The importance of nutrition in maintaining health is a hot topic in both human and veterinary medicine. Dogs and cats face many of the same health issues as humans, and some may be related to what they eat.

Obesity continues to be a growing issue in the pet population. Not only does it result in biochemical changes that can lead to secondary diseases, it complicates the treatment of co-existing diseases such as arthritis and diabetes mellitus. Gastrointestinal problems and skin issues also can occur secondary to dietary causes.

One nutritional trend that is gaining popularity with pet owners is the feeding of a totally raw diet. The concept behind this dietary trend is that food that has not been processed is better. Some advocates think that it closely resembles what wild dogs ate prior to being domesticated; therefore, it is more “natural.”

The raw food diet first was publicized in 1993 by Dr. Ian Billinghurst, an Australian veterinarian. He felt dogs would thrive on a diet of raw bones, meat and vegetables. He nicknamed it the BARF diet, an acronym for the Bones and Raw Food diet or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. Racing greyhounds and sled dogs had been eating a similar diet for years, and he speculated household pets would do well on it, too.

Those who feed their pets this diet are adamant that it helps. They report that it gives them a shinier coat and healthier skin. Some also report improved energy levels and less dental disease. Another noted benefit is smaller stool size.

Despite these benefits, there remain concerns with the BARF diets. The primary concern with raw food diets is that bacteria may be present. In 2010, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System Executive Report indicated that 64 percent of retail meat samples tested positive for E. coli. Surprisingly, 80 percent of chicken breast and ground turkey samples were positive.

Another bacterium, Campylobacter, was found in 38 percent of chicken breast samples. Based on the numerous studies, most meat is contaminated by fecal bacteria at some point during processing while going from the farm to your home. For this reason, there are advisories regarding safe handling and the internal temperature that meat should reach before it is considered safe for humans to eat.

The bones fed in raw diets are a concern as well, as they may cause esophageal or intestinal obstruction, and the sharp edges may even perforate the gastrointestinal tract.

Another concern is that homemade diets of any variety may not be nutritionally complete. Without veterinary guidance and possible supplementation, these raw diets may not provide all the nutrients needed for your pet’s current life stage (especially for young, growing puppies and kittens).

In the past six months, two of the largest veterinary organizations have come out with statements opposing feeding raw food to pets due to public health concerns. In addition, several animal-based public service groups also have altered their policies.

In August, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s House of Delegates voted to discourage people from feeding raw or unprocessed meat, eggs and milk to cats and dogs. The policy stated that feeding such foods can sicken the pets as well as the humans exposed to the food, with children, elderly people and those with compromised immune systems at the greatest risks. More than 90 percent of the delegates voted for the policy. Interestingly, the original wording of the policy was to never feed a raw diet, but this was voted down and changed to people should avoid feeding these diets.

In the same month, the American Association of Animal Hospitals took a similar position stating that raw pet foods risk human and animal health.

Concern for the public health implications associated with feeding a raw food diet prompted Pet Partners, an organization where therapy dogs visit hospital patients, to ban dogs who recently had consumed raw or unprocessed animal-source proteins to participate. Their concern was that the pets could shed pathogens that could infect immunocompromised patients.

Feeding raw foods is a controversial topic. Certainly commercial foods can be contaminated as well. The Pet Docs have no problem with home prepared foods, but we would recommend consulting with your veterinarian to insure what you are feeding is nutritionally complete. If you want to prepare food at home, be safe and cook the meat to an appropriate internal temperature. This greatly reduces the risk to you and your pet. Based on the human health risks associated with raw meat diets, the Pet Docs do not recommend them at this time.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.