Is feeding processed, preserved, grain-based dry food a fad?

by T.J. Dunn, Jr., DVM

The following article, reprinted from the September/October 1999 issue of Pet Food Industry Magazine is a response to a letter from Dr. Sharon Machlik that deemed the feeding of raw foods risky in the May/June issue of the same magazine.

I disagree with Dr. Sharon Machlik, (“Raw risks,” May/June, 1999). She would hope the reader comes away from her article with the thought that all raw food diets are a potential danger to dogs and cats, that homemade diet preparation is difficult and that today’s processed and manufactured pet foods are perfectly nutritious and wholesome for these creatures. Having nearly 30 years of hands-on practical experience with well over 250,000 dogs and cats in my three small animal practices, I must disagree with many of Dr. Machlik’s assertions.

A question of convenience

To begin, I would suggest that many pet owners look forward to preparing meals for their pets; the term “difficult” is relative to each individual’s outlook on the feeding experience and has no bearing on the nutritive value of the meals prepared. Convenience should never enter the decision-making process when we determine what we should be providing our pets to sustain their lives at an optimum health level. In fact, the convenience and ease of feeding processed dry “food” to dogs and cats have been contributing factors in the popularity of many inferior quality grain-based diets. I have personally observed during the course of practice many dogs and cats that were poorly nourished by so-called “complete and balanced” dry pet foods.

“Those who would advocate raw diets would undo much that has been done in pet nutrition over the past quarter century by the pet food industry, pet nutritionists and veterinarians,” Machlik states.

“Great,” say I because the assumption is that she is referring to the marketing and advertising of canned and bagged pet foods (a financially-driven activity). Marketing and advertising are often unrelated to product quality! And since no one can undo” valid scientific research, the science is safe from any perceived assailants such as me.

There are knowledgeable people who believe that raw foods are better dietary sources of nutrients for humans and animals than cooked, refined, expanded, sterilized, fortified, modified and processed food. This opinion is precisely why so many people are turning back to nature, back to raw for their own nutritional needs as well as for the nutritional needs of their pets. The real question we must answer is whether or not raw, minimally processed foods are less nourishing and intrinsically more hazardous than cooked, processed foods.

Precaution prevents risks

Much of the resistance to feeding raw foods, especially raw meat, stems from the quite justifiable fear we all harbor of contracting a sickness from such food-borne pathogens as E. Coli, Salmonella and aflatoxins. I wondered about that when I first considered the raw food concept years ago. What I learned (as an inveterate skeptic, I might add) is that raw food products are not much different from most other items of value in life; if you take proper care of the product, it won’t hurt you! If raw food products are handled properly all along the line from field to table, health risks of those raw foods can be greatly minimized.

Unquestionably this means that the pet owner or manufacturer who makes a raw diet for dogs or cats should take all the reasonable precautions one would take when preparing food for their personal consumption. Prudent storage, washing and preparation are assumed to happen. If somehow the feeding of raw food does result in an enteric infection, it is not the raw food that is the culprit! Somewhere in the chain of events from field to table, there has been a human error that allowed ubiquitous bacteria a change to propagate. (See Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Procedures published by USDA.) Don’t blame raw food for the problem when the causes are extrinsic to raw foods!

To say that raw food causes disease would be similar to saying that water causes disease. The problem is not in the products itself but rather in how it is handled, what pathogens happen to tag along with it, and if conditions exist that favor the reproduction of those pathogens. Oh, and I might mention that dry pet foods in a bag are susceptible to pathogenic overgrowth too. Recently there was a huge recall of many brands of bagged, dry dog foods because of a mold toxin that was making many dogs sick. See, nothing is perfectly safe! I wonder if, in the future, I will read an article titled, “Bagged Pet Food Health Risks! Is Bagged, Dry Pet Food Safe?”

Raw diets prevalent

“... In my view, the raw diet for dogs is a fad, and one to be avoided by breeders and dog owners in general,” say Dr. Machlik. Well, in my view, the feeding of cooked, processed, extruded, fortified, modified, sterilized, preserved, grain-based dry food is a fad based solely on convenience and price! And the mistaken notion that simply because the bag is labeled “complete and balanced” the contents, therefore, are perfectly nutritious for meat-eating canines and felines gives false validation to the fad! Raw foods have been fed to dogs and cats for as long as history has any notations on the subject; tens of thousands of years! Arctic populations even today feed their vigorous pets and sled dogs uncooked meat and fish diets and they have for all of recorded history. It has been only the past half-dozen decades that pet food “manufacturers” have appeared on the scene with preserved “food in a bag.” Please recall that, for years, zoo carnivores have been fed raw meat diets (with some supplementation to balance the nutrient profile) and these expensive animals do very well. I believe most dry pet foods, with only a few rare exceptions, should “... be avoided by breeders and dog owners in general.” THe fad is in the bag!

Dr. Machlik suggests that we pet owners simply surrender critical thought and place the same trust in the pet food manufacturers that mothers purportedly have in the baby food industry. I am not sure how many mothers she has talked to for support of her opinion that: “Most mothers trust the products of baby food manufacturers because they know that these products have been proven to be both trustworthy and highly nourishing.”

Again, we can’t help but come back to the beginning where we asked the unavoidable and single fundamental question: Are cooked, sterilized, refined and processed pet (or human) foods better than raw, unprocessed foods? Would anyone proclaim the quality of packaged, precooked, processed, ready-made food in cellophane to be more nourishing and health enhancing than fresh, uncooked meat, fruit and vegetables? Blind trust can lead to blind alleys.

Variety required

Regarding the feeding of bones to dogs: I agree completely with Dr. Machlik that they can be a potential source of gastrointestinal trauma and should be avoided. (I have data to support that belief.) As well, “all meat diets” have been shown to be deficient in the balance of nutrients dogs and cats should have. And that is precisely why people who choose to feed raw foods often select from a variety of food sources. There are a number of resources available to anyone wishing to learn more about home-prepared diets for pets.

Dr. Machlik’s view and my own relate to the same goal and surely that is to try to discover the best way to properly feed our dogs and cats. There’s good news for Dr. Machlik, and for people who choose to feed a raw diet. Although nudged out of the spotlight cast by the major pet food producers’ advertising budgets, there are a few companies who have been preparing properly balanced, raw diets with meat as the main ingredient. Though few in number, these “minor players” in the pet food industry are quite alive and have long and successful track records in the animal food service business. These companies profess the philosophy that raw nutrients are the best choice; and additionally, their research and years of successful animal feeding have proven their diets to be health enhancing for canines and felines. Dr. Machlik may be happy to know that there are these few companies who successfully feed meat eaters on raw diets; and pet owners may be happy to learn that they can have confidence that these diets are complete and balanced and, dare I say, convenient to serve.

There arises a single, fundamental question from Dr. Machlik’s article: Is cooked and processed food better than raw food? Little thought is needed to answer it and an advanced degree in Food Science isn’t required. If there are people who choose to dine on raw, whole and unprocessed foods themselves, it follows logically that they may also choose to do the same for their meat-eating canines and felines. Consuming raw foods can be done safely and conveniently and has been for eons. Remember — sterilized, homogenized, liquefied food in a can and dry, cooked and extruded food in a bag have only been around since “modern times.”

Dr. T.J. Dunn, Jr. graduated from the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine in 1970. Since then he has established three different animal hospitals in northern Wisconsin. Dr. Dunn is currently engaged in Internet commerce managing

Reprinted from Pet Food Industry, Sep/Oct 1999