Did you know that there are pet food options outside of wet canned foods, kibble or baked foods?
Food that doesn’t fall into those three categories is considered an alternative food, which consists of dehydrated, freeze dried or raw pet food. Dehydrated is the most similar to kibble and classic canned food and the most different from the traditional pet food is raw. Pet parents have vocalized some of the challenges of feeding raw food, even though they agree it is incredibly healthy for your pet. The goal of these alternative foods is to have as many advantages of a raw food without some of the difficulties.
Why feed an alternative food? is it truly better?
There is no scientific data to support the advantages from feeding alternative foods, but talk with pet parents who do feed these foods and you will hear many examples where the health of a pet has improved when fed an alternative food. This is clearly a case where people are expecting a science based answer to what is basically a holistic question. If you believe the internet, these foods can solve just about every problem your pet has. I sum up the advantages of alternative foods in one word: different. I often get asked which food is better, but when I look at a food I look for what is different. Individual pets will have different needs, and it only makes sense that different foods will suit some pets better than others. How different from dry or canned food does a food have to be for your pet to benefit is only something you can know be feeding different alternative foods. These foods can’t solve every problem but they can help. The only way to know if they can benefit your pet is to try them.
Let’s start with the most different (and often most intimidating) of these foods, raw. Raw food is the least processed of any pet food. A raw meat can have both good and bad bacteria in or on it. Some people think freezing will eliminate these bacteria. This is not true. Freezing does eliminate some of the parasites in meat, but it does not eliminate harmful bacteria like Salmonella or E. Coli.
Most raw meat undergoes a process to eliminate harmful bacteria, the most common is called High Pressure Processing (HPP). In this process the meat is put under high pressure in order to eliminate all bacteria, molds and yeast, good and bad. There are some people who claim the food is not truly raw after this process because both the bad and the good bacteria are eliminated. Some people feel the benefits of the good bacteria outweigh the potential harm of the bad bacteria. There are probably some pets which benefit by consuming raw meat that has both good and bad bacteria. I feel most pets will not benefit, and the risk of the bad bacteria being harmful to the pet, and especially to their human caregiver, is too great. I may be proven wrong over time but I feel the risk of detrimental health is far greater than the potential health benefits gained by not eliminating bad bacteria.
What are the advantages of raw foods?
There are many different opinions on the advantages of raw. The most obvious are; correcting digestive problems, helps avoid food allergies and sensitivities, firmer stools, better dental health, improved immunity, and to some degree better weight control. There are other less likely benefits also given to raw foods; smaller stools, healthier skin, increased digestibility. My personal experience with raw food is from working with dog mushers to feed racing dogs. Almost all mushers feed some portion of food as raw. The biggest reason they feed raw is to help prevent stress diarrhea. Racing dogs are very prone to getting diarrhea after running. Feeding some raw meat helps prevent this problem. To me, the single biggest advantage of raw food is its ability to correct digestive problems; whether it is chronic diarrhea, IBD, or colitis. I have never seen any studies which can answer why raw meat has an effect on digestion. The raw food effect on digestion is not due to better digestibility or having different nutrients in the diet. I believe the effect on digestion is probably related to the effect on the microflora that live in the digestive system. If this is true, it would also explain why feeding raw food has an effect on the immune system and therefore food allergies. Read, Healthy Gut, Healthy Life Companion Issue #20 page 10. One of the principals of holistic nutrition is to consume food as close to its natural state as possible, a raw food would certainly be adhering to this principal.
Why Not Feed Raw?
Raw foods do come with some disadvantages. Preparing and feeding raw foods takes more work and care. Unless you prepare the food yourself, the raw food will be in frozen blocks requiring you to thaw the food ahead of time. If you are travelling it is difficult to keep the food frozen. Even though most raw foods are free of harmful bacteria, once thawed they are an excellent media to grow bacteria and therefore raw food and the dishes used to prepare and serve it should be treated carefully. Care should be used when handling raw food so you don’t contaminate yourself, or your household. This basically means washing your hands and the dishes after every meal.
Freeze Dried Foods are currently the closest option to raw foods, but without some of the challenges. The advantages of freeze drying is their convenience over raw foods. When rehydrated, freeze dried foods retain the same great palatability as raw foods. Preparation time is minimal, the food has a long shelf life, and it is easy to use when travelling. The freeze drying process does not use heat and therefore the structure of the protein, and other organic molecules, is not altered. The disadvantage of not using heat, is like raw foods, freeze dried foods also need to undergo a process in order to eliminate potential bacteria. The most common process used is HHP. There are some freeze dried foods that use pasteurization to eliminate pathogens (bacteria). Pasteurization uses a fast rise in temperature to between 60 to 85 C in order to eliminate pathogens. The protein molecule of a freeze dried food that has been pasteurized is slightly different and this type of freeze dried foods will not rehydrate as fast as a freeze dried that has not been heat treated. The assumption would be that some of the advantages of a freeze dried food will be lost if the food has been pasteurized.
Dehydrated Foods – Most Similar to Kibble or Canned Food
Dehydrated Foods use heat to dry the food so it is shelf stable. The advantage of dehydrated foods is a lower cost. It costs less to dry a food using heat, the heat sterilizes the food, the foods are stable so they don’t have to be frozen, and preparation time is minimal. Most dehydrated foods will stress that they use a low temperature to dry the food ingredients. There has to be enough heat to eliminate pathogens, but a minimum alteration to the food to retain as much of the raw food advantages as possible. Dehydrated foods that do not use a low drying temperature will be very similar to kibble or baked dry foods.
There are benefits and risks with all the above choices; it is up to you to decide if an alternative food has a benefit for your pet. You are making a choice for your dog or cat, and what might be right for them is not always going to be right for someone else. When it comes to alternative feeding, one size does not fit all. Best to do your research, and work with the individual needs, likes and lifestyle of you and your pet.