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According to what my team here at Island Pet Sitters tells me, pet food is big business and represents a whopping $24 billion of the pet industry’s total annual take of $62 billion! That’s a lot of food for our owners to sort through! When they take me with them to shop for my food, I watch the agony on their faces. Just stroll into any franchise-chain pet store and you’ll be overwhelmed by isles and towering shelves of dry and canned pet foods. I know I am! So how are all of you loving pet owners out there supposed to decide which food is best for me and yours? Should you, the aforesaid loving pet owner, believe the hype and claims emblazoned on pet food bags and cans (I’ll be the first to admit that they sure look yummy!) or do you just flip a coin or throw a dart blindfolded?

I know that all of these choices can puzzle even the savviest of pet owners: grain free, gluten free, limited ingredient, organic-only, healthy coat, metabolic diets, calming formulas, all natural, senior diet, weight management, dental health, reduced shedding, puppy and kitten, hairball prevention, urinary tract health, sensitive stomach, raw food, freeze-dried food and so on down the dog and cat food isles.

My team tells me that the most controversial of these among pet care professionals is the raw food diet, a trend which accounts for seven-percent ($168 million) of the total pet food industry. Supporters of feeding a raw food diet tout benefits like shinier coats, healthier skin, cleaner teeth, higher energy levels, and smaller stools. The FDA and mainstream veterinarians disagree, however, citing risks like bacteria in raw meat (E. coli bacteria was found in 59.6% of raw meat diets), choking hazards from bones, broken teeth, and internal punctures not to mention the risk of me or yours suffering from malnutrition due to eating an unbalanced diet. It is my opinion that many of the benefits people attribute to raw food diets can be achieved with supplements and a standard, off-the-shelf (haha, aren’t I funny!) commercial dog food.

Raw food diets are to cats and dogs what the paleo diet is to people; a going back to basics of eating with an emphasis on lean protein similar to what our ancient ancestors might have eaten. According to the pet industry magazine “Pet Age,” a spokesman for Merrick pet foods argues: “Dogs are meat eaters by nature, and a canine ancestral diet provides similar nutrition as they’d eat in the wild: a diet high in protein and healthy fats with no grains.” Part of the attraction to raw food among dog owners is that wolves don’t get as much cancer as do dogs. But the higher incidence of cancer among dogs and cats is more due to the fact that there are more advanced diagnostic tools at the disposal of veterinarians these days.

I recently learned that racing greyhounds and sled dogs have long eaten raw food diets. Extending those feeding practices to the family pets was first proposed in 1993 by Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst. He called his feeding suggestions the BARF diet (doesn’t sound at all appetizing does it?), an acronym that stands for Bones and Raw Food, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. Billlinghurst even wrote a book advancing his ideas, “Give Your Dog a Bone.”

A raw pet food diet typically consists of:

-Muscle meat, often still on the bone

-Bones, either whole or ground

-Organ meats such as livers and kidneys

-Raw eggs

-Vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and celery

-Apples and other fruit

-Some dairy, such as yogurt

“Choosing food for your pet is an emotional decision,” Connie Jedrick, lead internal medicine nurse at the Animal Specialty Hospital in Naples (ASH) recently told me. ASH is the largest specialty and emergency veterinary hospital in Southwest Florida ( “Owners want to give their pets the best.” As most medical professionals do, Jedrick cautions pet owners about relying on the internet exclusively for pet nutrition information. “Not all that’s on the web is good information.”

A lesser version of raw food diets is the home-cooked food many pet owners add to their pet’s kibble. A happy medium seems to be the freeze-dried foods to which one simply adds water. Of course it’s always a good idea to run these diets by your vet to make sure me and yours are eating a balanced diet.

It’s important to understand that a bag or can of pet food represents not much more than a marketing tool, a virtual billboard. Even the nutrition labels - termed “Guaranteed Analysis” - fall victim to this creative license to confound the well-meaning pet owner. It is only when these specialty foods make us sick because of contaminated ingredients or inappropriate use that owners sit up and take notice.

When a sick dog pads into ASH and is found to have elevated liver enzymes, Jedrick and her colleagues usually know the answer before even asking the question, “What do you feed your dog?” Raw food diets are heavy in protein which taxes the liver. This diet also has a high fat content which often leads to pancreatitis, a very painful condition for pets and humans alike.

“Owners are always surprised that the food is the cause of liver and pancreas problems because they think they are contributing health benefits through the pet’s diet,” says Jedrick who adds that the raw diet movement is not as prevalent in the world of felines.

Pet owners often challenge their vets when a prescription diet the vet sells is recommended, explains Jedrick. “A lot of pet owners think vets get kick backs from food companies.” In reality, pet food manufacturers and sellers are offering under-the-table financial incentives to push their foods with no regard given to the nutritional benefit or harm that feeding these foods may contribute to.

A case in point was recently brought to my attention by a client who has a family member working in a large chain pet store. It seems that employees are periodically given incentives to push a certain manufacturer’s food during a given week, the prize being a free bag of pet food or similar rewards. We ourselves have been shopping for dog food only to run into a manufacturer’s representative in the isle telling owners about a new food and offering generous coupons.

The wisest among you should really consult a veterinary nutritionist, or book extra time with our veterinarians to focus exclusively on nutrition. Vets, like doctors for people, are limited as to how much time they can spend with each patient (unless they’re as cute as me and the vet can’t get enough of us). That small window of time (usually 15 minutes) is not nearly long enough to get into a focused discussion about what to feed me and yours. But you can certainly call your vets and schedule an extra long appointment so you can get into the nitty gritty of what to feed based on your doggy’s particular medical history. There will be cases where going raw or grain free is acceptable and not harmful. Just make sure you’re making informed decisions that won’t threaten our health. Of course a dog cookie every now and then can’t hurt while you’re researching our diet options!

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