One of the most extreme food trends to appear on the culinary landscape in the past few years has been that of “rawism,” or raw food: Practitioners eat nothing that has been warmed past 116F and only uncooked, unheated, unprocessed, organic plant-based foods. While there are still hard-core “rawists,” the trend seems to be on the wane—at least, among humans.
But raw food diets are enjoying a rapid rise in popularity among owners of domesticated animals, particularly dogs. Australian vet Ian Billinghurst has published several books on the subject, including Grow Your Pups with Bones, and is widely credited with introducing the “BARF” diet (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, or Bones and Raw Food).
I hadn’t given much thought to rawism, but then along came Jack, a Newfoundland puppy, who joined our family in September. Jack’s breeder is a proponent of raising her pups on bones, and so began my interest in this diet.
BARF is based on the belief that animals should be fed what their wild counterparts eat, that is, what they would have eaten before becoming domestic animals. This should include, according to Billinghurst, raw bones, meat and small amounts of vegetable matter.
In her book Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats, Kymythy Schultze points out that dogs were domesticated around 14,000 years ago and commercial dog food came on the scene about 65 years ago. If dogs ate raw food for that long, she asks, why switch now?
Strong arguments can be made for both sides. Raw proponents report dogs that are in better health with stronger teeth and bones. Longevity is one of the benefits Jack’s breeder claims to observe.
I brought my questions to Clayton Park Vet Clinic’s Dr. Ron Abrahams, an animal practitioner for 30 years. Abrahams does have problems with the diet. “It’s all anecdotal,” he says. “There’s no scientific basis…yet.” He points out that in 20 years we might see all pets on this natural diet but for now he has serious reservations.
Indeed, the only reference to a study supporting raw diets that I could track down was one mentioned in Schultze’s book dating back to 1932. A study done last year by the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph examined several raw diets and found cause for safety concerns among pets and owners, concluding that with “the absence of any scientific data indicating beneficial health effects of raw diets, and nutritional deficiencies that have been reported with such diets, it is difficult to recommend their use at this point.”
The two main concerns are nutrition and sanitation. A raw-food diet may lack essential nutrients needed for optimum health: Rawists say that if pets are fed a wide variety of foods, all those nutritional requirements will be met. Sanitation is, in some ways, a broader concern: Handling raw foods improperly can cause people to become ill. Rawists argue that people prepare food daily for their families and don’t get sick, and that dogs’ digestive systems are much more resistant to such organisms than humans’.
BARF continues to grow in popularity among breeders and owners, but it’s not something you should enter into lightly. If you go the raw route, know and practice safe food-handling procedures to protect both you and your pet and be especially cautious about disposing of their faeces since there may be easily transmittable parasites and bacteria present. Find a vet who will work with you to be sure your canine companion has a healthy reaction to the diet. Be prepared to spend money on local, organic produce and meat, and to invest time in meal planning and preparation to ensure your pet is getting everything they need in their food dish.
Less barf, more liz feltham, online at: www.foodcritic.ca