Common Health Problems affecting Dogs and Cats

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Holistic Nutrition - The BARF Raw Food Diet

A critique by John Burns BVMS MRCVSGuiness

The BARF (“Bones and Raw Food” or “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food”) diet is a system of holistic nutrition which is championed by Dr Ian Billinghurst who is an Australian vet. Dr. Billinghurst has published several books on health and nutrition. The best known of these is called “Give Your Dog a Bone”. The BARF Evolutionary philosophy is at first glance an attractive one; it seems to be truly natural because it tries to emulate the lifestyle of the dog in the wild.

But, after due consideration I am of the opinion that the BARF theory, like the emperor’s new clothes, does not stand up to critical inspection.

The BARF or “Evolutionary” Diet is based on the principle that domestic dogs should be fed on a diet which replicates as closely as possible the diet of the wild dog. According to Dr Billinghurst domestic dogs have been fed on processed (cooked) foods for only approximately 70 years and this is not a long enough time to adapt to cooked foods.

To replicate the diet of the wild dog he recommends that all carbohydrate should be avoided and pet dogs and cats should be fed on a diet based on raw meaty bones and raw vegetables . Dr Billinghurst insists that because of this evolutionary history the BARF DIET is the ONLY correct way to feed the modern domestic pet dog.

The problem with the evolutionary argument is that domestic dogs bear little relationship to the original wild dog. Very early in their association it is likely that man selected and bred those animals which suited his purpose e.g. guarding, hunting, more docile, less independent – even better suited to the food provided by man.

There are practical reasons why the diet of the wild dog is not automatically suitable for the domestic dog. The modern dog and its lifestyle bear no similarity whatever to the wild dog. We provide shelter in heated houses, they do not have to forage or compete for food, they eat every day, and they have little exercise compared to a wild dog.

Many dogs have dietary sensitivity which means that they need a highly digestible diet, low in protein and low in fat. I can’t see how that could be achieved with a BARF diet.

Modern farm livestock is reared in such a way that the fat content, even in “lean” meat is very high. So a diet high in meat will inevitably be high in fat too.

The Carbohydrate Question

According to Dr Billinghurst dogs cannot digest carbohydrate. In reality, the dog has very sophisticated, sensitive and efficient mechanisms for breaking down carbohydrate and ensuring its absorption. This could not have evolved if carbohydrate was detrimental.

But, according to BARF, carbohydrate causes so many health problems e.g. inflammatory disease such as pancreatitis. While it is true that low-quality or refined carbohydrate may be undesirable, what vet has not recommended chicken and rice to treat gastro-intestinal disease?

There are other major flaws with the BARF philosophy. One which flies in the face of the facts is the assertion that raw food is more digestible and that cooking destroys that digestibility. Simple common sense and experience tell us that cooking actually increases digestibility. Increasing the digestibility of the food is an important way of treating bowel disease and problems of malabsorption. Cooking does this.

I suspect that any success claimed for the Raw Food system is due to a much more mundane explanation than its grandiose but erroneous philosophy. This is that any benefits are due to the avoidance of ingredients which cause dietary intolerance.
My main criticism of the BARF philosophy is its self-righteousness.

BARFism puts forward a flawed theory with a certainty which bears comparison to religious fundamentalism; it brooks no dissent. It advocates a system which is impractical and does not fit well into the lifestyle of present society, denying the possibility of alternatives, thereby condemning those pet owners, the majority, to feelings of inadequacy for failure to follow its teachings.


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