Beware of overly simplistic interpretations - Veterinary Practice
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Beware of overly simplistic interpretations

Francesca Riccomini read with interest the article on raw food diets in the February issue but found some of the arguments hard to swallow and believes there may be other equally valid explanations…

ONE of the great things about the
veterinary profession is the wide
range of topics available to grab
our interest. And, in my opinion,
one of the most admirable aspects
of our professional lives is the
passion and dedication we bring to
our chosen specialist areas.

Therein, however, also lies a
potential “elephant trap”. Unless we
are very careful, we are forever in
danger of viewing all observations
through the lens of our own
passion alone.
With our
clear vision
“evidence in
the field”, the temptation to interpret
it in one way only can become

This struck me forcefully when I
read Nick Thompson’s interesting
article, “A sceptic’s guide to raw
food”, in the February issue.

Now I am aware that this subject
tends to polarise opinion with
proponents on both sides of the
argument – raw diet versus
manufactured pet food – often
tending towards evangelism. So it can
be surprisingly difficult, especially in
the world of companion animal
behaviour, to occupy the middle

It is a topic I always approach with
humility, knowing I have a great deal
to learn and therefore I look forward
to reading Nick’s future articles.

Valid comparisons?

I must admit, however, to being
concerned about the single causal
factor explanation we were told
launched the raw food movement.
Apparently, Dr Ian Billinghurst
observed that outback dogs were
affected less by chronic and infectious
diseases and displayed greater energy
levels than dogs living in urban

Now with due respect to
colleagues, one is tempted to say
“they would wouldn’t they?”

We do not know what breeds or hybrids – with their inbuilt vigor –
made up the population of dogs in
the rural areas or how these compared
with the urban residents, where we
might normally expect a higher
proportion of less generally healthy

So it seems fair to ask if here we
are actually comparing like with like;
something that’s usually regarded as
important. From my admittedly
limited experience of the Australian
outback, I’m afraid I doubt it. Surely differing population densities must
also be influential when considering
disease transmission? Why then, as
seems to be implied, hone in on food
alone rather than overall lifestyle as
being responsible for this discrepancy
in health status, or am I missing

Poorly prepared

But my primary
concern regarding such
a narrow interpretation
of observations is
influenced by my
background in general
and behavioural

Many dogs now live
lives far removed from
“what nature intended”.
Some have the
additional burden of
being poorly prepared
during their early weeks
for the complicated
environments – physical
and social – they later

A further challenge
for others is their
temperamental predisposition to fear
and anxiety; something that does not
help them to live comfortably
alongside people and other animals,
especially where these are encountered
in high numbers together with other
environmental stressors.

It stands to reason, therefore, that
urban canine inhabitants are more
likely to struggle with life than dogs in
wide open spaces. The latter, for
instance, generally meet fewer
unfamiliar individuals and when they
do, probably have greater
opportunities for escape if they are
intimidated by the situation.

Surely they are also likely to enjoy
more physical activity than town dogs
dependent upon their owners’ ability
and willingness to exercise them?
And, unless country canines are
tethered in bleak places, they probably
have significantly more satisfying
mental stimulation.

Now I don’t for a second debate
the importance of good nutrition for
any species. Neither do I question the
entertainment many dogs gain from
consuming appropriate raw food diets.
But I do have difficulty accepting this
apparently unreserved assumption
that food alone could be responsible
for the differences in the general
health and wellbeing of the dogs that
Dr Billinghurst observed.

For me, a multifactorial
explanation would be more likely and
more intellectually satisfying.

Adjusting can be tough

The same question mark hangs over
the change in physical condition of
this colleague’s own dogs when they
moved from their rural existence to
an urban location.

Evidently, from the limited
information, we do not know how
radical a change in environment this
involved; how well socialised these pets had been in
puppyhood to the
presumably wider
range of individuals
dwelling in the town;
and what, if any,
previous exposure
they had received to
the myriad stressors –
traffic, noise,
pollution – likely to
be encountered in
higher volumes when
living in a town or

In view of the
significant numbers
of fear, anxiety and
behaviour problems I
have seen in previously well-adjusted dogs
following similar changes in
environment, to me this seems

The negative effect upon immune
competence, susceptibility to disease
and therefore general health and
wellbeing caused by chronic stress is
well recognised. So again, when a
range of changes and potential
stressors are likely to be affecting an
animal’s general emotional and
physical condition, why single out a
change in diet as the only contributing

Introduction of raw food, which was apparently beneficial, could be
advanced as supporting evidence and
it does, of course, have the advantage
of being something owners and
professionals can easily address. But
could not a gradual adjustment to
different living conditions with a
subsequent reduction in chronic
physiological arousal be claimed as an
equally valid explanation? And does
this not get to the heart of the

Caution always needed

In the past, life was generally harder
and shorter for both people and pets;
in many parts of the world it still is.
However, for those of us living more
privileged lives, the world is now more
complex and arguably significantly
more frenetic and stressful. And
where life is complicated, surely
simplistic explanations regarding any
aspect of an individual’s health and
wellbeing are rarely likely to suffice?

The raw food movement has
advanced since its inception. Its
proponents can now offer broader
and deeper evidence in support of
their arguments.

But whatever our particular
professional passion may be, should
we not always ensure that our own
convictions do not obscure
alternative, or additional, explanations
for the phenomena we observe in
both our patients and our pets.

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