Giving your dog a diet that fits his evolutionary roots.
Man’s best friend deserves the best kind of nutrition, and many dog enthusiasts are skeptical about dog food providing it. A growing number of dog owners and breeders have touted the benefits of a raw meat diet for their animals. Coined the BARF model by Dr. Ian Billinghurst (a veterinarian surgeon and author of Give Your Dog a Bone), the diet consists of raw meats, bones (whether whole or ground), and vegetable scraps. The main argument is evolutionary nutrition; Billinghurst reasons that dogs are direct descendents from wolves, and while man has managed to shape a dog’s mind through training and obedience and alter their physical appearance through breeding and grooming, the internal structure and functions have remained the same. Because of the dog’s physiological similarities to the wolf, their exercise and diet regimes need to be relatively the same for optimum performance.
BARF serves as a double acronym; one for Bones and Raw Food and one for Biologically Appropriate Foods. Dr. Billinghurst notes that in their natural wild habitat, wolves do not eat any grains, yet they are a feature ingredient in many commercial grade dog foods. He attributes a rise in disease and allergies as a byproduct of processed dog food, filled with substances that are either foreign to a dog’s palate or of substandard quality.
Furthermore, leaving the food raw is important for nutritional content and safety. Raw foods mean none of the vitamins and minerals have been cooked away or broken down by heat. Uncooked bones have a much lesser chance of splintering than cooked bones, which can lead to choking, injuries, and damage to the digestive tract. The most unsettling was Billinghurst’s claim that euthanized pets are part of kibble’s ingredient list. The idea of pet food manufacturers rounding up animals that have been put down and grinding them up into pellets of food is a gruesome and persuasive image.
The weak points of the BARF model
Critics of the BARF model are quick to point out that an animal evolving from a certain type of species or being classified in a certain evolutionary bracket does not guarantee a hard and fast set of rules governing biological and nutritional needs. Dogs are carnivores, but not obligate carnivores, and they adapt well to an omnivorous diet. Furthermore, dogs are so far evolutionary removed from wolves in both time and genotype that it can hardly be considered a factor in selecting a diet. Dogs are selectively bred to produce an animal that is compatible with a human lifestyle, not a wolf’s. Many vets find that an all-meat diet puts undue strain on a dog’s kidneys and liver, and is in added danger of becoming overweight. And physiological features don’t always guarantee normal function. The human digestive system is the same across the board, yet people have varying allergies and intolerances that make them unable to consume or process common everyday foods and ingredients like gluten, nuts, and lactose.
The topic of nutrition remains the most open-ended in the raw food debate for dogs. Dog nutrition and diet is a relatively new science that is compiling more information all the time, with several areas lacking in both facts and research. However, claims that commercial grade dog kibbles are toxic and cause health problems and disease in dogs are largely unsupported offerings made by BARF proponents. And just because a dog theoretically wouldn’t eat grains in the wild doesn’t mean they are wholly incapable of digesting them.
In fact, grains can provide dogs several key carbohydrates and nutrients that maintain energy levels. And most comforting, the FDA has investigated into the use of euthanized animals for kibble and found it to be false. The practice is illegal and visits to dog food manufacturing centers and suppliers have shown no evidence of it. However, commercial pet food companies are one of the largest sponsors of veterinary pet nutrition education and research, and their for-profit status naturally raises suspicion about the self-interested nature of their supposed objective scientific findings. And critics who warn that raw meat diets expose pets to harmful bacteria like salmonella and e. Coli need only be reminded the numerous mass recalls of tainted and contaminated pet food to find a similar if not greater danger level in commercial kibble. Until more research is conducted, optimum nutrition for dogs will continue to be a discussion and not a set of guidelines.
McKenzie, Brennen. “Raw Meat and Bone Diets for Dogs: It’s Enough to Make You BARF.” Science Based Medicine. 10 June 2010.
Billinghurst, Ian. Give Your Dog a Bone. New York: Crosskeys Publish Company, 1993. Print.