By Nancy Carlson • Columnist • 

Raw diet controversy simmers


Many years ago — it must be close to 20 now — I brought home a 12-week-old basset hound puppy, all floppy ears, huge feet and a face that could make anyone smile. This was Menehune, and she was to become my soulmate and a great source of the best things in life to me for many years.

I have owned dogs, off and on, all my life, but getting Menehune was, I have to admit, the first time I took dog ownership seriously. I promised the breeder — who was extremely reluctant to part with any of her puppies, let alone to the likes of me — that I would train her, socialize her, and keep her healthy and happy. And I meant it. I was determined to become the best puppy owner on earth.

So I innocently stepped into the world of dog-owning enthusiasts (some might substitute “fanatics”), willing and ready to shower Mene with the best of training and nutrition.

Right about the same time, dog folks were talking a lot about the BARF diet. This was not something concocted by a bunch of fifth-grade boys. It was the brainchild of Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst, and it stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. Billinghurst subsequently wrote a very successful book called “Give Your Dog a Bone,” and the raw food political party of dogdom was launched.

The BARF diet is based on the somewhat intuitive argument that dogs are descended from wolves, and a wolf would not fare well on a couple of cans of Alpo or a bowl of Purina kibble a day. Wolves eat raw food. And wolves are omnivores, so they consume a mixture of both plant and animal products. Your dog will thus be best served if you concoct for him a diet that mimics that of the wolf.

Billinghurst provided much anecdotal evidence that dogs fed raw food diets thrive, and dogs eating processed kibble or canned dog food didn’t. Raw meat and bones, with some grains and vegetables, were the dog diet of both the past and the future. He stressed that he meant raw bones — cooked bones, as we all know, could splinter and are actually dangerous to feed a dog.

Well, I wasn’t about to be left behind in the dog food revolution. Menehune (who, incidentally, would eat just about anything) jumped into the BARF diet with all four paws. I shopped almost daily for chicken wings and turkey necks. I boiled barley and put kilos of kale through my food processor. An aside here: Billinghurst felt that you needed to prepare your dog’s non-animal nutrition as though it were the contents of a deer’s stomach — in other words, partially digested. So you couldn’t simply serve Fluffy a salad. I spent a fortune and used up about all my free time but, by golly, Menehune was thriving.

All went well for about a month, when I took her to the vet’s for a puppy check-up. My vet proceeded to tell me in no uncertain terms that I was crazy: A basset hound is not a wolf, and the certain dangers of a raw food diet far outweighed the possible benefits.

She insisted that, as long as I didn’t overfeed her, a couple of cups of quality kibble a day would sustain Menehune through a long and healthy life, which turned out to be true in her case. She lived 14 years without a day of illness, and finally succumbed peacefully to pneumonia that her dear old body was too tired to fight.

As I said, my dalliance with the BARF diet was nearly 20 years ago. You would think that in two decades — especially as dog ownership has become something of a national pastime — this debate over raw vs. processed dog food would have been settled. But you would be wrong.

When I opened the Winter 2013 issue of Dog Fancy’s Natural Dog, the first article I saw was “Raw Diet Controversy Heats Up” by Diana Laverdure.

It states that two of the most reputable groups of canine health care providers — the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association — oppose feeding dogs and cats protein that has not been through a process like cooking, pasteurization or irradiation that would eliminate harmful pathogens; in other words, nothing raw. It goes on to say that pathogens such as salmonella, which may be present in raw foods, have the potential to make both the dog and dog owner sick, as they pass through a dog’s system and thus expose humans to possible infection. In fact, Delta Society, which certifies therapy and service dogs, has strictly mandated that dogs it certifies will not be fed raw food by their owners.

People who think the raw food diet is the cat’s meow, so to speak, say with some justification that large dog food companies have the financial resources to fund long-term research that shows they are making a product that will keep your dog healthy. People who are chopping up spinach in their kitchen or out shopping for the best bargain on chicken parts don’t have those kinds of resources. So almost all the data on the efficacy of raw food diets is anecdotal, usually with the theme “my dog was a mess until I switched him to raw food, and now he’s miraculously healthy.”

This may change, as there are now companies marketing raw food that have the means to finance research. One such company, Primal, hopes to publish its findings this year. Of course, those studies will show only whether the raw food you can now buy at most pet stores (even Fred Meyer’s carries a line of raw food for dogs) is healthy. They won’t help those who are doing their own slicing and dicing at home.

One positive outcome of this seemingly endless debate about raw food is that many of us have taken our dogs’ nutrition much more seriously. I used to feed my pooches whatever was on sale. Now I am much more thoughtful and feed only high quality and, yes, expensive kibble recommended by an objective source like Whole Dog Journal.

Snuffleupagus, heir to Menehune’s place of bassetness in our home and hearts, is healthy, happy and obviously thriving on these products. Of course, he augments the diet I intend for him to eat with materials like library books and remote controls. I don’t know when the research on the nutrition of those kinds of objects will be published.

Nancy Carlson can be reached at

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