Facts about BARF and Homemade Diets

Feeding raw and homemade diets has become an increasingly popular trend among pet parents. In 2004, it was estimated that the majority of dogs and cats in the United States received 90% or more of their nutrition from complete and balanced commercially prepared foods.  However, 8 years and several recalls later, have fueled pet parents with a desire to provide the very best for their companion animals.  You are asking good questions about the best nutritional choices for your pets and looking for safe alternatives.  As in any free market economy, there are many more alternative diets available today from which pet parents may choose, but how safe are these homemade and alternative dietary choices?

Let’s review two of the more popular unconventional diets:  BARF diet and homemade diets.

BARF stands for ‘biologically appropriate raw food’, and the diet consists of feeding a combination of raw meat, eggs, meaty bones and vegetables.  BARF feeders claim that the diet provides evolutionarily appropriate nutrition for dogs and cats, but it is important to look at the scientific evidence for the diet as well as the possible risks associated with BARF.

There is no scientific data to support some beliefs commonly held by BARF supporters. It is important to note that some published BARF recipes contain deficient and excessive levels of key nutritional factors, such as protein, calcium and phosphorus.  In addition, excessive levels of Vitamin A have been reported in a cat fed a pork-liver based BARF diet, causing depression, poor hair coat, a stiff neck and lameness. Fortunately, the cat returned to normal health when the diet was changed back to commercial canned food.  Feline pansteatitis osteodystrophy, and secondary nutritional hyperparathyroidism in puppies have been reported in companion animals fed an unbalanced BARF diet.  Nutritional analysis of 5 raw food diets found low phosphorus and calcium in 3 of the 5 diets; two of the diets were excessively high in vitamin D, and two of the diets were deficient in potassium, magnesium, and zinc.  While BARF feeders will argue that feeding a variety of foods will lessen the risk of nutritional imbalances, science states otherwise, with many published studies out there demonstrating the higher risk of nutritional imbalances possible with the BARF diet vs. feeding a complete and balanced commercially prepared diet.

Along with possible nutritional imbalances associated with BARF, there is also the risk of bacterial contamination. There are several studies that document the presence of bacteria and other infectious agents in raw foods and the potential for contaminating the pet’s environment with these organisms. One study evaluated 25 raw food diets for dogs and cats, and found coliform bacteria in all diets and Salmonella in 20% of the diets.  Prompted by an outbreak of illness in dogs linked to the feeding of raw meat classified as unfit for human consumption, an investigation looked into feeding raw meat to greyhounds in a breeding facility.  Researchers found Salmonella enterica infections in 93% of all fecal samples from the dogs and 66% of the samples from the environment, food, and feces.  Prior to the investigation, 27 puppies from 8 litters had been affected, with 37% of these puppies unfortunately dying from the Salmonella infection linked to raw meat.

The findings are not limited to meat that is ‘unfit for human consumption’.  Salmonella was isolated from 3.5% of ground beef samples collected from retail stores in the U.S. There have also been studies done in sled dogs that are fed raw meat – these dogs shed Salmonella in feces whether they were sick or not.  The healthy sled dogs that carried Salmonella put the human handlers at risk.  In a study examining shedding of Salmonella and other pathogens in a group of 200 healthy pet therapy dogs, there was statistically significant higher shedding of Salmonella in dogs consuming raw food vs. non raw food eating dogs, and there was also an increased risk of shedding antibiotic resistant E. coli.

As there appears to be strong evidence that raw food can contain harmful bacteria, it is vitally important that if you are feeding a raw meat diet to a pet, hygiene of the food preparation area and the feeding bowls must be diligently maintained.  This may, however, be difficult to achieve.  A recent study found that standard methods of cleaning and disinfecting food bowls were minimally effective at eliminating Salmonella – this included soaking with bleach and cleaning in a dishwasher. Individuals with weakened immune systems, including children, people who have had an organ transplant or harbor a virus that attacks the immune system such as HIV are at higher risk of infection by contaminated meat, and feeding the BARF diet is STRONGLY discouraged in these households.

The lesson here? Feed your pet cooked food.  But what about pets that are fed a diet of foods that are cooked at home by the pet parent?

One study published in 2000 found that 90% of homemade pet foods were found to be nutritionally unbalanced and incomplete for pets.  Pet parents might assume dogs and cats require the same nutrition as humans and provide improper levels of multiple nutrients, and homemade meals can contain an inverse calcium and phosphorus ratio dangerous to pets.   If you are considering cooking your pet’s food, the only way to make sure your pet is getting a complete and balanced diet is to work with a veterinary nutritionist skilled in formulating home cooked diets.

With all the information available regarding alternative diets for pets, via the internet and other sources, it is vitally important for pet parents to be aware of the facts if you are considering an alternative food for your companion animal.  If you are considering feeding alternative foods for your pet, you owe it to yourself and your furry family members to investigate the nutritional claims or risks, infectious disease risks, and public health implications of raw, meat-based and home cooked pet diets.  Educate yourself, and become empowered in influencing the health and well-being of your loved companion animal.


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