As a psychologist I usually don't write very much about veterinary matters affecting dogs unless there are also behavioral issues involved. Thus a while back I became interested in the fact that so many people have begun to switch their dogs over to a raw meat diet for their dogs, despite the fact most of the major veterinary associations have recommended against them, and the US Food and Drug Administration have found that raw meat diets can be a major source of salmonella and listeria infections (click here to read my article about that).
My psychological interest in this matter came from the fact that it appeared to me that the dog owners who insisted on a raw food diet for their dogs might be showing some form of orthorexia nervosa. This is a proposed eating disorder which is marked by an excessive preoccupation with eating healthy food. The term was proposed in 1997 by the American physician Steven Bratman who was concerned that an obsession with healthy food could, paradoxically, lead to unhealthy consequences. It seemed to me that a obsession with a raw food diet for dogs based on a belief that this was the most healthy way to feed them, despite evidence to the contrary, might be an extension of that same psychological problem, only here people were applying it to their dogs rather than to themselves.
On the other hand, there are people who don't regularly feed their dogs a raw food diet, but occasionally give their dog raw meat as a treat. One of the most common forms of this is when people purchase a raw chicken from the supermarket, and packed inside of it they find that the chicken neck has been included. While the chicken neck is a wonderful addition if you are making chicken soup, many people don't bother with it and instead toss the raw chicken neck to their dog as a special treat. Such an occasional treat involving raw meat does not seem to involve much of a risk, however a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine seems to prove that even that raw meat treat may be dangerous.
This new research comes from the laboratory of Matthias Le Chevoir, a researcher at the University of Melbourne's U-Vet Werribee Animal Hospital in Australia. It involves a careful case-control study designed to look for associations between the occurrence of a serious paralytic neurological disease, Acute Polyradiculoneuritis (APN) and infection with the Campylobacter bacterium. According to Le Chevoir, “It is a rare but very debilitating condition where the dog’s hind legs first become weak and then may progress to affect the front legs, neck, head and face. Some dogs may die from the disease if their chest becomes paralyzed,
“Most dogs eventually recover without treatment but it may take up to six months or more in some cases. It can be difficult for owners to nurse their pet until the condition gradually improves."
This same bacterium has been identified as a common source for a similar disease in humans, Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) which also weakens muscles to the point of near paralysis in humans. In both humans and dogs, the immune system becomes over-reactive and unregulated. As the condition worsens, the system attacks the body's nerve roots, causing paralysis. Exposure to raw or undercooked chicken is a common source of the Campylobacter bacterium.
In this particular study the research team looked at 27 dogs with symptoms of APN and 47 dogs who were symptom-free. The lead author of the study, Lorena Martinez-Anton, said that when they examined fecal samples collected within seven days of clinical signs of APN appearing, they were 9.4 times more likely to have had a Campylobacter infection than the control group without APN. She concludes that “These bacteriological results were consistent with the hypothesis that the uncooked chicken meat was the source of the Campylobacter and as a result, triggered APN."
Furthermore, the researchers report "A significant association is also found between APN and smaller dog breeds. Based on our clinical experience this seems to be because smaller dogs are more likely to be fed smaller bones like chicken necks.”
One reason why these results are so disturbing is because of the degree of risk involved. According to these findings eating raw chicken increased some dog's risk of developing APN by nearly 7,000 percent. (Yes that number is correct and not a typographic error).
The researchers conclude that the sensible thing to do is to simply stop feeding dogs raw chicken until more about the link to APN is understood.
I have no doubt that the proponents of raw diets will argue that the risk of harm is small compared to the benefits. Unfortunately, at least as far as my search of the literature has been able to uncover, no scientific evidence yet exists to show any benefits. Anecdotes based on the personal experience of some dog owners or theories about the natural history of dogs are not sufficient reasons to ignore the solid scientific evidence of harm that raw diets can cause. To my mind, unless sound scientific research evidence is presented to show meaningful health benefits from raw feeding, I don't believe that it is worth the risk to the health of our pets. However, if, as I suspect, this obsession with the raw food diets is a symptom of orthorexia nervosa being projected from the affected dog owners to the feeding of their dogs, this new upsetting evidence of harm associated with giving dogs raw chicken to eat will be ignored.
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L. Martinez-Anton, M. Marenda, S.M. Firestone, R.N. Bushell, G. Child, A.I. Hamilton, S.N. Long and M.A.R. Le Chevoir. Investigation of the Role of Campylobacter Infection in Suspected Acute Polyradiculoneuritis in Dogs. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 2018, Volume 32, Issue 1, pages 352–360. DOI: 10.1111/jvim.15030