Karen Schiavone grabs a heavy box of raw meat patties from her store’s massive freezer. "There’s 42 patties of chicken dinner, four patties of lamb, two patties of duck, and two salmon," she says as she plunks the box down in front of her customer.

Her furry customer tries to sniff out the contents. Tetsuo is a Bernese Mountain Dog and he’s doing the raw food diet.

'The risks at this point way, way outweigh any perceived benefits' - Vet Danny Joffe

"I do notice a big difference when Tetsuo's eating raw. He's much more full of life and healthy," says his owner, Damon Pourshian.

He believes the diet is more nutritious than processed kibble. "It’s much more natural for a dog to eat raw meat and bones as it did in the wild."

That’s the theory that’s fuelling the rapidly growing raw pet-food movement: get back to nature and feed your dog or cat what its hunting ancestors ate. "That’s what they’ve been eating for thousands of years. Raw food, as opposed to processed or cooked food, has all the nutritional values intact," says Schiavone, who runs Barkside Bistro in Toronto.

Complex issue

Smart Spending Dogs

There's a growing trend among pet owners to feed their animals raw meat. But it's raising some safety concerns among veterinarians. (The Associated Press)

But many in the veterinary community are watching the trend with trepidation because, they warn, owners handling and pets eating raw meat is risky. "When I talk to my clients, I say the risks at this point way, way outweigh any perceived benefits," veterinarian Danny Joffe declares.

Even with the warnings, Schiavone’s business is thriving: she estimates it's grown almost eight-fold since she opened her raw pet-food store just 10 months ago.  According to MarketResearch.com, five per cent of Canadian dog owners are now in the habit of buying commercial raw dog food.

Schiavone carries everything from raw chicken feet to veal to leftover beaver from a government cull, a product she admits she was at first hesitant to sell. “I thought, beavers are our national symbol, I’m just not comfortable with it.” But then she reasoned that, because it’s wild meat, it’s a great protein source for pets.

Often, the meats are mixed with bones, organs and sometimes fruits and vegetables. Schiavone says the cost of feeding an average-sized dog raw food is about $80 a month — comparable, she believes, to a high-end kibble diet.

Benefits claimed

Finn hungrily licks up the last of his raw chicken dinner and then calmly nuzzles his owner, Sue Munro.

Munro says that when she adopted the rescue dog, he had behavioural problems and chronic diarrhea. As a last resort, she put him on a raw diet and was stunned by the results: "He’s now a very calm, personable, social dog." And that diarrhea? Gone. "We describe his poops as, ‘They dry up and float away.’ "

Munro believes Finn was probably allergic to the additives in the commercial kibble he was originally eating and that "raw food is absolutely what’s best for him to give him the best quality of life." She adds, "I’m a convert."

There are numerous anecdotal success stories by those who feed their pets raw diets. "This has kept him lean, healthy, trim, happy for 10 full years," says Sara Thompson, referring to her dog, McDougall, who is happily chewing on a duck neck bone. She says her previous dog died young and she blames it on feeding him "cheap kibble with additives."

Some dangers

But veterinarian Joffe worries pets’ health could be compromised by eating raw food because he says it’s not nutritionally balanced like science-based kibbles: "There are lots of good studies now showing that these [raw] foods are in most cases not nutritionally complete," declares Joffe, who practices at the Calgary Animal Referral and Emergency Centre.

He believes the diet is in fact downright dangerous and he’s hardly alone. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently issued a warning that "raw pet food was more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria." The pathogens can include salmonella and listeria and, according to Joffe, find their way into a home no matter how carefully an owner handles raw meat. 

"Those bacteria end up in the feces of the dog, in their stools where they can contaminate the environment. So people living with the dog can become infected."

That position is backed by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the Public Health Agency of Canada. They put out a joint statement with a list of warnings about raw diets such as: "enhanced risk of infection in very young children from exposure to the food or feces of pets consuming raw food diets."

True believers

Dean Ricard says he finds the tainted feces warning "silly."  The president of the Canadian Association of Raw Pet Food Manufacturers argues, "There’s going to be bacteria build-up in the stool regardless of what the dog consumes." He believes as long as raw food is handled properly by everyone involved, the owner and the pet will be safe.

Ricard also believes the growth of the business shows that owners must be getting good results for their pets. He says when he started manufacturing frozen raw pet food in Edmonton 14 years ago, he was competing with about three other companies across Canada. Now, he estimates, there are up to 45 recognized businesses making the food. "In the last two years, I would say that it’s finally become a legitimate part of the food market for pets."

Back at Barkside Bistro, Schiavone says pets will get a nutritionally balanced diet eating raw as long as owners vary the meal plan. On this day, she advises customer Joe Madziak to occasionally feed his dog a raw fish dinner, containing sole, cod, ground fish bone, plus kelp and fruit and vegetables.

Madziak has no qualms about the raw diet, explaining he became a "firm believer" after it brought his sick Dalmatian back to health. He only had one hurdle to overcome before he cracked open his first pack of raw meat patties: He’s a vegan. But while Madziak doesn’t believe in eating meat, "I realize the dog is a whole different story. That’s the basis of their diet, so I just reconciled it."