Raw Vs. Commercial Diets- The Facts

Author: Danielle Fletcher
Published: Tuesday 22nd October 2013
Updated: Thursday 9th January 2014

When looking into which diets are recommended for your beloved pet, it is rare to find a balanced comparison of the pros and cons of a raw or a standard wet/dry food. It is important to have a good overview before making this decision but of course, whatever choice you make isn't permanent and you will find what is right for you and your pet, regardless of other people's opinions on the matter. In this article, I aim to present the main points, both positive and negative, associated with each type of diet and without bias.

During evolution, animals acquire special adaptations to allow them to live in a certain way, and many of these changes to their bodies are related to the food they eat. Cats have evolved as obligate carnivores with a strict requirement for a high meat content in their diets. Dogs evolved primarily as carnivorous hunters but are able to subsist through scavenging on carcasses, vegetation and fruits. Dogs and related canids are often referred to as omnivores, although their physiology and dietary requirements are more closely allied to those of carnivores.

Herbivores spend much of their day eating and digesting vegetation and have specialised alimentary tracts that ensure they properly break down plant materials and make the use of the available nutrients. Carnivores lack the enzymes to break down vegetation and their teeth are not suited to grinding tough plant material; in fact, they only chew their food enough to break it into chunks they can swallow whole. While carnivores are not capable of living on a herbivorous diet, they are certainly able to utilise pre-digested plant material that comes from their prey. The gut contents of herbivores contain a beneficial blend of essential fatty acids, plant proteins, probiotics, enzymes, minerals and vitamins among other nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible.

I'll start with the raw food diets, nicknamed 'BARF' (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food or Bones And Raw Food) diets. Raw diets can be either homemade or commercially prepared by professionals. Essentially the aim is to recreate the diet of wild relatives for our domestic animals, both in raw status and nutrient composition. Typically a raw food diet would encompass: muscle meat, meaty bones, eggs, tripe (preferably not bleached), offal and some fruit, vegetables and a small amount of dairy such as yoghurt.

The proposed benefits of 'feeding raw'

As with our own meals, it is nice to know from where the food is sourced and how it was farmed (if at all). Animal welfare is becoming a greater concern and supporting local farmers is also a factor that often affects where people prefer to buy their meat. It is well supported that free-range meat produce is better quality than that from intensively farmed animals and a common concern surrounds the sources of meat in many commercial diets, especially where "meat derivatives" are included. So, if you're planning on preparing a raw diet at home, you decide what goes in it. There are also companies which prepare and supply ready-made raw food and they will be able to tell you where they get the meats from and how they are processed. Raw diets are free of preservatives and once prepared, can be frozen and stored until needed then thawed at room temperature before serving. Commercial wet and dry diets occasionally have batches recalled on the grounds of various manufacturing issues but problems with food production will rarely be applicable to pets 'eating raw'.

Health benefits are the main argument for BARF diets. A raw diet intends to closely match that of a wild animal and so doesn't include high percentages of grains that are often used to bulk out commercial dry food. General benefits include better stools (smaller with improved consistencies which is beneficial to owners too!) and healthier skin and coat. The variety of textures and flavours are stimulating so naturally increase enjoyment during meal times. Raw diets are renowned for eliminating bad breath and improved dental hygiene as gnawing and crunching bones effectively cleans the surfaces of teeth, without leaving behind a starchy residue that promotes bacterial proliferation like many kibbles. Bones also provide dogs with an outlet for their chewing, preventing boredom and lengthening the time it takes for a meal to be eaten.

Emphasis is put on the nutritional value of food and when fed raw, many believe that ingredients have greater value to an animal. In many commercial kibbles and even wet food, meat and other ingredients are extensively processed, compromising their value to some degree- this is after the actual quality of each ingredient is looked at.

When preparing food at home you are able to tailor the diet to suit your pet's individual needs. Whether your dog is extremely active or needs to lose a few pounds, you can adjust the nutrient content of the diet rather than just the amount they are fed. Higher water content helps with satiety and keeping your pet hydrated. Other conditions such as reduced kidney function are aided by the higher water content of a raw diet and this together with highly digestible animal proteins from the meat, reduces the strain on the remaining functional nephrons. Many allergies suffered by our domestic animals are food related, which manifest as awfully itchy skin and lead to further problems such as infections. With the help of your vet or nutritionist you can build a diet that avoids these foods and ensure a better quality of life for your pet. In fact, many ailments can be addressed or alleviated through a change in diet and the same is true for humans.

The possible drawbacks of a raw diet

Feeding raw is much more difficult than buying a few cuts of meat and blending some vegetables to serve up together. It requires a proper understanding of canine and feline dietary requirements and nutrients available in each type of food. Much of the time, diets are unbalanced and incorrect levels of vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients are provided, resulting in growth defects, metabolic and endocrine diseases among other serious conditions. For example, an incorrect ratio of Calcium and Phosphorous affects bone growth and development , so raw diets are considered inappropriate for puppies. Raw vegetables are very poorly digested by dogs and cats and must be pulverised prior to feeding. Even then, they do not compare to the digested mix found in the stomach of wild prey. 'Green tripe' is more difficult to get hold of these days as much of it goes through the processing of being cleaned and bleached to make it suitable for human consumption; it effectively has all of the useful contents removed and the muscular sack is left, albeit a subsidiary source of protein. Problems are more often than not, slow to produce symptoms and not picked up on for weeks or months until damage has already been done. For these reasons, even a professionally designed raw diet requires supplementation and monitoring.

Cooked bones should never be fed to pets as they easily splinter and cause blockages and gut perforations. That said, a dog should never be left unattended with a raw bone to ensure they take time to chew it properly. Many dogs are said to 'inhale' their food, and for owners of these dogs, splinters or large chunks or raw bone can be swallowed and present the same problems. Furthermore, raw bones can also cause chipped teeth and all of these can leave owners with expensive veterinary dental bills to contend with.

While the same food hygiene and good practices apply when preparing food for a pet as for humans, there is much trepidation over the risks of Salmonella and other bacterial diseases that don't just put animals at risk. There is some convincing evidence that shows Salmonella bacteria are shed in dog's faeces and risk of disease spreading to humans and other animals through the environment or contact with infected dogs is significant. Unfortunately, insufficient studies have been carried out to support any other claims, such as the risk of drug-resistant strains. Potentially fatal worm infections may also be encountered where raw food is fed to pets as their larvae are able to hibernate in muscle cells and are released by an animal's digestive enzymes after the infected meat is eaten. When looking at which diet to feed, risk of zoonotic or environmental infection should be taken into consideration, particularly where young children and others with reduced immunity such as the elderly and pregnant live in a household.

Perhaps the most obvious downside to a raw diet is the time and money it takes to do it properly- it is worth thinking about how much effort you put into preparing your own food before undertaking hours of extra work that may just not be possible. It does take time to measure correct amounts of each component and of course you may need to go to multiple shops to source each ingredient. Buying everything separately will also increase the cost and once you have prepared some meals in bulk, you may need to consider getting an extra freezer!

So now on to commercially produced dry food, or 'kibble', and wet equivalents. It is undoubtedly the most common form of food fed to pets and ranges from veterinary exclusive to well-known brands found in supermarkets.

The points in favour of commercial diets

Like human ready meals, packaged dog food is quick and easy, with little or no preparation time. Buying a large bag of food or stack of tins takes that extra bit of pressure off of our busy routines and we can relax in the knowledge that our pet is sorted for the next month. In addition, when you work out the cost of feeding your dog daily, they work out to be very economical. This is particularly true for the premium brands which, owed to their high quality ingredients and carefully formulated recipes, require a lesser amount to be fed in order to meet a pet's needs. Diets will fall into 'complete' or 'complementary', whereby complete diets can be fed exclusively and complementary diets require other foods to be given alongside them in order to provide all essential nutrients. Most dog foods are complete diets and do not need to be supplemented. Convenience is a great positive point for commercially produced foods.

With a great variety of diets to choose from, and there is bound to be one to suit your pet's needs. Particularly important is the balance and composition of nutrients in a puppy's diet, especially those involved in bone formation, growth and digestive health. Other life stages are also catered for but the emergence of 'veterinary diets' has made one of the biggest changes to managing many difficult conditions including allergies, organ failure, and gastro-intestinal disorders to name just a few. For affected pets, diet is often key to maintaining quality of life. Many people feel overwhelmed at the thought of working out specific quantities of appropriate ingredients to prepare a meal suitable for a sensitive digestion, relieving strain on failing kidneys, ensuring slow release of energy for a diabetic and so forth, and luckily there is no need. Professionals who understand the requirements of these animals and the importance of ingredients have strived to design special diets, and owners can be assured that their loved one's condition will be catered for adequately.

Furthermore, whichever food you go for, an ingredients list is always provided so you know exactly how much of each nutrient is included, allowing easy product comparisons. Recommended feeding guidelines are also provided, based on nutrient composition of the food, age and weight of the animal. Manufacturers are happy to answer questions about the product and ingredients.

Protein content and sources of protein in foods is a central point in the debate over commercial foods. Modern feeding guidelines go against the traditional low protein diet and are now in favour of the higher protein content. Companies nowadays are increasingly focused on making premium quality products with responsibly sourced fresh or dried meat ingredients. High quality proteins contain more of the essential amino acids which can only be acquired through an animal's food as well as being much easier to digest than those derived from plant materials. Alongside this, attention is being paid to sourcing natural and organic ingredients used to enhance the diets and provide valuable antioxidants, minerals and vitamins, and natural fibre to promote good intestinal health.

The argument against commercial diets

Those against feeding commercially produced dry 'kibble' or wet equivalents usually base their arguments around the unnatural, poor quality ingredients and highly processed end results. Some commercial diets contain high levels of flavourings, preservatives and other additives that provide no benefit to the animal's health and may be damaging in the long run. Chemicals that animals would otherwise never come into contact with are included in diets and unwittingly ingested along with a multitude of other undesirable ingredients. Some of these ingredients are there to make the food more palatable, encouraging pets to eat larger quantities which, together with a high fat content found in many 'tasty' kibbles result in the podgy pets we are seeing more and more commonly. Dry foods have a very low moisture content and are often very energy-dense per gram. It is easy for owners to over feed, judging a dog's requirements by bulk alone. As a result, far too many calories are taken in with each meal as a greater bulk can be consumed than wet or raw food, which have very high moisture contents and typically, lower fat and carbohydrate content.

With the exception of some brands and specialist ranges which aim to eliminate grains, many companies use them to bulk foods, provide a cheaper source of energy and non-meat protein. High levels of carbohydrate is not a diet dogs or cats have evolved to live on and is considered unnatural. Grains are difficult for carnivores to digest but more importantly, have become largely to blame for many food allergies in cats or dogs. These allergies manifest primarily as severely pruritic skin and can be difficult to pinpoint with the range of allergens present in many dogs foods. Meat protein also comes under fire in the majority of commercial diets, with the leftover cuts or undesirable parts of animals from the human industry being used in lower grade pet food products, described as 'animal derivatives' and 'animal by-products'. These sources, while being cheaper and more resourceful as some might think, they are of lesser nutritional value and provide very few essential amino acids.

Another point to consider is how processing affects the nutritional value of the ingredients, making nutrients less available or damaging them. Raw food advocates claim that 'food enzymes' are destroyed during cooking, compromising an animal's ability to digest the food properly. It has also been claimed that cooking destroys meat proteins and reduces their nutritional value. Cooking certainly change the shape of proteins but does not destroy the amino acids - the important building blocks of proteins - which are absorbed through the intestinal wall after proteins are broken down by enzymes in the digestive tract.

Many sites present extreme views on the opposing diets and it is difficult for someone who is looking for advice online to get a simple break down of the facts. Each point raised above could be looked into much further but I hope to have outlined the main points that discussions centre around. It is safe to say that of the 15 million dogs and cats in the UK alone, the majority are doing perfectly okay. There will always be exceptions but it is likely that whichever food you decide to put them on they will do well enough. Seek advice if you are unsure about how much to feed and how often you should feed them your chosen food, and make sure you give them plenty of exercise while keeping an eye on their weight.