Convinced that processed dog food was inappropriate and unhealthy, Ian Billinghurst, a small-animal veterinary surgeon based in Bathurst, New South Wales, began to ask himself a basic question: Should dogs be eating what their wolf and dog ancestors would have eaten?
From this simple question, Billinghurst and his fellow Australian vet Tom Lonsdale went on to pioneer BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food), a radical departure from the canned food and kibble mainstay of the modern dog's fare harking back to a diet revolving around raw meaty bones.
The mainstay of BARF is raw meat with whole, raw (never cooked) meaty bones-the dog is meant to eat the raw bones, which are soft, not just chew on them. A typical diet is made up of whole chicken or fish carcasses or parts such as chicken necks and backs, plus raw eggs, yoghurt, raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, sprouted grains and berries. BARFers eschew certain grains such as rice or wheat as being biologically inappropriate, but do allow small quantities of rolled oats and, very occasionally (as part of a varied diet), corn, rye, millet or barley, balanced by legumes (for complete protein) like beans, peas and lentils.
Dr Billinghurst also recom-mends supplements like brewer's yeast, raw milk and kelp tablets. The pro-BARF advocates argue that raw-food diets transform the health of dogs, giving them more energy, and a sleek, healthier look as well as improved longevity. It is claimed that BARF can cure everything from doggy breath to degenerative diseases like arthritis.
Websites and webrings (for example, www.barfworld.com) are devoted to recipes and the benefits of BARF. Pro-BARF dog owners wax enthusiastic about the trans-formation that has taken place in their dogs, citing the sudden disappearance of chronic allergies, skin problems and arthritis, the boost of energy, and improved teeth and gums. One of the causes of immune-system disorders may be problems in the mouth caused by a diet devoid of chewy meat and bones. It is now a widespread practice to use a toothbrush or to have a dog's teeth 'cleaned' by a vet.
"Gum disease is rare in nature, but widespread in domestic dog and cat populations," says Lonsdale. "Unnatural diets are known to facilitate the build-up of oral microbial communities, which then interact with host immune defences, giving rise to gum disease."
The problem doesn't end there. Chronic mouth bacteria can play havoc with the white cells in the body, so harming the immune system in general, and con-tributing to the increase in dog and cat health problems (J Small Anim Pract, 1995; 36: 542-6).
Drawbacks of BARF
Pro- and anti-BARFers are equally passionate on both sides of the fence and, although there is much anecdotal evidence on both sides, there are too few scientific trials to allow any definitive statement as to which position is the correct one.
A number of pet and animal advocates remain deeply opposed to BARF. Although they agree that dogs benefit from home-made human-grade food, they draw the line at raw food and whole bones.
The argument in favour of bones is that wolves and other canines in the wild dine on the raw bones, meat and intestinal contents of their kills. But lest we get carried away by the wolf analogy, it's important to remember that dogs are not wolves and haven't been for thousands of years.
According to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, domesticated animals have evolved many important differences from their wild relatives. Wolves have larger teeth with broader, deeper roots than dogs do, making them better able to handle raw bones (Austad SN. A Mouse's Tale. Natural History, April 2002; www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/master.html?http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/0402/0402_feature.html).
Evolution may have altered the bone structure and teeth of dogs as it was no longer necessary for them to be so tough in a domesticated situation.
Most authorities now agree that all dogs, from Chihuahuas to Dobermans, are descended from wolves tamed in the Near East 10,000-12,000 years ago (Savage C. Wolves. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988). They have been, in effect, 'genetically engineered' to grow or shrink to all sizes and shapes.
For these thousands of years, dogs have been fed the table scraps of human diets. In their breeding and domestication, we may have inadvertently created a dog's stomach and nutritional needs in our own image.
The anti-BARFers, including a number of vets, offer evidence (including website photos) that some BARF-fed dogs have died because they have choked on bones or the bones became impacted in their intestines or splintered into shards. The site www.secondchance ranch.org/rawmeat.html is an anti-BARF site displaying X-rays that are purported to be of the stomachs or intestines of dogs that have been ripped apart by raw bones.
Many anecdotal reports have also emerged from owners whose pets have suffered projectile bloody diarrhoea. One anti-BARFer used a vise, meant to approximate a large dog's bite grip, to demonstrate that raw bones indeed can easily splinter.
A number of wolf handlers, when asked whether feeding raw bones to dogs is comparable to feeding them to wolves, cite one important difference. According to Debbie Davidson, a wildlife biologist who helped raise the captive wolves at the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN, a wolf will eat the entire contents of its prey, including a great deal of hair and fur. Wolves appear to have evolved some sort
of protective mechanism whereby the fur and hair they digest becomes wrapped around any bone shards they've eaten.
"Towards the final defaecations involving the same kill," says Davidson, "hair can be seen in the faeces actually wrapped tightly around any bones that are passed through." This seems to protect the body's organs and passageways. Other wolf handlers say that they only give large knuckle bones, and avoid ribs and small bone frag-ments because they often cause a bloody stool.
Dr Billinghurst doesn't deny that bones may pose a small threat to some dogs. "However, the deaths and illness caused by biologically inappropriate grain-based diets are of a far greater magnitude by many factors of 10.
"If owners are worried, we suggest they completely grind the bones to eliminate both the worry and the potential for any such problem."
The problem of parasites
Another issue with the BARF diet
is the possibility that your pet can contract diseases such as salmonellosis, toxoplasmosis and campylobacteriosis from parasites and bacteria harboured in raw meat. Indeed, it is common in BARF circles to suggest that animals be given grapefruit seed extract and/or fruit sugars to kill any dangerous bacteria in raw meat (something that Billinghurst says he has never laid claim to).
A good body of evidence does show the potential for dogs to harbour parasites. In a recent study of dogs fed raw-chicken diets from Calgary in Alberta, Canada, Salmonella was isolated from 80 per cent of the BARF diet samples and from 30 per cent of the stool samples from dogs fed the diet (Can Vet J, 2002; 43: 441-2). Many studies have shown that Salmonella and other bacteria are now endemic in 7-28 per cent of all cuts of meat (Commun Dis Public Health, 1999; 2: 114-8).
One study of greyhounds afflicted by 'Alabama rot' or cutaneous (skin) and kidney glomerular vasculopathy found a striking similarity between the changes in the kidneys of infected greyhounds and humans with haemolytic uraemic syndrome (Vet Pathol, 1995; 32: 451-9), which can be caused by E. coli food poisoning found in undercooked or raw ground meat-the typical diet of race greyhounds.Billinghurst admits that his programme is predicated on parasite-free meat. Dogs should not be given raw lamb bones or meat as it may contain hydatid cyst-causing tapeworms, he says.
If you decide to opt for a raw-food diet for your dog, it's imperative that you only buy meat from parasite-free organic sources and observe scrupulous cleanliness in its handling and storage. Use meat bought from a trusted butcher rather than commercially packed supermarket meat, wash it and feed it to your dog as soon as possible, or freeze in individual-sized portions. And consider probiotics to help your pet process the food (available from online pet shops).
The BARF diet
Your dog's diet should contain:
- 70 per cent a variety of meats and meaty bones, including whole chicken or fish carcasses, or parts such as chicken necks and backs, and eggs and yoghurt (no lamb or red meat)
- 10 per cent organ meats
- 20 per cent a variety of raw pur'eed fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouted grains and berries, including small quantities of rolled oats
- if including grains, occasionally also add small quantities of rye, corn, millet or barley, but avoid wheat or rice.
WDDTY November 2012 vol 23 no 8