Written by: Jorie Green, Managing Editor - VetCentric.com
These days, people are eating eggs and bacon as a way to lose weight, and shunning white rice as if it’s food of the devil. And who could forget the way we used to diet in the 80s’the Grapefruit Diet, the Beverly Hills Diet, the eat-nothing-but-broth-and-then-binge-on-pie diet. (That wasn’t what the diet was called, of course, but it was basically how it was followed.)
Well, it turns out that pets are no strangers to diet fads, either. The latest push is to feed your dog BARF’yes, you read that correctly’which stands for the Bones And Raw Food diet. Mmm, mmm, mmm... a big plate of fresh raw meat, piled on top of some bones. It may sound disgusting to us, but dogs gobble it up. After all, it’s what they used to eat, before dog food was invented.
The question is, is raw meat good for them?
"BARFers," as they call themselves, feed their dogs a combination of raw meat, eggs, meaty bones, some vegetables, and a small amount of regular kibble. The point of BARF’unlike human diet fads’isn’t to slim down Spot, but to keep him vital and healthy. The eating program was created by Dr. Ian Billinghurst, a veterinary surgeon from Australia who observed that the canine patients in his clinic that seemed the healthiest were those that weren’t chowing down on Gravy Train or Iams, but good old-fashioned raw meat and bones.
"Raw meaty bone-eating dogs lived much longer than their commercially fed counterparts," Dr. Billinghurst said. "Bone-eating dogs have the wonderful benefits of clean teeth with no periodontal disease, wonderfully improved digestion, a reduction in obesity, fabulous eating exercise, healthy stools, no anal sac problems, and the wonderful psychological, emotional, and immune system benefits that eating raw meaty bones has conferred on dogs for millions of years."
But many boarded veterinary specialists warn against the diet, arguing that Dr. Billinghurst’s claims aren’t substantiated with adequate medical research, and that the BARF diet actually has the potential to be life-threateningly dangerous.
Julie Churchill is a specialist in companion animal nutrition at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine who strongly discourages the use of the BARF diet; "Barf indeed," she said.
"I am very much against the raw food diets," Dr. Churchill said. "Many dogs can do well on a raw food diet. However, [the diets] have the potential to be life-threatening. Any food that can potentially kill even one animal is not worth the risk."
Why might BARF be fatal to dogs? Let Dr. Churchill count the ways: "Bones, even raw and ground ones, can perforate the [gastrointestinal] tract. This can lead to peritonitis, severe infections, require emergency surgery, and dogs die from this each year... These diets are contaminated with bacteria. This may not be harmful to a healthy dog. However, dogs don’t come with a label saying which ones will be fine and which ones will get sick."
Added Sarah Abood, DVM, assistant professor of small animal clinical sciences at Michigan State University’s veterinary school: "To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen anything in the veterinary literature suggesting a documented health benefit of raw meat diets."
Dr. Billinghurst acknowledges that there isn’t any scientific data backing up his claims: "To date there have been no scientific trials conducted to determine if the re-introduction of dogs to the diet they all ate until about 60 years ago is having benefits, although literally thousands of testimonials to the beneficial effects of this diet are to be found in my files."
These testimonials also flood the Internet. There are BARF websites, a BARF web ring, BARF message boards, recipe sites, and support groups. You can become a member of more than 75 BARF and raw food related newsgroups. Users talk about their dogs’ gleaming haircoats, strong muscled bodies, and hardy dispositions... all because of BARF.
"Feeding a dog anything that it would never eat in the wild is totally and utterly ridiculous," one individual going by the handle "Wolf Chief" posted. "Dogs are descended from wolves, and wolves don’t need vet care to survive, so the only logical thing to do is to give your dog a diet that replicates the diet of a wolf."
Many of these web users have an enthusiasm for BARF that can only be described as passionate. In fact, one individualwho complained that Dr. Billinghurst’s book about BARF, Give Your Dog a Bone, was too expensive was roundly criticized for worrying about cost when "you owe your pets the benefit of being as healthy as they can be."
Why is there such enthusiasm for BARF? "Results, results, results," Dr. Billinghurst said.
As for the mainstream veterinary community’s claims about the dangers of BARF’Dr. Billinghurst calls them "ostrich science."
"Head in the sand science is very poor science," he said. "Veterinary nutritionists have no experience feeding BARF... Their problem is that they neglect to be scientists when faced with something outside their experience. Instead of making proper investigations or simply being honest and admitting their ignorance of BARF, they make a series of assumptions and parade those assumptions as if they were scientific fact. On that basis, they assume that meat containing potentially pathogenic bacteria will cause problems, and forget that the dog is designed to eat bacteria-rich food, such as feces... They assume with absolutely no evidence that immune compromised animals will succumb to infection when introduced to the BARF [program.]"
But widely regarded veterinary textbooks, including Craig Greene’s Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat, have long held that animals’immunocompromised or healthy’that eat raw meat are susceptible to bacterial infections. E. coli and Salmonella are among the more serious infections that are transmitted through meat that isn’t properly cooked.
"Both the pets and the people in the home are at risk of moderate to severe GI disease, especially if there are breaks in hygienic standards, and this has been well documented," Dr. Abood said. "Although there are some who claim that dogs and cats can handle these bacteria, I would be just as concerned about the person preparing raw meals for the pet each day. Despite one’s best intentions, shortcuts or deviations in a hygiene protocol can occur, and put family members at risk for infection."
Not only does Dr. Billinghurst claim that BARF is superior to commercial feeds, he also argues that commercial, processed diets’the kind you buy from your veterinarian or at the supermarket or pet store’are bad for dogs.
"The commercially fed dogs’ shorter lives were filled with misery, as they suffered from the whole range of degenerative diseases, often from a very early age. The problems they suffered included arthritis, periodontal disease, diabetes, skin problems, the whole range of orthopedic problems in young dogs, including hip and elbow dysplasia, and many, many more, including the worst and most frighteningly abundant of all’cancer!" he said. "My experience as a veterinary surgeon in practice since 1976 tells me that almost every animal fed commercial food will eventually become immune compromised to some degree, and that when it is switched to BARF, its immune status is enormously enhanced."
This contention is met with particular skepticism by veterinarians and professionals in the pet food industry.
"I have seen nothing to support this claim in peer-reviewed veterinary literature," Dr. Abood said. "Domesticated dogs and cats are living longer now than 20, 30, or 50 years ago, [although] this could be due to many reasons." Although she said all dogs will have different nutritional needs that should be taken into consideration when selecting a diet, "I also believe that the vast majority of healthy dogs and cats can be successfully fed a commercially prepared, complete and balanced product."
Bryan Brown, director of communications of The Iams Company, concurred that premium, high-quality feeds are the best way to keep dogs and cats healthy.
"We’ve been in the premium nutrition business for 54 years," he said. "Our nutritional philosophy and scientific research gives us some authority to confer that feeding dogs and cats high quality ingredients’with poultry, lamb, and fish as protein sources’[manufactured] in government-inspected facilities is the best way to ensure healthy, happy animals. Our track record is based on hard work and research."
With regards to BARF, Mr. Brown had a word of caution for pet owners. "It’s fair for pet owners who really care about their pets to ask [those] who are promoting these diets whether they have the research that gives them credibility. Do they have government inspected facilities?"
Of course, your kitchen counter hardly qualifies as a government-inspected facility. But don’t tell that to "Jessica," a poster on an online BARF discussion group whose dog, "Kristie," choked to death on a chicken bone while enjoying her evening meal.
"I want to make it clear that I by no means meant that you shouldn't feed a BARF diet!" she wrote, after a poster implied she was disloyal because she attributed Kristie’s death to a raw bone. "I wanted to warn people that choking could be a possibility. I continue to feed all of my dogs a BARF diet, although now I only allow them to eat ground meat or smaller pieces of meat."