The Myths and Truths Surrounding Raw Food Diets
By Dr Karen Becker
Why Do Raw Pet Foods Get A Bad Rep.
There are many substantiated reasons raw pet foods come under scrutiny by traditional veterinarians and people who have had bad luck trying living foods – all of them, avoidable.
First, many homemade and prey-modelled diets and a few commercially available raw food diets are unbalanced. This means animals have presented to veterinarians, including myself, with nutritional imbalances that could have been avoided. These animals go without antioxidants, the correct amount of trace minerals, vitamins, and the correct fatty acid balance for appropriate and balanced skeletal growth, organ, and immune health.
Usually, these well-intentioned people don’t correlate their animals’ medical issues to nutritional deficiencies, but their vets do. And they develop very strong opinions against all homemade and raw diets, because of these cases. There are many well-intentioned people who feed unbalanced diets out of ignorance and, in some cases, stubbornness.
I’ve had several clients tell me that they don’t care that the analysis of the report of their current diet – let’s say, chicken wings and burger diet – demonstrates that the diet is deficient in certain critical nutrients. This is the diet they fed for X number of years and their dogs appear fine, so they’re not changing it.
These types of statements tell me that my clients or these clients in general are waiting for disease to occur before they will change what they’re doing. And in these situations, the pets always lose. These attitudes cause many veterinarians to loathe any attempts at homemade diets and lump all raw diets into that same category.
How GI Issues Give Raw Food a Bad Rep
Another reason raw diets get a bad rep are GI problems. There are two main reasons pets get GI problems from dietary transitions: speed and dysbiosis. Animals that change diets too quickly can get diarrhea. I’ve had dozens and dozens and dozens of clients that learn about what’s really in their pet’s food or kibble. Or they realize that the brand they’ve been feeding is actually quite terrible, and they just go home and throw it out. Then they drive to the local upscale pet boutique and purchase a human-grade raw food, and their pets love it.
Then their pets become very sick after a few days. They go to the veterinarian. And most vets erroneously blame all cases of diarrhea on the bacteria in the raw food versus the sudden diet change, causing the veterinarian and the owner to panic unnecessarily.
Also, pets process raw foods and kibble very differently. Raw food is processed as a protein, held in the stomach for an acid bath unlike kibble, which pets metabolically view as a starch. If raw foods are added to dry foods for a meal, there can be digestive confusion, and pets can become gassy and belchy.
When introducing any new food to a healthy gutted animal, I recommend using the new food as a treat for a day. And then watch the stool. Then increase the number of new food treats over the next several days and continue to watch the stool. If the stool is fine, replace one whole meal of new food for a meal of old food. Wait several more days. And if stools are great, then just discontinue the old food and begin feeding the new food.
If the pet has never had anything but one type of kibble her whole life, this process may actually need to be extended for several weeks or months, which is totally fine. However, if the pet has a sensitive stomach, IBS, intestinal disturbances, or gut inflammation, which plagues most of the pet population, the weaning process is very different for these animals, and sometimes requires GI support throughout the process.
I have a friend who tells me she’s allergic to all healthy foods. Whenever she eats fresh fruits or vegetables, she has serious GI problems. And she does have to run to the bathroom [due to] GI problems if she consumes any type of fresh food. When she eats ice cream and donuts, she’s good.
When I tried to explain to her that living foods are not toxic to her system but that her gastrointestinal health is so poor, that she can’t tolerate the foods her body was designed to eat, she kind of laughed and said, “Well, whatever.” But , her body’s poor reaction to any healthy food is her excuse to not eat well. And I see this exact same issue in veterinary medicine.
Sometimes, I see vets say things like, “I guess your pet wasn’t meant to eat human-grade food.” Or I’ve heard veterinarians say, “Some animals just can’t tolerate a diet change or healthy food.” And while it’s true these cases take a whole lot more time, the effort and the medical protocol that goes along with it is certainly well worth it. Oftentimes, there must be an accompanying medical protocol to help their dysbiosis and inflamed GI tracts. But all this effort is well worth it.
Helping Your Pet Transition from One Diet to Another
Working with a veterinarian that understands functional medicine and leaky gut syndrome will be critical for successful dietary transitions for most of these pets. It’s important to do this without a negative reaction from your pet. Just like my friend who could put the time and energy into making a lifestyle change that over time would heal her body and allow her to be able to consume nourishing foods without side effects, most people simply choose to continue to live the lifestyle that caused the problem.
This is certainly true with pet owners as well. It appears to be too much work or too much trouble to put forth the effort needed to be able to make a lifestyle change, which can actually take up to a year for many of these animals.
My view, of course, is that health is on a spectrum, and pets are always moving one way or another. So, a year from now, will your pet be healthier or just older from where she is right now?
Pets with an over active immune system or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) will probably need professional assistance with a detoxification protocol and a leaky gut protocol to be able to transition to a better diet.
And lots of patience will also be required.
The road to recovery is not linearly positive, it’s not this beautiful line until your pet achieves wellness. You’ll see bumps in the road.
You will see ups and downs. But certainly, creating gastrointestinal health is critical for a thriving pet. So, the end result is well worth your effort.
Introducing Raw Food Diet to Pets
These pets are gastrointestinally debilitated and will need their food gently cooked and totally ground up for many months initially. Oftentimes, I begin with only two ingredients in a home-prepared diet and slowly adding nutrients one at a time as the patient’s health improves.
Some people argue that feeding this way, starting so slow, or having it take so many months is not what nature intended. And I totally agree. But we must meet our patients where their bodies are at. Many animals must be on special protocols initially to assist in healing. These animals are fragile. And if a seasoned holistic veterinarian isn’t participating in the dietary transition, it can go really poorly for some of these animals even resulting in hospitalization. These unsuccessful attempts at a dietary transition are why traditional vets will say, “Some pets just can’t tolerate raw foods or fresh foods. You just need to leave good enough alone and continue feeding kibble.” But it is important to recognize that with good effort, these animals have a chance with some professional guidance.
One of the more common myths perpetuated about raw food is that dogs and cats can’t get food poisoning. Pets can and do get food poisoning from eating rancid meat. Undoubtedly, this also occurs in the wild, too, but it acts as a means of population control when predators die from consuming toxic food.
There’s a website right now that currently advocates feeding spoiled meat to your pets. This is an absolutely terrible advice. It will only be a matter of time before this advice kills pets. There’s a huge difference between normal opportunistic bacteria loads in fresh healthy meats and spoiled meats filled with endotoxins that will kill any mammal if ingested.
So, don’t feed your pets any type of spoiled food. Commercially available raw food diets do not contain any filler, extra fiber, and certainly no hair, which would be found on any wild animal dogs and cats would consume. This particular lack of hair can also be a lack of roughage or fibre. This means some animals aren’t supplied the additional nutrients that they need. And sometimes, pets can get constipated. Oddly, instead of simply addressing the fiber issue, some veterinarians tell owners to stop living foods altogether.
Raw food diets usually produce small, hard balls of poop that are easily passed and usually turned white and crumble and blown away in a day if you forget to pick them up. This is normal. I’ve had some people go back to feeding kibble, because no one explained that their pet’s poop would radically change on a raw food diet, and that multiple huge piles of stinky poop from dry food diets would be a thing of the past. So, faces will change and for the better. A raw – food poop is entirely different from a kibble-fed poop.
Oftentimes, after one to three months on a fresh food diet, pets go through a detoxification process. This is totally normal and is actually something that you should celebrate. Detox for your pet will happen through the bowels and skin.
During a detox, pets will actually act totally normal. They’ll be happy, bright, and alert. But you could find that they’d be shedding a tremendous amount of hair. They shed out their old, dead, dull hair, and they begin growing a shiny, soft fur.
Sometimes, you can see a lot of ear wax or debris being produce in the ear. That needs to be cleaned out. And some pets will pass blobs of mucus in their stools.
These symptoms of detoxification will pass on their own. They’re nothing that you need to worry about, but something that you need to anticipate or it can kind of freak you out.
Pets on a fresh food diet also consume far less water than pets eating an entirely dehydrated diet. You need to anticipate that your pet’s water intake will diminish.
Beware: Choking Hazards
I’ve also seen websites suggesting you introduce raw food by throwing a whole chicken to your kibble-fed dog, because they’ll just know what to do. They’re dogs; they know exactly what to do. So, just throw them a chicken.
Whole chickens or any bony meats can be a choking hazard. And while some dogs do fine with whole chickens, some dogs don’t do fine.
At my house, we buy chicken wings in 40-pound boxes from the butcher. I know my dogs well. I know that when I hand them a wing, they chew the wing thoroughly. They do not attempt to swallow the wings whole, so I feel fine handing them a chicken wing. It’s great for their teeth. It helps remove plaque and tartar. Their breath is great.
One day, at my house, my husband brought home a box of 40 pounds of chicken wings that was in the back of his truck. He got distracted with a phone call and didn’t realize that Ada had jumped into the back of the truck and started helping herself. Ada ate about 15 pounds of chicken wings in about five minutes. By the time my husband turned around, she was a bloated tick. Needless to say, she did not eat dinner that night. She was totally fine. We fasted her. Obviously, for some people, this episode would have taken them to the emergency room just to make sure everything was okay. If I would have X-rayed Ada, Ada’s X -rays would have shown a tremendous amount of bones in her GI tract. And for a traditional veterinarian not used to looking at bone fragments on X-ray, this could have been very concerning. In fact, the potential recommendation to go to surgery could have been recommended.
I’ve had several cases at my practice of animals going to surgery unnecessarily only to reveal that the surgeon found tiny bone fragments in a totally healthy GI tract from the pet’s raw food diets. So, it’s an important point to make.
I’ve had a few cases of dogs choking on giant pieces of raw food or getting pieces stuck in their throats in an attempt to swallow the bony food whole. You must use your head and common sense when you begin a raw food diet. If you don’t know if your dog is going to gulp versus chew, then you need to grind up the food or you need to feed a commercially available raw food diet, where it’s already pre-ground that can’t be gulped.
Recreational chewing bones like knucklebones can also fracture teeth. Lots of dogs end up with terrible teeth fractures from the advice that all dogs do well chewing raw bones. And you’ll see that on the Internet. You’ll see that on my Facebook page. “Oh, just throw your dog a knucklebone everything will be fine.”
Lots of dogs can chew raw bones with no problems. But a lot of dogs that chew raw bones have substantial oral damage.
My veterinary dentist says that he has financed an entire wing of his hospital from removing painful broken teeth after people have followed the basic advice of “Just throw him a soup bone, and he’ll love it.”
Most dogs do best with recreational bones that actually match the size of their head. So, small bones like rib bones or very small femur bones tend to cause more tooth fractures from an aggressive chewer, because the dog’s able to get the bone in and bite down vertically, which will snap off their teeth.
Likewise, some dogs chew bones down to the teeny, tiny pieces, which then they try and swallow, and can get stuck in their GI tracts.
Helpful Tips in Feeding Raw Bones to Pets
Taking some precautions, like always supervising raw bone chewing events, removing the bone when the pieces are broken off or gets small, and discontinuing raw bones if pets have weak or fractured teeth, are all kinds of common-sense suggestions that sometimes aren’t necessarily followed. Raw bones also contain marrow. Marrow is primarily fat.
I’ll tell you a personal story.
When I first heard of offering raw bones to dogs, I was in college. I was one of those people that kind of ignorantly did it. I just threw Gemini a raw femur bone in the morning before I went to class. I got home from class about eight hours later, and she had not moved. She was still by the front door. She was chewing the bone. Her whole mouth was cut up raw, inflamed, and bleeding. She was so fired up like she had never had them before.
That is an example of what not to do. She was wildly ecstatic about the bone, but it caused undue trauma to her mouth.
So, there are numerous health benefits and psychological benefits from offering raw bones to dogs. However, it must be done wisely.
I recommend initially offering raw bones for a few minutes daily until the dog’s GI tract has adapted to the high-fat content. Or remove the marrow prior to offering bones to animals with pancreatitis or poor digestion, or you will have blown out diarrhoea.
I don’t recommend offering bones communally to a dog pack, because each dog needs their own bone and their own space to chew in. I recommend picking bones up after each session, or you can have some resource guarding occuring.
Raw bones, initially when you first give them, become a gooey, sloppy mess. After 15 minutes of invigorating chewing, they become soupy. So, I recommend you to not offer raw bones on your brand new white carpeting, because you will be distraught.
As with all new things, these are some helpful suggestions that hopefully you can take into account to avoid pitfalls that others have experienced and learned from. I hope that I have clarified any misconceptions you’ve had about raw foods. And I hope that you’re able to use this information to easily and successfully transition your pet onto a more natural diet.
As I always say, there’s no such thing as one best protein, brand of food, or type of food that all pets do well on. The best food you can feed your pet is the freshest, most natural food you can afford to support your pet’s overall health, well-being, and vitality
Dr. Karen Becker