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Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
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updated 4/21/2009 9:25:38 AM ET 2009-04-21T13:25:38

BARF. It’s what’s for dinner. Your dog’s dinner, that is.

The acronym stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, which is not so much a diet as it is a movement among pet owners who believe their pets will benefit from eating the same kinds of food their furry ancestors gobbled: bones, raw meats and veggies. Just as a raw food trend has turned more mainstream among people, a small but vocal community of pet owners is using the same quality ingredients they buy for themselves to create homemade raw meals for their critters.

But most veterinarians are wary about the trend toward raw food, or even meals that are cooked, but homemade. The idea of feeding pets raw meat, which has the potential to be contaminated with salmonella or E. coli bacteria, or a home-cooked meal that may not be properly balanced, gives them the shudders. “So many of these people are just trying to make their pets happy and have no concept of nutrition,” says Dr. Patty Khuly, who practices in Miami.

Although no studies have been conducted to assess the benefits of a raw food diet for cats and dogs, believers in the raw pet food movement say the evidence speaks for itself: Their pets have shinier coats, stronger teeth, fewer ear infections and improved weight control.

Bob Kurtz, who was already feeding his retrievers a high-quality dry food, recently turned to a commercial raw diet to solve a young Labrador’s skin allergies.

“Since switching to raw, we have found several major benefits,” he says. “Our dogs’ weights have stabilized perfectly. They now rarely change weight by more than a pound between checkups. They are lean and muscular, with coats that are even more beautiful and glossy than before. The ground bone in the diet does a great job of scouring their teeth, and all signs of plaque and tartar buildup have disappeared.”

Pat Puckett, a founder of SoCal BARF, a buying association based in Orange County, Calif., began feeding a raw diet to her American pit bull terriers in 1998.

“My breed has a tendency toward skin problems, and I had spent quite a bit of time at the vet for various problems,” she says. “One of my friends who also has the breed had talked about switching over to raw for her dogs. I moved in that direction and never went back.”

Kurtz says the diet gets a mixed reaction from the veterinarians who see his dogs.

“Our practice has two vets. The senior vet is very wary about bacterial growth, E. coli, salmonella, etc. She has recommended to us many times that we cook the food instead," Kurtz says. "The younger vet is very excited about the growth of raw and homemade diets, is not particularly concerned about bacteria in the dog's shorter digestive system, and is very pleased with our results. As she says about our Labrador, ‘Ooh, look at her coat — she's sleek, like a seal!’”

A raw diet isn't as easy as dropping a chicken bone into Baxter's bowl. It’s essential to use a trustworthy recipe that provides all the nutrients a dog or cat needs or to feed a great enough variety of fresh foods that the diet is balanced over time, in the same way that a person who eats a variety of foods achieves a balanced diet. People who are concerned about providing a correct balance of nutrients or who don’t have time to prepare a pets’ meals can purchase commercial frozen raw diets at pet supply stores.

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Dr. Deborah S. Greco, an internal medicine specialist, advises dog breeders who fed a raw diet to rotate protein sources rather than relying exclusively on a single protein, such as chicken.

“What I usually recommend for people who are feeding homemade diets is to call a nutritionist and say ‘This is what I’m feeding; is it balanced?’”

Dr. Khuly, the Miami veterinarian, proffers the same advice to her clients. She will consult a nutritionist for them, for a fee, or refer them to a veterinary nutritionist for a personal consultation. She says there is another reason veterinarians are conservative when it comes to recommending raw or homemade diets.

“Veterinarians want to be legally safe, and there are things that can go wrong with feeding anything,” she says. “If there’s a commercial entity to back you up, it makes it so much easier. If there’s just your diet, your recipes and your recommendation, you’re the one out on the line."

When done right, the greatest benefit of a homemade diet is the ability to select the ingredients. Puckett and the approximately 400 members of SoCal BARF want to know how the food animal was fed. They prefer to avoid soy-fed poultry and rabbits, for instance, because soy is a common pet allergen. That’s difficult, though. Soy is in almost every poultry and rabbit feed, she says.

“The dogs are healthier than any I’ve ever had who were primarily kibble-fed,” says Shirley Thistlethwaite, who lives in a rural area near Columbia, S.C., and feeds her six dogs cooked homemade meals using a rough ratio of one-third meat, one-third grains and one-third vegetables, fruits or herbs.

Thistlethwaite buys the highest-quality foods she can work into her budget each week.

“I try to get wild-caught fish, free-range meats, and organic and local foods if I can,” she says. Often, she and her dogs eat similar meals.

But not everyone has such a positive experience. After a massive pet food recall in 2007, Margaret Alexander of Newton, Mass., began cooking for her three Cavalier King Charles spaniels.  She read a lot and consulted her own veterinarian as well as veterinarians at Angell Memorial Hospital in Boston. A year later, however, all three of her dogs developed various problems that may or may not have been related to their diet.

“The oldest one developed very serious liver and gall bladder problems and was hospitalized for several days,” she says. “The youngest dog developed slow digestive processes and lots of vomiting in the summer. The third one, in the fall, developed some type of problem which was initially thought to be a blockage. He has had what are euphemistically called 'dietary indiscretions' since we got him.”

Alexander suspects that the food she was preparing was too high in fat. Now her oldest dog is eating a diet prescribed by the veterinarian and the other two are back on a high-quality dry food. She’s happy with the foods they’re eating now, citing cost and convenience.

“The dry food is measurably cheaper than home cooking," Alexander says. "Expecting a pet sitter to prepare the dogs’ food is a little more than we think we can ask, and it is hard to prepare enough in advance.”

Khuly has a handful of clients who feed their pets a raw diet, and she herself has moved from ambivalence to cautious acceptance. Her two French bulldogs now enjoy regular raw meaty bones. Clients who want to start feeding their pets a raw or homemade diet are referred to a veterinary nutritionist for expert advice on what and how to feed.

“I believe in raw feeding, I believe it can be done well, I believe it can be helpful, but I have a lot of conditions because I’m still new to it,” she says. “I tell people to have a good relationship with a high-quality butcher and make sure they understand that the meat needs to be human-grade, every bit as high-quality as they would expect you to want to eat. You have to work hard at it.”

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