Animal enthusiasts want to make sure they’re providing Fido and Fluffy with only the best food to keep them active, strong, and healthy. The raw meat-based diet (RMBD) approach has become increasingly popular among owners who claim it’s a more natural diet for cats and dogs, rather than the traditional commercially prepared pet food. According to a recent study, however, feeding pets RMBDs can actually lead to severe illness, causing teeth fractures, blockages, and digestive tract problems.

Pets’ consumption of raw meat has become a polarizing issue among pet owners and veterinarians. The American Veterinary Medical Association discourages the feeding to cats and dogs of any animal-source protein, such as beef, pork, poultry, fish, and other meat from domesticated or wild animals, that has not first been subjected to a pathogen-eliminating process. Milk and eggs are also included in this list. Pathogens in raw foods can increase the risk of food-borne illness to cats and dogs, as well as humans who touch them.

The shift from commercial pet foods to RMBDs may be attributed to the large volume of pet food recalls in 2007 that was linked to an ingredient from suppliers in China. Two companies were found guilty of knowingly exporting contaminated pet food ingredients to the United States as a means of meeting the contractual required amount of protein in the products, The New York Times reports. They allegedly added melamine — an industrial chemical used for making plastics and fertilizer — to wheat gluten and rice protein. This scandal led to one of the biggest pet food recalls in the U.S. with hundreds of pets dead or severely ill. The 2007 pet food recall and several 2013 recalls, have discouraged several grieving pet owners from buying commercial pet foods.

While animal advisory groups and several animal enthusiasts do not see eye-to-eye on RMBDs, researchers at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, set out to explore pet owners’ common beliefs on RMBDs and compare them with scientific research on these raw diets. Published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the study authors tackled animal enthusiasts’ two main beliefs associated with RMBDS: they are nutritionally balanced and they will not get sick from contaminated diets.

RMBDs Nutritional Imbalances

Raw meat advocates, like Nature’s Variety, believe RMBDs provide dogs and cats with all the nutrients they need to have a correct balance. The assumption of supplying dogs with a more natural diet — similar to that of their ancestors in the wild — is believed to be a better alternative by raw pet food manufacturers because it doesn’t kill the various vitamins and enzymes.

Tufts University researchers sought to carefully examine the amount of nutrients dogs and cats received from RMBDs. While home-cooked diets allow more control of ingredients and customization to the specific pet, the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine says most home-cooked recipes that do not derive from a qualified veterinary nutritionist are often vague and deficient in multiple essential nutrients. This makes them much less nutritious in comparison with commercial foods, despite if the diet recipe claims to be nutritionally balanced. There is no scientific data to support that the average animal receives better nutrition from a home-cooked diet than a commercial diet.

Out of three studies, the researchers observed two of them highlighted the high risk for nutritional deficiencies and excesses in RMBDs. However, a consistent finding among the three studies showed RMBDs modestly increased digestibility in comparison to commercial foods by five to 14 percent, according the news release. The researchers could not conclude whether this small increase led to any health benefits.

RMBDs Food-Borne Illness

A great concern among veterinarians in relation to RMBDs is pets’ and pet owners’ increased exposure to a variety of pathogens including Salmonella, E.coli, and Clostridium, among others. While traditional commercial pet foods have been recalled for contamination of Salmonella and other bacteria, scientific studies have shown this occurs at a much lower rate compared to commercial and home-prepared raw meat.

The researchers observed a study that found up to 48 percent of commercial RMBDs tested were contaminated with Salmonella, with the rate of contamination of home-prepared RBMD unknown. Another detected the bacteria was present in 80 percent of home-prepared raw chicken-based diets that were tested by researchers. The presence of pathogens like Salmonella may lead to severe sickness and even death in some pets.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) previously conducted a two-year study that screened over 1,000 samples of pet food for bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses. The FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine study revealed raw pet food was more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria compared to other pet food tested.

“Pet nutrition decisions are often made from the heart and with the best intentions, but it’s essential to look at what the evidence tells us about the benefits and safety of a certain diet. This is especially important for diets that include raw meat and the bottom line is that the existing research shows that the risks outweigh any minimal benefits,” said Lisa Freeman, D.V.M., Ph.D., the paper’s lead author and a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and faculty member at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in the news release.

RMBDs Plan

Pet owners are advised to consult their veterinarian about nutrition for their pets and review the evidence on RMBDs for animals if they are considering feeding it to them. Animal enthusiasts who wish to feed their pet raw foods, are considered to follow the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals:

  • Work with your veterinarian to ensure that your pet’s diet is nutritionally balanced
  • Avoid feeding raw foods in homes with babies and toddlers (who put lots of things in their mouths), the elderly and those with compromised immune systems
  • Practice regular hand washing before and after feeding pets
  • Practice appropriate disposal methods when cleaning up pet feces

For more information about pet-safe diets, visit your veterinarian and click here.