Executive Pet Chef Charles Marsh
Executive Pet Chef Charles Marsh
First we must address the reasons owners choose to feed their pets a raw diet instead of a commercial dry food. Despite it being more time consuming, less convenient, and typically more expensive, the number of owners choosing to feed raw continues to grow. Why is this?
A large majority of pet owners decide to stop feeding kibble because they don’t believe that pet food manufacturers have their pet’s best interest in mind. There is evidence to legitimize this distrust; countless commercial pet foods – even supposed “higher quality” formulas – have been found to contain undeclared ingredients and contain unacceptable levels of harmful bacteria, mycotoxins, euthanasia drugs , and other contaminants , resulting in significant health concerns and even death.
Even if not contaminated, dry food can come with its fair share of drawbacks. Dietary moisture is very important for excretory health in dogs, cats, and ferrets. Dry food is naturally very low in dietary moisture, which can result in higher urinary oxalate and calcium excretion rates and higher instances of idiopathic lower urinary tract diseases in cats , dogs, and ferrets . A large amount of dry pet foods on the market are high in carbohydrates, which has also been associated with a higher risk of urinary stones and obesity in cats and dogs.
The production of commercial pet food can involve high heat treatments including sterilization, extrusion, cooking, and baking. It is well documented that high heat processing and extruding can have a negative effect on the available nutrition of a food, as can extended periods of storage An extruded pet food diet will contain significantly less available amino acids such as lysine, glycine, taurine, arginine, cysteine, methionine, and creatine in comparison to a raw pet food diet.
One of the most common effects, the maillard reaction, is a chemical reaction that occurs between amino acids and reducing sugars when exposed to high heat, rendering those amino acids unavailable for metabolism. This reaction occurs during pet food processing, putting commercial diets at risk of not meeting minimum requirements for many of these amino acids , and at risk of containing high levels of advanced maillard reaction end products (MRPs) and advanced glycation end products (AGEs).
MRPs and AGEs have been linked to various health issues, including but not limited to food allergies, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and impaired renal function in humans and other animals, including dogs and cats . Increased intake of these end products has been thought to negatively affect the microflora of the digestive tract and the bioavailability of amino acids and other nutrients, including magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, and iron, among others. Further, high levels of dietary AGEs have also been associated with liver inflammation.
“Complete and balanced” nutrient values have been determined by the NRC, AAFCO, and FEDIAF to use in the formulation of commercial pet food diets in order to meet the minimum physiological requirements of pets. However, significant concerns have been raised regarding the validity and accuracy of these values.
The minimum protein and amino acid requirement estimates of the NRC were determined using unprocessed, highly digestible ingredients. But when formulating commercial foods manufactured using high heat treatments, less digestible ingredients, and extended periods of storage, these bioavailability estimates could result in nutrient concentrations that do not ensure minimum physiological requirements are met. A closer look at the calculated bioavailability estimates by the NRC, AAFCO, and FEDIAF shows that they are “inadequately referenced, not citing scientific studies, and lack scientific veracity”. These issues were brought up over a decade ago, but have yet to be adequately addressed.
For these reasons, it isn’t far fetched to speculate that commercial pet foods may be a contributing factor in many of the common “idiopathic” conditions our pets are experiencing. Considering that commercial pet foods are typically the sole source of nutrition for dogs, cats, and ferrets, we should not ignore the potential long-term health implications and the effects on amino acid and nutrient bioavailability in dry food diets.
It is well known and accepted in human nutrition that fresh, whole foods are generally more nutritious than processed foods, and that while eating processed foods isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t optimal to rely solely on processed foods for all of your nutritional value. There is no definitive proof that this would not also apply to our pets.
It is well known that raw animal products contain significantly higher levels of amino acids than commercial pet foods . It has been shown that obtaining more than the minimum recommended dietary amounts of many essential and “semi-essential” amino acids can be beneficial. Whole, fresh, minimally processed foods also contain more enzymes, friendly bacteria, beneficial phytonutrients, antioxidants, fatty acids, and more that will not be found at nearly the same levels in highly processed foods].
For this reason, research in nutrition science has been placing more and more emphasis on foods rather than individual nutrients, based on the premise that it is healthier to obtain nutrients directly from primarily whole food sources rather than from primarily synthetic or fortified sources.
In comparison with dry extruded pet foods, research has consistently shown that raw foods have a higher nutrient digestibility in dogs, cats, and ferrets. Recent studies have also shown that raw diets can promote a healthier gut microbiome in dogs. Raw diets also contain significantly less ingredients with anti-nutritional effects.
Increased digestibility and better nutrition can result in an increase in overall health; it can improve not only an animal’s physical health, but also its behavioral and cognitive health. This has been demonstrated in both humans and dogs.
There is also evidence of significantly improved dental health in animals fed a diet that includes raw meaty bones.
While kibble diets are convenient and cost effective for the average pet owner, more and more owners are beginning to consider more than just convenience and cost when choosing a diet for their pets. Pets are increasingly seen as members of the family to many owners, and their health and longevity is of utmost importance now more than ever before.
Thus, the number of owners choosing to feed raw continues to grow – with or without the support of their veterinarian. Many of these pet owners report that they have a low amount of trust in veterinary advice, not only with respect to nutrition, but also in general. By bridging the divide between veterinary professionals and raw feeders, we can address this distrust for the benefit of our pets.
A divide also exists within the veterinary community itself. There are those who take a stance of strict opposition to raw food diets, but there are also those that actively recommend raw diets to their clients and report great success. Many veterinary professionals acknowledge that they do not have adequate education on homemade or raw diets, or feel that recommending a raw diet could be a liability if the owner does not take the proper sanitation precautions or ensure the are feeding a balanced diet, therefore – understandably – many vets do not feel comfortable recommending these diets to their clients.
However, rather than approaching this issue with strict opposition despite the growing evidence of the positive aspects of raw diets, veterinary and other pet care professionals should instead advocate for more evidence based, scientifically sound resources to be made available – to pet owners and professionals alike – regarding how to make sure the diet they are feeding is balanced and safe.
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