Thursday, November 1, 2012

And Now . . .The Alert on "Raw Deal" Diets

Well, loyal readers, as many of you know I’ve been taking an extended hiatus from Ethical Veterinarian to focus my limited free time on more far-reaching writing.  However, the raw food “controversy” has caused such repeated invasions of my head that I just need to get this out of my system.

In case you’re unaware, in a recent issue of JAVMA and on its website, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) stated its complete opposition to the practice of feeding raw food diets to cats and dogs.  It instituted a "policy" (i.e. a non-enforceable, media attention-grabber) against raw food.

Since then, I have heard multiple veterinarians using this declaration as a sort of "scientific manifesto" to insist that raw food is an unhealthy choice that places pets in peril.

First, I must state that the AVMA is not the hub of a scientific dictatorship.  Rather, it is a political trade organization, one of whose primary purposes is to protect the economic interests of veterinarians.  So when it declines taking a stance on dozens of crucial animal health/welfare issues but tries to intervene on an individual's choice of pet food, you’d be remiss to think there aren't huge economic factors at play.  After all, non-raw pet food is a multi-billion dollar industry in this country, and the veterinary profession is undeniably wrapped up in it.

The most dangerous thing about raw food is not bacterial contamination ... rather, it's that its emerging lack of association with the most common pet diseases is making mainstream pet food look awfully suspect. Uh-oh. I am not saying that a raw food diet cannot have its own possible adverse consequences--improper or deficient formulation, bacterial contamination and uncommon zoonosis among them.  We should inform our clients of these risks just as we should inform them of the risks associated with any pet food.  However, the mass-produced status quo food format presents an overwhelmingly larger number of long-term risks in addition to possible contamination.  Remember the aflatoxins and the recent dry food Salmonellosis outbreak?  As of 2006, not a single confirmed case of human Salmonellosis had been linked to raw food pet diets.  As for the risk of zoonosis, sharing one's home with a pet in general causes the chance of contracting all kinds of zoonotic diseases to skyrocket--is the CDC issuing a "policy" stating that it is against people having pets?  Nope.  It wouldn't do that when some cautionary, circumstantial advice would suffice.

We are being fooled when we believe the hype that the raw food diet is some nutritional or public health crisis worthy of this attempted national stop-order.  More importantly, we're being fooled when we believe that the mainstream, “scientific” food format stocked by nearly every veterinary hospital in America doesn’t have known adverse consequences which are worse, at least for the animals eating it.  Worse, mind you, but not stopping the veterinary profession from whole-heartedly endorsing those foods!

One of the main reasons I find the AVMA’s singling out of the raw food diet on so-called "scientific" grounds so obviously self-interested is because there are scientifically proven, disastrous consequences to feeding pets (especially cats) grain-laden dry food, yet this is what pet food manufacturers and most veterinarians, including Board-certified nutritionists, continue to push on consumers and clients...usually without any mention of risk.

Dry food is convenient, has consumer appeal and it's culturally ingrained, but is it not a continual source of disease? As one example, felines rely on their food, not direct lapping of water, for a huge portion of their moisture intake--domestication did not magically undo this any more than it obliterated any number of feline instincts.  Basic veterinary knowledge, combined with clinical experience, should tip off any veterinarian that dry food is the biggest contributor to feline urinary tract disease.  Insufficient dietary moisture and/or increased urine alkalinity result in increased likelihood of all the following: urinary tract infections, urethral mucus plugs, crystalluria, uroliths, potentially-fatal urinary blockages and even renal failure.  And as for Feline Idiopathic cystitis? Humans who have the similar condition report that stress can exacerbate the condition, but they also state that symptoms lessen greatly or disappear with dietary modifications.

If we want to talk about diet as it pertains to the big issue of animal welfare, the same example of feline urinary disease appliesMillions of cats have been relinquished to animal shelters due to reported inappropriate elimination.  It is the number one reason why cats are relinquished annually, outside of human factors (moving, etc.)  Why is this significant?  Because veterinary research has shown over and over that the highest incidence of lower urinary tract disease and inappropriate urination occurs in cats that eat solely dry food.  (For those looking for veterinary diet-speak, cats eating Royal Canin SO canned have a significantly lower relapse rate of crystalluria/urolithiasis than cats eating SO dry.  Format is important!) Even if dry food only contributed to, say, a fraction of the aforementioned shelter relinquishments, we've likely sent millions of cats to statistically probable euthanasia in part due to a "veterinary-approved" diet format.  Will the AVMA ever spotlight that? And what about the hundreds of thousands of male cats who die excruciating deaths from blocked bladders?  If I were a cat, I'd take a slight risk of Campylobacter over that, any day.

So why do so many veterinarians become INCENSED about raw food in particular but fail to notice the killer-filler ingredients in Purina, Eukanuba/Iams, and Science Diet foods, including the worshipped prescription (or as I like to call them, “reaction”) diets?  It’s at least partially because many vets take their nutrition cues from trade organizations and pet food manufacturers.  Nestle-Purina, keep in mind, is the maker of the worst kinds of dog junk food imaginable, including the ever-popular Beggin’ Strips, but simultaneously is a scientific authority (????), with a prescription diet to target canine diabetes?  Surely, I'm not the only one who finds this ridiculous. Are the two sides of Purina competing against each other the way Verizon and Verizon Wireless do?  Or is it perhaps just cashing in on every market?  Dry and/or grain-filled manufactured diets, including those in vet hospitals, are what I'm dubbing "Raw Deal" diets.

The effects of different diets are clinically obvious, if we pay attention to our own patients and clinical practice rather than just hand-me-down, angled information from entities that are clearly biased by both culture and industry.  While defensive hackles are up, I'll say it's embarrassing to the veterinary profession that non-veterinarians are applying common sense and achieving better results in pet nutrition.  I do indeed have many intelligent, health-conscious clients without a veterinary degree, let alone a Board-certification in veterinary nutrition, who have figured out what will and will not keep their pets healthiest.

Like it or not, the best-performing pet foods on the market are not formulated by veterinary-affiliated brands.  An increasing number of veterinarians are attesting to this; they're aware of the pet food fiasco.  They have drastically reduced and in many cases eliminated urinary problems, periodontal disease, inflammatory bowel disease, insulin-resistant diabetes and many other illnesses in their patients … simply by informing clients they’re better off avoiding the mainstream food format.

I don’t believe in cure-alls, but I do believe in cure-mosts.  Feeding an animal a diet closest to what it is biologically designed to consume, within our most reasonable means, is the most no-brainer “cure-most” out there.  For some people, that may mean filler-less canned food, but for the more ambitious it could mean a raw diet.

For the record, AVMA (because I know you read my blog), you have alienated a subset of the profession's most informed, brightest and most ahead-of-the-curve veterinarians with another industry-pleasing, maintain-the-status quo position.

To my fellow veterinarians, I would like to say: please be scientific and experiment ... with different ideas. Different ideas can be life savers.  And the ultimate cure lies in the cause.


  1. I am a pre-vet student and was shadowing the other day with a relief vet that went on a tirade against raw foods for dogs- it's good to see the other side of it. If human bodies frequently rebel against grains (and gluten), and we are more omnivorous than most house pets, why shouldn't dogs and cats have the same issues in just as high a frequency, if not higher? Perhaps this is the wrong way to think about it, but it is still interesting.

    I have fed my cats nothing but wet food and occasional dental treats, and they have great teeth, healthy coats, and never a single urinary problem.

    Anyway, thanks for the other side of it!

  2. Yeah! Thank you for this Dr. Jefferson. When my dog Madeline was recovering from pancreatitis she ate prescription food for a year. I was alarmed and disconcerted when I read the ingredients. Not much different than the junk you buy at Hannaford, but a lot more expensive. However, I wasn't willing to risk making her ill, so I kept feeding it until I found a somewhat better alternative. My point being, that often times clients feel they have no option, nor do they realize what a "byproduct" might be or that the first five ingredients listed are the most plentiful. Although I don't feed raw, I do pay attention to what's in the bag!

  3. I love the way you write and share your niche! Very interesting and different! Keep it coming!

  4. I’ve been searching for some decent stuff on the subject and haven't had any luck up until this point, You just got a new biggest fan!..