|SHOULD MY DOG EAT A BARF DIET Written by: Jorie Green Mark, Managing Editor)|
These days, people are eating eggs and bacon as a way to lose weight,
and shunning white rice as if it’s food of the devil. And who could forget
the way we used to diet in the 80s—the Grapefruit Diet, the Beverly Hills
Diet, the eat-nothing-but-broth-and-then-binge-on-pie diet. (That wasn’t
what the diet was called, of course, but it was basically how it was
Well, it turns out that pets are no strangers to
diet fads, either. The latest push is to feed your
dog BARF—yes, you read that correctly—which stands
for the Bones And Raw Food diet.
Mmm, mmm, mmm…a big
plate of fresh raw meat, piled on top of some bones.
It may sound disgusting to us, but dogs gobble it
up. After all, it’s what they used to eat, before
dog food was invented.
|is raw meat good for them
"BARFers," as they call themselves, feed their
dogs a combination of raw meat, eggs, meaty bones,
some vegetables, and a small amount of regular
kibble. The point of BARF—unlike human diet
fads—isn’t to slim down Spot, but to keep him vital
and healthy. The eating program was created by Dr.
Ian Billinghurst, a veterinary surgeon from
Australia who observed that the canine patients in
his clinic that seemed the healthiest were those
that weren’t chowing down on Gravy Train or Iams,
but good old-fashioned raw meat and bones.
"Raw meaty bone-eating dogs lived much longer
than their commercially fed counterparts," Dr.
Billinghurst said. "Bone-eating dogs have the
wonderful benefits of clean teeth with no
periodontal disease, wonderfully improved digestion,
a reduction in obesity, fabulous eating exercise,
healthy stools, no anal sac problems, and the
wonderful psychological, emotional, and immune
system benefits that eating raw meaty bones has
conferred on dogs for millions of years."
But many boarded veterinary specialists warn
against the diet, arguing that Dr. Billinghurst’s
claims aren’t substantiated with adequate medical
research, and that the BARF diet actually has the
potential to be life-threateningly dangerous.
Julie Churchill is a specialist in companion
animal nutrition at the University of Minnesota’s
College of Veterinary Medicine who strongly
discourages the use of the BARF diet; "Barf indeed,"
"I am very much against the raw food diets," Dr.
Churchill said. "Many dogs can do well on a raw food
diet. However, [the diets] have the potential to be
life-threatening. Any food that can potentially kill
even one animal is not worth the risk."
Why might BARF be fatal to dogs? Let Dr.
Churchill count the ways: "Bones, even raw and
ground ones, can perforate the [gastrointestinal]
tract. This can lead to peritonitis, severe
infections, require emergency surgery, and dogs die
from this each year…These diets are contaminated
with bacteria. This may not be harmful to a healthy
dog. However, dogs don’t come with a label saying
which ones will be fine and which ones will get
Added Sarah Abood, DVM, assistant professor of
small animal clinical sciences at Michigan State
University’s veterinary school: "To the best of my
knowledge, I’ve never seen anything in the
veterinary literature suggesting a documented health
benefit of raw meat diets."
Dr. Billinghurst acknowledges that there isn’t
any scientific data backing up his claims: "To date
there have been no scientific trials conducted to
determine if the re-introduction of dogs to the diet
they all ate until about 60 years ago is having
benefits, although literally thousands of
testimonials to the beneficial effects of this diet
are to be found in my files."
These testimonials also flood the Internet. There
are BARF websites, a BARF web ring, BARF message
boards, recipe sites, and support groups. You can
become a member of more than 75 BARF and raw food
related newsgroups. Users talk about their dogs’
gleaming haircoats, strong muscled bodies, and hardy
dispositions…all because of BARF.
"Feeding a dog anything that it would never eat
in the wild is totally and utterly ridiculous," one
individual going by the handle "Wolf Chief" posted.
"Dogs are descended from wolves, and wolves don’t
need vet care to survive, so the only logical thing
to do is to give your dog a diet that replicates the
diet of a wolf."
Many of these web users have an enthusiasm for
BARF that can only be described as passionate. In
fact, one individual who complained that Dr.
Billinghurst’s book about BARF, Give Your Dog a
Bone, was too expensive was roundly criticized for
worrying about cost when "you owe your pets the
benefit of being as healthy as they can be.
|Why is there such enthusiasm for BARF?
"Results, results, results, Dr. Billinghurst said.
As for the mainstream veterinary community’s
claims about the dangers of BARF—Dr. Billinghurst
calls them "ostrich science."
"Head in the sand science is very poor science,"
he said. "Veterinary nutritionists have no
experience feeding BARF…Their problem is that they
neglect to be scientists when faced with something
outside their experience. Instead of making proper
investigations or simply being honest and admitting
their ignorance of BARF, they make a series of
assumptions and parade those assumptions as if they
were scientific fact. On that basis, they assume
that meat containing potentially pathogenic bacteria
will cause problems, and forget that the dog is
designed to eat bacteria-rich food, such as
feces…They assume with absolutely no evidence that
immune compromised animals will succumb to infection
when introduced to the BARF [program.]"
But widely regarded veterinary textbooks,
including Craig Greene’s Infectious Diseases of the
Dog and Cat, have long held that animals—immune
compromised or healthy—that eat raw meat are
susceptible to bacterial infections. E. coli and
Salmonella are among the more serious infections
that are transmitted through meat that isn’t
"Both the pets and the people in the home are at
risk of moderate to severe GI disease, especially if
there are breaks in hygienic standards, and this has
been well documented," Dr. Abood said. "Although
there are some who claim that dogs and cats can
handle these bacteria, I would be just as concerned
about the person preparing raw meals for the pet
each day. Despite one’s best intentions, shortcuts
or deviations in a hygiene protocol can occur, and
put family members at risk for infection."
Not only does Dr. Billinghurst claim that BARF is
superior to commercial feeds, he also argues that
commercial, processed diets—the kind you buy from
your veterinarian or at the supermarket or pet
store—are bad for dogs.
"The commercially fed dogs’ shorter lives were
filled with misery, as they suffered from the whole
range of degenerative diseases, often from a very
early age. The problems they suffered included
arthritis, periodontal disease, diabetes, skin
problems, the whole range of orthopedic problems in
young dogs, including hip and elbow dysplasia, and
many, many more, including the worst and most
frighteningly abundant of all—cancer!" he said. "My
experience as a veterinary surgeon in practice since
1976 tells me that almost every animal fed
commercial food will eventually become immune
compromised to some degree, and that when it is
switched to BARF, its immune status is enormously
This contention is met with particular skepticism
by veterinarians and professionals in the pet food
"I have seen nothing to support this claim in
peer-reviewed veterinary literature," Dr. Abood
said. "Domesticated dogs and cats are living longer
now than 20, 30, or 50 years ago, [although] this
could be due to many reasons." Although she said all
dogs will have different nutritional needs that
should be taken into consideration when selecting a
diet, "I also believe that the vast majority of
healthy dogs and cats can be successfully fed a
commercially prepared, complete and balanced
Bryan Brown, director of communications of The
Iams Company, concurred that premium, high-quality
feeds are the best way to keep dogs and cats
"We’ve been in the premium nutrition business for
54 years," he said. "Our nutritional philosophy and
scientific research gives us some authority to
confer that feeding dogs and cats high quality
ingredients—with poultry, lamb, and fish as protein
sources—[manufactured] in government-inspected
facilities is the best way to ensure healthy, happy
animals. Our track record is based on hard work and
With regards to BARF, Mr. Brown had a word of
caution for pet owners. "It’s fair for pet owners
who really care about their pets to ask [those] who
are promoting these diets whether they have the
research that gives them credibility. Do they have
government inspected facilities?"
Of course, your kitchen counter hardly qualifies
as a government-inspected facility. But don’t tell
that to "Jessica," a poster on an online BARF
discussion group whose dog, "Kristie," choked to
death on a chicken bone while enjoying her evening
"I want to make it clear that I by no means meant
that you shouldn't feed a BARF diet!" she wrote,
after a poster implied she was disloyal because she
attributed Kristie’s death to a raw bone. "I wanted
to warn people that choking could be a possibility.
I continue to feed all of my dogs a BARF diet,
although now I only allow them to eat ground meat or
smaller pieces of meat."
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