In 2008, Stephanie Suzanne Brendle — a longtime vegan and registered dietician — decided it was time to stock her freezer with raw meat. It wasn't her own diet that Brendle was changing, but her cat's. Her small, ten-year-old white-and-brown cat, Cicely, had been suffering from allergies since she was two. Her vaccination wound had become a hot spot, and every time she got a flea bite, her entire back would flare up. Brendle had tried home-cooked food, organic food, and even psychotropics for Cicely's allergy-related stress, but nothing worked: So, when a roommate in her South Berkeley co-op told her about raw pet food diets, she jumped at the idea.
Five years ago, raw meat diets for pets were still very niche — the trappings of eccentric hippies, obsessive foodies, or the very well-to-do. But today, nearly every pet store and natural grocery in the East Bay sells some variety of frozen or dehydrated raw food. Prepared raw food is a blend of bone, organ, and muscle meat and a small amount of plant matter — intending to mimic the diet your dog or cat would eat in the wild. While the FDA and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) argue that raw animal protein diets for pets may be nutritionally imbalanced and potentially pathogenic, raw-diet enthusiasts rave about the benefits to their pets' skin, coats, immune systems, and even personalities. Though raw pet food is on the rise, its greatest detractors are its high cost and added preparation times.
Several months after transitioning Cicely to Primal brand's raw cat food — a blend of salmon and chicken supplemented with kale and sweet potato that comes in pre-portioned frozen nuggets — Brendle noticed her cat's skin cleared up. Five years later, Brendle, who now lives in Chicago, says she still feeds Cicely a completely raw diet, and that she hasn't had any recurrences of allergies.
Heidi Hill, who founded Holistic Hound in 2003, the first holistic pet store in Berkeley and one of the first raw pet food retailers, champions raw food diets, but says they're not for everyone. Some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of raw animal protein, but for most, it's simply cost-prohibitive, as raw food costs at least twice the amount of kibble. Hill estimates it costs about $150 a month to feed a medium-size dog a completely raw diet. Brendle spends about $40 month feeding her small cat an all-raw diet. She says she also has to factor in time for thawing the nuggets and establish set feeding times for Cicely — whereas she used to be able to leave her kibble out all day.
Still, about 20 percent of Holistic Hound customers buy raw food, and a sales representative from the El Cerrito Plaza Petco said sales of its two raw-food brands have been steadily increasing, particularly in the past six months. Besides decreased allergies and shinier coats, Hill said she has seen raw diets improve digestive issues, decrease body and stool odor, improve energy level, and even relieve anxiety and decrease aggression. "Any time you can include raw, it's a good thing," said Hill. An Emeryville Petco employee said most people buy raw food to supplement a diet of canned food or kibble.
That's how Natasha Moses, a Berkeley apartment complex manager, feeds her puppy, Bear. Bear is a six-month-old, eight-pound Chihuahua mix that looks like a tiny black Labrador. On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Holistic Hound, Moses, 31, stopped in the bustling shop to pick up a couple of two-pound frozen rolls of Small Batch puppy food. Combined with Origins dry food, Moses said one roll of Small Batch, which costs $5-$10 and is locally sourced, lasts Bear about two and a half weeks.
While Bear leapt about, greeting all the shop's customers, Moses said that her puppy loves his food, and that it's made his coat thick and shiny — though she admitted she'd only ever fed him raw, so she didn't have anything to compare it to. She said her parents cook a mixture of rice, turkey, and veggies for their dogs. "They think I'm crazy for feeding Bear raw," Moses said, but added that she can't imagine finding the time to cook food for her pet everyday, like her parents do.
A registered homeopath, Hill recommends homemade food, either raw or cooked, over commercial raw food or kibble. "Homemade is more fresh. You pick your meat, you know where it's coming from," she said, adding that local raw food brands like Jeffrey's, Small Batch, and Feed This list where they source their meat, but bigger brands don't. However, Hill cautions against pet owners preparing raw meals without having done their homework on the nutritional balance their pets require. Buying a chicken breast or ground beef from the grocery store that is meant to be cooked and consumed by humans is not enough. Animals need calcium from bones, Omega 3s, and added fiber.
San Francisco Raw Feeders is a buyer's group for Bay Area residents who want to source their own raw, sustainable, and humanely raised meats, bones, as well as supplements and nutrition books for their pets. Members share knowledge and have access to all the elements necessary to prepare a balanced raw diet — but this path is not for most.
Brendle chose prepared foods for her cat Cicely because, as a vegan, she didn't want to have raw meat on her cutting board. She would prefer to know the source of her cat's meat, but, especially now that she lives outside of the Bay Area, she depends on the convenience of brands she can buy at stores like Whole Foods. Hill feeds her Siberian Husky, Pearl, commercial raw foods for both convenience and personal research. "Having my own business, I work a lot of hours," Hill said. "Plus, I want to know what I'm selling, so I try out different raw foods on her."
The AVMA considers the use of raw animal protein diets a public health risk, as the meats may contain bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. However, prominent pet journalist Christie Keith pointed out in a 2009 article for SFGate that dogs and cats are more resistant to food-borne bacteria, and, moreover, argues on her blog that the commercially processed foods for pets or humans may be contaminated with bacteria as well. While the AVMA concedes that there have been no reported human illnesses associated with raw pet-food diets to date, it reports there have been outbreaks of human salmonellosis associated with commercially prepared dry dog and cat food diets.
But the AVMA is also concerned about balanced nutrition for pets on raw food diets, stating that no scientific evidence exists to support the use of this diet, and that all reported benefits are merely anecdotal. Hill doesn't deny the lack of scientific evidence, but argues that since big pet food manufacturers currently don't produce and market raw foods, they aren't funding new studies on the diet.
But Hill believes this will change. "Proctor and Gamble recently bought Natura. Those big companies are jumping on the premium food bandwagon. Eventually, they'll jump on the raw food bandwagon," she said.
Hill keeps seven freezers in her small North Berkeley shop, and restocks them every week. She said she can barely keep up with all the new raw food brands on the market.
"It's not a fad," said Hill. "It's a trend, but it's here to stay."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Primal does not disclose where it gets its meat from; in fact, the San Francisco company does. This version has been corrected.
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