I’ve noticed an attitude amongst raw-feeding pet-owners that suggests suspicion and mistrust of the veterinary profession’s attitude to feeding BARF (Bones and Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) diets.

When owners are asked, “What do you feed Rover / Kitty?” those feeding a raw diet react in one of two ways:

  1. They apologize for feeding raw, as if expecting to be chastised, or
  2. Go on the attack with a “I feed raw and I’m proud of it” attitude.

In truth, either response is sad because actually vets want what’s best for the pet and aren’t about judging owners. So to put the record straight, here are the real reasons vets are concerned about the risks of raw feeding for pets. These include:

  1. Infecting the pet with Salmonella, Mycobacterium, Listeria, E.coli or Campylobacter
  2. Zoonosis, or passing that Salmonella or Mycobacterium infection on to people
  3. Anti-microbial resistance due to raw food
  4. Nutritional deficiencies
  5. Broken teeth and perforated bowels
  6. Lack of hard evidence of the benefit

This article doesn’t set out to dissuade those who are convinced a raw food diet is best for their pet. My intention is merely to inform, so that owners can understand the risks. If you are dead set against canned food and dislike dry kibble, then good for you, stick to your guns but just be sure to make an informed decision because more than your pet’s health could be affected.

#1: Salmonella, Mycobacterium, and other Bugs Best Avoided

Bugs and meat go together like…bread and butter. It’s processing that destroys these bugs. Just think of that stomach upset from a poorly cooked BBQ burger and you’ll understand.

The list of bugs linked to meat makes sober reading and includes: Salmonella, E.coli, Mycobacterium, Listeria, Campylobacteria, Yersinia, and Brucellosis and other stomach-churning infections, including tapeworms.

And if you’re thinking “This doesn’t apply because my pet eats defrosted, frozen raw foods,” then think again. Studies looking especially at prepacked frozen raw food found a bacterial presence that ranged from 7% to 22% of the samples tested. Again, it’s cooking that does the bug busting!

But the problem is, if you escape infection when handling the raw meat, your pet can become a source of infection for people. This is especially dangerous for humans with a weak immune system, such as the very young or old, or people on chemotherapy.

#2: Zoonosis: Catching a Bug from your Dog of Cat

It is an urban myth that dogs and cats are more resistant to Salmonella than people. Instead, what happens is the dog or cat picks up infection but enters a carrier state, happily excreting Salmonella in their poop. You guessed it…ready and waiting to infect their owner. And if you think this is scare-mongering, it isn’t. There have been recorded cases of children acquiring resistant strains of Salmonella from contact with pets that ate infected raw chicken.

And the risk isn’t just catching a bacterial infection from your dog or cat. For cats especially, there is the risk of them shedding toxoplasma after eating infected meat. This is especially dangerous to pregnant women, since contact with Toxo at a certain stage in pregnancy can lead to birth deformities in the unborn child.

#3: Acquiring Anti-microbial Resistance (AMR) from Raw Meat

No-one wants to go back to a world without antibiotics, where a simple wound infection could be deadly. Heat treatment of meat (during processing) is an important means of killing bacteria, some of which may have genes for antibiotic resistance.

One study in the Netherlands tested raw meat samples for the presence of bacteria with anti-microbial resistance (AMR). They found that 28 out of 35 samples came back positive. This has big implications.

Firstly, if your pet is ill, they may not respond to antiobiotic therapy.

Secondly, dogs faeces were tested for the presence of AMR E.coli (ie E.coli that doesn’t respond to antibiotic therapy.) Twice as many were found in pets fed raw food, than in control animals. This means if you catch E.coli from your dog’s poop or the cat’s litter tray, then antibiotics might not make your well again.

#4: Nutritional Deficiencies

A balanced diet is crucial for good health, but it’s also a minefield when creating a meal from scratch. A meal needs to consist of protein (meat), but things such as vitamins and minerals. For example, there’s something called a ‘Calcium to phosphorus’ ratio, which has to be got right. If this ratio is skewed in either direction the result could be organ damage or weak bones. To make things even more complicated a pet’s needs change over their life time. So what suited Kitty as a kitten, isn’t right as a senior.

And Ca:P is just one example of a pitfall. Again, with cats, let’s look at taurine. Deficiency in this vital amino acid leads to blindness in felines and heart failure. And there are documented cases in cats fed a raw diet. How so? Well, when meat defrosts that liquid left in the bowl is the taurine-rich part. If this gets tipped down the sink, the cat is left with a low taurine food.

Plus, a meat that is taurine-rich on lab analysis, doesn’t necessarily yield all that taurine up to the cat. Something called ‘biological availability’ means that what a food contains may be locked inside that food and the animal can’t necessary digest out the goodness.

Another thing is that deficiencies don’t show up straight away in the pet’s health. This happens months, ore more likely years, down the line. So it’s easy for an owner to feel their pet is perfectly healthy, whilst storing up trouble down the road.

#5: Broken Teeth and Perforated Guts

We won’t spend a lot of time on this one, since chewing on bones isn’t exclusive to dogs and cat on a raw diet. Long story short, veterinary dentists are seeing a rise in cases linked to fractured teeth as a result of chewing on bones (and hooves, and antlers). This is both painful for the pet and expensive for the owner.

Also, chewed up bone can travel along the gut, scratching it like sandpaper. A particularly unlucky pet may even have a shard of bone migrate through the gut wall and cause peritonitis. And the thing is, this probably happens in the wolves and wild dogs that are the poster boys for BARF…it’s just here’s no-one there to witness their suffering and death from bone obstruction peritonitis.

#6: Lack of Hard Evidence as to the Benefits

“A-ha,” you say, “my cat’s stools have never been better since she started on raw food.”

OK, you may have something there. Research does point to a healthier microbial content in the bowel of dogs and cats fed raw food. You could think of this like a pet pro-biotic. Also, some pets with food allergies or sensitivities improve on raw diets, because they are no longer eating a food type that triggers a reaction. This researchers do concede.

However, the evidence ends there. Modern veterinary practice is about evidence-based medicine and being able to prove and replicate a benefit before recommending a course of action. Sadly, there are a lack of studies which show a proven, repeatable benefit to the pet of feeding raw food.

Again, if your experience is otherwise then great. But as a vet it is unethical to take anecdotal evidence and present it as fact. This means a vet’s hesitation to recommend BARF isn’t down to their disapproval but to being responsible about health recommendations made for pets and their people.

References and Resources

Raw Diets for Dogs and Cats: A review with particular reference to microbial hazards Davies, Lawes, & Wales. JSAP 26 April 2019

AAHA Warns Against Raw Pet Diet Risks AVMA