Bones and Raw Food Diet (BARF)
Fresh wholesome foods sound like a wonderful thing to feed our pets, and many dogs appear to do well on these diets, but are there hidden risks? If feeding bones and raw foods is your choice for feeding your dog, you should be aware of the potential problems as well as the benefits of these diets.
By choosing the foods to feed, you are in control of the ingredients fed to your dog. There are not likely to be preservatives or additives if you are feeding organic foods. Some people enjoy preparing foods for their pets and find this a rewarding part of their bond with their pet.
Do be aware that there are a lot of false stories about the ingredients of commercial pet foods. They do not contain dead animals! They may contain “offal”, or the guts of animals, although this is what wild animals will eat. They do contain antioxidant preservatives to prevent them from becoming rancid. Some of them also contain textured vegetable proteins that appear to be meat and are not, and some of them do contain colourings to make them appear more appealing. These are the same colourings added to processed human foods and must be generally considered safe, although each of us need to decide if we want to eat them or feed them to our dogs.
The feeding programme for some of the raw food diets is meant to balance the diet over a couple of weeks, rather than for each meal. This is similar to the way many of us feed ourselves and our families, and with the right blend of ingredients this can work; however, in years as a veterinary nutritionist I have checked many homemade diet recipes and programmes and none of them were balanced for the essential nutrients.
A nutritional study of the bones and raw food diet (the ‘BARF’ diet) published in 2001 showed the diet to be deficient in calcium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, and excessively high in vitamin D. Another study of homemade diets showed that even combining three recipes over a week resulted in deficiencies, so varying the foods may not balance out the deficiencies, although the dogs may not show any signs of this in the short term. It is likely that some adult dogs could cope with some of these calcium and phosphorus imbalances, but they may affect the strength of the bones of growing dogs. The zinc deficiencies may cause skin disorders.
Several studies have looked at bacterial contamination of raw foods and shedding of bacteria in the faeces of dogs fed raw foods, and have shown that 20-35% of raw poultry tested and 80% of raw food diets for dogs tested positive for Salmonella and 30% of stool samples from these dogs were positive for Salmonella. Raw food diets have also tested positive for E. coli and Yersinia enterocolitica (bacteria that may cause gastrointestinal upset). Otherwise healthy dogs may be able to cope with ingestion of these bacteria, but very young, old, or immuno-compromised dogs may not be able to do so. Further, the faeces contaminate the environment with these bacteria.
Parasites that may be present in raw meat in include Toxoplasma gondii, Sarcocystis, Neospora caninum, Toxocara canis (round worms), Taenia and Echinococcus (tape worms).
When handling raw foods, either in preparation for human consumption or for the dog’s dinner, the cook must be scrupulous in hygiene, washing all surfaces and hands before touching anything or anyone else. Small children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised (e.g. anyone ill or on immunosuppressive medications) should not be handling the raw meat.
Some advocates of feeding raw meat and bones diets claim that the bones are beneficial for oral and dental health. Studies in wild dogs, found that 41% had evidence of periodontitis, although only 2% had dental tartar, so while the teeth may appear cleaner, the gums are not necessarily healthier.
Raw bones are usually added to the diet as a calcium source and for dental health. Chewing on a large meaty bone does seem a great source of joy for many dogs, and if it is large enough that it cannot be chewed up is generally considered safe. Analysis of the BARF diet has not confirmed that feeding bones is an adequate source of calcium.
There is a conception that feeding raw bones is safer than feeding cooked bones but there have been no objective studies on this. Bones that become stuck in the stomach, or more likely in the intestine, may perforate the gut, causing a potentially fatal peritonitis or abdominal infection. The only way to remove a bone stuck in the intestine is by surgery. Sometimes a segment of the intestine may need to be removed as well if it has been damaged by the bone. A bone stuck in the oesophagus is an emergency and may require an urgent appointment with a specialist to remove it. This can be a fatal condition and the longer it is stuck the worse the prognosis.
- In summary, if you chose to feed the BARF diet or any other diet involving raw foods, we recommend that very special hygienic care is used in handling the food and the dog’s faeces.
- Remember to de-worm your dog regularly, and tell your veterinary surgeon what diet you are feeding so that if your dog develops gastrointestinal disorders they will know to look for the bacteria and parasites mentioned above.
- Ideally, the diet should be balanced by a veterinary nutritionist and supplemented as necessary.
- If you feed bones, either raw or cooked, that can be ingested by your dog, you are running the risk of oesophageal or gastrointestinal obstructions. It may be possible to chop or grind the bone up small enough (e.g. less than 0.5 cm) that they are less likely to get stuck. Alternatively, consider consulting a veterinary nutritionist to determine the amount of calcium (and other nutrients) to add to your dog’s diet and skip the bones.
About Marge Chandler
Dr Marge Chandler is a Consultant in Small Animal Nutrition and an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Small Animal Medicine and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Edinburgh. After qualifying from Colorado State University she was in general practice for 4 years before returning to do a double residency in small animal internal medicine and clinical nutrition at Colorado State University and Massey University in New Zealand.