Raw Diets for Pets

Is it just me, or do pet food manufacturers jump on the same food bandwagons as people food manufacturers do? It seems you can’t even walk into an independent pet store without seeing shelf upon shelf of grain-free, or gluten-free cat and dog food. What, exactly, is going on here?

Let me say this up front: raw food diets for animal companions are not a trend, but boy howdy are the pet food companies trying to turn ’em into one! If you think that pre-made raw food is atrociously expensive, it is. All the more reason to make it yourself. But, more on that later.

What is a raw diet?

A raw diet (for pets) is a lot like what a raw diet is for people: uncooked, unprocessed, whole foods that provide a balanced species-appropriate nutritional profile that mimics what nature intended for them to eat. Animal parts of all sorts, from meat to offal to bone, and even few choice veggies (for dogs), egg, and the occasional supplemental source of protein or oil, are all part of a quality raw diet.

What are the benefits?

The benefits to switching from kibble to raw are immense. Improved health through the whole body; healthier teeth, coats, intestinal tracks and their flora, liver, pancreas, muscle… everything. In cats, stool consistency and odor is greatly improved also. These are just short-term improvements that can be seen in a matter of weeks, though. The long-term picture for a carnivorous animal getting fed a more natural diet are tremendous. All it takes is a little digging to find countless stories of pets, old and young, being saved from euthanasia or invasive veterinary treatments by being switched to a raw diet… and usually at the discouragement of their vets. Why is this? First, though:

What’s wrong with kibble?

The vast majority of kibble is bad. And I mean bad. It is essentially equivalent to eating 3 meals a day from what you can find at 7-11. How long do you expect to be healthy on a diet like that? How long before the health complications start piling up? Or imagine feeding any other carnivorous pet – like a ball python or falcon – a vegetable-based diet of crunchy, extruded bits of who-knows-what. Harder to picture, right? Well, it’s time to star thinking of our dogs and cats (and ferrets too!) as meat-eating animals with special dietary needs, just like their wild cousins.

Here’s an abridged version of a very long and thorough article, written by a vet, on why you should not feed your carnivorous pets dry kibble:

1. Ingredients

Dry food is typically made from rendered ingredients, such as chicken meal, poultry byproduct meal, and meat and bone meal (MBM). Rendering starts with animal-source ingredients being fed into a massive grinder to reduce them to chunks. The resulting hodgepodge is boiled at high temperatures for hours or even days, turning everything to mush. Fat floats to the top and is skimmed off for other uses. The remainder is dried to a low-moisture, high protein powder suitable for use in dry foods. […]

Because all of this ends up as an amorphous brown powder, it’s impossible to know what went into it. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that dog foods containing MBM and/or “animal fat” (both rendered ingredients) were the most likely to contain pentobarbital, the primary drug used to euthanize animals. […]

A survey of dry cat food for sale at a popular internet pet site found a huge variation in the price and quality. As expected, generic and grocery-store type dry cat foods were less than $2.00 per pound, while “organic” and many “grain-free” foods were more in the $3.00/lb. range. But the mostexpensive foods were not grain free, organic, or natural; but rather were those most massively (and expensively) advertised. Science Diet’s Feline Indoor Maintenance rang up at an astonishing $3.96 per pound, despite containing not one single shred of real meat (mainly poultry by-product meal, rice, and corn). Don’t even ask about Hill’s Prescription Diets—but if you just gotta know, their “hypoallergenic” z/d formula is over $6.00/lb.

2. Processing

To make dry food, whatever rendered high-protein meal is being used is mixed into a sticky, starchy dough that can be pressed through an extruder, which forms the kibble. The dough is forced by giant screws through a barrel and ultimately into tiny tubes that end in a shape, much like a cake decorator. The heat and pressure in the extruder are tremendous. As the compressed dough exits into the air, it passes through a whirling mass of sharp knives that cuts the pieces individually as they “pop” when they reach normal air pressure, creating the familiar shapes associated with each pet food brand.

While heat processing makes vegetables, fruits, and grains more digestible, it has the opposite effect on proteins. Not only are cooked proteins less digestible, but they can be distorted, or “denatured,” by heating. These abnormal proteins may be a factor in the development of food allergies, as the immune system reacts to these unfamiliar and unnatural shapes.

Enzymes, special proteins that aid in thousands of chemical reactions in the body, are especially fragile, and are rapidly destroyed by heat, even at relatively low temperatures. The normal food enzymes that would help digest the food are destroyed by processing. This forces the pancreas to make up for those lost enzymes. Over time, the pancreas can become stressed and enlarged, and even get pushed into life-threatening pancreatitis.

3. Carbohydrates

[…] Dogs and cats are carnivores, meat-eaters. Their natural diet is high protein and high moisture. For example, a whole rat contains about 8% carbs, which are found mainly in the liver. Natural prey (birds, rabbits, rodents, etc.) contain from 9-10% carbs. Some of this is consists of glycogen, a fuel the body stores in the muscles and liver, and some comes from undigested food in the prey’s gut. The carnivore’s ideal diet is essentially the Atkins diet: lots of protein and fat, and a small amount of complex carbohydrates from vegetables.

The average carb content of dry cat food is about 30% carbohydrates; it ranges from 8% in EVO Cat and Kitten food (most the carbs are replaced by 44% protein and an astronomical 47% fat), to 48% in Blue Buffalo Lite. Protein is the most expensive ingredient, and carbs the least expensive; so in general, cheaper foods contain more carbs. […]

Heat processing increases the glycemic index of carbohydrates. Corn—a common ingredient of dry food—has a glycemic index similar to a chocolate bar. When dry food is available all the time, cats in particular will nibble at it 15-20 times a day. This causes multiple sharp swings in blood sugar and requires the pancreas to secrete insulin each time. Over-secretion of insulin causes cells to down-regulate and become resistant to insulin. This is one reason why dry food is a major contributor to feline (Type II) diabetes.

4. Calories

It’s currently estimated that about 50% of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight, and many are seriously obese. Carrying extra weight isn’t cute and cuddly—it will shorten your pet’s life, create unnecessary discomfort, and will surely lead to one or more chronic diseases, such as diabetes, bladder and kidney disease, arthritis, liver failure, chronic gastrointestinal problems, poor immunity, and even cancer. You’re not doing your pet any favors by giving in to those abnormal appetites, which are in most cases caused and perpetuated by dry food. […]

5. Dehydration

Obviously, dry food is dry. This is a big problem for cats, whose ancestors are desert-dwelling wild cats. They have passed on to our pets their super-efficient kidneys, which are designed to extract every last drop of moisture from prey animals. As a result, cats have a low thirst drive, and don’t drink water until they are about 3% dehydrated—a dehydration level so serious that most veterinarians would consider giving intravenous fluids. Dogs have a higher thirst drive and will drink more readily, so they are less prone to dehydration.

Dehydration causes or contributes to many serious health issues, including urinary crystals and stones, bladder infections, FLUTD, constipation, and kidney disease.

6. Potential Contaminants

Given the types of things manufacturers put in pet food, such as pesticide-soaked grains and diseased, dead, and dying animals, it is not surprising that bad things sometimes happen. Ingredients used in pet food are often highly contaminated with a wide variety of toxic substances. Some of these are destroyed by processing, but others are not. […]

Bacteria & bacterial toxins. Slaughtered animals, as well as those that have died because of disease, injury, or natural causes, are sources of meat, by-products, and rendered meals for pet food. Rendered products commonly found in dry pet food include chicken meal, poultry by-product meal, and meat and bone meal. […]

Drugs. Because sick or dead animals are frequently processed for pet foods, the drugs that were used to treat or euthanize them may still be present in the end product. Penicillin and pentobarbital are just two examples of drugs that can pass through processing unchanged. Antibiotics used in livestock production also contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans.

Mycotoxins. Toxins from mold or fungi are called mycotoxins. Modern farming practices, adverse weather conditions, and improper drying and storage of crops can contribute to mold growth. Pet food ingredients that are most likely to be contaminated with mycotoxins are grains such as wheat and corn; and fish meal. There have been many large pet food recalls in response to illness and death in pets due to a very powerful poison, called aflatoxin, in dry food.

Chemical Residues. Pesticides and fertilizers may leave residue on plant products. Grains that are condemned for human consumption by the USDA due to residue may legally be used in pet food.

GMOs. Genetically modified plant products are also of concern. […]

Acrylamide. This carcinogenic compound forms at cooking temperatures of about 250˚F in foods containing certain sugars and the amino acid asparagine (found in large amounts in potatoes and cereal grains). It forms during a chemical process called the Maillard reaction. Most dry pet foods contain cereal grains or starchy vegetables such as potatoes, and they are processed at high temperatures (200–300°F at high pressure during extrusion; baked foods are cooked at well over 500°F). These conditions are perfect for the Maillard reaction. In fact, the Maillard reaction is desirable in the production of pet food because it imparts a palatable taste, even though it reduces the bioavailability of some amino acids, including taurine and lysine. The amount and potential effects of acrylamide in pet foods are unknown.

7. Preservatives 

Preservatives are not needed in canned foods since canning is itself a preserving procedures. Dry food manufacturers need to ensure that dry foods have a long shelf life (typically 12 to 18 months) to remain edible through shipping and storage, fats used in pet foods are preserved with either synthetic or “natural” preservatives. Synthetic preservatives include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, propylene glycol (also used as a less-toxic version of automotive antifreeze), and ethoxyquin. For these antioxidants, there is little information documenting their toxicity, safety, interactions, or chronic use in pet foods that may be eaten every day for the life of the animal. Propylene glycol, which keeps semi-moist food and “bits” soft and chewy,  is banned in cat food because it causes anemia in cats, but it is still allowed in dog food. […]

8. Liver Disease

[…] Cats’ livers are particularly sensitive to dietary changes. If a cat does not eat, the liver gets stressed and starts calling for “reinforcements.” In the cat’s case, this consists of fat breakdown around the body, which the liver then grabs from the blood stream and packs into its cells. This extreme fat hoarding can become so serious that it prevents cells from functioning properly, and a life-threatening type of liver failure, called “hepatic lipidosis” (fatty liver disease) can result. Overweight cats, and cats eating mostly or only dry food, are most at risk.

9. Allergies & Asthma

[…] As mentioned briefly above, the high-heat processing that dry food undergoes during manufacturing can denature proteins, meaning that it distorts their shape. To a protein, shape is everything, and only a protein in the correct shape will function properly. Shape is also how the immune system identifies proteins that belong in the body (“self”) versus foreign proteins. Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other invaders are all identified by the proteins found on their surfaces. When an immune cell identifies a foreign protein, a whole cascade of signaling for reinforcements and production of antibodies is set into motion. Antibodies then scour the bloodstream looking for invaders matching their shape; when they find one, they latch on and signal for support. Inflammation is one of the primary responses.

When an abnormal protein is picked up by an immune cell and antibodies are produced, then every time that protein appears, antibodies flock to it and stimulate inflammation. More bad proteins, more inflammation.

The gut doesn’t take kindly to this reaction, and will start rejecting the food—one way or another—vomiting or diarrhea. Cats seem to be especially good at (or perhaps fond of) vomiting, and indeed, vomiting is the primary symptom of food allergies, as well as full-blown inflammatory bowel disease. […]

10. Kidney and Bladder Stones

Both dogs and cats can develop inflammation, crystals, and stones in their bladders and kidneys. These conditions are exacerbated, if not outright caused, by dry food.

[…] The best way to prevent all bladder problems is to keep lots of fluid flowing through the urinary system to flush these problem particles out. The dehydrating quality of dry food produces highly concentrated urine that is much more likely to form crystals and stones. Wet food is needed to keep the urinary tract healthy; and it’s essential in any dog or cat with a history of bladder disease.

So why don’t more vets recommend raw diets?

This is a complex issue, but unfortunately in my research, the blame can almost always be placed on the kibble companies themselves. Hills, the maker of Science Diet, is so ingrained in the veterinary culture that they are pretty much responsible for all the training on nutrition that a US vet will get while at school. From providing the professors to sponsoring student programs to writing the textbooks, it appears that they peddle the kibble myth to aspiring vets from day one.

The other issue is that, like human medical doctors, vets don’t actually pay all that much attention to the role of diet in a patient’s health. Or at least, not nearly enough. Pills are almost always preferable to a change in lifestyle, and that goes for animals too. The other concern is that pet owners won’t do it right–which is another reason pills are preferred; they’re harder to screw up–and make their pets even sicker by mishandling raw meat or not providing the right balance of nutrients.

And last, there’s always the liability concern. If a vet gives you the go-ahead to start throwing whole cornish hens at your dog, and the dog chokes on a bone, you might sue. And nobody wants that. Unfortunately, many fears about raw diets are unfounded, and many vets believe in these myths (probably due in no small part to their kibble-peddling professors in college).

How do I get started?

There are several ways to do this, but it’s generally recommended that you go cold-turkey, especially with cats because of how they digest meals. (If you feed a cat raw meat and kibble at the same time in an attempt to transition, the meat and the kibble will digest at different rates, and parts of their meal run the risk of going rancid in their gut.) The first thing to do, though, is to stop your pet’s grazing habits if they are in fact a free-feeder. This means setting specific mealtimes and removing the food in between. Yes, they will probably whine and beg for a few days, but patience here is key. They’ll get used to the new routine in no time.

Because the rest is species-specific – and even breed-specific in the case of some dogs – here are some links that far surpass whatever I’ve gleaned in the past few months. I’m still learning too!

For Dogs

For Cats

For Ferrets

So this is Lucky, a cat I rescued off the street in Bed Stuy 4 years ago. Even though I was super poor at the time, I still fed her as much raw food as I could afford. Then I brought her back to California with me, and she went on a grain-free kibble diet because it just wasn’t possible for me to keep doing raw. There was no room in the freezer, I couldn’t trust my grandmother to do it correctly when I wasn’t around, and I was just lazy. Now that she’s here with me in Vancouver, with not one but TWO loving humans who’d do anything for her, I decided to start feeding her raw again.

The first bad habit I needed to break was her grazing. She was used to having food in the bowl 24/7, and would munch here and there throughout the day. Grazing is an unnatural behavior in cats; in the wild, they have to eat as much of their kill as possible otherwise it’ll start to rot. Tired from hunting and full from eating, their natural inclination is to bathe and then nap the rest of the day away until its time to eat again. (Cats are active at dawn and dusk and shouldn’t be eating more than twice a day unless medically necessary.)

At first I started her off with wet food to get her away from the texture of kibble. The canned stuff she took to immediately (can’t blame her, it’s designed to smell great), but the less processed dehydrated stuff I got, a brand called Sojos, was less to her liking and she’d only eat as much as absolutely necessary. I’m sure the vegetable chunks were a turn-off. When it became apparent that she was never going to finish the bag of dehydrated food, I decided that it was time to switch. We headed off to the nearest Asian supermarket and bought a few trays of meat: chicken wings, boneless chicken thighs, duck gizzards, and the smelt.

The trouble with raw food is that it just doesn’t smell as exciting as processed junk food – hey, just like it is with humans! – and it can be tough to convince your pet that the chunks of raw, relatively odorless chicken in their bowl is actually food at all. So the trick here is to brighten up the smell with something a bit more familiar to them if they don’t take to it right away. Catnip, a schmear of canned food, or even a ground-up sprinkle of their old kibble will help a lot. (It’s like getting your kids to eat their veggies by putting cheese on it.)

If your cat is a lifelong kibble-cruncher, then they won’t actually have the jaw muscles to tear into the tougher cuts of meat, ligaments, skin, and especially bones, that they otherwise would have. So it’s useful to start them off with softer tissue, or cut others into smaller, more manageable pieces. The process of building up that jaw strength can take months; and until they can chew their way through a bone, you will have to supplement their diet with essential nutrients like calcium and phosphorous. I read that you can use ground-up egg shells for this instead of buying a supplement.

Part of that can be alleviated by feeding your cat what’s called “whole prey’ – like the fish in the picture. Granted, I only give her a few a week as I don’t want to screw up her thiamine absorption, but the bones and offal in the fish do somewhat make up for the fact that she’s just not that great at chewing larger bones yet. (The most she can handle right now is the ends of chicken wings.) Though that’s not to say don’t give your cat bones if they can’t eat them! Even just attempting to eat them is beneficial as it cleans their teeth and is a great workout. You can always put the unfinished bones in the freezer until they’re ready to tackle them down the road.

Eventually, I’d like to start developing her taste for heart (rich in taurine), liver (always feed organic liver if nothing else, because that’s where all the toxins and antibiotics wind up), other offal, and maybe even pinkie mice. Even brain and green tripe would be a good, if rare, addition to her diet.

The ZW Benefits

Did I mention that switching your pets to a raw diet produces less waste too? Even if you’re still buying meat on styrofoam trays, think of all the energy from shipping and processing and rendering that isn’t being used to feed your pet now. And if you have access to a decent butcher who’ll fill your jars with beef hearts and chicken wings? I’d say you won the jackpot.

But think about it – even if you’re one of those orthodox package-denying purists, you can appreciate the big-picture improvement from switching from kibble to raw. Even bulk kibble to packaged raw. Fewer health complications down the road reduces trips to the vet, reduces the likelihood of needing prescription medications, and will even reduce the chance of having problems that require surgery when your furry friend gets old. My step-mom has a senior cat with diabetes, and they have to give her an insulin injection every day. That’s a lot of trouble that, honestly, would probably have been avoided if not for a life of eating carb-laden kibble. (Carnivores need very few carbs, if any at all.)

To me, that’s worth a mountain of styrofoam trays.

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8 thoughts on “Raw Diets for Pets

  1. Great post! Thanks for putting information out there. We’ve been feeding raw since we rescued our lab mix almost 4 years ago. It was introduced to me by a family member (who didn’t have a pet at the time) and the rest is history. Variety, I believe is where it’s at. Watching your pet eat and looking at their poo is a must (sounds like fun, doesn’t it :) I was terrified when I started because I didn’t feel there was any support. At least I couldn’t find much in the way of actual helpful information. I tried forums and they turned me off because of the negativity towards those who were learning. Like my husband and I eat clean, it made sense that our doggie eat clean as well. I am still learning but, I wouldn’t have it any other way. He looks good, smells good, great teeth, etc.

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    • Good to hear you’ve been doing it for so long! And yes, the sheer amount of information out there is overwhelming… and some know-it-alls like to throw it in your face if you get it wrong. Things seem to be getting better nowadays, though.

      And exactly! We eat clean, so why feed our kitty junk food? In the long run, it’s not cheaper. My childhood dog passed away 2 years ago, and the vet bills near the end were almost more than we could afford. So as someone without insurance right now as well, I know first-hand how important it is to not tempt disaster. Eat right and try to stay out of the hospital, lol.

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      • Yep, we’ve been there when it comes to outrageous bills for us (whether we had insurance or not) and our pets. Can’t prevent everything but, we can certainly try :D

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  2. Pingback: Raw Cat Food: The Process | Zero Waste Millennial

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