Woowhee! So I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few days, but I’ve finally managed to get fingers to keypad, so to speak. Tell me, has anyone been watching the new BBC series on BBC 2 called “Trust me, I’m a Vet”? No, well, it’s been causing a fair few waves, mostly in the raw feeding world after last week’s episode! After the first episode I heard it described by a vet as ‘chick lit’ - I thought that was a little demeaning. But after episode 2, well the raw food world turnout out in force! And I don’t blame them! The journalism regarding the section on raw feeding was poor, one sided and light on facts. Not a great start to encouraging the general public to ‘trust’ the profession.
As a consequence, I thought it might be useful to write a blog on raw feeding and the issues raised in the programme. Let me start by saying that I’m not vehementlypro or anti raw food. I’ve seen both sides of the coin in my professional career. When I was at University, I saw a cat who was fed on a home made raw food diet (note the home made bit, we’ll come to that later in the blog). He had a pathological fracture - that means he was fracturing his bones where we never normally expect to see fractures due to a trauma. In this case, he was pulling chunks of bone off with his tendons. This is sometimes seen if the calcium to phosphorus ratio is wrong in the food. His owner was a highly educated academic working in research in the science world, who felt she had done her research, and was importing a supplement from Canada so that his calcium to phosphorus ratio couldn’t possibly be wrong. We begged to differ.
On the flip side of the coin, I’ve seen animals with chronic skin disease or chronic gut problems, who have been on every medication going to no avail, whose owners have, at their wits end, put their pet on a raw food diet and the results have been remarkable. As with any part of our pets health, my feeling is there is no ‘one size fits all’, and we need to look at each patient individually and determine what is best for them.
Let’s return to the BBC programme. Why did the raw food article dismay me when I watched it? Well, there were a multitude of reasons. I’ll just pick up on a few of them. Firstly, we saw a vet open a packet of meat (it looked supermarket bought diced beef, I might be wrong). She put the food in a bowl using her hands (I do this when I make a casserole for my family by the way), then placed her hand on an agar plate. Unsurprisingly bacteria grew on the plate in similar places to where her hand had been. In my opinion, even if she hadn’t had contact with raw meat before making contact with the agar, bacteria would have grown on the plate because we are covered in bacteria - most of the commensal (read ‘friendly’) type. There was no discussion as to what cultures had grown, and if any were pathogenic (read ‘bad bacteria’ that can make us/our pets unwell), vs what had grown that were commensals. It is also rather concerning if they were pathogenic that those are the bacteria growing in food that looked like it was meant for the human market!
Then we headed into the lab, where there was a discussion about research on the faeces of dogs fed raw food vs dogs fed a commercial kibble. Now this pricked my ears when they said that there was a significant difference between the two groups (I interpreted that as statistically significant - meaning that the statistics bear out the difference between the two groups is significant rather than down to chance). There was an increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria and Salmonella in the raw fed dogs. Cue the alarm bells - and yes it would make me hesitate to feed a raw food to my dog if I heard this. But wait! What they didn’t qualify was how these dogs were raw fed- was it a manufactured raw fed diet (in which case it would be a little surprising-and worrying - to see the Salmonella, as the foods are regularly batch checked for Salmonella - DEFRA has a zero tolerance of Salmonella in raw pet food and commits to ongoing monitoring of this - and there are several raw food pet companies who elect to voluntarily test for further causes of food borne illness such as Campylobacter in their batches), or was it a home prepared diet? If these were home prepared raw food diets using meat from the supermarkets, well it’s a worry for the human food chain. In addition, from what I gather anecdotally, the raw food companies have requested the paper this research is from, and there has been no paper or link forthcoming. This means that it’s very difficult to look at the study and the methodology to make a considered decision as to whether it is credible research (that sounds harsh but we should be looking critically at any research/study to determine whether it is a useful piece of evidence for the hypothesis given).
There was also no definition given as to what the piece meant by raw diet (actually, I think it was called a raw meat diet), and the inference was that it was just raw meat, which a raw food diet simply shouldn’t be. It should contain a variety of other constituents to form a balanced diet.
Finally, the vet who was reporting this piece announced in summary that she hoped that raw feeding would be just a fad and would be over soon. This, I think, has caused some of the greatest consternation amongst the raw food community, and I’m pretty confident that raw feeding is most certainly not a fad. I know of many vets who are now stocking raw food in their practices, some alongside kibble, others switching to it totally. The movement to raw food has increased significantly in the last 12 years since I qualified. I used to see minimal clients who were raw feeding, now I see a large number, though probably still in the minority in general practice. And since I started my rehabilitation work and seeing more clients in the sporting world, it’s almost more unusual to see clients who aren’t raw feeding.
What is the take home message from this blog? Firstly, that raw feeding is not for everyone or their pets, and it’s a case of understanding what does and doesn’t work for your pet, as well as being sensible. If you have immunocompromised people in the house (e.g. anyone on chemotherapy or who’s had a transplant), then I’d be wary of feeding raw and probably stick to the more traditional processed food - dry kibble or cans. I think it’s also good to be aware that there probably isn’t a ‘safe’ food - note that recalls of processed canned and dry food do happen due to contamination or because there is a problem with the food not being balanced. For example,there was a Pets at Home Ava cat food recall earlier this year due to thiamine levels being far too low, leading to collapsed and seizing kitties. I would also recommend that if you do choose to feed a raw diet, then pick one of the manufactured raw food companies (and there are several) who are usually more than happy to chat with you on the phone first and determine firstly if the diet is right for your pet and your circumstances, and then how to go about the feeding process. Their diets will also be fully balanced - it’s easy to get this wrong at home and end up with problem (note the cat at the beginning on the homemade raw food diet that wasn’t balanced, despite the owner thinking it was). You also find that quite a lot of the raw food companies are signing up to the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) (which establishes the nutritional standards for pet food in line with EU legislation) or PFMA - the Pet Food Manufacturers Association who are the UK representatives of FEDIAF. I would also advise that if feeding raw food to your dog that you do ensure sensible hygiene, likewashing your hands after preparation, washing dogs bowls after they’ve eaten, wiping surfaces down where you’ve prepared the food. The sort of sensible precautions you take when handling raw food that you are preparing for yourselves (although usually we then cook it, but the precautions are the same as when you are prepping the food prior to cooking).
Finally, for any vets reading this, whatever your feelings are on raw feeding (and let’s be totally honest, it’s a polarising topic for many!), this television piece didn’t do anyone any favours. From my reading of comments all over social media many raw feeders are openly expressing distrust in vets and the profession as a whole and it’s effect has been quite the opposite in what I think it intended to do - raw food manufacturers had a remarkably busy week last week, from what I hear anecdotally. For those vets who are supporters of raw feeding, this sort of public bashing of raw feeding just elicits frustration and dismay that information is so one sided. It doesn’t allow any client to make an informed decision. Surely we need to be opening dialogue with our clients (which they have to trust us to do) so that we can ensure that however they choose to feed their pet, we are there to help make it as safe as possible for everyone in the household?