Feathers fly over food for our furry friends

Smiling dog photo by Spadey09 under Creative Commons from Flickr. 19 July 2017
Smiling dog photo by Spadey09 under Creative Commons from Flickr. 19 July 2017

Would you rather your best friend eat canned stew, dry kibble, or raw meaty bones?

With almost two-thirds of Australian households keeping at least one companion animal, pets are intimately associated with the family unit and the desire to feed them best has become a greater concern.

But visit 10 vet clinics and you’ll get 10 different responses about what’s best for your furry friend. Veterinarians, vet nurses and pet owners are all embroiled in the great pet food debate.

Raw food diets for pets are an increasingly popular trend, which veterinarian Tom Lonsdale has campaigned for since 1991 alongside Drs Breck Muir and Alan Bennett (collectively known as the Raw Meaty Bones Lobby).

“If you’re feeding a dog or cat out of a can or a packet, you’re essentially poisoning it to death. Simply cutting out pet junk food will see a massive improvement in your pet’s health and happiness,” Dr Lonsdale told Hatch.

He recommends the Raw Meaty Bones diet, which involves feeding pets a natural, chewy diet primarily made up of whole raw carcasses, raw meaty bones, offal and the occasional table scraps: “There’s a medicinal benefit to ripping and tearing at raw meaty bones, which stimulates the brain chemicals, cleans the teeth, and has nutritional benefits.”

8-week-old miniature dachshund snacks on a raw lamb shank.

Carnivores including cats and dogs need nutrients, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, and trace elements in their diet, he told Hatch. “Dogs and cats are only slightly modified from wild animals, so their needs are the exact same as their wild counterparts.”

Wellness veterinarian Dr Karen Becker, who featured in 2016 Netflix documentary Pet Fooledsays dogs are genetically identical to wolves, as they share 99.9 per cent of the same DNA. Whether you have a german shepherd or a pint-sized pomeranian, your dog shares the same nutritional requirements as a wolf.

However, many commercial dry foods, such as Purina’s Beneful [pictured below] contain ingredients, such as ground yellow corn and whole-wheat flour, which create cheap bulk with a long shelf life but are biologically unnecessary and nutritionally inappropriate for a dog, she says.

from the andersons
Many ingredients in commercial pet food have been deemed “nutritionally inappropriate” for dogs.

The Raw Meaty Bones lobby says dogs simply don’t have the digestive enzymes to deal with the nutrients and damaging levels of fat in grain and processed food. That, says the lobby, is why dogs fed such food are prone to developing dirty, plaque-laden teeth, sore gums, poor digestion, diabetes, heart problems, arthritis, skin infections, allergies, and foul-smelling poo.

On top of that, dry food is void of moisture, so the animals are permanently dehydrated which affects their health, in particular, damaging their kidneys. The second biggest killer of domestic cats is kidney disease, which Dr Lonsdale largely attributes to the increased use of dry cat food.

While non-meat ingredients form a substantial part of dry food, few owners realise what is involved when labels refer to the “meat content” of the foods they buy.  Popular brands may be carry attractive labels describing “real beef meal” or “tender chicken” but most contain animal by-products – the bits remaining when an animal has been slaughtered and all edible parts removed. Even worse, some include diseased animals, road kill, and even allegedly unwanted pets that have been put down.

from the andersons (3)
Many commercial pet foods are made up of animal by-products.

Dr Lonsdale has long campaigned against what he alleges is the insidious influence of multinationals like Colgate-Palmolive, Mars and Nestle, some of the world’s largest pet ‘junk food’ producers, on veterinary schools. He believes suburban vets, by retailing some of those foods, are harming the pets they treat.

After reports that Hill’s Pet Nutrition presented the nutrition segment of a Sydney Uni small animal medicine course, complete with brand logos on lecture slides, Dr Lonsdale filed Freedom of Information papers requesting information about pet food manufacturers’ influence on veterinary schools. His attempt was thwarted when the NSW Civil & Administrative Tribunal endorsed Sydney University’s refusal to disclose sponsorship deals.

A report on the ABC last year noted that a study at Sydney University had found serious problems with several mass market cat food, but reported the university declined to reveal which brands were potentially detrimental to pets.

The case against raw feeding

Many commercial pet food companies, including Hills, argue against raw feeding. Hills, like others, promotes its Science Diet and Prescription Diet as optimal nutrition for dogs. (A group of activists in California have launched a class action against Hills, Mars, Nestle and others alleging they misrepresent their products as having medicinal value and collude with vets there to sell a standard product at a premium price.)

Hill’s argument against raw feeding includes the danger of “excessive levels of nutrients like protein, calcium, and phosphorus” which could lead to an increase in the “risk of broken teeth, gastrointestinal issues and exposure to bacteria” such as salmonella, but its site does not provide sources to back up the argument. Dr Becker has argued that dogs’ naturally acidic digestive systems allows them to neutralise potential bacteria in raw food. She conceded that bacteria present in raw food could affect humans, but says basic hygiene should minimise that risk.

The Hills [no connection] Veterinary Centre in Adelaide argues against giving bones, saying they can cause damage. “We have seen bones stuck in the mouth, throat, oesophagus, stomach and small intestine. It’s costly and traumatic to remove these bones.”

A Castle Hill vet, Dr Donna McGrath, told Hatch raw food could be a risk if pets did not get enough vitamins and minerals or got them in the wrong ratios. “Not only that,” she said, “raw food poses a substantial risk of infectious disease to the pet, the pet’s environment, and the humans in the household.”

The pet food debate, clearly, parallels the growing human trend to pursue a natural, organic and nutritionally beneficial diet. As pets are intimately associated with the family unit, It is natural that owners would seek what is best for  the health, nutrition, and wellbeing of loved companions.

At this stage, however, in the absence of conclusive medical evidence, it seems impossible to offer a definitive finding. And while universities decline to offer full transparency about their own connections and funding, it should be no surprise that some owners fear they, and their manufacturer partners, are pursuing their own agendas. – Report and images by Jessica Staveley

Smiling dog photo by Spadey09 under Creative Commons from Flickr.

About Jessica Staveley 22 Articles
20-year-old journalism student interested in film, women's rights, animals, politics, and music.