Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Raw Food Debate

Despite opposition from veterinarians, dog owners and pet food producers tout what they believe are the health benefits (and anti-flatulent qualities) of raw pet food. Opening with a fart joke wasn't my intention, but here goes. Pull my finger. Or paw, or tail... or just look at me cock-eyed for that matter. That was our little Ruby, all eight pounds of her in the fall of 2008 when we brought her home from the drafty shores of Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast through the whirling dervish of city lights to her new urban sprawl. This little cross of Poodle intelligence and Golden Retriever enthusiasm had won over our hearts and was coming home with us. The Visa had been swiped; there was no turning back. And like all people in way over their heads, my wife and I were not only willing to take advice from anyone who'd grant us the benefit of their wisdom, we were actively seeking it out. We assumed anyone--gas station attendant, roadside strawberry stand salesperson, random kid with cowlick--would know more about raising this puppy than we would. That was Saturday evening. By Sunday afternoon we were amazed that Ruby could sit on command, win over the affections of even the grumpiest of neighbours, and silently but potently erode the ozone layer with waft after waft of pungent puppy backfire. Under normal circumstances, traditional life experience would point the finger squarely at her diet. However, since the domestication of the dog sometime between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago (archeological accounts still vary), people have come to have certain expectations of our most faithful companions: that being, they come with a built-in whoopee cushion. Humans will go to great lengths to best illness or love handles, but dogs, on the other hand, are simply assumed to be "gassy."

Strictly by chance, the subject came up during puppy training. It was the first time I'd heard of a raw food diet for dogs. Our trainer fed her dogs a variety of raw meats, including beef, chicken, lamb, salmon, even pheasant, but not kibble, and insisted that each dog's digestive tract corrected itself within weeks, if not days. True to our motto of follow any dog-related advice blindly, we gave raw a chance, despite overwhelming criticism from neighbours, other dog owners and the animal medical community we were in touch with.
The results were astounding. And we didn't have to wait weeks or even days to see the difference. From the moment we switched Ruby's diet, her digestive tract found its form immediately. Even more remarkably, she has not passed wind since. We unfortunately can no longer blame the dog when the wife and I grimace at each other on the couch during Frasier reruns.

And yet, our decision to feed raw [pet food] was met with such vehement criticism from most dog owners we encountered, and specifically one emergency-room vet who blamed our raw feeding habit for a urinary tract infection pestering Ruby (an infection nearly all female puppies contract before reaching maturity, regardless of diet), one would of thought we had mixed H1N1 with Avian flu and were willfully spreading some new toxic strain, endangering not only our puppy and ourselves, but the broader community at large. The only drawback to feeding a raw diet, seemed to us, was the far greater expense. How could such positive results be considered dangerous by experts charged with achieving optimal canine health? The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association is firmly against raw food for pets. "Feeding pets raw meat based diets is a recent trend," its website states. "Multiple benefits of feeding these diets are touted, but all are supported only by anecdotal reports. To date, no scientific evidence to support the efficacy or safety of these diets has been published.
There are now multiple peer-reviewed studies documenting potential risks from bacterial pathogens present in raw meats for both pets fed these diets, and for in-contact humans. Studies have also proven that pets fed raw meats can shed potential bacterial pathogens in their stool thereby acting as a source of potentially significant zoonotic infections to in-contact humans." Dr. Brian Radke, a public health veterinarian who works for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, echoed the CVMA's concerns: "Raw meat has disease causing bacteria such as Salmonella, E Coli, Campylobacteria and other bacteria that can cause illness in humans and pets. These can be transferred to humans by handling the raw meat directly or indirectly transferred such as via contact with the pet's food dish."

The pro-raw community takes exception to some of the findings in the studies the CVMA refers to, specifically that the diets are not nutritionally optimal and/or contain potentially dangerous amounts of bacteria. "Evidence-based nutrition doesn't need to be based in double-blind trials," insists Caroline Davies, owner of Simply Natural Raw Pet Food, a raw pet food store in Kerrisdale. "If a group of German Shepherd breeders feed their pups a high calcium food and the dogs all develop panosteitis (a bone disease found in puppies), and another group of breeders feed a moderate calcium food and their dogs do not, that's enough evidence for me. There is a point when a preponderance of anecdotal evidence stops being anecdotal." Davies is also not concerned about bacteria. "Bacteria is everywhere," she says. "Study after study has shown that exposure to some amount of bacteria stimulates the immune system and keeps it in good working order. Salmonella has been found repeatedly in kibble and other pet products in addition to raw food." While Radke acknowledged that pet treats such as pig's ears have also been found to harbour disease-causing bacteria, deferring to prevention is the wiser choice. "The role of the immune system is to respond and hopefully defend the body from disease-causing infectious diseases," explains the veterinarian. "When this defense fails, the person or pet can become ill or potentially die. Exposing humans, especially children, or pets to disease-causing bacteria is risky and an unwise health strategy." (Follow-ups to Dr. Radke inquiring on how to treat gas in pets without resorting to a raw diet went unanswered).

Historically there was never any need for debate; dogs always received their meals in the form of table scraps. In wasn't until 1860 that American James Spratt developed the first food commercially packaged and marketed to dog owners in the form of a biscuit. A lightning rod salesman by trade, Spratt set sail for London in the hopes of securing his fortune. The trip was a business disaster, and Spratt spent most of his time down at the docks where he witnessed the ships' cooks throwing left over biscuits to strays. Between then and now, little has changed in terms of who can produce food for pets. The rules governing companies that formulate, produce and distribute pet food to the public, and the variety of quality standards therein, are murky to say the least. A self-proclaimed "cat person," North Shore resident Debbie Benson and her husband Paul own a butcher shop for humans. She also owns and operates 3P Naturals, a popular raw pet food line that abides by federal health standards that all butchers of meats for humans must follow, as they are stricter than provincial standards. She is not legally obligated to follow either.  Before opening their shops, the Bensons worked for one of the large, chain supermarkets, and saw how meat was being selected, cut and handled first hand, which further drove their passion for quality when they opened their businesses. "Everything we do for the human side, we bring to the pet food side," Benson said inside the 3P factory on Franklin Street: which includes keeping the freezers set to temperatures that limit growth of bacteria.

Martha Wilder, executive director of the Toronto-based Pet Food Association of Canada, confirmed this divergence in health standards. "At present, there is no omnibus legislation of pet food in Canada, although there are a number of pieces of legislation that affect the sale of pet food," she said via email. "There is no regulated 'approval' process." In other words, what's inside the packaging is not as important as what's written on it. For a company to become a member of the Pet Food Association of Canada, they must follow the guidelines modelled after the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) regulations in the United States that would indicate to the consumer through a sticker on the packaging that the product was at least tested, and met the minimum nutritional requirements the organization has for its members. Again, participation in this program is voluntary, and as a measuring stick, receiving the AAFCO seal of approval can be a dubious distinction. In an infamous television documentary produced by the CBC a few years ago, Dr. Meg Smart of Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, concocted a laboratory kibble comprised of wood chips, leather boots, and motor oil that subsequently passed AAFCO's testing for minimum nutritional standards.

Jill Cherrier, co-owner of In the Raw, a North Vancouver dispenser of organic pet products, and a dead ringer for a younger Ellen Burstyn, believes the traditional veterinary community's opposition to raw is far riper for controversy. "When you look at the schools, they are very, very expensive," Cherrier said. "They do not have the capability to have their own nutritionist on staff. Usually what happens is their nutritionists are hired guns. They come from major pet food companies. So as a young veterinarian student, they sit there and what they are being taught about nutrition is maybe 75 per cent of their overall education [on that subject], and that is being sponsored by companies like Medi-cal." Alastair Cribb, dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary, denied Cherrier's allegations. "No faculty at our college are employees of the major pet food suppliers. The faculty in the college establishes the curriculum. Representatives of major pet food suppliers present seminars to students at lunch hours, etc, but this is true for many other industries, NGOs, and other groups as well. This is organized by the students and is not part of the formal curriculum."
This past June corporate sponsorship of veterinary education was taken one step further as Hill's Pet Nutrition, a subsidiary of the Colgate-Palmolive Company, opened its own primary care centre for pets within the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College.

Ironically, both sides of this debate hold different threads of a common refrain on the subject of raw pet food: a lack of education prevalent throughout the entire pet food industry, from the consumers at the bottom, straight through to even the highest reaches of academia. "People and education are the big problem," Debbie Benson told me. "I won't sell my pet food to just any store. I've been approached by the Bosley's chain four times now. But I won't sell my product there because their staff doesn't have the knowledge. They're going to get a person in there that's used to selling kibble, and say, 'Yeah, you can feed this with kibble.'" You can't. Or at least, shouldn't if expecting optimal results. At the university level, pet food giant Royal Canin donated $3 million to the University of Guelph's veterinarian college in 2008, for a chair in Nutrition for Pets. The job remains unfilled three years on, as it is extremely difficult to find someone with a PhD in nutrition specific to domesticated animals.

What remains is a debate anxious for a scientific solution that may or may not be forthcoming. Scientific studies are not inexpensive to fund, and with competition from every field in academia vying for attention, we may be left with a limited array of facts to sway our opinions in one direction or the other when it comes to the merits of a raw food diet for pets. In other words, we may be left to decide for ourselves; and when left to our own devices in such matters, we look to experts, and as of now, the raw pet food industry has none. What it has are stories, such as Ruby's--dogs who arrive with intestinal problems that find a solution counter intuitive to much of traditional veterinary care. As it stands presently, the CVMA shows no signs of altering its stance on raw diets for pets, though, as Dr. Radke explained: "As reported in the scientific literature, pet owners' handling of these products has been traced back as the source of human illness." Two years on, Ruby remains a "raw girl": healthy, strong, and vet-free since the initial trials and tribulations of being a puppy in a dangerous, human-centric, unforgiving world. Flatulence is a distant memory. Realizing, as Dr. Radke noted, how raw products are handled is critical to limiting problems, it's clear that those wanting to feed their dog a raw diet need to establish a home feeding routine with this in mind. Though it has been my experience that once the bowl hits the ground, the food is gone with nary a morsel remaining, with the dish just as quickly retrieved and into a soapy, disinfectant bubble bath: which takes care of Ruby's front end. As for the rear, the CVMA's gravest concerns stem from potential bacterial pathogens in the stool of pets on a raw diet. This is a valid concern, though to be fair, the maxim, "should you see pooh, don't roll in it," is sound advice regardless of what side of the debate you are on.