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Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Truth About BARF

Mary's question from yesterday actually had a second part that I'm discussing today.

My dog is mostly Boxer, and I have been reading a lot about the breed. I have been reading some about something called "the raw diet." Do you know much about it, and would you recommend this diet to your patients if it were done correctly?

Sometimes called the "BARF" (Bones And Raw Food) diet, this is something gaining a little popularity in the last few years. You can go online and find many sites promoting the wonders of feeding raw foods. They talk about the great benefits of no processed and manufactured foods, no artificial ingredients and preservatives, and how these diets more closely duplicate a wild canine's natural diet. By reading these sources, you could easily get the feel that anyone feeding commercial pet foods is doing their pet more harm than good, and only by feeding a BARF diet will your pet live long and healthy to its full potential.

Hogwash. Complete and utter hogwash. I could be more blunt, but there may be youngsters reading. But if I may be blunt....."male bovine excrement".

Proponents of raw foods are on the fringes of veterinary medicine and animal care, and are far from being mainstream. You will be hard-pressed to find any veterinary college faculty who are big proponents of this kind of diet. And I have never heard of any board-certified veterinary nutritionists that are fans of raw diets. Though I don't have hard numbers, I would venture to say that well over 90% of veterinarians would be against raw diets. And there are some very good reasons for this.

Saying that this is closer to a canine's natural diet is completely true. However, this ignores many important facts. A dog's digestive tract is not the same as a wolf's or wild dog's. Dogs have been domesticated for about 15,000 years, and have been selectively bred by humans during this time. Our modern species do have some significant differences from their wild ancestors. Even among dog breeds, there are subtle differences in the digestive systems of certain breeds, as well as their nutritional needs. Visit a pet specialty store such as PETsMART or PetCo some time and look at the breed-specialized diets of many manufacturers. What this means is that you can't assume that a wolf's natural diet would be beneficial for your shih tzu, lab, or boxer.

Second, wild canines live far shorter lives than pet dogs, sometimes as much as half the life-span. Part of this is due to the improved nutrition and health of pet dogs. There has been considerable research and studies about dog and cat nutrition. Modern foods, especially high-quality ones, have a lot of scientific data behind them. The quality of this nutrition is far superior to putting together a raw diet.

Third, think about whether or not you would eat raw food yourself. Forgetting the fact that raw chicken would be a bit disgusting to most people, consider why we cook our food, and why some states have laws preventing beef from being cooked rare. Raw foods have the potential of having hidden microscopic parasites in the meat. There can also be considerable amounts of bacteria contaminating the meat. Eating these foods raw leaves your pet at risk for serious diseases such as salmonella or trichinosis. These diseases can be fatal, or at a minimum cause very serious illness that can be expensive to treat (if even possible). Even handling the meat could put yourself or your human family at risk for contracting these diseases. That's why physicians tell us to avoid using cutting boards after putting raw meat on them until we have washed the board.

I can't deny that the proponents of BARF diets can point to certain benefits of their recommended diets. However, in my professional medical opinion, and having read discussions about this topic in veterinary journals by nutritional specialists, I strongly believe that the risks and problems far outweigh any benefits.

So to answer the last part of your question, Mary....I would never recommend these diets to any of my clients under any circumstances, and would never feed them to my own pets.


  1. Dr. Bern DVM,
    The comments you made in the first paragraph are exactly how I feel about feeding a raw food diet. I couldn’t have said it better. I find several of your other comments however, lacking sufficient justification and supportive evidence to support the statements.
    We all have the freedom to be able to voice our opinions. The recent elections have verified that fact.
    I feel the need to challenge you on several of your comments in the article.
    Your comments are what I call typical vet responses that I usually get from vets that have only been educated from one perspective. (That being from classes taught by the dry food manufacturers.)
    On the contrary, raw feeders are mostly concerned about the health and well being of their pets. That is why they have decided to switch, because they have experienced serious problems on heat processed foods. Your comment about faculty at vet schools being hard pressed to being proponents of raw feeding-- this is changing. We re getting asked to teach classes at vet schools on the benefits and comparisons to feeding heat processed diets. Maybe the light is being turned on to the new students that represent our future health advocates.
    You mention that over 90% of vets would be against raw feeding. This would be a tough statistic to support. Some of our very best distributors are converted traditional vets that have seen dramatic success on the tougher cases that traditional medicine has not been able to cure. The pendulum is swinging the other way and you may find yourself as the contrarian vet.
    I question your logic on your comments regarding the digestive comparison to the wolf. Since when did the dog adapt to eating grains as an appropriate choice of nourishment?
    Also, hog wash prevails regarding the need for variations in the diets for different breeds. How do they accomplish that in the wild. It is all marketing hog wash as you put it to get the public to accept this marketing blitz. It sells food- that is all it does. The vet prescribed prescription diets are another rip off. If dogs and cats were fed correctly from the start there would be no need to alter their feeding formulas.

    The amount of research and money spent by manufacturers making heat processed food has convinced the public that because of that they must be safe and adequate to feed. Wrong!- the recent Menu Foods recall and several other major recalls have convinced the public that pet food in general needs to be better scrutinized before making that choice for your pet. We are all subjected to possible bacteria and pathogen contamination. To make a statement that the risks and problems of feeding a raw meat diet far outweighs the benefits is EXACTLY the way I feel about feeding my dog a heat processed food. Why would I want to feed my dog a food that is loaded with chemicals, preservatives, fat sprays, palatability enhancers, low quality ingredients, and laced with high levels of soluble carbohydrates. Haven’t we learned that feeding a natural, fresh array of high quality ingredients that are free of all the harmful elements in dry food is a better way to go?
    Can you support your concerns about raw food causing serious injury from bacteria and pathogens? I have made raw food formulas for 32 years without having a recall, or serious food borne injury in the file. I hear the comments often but I never hear the supportive evidence to back up the allegation.
    You claim that you would never recommend a raw meat diet to your clients. I FEEL THE SAME WAY-I would NEVER recommend feeding a heat processed kibble diet to my dog or any client’s dog. So I guess we agree to disagree.

  2. Wow, what a reply. I will have to respectfully disagree with you, and point to the lack of scientific data supporting raw food diets over prepared foods. Raw foods are not necessarily better quality diets. By the same arguments that you present, we as humans should be eating raw foods because that's what every other primate eats. According to this line of reasoning we should not be eating pre-cooked, processed foods. And I doubt that you yourself eat unprocessed grains, uncooked meat, and never eat cooked vegetables. Cooking and processing foods can reduce some nutrients, so you do have to be careful about it. But the science behind processed pet foods is well-established though decades of research, including long-term and lifetime studies of pets.

    I do realize that proponents of raw food diets are truly and honestly doing what they feel is best for pets. However, I strongly believe that this is based on incorrect information. Because of this sincere belief, I doubt that I will be able convince you otherwise. However,to address your specific points...

    Faculty in veterinary colleges are still predominantly opposed to raw diets. That is a fact. Whether or not this is changing will be seen. I also severely doubt that the veterinary community will whole-heartedly embrace raw foods at any point. I have been in the field for 24 years, and have seen no tendencies in this direction.

    My points of the digestive systems of wolves versus dogs are completely valid. True, dogs do not have evolved abilities (naturally or artificially) to digest processed grains. However, they are also not harmful. And I do disagree regarding breed differences. There are significant though subtle physiological differences between many breeds. For example, Labrador retrievers have a different type of coat than a poodle, requiring different considerations. The digestive tract of a small breed dog is proportionally much larger than a large breed dog's. And there are numerous breed tendencies for various health problems. There are no breed differences in the wild, because there are no breeds in the wild. All current breeds are completely created by humans. So that argument is invalid, and not supported by scientific data.

    I can also absolutely say that veterinary prescription diets are completely valid, and have dozens upon dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies to support their benefit. These are independent of the food manufacturers, and have stood up to decades of scrutiny. There is no solid data to support the idea that medical problems would be solved by feeding a "natural" diet, or that specialized formulations are not helpful. We know in human medicine that certain diets can be beneficial in certain medical conditions (such as heart disease). The same is true in pets. As an example, several studies have shown that low protein diets prolong the life of dogs and cats in renal failure. You cannot get this kind of diet from raw or other "natural" foods. Do you really think that a "natural", raw diet is equally beneficial for pets with cardiac, liver, or kidney disease? Such a belief would be contrary to current medical knowledge.

    There is undoubtedly a risk of bacterial or parasitic contamination with raw diets. This is incontrovertible, and to deny it ignores fact. The fact you have had no problems is more a factor of careful preparation and handling, with a bit of luck. If you feel that such risks or minimal, then I would encourage you to eat the raw food yourself. You can easily look at current and past societies that have eaten raw and/or undercooked meat to see the great increase in the rates of bacterial infection and parasitism. Just because it hasn't happened to you doesn't mean that there is no risk. Denying that there are health risks of raw meat flies in the face of well-accepted principles in both human and veterinary medicine.

    In the end I will again fall back on scientific data and the opinion of hundreds of specialists and nutritionists. There have been articles in veterinary journals that have reviewed this topic, and none have found that the benefits outweigh the risks.

    When presented with scientific evidence to support raw foods over commercially processed foods, I will be willing to revise my opinion. Until then I will stand by my beliefs, as they are supported by the overwhelming majority of the veterinary profession for the last 40+ years. Let's both line up the numbers of unbiased, peer-reviewed articles, and medical specialists on either side, and see which has the greater numbers. I doubt that even you could deny that the weight of evidence and opinion falls solidly against BARF diets.

  3. Science has proven beyond a doubt, again and again, that feeding raw meat products is not a safe practice. People are placing their dogs in harm's way over a cult like devotion to preserving the "inner wolf" that no longer exists.

    Any benefits can't be proven. Things that they attribute to the magic of this diet either are impossible (like claims that it can cure cancer) or they are not attributed to this diet. For instance, they note a lush, shinier coat on this diet. This diet contains more fat than kibble diets. The exact same result could be achieved by supplementing cooked fat or even fish oil pills.

    The claims that this diet is safe because dogs are some how impossibly immune to food borne pathogens and parasites is utter nonsense.

    The crazy, unfounded claims go on. They claim that dogs can't digest starch because they lack salivary amylase, so grains are an inappropriate food and shouldn't be given. Yet they look past the fact that the pancreas produces this enzyme and the digestion of starch takes place in the small intestine, instead of in the mouth because dogs bolt down their food and don't have need for amylase in that region of the body.

    They claim that dogs shouldn't have vegetables or fruit because they can't digest cellulose. Well, neither can we. So should we not be eating them also?

    It goes on. There's just no logic or sense to it.

    What's more is that it's not just the dogs and their families at risk. The public is at risk too when these dogs shed more infectious pathogens than the average, cooked food fed dog.

  4. I can't believe I just heard a vet say that grains are harmless to dogs. I also can't believe the comparison of humans to other primates. The thing about dogs and wild canines is that they CAN STILL mate with one another! They are the same. THe only major difference..oh wait, there are no major differences. Unless, of course, you consider personality to be a major difference. In that case, I would agree.

    We don't eat what other primates eat because they are different species from us. We have completely different tolerances to disease and what not. That comparison was silly, at best.

    Grains are NOT harmless to dogs. They get stuck in the digestive tract in the same fashion that meat gets stuck in ours. My dog had an ear infection her whole life. When she was 4, I switched to BARF and her ears cleared up within 2 weeks. It hasn't been back since. Additionally, her sever dandruff problem is now nonexistent.

    As for your "scientific data", who paid for those studies? Well, each and every one has been paid for by pet food companies. Think logically for just one second. Do you think a pet food company would pay for a study to be done on BARF? Certainly not! They already know what the results will be, so they avoid it all together.

    Long story short, my dogs' poop is about 1/10 the size it used to be. YOu know why that is? It's because they are digesting a significantly higher percentage of the food they take in.

    As for your talk about salmonella and other bacteria, allow me to educate you. Canines have short digestive tracts. If fed properly, the waste is excreted from the body before the bacteria has time to gestate. That is the primary reason carnivores can safely eat raw meat. Now, when we feed them grains, it backs up their natural digestive flow, leading to a whole slew of problems. Dogs are carnivores. THey are not omnivores and they are certainly not vegetarians. They thrive off of things that would kill us within hours, had we ingested it.

    Also, there are many reasons dogs outlive their wild cousins. Primarily, the tlc we give out pets is the reason. We treat them at the first sign of mange. We deworm them regularly. They get rabies shots...and the list goes on. I'll tell you one thing you'll see in BARF dogs, that's a lower risk of cancer. Yep, I said it. Do you remember in vet school what they taught you about cancer? ...or maybe they didn't. Well, here goes. Cancer feeds off sugars. What do carbohydrates get broken down to?

    Really, your arguments are feeble and your ability to think critically is nonexistent. This is common sense. Seriously, when is the last time you saw a bunch of wolves sitting around a campfire cooking their meat and mixing it with rice and potatoes? It's just not natural.

  5. I'm not going to resort to personal insults and attacks like you did, and would caution you to not do so again in the future. I would also ask you not do belittle my education without pointing out what your degree is in and why you are an expert in animal nutrition. I will point out that there are flaws in your evidence and thinking.

    First, there are physiological differences between dogs and wolves. These are not just cosmetic or behavioral. There are great similarities between the animals, but because of selective breeding we have changed their bodies inside and out. There are even differences in the proportional length of the digestive tract between large and small breed dogs, resulting in potential digestive issues.

    Other species can breed true. The red wolf has undergone scrutiny and debate about whether or not it is a separate species of wolf or originally was a wolf-coyote hybrid. You can see several closely related canids that can have fertile offspring even though they are categorized as separate species. Remember that a species is a human scientific one and not one established by nature. It is common for species and sub-species, even genus, designations to be changed over time.

    There are plenty of people who know more about animal nutrition than either you or I that are firmly against BARF diets. Not all of these people are employed by food companies. By saying that every study is biased by the food companies you are immediately insulting the integrity of virtually every board-certified nutritional specialist out there. It takes a large amount of hubris to take a stance like this.

    You can't compare a dog's digestive tract to a human's. Completely different physiology. We can safely eat things that would kill them (such as onions, chocolate, and sugar-free gum), but that doesn't mean these things are inherently bad.

    You think that wild canids can't be affected by salmonella or other bacteria? That's patently false. Better nutrition isn't the only reason for increased longevity in pet dogs, but it's certainly part of it.

    You also have a misunderstanding of cancer. Carbohydrates are one of the major energy sources for every cell in the body. Cancer cells "feed off sugars"? Well, so do brain cells, muscle cells, etc. Cancer doesn't grow simply because of "excessive" carbohydrates. There are genetic triggers in cancer cells that are turned off, preventing them from recognizing the normal signals to stop growing or die. Cancer is caused by genetic abnormalities in cells, not by sugars. Yes, some food ingredients can damage the DNA, but the body is normally well equiped to handle such problems. If you feel otherwise, I'd love to see the peer-reviewed data and learn about your oncology background.

    I know that I'm not going to convince you, as your mind is already made up with unsupported data that flies in the face of the large majority of specialists in veterinary medicine. I'm responding more for people who might read these posts and be confused. I don't mind you responding in an intelligent discussion, but further insults and personal attacks will not be tolerated and those posts will be delted.

  6. My last dog had a commercial dog food from my vet. It was for an elderly dog who was a little over weight. It tasted like sawdust to her, and when I saw her shrug, and drop her head to eat I whisked it up and added a dollop of tinned dog food and she took it down greedily. Food is crucial to a dogs happiness.

    At age 14 she got a rare form of pancreatic cancer and there was nothing that could be done about it; the liver was frothing with cancer. I gave her Milk Thistle which is said to help liver health and she lived five more months. The doctor was amazed.

    My next dog is a Corgi and when she turned ten I got worried and put her on a BARF diet getting plenty of support and ideas from knowledgeable people from two forums. She is now on her fifth year, age for teen, and is fit as a fiddle. Time will tell if she gets the cancer, heart disease or any of the other modern plagues of Allopathy, but she sure loves her food and her weight is within the range for a healthy Corgi to be.

    The horrors of cancer has led my family out of the Allopathic agenda but I am the only one who takes the time to feed my dog as nature intended. Sadie is the only Corgi of her litter still alive and is two and a half years longer lived, to date. She has slowed down but her hearing hasn't deteriorated as my other little dog's did at age twelve. She loves long walks, but the mooch loves to "grocery shop" on our journeys so I carry dried treats to keep her by my side.

    The problem I have with the Veterinarian profession is that their education centres around commercial food companies and little in the way of real nutrition is taught, much as with human medical instruction.

  7. I find this whole debate fascinating . Firstly the latest studies on wolfs digestion prove the difference in dogs to wolfs in the acid content . A wolf can digest whole bones quickly a dog cannot! The research has been done by experts who are currently studying wolfs.The question of grain and veg would be that wolfs ate the contents of the stomach of the animal.wolves hunt smaller prey like rabbits, beavers, rodents and waterfowl such as ducks.Reseach shows Wolves require more than just meat to stay healthy, though. They also eat fruits and vegetables to stock up on nutrients not found in meat. They enjoy berries like blueberries, ash berries and cowberries, as well as fruit like apples and pears.Modern day dogs have been fed cooked foods for century's. The modern vet and available science tells us what the best nutrient balance is for a dog ! However to get the best food for your dog kibble is not as nutrient dense as wet food.And canned processed food are inferior unless of a very high human grade content .This is expensive too feed a dog or two? I agree with Chris Bern that feeding a raw diet does not have scientific proof to be better and has dangers in doing so.I believe that a well balanced home cooked foods are better for your dog .But many do not have time to cook for their dog! The vast majority of dog foods on the market are rubbish and it comes down to manufacturing costs to make money to fill with cheap grain etc... This has forced the customer too seek better foods and the addition of dog vitamins on the market .The barf diet is more nutrient dense but it depends on the digestion rate of the dog? what we are seeing is poor diet vs better.And genetics and breed play a huge part. Just like humans face huge dietary issues so do dogs. Vets should not be complacent in this battle .


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