This veterinary webinar was recorded on July 25th 2022 and I nearly missed it. I am very pleased that I didn’t because it is very informative and full of evidence based knowledge of great value in the clinic when discussing diets with clients. You might think that a webinar on diet could be a bit dry (sorry). Nothing could be further from the truth. The webinar is entertaining and delivered by a world expert and your attention will be kept throughout.

Marge has followed an exciting path to specialist status via study initially at California State University, then Colorado State University, where she qualified as a veterinarian, followed by a residency there and also at Massey University in New Zealand. She has American diplomat status in both veterinary nutrition and veterinary internal medicine. Before this she had several years in mixed practice, and many years in academia at the Dick Vet in Edinburgh. She is currently an independent consultant in small animal nutrition and internal medicine.

Marge begins by pondering on the reasons why owners choose a raw food diet. Nutrition is an emotional topic for many owners, and choices may be based on feelings or opinions rather than science. Owners get information about raw diets from a variety of sources. The Internet, of course, and we all know the problems that this can cause. Why would owners believe a website on pet food written by a man with a political science degree? (I couldn’t resist adding my own comment here -why believe anybody on any subject with that degree?) But we all do.

Another source is books and I liked the quote by an author promoting his book about raw feeding when he says: –

‘What are my qualifications for writing on the topic? First-I am not a nutritionist or a veterinary professional-but I am a fanatic when it comes to my dog’s health.’

Marge responded by saying ‘this is like me saying I love my car-therefore I am a mechanic’ Good one!

Some thoughts follow next on why fake nutrition is easy to believe and points out that evidence-based medicine and nutrition are founded on objective scientific studies, not opinion. A colourful pyramid demonstrates the ‘Evidence pyramid’ -systematic reviews at the top passing down through randomised controlled trials, cohort studies and so on, with editorials and expert opinion on the base, and least reliable of all under the pyramid  ‘anecdote’. I also liked the quote ‘the pleural of anecdote is not data’

We need to know whether pet nutrition information is evidence based or anecdotal, where the information came from, and what it is based on. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, either in humans or animals, whereas Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist and PhD are protected terms.

A slide outlines the content of a raw meat based diet, and notes that although some commercial diets are complete and balanced for adult pets or ‘all life stages’. However these commercial raw diets have not been subjected to proper feeding trials.

There are also raw food treats such as rawhide chews, pig ears, cattle hooves, bull or steer penis (bully or pizzle sticks)-No this is not a joke. These all carry a substantial risk of Salmonella and other pathogens and something called Jerky treats carry a risk of Fanconi syndrome.

84% of owners pay as much attention to their pet’s food ingredients as those in the family’s food. They vary, though in their responsiveness to veterinary advice. Some actively want it, others also but don’t ask and another group who think what they are doing is ideal, and are presumably immune to advice.  Buzzwords are ‘natural, organic and sustainable’.

Raw feeders have a low trust in vets, (only 9% attend veterinary nutritional consultations), and are more likely to say their pet is healthy, less likely to say the pet is overweight but intriguingly more likely to say the pet has a food sensitivity. They also share some myths such as ‘dogs and cats have a more acidic stomach protecting them from pathogenic bacteria.’ There is no evidence supporting this belief.  Also a wish to avoid feeding carbohydrates, grains or gluten, and a belief that raw foods are more ‘natural’

Further myths about carbohydrate and grain free diets are dismantled with facts, including the potential of these diets to cause pancreatitis, some gastrointestinal disease and contribute to obesity. It is commonly stated by raw food advocates that dogs evolved from wolves with a natural diet of carcass and bone. The facts are that dogs share a common ancestor, but have been domesticated for more than 15,000 years, during which time they have been eating food similar to humans. They are fully capable of digesting carbohydrates.

Other health claims such as an improved immune system, better digestibility, dental health, an improved coat and the effect on the gastrointestinal microbiome are all subjected to the same scientific analysis. This section continues by asking the question ‘are bones good for teeth?’ I would have said yes before this webinar. There is in fact no evidence for less plaque, (the cause of periodontitis and tooth loss), although the teeth may appear cleaner due to less tartar. The gums are not actually healthier. Bones carry risk, however, and these will be well known to small animal primary care vets. Included are fractured teeth, oesophageal foreign bodies, gastrointestinal foreign bodies and perforation. On the subject of prophylactic dentistry a radiograph is shown of a raw fed dog with secondary hyperparathyroidism with a high risk of jaw fracture.

The nutrient requirements for a complete diet have been investigated with recommendations by FEDIAF. The letters represent the European Pet food Industry federation (look this up if you want to improve your French). Most homemade raw diet recipes are not complete and balanced, with the common deficiencies outlined, and the consequences to the animal, including one I was unaware of –canine hyperthyroidism from feeding thyroid tissue.

If the webinar to this point hasn’t placed doubts in your minds about raw feeding there us a comprehensive discussion on the risk of pathogens from raw foods, which I am sure will be of particular interest.  There are statistics about contamination with Salmonella, E. coli, Yersinia enterocolitis, Listeria and Campylobacter. Each of these are summarised with additional reference to relevant articles. Equally serious is the report of MRSA contamination of pork, and that tuberculosis from commercial freeze-dried raw cat food has killed many UK cats. Freezing does not kill most bacteria including M. bovis. We are reminded that parasites such as Sarcocystis, Neospora, Taenia, Echinococcus, and Toxoplasmosis may also be carried in raw meats. Decontaminating food bowls is difficult to do unless stringently applied (advice is given) and health risk to owners and the public is summarised. These are clearly substantial including the risk of antimicrobial resistant multi-drug resistant bacteria in faeces of raw fed dogs, referencing a recent article in JSAP (2022). There are also health risks in the clinic when raw fed animals are hospitalised.

Marge discusses what she calls a ‘possibly touchy’ subject-you bet! There is a section here on why people have these beliefs, how they come about and hints on how to talk to owners about pet food, including a foray into human psychology. I was amused by her assessment of Occam’s Razor, which you will remember, states:  ‘the simplest explanation is most likely the right one’. This is described as ‘ a vestigial remnant of medieval “science” (1287-1347) for support of divine miracles and that nutritional science is complicated. This would make a good subject for a philosophical discussion/exam question.

 Marge’s excellent educational webinar is full of interesting facts and statistics.  The content leads to far more sensitive conclusions than I would have been capable of prior to watching the webinar. It concludes with sensible advice of how to proceed with consultations in the clinic.

I often mention when reviewing webinars for WebinarVet on the incredible amount of work that goes into hour-long webinars. This one is no exception-highly recommended and congratulations all round.