The ins and outs of feeding your dog or cat a raw diet
Q&A with Dr. Erika Sullivan, Because Animal’s Chief Veterinary Officer.
Many people have switched to feeding their dogs and cats raw food diets. What should pet parents know about feeding a raw diet to their dogs and cats?
Like any diet, a raw diet must be balanced and complete. So pet parents must ensure that all of the nutrients required for optimal health are being provided.
There's a lot of confusion about the nutritional needs of dogs. Many people believe that since wolves eat purely meat diets, dogs can too. But dogs are not wolves. During their domestication over a 30 thousand year period, dogs have acquired carbohydrate-digesting enzymes, and thrive when fiber is included in their diet. Additionally, unlike the wolf, modern-day dogs are not immune to Salmonella, E. coli and other pathogenic bacteria that are found on raw meat.
What are the specific nutritional deficiencies and imbalances that can result from a raw diet
Although the feline anatomy and metabolism is better adapted to a diet of raw meat and bones, dogs fed meat and bones alone are especially prone to nutritional deficiencies. Dogs' diets should be supplemented with omega fatty acid and low-glycemic index fruits and vegetables to slow digestion.
In terms of mineral imbalances, it is critical to ensure that your pet is receiving the proper ratio of calcium and phosphorous. Meat contains high levels of phosphorus, and when fed without the bone this can cause the body to leach calcium from the animals' own bones to try to balance the ratio. For this reason, feeding raw meat without bone is especially risky. When feeding raw meat and bone together, it is essential that the appropriate ratio be achieved to avoid calcium-phosphorus abnormalities.
In terms of completeness, unless you include some organ meat and/or plant matter with the raw meat and bones, there may be certain vitamins and minerals that your dog or cat is not getting enough of. This could include vitamins D, K and A and certain trace minerals, especially iodine.
In addition to nutritional deficiencies, are there other health-related issues that pet parents feeding a raw diet should watch out for?
I have seen a lot of emergencies related to bones. If dogs don't chew bones adequately they can become lodged in their stomachs or intestines. Or, if dogs are fed too much bone, this can lead to impactions in their colons, in which case the dog will need to be anesthetized to flush out the congealed bone distending and stagnant in their colon.
As well, many dogs get diarrhea if they don’t ingest enough fibre. And, depending on the breed, raw food is sometimes just too rich or new for them and they can actually get hemorrhagic diarrhea, a medical condition that requires several days of hospitalization and administration of intravenous fluids and antibiotics.
Many dogs may also suffer from pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the pancreas as a result of the diet being too high in fat. Some breeds are predisposed to pancreatitis and gastrointestinal upset, so if you are feeding them a high-fat diet, and they are seniors or one of the breeds that are genetically predisposed to pancreatitis (like miniature Schnauzers or many small terriers), that might put them at risk of pancreatitis and secondary ailments.
So, if you are interested in trying your pet on a raw diet, don’t just go to the butcher and throw raw meat in the bowl and think you’re done.
That’s right. And so many people do that.
If you are feeding a raw diet, I recommend speaking with your veterinarian. Having your pet’s blood levels checked every few months to assess their kidney function, electrolytes, calcium and phosphorus levels, and cholesterol, is so important.
Dr. Erika, also known as The Globetrotting Veterinarian, graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College, where she led a successful campaign to end the euthanasia of animals used in surgical training. Erika makes routine visits to Thailand where she treats disabled elephants; leads a yearly spay-neuter clinic in India; and is a PADI Open Water Scuba Diving Instructor, which allows her to better promote the protection of marine life. She currently lives in Adelaide, Australia, where she works at a vet clinic that sees tropical birds as some of her patients, a few of which she brings home!