Max was a sick kitty with all kinds of problems: arthritis, bladder issues, recurring ear infections and chronic skin troubles. "Just about everything was a mess on him," said Andrea Tasi, a feline-only homeopathic veterinarian in Northern Virginia who was treating the 11-year-old ginger domestic shorthair. "Nothing would get better."
When Max's owner decided to put him on a raw food diet, Tasi was surprised by the results. Until that time, she had viewed these types of diets — which are a blend of raw organ and muscle meats, bones, vegetables and supplements — as "wacko nonsense."
Within months of the switch, Max's "ears got better, his bladder trouble got better, his skin got better," Tasi said. "You couldn't make all of his arthritis go away — he was an old cat, so it wasn't sort of a magic fix for everything — but this cat looked better than he ever did when he was in my care."
Animal welfare organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), warn that raw pet food is a health risk for animals and the people around them. Yet the diet is growing in popularity.
"Sales are going up and up and up," says Mimi Stein, retail division director for Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., which manufactures the Furry Foodie raw pet food brand. "It's almost doubling what it did last year."
Just as many people are turning to locally grown, organic, whole foods for themselves, they are also seeking out better foods for their dogs and cats. For some, that translates into a raw pet food diet.
According to Max's owner, that diet is what healed him. "It all made sense to me, because I was kind of playing around with human diets, too," says Tammy Droddy, a vegan who lives in Fairfax, Va. "What we eat impacts our health dramatically, so why would that not be true for cats?"
A raw pet food diet is "designed to mimic what an animal would eat if left to their own devices," says Julie Paez, co-owner of the Big Bad Woof pet store in Washington and Hyattsville, Md.
"Our cats and dogs — they need to eat whole prey," says Terri Grow, founder and president of PetSage, the holistic pet store in Alexandria, Va., that recommended a raw diet to Droddy. "There are bones for calcium, there are organ meats for the vitamins and minerals, there are the areas for the fats — it's moisture. So you have to look at that whole prey and try to make a model of it. Just throwing out a piece of chicken or steak is not a balanced diet."
Commercially made raw pet food, including such local brands as Furry Foodie and Aunt Jeni's, comes frozen in tubs, tubes or shapes such as patties. A portion is thawed out in the refrigerator overnight and then served the next day.
PetSage offers cooking classes with recipes shared by veterinarians from around the world. In a class this spring, "we even walked people through a salad that you can make for yourself, and your dog can eat it as well," Grow says. "It was a good salad dressing, too."
The ASPCA warns that pets on a raw diet, either homemade or store bought, might pick up a food-borne illness such as salmonella or E. coli, become malnourished or injure themselves while eating a piece of bone.
"We are aware that pet parents are often very passionate about what they feed their pets, and with good reason," says Mindy Bough, who oversees the ASPCA's pet nutrition and science advisory service. "If somebody feels passionately about [the diet], I'm okay with that, but what I encourage them to do is use very safe procedures when handling raw meat and when cleaning up feces, and then have their animal evaluated by the veterinarian very regularly — at least every six months."
The AVMA is stricter in its response to the diet and in August 2012 adopted a policy that discourages the use of raw pet food. "Our full concern is the risk to animal health and public health from bacterial contamination," says Gary Chico, chair of the AVMA's council of public health and regulatory medicine.
Proponents of the diet say that because dogs and cats evolved eating raw prey, their digestive systems are more hostile to bacteria, so they are less likely to get sick.
"Even if we think that some dogs are able to handle those pathogens better than humans or other [animals], which is debatable, we feel like there's a risk out there," the ASPCA's Bough says. "Even if the animal doesn't become ill, there's potentially a public health risk for the people that are around the animals and the people that might be around the animal feces in the yard."
Tasi always asks about the health of family members before recommending a raw diet. If an animal or someone in the house has a suppressed immune system, for example, "I'm not so sure I'd put them on a raw food diet," she says.
But when the situation is appropriate for a cat to eat a well-balanced raw food diet, Tasi will advocate for it. She says she has seen diabetes, asthma, diarrhea, vomiting and urinary tract conditions, as well as a host of other problems, reverse after feline patients have gone raw.
"The reason that I feel that this is important is that I have seen miracles happen," she says.
Krulik is a freelance writer.