BARF (bones and raw food) & Raw Food Diets
Raw food diets, like BARF (short for bones and raw food), continue to be popular among dog owners, trainers, and breeders. However, there continues to be little to no evidence, other than anecdotal, of its effectiveness in replacing formulated dog food. There have been no level 1 or level 2 scientific studies conducted to support the benefits of a strict raw food diet on dogs. The scientific community is still very much divided on the question of “Can dogs eat raw meat?”, as shown by the letter “In support of bones and raw food diets” (Stogdale and Diehl 783). This discord among the experts only adds to the confusion on the topic of the nutritional value of raw foods versus conventional foods. Additionally, a recent study has shown that slapdash raw food and bone diet resulted in serious deficiencies in key minerals, and hypervitaminosis (an oversupply) in others which can be very harmful to a dog’s health. The reader must understand the risks and consult their intentions with their veterinarian before transitioning your dog into a raw food, or BARF diet.
There is little evidence to support the alleged health benefits of a raw food diet. According to Schlesinger and Joffe (50), only level 4 and 5 research has been conducted on the question of whether a raw diet could effectively replace commercially available dog food. Levels 1 through 3 are scientific studies with peer reviewed research. Levels 4 and 5 amount to low quality case-control studies, and expert opinion. One level 4 publication made use of anecdotal accounts of dog and cat owners using surveys, which resulted no solid conclusion, other than over 98% of them perceived their dog or cat to look healthy. In this study, only 16% of the dogs in this study were fed bones to supplement calcium requirements. Another level 4 anecdotal study found reports of illness in dogs and cats due to an oversupply of Vitamin A from eating pork liver; pansteatitis from cooked oily fish, and hyperparathyroidism in a litter of GSD from eating rice and raw meat. Although, the evidence in these two studies are inconclusive, both suggest an inherent reliability problem in BARF and raw food diets.
Nutrient balancing in raw foods can be eluding to the average dog owner, resulting in nutrient deficiencies or oversupplies. According to another study, over 60% of the participants in a raw food study were feeding an imbalanced diet to their dogs, with the rest demonstrating minor imbalances or an excess of calcium (Dillitzer et al.). 10% of the dogs sampled in this study consumed less than 25% of the recommended calcium allowance. Conversely, 10% of the dogs consumed 300% more calcium than the recommended allowance. More than half of the dogs received less than 50% of the recommended iodine intake, with one case receiving more than 80 times the required dose. The nutritional quality of raw food varies greatly between owners, sometimes reaching dangerous levels of oversupply, and undersupply of crucial vitamins.
Food borne bacteria
With raw food diets, unlike others, food handling hygiene becomes vitally important to the health of the dogs, and your family members. For instance, according to Schlesinger and Joffe (51), in a sample of commercially prepared raw dog food, 6% tested positive for Salmonella, compared to none in conventional dog food (dry or canned). Additionally, over 50% of the raw food samples tested positive for E.coli, compared to 33% and 6% for dry and canned foods respectively. One study in Canada tested locally sourced commercially prepared raw dog food, finding a drug resistant strain of salmonella in over 21% of the samples, of which 67% contained chicken. Comparatively, food safety becomes a major concern in food preparation for dogs, particularly but not exclusively in dealing with chicken as an ingredient.
Risk of salmonella, or E.coli infection from dogs to humans becomes concerning when keeping indoor pets, or in proximity to children. According to a study, at least 3 different animal companion facilities and 1 animal shelter have reported outbreaks of drug resistant salmonella (Schlesinger and Joffe 52). Over 18 humans and 36 animals tested positive for salmonella in fecal cultures in this study. Additionally, those affected by this outbreak included veterinary staff, owners and their children, and other pets in the households that came in contact with the facilities. Independent of your dog’s diet, these accounts demonstrate that salmonella can be easily transmitted from pets to humans.
Although appealing, a raw food dog diet can be dangerous and detrimental to your and your pet’s health. However, some veterinarians claim that microbial gut support in raw food diets is unmatched, and can help alleviate many chronic digestive problems (Stogdale and Diehl 783). However, there is simply not enough evidence to support these claims. Additionally, a formulated, and properly balanced diet can be difficult to achieve with homemade and raw dog food ingredients, and variations in diet and ingredients can easily lead to deficiencies and oversupplies in key nutrients. If sustained for long enough, these variations could easily lead to long-term health issues. Additionally, the risks involved in salmonella and E.coli contamination and transference are very real, and dangerous, particularly to indoor pets, and children. However, if you are concerned with the quality of the food you feed your pets, then there are many choices of varying qualities and grades to choose from in the canned and dry food variety. Many of these manufacturers now provide verified ingredient and inspection reports from independent laboratories.
For an in-depth review of most major dog food brands and varieties, check out this website: Dog Food Advisor.
Schlesinger, Daniel P., and Daniel J. Joffe. “Raw Food Diets in Companion Animals: A Critical Review.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal 52.1 (2011): 50–54. Print.
Stogdale, Lea, and Garcea Diehl. “In Support of Bones and Raw Food Diets.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal 44.10 (2003): 783. Print.
Dillitzer, Natalie, Nicola Becker, and Ellen Kienzle. “Intake of Minerals, Trace Elements and Vitamins in Bone and Raw Food Rations in Adult Dogs.” British Journal of Nutrition 106.S1 (2011): S53–S56. Web.