This is part three on a series on Pet Food Safety and Awareness. For my previous posts, please check out Part 1: EU Certification and Part 2: How To Read Ingredient Labels and Guaranteed Analyses.
With all the outrage revolving the American Veterinary Medical Association’s new Anti-Raw Policy, I think it is a wise time to stress how safe raw diets can actually be.
Carnivore stomachs have a much higher acidity level than we do, and pathogens such as salmonella and e.coli rarely are able to survive in that condition. As an added protection against food-borne illnesses, carnivore digestive tracts are relatively short and food spends more time in the stomach before being quickly moved through the intestinal tract. This gives bacteria much less of a chance to take hold and colonize the gut, which is how one would get sick. However, even though your pet may not come down with salmonella or e.coli because of his physiology, he can still excrete these pathogens which could, potentially, sicken humans in the household. Be sure to always clean up litter boxes and outdoor potty spots, and wash hands well after doing so. Emptying out and scrubbing litter boxes often is also highly recommended.
Washing hands, bowls and preparation surfaces well after feeding your pet a raw meal is also of the utmost importance to reduce the risk of passing on a food-borne illness to oneself or a family member.
To understand how safe raw diets can be, it is important to understand the three main styles of raw-feeding.
1.) Commercial Raw Diets: Commercial raw diets are any raw pet foods manufactured and sold through pet retailers. Many people choose to use commercial foods because of their convenience (many are packaged in easy-to-portion nuggets, medallions, and patties.) There are a good number of AAFCO Complete and Balanced raw foods out there, and this can help ease any worries about providing the proper nutrients through a raw diet. Most are Complete and Balanced for both canines and felines, but some are species-specific. There are also many commercial raw foods that are considered supplemental or for use in a rotation. These are the foods that don’t include supplementation of any kind and are not considered Complete and Balanced, but can still be used judiciously in a rotation to balance a diet. Another attractive feature of many commercial raw brands is the availability of “novel” or “exotic” protein sources – everything from bison, venison, elk, and sardine to quail, pheasant, rabbit, and ostrich. Many commercial raw brands utilize a process called High-Pressure Pasteurization, which is used as a safety measure to assure that any pathogens have been eliminated from the final product. High-Pressure Pasteurization is, however, receiving some criticism for compromising the integrity of the raw foods. If you are concerned about the enzymes, probiotics, and delicate nutrients being at all degraded by the HPP process, consider using them only in rotation with homemade raw meals or brands that don’t utilize HPP. For the majority of consumers and pets, though, HPP appears to be a safe method of protecting families from things like salmonella, e. coli, and other pathogens. HPP is a large reason why many pet parents choose to feed commercial raw foods, for the safety and peace of mind that it gives, both to pet parents and to their veterinarians.
Commercial raw foods come in three major preparations: frozen raw, which is purchased from freezer and must be kept frozen and then thawed when ready to feed; dehydrated raw which is dehydrated at low temperatures to retain nutrient integrity and also be shelf stable; and freeze-dried raw, which, like dehydrated, is shelf-stable, but is not undergone any heat processing at all. Freeze-drying involves utilizing sublimation which, when frozen in an anti-frost environment, moisture is removed from the product. Freeze-dried and dehydrated foods are intended to be fed in a rehydrated state. For questions on any specific brand of frozen, freeze-dried, or dehydrated raw foods, please contact me.
2.) Prey-Model Raw Diets (Frankenprey): Prey model or frankenprey style raw diets are any homemade raw diet made up of the correct balance of muscle meats, bones, and organs, in order to mimic the ratios found in a whole prey item. The idea here is balance over time, not balance in every meal, so this can get confusing for some at first. Prey model, when done properly, is a cost-effective and healthful choice. It does, however, require a fair amount of research in order to do properly. Prey-model raw diets tend to get the most criticism from veterinarians and those against raw-diets because of the misunderstanding on how to properly balance a raw diet. Because the diet is fully responsible for providing all the necessary nutrients a pet might need, it truly has a lot of room for error. For ferrets, a basic guideline for a frankenprey or prey-model style diet is to offer 80% edible bone-in meats, 10% organs (5% being liver) and 10% boneless muscle meats. Break this down over the period of a week, two meals a day, and that basically means one to two meals organ, one to two meals boneless meats, and the rest of the meals meats that have bones. Providing at least three animal sources per week is also important in order to meat all the nutrient and amino acid profiles offered in different items. Because prey-model offers a lot of bone-in meals, this style provides a natural dental support in the action of chewing and crunching meats and bones. Ferrets fed prey-model diets tend to have extremely clean and sparkly teeth, and rarely require dental cleaning from the veterinarian! For more information on prey-model diets, please contact me, and I can answer any questions.
3.) Whole Prey Diets: Whole prey diets are probably the least common diet as they can be off-putting for many people, and also because they tend to be the most expensive. Whole prey items, generally mice, chicks, rabbits, quail chicks, rats, etc., are generally fed in a rotation to balance the nutrition each item provides. The ferret should be eating the entire prey item in order to receive the right nutrients, and whole prey diets can be difficult to transition to because of this. Many ferrets won’t recognize mice as food, and it can take quite a bit of convincing and slow preparation, such as grinding, mixing with other foods, and removing the fur. My ferrets enjoy mice and chicks as a meal every so often, but I don’t base the majority of their diets around these items as they are more expensive and more difficult to locate. I tend to buy prey items from reptile suppliers. I always feed frozen prey, never live, as that is both cruel, messy, and unnecessary. Reptile suppliers dispatch their prey items humanely (using CO2) and my ferrets especially love eating them still frozen! Mouscicle! If you are interested in offering frozen prey to your ferrets, please contact me for more information!
Each style of raw feeding has its advantages and disadvantages, especially when it comes to food safety. Commercial raw foods that are processed with HPP are the safest in terms of food-borne illnesses, but many believe they are also sub-par nutrient wise, which is why many brands add synthetic supplements into the foods. Whole prey diets are also relatively safe, as many domestic-raised feeder animals are free from disease before being dispatched and frozen. However, prey is the most expensive and can be messy and unsettling to watch. I suggest reading more on each style, and if curious about pursuing a raw diet, contacting myself or any of the fine folks over at the Holistic Ferret Forum for guidance and more information on food safety. I also suggest utilizing a wide variety of foods, both in raw diets and if feeding conventional kibbles. My ferrets enjoy a wide variety of commercial raw foods, frankenprey meals, and whole prey meals. This is important to me because it means I am offering as much variety as I can, and their nutritional bases are being covered.
Just as kibble can be a carrier or salmonella, e.coli, or any number of aflatoxin or contaminant, so too can raw foods. The important thing to understand is that, just as we wash up our surfaces and hands well after preparing our own meals, we should always treat our pet’s food in the same manner. No food item is sterile, and if it were, it would not be nutritious. There is always inherent risk in any eating practice – both for ourselves and for our pet. Be mindful of your actions, wash your hands, and happy eating!