Max was a sick kitty with all kinds of problems: arthritis, bladder issues, recurring ear infections and chronic skin troubles.
"Just about everything was a mess on him," said Andrea Tasi, a feline-only homeopathic veterinarian in Northern Virginia who was treating the 11-year-old domestic shorthair. "Nothing would get better."
When Max's owner decided to put him on a raw food diet, Tasi was surprised by the results. Until that time, she had viewed these types of diets — which are a blend of raw organ and muscle meats, bones, vegetables and supplements — as "wacko nonsense."
Within months of the switch, Max's "ears got better, his bladder trouble got better, his skin got better," Tasi said. "You couldn't make all of his arthritis go away — he was an old cat, so it wasn't sort of a magic fix for everything — but this cat looked better than he ever did when he was in my care."
Animal welfare organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, warn that raw pet food is a health risk for animals and the people around them. Yet the diet is growing in popularity.
Sales are going up, says Mimi Stein, retail division director for Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., which manufactures the Furry Foodie raw pet food brand. "It's almost doubling what it did last year."
Just as many people are turning to locally grown, organic, whole foods for themselves, they are also seeking out better foods for their dogs and cats. For some, that translates into a raw pet food diet.
This diet is "designed to mimic what an animal would eat if left to their own devices," says Julie Paez, co-owner of the Big Bad Woof pet store in Washington and Hyattsville, Md.
"Our cats and dogs — they need to eat whole prey," says Terri Grow, founder and president of PetSage, a holistic pet store in Alexandria, Va., that recommended a raw diet to Tammy Droddy, a vegan who lives in Fairfax, Va. "There are bones for calcium, there are organ meats for the vitamins and minerals, there are the areas for the fats — it's moisture. So you have to look at that whole prey and try to make a model of it. Just throwing out a piece of chicken or steak is not a balanced diet."
Commercially made raw pet food comes frozen in tubs, tubes or shapes such as patties. A portion is thawed out in the refrigerator overnight and then served the next day.
The ASPCA warns that pets on a raw diet, either homemade or store bought, might pick up a food-borne illness such as salmonella or E. coli, become malnourished or injure themselves while eating a piece of bone.
In August 2012, the AVMA adopted a policy that discourages the use of raw pet food. "Our full concern is the risk to animal health and public health from bacterial contamination," says Gary Chico, chairman of AVMA's council of public health and regulatory medicine.