The other day, someone brought their two-year-old Shih Tzu for a check up, and during examination, I was told that the dog was on a BARF diet. The owner explained that the diet was chosen since dogs share their ancestry with wolves, and therefore this diet was the closest to the food it would have fed on in natural surroundings. Meanwhile, I looked at the dog having flat forehead and protruding eyes, and wondered which part of this man-made breed still looked like its ancestor.
For the uninitiated, a BARF diet (Biologically Appropriate Raw Feeding) is widely promoted on the internet as the natural diet for dogs. It recommends giving raw, uncooked meat. While it may appear to be technically sound, we must remember that wild dogs and wolves have a rather limited lifespan. Also, due to extensive breeding of certain dogs like Dalmatians, Pugs, Boxers, Yorkies, and few other breeds, to ensure they look alike, these breeds do not have the same robust gastrointestinal tract as their wild counterparts.
Hence, feeding your dog raw meat is not recommended. For one, raw meat contains high risk of bacterial infections such as Salmonellosis and E.coli, causing diseases comparable to food poisoning. Dogs on a raw meat diet frequently come to us with vomiting and diarrhea, occasionally accompanied by blood. These bacterial infections are not only hazardous to your pet, but they also carry the risk of zoonosis, which means you could also get it while handling the meat or washing their food bowls.
Second, encysted parasites that normally die when we cook food can also be present if the meat is fed uncooked. These larval stages of parasites, such as tapeworms, then make the intestines of your pets their home leading to discomfort, weight loss, and overall poor health. The quality of raw meat is always questionable and hence, any veterinarian would advocate against it.
But dogs chew on bones, don't they?
The other statement I hear a lot is this: “I give my dog bones because dogs eat bones.” From a young age, we have seen in cartoons and TV shows, how dogs are fed bones. While bigger bones, such as those obtained from a large animal, are acceptable following adequate sterilization, tiny bones, such as chicken bones, have the potential to choke them as these may get lodged in their oesophagus. It could also perforate their bowel.
I have had to extract chicken bones from the throats of cats and dogs on numerous occasions. These leave a trail of destruction in their wake and, if not noticed quickly enough, can become fatal. Therefore, it’s best to steer clear of bones when planning your pet’s diet.
The internet is full of myths about BARF diets, one of which is that it is a more nutritionally balanced food, and is less expensive. None of this is true. When you exclusively give your pet raw meat, it's extremely difficult to achieve a nutritional balance. They will likely be deficient in essential minerals and vitamins.
Dogs and cats show symptoms of illnesses and deficiencies only when the disease has progressed to a point where it is challenging to treat. If you do get carried away with the propaganda of feeding your pet raw food, you will at some point need to add vitamins and minerals, and will probably also head in the direction of footing a huge veterinary bill.
Creating the right nutritional balance, while maintaining hygiene with different meats, is a tedious and cumbersome process. It needs a lot of education to understand complex methods of storage, and buying the right quality of meat is expensive. Doing it at home with the premise that any raw meat will suffice is a sure way to end up with disastrous outcomes.
What about raw eggs?
It's also not a good idea to feed raw eggs to your pooch. This is especially true of cats. They have avidin (glycoprotein) in them, which inhibits the absorption of biotin in the intestine, a vitamin whose deficiency can lead to muscle pain, neurological symptoms, and weakness. Cooking an egg destroys avidin, thus eliminating the possibility of a biotin deficiency.
BARF diets almost lay zero focus on providing carbohydrates in the form of grains in a pet's diet. Dogs are indeed carnivores and proteins and fats are more important for their nutritional needs. However, recent studies have shown that a grain-free diet can cause dogs to get dilated cardiomyopathy or heart ailments at a much earlier age. Some amount of grains is a must for dogs as well.
Providing pet food is a convenient and safe option, as good quality pet food undergoes a series of rigorous tests and contains the nutritional requirement that’s needed.
If you are not comfortable with it, you should work out a customised diet for your pet with the advice of your veterinarian or a certified pet nutritionist.
And please ensure that the meat is cooked. The BARF diet craze is one of my biggest pet peeves, and I cannot wait for the day that it dies down in the interest of all the clients I see. Paying proper attention to what your pet eats without giving in to trends on the internet is the way to become a responsible pet parent.
Dr Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai, who loves to play the piano in her free time and is ruled by her whimsical cat, Catbury, at home.