Raw food or bust!

Post date: Jun 11, 2012 12:15:09 AM

The Raw Food Diet for Pets

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May 23, 2012


For years, raw food enthusiasts have touted the health benefits of uncooked food for humans. Now, some veterinarians and pet owners believe that a raw meat diet is best for pets.

Sharon Misik, an actress who adopted two Siberian huskies in 2008 from a pet rescue organization, is a believer. After adopting the animals, Ms. Misik and her husband, who live in Bradbury, Calif., spent thousands of dollars on specialized diets and trips to veterinarians to treat a mysterious illness that plagued their dogs, which had trouble eating and severe diarrhea and seemed perpetually sick.

When nothing else worked, she decided to try a raw food diet, even though several veterinarians discouraged it, saying it would expose her dogs to harmful bacteria. A holistic veterinarian encouraged her to start her dogs on a line of raw and freeze-dried chicken and beef foods made by Stella and Chewy’s, a Wisconsin-based pet food company.

The difference was immediate, Ms. Misik says.

“They were like new dogs,” she said. “They were happy and healthy, and their digestive systems improved dramatically. Since we started them on the raw food, these dogs have not been sick one day.”

Ms. Misik is among a vocal minority of pet owners willing to pay a premium for raw pet foods. Last year, sales of commercially prepared raw pet foods reached $100 million, although that number doesn’t reflect the unknown numbers of pet owners preparing their own raw food diets at home.

While sales of raw pet foods are robust, they represent only a fraction of the $19 billion pet food market in the United States. Even so, raw products are now one of the fastest-growing segments of the pet food industry, and sales of raw pet foods have climbed 15 percent annually for the past three years and are projected to keep up the fast-paced growth, said David Lummis, the senior pet-industry analyst for Packaged Facts, a market research company.

Some pet owners have turned to raw products because of a growing number of recalls of processed pet foods, including a spate of pet food recalls in 2007 linked to ingredient suppliers in China that are believed to have resulted in the death or serious illness of hundreds of pets. More recently, in May, 14 people in nine states contracted salmonella after handling tainted dog food from a South Carolina plant that only six years before produced contaminated food that killed dozens of dogs.

But makers of raw pet foods say their products allow cats and dogs to eat a more natural diet, similar to the way animals in the wild hunt prey and eat it raw. Cooking pet foods, they claim, kills a wide assortment of vitamins and enzymes. And pet digestive systems, advocates say, did not evolve to handle the corn, grains, flour and other fillers often added to highly processed pet foods.

“We have people that call or e-mail us daily with stories about how this diet has changed their pet’s life,” said Marie Moody, the founder and president of Stella and Chewy’s. “Pets that used to have allergies or other issues, pets that wouldn’t eat, pets that were overweight – it really has impacted both the longevity and the quality of life for people’s pets.”

Ms. Moody became a believer in raw diets after one of her adopted dogs, Chewy, developed a viral infection and she nursed him back to health with organic meats and vegetables. Started in 2004, the company now has raw meat products in more than 3,000 stores nationwide, including freeze-dried dinners and treats. Reed Howlett, the chief executive of Nature’s Variety, another maker of a popular line of raw pet foods, said his company has products in about 6,000 stores in the United States and Canada — up from 5,000 stores in 2011 — including the large Petco chain.

But in the veterinary world, there is resistance. Many vets worry that raw meat may be even more likely than processed foods to expose cats and dogs – and their owners – to pathogens. They stress that owners who choose to go raw may end up depriving their pets of proper nutrition. And they argue that there is little scientific evidence that raw is necessarily better.

“Animals in nature eat raw food but don’t live very long,” said Louise Murray, vice president of the A.S.P.C.A.’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City and the author of “Vet Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to Protecting Your Pet’s Health.” “They tend to have parasites and succumb to infections and things like that. What is natural isn’t necessarily safe or better.”

What’s more, many people are under the mistaken belief that a raw diet means plopping uncooked chicken breasts in a bowl for their dog or cat, said Dr. Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center. In reality, cats and dogs in the wild get their nutrients by eating the entire animal.

“What people confuse is that ‘carnivore’ really means animal eater, not muscle-meat eater,” said Dr. Buffington. “In nature, they’re eating all the guts and the bones and the rest of the animal, all of which supplies their nutrient needs. That’s confused more commonly than one might imagine.”

Dr. Buffington said that while he does not necessarily discourage raw diets, pet owners should look for products – raw or otherwise – that meet the standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or A.A.F.C.O., which establishes nutritional requirements for complete and balanced pet foods. They should also be wary of the costs of raw products, Dr. Buffington said, which on a per-calorie basis he estimates can cost “about 10 times as much as what you can get at a supermarket.”

Both the A.S.P.C.A. and the American Veterinary Medical Association caution people against feeding their pets raw diets, citing the risk of salmonella and E. coli contamination. One study in 2008 found that when 166 frozen raw food products sold in Canadian stores were randomly tested, about 20 percent were positive for salmonella.

Nature’s Variety and Stella and Chewy’s say they take the necessary precautions to prevent contamination of their brands. Both companies subject their raw meat products to a system known as high pressure processing that has been shown to eliminate harmful pathogens.

Ms. Moody says her firm grinds organs, bones and small amounts of organic fruits and vegetables into their raw products and takes the additional step of sending batches of food to independent labs for testing. Customers who buy the company’s products can find the batch number on the back of the package, go to the company’s Web site and then type it in to see the test results for that particular batch.

“The quality of our food far exceeds what A.A.F.C.O. requires,” she said.

For her part, Ms. Misik, the actress in California, said she easily spends about $250 a month on raw products for her two huskies, which is far more than she was previously spending on traditional pet foods like kibble. To save money, she buys in bulk and looks for special deals at her local stores.

“There’s no way around it: It’s not cheap,” she said. “But I saw what kibble did to these guys. As long as I can afford to do this, I will.”