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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.