A Raw Food Feeding Debate!
Our head vet Brendan Clarke participated in the pro raw food feeding side debate at a recent veterinary conference. The veterinary industry is still finding its way where raw food feeding for our dogs and cats is concerned, but some vets are way ahead of the curve on this debate with years and years of experience with pet owners who have fed been raw food feeding their own dogs safely and responsibly. Brendan is one such pro raw food feeding vet who thinks it’s about time the industry looked critically at the evidence that’s out there. The myths need teasing out that raw food feeding is unsafe and instead look at balancing any genuine risks v’s the benefits we see time and time again with raw food feeding. We caught up with Brendan and interviewed him to find out his thoughts on what the debate was about and how it went.
What was the debate about?
The debate was split into 2 sections. The first section was debating about the safety of raw food feeding, from the concerns over the risks of obstructions through to parasite and bacterial safety. The second part was to do with nutrition and the nutritional value found in raw food feeding and how it can give balanced nutrition, and how we can vary it according to individual dogs than the commercially prepared foods on the market today.
Who was involved?
There was myself and the head of a raw pet food company there debating pro-raw food, and there was another veterinary surgeon who works within the conventional field who was claiming that raw food feeding was neither safe nor nutritious. The mediator of the debate was a veterinary professional from one of the veterinary universities who deals with researching and reporting evidence based papers and studies to present to the veterinary profession.
When and where was it held?
The debate took place on Thursday 8th April at an international veterinary conference, which is held in Birmingham by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association. The conference is held each year for veterinary surgeons, nurses and other veterinary practice team members. It provide opportunity to refresh and improve their knowledge of animal healthcare and of veterinary medicine and surgery, providing opportunities to get together with individuals within the same industry. A series of lecture streams are held, as well as an exhibition of veterinary based companies.
Why now? Has it been debated before amongst veterinary professionals?
This year it has happened partly because some debate within the industry has happened before and been particularly biased rather than being a critique of the information available. I think it’s really important that that information, when we are looking at evidence base, is critiqued properly and is unbiased. So it was proposed that we have this debate at a veterinary conference to discuss what evidence is currently out there, and what evidence is still needed to improve our understanding of raw food diets, which in turn will then help to teach and improve the understanding of veterinary professionals and the industry as a whole.
Why did you decide to agree to take part?
Because we have hundreds of clients who attend our practice that are currently feeding raw to their dogs and cats. They do it safely and responsibly and they are able to demonstrate happy and healthy pets that they have a closely bonded relationship with. Neither the pets, nor their owners, show illness from the raw food or contract anything from the pets themselves or from preparing their food. So I thought it was about time we had that discussion and brought my own experience to it; looking into some of the research out there, unpicking where there are maybe invalid statements surrounding what are proposed as possible risks. Also looking at how we could educate the profession help them engage with their clients about raw food feeding rather than dismissing it out of hand. I also feed raw food to my own dogs and see the benefits to them both in their health and wellbeing, including their mental wellbeing and the satisfaction they receive from eating larger raw bones as part of their meals which they take more time over.
What was the main point you wanted to get across?
I think that actually many people can feed raw safely, and that we should be engaging with pet owners as a profession about feeding raw food safely. They would then be able to seek professional advice regarding raw food feeding rather than being left to their own devices and potentially choosing food sources which could be contaminated and could pose an increased risk to their pets. They may also without realising it, be feeding inappropriately with kibble and raw food at the same time and their pet may be more at risk (not necessarily always but most certainly more at risk) of obstruction and inability to digest food due to the stomach pH not being appropriate to start digestion of bone straight away. As a profession we should be engaging with pet owners and finding an evidence base in truth about how raw food feeding can be safe and nutritious for our pets.
What did the opposition to raw food feeding want to get across?
I feel that they were trying to get across that there is a risk with regards to obstruction of bone material, and that as the amount of raw food feeding owners increases that the risks increase too. They also had concerns over safety in terms of bacterial and parasitic infections and the risks associated with raw food in general. They were very worried that in this litigious age that if a client’s child was to catch a bacterial infection from the raw food, or from the dog itself, that that circumstance would mean that 1) They were responsible for that child’s health and welfare, and that 2) they may be subject to negligence and also sued for the illness of that child.
What are your thoughts about how the debate went?
I would say that we had a very engaging discussion throughout each debate. Each one was an hour and a half and the room was full. We were discussing and addressing issues and aspects of raw feeding and nutrition, with questions from the audience of 50 delegates and debate between the speakers right through the time allotted. It was a step forward in looking at the evidence critically and looking at where evidence was lacking. It was useful for us to highlight to the veterinary profession and the public that actually work is being done in a positive and unbiased way. It may need to be published which is something we need to look into and get underway, so that people can see real evidence that is relevant to pets and pet owners in this country rather than relying on studies from abroad that are irrelevant to meat production in the UK.
Certainly the discussions on the nutrition of raw food went very well. We’ve shown, and many companies are now understanding, that feeding many different elements will affect the metabolic rate and raw food feeding is about variety. This will actually help animals maintain their body weight without putting on excesses and that on the flip side that nutrient value can be gained through variety rather than having to be balanced in every meal.
As for the safety, it’s very hard when you are presented with a very emotive subject of a child possibly getting ill with the proposed incidents of contracting a bacterium found in the raw food. The risk, however, was discussed to be tantamount to winning the lottery. This risk is also easily reduced further by; maintaining appropriate health, hygiene and cleanliness when preparing food, considering carefully the purchase of raw food (i.e. not food processed at the abattoirs for human consumption as the allowed levels of bacterial contamination are massively higher for food intended for cooking than that intended for the raw pet food industry), making sure that dishes and floors cleaned and perhaps looking at feeding our dogs outside. All of these aspects reduce the potential risks proposed by the anti-raw food feeding side of the debate.
As far as the obstructions that were discussed, it was clear to me that some of the obstructions reported could have occurred as a result of other underlying illnesses and indeed that the circumstances around which the food was fed might not have been appropriate – for example the bone was cooked or scavenged, and of course that these pets may be fed with a mixture of kibble and the raw bone being the odd chicken wing or bone given on top. In these cases a dog’s system is far less able to defend itself and digest the bone material as the environment within the stomach isn’t appropriate to start digestion properly, and as a result can increase the risk of such problems. So I personally did find that there were perfectly plausible alternative explanations available for the cases presented and that these were not significant risks associated with a properly raw food fed pet dog.
What kind of questions were there from the floor of veterinary professionals, and how were they answered and dealt with?
Some were with regards to safety, and rather than asking about it just being intake and output of bacterial load, the risks around contamination of the coat were addressed as well as from around the mouth, and was this going to be a problem. Those professionals who were parents in the room had particular concerns with regards to their child coming into contact with the mouths, or coats, of dogs who had eaten raw. Obviously we pointed out that there is as much bacteria on the floor surface, on tennis balls or toys that children may touch all the time, as well as waterways and areas that dog’s always go, which didn’t seem to be of similar concern to parents with children coming into contact. All of these aspects of a dog’s life also have large bacterial numbers associated with them and it’s a big question as to how much is the mouth or the coat going to pose any risk at all on a continued basis for a raw fed dog v’s the everyday accepted contact between a child and their pet dog. Whilst I personally, even as a parent myself, feel that the risks to our children are very minimal from raw food and they are more at risk of the filthy tennis ball in the garden, it does highlight the need for research into this aspect to demonstrate and put the professions mind at ease as not everyone has or shares my positive experiences with raw food feeding which I do appreciate and can empathise with.
There were questions around obesity and disease nutrition and supplementation requirements in cases of illness. All of the time we are finding out new things, and some of the new discussion papers that were held at BSAVA this year are showing that previously held beliefs on nutrition for certain illnesses is being undone, and that we shouldn’t be restricting proteins in renal disease and that we should be handling liver disease in a different way. So these long held beliefs carried forward by food companies are now being republished to show that the original work done had flaws. We are really adamant that this is continued so that we can get a true picture, rather than a company biased picture, as to what is happening with our pet’s nutrition.
What was the main outcome of the debate?
I think the main outcome of the debate was that there is still a lot more work to be done. We need to show evidence relevant in this country with regards to the level of contamination found in raw meat produced within this country. We need actually highlight the differences between sourcing raw food from a raw pet food company v’s sourcing raw food from supermarket shelves which have different hygiene levels, procedures and bacterial count allowances due to this food being with the intention to be cooked prior to consumption. Also other sourcing such as a butchers being perhaps even a better alternative to the supermarket or a pet food company. The other factors that came out are that actually this can be done safely and we are engaging with rest of the veterinary profession and talking to them about it. The benefits of feeding raw being both biologically appropriate as well as better for the mental welfare of our pets, and that good nutrition isn’t just about a chemical intake into the body but about a state of wellbeing and good mental health for our pets too.
The audience were asked questions to vote on during this debate. What were the questions and what was the outcome?
The initial safety questions were;
1) Is it safe to feed raw food?
2) Is it safe to feed a homemade diet?
Question 1 before the debate started off with a lot of people unsure about the safety of raw food feeding, this was of course one of the reasons they attended the debate. To clarify, the audience consisted mostly of professionals from within the industry and some representatives from kibble pet food manufacturers who we welcomed to attend. At the end it remained a 50-50 split, maybe more were cautious still with the safety aspect because of that possibility of one or two bacterial cases but, as I’ve already mentioned, I personally feel that this is an area where currently there is a lack of published evidence to support our pro-raw case. However, just as there is a lack of evidence there, there is also a risk from processed food contamination as well, so I think it’s fair to say that it’s an interesting debate and it’s helped to show more work needs to be done.
With home prepared diets, many from the audience were concerned that there could be a risk of deficiencies, that pet owners might feed just fish on its own constantly and cause issues with blindness or deficiencies in taurine etc. That pet owners may also feed liver on its own for weeks on end and cause hypervitaminosis A, a problem with bone growth around the joints causing arthritic change, and also vitamin D deficiencies such as osteodystrophies (lack of calcium within the bone), and therefore pathological fractures. So really it’s down to engaging and informing how to feed homemade diets.
I personally felt that this aspect of the debate was quite disingenuous to responsible pet owners who are quite capable of researching dietary needs and making sure that diets are given that are appropriate, varied and contain both organ, bone material and flesh from different animals rather than from single sources only. Certainly I have the view that many pet owners wishing to feed a raw food diet initially look into this very carefully indeed to get the facts straight first, although there is much conflicting information out there which is where the veterinary profession can help to produce the nutritional guidelines to what our pets need in their diet if feeding raw.
The nutritional debate was much harder to define and give a balanced questions to the audience. These questions were;
- Is raw food nutritious?
- Is a home prepared diet nutritious?
All involved felt that the questions proposed were not specific enough in that it ended up that both sides agreed that both contain nutrients so it had to be concluded that a raw food diet was nutritious. Again there were concerns regarding single sourcing of food again and that in those cases a home prepared or raw food diet wouldn’t be nutritious due to imbalance. So it was very difficult to draw any conclusions by the questions asked of the mediators and that was a concern of all the speakers involved, not just myself.
Do you think this debate was a positive thing for pet owners / veterinary clients, and if so why?
I think it is a positive thing. It shows that the profession is starting to look at nutrition more. For many years nutrition discussions with clients were very poor relative to health discussions, and the discussions around nutrition within the profession has been consistently dominated by large corporate pet food companies. This was a debate not dominated or sponsored by any such company. On that basis is a positive step forward for all our clients and their pets. For those clients particularly who are feeding raw, if they have vets who are willing to engage with them and to talk about it owners are going to be more willing to discuss how they are feeding their pets and to get appropriate help when it’s necessary.
You can find out more about raw food feeding your own dog with our guide downloadable here. We are about to update this guide very soon, and will be producing one on how to feed your cat too in the very near future, so keep checking back with us as we update our website regularly!