As researchers warn of the risks of giving dogs raw meat, David Tomlinson explains why he will stick to feeding a BARF (bones and raw food) diet
Bones and raw food for dogs
I’ve long been an advocate of feeding dogs as natural a diet as possible, which means raw food and vegetables.
I was convinced by an interview I did 15 years ago with holistic vet Dr Nick Thompson.
I feed a raw chicken wing for breakfast, and (commercially packaged) raw meat with boiled rice and vegetables for supper. I often use salmon oil to make chopped kale, say, more palatable. This is a diet that has worked well for my dogs and kept them healthy.
A raw meat based diet
However, many in the veterinary business are unconvinced of the merits of feeding raw or what is often known as a BARF diet (bones and raw food). Recent research undertaken in Holland, at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University, suggests that what it calls a raw-meat-based diet (RMBD) has dangers that most owners have never considered.
The key findings, published in Vet Record in January 2018, showed that “commercial raw-meat-based diets may be contaminated with a variety of zoonotic bacterial and parasitic pathogens that can not only result in infection and disease… but also pose a risk to public health”. The study looked at 35 commercial frozen RMBDs from eight most commonly fed brands. Unless you are a veterinary scientist the findings might not mean much to you. For example, “the average quantitative scores for aerobic bacteria were 2.3 x 10(5) colony forming units (cfu)/g, and in two products it exceeded 1.0 x 10(6) (cfu)/g”.
Rather than give you more examples, I will quote instead the research comment in Vet Record: “The number of unsubstantiated claims [about RMBDs] on social media has contributed to the positive attitude of pet owners towards RMBDs… Statements found on social media have not been analysed sufficiently enough to withstand scientific scrutiny and veterinarians are rarely consulted about RMBDs by owners. Thus a lot of pet owners might underestimate the danger of the transmission of pathogens through RMBDs… raw meat can be an important source of parasites, bacteria and viruses.”
Apparently numerous life cycles of heteroxenous parasites — having more than one obligatory host — depend on the uptake of raw or undercooked animal-source protein by carnivores. “Dogs that have ingested contaminated organs shed infectious eggs and when people ingest these eggs they may develop a cystic echinococcosis which is hard to treat and possibly fatal.”
It is enough to persuade anyone to ditch the raw meat and reach for the sack of dried dog food. However, for those who, like me, still believe that feeding raw is better for a dog’s health than the alternatives, there are some recommendations. “Pets… living in the environment of people with a weakened immune system should not be fed RMBDs. Ideally, dogs should not run free on pastures, especially those dogs that are fed RMBDs, because their faeces may contain parasites harmful to livestock.” In addition, RMBDs “should always be frozen at -20°C for three days before feeding to kill parasites”, though “bacteria will not be killed by the freezing process”.
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BARF diet – risks and benefits
As with so many things in life, you have to balance risks with gains. I am convinced that the benefits of feeding raw outweigh the risks and disadvantages. However, I do believe that it is important to be aware of the risks, and to do one’s best to reduce them, if not avoid them altogether.
The raw meat I use comes from one of the leading commercial suppliers and is frozen when I buy it. I would be cautious about feeding fresh, raw meat from an unknown source.
Is a BARF diet just a trendy fad?
Reading the Vet Record comment, you are left with the feeling that feeding raw, BARF or RMBD is a trendy new idea, and that social media is partially responsible for its popularity. However, I think we should remember that feeding raw has a far longer history than feeding dried or canned food, which has only been around for not much more than half a century. There are packs of foxhounds that have been fed nothing other than raw flesh and a bit of biscuit for generations, yet they are among the healthiest of animals. Also, foxhounds hunt across pastures with livestock with no obvious problems.
I once tested my dogs which they liked best — raw or dried — by giving them a choice of bowls at dinnertime. You won’t be surprised to know that they opted, without hesitation, for the raw.