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Raw diets: are we at a turning point?
  1. Adele Waters

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If you work in a small animal practice in a leafy suburb, chances are you’ve got a rising number of clients who are feeding their pet dogs and cats raw meat diets – or are certainly seeking advice about it.

Up until recently the subject of raw meat feeding tended to divide the profession very unevenly, with the vast majority of vets adopting a zero tolerance stance to a feeding fad that was sure to go away.

And while raw feeding still attracts strong criticism from within the profession – with some vets firmly against the practice, arguing that it is unsafe and therefore irresponsible – there are others who have come to see raw feeding as a dietary choice. One that they are willing to endorse, promote and, increasingly, sell.

There is a confident ‘pro-raw’ movement and it is being driven by consumer demand.

The typical profile of a raw feeder, so I’m told, is well educated and middle class or country set. Often they will have had health problems themselves or their pets will have had a series of illnesses that have been difficult to treat and they are at their wits’ end (typically diarrhoea or atopic dermatitis). They are, perhaps, cynical of experts. You might say these are the sorts of people who are used to getting what they want – and many seem to be wanting raw.

According to commercial suppliers, the raw food market has exploded in the last three to four years. What was a handful of suppliers has now grown to around 80 companies registered with Defra, nine of which are members of the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA).

The market is seeing rapid expansion. Take Natural Instinct – three years ago the company was supplying to 200 outlets across the UK today it has around 500 stockists. Natures Menu presents a similar success story. It has around 400 practices with freezers across mainland UK and has a seen an average 22 per cent year-on-year growth within the veterinary sector.

Today it is not unusual to see commercial raw feed suppliers at veterinary shows. Many badge their products as biologically appropriate raw food or ‘BARF’ (yes, perhaps not the most suitable acronym for a food product). They offer samples, staff training and CPD opportunities as well as education packages for owners – it all adds up to an attractive add-on business for practices.

Wylie Veterinary Centre in Essex is one practice that seized that opportunity six years ago. In that time it has seen volume sales grow from around half a tonne per month (for around 700 clients) to six tonnes per month (for 8400 clients).

The whole business of raw feeding was debated at last week’s British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) congress. People came expecting tension, possibly a row, but they got a considered debate and some agreement along useful lines (p 386).

There was universal agreement, for example, that homemade raw feeding is dangerous because it is so difficult to get right in terms of nutrients and balance. They also agreed that handling raw meat products is riskier, so owners need to be careful when preparing and separating food, as they should be when they handle raw meat for themselves.

They also agreed that some owners have very fixed ideas about feeding methods and it is impossible to change that. All a practice can reasonably do is arm clients with the correct information and encourage them to be responsible.

But it is the important question of safety that really divides. Mike Davies, vet and specialist in clinical nutrition, presented several studies to persuade the audience that raw meat diets posed a serious health risk to the animals concerned, their owners and the wider public.

Raw meat can carry life-threatening pathogens, he told them – Salmonella, E coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, Clostridium and norovirus. Pets eating infected meat can become ill themselves or shed pathogens into the environment for potential transmission and harm to others. The biggest threat is Salmonella. It causes the most hospital admissions and around 200 deaths per year in the UK. It can only be killed by heat.

In Davies’ view, vet professionals are ‘crazy’ to recommend raw diets. They could, after all, be held legally liable and open to prosecution if any person becomes seriously ill or died as a direct result of them recommending a raw diet.

He was supported by vet and heavyweight nutritionist Marge Chandler, who works for Vets Now Referrals, Glasgow, and also practices as a private consultant in small animal medicine and nutrition.

She made a convincing argument against homemade raw feeding – saying all too often these diets were too variable, unbalanced and lacking in the right nutrients – and while commercial raw diets may meet European pet food industry standards, she said, few had been properly evaluated by feeding trials.

For its part, the raw feeding lobby sought to persuade with ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of pets with atopic dermatitis, for example, and with research that showed that, nutritionally, conventional dry and wet food diets have not always been compliant with regulatory pet food guidelines.

Nick Thompson, vet and president of the Raw Feeding Veterinary Society, said a survey of vets’ experiences of raw feeding found they believed the practice was safe and could even improve health outcomes.

It must be said, the pro-raw feeding lobby was outclassed in terms of facts and figures. But the reality is that consumers are the drivers here and they aren’t being driven to raw feeding because they are persuaded by veterinary evidence. Anecdote, buzz, and those pre- and post-diet change photographs are very compelling.

So where will this debate take us?

The growth in alternative feeding – raw but also personalised approaches – means we can expect to see further disruption of the pet food market in the next few years. Within the next month we will see the PFMA publish guidelines on raw feeding and that is likely to bring market segmentation – with companies following best practice guidance converging at the high end and seeking to differentiate themselves from small scale suppliers such as farm shops and family-run butchers.

It is likely, also, that vet practices will start to adopt raw feeding policies so that staff who provide nutritional advice (mainly nurses) follow a clear process for advising owners on how to manage raw feeds. Getting clients to sign disclaimers if they opt for raw feeding is something Davies suggests, for example.

We are some way from a tipping point but as some people commented at the end of the BVNA debate, it feels like we are at a turning point. The likes of Hills and Royal Canin won’t be unduly worried. But they will be watching.

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