The Good and the Bad of the Canine BARF Diet

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You want my dog to eat what?! BARF? That’s disgusting!

Easy, there. It’s not what you think. BARF is actually just an acronym that, depending on who you ask, either stands for “Bones and Raw Foods” or “Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods.” In the veterinary community it is often referred to as RMBD, Raw Meat-Based Diets. The BARF/RMBD diet can be followed by making BARF meals at home or by purchasing commercially available BARF meals at the store or online.

What’s the Deal with the BARF Diet?

Why are an increasing number of people switching from “regular” dog food--think of the big bag of dry kibble that you buy at the grocery or pet store--to a raw diet for their dogs, whether the food is purchased or homemade? What’s the point? Well, we’ll get there, and we’ll see that, while some celebrate BARF as a return to nature, not everyone thinks BARF is the best of ideas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First let’s find out what the BARF diet actually looks like.

Common BARF Foods

One of the things you’ll notice is that the “Raw” in BARF doesn’t actually mean that everything is actually raw. It might be easier to think of “raw” in this case as meaning “unprocessed” rather than “uncooked.” There are dozens (maybe even hundreds) of recipes online for homemade BARF meals for your dog, but almost all of them include some combination of the same ingredients. Also, commercially available BARF foods, are typically just prepacked cans or pouches that contain minimally processed combinations of the following foods as well.

  • Uncooked chicken, pork, beef, lamb, turkey, or other meats

  • Uncooked bones or bone dust

  • Mashed, cubed, grated, or juiced vegetables and some fruits, especially sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots, spinach, cauliflower, peaches, apples, peas, broccoli, and others. Some of these, such as the sweet potatoes and turnips, are cooked then mashed

  • Hardboiled eggs

  • Sunflower seeds

  • Nutritional supplements such as Vitamins B and E, Zinc, and Probiotics

Why Do Some People Switch Their Dogs to the BARF diet?

There are two main reasons that pet parents give for switching to BARF.

#1: Dogs are Primarily Carnivores, So Let Them Eat Like Carnivores!

Evolutionarily speaking, dogs are, in fact, carnivores. After all, tens of thousands of years ago there weren’t dogs; there were just wolves. Have you ever seen a wolf munch on wheat kernels or eat corn on the cob? No, they’re out there somewhere ripping the flesh off of a rabbit or deer. So does it make sense for your dog, who evolved from wolves, and would probably dig right in on the deer meat if he had the chance, to eat processed food largely made up of grains? Advocates of the BARF diet, say no. While dogs can and should eat some plant materials--vegetables and fruits rather than grains--dogs should be primarily eating meat. Not “crude protein” but real, uncooked, unprocessed meat.

#2: Heavily Processed Food Can’t Be Any Better for Dogs than It is for Us

Really reason #2 goes hand-in-hand with reason #1. We have all been warned about the negative effect that heavily processed foods can have on our health. If it’s true for us, isn’t it probably true for our dogs as well? Just as our bodies weren’t made to subsist on prepackaged, heavily processed foods that are filled with preservatives, corn syrup, and fillers, neither were our dogs’ bodies. You might think of BARF as akin to a dog version of a paleo or whole foods diet. The less processing, the better.

Another Point of View: Not Everyone Thinks BARF is a Good Idea

While BARF continues to grow in popularity among pet parents who want what is best for their dog’s health, there are many in the veterinary community that have concerns about BARF. According to the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, “At this time there are no scientific studies showing any health benefits of RMBD. However, numerous studies show that there are health risks for an animal eating a RMBD.” Here are the main reasons veterinarians give for their concern:

#1: Dogs Aren’t Wolves Anymore, and Haven’t Been for 100,000 Years

Veterinarians at Tufts University make the point that while wolves in the wild do eat raw meat (although it is generally meat that has just been killed) as well as some berries and other plant matter, wolves in the wild are also lucky to live five or six years, often dying of parasites, disease, and malnutrition. “What is nutritionally ‘optimal’ for a wolf is not optimal for our pets that we hope will live long and healthy lives,” they write

#2: Bacteria

This is the same reason that you and other human beings don’t eat raw chicken, beef, or other meats. Raw meat often carries Salmonella, E. Coli, Listeria, and Campylobacter. Ingesting any of these bacteria can result in mild to severe vomiting, diarrhea, and fever, and in serious cases can even cause death. Also, when your dog eats raw meat that is contaminated with one or more of these bacteria, not only is it a serious health risk to your dog, but also to you and your family because you are handling the raw meat and because these bacteria will also be present in your dog’s feces. Tufts University says, “Recent scientific studies have shown that nearly all RMBD (whether commercial or homemade) are contaminated with bacteria, as with any unprocessed raw meat.” The American Association of Animal Hospitals agrees, stating, “Homemade raw food diets are unsafe because retail meats for human consumption can be contaminated with pathogens.”

#3: Nutritional Imbalance

Many veterinarians make the case that any decent commercially available dog food has been formulated to provide appropriate (neither too little nor too much) levels of nutrients for your dog based on the standards of the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). BARF diets, they say, often do not provide this balance. The American College of Veterinary Nutrition cites studies that have shown that BARF/RMBD diets often have the wrong calcium-to-phosphorous ratio, have far more saturated fat than typical dog foods, have dangerously high levels of Vitamin D, and contain below-minimum concentrations of Vitamins A and E. Some of these imbalances can cause rickets and hyperparathyroidism from the nutritional imbalances.

#4: Grains and Animal Byproducts are Not the Enemy

While many proponents of BARF diets cite the prevalence of grains such as wheat, corn, and rice as well as animal matter that is the byproduct of meat production for humans as reasons to avoid typical dog foods, many in the veterinary community make the case that grains and byproducts are not only safe for your dog, but quite healthy. While uncooked grains would be difficult for your dog to digest, as would be the case for you as well, cooked grains, which are what is in commercial dog food, are easily digestible for most dogs and very high in nutrients. They also state that, while grains are blamed for many allergies, actually most dogs, like most humans, aren’t actually allergic to grain. They also make the point that while you might not want to eat industrial animal byproducts, when cooked, these byproducts are perfectly safe for consumption and a good source of protein for your dog.

#5: Dangerous Bones

Many veterinarians are concerned that your dog can choke on splinters from bones (or whole bones), and that, in trying to chew bones, your dog may break her teeth.

Should I Switch My Dog to a BARF Diet?

A growing number of pet-parents are doing just this. You care about your dog and want what is best for him, for him to have a long, healthy life with your family. That’s why you care so much about what your dog eats. But, while you may have some misgivings about feeding your dog heavily processed kibble that comes off a factory assembly line, many within the veterinary community have some very serious concerns about BARF diets. Because of this, before making a decision this important, make sure to research both sides of the topic when it comes to BARF and then have a serious, informed conversation with your dog’s veterinarian. After all, your vet wants the same thing you do--a healthy, happy dog.