By Sarah Griffiths, DCH
I will start this article by acknowledging that I am not a veterinarian. However, I am a researcher, a certified homeopathic practitioner, an animal nutritionist – and a concerned pet parent. I also want to say that I have a large list of well-respected and open-minded veterinarians that I work with and recommend to my clients. Our veterinarians are an integral part of helping our animals stay healthy. We need them. They dedicate their lives to their work. They care. I didn’t write this article to judge or shame them but to offer some factual information that you may not be aware of when it comes to the animal health industry. This is a triggering topic but an important one.
Why are so many veterinarians opposed to raw feeding?
I have many small animal clients who don’t have the fortune of having access to a holistically-minded vet in their area. Instead, they need to go with a veterinarian within the community – one that might not be on the same page when it comes to feeding their pet. I regularly hear professionals giving their opinions surrounding the dangers of feeding raw food. I see the veterinary associations warnings against feeding fresh food. I regularly hear clients telling me their vets have tried to steer them away from raw and onto highly processed kibble. I get more than a little frustrated.
The arguments given against fresh feeding are:
- Risk of pathogenic bacteria (eg. salmonella and e. coli)
- Little scientific evidence that raw is beneficial
- Risk of nutritional deficiency – it’s not balanced and complete.
Where did these theories come from? Are they true?
To understand where these ideas stem from, we need to dig in. All of us, pet parents and animal care professionals have a responsibility to examine these statements for what they are with honesty and for the welfare of animals. Each of them could be considered true in extreme scenarios. That’s why they need fair investigation before a belief is formed. If topics are explored with curiosity instead of pre-formed judgements, we can get to the bottom of why this ongoing battle exists between raw feeders and conventional veterinarians. Fresh food is completely safe when it is fed mindfully. In fact, science is now proving that it promotes health and longevity in a variety of ways that will be discussed below.
Secondly, we need to question what’s being taught to our veterinarians at school because it matters. I’m not questioning the good intentions they have, their passion for helping animals or the hard work that they do. I’m questioning the logic and intention of nutritional education in vet schools. With severely outdated and industrialized methods and “science,” it does not convert into health and wellness for animals. In my professional experience, feeding industrialized pet feed to any animal is a serious welfare issue. That is why I’m taking the time to write this article.
HUMAN FOOD ETHICS VS. ANIMAL FEED ETHICS
Let’s compare the human food world to the pet food world and see how the two schools of thought differ:
- THE CONCEPT OF HEALTHY EATING
Pet World: Veterinarians are the only medical professionals that recommend highly processed feed over balanced fresh food diets. They claim that industrialized feed supports health and longevity and that fresh food is dangerous for pets. The agencies that spread this information to veterinary professionals and clinics across North America include the Canadian and American Veterinary Medical Associations and The American Animal Hospital Association. (4) (5) (6)
“Coincidentally”, according to Banfield, obesity has increased by 169% in dogs and 158% in cats just in the past 10 years….
- FOOD SAFETY STANDARDS
Human World: E. Coli outbreak on romaine lettuce makes headlines. But doctors don’t start telling us to avoid lettuce…. Because the health benefits outweigh the risks and people are smart enough to adjust and make good choices. Food safety standards for human food are raised and new practices adopted. Individuals are even starting to grow their own food to avoid industrialized farming and have more control over food safety. Nowhere in human world does any doctor tell you to start eating highly processed food and avoid fresh food to increase their health. In fact, it would probably be seen as unethical to do so as a medical doctor.
Pet World: The story being told at large: animals and humans are at risk for becoming ill from pathogenic bacteria contamination due to raw pet food. This is despite several facts that make this theory flimsy at best:
- dog and cat digestive systems are anatomically and physiologically built to handle much higher load of bacteria than humans (when the digestive system is HEALTHY). The biggest problem with contamination comes not from the food itself but from the terrible state that most animal’s digestive systems are in when they switch from highly processed food to raw. That is why I often recommend home-cooked food for very “sensitive” animals who cannot handle food changes well. Their gut is not able to handle bacteria in the same way. They need a slow introduction. Most contamination comes from pet parents misunderstanding of how to switch to raw foods, not from the food itself! A topic for another day.
- Just like human world – it matters how the fresh foods are handled and prepared to keep you and your family safe. This doesn’t just apply to raw food! ALL pet food (yes, even dry food) can harbour pathogenic bacteria. A 2023 study on dry dog foods revealed that 100% of the 35 dog food brands tested were contaminated with bacteria (I highly recommend you read this whole study – it’s quite disturbing if you believe dry pet foods are safe!) (7)
- A recent study of over 16, 000 raw-feeding canine households found that only 0.2% of all applicants surveyed suspected a pathogenic contamination due to their dog’s raw food diet.
- ENVIRONMENTAL STERILTY AND HEALTH
Human World: Sterility of our food and living environments is being recognized as a detriment to our health, damaging our microbiome. (8) (9) (10) It is now understood that fresh, organically grown foods have special soil-based microbiomes that benefit our health when eaten. (11)
Vegetables grown in chemically-induced, sterilized environments come with health risks too. You can check out my article on the health risks of glyphosate for more info. There is more to the story than “dangerous bacteria” lurking on food waiting to harm you and your pets. Pathogens are opportunistic and will flourish in sterile environments when no “good bacteria” can populate environemnt to keep it in check.
Pet World: The idea that processed pet feed is sterile is still accepted by animal care professionals. Warnings about raw feeding are posted in the waiting rooms all over North America and beyond. All of the North American veterinary associations see this as an essential duty in animal welfare efforts.
Let’s get something straight: processed food isn’t actually sterile. And because the “good” bacteria are killed along with the “bad” bacteria in the extrusion process, pathogens (eg. salmonella, listeria and e. coli) can grow freely on pet feed with nothing to keep them in check at the end stage. (7) Adding probiotics isn’t going to cut it – also, a topic for another day…..
Bacterial contamination recalls don’t just happen with raw food diets. Take a look at the FDA veterinary recalls database to see the number of processed foods recalled for this very reason. (14)
Animal feed itself affects the microbial community, promoting an unhealthy microbial community in the gut. (15)
- THE CONCEPT OF HEALTHY EATING
Human World: Healthy diet is qualified in terms of freshness and variety, often with little to no mathematical equations involved. For customized diets, doctors refer patients to nutritionists for help. Most nutritionists would agree that rotational fresh food choices are the way to go and that processed foods should be kept to a minimum or eliminated all together.
Pet World: Healthy diet is qualified through whether or not it follows the American Association of Feed Control Officials nutrition guidelines regardless of freshness or ingredient quality. It was originally designed for processed animal feed, not fresh food. Period. Even board-certified veterinary nutritionists follow these rules and recommend highly processed feed. “Scientific formulation” doesn’t always equate to healthy eating.
I always use the analogy of Frankenstein for the pet feed industry. We cannot be so arrogant that we believe we can disassemble food and think that we know exactly how it will all fit back together. We have a fraction of the scientific information we need in order to accomplish this. Science is a process of exploration. There is no end to discovery in real scientific endeavors. We haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to nutrition for ourselves and our animals. When we learn something new, it isn’t written in stone. It doesn’t mean we should stop learning and exploring. When you leave school, it’s actually the beginning of your learning. It doesn’t end with a diploma. You gain your own experience and expand your knowledge base as you go.
Getting slightly more philosophical: The most dangerous thing we can do is base our opinions on what someone else told use rather than educating ourselves and using our critical thinking skills. This could apply to all disciplines in life.
- DIET-INDUCED DISEASES
Human World: In 2009, the FAO (Food & Agriculture Association of the United Nations) created the NOVA system: a system used to identify and classify the level of processing associated with foods available for human consumption. The main driving factor behind creating this system was to track the incidence of non-communicable disease (NCD) (eg. chronic disease) in relation to diet. The 2019 report confirms that ultra-processed diets contain higher NCD promoting nutrients (eg. sugar and sodium) and less NCD-protective nutrients compared to unprocessed foods.
Pet World: The leading official animal health agencies including the FDA, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Association (CVMA) and American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) maintain that fresh food diets are dangerous to animals and discourage their use.
Processed food is actually killing pets. The most deadly ingredients? According to the FDA recall database, it’s mouldy grain products and synthetic vitamin/mineral pre-mixes.
Mouldy grains: Recalls for processed foods that contain poisonous aphlatoxin from mouldy grain products are occurring at an alarming rate. Most recently, 70 dog deaths were directly linked to alpha toxin poisoning, reported in 2021.
Vitamin and Mineral Toxicity: The other frequent reason for pet feed recalls is due to toxic levels of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals from miscalculated pre-mixes that are added to balance the diet. In 2018, the FDA recalled several pet feeds due to vitamin D levels 70 times higher than what was recommended. Vitamin D toxicity can cause kidney failure and death. It’s no joke. The frequency at which this is happening is not ok. Other pet food recalls include those for toxic levels of lead, copper, chlorine and more.
There are other dangerous additives that could be in your pet’s feed including melamine, preservatives, herbicides, pesticides and more. The truth is that you don’t really know what’s in the bag. Unfortunately, what it says on the bag might not be what’s in the bag. Click here to learn more.
Science proves that it’s likely that close 100% of processed feeds are contaminated with bacteria. (7) It’s not an opinion, it’s a fact.
Science is showing – through non-biased research – that fresh food diets really do set animals up for a higher quality of life and can prevent many of the most chronic conditions we see in modern dogs and cats. (16) (17) (18) (19) (20) (21) (22) (23)
Species-appropriate nutrition is not just a fad. It is science-based. Failing to recognize the naturally occurring foods that best suite a species leads to risk of nutritionally created diseases. These are chronic inflammatory diseases that are far harder to manage than a lot of viral and bacterial infections. We cannot do better than nature.
- INDOCTRINATION OR EDUCATION?
Pet World: There is still little to no recognition by veterinary medical schools on whole food nutrition. In fact, they have an agenda to oppose it. All animal nutrition education is based on AAFCO formulation and feed theory. This includes the curriculum for board-certified veterinary nutritionists who are considered specialists and the ultimate animal nutrition experts. The nutrition curriculum for veterinary students consists largely of – dare it say it – propaganda – with recommended textbooks written by processed pet food companies like Hill’s and Royal Canin.
Here is an example: the actual 2020 semester outline for basic animal nutrition for the veterinary department of the University of Florida.
You literally cannot make this stuff up…..
And…. (this is where it gets a little more prickly for those of you working in this industry): Mars Petcare owns the largest number of veterinary hospitals (over 2000) in the USA alone. (27)
Mars also owns the Royal Canin Veterinary line of pet feed. They are one of the top 5 multibillion dollar corporations in the pet feed industry and, conveniently, the most recommended prescription feed sold in veterinary clinics all over North America. (28) They also own Pedigree, Whiskas, Iams, Temptations, Nutro, Shiba, Greenies and more.
Probably the most disturbing part is that Mars also owns Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition which claims to be the leading edge in pet food science and they own all VCA Canadian Veterinary Hospitals of which there are over 140 locations. The VCA is recognized by the veterinary community as a prestigious certification that has gained the reputation for ensuring the highest safety and health measures possible when it comes to pet health. They also own the following vet clinic/laboratory chains: Banfield, Blue Pearl, Anicura, Antech, and Pet Partners.
Mars owns the following human food companies that offer packaged and processed human food: Ben’s Original (Uncle Ben’s), Cocoa Via, Dolmio, Masterfoods, Parmesello, Tastey Bite, M&M’s, Snickers, Skittles, Kind. They claim that they make healthy eating convenient….. by offering highly processed food in a package……
If you go down the rabbit hole and explore AAFCO’s (The Association of American Feed Control Officials) 2021/2022 Official Publications, many of the ingredients that are approved for use in pet feed by AAFCO are waste products from human food brands owned by the same companies…… I am literally reading from my copy of the 2021 AAFCO publication as I write this. Acceptable ingredients include: soy hulls, peanut & almond hulls, pasta product, sugar foods by-product, food processing waste, restaurant food waste, corn cob fractions, fish by-products, grain by-products, dairy food by-products and oat-mill by-products.
And it gets worse: dried poultry, swine and ruminant waste (yes, feces), and formaldehyde (yes, this is actually deemed to be safe in animal feed!). Translation: Waste products not fit for human consumption are being made into pet food instead of being thrown away. Known cancer-causing agents are being recognized as ingredients. This is completely acceptable in AAFCO’S eyes. Who are they working to benefit? Animals?
In 2022, it was estimated that the Mars family was in the top 10 richest families in the world at approximately $160 billion. Their publicly stated profits in 2022 were more than $47 billion. The Mars Petcare brand grossed $19 billion USD in 2022. This leaves them with revenue to spend massive amounts research and development and marketing to paint a pretty picture about very poor quality food. I hesitate to even call it food.
Mars is a sponsor for Purdue University’s Veterinary School, Ohio State’s Veterinary College, and Pennsylvania State School of Veterinary Medicine.
This is all public record – not conspiracy theory.
I don’t need to elaborate anymore here. I think you can connect the dots yourself. These serious ethics and conflict of interest issues have less to do with veterinarians than they do with a much deeper systemic issue in the animal health industry.
When It Comes to Nutrition, Vets Might Not Be Your Best Resource. There, I Said It.
As a professional in the animal health industry for over 20 years, a dog breeder and a pet parent to countless dogs and cats, I have a very different experience of fresh food diets than what is being taught in veterinary school. I have spent years practicing and researching to understand the risks and the benefits of raw, home-cooked and processed diets for animals. It is a life-long process and I’m still learning but what I can say, is that I have not seen an animal in my care or my practice do better on kibble than on a balanced fresh food diet.
I have challenged veterinarians on countless occasions about where they are getting their knowledge-base about nutrition. Many of them admit freely that they don’t have a good understanding of it and that their education in school is limited. I have the utmost respect for those that are humble enough to recognize that.
Veterinarians that realize they don’t have all the answers are the ones who can offer better service to their clients by collaborating with integrative practitioners. This sets your pet up with a dream care team. If you’re choosing to feed fresh food, do your very best to connect with an open-minded vet that won’t constantly blame your pet’s health issues on fresh feeding.
So – after all of this discovery, I ask: Do you believe that animal welfare the main goal of the pet feed industry? I’ll let you answer for yourself.
It’s Your Choice
I consult with thousands of pet parents around the world and my main goal is to give them the tools to be their animal’s healer. I cannot stress it enough that YOU are their guardian. YOU are the one that has their best interest at heart. That means you need to call the shots. Your veterinarian is there to help you when medical assistance is needed but you are the one that knows your pet best. You get to choose what’s right for them. But that requires educating yourself so you can make informed decisions. I encourage all pet parents to do their own research. Don’t just to take my word or anyone else’s to care for your animals. Professionals are there to help you find the answers but it’s you who has to make the final decision. If raw food isn’t what’s right for you and your pet, that’s ok. It’s your pet, your choice, your journey.
I hope this article will spark conversations and provide some scientific contrast to conventional pet food rhetoric. I hope we can lay down our egoic beliefs about what we believe is right and wrong and let curiosity and openness to discovery take the lead. Maybe you might even be brave enough share this with an open-minded veterinarian that you know!
- World Health Organization: Healthy Diet, 2020
- Canada’s Food Guide, 2018
- CBC: The Nature of Things: Brazil’s revolutionary new food guide focuses on how food is made, 2019
- American Veterinary Medical Association: Policies, 2021
- Canadian Veterinary Medical Association: Policies, 2018
- American Animal Hospital Association: Position Statements, 2011
- Research in Veterinary Science: Assessment of the content of macronutrients and microbiological safety of dry foods, 2023
- Re-Thinking Sterile: The Hospital Microbiome: Environmental Health Perspective, 2014
- Microbes Associated with Foods from Plant and Animal Sources: Frontiers in Microbiology, 2018
- Cooking shapes the structure and function of the gut microbiome: Nature Microbiology, 2019
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- Applications of soil, plant and rumen microbiomes in pastoral agriculture: Froniters in Nutrition, 2019
- Effect of grain-feeding on the microbiotia in the digestive tract of cattle: Animal Frontiers, 2016
- Food and Drug Administration Veterinary Recall Database, 2021
- Raw meat based diet influences faecal microbiome and end products of fermentation in healthy dogs: BMC Veterinary Research, 2017
- Raw Proof: Results of a 24-month research investigation into a species-appropriate diet for dogs, 2020
- Plos One: The fecal microbiome and metabolome differs between dogs fed bones and raw food (BARF) diet and dogs fed commercial diets, 2020
- Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine: Puppyhood diet as a factor in the development of owner-reported allergy/atopy skin signs in adult dogs in Finland, 2021
- Frontiers in Veterinary Science: Early life programming by diet can play a role in risk reduction of otitis in dogs, 2023
- Nature: The effect of puppyhood and adolescent diet on the incidence of chronic enteropathy in dogs later in life, 2023
- University of Helsinki: Influence of nutrition at young age on canine hip dysplasia in German Shepherd dogs, 2014
- Journal of Animal Science: Apparent total-tract macronutrient digestibility, serum chemistry, urinalysis, and fecal characteristics, metabolites and microbiota of adult dogs fed extruded, mildly cooked and raw diets, 2018
- Journal of Animal Science: Standardized amino acid digestibility and nitrogen-corrected true metabolizable energy of frozen raw, freeze-dried raw, fresh and extruded dog foods using precision-fed cecectomized and conventional rooster assays, 2023
- Why nutrition education is inadequate in the medical curriculum: a qualitative study on students’ perspectives on barriers and strategies: BMC Medical Education, 2018
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- A Concerning Pet Industry Monopoly? The Truth About Pet Food, 2017
- The World’s Top 10 Pet Food Companies: Pet Food Industry