Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Russian Roulette Diet

Having done extensive research on canine nutrition, I noted with interest Caroline Coile's article "How Would You Like That Cooked?" in the August issue of the AKC Gazette. However, eager anticipation soon gave way to disappointment as I realized that the article included flawed studies and reasoning commonly spouted by the staunchest critics of raw diets. There was some valid information, but the poor data predominated.

A study was cited that found that cats fed frozen raw rabbit developed taurine deficiency, while those fed a commercial kibble did not. There are several problems with this study. First, it only included cats with malabsorption issues. It is well known from human studies that highly refined and processed foods are more easily digested by those with malabsorptive digestive disorders. It is possible that the underlying health condition caused the difficulty with taurine absorption, and not the food itself. A commercial food is, in effect, "predigested" by being highly processed, a situation that may be beneficial for animals with malabsorption problems.

A diet consisting exclusively of rabbit is not advisable because taurine levels in rabbit are much lower than other meats. A 2003 UC Davis lab study tabulated taurine content in various meats fed to pets:

Whole rabbit carcass ....... 373 (+/- 399) mg taurine per kilogram wet weight
Chicken dark meat.......... 1690 (+/- 370) mg taurine per kilogram wet weight
Turkey dark meat .......... 3960 (+/- 690) mg taurine per kilogram wet weight
clams fresh ................. 2400mg taurine per kilogram wet weight

So if the kibble-fed cats had a diet that included other meats that just rabbit, and was supplemented with powdered taurine as well, they of course were not as prone to develop taurine deficiency as those fed rabbit exclusively. The act of freezing may be a consideration too. It is possible that freezing may destroy taurine, just as high heat cooking does. Grinding also destroys taurine.

And, we might need to remind ourselves, cats are not dogs. Dogs can produce at least some taurine from other amino acids, while cats cannot.

The take home message from this study is that frozen, ground raw rabbit should not comprise the sole diet for months on end of cats with malabsorption problems. That's it! This is even more evidence of the need for variety in the diet.

Then, a large portion of the artice was devoted to bacterial contamination of food. That section highlighted concerns about salmonella. It is interesting to note that a large percentage of all dogs carry salmonella, regardless of diet. The AVMA admits that, based on studies done on kibble-fed dogs, a full 36% carry salmonella in their GI tracts. Salmonella can be transmitted to dogs from humans, and salmonella is also, incidentally, transmitted to humans from other humans, not just by food or kisses from a pet. Salmonella is in the environment, and is a natural part of life for our pets, and for us too. Naturally, it can be a concern for the immunocompromised.

However, commercial dried foods have been recalled for salmonella contamination frequently; more often than raw diets. Once a food is processed at high heat, all microbes, both good and bad, are killed. This leaves the resultant meal in effect a petri dish, ready to be overrun by the first disease-causing micro-organism the food comes in contact with after processing. There no longer are beneficial bacteria in the food to help keep disease-causing organisms in check.

I would be interested to see the 2009 study the article refers to, that claims NO pathogens in the stools of kibble-fed dogs. I would be very skeptical of such results. I have seen multiple other studies out of University of Guelph, cited as part of an agenda to ban therapy dogs from partaking of a raw diet. However, studies used as "evidence" have been either statistically insignificant due to small numbers, or did not include a group of dogs fed kibble. In the studies with large numbers of participating dogs, most all of them have done a great job of highlighting the bacteria in the stool of raw fed dogs while ignoring the significant amount of pathogens in the stool of kibble-fed dogs. In most studies, the amount of pathogens is comparable and for some pathogens (such as C. difficile and MRSA) the rates are significantly HIGHER in kibble-fed dogs.

The article seems to attempt to justify use of highly processed "sterilized" commercial pet food by highlighting overblown salmonella risks. If the risk of transmission of salmonella varied with diet, then health care personnel would be ordered to not to eat peanut butter, almonds, eggs, mayonnaise, a rare-cooked burger, strawberries, or any of the other foods that have been found to carry salmonella. 

An example of a raw diet included in Ms. Coile's article involved the practice of feeding racing greyhounds inferior foods. It should go without saying that when feeding a home-made diet, the ingredients should be fresh; not stale, rotting or rancid.  Concerns about parasites are certainly valid, and the reason that even most raw feeding advocates do not recommend feeding of raw fish or raw game animals. Deep freezing can also help reduce the risk of parasites.

Ms. Coile's article pointed to studies that analyzed home-prepared recipes, claiming they were "unbalanced". This thought process is also flawed, as home-prepared diets are based on the concept of variety rather than eating the same, homogenized recipe each and every day. You do not need "balance" in each bite. What is needed is balance over time. This wrong-headed thinking about balance needed in each bite comes from the habit of opening a bag and pouring out the same dry formula every day, day after day.

A diet made of shredded shoe leather, motor oil and ground coal could also pass AAFCO certification as "complete and balanced". Still, it's certainly not something I'd like to feed my pet.

In this article, much ado was made of nutrient deficiency or excess in home prepared diets, but nothing is mentioned about the multitude of deaths and recalls related to the use of "balanced" commercial foods. These foods can be dangerously "imbalanced" and it is a most serious situation when the naive consumer buys and feeds one food exclusively, trusting it to be "complete and balanced".

Vitamins and minerals have to be supplemented in commercial diets due to the poor quality and overprocessing of the ingredients used. When measurements are off, the results can be deadly. Many deaths and recalls have resulted due to thiamine deficiency, the most recent in 2011 by Wellness brand. In 2006, Mars' Royal Canin brand was recalled due to massive overdosing of Vitamin D. Other vitamins and minerals have been problematic over the years in commercial "balanced" diets, including zinc, calcium, and Vitamin A. Then there are the hazards of incidental ingredients such as fluoride in rock phospate, an ingredient included in almost all pet foods to provide minerals. We also find potential carcinogenic preservatives and even drugs like pentobarbital and tylenol in some commercial pet foods.

You can be certain of three things: death, taxes and future recalls for mycotoxins in pet foods. Recalls for deadly aflatoxicosis and vomitoxicosis are common; the risk for those is unavoidable in commercial foods where dry ingredients sit in warehouses prior to production, and then once manufactured, the food sits on a shelf for months prior to purchase. High levels of aflatoxins kill outright, but chronic, longterm consumption of low levels of aflatoxins (present in virtually ALL kibbles) eventually produces liver cancer.

Let's not forget the frequent recalls for metal shavings and pieces; as well as the horrific 2007 near-universal contamination with melamine and cyanuric acid which were INTENTIONALLY added to foods to make protein content look higher. I daresay such "ingredients" are just as risky (if not more risky) to dogs as any bone fragment in a raw diet ever was. Bones don't kill thousands of dogs in one fell swoop.

Commercial diets have killed countless dogs, yet we are left with the impression in the closing statement that "dogs are living longer than ever now on diets formulated for health."

Is there actual evidence that dogs really are living longer today, on average, than those who lived decades ago? And if so, is that attributable to diet or to other factors? Yes, many owners ARE feeding their pets higher quality foods today; and not necessarily just commercial, over-processed foods. But aside from that, fewer dogs are allowed to roam these days, reducing the possibility of accidental death which was the major cause of death "back in the day". There have been great advances in veterinary care, and more and more pet owners these days take their pets in for routine care and dental cleanings, thereby promoting a longer life. On the other side of the coin, some breeds suffer from genetic health problems that shorten lifespans, and these factors are unrelated to diet or quality of veterinary care. So please let's not jump to conclusions about lifespans based on nonexistent, faulty or incomplete evidence.

We need to quit relying on meals poured from a bag, and begin to use our common sense when feeding our animals. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to formulate a balanced diet for dogs; just a bit of information. Look for some of the many excellent canine diet resources available now. Lew Olson, a canine nutritionist, has a book out on raw and natural nutrition for dogs and has great articles on her website;

A good eye-opener to the perils of commercial canine cuisine is Ann Martin's book "Food Pets Die For". Another interesting book with good research is "See Spot Live Longer" by Steve Brown and Beth Taylor.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the AVMA, BVMA, and the CVMA may have opposition to a raw diet (as stated by Ms. Coile) not because of health concerns, but rather due to a conflict of interest brought about by the financial support these groups garner from the pet food industry. Perhaps the AKC and the "Gazette" have a similar conflict, considering the heavy advertising and financial support they accept from Purina and Eukanuba. I can think of no other reason for AKC to print such a biased and flawed article on diet for dogs in the "Gazette".

Feeding commercial kibble? You may well be playing "Russian Roulette" with your dog's life.

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