I received an email from a concerned pet owner this week who found my contact information on the American College of Veterinary Nutrition website. She had reached out because her 14-year-old dog had recently been diagnosed with liver cancer. Her primary veterinarian had told her that the cancer seemed to be involving about 90% of the liver and there was nothing they could do to treat this condition. Being the dedicated “pet parent” that she was she won’t take this as the final answer, so looked into alternative therapies and ended up in my inbox.
I would say this was a fairly common type of “self-referral” that I saw in practice. Concerned caregiver is given bad news from their regular veterinarian and comes to see the Veterinary Nutritionist for a second opinion on treatment options. They often have seen the Veterinary Nutritionist as another type of “holistic” veterinarian and assume I am going to recommend raw meat diets and homeopathy, and are surprised when I say balanced cooked meats with carbohydrates (*gasp*) and only supplements that have (at least some) scientific evidence for use. I would say that I am a “holistic” veterinarian in the true Oxford English Dictionary sense of the word. “Holistic: Medicine Characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.” But taking the whole patient and family life into account is very different than recommending unproven and potentially dangerous diets and supplements.
I look at my patients from head to tail (or if I am working remotely, physical exam notes and conversations with the managing veterinarian). I review the medical and diet history as well as the family’s lifestyle and medical goals for their dog or cat. I spend time discussing my Dietary Treatment Plans in person with caregivers (or with the managing veterinarian if it is a remote consult), then I spend additional time outside of the exam room developing and writing what I felt was the best plan for all involved (patient and caregiver). My plans consider patient and owner preferences as well as the overall medial and nutritional needs of the dog or cat. Despite taking a whole patient approach to my practice, I would not label myself as a “holistic” veterinarian, which brings me back to my potential new client and her dog with cancer.
I sent a brief note within 12-hours of the time on her email (she sent the first email late at night and I responded in the morning when I read it) stating that I was sorry to hear about her companion’s illness and that I would be happy to work with her and her veterinarian to develop a diet plan that supported her dog’s medical and dietary needs. I also included information about how to initiate the consult request through her regular veterinarian’s office. She replied the next day that while waiting for my reply (again my response had been less than 12-hours from her first email, but I understand that it can seem like forever when you are dealing with a sick loved one) she had consulted a “holistic” veterinarian who had put her dog on a regiment of raw meat and raw bones, but that she did have a question about a supplement she heard had anti-cancer properties. Oy. Without spending any more time than necessary on my reply to her second email I referred her back to her “holistic” veterinarian for guidance and wished her well, all the while feeling terrible for this poor dog whose new diet is likely going to hasten the end. The high protein content alone will make a dog with liver disease worse (like vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and more rapid death worse) and this old dog with his compromised immune system is at a very high risk of becoming ill from food-borne illness, but I don’t know her or her dog so wasn’t going to offer any medical advice over an email.
For the record: I do not recommend feeding raw animal products to dogs and cats. Yes, dogs adapted to life with human over 10,000 years ago and cats started living with humans approximately 5,000 years ago, while commercial cooked diets have only been in existence for the last 150 or so. Early dogs and cats definitely ate raw meat but they also lived 4-5 years and were not living in the home licking the children.
Knowing the essential nutrient requirements for healthy dogs and cats I could balance a raw meat based diet, but I choose not to because I am concerned about the health and welfare of my patients and their human families. Healthy animals may be more “resistant” to pathogenic bacteria, but their human family members and animals with compromised immune systems (the very young, old, or those with chronic disease) are not. There are a number of published case reports demonstrating this and a more complete scientific review of this style of diet can be found in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association (JAVMA), but I think people relate to personal experience better than published data at times so I would like to share my experiences with raw meat diets.
Why I Don’t Recommend Raw…
There were four cases I was involved over my years in practice that helped cement my anti-raw stance. The first occurred during my Residency. I worked with a veterinarian who was trying to convince her client to stop feeding a raw meat diet. The owner kept refusing because she believed that raw meat diet cleared up the dog’s skin issues (despite it causing Campylobacter-induced recurrent diarrhea and expensive emergency room visits, hence the veterinarian trying to convince her to change), but it wasn’t until the owner herself ended up in the hospital with a Campylobacter infection that she agreed as well.
The second case was one I saw as a newly minted and board-certified Veterinary Nutrition Specialist. It was a 1-year-old Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier with food-allergic dermatitis (food allergies that made it scratch and lose fur), whose owner walked into the exam room with the dog and told me that if I recommended raw meat he was walking back out. I asked him to take a seat because I thought we would get along just fine. The owner then told me that he and his wife purchased this dog as a puppy from a breeder who fed a commercial raw meat diet. Despite changing to a dry commercial puppy food and never feeding a raw diet in their home, within one week of the new puppy joining the household he (the husband) ended up in the hospital with salmonellosis. Turns out he suffers from Crohn’s disease and the puppy brought more than joy into the new household. And yes, the dry puppy food was tested and was cleared and the Salmonella strain was serotyped to the puppy.
The third case was a pet owner (not one of my clients, but one who came to the General Practice at my same clinic) who was feeding a commercial raw meat diet and asked the neighbor’s teenage son to feed and walk their dog while the rest of their family went on vacation. The teenage neighbor agreed (it was a paying job after all) and about the time the family returned from vacation, the same teenage neighbor was hospitalized for Salmonella. The Salmonella was very clearly linked to the raw meat diet the teenager was handling and a friendly neighborhood lawsuit ensued. Needless to say, the pet owner lost the case as well as her home owners insurance.
The fourth case was a 6-month-old puppy that had seen a ‘”holistic” veterinarian as a second opinion because he (the puppy) refused to eat any dry or canned food the owner offered. This veterinarian sold the owner a raw meat diet that was made locally for the veterinary clinic. It was expensive (but cost equals quality, right?), but the puppy loved this new food and ate it willingly. When her first batch of food ran low, the owner purchased more from the “holistic” veterinarian and things continued to go well for another month. But, one month later and within 24-hours of starting a new container of food the puppy stopped eating, developed profuse bloody diarrhea, and ended up at the emergency clinic of the hospital I worked at to be treated for fever and dehydration. Unfortunately treatment was started by the time I was brought in on the case and we didn’t have a sample of the suspected diet other than the empty and cleaned out container, so I cannot prove this was a food-borne pathogen, but highly suspicious.
Feed what is right for your dog or cat and safe for everyone involved…
I don’t think there is one prefect diet for every dog or cat and I don’t really care what brand or style of food people feed their companion dogs and cats as long as it is healthy and safe. I have worked with dogs and cats that did not do well on commercial dry or canned foods, but thrived on complete and balanced cooked home-prepared diets. And I have also seen animals fail home-prepared diet trials but do well on the consistent formulation and digestibility afforded by commercial dry or canned pet foods. Dogs and cats require essential nutrients not ingredients, and how those nutrients get in will depend on the needs of the individual. But please, no raw animal product.
Happy (and safe) Feeding!
Lisa P. Weeth, DVM, MRCVS, DACVN