Over the last five years, the raw pet food movement has been going gangbusters. But does feeding raw meat or (gasp!) vegetables meet the dietary needs of your dog or cat?
In the days before commercial foods, dogs and indoor cats ate meat and table scraps. When the first commercially-produced foods came on the market in the late 19th century, it was a boon for pet owners, because it was convenient and inexpensive.
While pet food in its early days was made with horse meat, today's verisons are usually made with "feed-grade" meat and poultry (meaning they're not considered fit for human consumption by the USDA and FDA.) "Human-grade" pet food will generally be marked as such on the package to attract consumers, and costs considerably more.
As a general rule, commercial pet foods also contain fillers including bone meal and other meat by-products, wheat and other grains, and sometimes vegetables. They may also contain ash (a by-product of cooking meat), that can contribute to bladder problems in cats, in particular. With regard to seafood-flavored pet food, the same health and environmental issues that face humans—mercury poisoning or other contamination, depleted fisheries, by-catch—can make it a debatable choice, despite the dietary benefits of essential fatty acids and other nutrients.
Today, pet food is a multi-billion-dollar industry, regulated by the FDA and its Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) branch. There are not, however, standards for pet food, which is why it's critical to purchase a good domestic brand from a reputable source. Ask a trusted veterinarian for recommendations.
Increasingly, there are niches within the pet food industry, including raw, organic, and special or prescription diet. The majority of the industry is owned by a handful of mega-corporations including Proctor & Gamble and Mars, and veterinarian-developed brands like the popular Science Diet (a product of Hill's Pet Nutrition, which was purchased by Colgate-Palmolive in 1976). There are also top-notch independent brands now widely avaialble. A walk through any natural food store pet aisle or pet food store will yield a number of brands including Wellness, Natural Balance and Blue Buffalo.
I first discovered raw pet food while working for Prather Ranch Meat Co., a family-owned network of Animal Welfare-certified ranches with a retail shop based in Northern California. We sold our expired grass-finished ground beef and organ meat, and bones, to discerning pet owners, who claimed it was more wholesome than prepared food.
This piqued my interest, because we simply couldn't keep the stuff in stock; customers would actually call ahead to reserve product. I began looking into the raw pet food industry, and discovered a number of local, cottage-industry companies popping up (at least one of whom was purchasing our meat, and selling it in pretty packaging, at a considerable mark-up.)
This was around the same time major pet food recalls (mainly from China) were making headlines, so the issue of dog and cat food safety and provenance were very much on the public's mind. I wondered, was a raw diet better for dogs and cats, if the meat source was as high-quality as that of Prather Ranch?
For this article, in order to help responsible, environmentally-concious pet owners decide what to feed their canines and felines, I spoke with Dr. Robert M. Miller, a renowned, retired equine and exotic animal veterinarian with more than 55 years of experience in mixed practice. Dr. Miller was one of the industry's forerunners with regard to exotic animal nutrition, and as a former breeder of champion Australian Shepherds and the owner of a small ranch, he has extensive experience with animal feeds of all kinds. (Full disclosure: he's also my dad.) I chose to consult with him not out of nepotism (I swear), but because of his lengthy career and extensive knowledge.
Laurel Miller: Is raw pet food a healthy choice for dogs and cats, if the meat is from a trustworthy source?
Dr. Robert Miller: It's a fad, just like the human raw food movement. The problem with raw meat is that it isn't a balanced diet, even though followers think they're feeding a more "natural" diet inherent to the species.
LM: Can you elaborate on that?
RM: Carnivores don't eat meat. They eat other animals. This means they're consuming blood, organs and other tissues, and bone, which provide them with essential nutrients such as calcium and iron.
LM: But aren't dogs and cats omnivorous? Some raw pet food devotees also feed their animals vegetables [which can also increasingly be found in commercial dry and wet pet foods].
RM: Dogs aren't strict carnivores. Cats are carnivorous, but if they eat a bird or a rodent, they're consuming its gastrointestinal tract, which is also full of plant matter and seeds.
LM: So are vegetables—be they raw or cooked, or part of a commercial formula--good for dogs and cats? Is a vegetarian or vegan diet detrimental to the health of a carnivorous pet?
RM: It's not what nature intended. The better commercial diets have been extensively researched; the prescription diets for pets with health problems are especially valuable. Modern commercial foods are tremendously better than they were years ago; some are even more nutritious than traditional diets. Frankly, many American dogs and cats have a better diet than billions of humans around the world.
LM: Why do you recommend pet owners not feed a raw diet of any sort?
RM: The better brands of commercial pet foods—consult with a trusted veterinarian—are scientifically developed and beautifully balanced to meet all of that specific species' dietary needs. Pets actually live longer on a good commercial diet, as long as it's high-quality. In addition to not fulfilling all of a pet's nutritional needs, a raw diet can lead to parasites or other contamination, such as E. coli or salmonella.
LM: Are the occasional raw table scraps okay, if they're from whole foods, instead of processed?
RM: Yes, if it's safe for humans. But bear in mind some foods are toxic to pets. Chocolate, for example, isn't safe for dogs to eat.
LM: Good pet food is so expensive...it can actually cost more than raw food. What's your response to pet owners who are on a tight budget? Is feeding a less-expensive commercial food okay, and if so, do you have a preference of wet over dry diets?
RM: For healthy, normal dogs, dry food from a reliable company is fine. Many cats do better on a canned diet, but dry food is generally better for dental health in both species.