Are Unconventional and Raw Pet Diets Becoming More Popular?

One of the most popular subjects for discussion and debate in pet health for many years now has been the relative merits of commercial pet foods and unconventional diets of various types, including homemade cooked and raw diets, commercial raw diets, vegetarian diets, etc. Some pet owners and veterinarians have concerns about the safety and health effects of commercial diets, though only some of these concerns have any real evidence to support them, and most of the negative claims about commercial pet food are unsupported or simply inaccurate. 

Most veterinarians are more concerned about the safety and nutritional adequacy of unconventional diets. Homemade cooked diets have been repeatedly shown to be unbalanced and nutritionally incomplete if not formulated by veterinary nutrition specialists. Diets incorporating raw meat, both commercial and homemade, present a serious risk of food-borne infectious disease to pets and humans (123456). Vegetarian diets may be adequate for dogs if carefully formulated, but they are likely unsafe for cats, and there are no demonstrated benefits for either species. 

Subjectively, there seems to have been an increase in pet owners’ interest in and use of unconventional diets n the two decades I have been in practice. While most do still feed at least some commercial cooked foods, many are experimenting with homemade or raw diets despite the risks and lack of evidence for any benefits. A new study has tried to assess how popular such diets really are and how this has changed over time.

Dodd, S., Cave, N., Abood, S., Shoveller, A., Adolphe, J., Verbrugghe, A.

(2020) An observational study of pet feeding practices and how these have changed between 2008 and 2018 Veterinary Record Published Online First: 18 June 2020. doi:10.1136/vr.105828

The authors began by reviewing the literature for previous studies that investigated pet owners’ feeding practices. They then conducted an online survey asking pet owners about their use of conventional, homemade, and raw diets. The results suggest that while most people still use conventional and cooked diets, the inclusion of raw and unconventional diets is increasing. There also appear to be some regional differences in feeding practices. The table below summarizes the comparison of the current study with past reports.

Overall, the results suggest that most pet owners feed some conventional commercial food to their pets. However, it also appears that a higher percentage of owners include homemade cooked or raw foods as some or all of the diet for their animals. Well over half of the respondents indicated they feed at least some raw animal products, and in some locations (e.g. Australia) this appears to be even more common.

There are, of course, significant limitations to this study. The data was collected by an online survey shared on social media. This obviously represents a subset of the pet owning population, and it is particularly easy for passionate advocates of one extreme or uncommon type of diet or another to promote the survey and create the false impression that their views are more widespread or popular than they really are. Advocates of unconventional diets or medical approaches always seek to gain legitimacy by exaggerating the popularity of their views (despite the fact that popularity isn’t a measure of truth or scientific merit anyway).

However, it is worth considering that this study might reflect at least some real growth in the popularity of unconventional diets, including raw foods. This possibility has to be taken seriously given that such diets, and the unscientific reasoning or distrust of mainstream scientific evidence and opinion that often lies behind them, represent a real threat to animal health. In the absence of any reliable evidence for health benefits from such diets, the risks are clearly not worth taking, and any evidence that this message is not being heard or understood by pet owners should motivate veterinarians and proponents of science-based nutrition to work harder at educating the public about the risks and benefits of various feeding options.

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