Always searching for better, more economic diets for dogs, breeders and exhibitors of pets and performance dogs are traveling in two directions these days. The majority of these dog owners cheer on the development of ever more specialized commercial diets by premium pet food manufacturers. However, a growing and increasingly vocal segment of the population is switching to BARF, the diet familiarly known as bones and raw food but also tagged as biologically appropriate raw food, Billinghurst Australian real food and the born again raw feeders diet.
Developed by Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst, the BARF diet under any appellation is based on feeding raw, meaty bones, animal offal, raw vegetables, and supplements instead of commercially-processed or cooked homemade diets.
Billinghurst has published two books about BARF: Give Your Dog a Bone in 1993 and Grow Your Pups with Bones.
Dr. Billinghurst describes BARF this way:
BARF is about feeding dogs properly. The aim of BARF is to maximize the health, longevity and reproductive capacity of dogs and by so doing, minimize the need for veterinary intervention. How do you feed a dog properly? You feed it the diet that it evolved to eat. ... Artificial grain based dog foods cause innumerable health problems. They are not what your dog was programmed to eat during its long process of evolution. A biologically appropriate diet for a dog is one that consists of raw whole foods similar to those eaten by the dogs wild ancestors. The food fed must contain the same balance and type of ingredients as consumed by those wild ancestors. This food will include such things as muscle meat, bone, fat, organ meat and vegetable materials and any other foods that will mimic what was those wild ancestors ate.
Those who feed BARF point out that kibbled foods have been around for about 60 years but that dogs ate handouts from human tables for millennia before processed foods were marketed. However, the debate rages hot and heavy. Those who develop processed dog foods and those who feed these diets point out the scientific reports that back their claims; those who feed BARF are equally as adamant that their anecdotal evidence about dog health and well-being proves the value of fresh, raw food.
BARF feeders eschew the convenience of 40-pound bags of kibble and opt for preparing meals for their dogs that include uncooked meaty bones, uncooked muscle and organ meat, raw eggs, vegetables, fruit, yogurt, cooked cereals, cottage cheese, and herbs, enzymes, and other supplements. They are not tied to the same diet every day no more just measuring the kibble and pouring it in the bowl. If a good source of fresh chicken parts or lamb meat is available, the dogs get chicken or lamb. If green beans are on sale this week, cottage cheese is two-for-one at the supermarket, or the carrots are ready to be pulled in the garden, the dogs diet (like the family diet) will likely be heavy in those ingredients.
The BARF philosophy is that dogs should be fed the foods they are evolutionarily suited to eat. The BARF principles are that commercially-prepared cooked foods lack enzymes and other essential dietary components and contain some ingredients that promote allergies and are otherwise harmful for dogs.
Those who develop, study, and feed prepared dog foods do not agree, and they point to studies and feeding trials to prove their assertions. Companies producing these foods do not rest on their laurels; they keep on studying canine nutrition so they can improve the food they sell. As a result, companies now market a variety of dry foods based on lamb, chicken, beef, or turkey with grain sources of rice, corn, barley, or wheat.
In the old days, kibble was preserved with ethoxyquin, a preservative with a bad rap; today vitamins are used by an increasing number of companies. As scientists learn more about the individual needs of breeds, performance dogs, puppies, couch pets, middle-aged dogs, and geriatric dogs, they design and test diets to meet those needs. As a result, many dog food companies now include Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids for coat and skin health, provide special diets for large-breed puppies, or tout the addition of anti-oxidants and herbs in their formulas. (See sidebar.)
Proponents of the BARF diet do not believe that these changes in commercial formulas give dog owners enough leeway in planning dog diets or provide appropriate nutrition for many dogs. They encourage dog owners to experiment with a broad variety of raw foods and judge whether their dogs appear healthier and more energetic on the BARF diet than on the commercial diet.
There are beginning to be some nutritional analyses of BARF and some cases of disease or deficiency have appeared in dogs fed the raw meat diet. Two veterinarians who specialize in canine nutrition reported in the AKC Gazette(1) that some of the diets they analyzed were low or deficient in some nutrients. Letters to the editor in a subsequent Gazette(2) issue, however, disputed portions of the article.
Some veterinarians have expressed doubt about feeding bones to dogs, but BARF believers counter that fear with the assertion that cooked bones tend to splinter and cause damage, but raw bones are safe. Other veterinarians and health experts have expressed concern about bacterial contamination in raw meat diets, especially E. coli and Salmonella, and Freeman and Michel found substantial E. coli contamination in one of the diets they analyzed for their report. Both E. coli and Salmonella organisms can infect other animals and people, so even though the majority of dogs may not exhibit symptoms, they can none-the-less pass the contamination to other animals or people. Serious outbreaks of these diseases can kill or debilitate children, the elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems.(3)
The best judge of diet is the condition of the dog. Some dogs with low energy, allergies, skin problems, and other symptoms have increased pep and stamina, shiny coats, healthy skin, and a general increase in well-being when switched to the BARF diet, but many dogs do well on premium commercial diets, especially those that are highly digestible and include fatty acid supplements. Dog owners need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Along with Billinghursts books and seminar, those considering a switch to a home-prepared diet for pets or show dogs can find information in Dr. Pitcairns Guide to natural Health for Dogs and Cat; The Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog by Wendy Volhard and Kerry Brown DVM; and The Collins Guide to Dog Nutrition by Donald Collins DVM.
Other sources of information include research conducted by the Iams Company and Purina. Scientists at these companies are leaders in canine nutrition studies and development of commercial diets.
1. The raw deal, by Lisa M. Freeman DVM, PhD,
and Kathryn E. Michel, DVM, MS; AKC Gazette, April 2001. This article also appeared
in slightly different form as Nutritional analysis of five types of raw
food diets in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association,
March 1, 2001.
2. Letters to the editor, AKC Gazette, June 2001.
3. See Salmonellosis, page 120-121, Merck Veterinary Manual 8th edition edited by Susan E. Aiello BS, DVM, ELS, and Salmonellosis, pages 364-65, UC Davis Book of Dogs edited by Mordecai Segal..
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