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When Raw Food is NOT the Right Food for Your Pet

At a 2011 American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (AAVN) symposium, three researchers affiliated with the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine presented the case of a kitten with metabolic bone disease and central retinal degeneration. This case is an excellent illustration of what can happen when a dog or cat is fed an unbalanced raw diet.

I often talk about the importance not only of species-appropriate nutrition, but of balanced nutrition.

In fact, an unbalanced raw diet of high quality fresh meat is in my professional opinion a greater risk to your dog or cat than cheap processed pet food.

Newly Adopted Kitten Develops Lameness and Eye Problems

A 5-month old male Sphinx kitten, adopted from a breeder 11 days earlier, was taken to the vet by his new owner because he suddenly had no use of his rear legs.

X-rays showed the kitty had generalized osteopenia.

Osteopenia is a condition that often precedes osteoporosis.

It means the bones of the body have lower than normal mineral density – they aren’t as thick or strong as they should be.

When formation of new bone isn’t sufficient to make up for normal bone loss, osteopenia is the result.

The x-rays also showed a widening of the growth plate of the femur in the right hind leg, and a tibiofibular fracture of the left hind leg.

As if all that wasn’t disturbing enough, the poor little guy also had lesions in the left eye commonly seen in cases of a gradually degenerating retina caused by taurine deficiency.

The kitten was diagnosed with metabolic bone disease, central retinal degeneration, and past or current taurine deficiency.

The left rear leg was splinted and fortunately, the kitty fully recovered after a couple of months of cage rest and a balanced diet.

How This Kitten’s Health Was Compromised

The breeder of the Sphinx kitten fed him only raw chicken from the time he was weaned until he was adopted at the age of 5 months. So for 3 to 4 of his first months of life, during a very rapid growth period for kittens, this little guy was fed an unbalanced raw diet of exclusively chicken muscle meat. He quickly became seriously deficient in several crucially important vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

His new owner switched him to store-bought kitten food, but by that time the damage was done. Less than 2 weeks into life with his new family, the kitten had rear leg lameness, eye lesions, a condition called microphthalmia which means the eyes are smaller in size than normal, and an opaque right cornea.

Commercially available pet food must meet AAFCO standards for nutritional completeness. And while it’s true many commercial pet food ingredients are not high quality or even species-appropriate, they do provide balanced nutrition for the growth and maintenance of your pet’s body.

Why Feeding Raw Meat Alone Causes Problems

Unfortunately, a growing number of well-meaning pet owners are confusing balanced, species-appropriate nutrition with feeding hunks of raw muscle meat to their dog or cat. Although fresh meat is a good source of protein and some minerals, it doesn’t represent a balanced diet.

In my practice, I’m seeing an increasing number of pets with skeletal problems, organ failure and endocrine abnormalities caused by dietary deficiencies of essential nutrients.

Wild canines and felines eat nearly all the parts of their prey, including small bones, internal organs, blood, brain, eyes, tongue and other tasty treats. Many of these parts of prey animals provide important nutrients for dogs and cats. This is how carnivores in the wild nutritionally balance their diets.

An exclusive diet of raw chicken muscle meat is lacking the minimum requirements for a number of vital nutrients as established by AAFCO. These include potassium, iron, copper, manganese, zinc, iodine, and vitamins A, D, E, B-12 and choline, the essential fatty acid ratio (omega 6s to omega 3s) is unbalanced, and there’s a complete lack of phytonutrients, antioxidants and enzymes.

When your dog or cat is fed only muscle meat, he’s missing out on a variety of essential nutrients and sooner or later, he’ll develop serious health problems as a result. Some conditions brought on by nutritional deficiencies can be corrected through diet, others cannot.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking all you need to do is throw a few fresh veggies in the bowl to make up the difference. Balancing your pet’s food to provide optimal nutrition is a bit more complex.

How to Make Sure You’re Feeding Balanced Nutrition to Your Cat or Dog

There should be four primary components in a nutritional program for your dog or cat, including:

  • Meat, including organs
  • Veggie and fruit puree
  • Homemade vitamin and mineral mix
  • Beneficial additions like probiotics, digestive enzymes, and super green foods (these aren’t required to balance the diet, but can be beneficial for vitality)

A healthy dog’s diet should contain about 75 percent meat/organs/bones and 25 percent veggies/fruit (this mimics the GI contents of prey, providing fiber and antioxidants as well). For healthy kitties, the mix should be about 88 percent meat/organs/bones and 12 percent veggies.

Fresh, whole food provides the majority of nutrients pets need, and a micronutrient vitamin/mineral mix takes care of the deficiencies that do exist, namely iron, copper, manganese, zinc, iodine, vitamin D, folic acid, taurine and Biotin (for cats).

Keep in mind that just because nutritional deficiencies aren’t obvious in your pet doesn’t mean they don’t exist. A considerable amount of research has gone into determining what nutrients dogs and cats need to survive. At a minimum, you do a disservice to your pet by taking a casual approach to insuring he receives all the nutrients he requires for good health. The kitten who is the subject of this article is a good example of a pet whose breeder meant well and didn’t see any immediate damage to the animal, yet the kitten became acutely ill on the raw chicken-only diet.

If you’re preparing homemade food for your pet, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of insuring the diet you feed is nutritionally balanced. It doesn’t matter whose recipe you follow, but it does matter that it’s balanced. You can accomplish this by using balanced pet food recipes you prepare at home, or by feeding commercially available pet food that meets the minimum standards set forth by NRC, AAFCO and/or the ancestral diet analysis.

A Word about AAFCO

Although I don’t agree with many of the positions AAFCO takes on nutrition-related topics, and I feel there is room for significant improvement within this organization, at least they have identified the minimum level of critical nutrients needed to sustain life in dogs and cats. Sadly, some pet owners are unaware of these basic requirements, and pets suffer because of it.

It would be excellent if AAFCO continued to work on their recommendations, including digestibility and bioavailability of the ingredients in pet food, as well as optimal levels of nutrients and ceilings for recommended supplementation.

So while AAFCO leaves much to be desired in terms of establishing the ideal nutrient levels required for pets to thrive, I am thankful that in the U.S. there is an agency tasked with identifying the basic nutrients required for animals to survive. Many countries have no such advisory board, and too many animals succumb to unnecessary nutritional deficiencies.

Dr. Becker is the resident proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian of HealthyPets.Mercola.com. You can learn holistic ways of preventing illness in your pets by subscribing to MercolaHealthyPets.com, an online resource for animal lovers. For more pet care tips, subscribe for FREE to Mercola Healthy Pet Newsletter.

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