By Alistair Bland
East Bay Express
Raw food. It's a loaded phrase that conjures up images of lean, earthy New Agers, almond butter, farmers' markets, organic vegetables, healthful stomach enzymes, and lots of sprouts.
But raw foodies need not be vegetarians. They needn't even be people. Domestic dogs - and some cats - are the latest American demographic to embrace the virtues of the raw food movement, and are doing so with the sheer joy and enthusiasm of natural-born carnivores.
"It's a wonderful thing to watch," says Kimberly Long, a foster-dog parent in Oakland and the current guardian of five mutts and purebreds who devour their uncooked meat, bone, and internal organs in the backyard. "You can see how much they love the actual process of eating these foods. They get so content and dreamy-eyed as they crunch and munch through the bones. It's much better than anything on TV."
While her dogs do occasionally receive small portions of medicinal herbs and crushed garlic, Long is one of about a thousand Bay Area pet owners who advocate what they call the Frankenprey system, a feeding regimen in which their animals subsist on flesh, liver, stomach, heart, head, brain, bone, skin and hair - the ultimate well-rounded diet for dogs.
"This is the natural way," says Ginny Wilken, an Alameda resident and lifelong advocate of human and pet nutrition. "This system eventually approximates an entire prey animal, just what they'd be eating in the wild. There's nothing healthier."
Wilken, who has raised her champion American Staffordshire terrier on a Frankenprey diet for seven years, emphasizes that domestic dogs are, by nature, carnivores. While many dogs bear little resemblance to their wild canine cousins, this is a merely a skin-deep perception: Canis familiaris is almost genetically identical to the gray wolf, Canis lupus, the creature from which all domestic dogs originated.
"If left to breed on their own, dogs would revert to wolf form again in just five or six generations," Wilken claims. "Basically, they're still wolves. They're animals that have no need for vegetable components and no way to process them."
In fact, large quantities of vegetables and grains are downright unhealthy for dogs, according to many authors and raw-pet-food pundits, and many will attest that there is no food source more lacking in essential vitamins, minerals, and enzymes than kibble.
"Commercial dried dog food has only been around for about eighty years, and we can document that the health of domestic dogs has deteriorated in that time," says Wilken, who recommends the book Raw Meaty Bones by Tom Lonsdale as a first-rate source of reliable information on raw pet foods. Kibble, Wilken laments, is cooked, and thus lacking in digestive enzymes. Moreover, it consists largely of grain.
"Even the Merck Veterinary Manual states it: That dogs have no requirement for carbohydrates," she continues. "There is plenty of evidence that grains and vegetables are impossible for dogs to digest, and simply ferment in the gut and promote proliferation of yeasts."
On the other hand, a diet of raw animal parts purportedly produces nothing but benefits for dogs. Many converts to this raw-pet-food movement tell a similar story. Their dogs and cats, once afflicted with such maladies as bad breath, plaque, fleas, poor digestion, and general wretchedness from snout to tail, are now the picture of health and vigor. They smell better than ever and harbor no parasites, and have silkier fur, cleaner teeth, and higher spirits than they did back in their kibble days. And, by all accounts, the feces of raw-fed dogs are almost odorless. They are one-third or less the volume of kibble-based feces, which are laden with fiber, and the poop vanishes into the earth in mere days, the raw advocates say.
"It's flat-out miraculous, the results that I've seen," says Long, who put her dogs on a raw diet three years ago in response to her animals' skin irritations and digestive disorders, which no veterinarian or drug prescription had been able to cure. "Before, my dogs were couch potatoes, but within days of starting a raw diet they were leaping with joy."
Not all followers of the movement feed their animals in the natural, bloody, dining style of wild predators. Robin Keim, owner of three dogs and two cats, concedes that the Frankenprey feeding system requires considerable time and dedication - sometimes more than the average pet owner can afford. She and her partner, Marilyn Texter, who together own the Castro Valley pet supply shop Pawsitive Karma, fed their animals a range of raw cow, pig, and bird parts for two years before calling it quits in July and shifting to processed, packaged raw foods. These specialty products are produced by several manufacturers as small frozen nuggets and patties. They allegedly offer the same health benefits of raw animal pieces, Keim says, but come in convenient, ready-to-eat form, requiring no side trips to the meat shop, and sparing pet owners from having to clean up blood streaks from the floor.
Moreover, Keim says, the packaged raw foods are nutritionally balanced and leave nothing to chance. "With the prey system of feeding, you're basically building your pet from the co-op," she says. "It's hardcore. Your pet becomes your obsession, and it takes a lot of research to make sure your animal is getting everything it needs. Packaged food eliminates all the risk."
Stephen Barone, co-owner of Primal Pet Foods in San Francisco, distributes one of the leading raw products to more than 650 retailers across the country. "We purvey only natural meats devoid of harmful preservatives and hormones," he says. "We ensure that everything we use is human-grade. When you trust someone like us with your pet's food, you're guaranteed that the nutrition in the diet is balanced and that all the mineral ratios, like calcium to phosphorus, are correct."
Wilken, for her part, dismisses the packaged raw foods - which may cost $3 to $5 per pound - almost as adamantly as she shuns even the highest-grade kibbles. She charges that many prepared raw meals consist in part of fruits, vegetables, and other "health" items like kelp, soy, molasses, and brewer's yeast - foods she calls "stressors" and "potential allergens" for carnivorous mammals.
"The only expert we need to believe about feeding dogs is the dog himself," she says. "It takes incredible hubris to state that dogs need to eat complicated blends devised by nutritionists, based largely on human diets, and totally ignoring how canids eat in the very successful natural state. I really resent it when people choose to believe self-serving, profit-driven 'experts' who have a product to sell. Dogs need raw meat, the cheapest and worst of which is still far better than invented crap."
And so continues the debate. The cats will keep purring and the dog tails will keep wagging, and while the discussion grows hot, the food stays raw.