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Published July 12 2010

Give a dog a bone

Louisa B. Johnson has a bone to pick with pet owners. The Ulen, Minn., woman feeds a “raw meaty-bone diet” to her four dogs and three cats and thinks many other local pets would also benefit from uncooked fare.

“It can really improve the health of a dog with allergies,” she says. “And it also can stop ear infections.”

She is part of a small but loyal group of pet owners who believe dogs and cats thrive when they consume a diet closer to what their wild ancestors ate. Proponents say their animals have healthier coats, less obesity, fewer health problems and more energy after switching to raw grub.

Still, the prospect of feeding raw foods to domesticated animals raises the hackles of some veterinarians and pet owners, who say raw foods can expose today’s less vigorous dog breeds to food-borne pathogens and incomplete nutrition.

The food that cried wolf

Johnson adopted this type of feeding 11 years ago after successfully losing weight herself on a high-protein, low-carbohydrate regimen.

She says, “I thought, ‘Why am I feeding dogs, who are carnivorous canines, a diet that is essentially grain?’ ”

When she told her husband, Greg, that she would like to change how their dogs ate, he responded favorably. “He said, ‘Well, that’s what they eat in the wild, isn’t it?’ ” she says.

Johnson raises and shows Irish setters, so she turned to one of that breed’s listservs online for advice. She began chatting with a Texas breeder who knew about raw diets. The woman told her to give her dogs one type of protein and then to expand the variety if they tolerated the starter-food well.

Just days after replacing kibble with raw chicken backs and necks, Johnson says her canines began to thrive. The most striking improvement was seen in Tribble, a female Irish setter who had been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease and was supposed to take Prednisone the rest of her life. Prednisone is a steroid that can cause serious, life-shortening side effects, such as diabetes, muscle wasting and eye disease.

Within days of the switch, Johnson claims, Tribble’s stomach problems had vanished. “She never had another bout in her life,” she says. “It was absolutely amazing.”

Johnson says she has also raised several puppies and cats on the raw-meat diet and has always been impressed by the results. Pups raised on raw meat don’t go through sudden, awkward growth spurts like puppies on kibble diets do, she says. They don’t suffer from doggie breath. They have such good lines and shiny coats that one of her dogs, Oliver, won two back-to-back “best of breed” titles when he was just 6 months old.

She says her setters experience fewer bouts of “yeasty ears” – ear infections common to drop-eared breeds. And because her pets chew bones daily, their teeth are healthy, white and plaque-free.

Gastrointestinal problems are nil, she says. Stools tend to be small, dry and odor-free.

Overall, they live long, healthy lives and require fewer trips to the veterinarian, she says.

Better for allergies?

Still, not everyone is so willing to jump on the uncooked bandwagon. Dr. Kevin Dill, a veterinarian at Animal Health Clinic in Fargo, says the raw-foods issue is a polarizing one.

“The holistic group is trying to avoid any kind of artificial anything, and the idea of raw foods is really appealing,” Dill says. “You’ve got foods that are not altered, so all your vitamins and nutrients haven’t been changed by the cooking process, and (the animal) receives a better benefit because the enzymes are intact.”

On the other hand, Dill adds, we cook and process dog food for the same reason that we cook human food: to reduce risks of food-borne pathogens like E. coli or salmonella and to kill off parasites. The modern dog’s ancestors had to compete for every meal so that only the strongest genetics survived. Consequently, wolves and wild dogs were well equipped for eating and digesting raw carrion. But through years of human interference to create different dog breeds, we’ve created dogs that are more genetically fragile and less resilient, Dill says.

Dill also says we’re seeing more allergies today, partly because veterinary medicine has improved in diagnosing them. Raw-food enthusiasts often credit raw diets for curing allergies, although Dill says there isn’t a lot of hard science to support those claims. He believes it’s often the change in the actual protein source – say, a move from lamb kibble to raw chicken – that makes a bigger difference than whether the food is cooked or not.

The belief that grains irritate dogs is also overblown, Dill says. “Dogs are omnivores,” he says. “You will find that when the wolf eats a carcass, he eats the contents of the carcass, too, which contains grains and grasses.

If an owner suspects allergies, Dill says, they can have their vet conduct blood tests. And if results are positive, there are dozens of prepared formulations for everything from soy to lamb allergies.

At the same time, Dill says he and his colleagues have no problems with people supplementing a healthy animal’s prepared diet with lean meats and raw vegetables. Just be sure to cook the meat, he says.

And, in general, trust that prepared foods really are the most convenient and nutritionally complete option for the modern cat or dog.

“We have a history of millions and millions of dogs and cats being raised successfully on prepared foods since the ’50s,” Dill says.

Getting started

Even so, Johnson swears by the results of a raw-food diet. She says her dogs have never struggled with parasites or food sickness.

“The dogs seem to have a natural immunity to it,” she says.

If you are interested in finding out for yourself, she suggests reading the book “Give Your Dog a Bone” by Dr. Ian Billinghurst.

Although she doesn’t follow every one of Billinghurst’s suggestions, she’s used his book as a good primer.

General guidelines:

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525