinner every night…” says the wife in a tremulous voice, speaking for the first time.

Without another word, the vet turns away, heading back to his hectic prep room, too angry to address the concerned owners without telling them that they may have inadvertently killed their dog.

What is a Raw Food Diet?

After the pet food recalls in the last few years, there has been a shift in how people feed their pets and the long-standing belief that commercial pet foods are the only way to feed domestic animals. Although the jury is still out on this argument, there is some validity to feeding either a homemade diet, a less processed commercial diet, or supplementing a manufactured diet with whole foods.

A homemade pet food diet is generally a cooked meal that includes a meat portion, a grain portion, and a vegetable portion, hopefully balanced and monitored by veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist.

However, proponents for feeding a Raw food diet believe the cooking process breaks down necessary nutrients and that our domesticated dogs are almost entirely carnivores, not the omnivores they were originally believed to be. In an attempt to emulate how our pets would eat in the wild, diets include a wide range of ideologies and ingredients.

Why feed a Raw food diet? Many believe that the benefits are worth the time and energy required to feed their pet a Raw diet. The better oral health maintained by chewing on bones and the mental stimulation as well as the added metabolic or caloric burn required to devour a carcass is beneficial to the overall health of the animal. There is even an argument that the tearing and chewing action required to eat meat helps build jaw, neck, and shoulder strength while the increased flow of digestive juices helps boost the immune and neurological system.

The BARF Diet

BARF stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food or Bones And Raw Food diet. The premise is based on a ‘prey model’ diet and attempts to emulate how a dog or cat would eat in the wild. The ideal BARF diet is 60 to 80% raw meaty bones (RMB) such as the chicken necks, backs, and wings, 20 to 40% fruit and vegetables, offal, eggs, meat, or dairy products.

At first, the theory seems sound – how and why would human intervention change how our pets eat? However, BARF advocates do not take into account how a wild dog actually eats their prey, an important part of why this diet may or may not work.

First, most wild animals are scavengers as well as hunters so their diets can include everything from fresh killed prey to other hunter’s leftovers to bugs to berries to birds to human refuse they stumble upon. Wild dogs especially are omnivores – if it even marginally resembles food, they will eat it with relish.

Next, the order with which a wild dog or wolf eats a prey animal must be examined. Keep in mind that the pack eats the most nutritionally dense part of the deer first in case they are forced to leave the carcass so when a wolf pack kills a deer, they start with the organs and intestines, eating the offal as well. Considering a deer is an herbivore and their diet consists of grasses, why would a wolf pack eat the offal? Instinct tells them that the added digestive enzymes will help to properly digest the upcoming meal and the soil-based probiotics in the grass will aid in maintaining the balance of good bacteria in the digestive tract. The nutrients in the grass will also help provide a balanced diet, something lacking if all the wolf pack ate was the meat on the carcass.

Once the abdominal cavity is empty, the pack turns to consuming the meat before finally chewing the bones. Bones are an afterthought, usually enjoyed over a series of days if they are able to continue working on the carcass. Bones are also consumed with skin and fur attached so that any sharp slivers are padded by the dense hide.

The Prey Model Diet

Similar to a BARF diet, Prey Model diets are one-step farther on the scale of extreme diets for pets that few owners would have the desire, or stomach, to feed. Used more in laboratory tests, whole prey is ground, packaged in meal size portions, and then frozen until fed to the animals.

The Natural Diet

Probably the most extreme and yet most effective Raw food diet type is the natural diet, a diet embraced by many zoos and wildlife conservation societies around the world. What is a natural diet? About as simple as it can be – toss a prey carcass in with the animal you want to feed and allow nature to look after its own. This diet, however, is obviously not realistic for the average pet owner and maybe best left to zoos.

The Downside of Feeding a Raw Food Diet

Sadly, the Golden retriever died on the operating table. The body can only handle so much blood loss before organs begin to shut down and even young, healthy animals cannot survive the impossible.

Is this type of injury, an intestinal perforation, common in animals fed a raw diet and/or ground bones? No, but it does happen. A severed artery is the fast way for a pet to die while many perforations are a slow process involving contamination from the digestive tract into the sterile abdominal cavity. Without surgery and antibiotics, sepsis sets in and animals die a slow painful death.

The other major concern about feeding a Raw diet is contamination from bacteria, parasites, and viruses. For example, 16.3% of chickens reported by the US government were contaminated with Salmonella while a study performed on twenty-five commercial raw dog and cat diets found that 20% were contaminated with Salmonella while an astounding 64% were contaminated by e.coli. Arguments that the short digestive tracts of dogs and cats as well as strong stomach enzymes make these animals better suited to fight off bacteria, the reality is that animals can still get sick and potentially die from these conditions.

Proponents for a natural diet, including BARF Diet and the BARF World Distributor Network Dr. Ian Billinghurst, understand the downside of feeding a Raw food diet and state that “there are grave dangers that go along with the natural diet and natural conditions the ancestors or wild cousins of our dogs live with”.

What does this mean? There are risks associated with feeding a Raw diet and although the nutritional components may sound like the solution to the dog food debate, there are inherent dangers to feeding a Raw diet and owners must understand this before making the decision to switch their pet’s diet.

Blockages, intestinal perforations, cracked and broken teeth, parasites, and food contamination are all real life concerns that many Raw food advocates gloss over. What level of risk are you willing to take with your pet’s health? Are you able to assess an emergency situation and take the necessary actions to save your pet both mentally and financially? What about when you travel? Do you feel comfortable with finding a vet in a strange city or leaving your pet in the hands of a pet sitter?

There are benefits as well as the downsides of feeding a Raw food diet although it is questionable whether the good outweighs the bad. Contact our vet and ask for a referral to a veterinary nutritionist before switching to any Raw food diet so that your pet’s diet is monitored. Regular check ups and lab work to monitor the your pet’s health are mandatory and using safe, clean preparation practices to prevent bacteria and parasites being transferred to you and your family are necessary.

Six months later, the owners of the Golden retriever adopted a new puppy and brought him to the hospital to introduce him to the doctor who worked so hard against all odds to save their beloved pet. When asked what they were feeding the new pup, they quickly assured him there were no more ground bones in the house and that they were giving him a combination of top-quality commercial dog food mixed with a homemade stew. Hedging their bets? You better believe it!



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