These days, it seems that there is no end to the controversy over what is the best diet to feed your pet. There is an ongoing debate as to the safety of raw and which ingredients are best in kibble-type diets. Unfortunately, there is very little true nutritional education available to veterinarians, either in veterinary school or in continuing education courses offered afterwards. The ‘training’ that most vets receive is based on which prescription diet is best for feed for a given condition.
In my 30+ years of practice experience, I have seen disturbing trends in the increase of certain disease conditions, such as itchy skin, diarrhea, pancreatitis, auto-immune disease, and cancer. I saw magnificent advances in all areas of veterinary medicine, but nothing changed in the nutritional recommendations. As I saw pets getting sicker, and dying younger, I had to ask myself if we needed to be offering different nutritional options for our patients.
I began to read pet food labels and look at the ingredients. I started to ask myself if ingredients found in the typical kibble diet, such as rice, barley, and beet pulp were really appropriate foods for a carnivore such as a dog or cat. Oils sourced from ingredients such as soybeans, corn, and fish are unstable at the high temperatures used to process commercial diets and this causes not only the loss of their nutritional benefit, but can, in fact make them toxic. Then there is the long list of synthetic vitamins used to ‘balance’ the diet. The problem with synthetic nutrients is that we have no idea how they are affecting the body, and if they are even bio-available. Once we start micro-managing nutrients, we run the risk of causing imbalances, such as was the case of the recent recall by Hills due to toxic vitamin D levels.
Dogs and cats have a digestive system best equipped to consume and digest a meat-based diet. They have canine teeth to obtain prey, incisors to shear the meat from a carcass, and powerful jaw muscles and back teeth to crush the food prior to swallowing. There is a high acid content in their stomachs, and the resulting low pH that starts the digestive process and eliminates pathogenic organisms that may be ingested. Their digestive tract is relatively short, so food is digested in a few hours in a healthy individual. Dogs and cats are not digestively equipped to breakdown plant material, including grains, fruits and vegetables. True herbivores, such as cows and horses have part of their digestive tract dedicated to a fermentation process that breaks down plant material.
The outcome when a carnivore eats a diet high in plant-based carbohydrates is inflammation. Carbohydrates in the form of processed grains, legumes, potatoes, and other vegetables raise the blood glucose level, and subsequently the insulin level. Insulin is a hormone released to deal with nutritional excesses such as high blood glucose. It is a storage hormone that moves the excess glucose into the liver and muscle tissue where it is stored as glycogen for later use. This storage mechanism has a limited capacity, however, and once full, the excess will be stored as body fat. When the consumption of glucose continues, a resistance to insulin will result as the cells become desensitized to the constantly elevated level in the blood. The blood sugar then stays elevated, causing damage to the tissues, leading to chronic inflammation.
There is also a profound risk of toxic exposure from the plant-based ingredients. Many crops are sprayed with glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup) while growing, and some grains are sprayed after harvest to help dry them more rapidly. Wheat, corn, and soy are also highly genetically modified which can have devastating adverse effects on the gut microbiome. Legumes such as peas, lentils, and beans will accumulate glyphosate if sprayed while growing and pass the toxicity along when ingested. This means that the ‘grain-free’ varieties of kibble are not any safer. It is important to read labels every time you buy food as ingredients often change from batch to batch based on market price.
My recommendation, after several decades of recommending a variety of different diets to my patients, is to feed a fresh, whole food, and ideally raw diet. Why is this better? Whole food feeding provides nutrition in the form it was meant to be consumed. Nutrients from fresh, whole foods are not altered by processing, and are in the form that the body will recognize and assimilate properly. Furthermore, the nutrients in whole foods are meant to be consumed together as they work synergistically in the body. Using the chemical equivalents will not have the same beneficial effect.
Safety is a common concern when feeding raw food. Feeding raw is perfectly safe with a bit of proper handling and common sense. This means that you wash your hands after feeding your pet, don’t leave the food set out at room temperature for extended periods of time, wash dishes and utensils after your pet eats, and don’t leave food thawed in the refrigerator for more than 72 hours. That’s it – and raw feeding can be perfectly safe as long as the food is well-sourced. Sourcing refers to the way in which the food animals are raised and how the products are processed, stored, and distributed. I recommend buying raw food blends from a company that produces raw pet food. There is actually a greater allowance for bacteria in grocery store meat than in the raw pet food industry. Recalls in the pet food industry are based on a zero-tolerance for bacteria. Furthermore, the manufacturers are not informed as to the amount or strain of the bacteria detected. This makes it impossible for producers to identify the origin of the bacteria, or even the true risk to pets or people exposed to the food product.
Let’s do a summary of the risks and benefits of feeding raw vs kibble:
*Creates inflammation leading to chronic diseases such as itchy skin, diarrhea, pancreatitis, and cancer
*Grains and legumes contain lectins that damage the intestinal lining, preventing proper digestion causing malnourishment
*Genetic modification of ingredients alters the function of a healthy microbiome, leading to immune system dysfunction
*Pesticides and herbicides cause organ toxicity and can damage the gut microbiome and intestinal lining causing improper digestion and leaky gut
*Oils and fats become rancid due to over-processing and are toxic to the body
*Synthetic vitamins and minerals may not be bio-available to pets, causing nutritional imbalances
*Less expensive in the short-term
*Requires proper handling and washing dishes and utensils afterwards
*More expensive in the short term
*Provides balanced nutrition in the way nature intended
*Species appropriate for a carnivore
*Can be varied to meet individual needs
*Supports optimal function of the immune system
*Ingredients naturally support joint and musculoskeletal health
*Reduces the need for supplementation
*Prevents inflammation, which prevents skin and digestive disease, as well as auto-immune conditions and cancer
Although raw food may be more expensive in the short term, feeding it will drastically reduce vet bills in the future due to the increased health benefits. It is literally, pay now or pay later when it comes to feeding your pet the best diet possible. If you think you can’t afford to feed raw, can you afford to treat a chronic disease such as cancer, both in terms of the financial and emotional toll it will take?
Pets may appear to do fine on kibble in the short-term, but I can guarantee you that there is a disease of inflammation brewing and it is only a matter of time until it surfaces.
Nothing is more important than feeding your pet a proper diet. No supplement, regardless of the claims, will substitute for an inferior diet. Feeding your dog or cat a species-appropriate diet will be best thing you can ever do for your trusted companion.