While Maxwell advocates raw food for dogs, she is especially enthused about it for cats. "In some animals it will fix everything," she says. "I'm talking not only about physical ailments but misbehaviors." Cats, she explains, are very particular. "They won't eat decomposing meat or carrion or fecal matter. They hunt, kill, consume and move on. They're not meant to have kibble sitting out in a bowl all day. I can tell that a kibble-fed cat is a kibble-fed cat just by looking at it. Their systems are designed to eat fresh raw meat at a sitting, and then have no food. They're not meant to be eating grain."
While raw feeders maintain that dogs and cats should eat a diet closer to what their wild cousins eat, and wild ancestors once ate, just what that might be, and how best to approach it, is a subject of hot debate within the raw community. Books like "Raw Meaty Bones" and "Give Your Dog a Bone" represent various permutations. Should you feed a dog grains? No grains? Dairy? No dairy? Vegetables and meat, or just meat? Grind up the bones, or let the dog chew them? What about nutritional supplements?
The debates take arcane turns. If you are a raw feeder who believes wolves do not consume the roughage in their ruminant prey's stomach, then you might feed your dogs meat and bones and no veggies. Depending on which breed of raw feeding is your fancy, Fido's menu can look very different. You might prepare a measured concoction of raw beef, pulped seasonal vegetables and nutritional supplements. Or you might go for the "whole prey" model and just throw a whole rabbit carcass in the backyard for the hungry mutt to tear apart. One approach is known as BARF, which can either stand for "Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods" or "Bones and Raw Food."
But it can take a bloody lot of effort -- meat grinder, anyone? -- to prepare many of these diets. Some companies now market commercial products to make raw feeding convenient. They sell packaged raw dinners, just thaw and serve for Rex and Tabby. There's Grandad's Pet Foods, the Honest Kitchen, Bravo! the Diet Designed by Nature, and Steve's Real Food for Pets. Nature's Variety markets its products with a photo of a lion and the caption: "He hunts his breakfast, and he's not looking for cereal."
At Jeffrey's Natural Pet Foods in San Francisco, the store's motto is "Feed 'em Raw." Among the wares sold here: Dr. Pitcairn's DVD titled "Eat, Drink, and Wag Your Tail," a bit of raw-diet marketing evangelism circa 2004, in which "Master Dog Chef" Micki Voisard, a cancer survivor who says changes in her diet arrested the disease, tells of turning to homemade meals to treat her three cancer-stricken dogs. "So, you wanna be a dog chef?" she asks, before pushing a grocery cart through a supermarket, instructing acolytes how to shop for spinach, celery, parsley, zucchini, garlic, carrots, unsalted butter, eggs and plain yogurt for hungry hounds.
Lynnet Spiegel, the proprietor of Jeffrey's, is a third-generation San Franciscan, who is so confident in the quality of her products that during my visit she popped a cat treat, a piece of freeze-dried chicken, into her mouth and ate it, while inviting me to do the same. I declined.
One customer who swears by the raw meals sold at Jeffrey's Natural Pet Foods is Keegan Walden, 30, an interface designer for Wells Fargo Bank. The raw meals he gives his two Rhodesian Ridgebacks consist of free-range chicken, beef parts and a bit of vegetables. "It sounds really disgusting, I know," says Walden. He adds to it Sojos, a mix of oats and walnuts, for roughage.
Walden says that there is no comparison between these ingredients and what's in off-the-shelf kibble: "It's not like you're getting filet mignon in beef kibble. It's skin, it's hoof, it's nail, it's intestine, it's garbage. Dogs can live on it, but it's garbage to begin with, and then it's rendered into dog food, so it's double garbage." He decries the preservatives that are used to make kibble last on the shelf for months and recites the horror stories about dead strays being found in pet food. "There's a lot of evidence to suggest that in the big industrial kibbles, there are other dead dogs," Walden says. "They've analyzed the ingredients, and they've found traces of phenobarbital, which is what they used to put animals to sleep."
Stephen Payne, vice president of communications for the Pet Food Institute, an industry group, says that there are no ground-up dogs and cats in pet food; he maintains it's an urban legend, which no amount of protestation from the industry has been able to quash. But Dr. Rodney Noel, state chemist for Indiana, the state agency that regulates pet food, and a member of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, says that in the past dead strays have been rendered into pet food, but that this hasn't happened for years. One reason: Pet food companies fear the bad publicity.
Commercial pet food is regulated federally by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as on a state-by-state basis, typically under the Department of Agriculture, with guidance from the Association of American Feed Control Officials.
Yet it's the raw diets, not the kibble and canned ones, that vets have special concerns about. Dogs choke on the bones, they report, and suffer obstructions in their digestive tracts that require surgery. The FDA has taken note of the health risks posed for people who feed their pets raw meat, fearing they could contact salmonella and e-coli. With the practice growing in popularity, the agency has issued guidelines for companies marketing raw meat to pets: "FDA does not believe raw meat foods for animals are consistent with the goal of protecting the public from significant risks, particularly when such products are brought into the home and/or used to feed domestic pets."
Julie Churchill is an assistant clinical professor in companion animal nutrition at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. She is not a fan of the raw diets. In general, people handle raw meat or chicken for only a few minutes before tossing it on the grill. But raw feeding exposes us to potential pathogens longer and in different ways. "Even if the animal is not sick, people could get sick from handling the food bowls, handling the food or petting their animals," Churchill says. Just letting your dog lick your face could make you ill, even if your dog is healthy. Such animals are known as "silent shedders," as pathogens escape from their feces, coats or mouths.
Pitcairn believes that risk is overblown. "I've never had an instance to my knowledge over the last 25 years or so where a family has become ill from that," he says. "I don't think that it's very common."
If you must feed your dog fresh beef or chicken, please cook it, recommends Jeffrey T. LeJeune, a veterinarian and assistant professor in the Food Animal Health Research Program at Ohio State University. LeJeune wrote a 2001 paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, "Public Health Concerns Associated With Feeding Raw Meat to Dogs," which cautioned vets to "not recommend the feeding of raw meat to dogs."
Dr. Rachel Strohmeyer, a vet in Kingston, Wash., who also holds a master's degree in clinical sciences and epidemiology, agrees. After conducting research into an outbreak of salmonella at a greyhound breeding farm in Colorado, and investigating pathogens in commercially available raw pet food diets, she says: "I don't have a problem with people who want to make their animal's own food, but I don't understand why you can't cook it. If you cook it, you're going to kill a lot of the potential hazards. Just cook the food."
But supporters of raw feeding believe it's not just the freshness and quality of the ingredients that helps their animals. They believe the heat robs the protein of some of its nutritional value. Molly Rice, a holistic vet who practices at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists in San Francisco, says that about a third of her clients feed raw meat to their pets. Serving it raw, she says, preserves enzymes, vitamins and amino acids. She does, however, advise clients to freeze the food for 72 hours to cut down on bacteria and parasites, and to clean feeding bowls at every feeding.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials, which produces guidelines that states use to determine what's in pet food and how it's sold in the U.S., doesn't have special rules for raw food.
"There are no regulatory measures on raw," says Matt Koss, a chef trained in French and Mediterranean cooking, who now makes food for dogs and cats at Primal Pet Foods. "The guidelines are only geared to regulate kibble, canned and treats. As raw grows, there will be a need for some type of regulation because we can't have people making it out of their garage and potentially jeopardizing the welfare of animals, which will in turn jeopardize the industry." However, he says, the nascent raw food pet industry recently formed the North American Raw Pet Food Association, which will pool resources, create industry standards and conduct scientific research on the nutritional value of raw food.
But even Koss says that the health benefits of feeding raw meat to pets are purely anecdotal, based on the experiences of individual practitioners and holistic and alternative vets. "Most vets think it's dangerous because of bacteria, and they're really unsure what the benefits are nutritionally," he says.
Churchill, the veterinary nutritionist at the University of Minnesota, says it's much harder to create a balanced diet for your pet than you might think. When clients bring her pet recipes plucked from the Internet or books, "it always has some nutritional problems with it," she says. She asks owners to be as skeptical of the people selling raw pet food or recipes as they are of the veterinary establishment. "Are they funding scientific research? Do they have data to show that their product is scientifically based? What are the credentials of whoever is giving you the advice?"
She takes a dim view of the suspicion that vets have been snookered by the pet food industry. "I have not been bought off by a pet food company," she says. "Most vets get a free mug at their national meeting; they're not getting huge financial kickbacks."
Even the holistic or alternative vets who recommend a raw diet say it's not for every dog or cat. "The raw food diet, even though it's a great diet, it's not really great for everybody," says Sara Skiwski, a vet at the Western Dragon in San Jose. "I get irritated not only with vets, but also with some of my clients who feed raw food and are fanatical about it. I really believe that the worst diet in the whole world is a homemade raw food diet that's not properly nutritionally balanced." Just as you wouldn't eat chicken and broccoli every day for the rest of your life, she says, you shouldn't feed your dog or cat the same diet of raw meat every day.
Finally, some animal experts are flabbergasted by the raw feeding debate. Katie Merwick, who rehabilitates wolves at Second Chance Ranch animal rescue sanctuary in Washington state, believes that many of the cures cited by raw feeders -- skin infections, allergies, ear infections -- can be gained by feeding pets a higher quality of kibble. Oh, and that glossy coat raw feeders brag about? That's from all the fat in the meat, she says, which can cause other health problems like pancreatitis. As someone who has seen malnutrition and disease in wolves firsthand, she cautions pet owners against making a fetish out of what animals eat in the wild. "Our dogs are privileged to have formulated food," she says. After all, "we don't eat like cavemen anymore."
Last edited by badger; January 19th, 2006 at 04:00 AM.