Recently, I had the great fortune to meet Dr. Ian Billinghurst, who may be described as the modern father of the “bones and raw food” diet for dogs. Dr. Billinghurst was kind enough to take time away from a vacation in San Francisco to talk over lunch. I had a lot of questions for the Australian veterinarian, given that I had just finished editing the article about feeding bones that appears on the previous pages. Dr. Billinghurst was patient, helpful, and full of encouragement for me and all other dog owners who are “sitting on the fence” of the bones issue.
Dr. Billinghurst, I have to ask you about the fear of feeding bones. It seems this is one of the major problems that people have with the BARF diet.
If anyone is afraid to feed their dog bones, then they should grind the bones. No one should turn his back on BARF because they are afraid of bones. It is far better to have the bones crushed up and mixed in with the meat, than have the dog go back to dry dog food. Grinding them into little bits is the perfect compromise.
I often see people discussing grinders on the BARF discussion lists. Do you have a favorite model of grinder or method of grinding?
Actually, when we feed ground bones, we have the meat and bones ground for us at our butcher’s shop. The most important thing is to keep grinding the meaty bones until the bone fragments are tiny and absolutely harmless.
But then you must lose the benefits to the teeth? Because the dog isn’t having to chew and grind the food himself?
Surprisingly enough, no. There is no doubt that the physical action of the bones scraping the teeth is important. However, it has been my observation that the dogs who are fed BARF-type diets – where all the bones are fed ground up – so there is no chance of physical cleaning by the bones, and there is no addition of grains or processed food, have tartar-free teeth with no periodontal disease. I have also seen reports from long-term raw feeding at zoos – where the meat and the bones are fed in a ground up state – which support this view. It would appear that it’s not just the physical chewing action that is responsible; there is some biological action at work as well.
I think I’ve heard that it has to do with enzymes in the saliva?
That might have something to do with it. I’m not aware of any studies that have been done on this. We have to speculate: It definitely relates to a low-sugar diet. I suspect it is also related to the absence of artificial calcium. Loads of soluble calcium – as found in processed foods – may well be one of the most important contributors to dental calculus. The BARF diet also contribute in a major way to strong local immunity in the mouth. The presence or absence of periodontal disease also involves the pH produced in the mouth by the diet. In other words, mouth health depends on a complex of factors – the healthy factors stemming from an evolutionary diet.
What kind of bones do you like to feed most?
We feed mostly chicken. That is, wings and necks, and a lot of backs. We steer clear of thighs, mostly because they are more expensive and because they have a very high meat-to-bone ratio; it’s more meat than you need to feed. The ratio of meat to bone in chicken wings and necks is perfect. But I always tell people to look for young chickens and young animals in general. Young animals have had less time to store toxins in their bones, and the bones are softer and therefore safer. However, we feed bones from lamb and pork and beef as well. Variety is important.
Is it true that it’s not necessarily the bone, but the food that the bone comes wrapped in, that is beneficial to the dog?
It is a nonsense to attempt to make that distinction. It has to be the lot. It’s both the bone and the meat and the soft tissues it comes wrapped in and the vegetables and eggs and kelp and other fresh foods that make the dog healthy. But, I agree with you about the value of the soft tissues, For example, the cartilage that the dogs consume with the bones is a major contributor to health. Cartilage has anti-cancer properties, as well as beneficial effects on arthritis. There are all sorts of expensive supplements being produced for dogs that contain glucosamine and chondroitin. They are being used to either prevent or treat those diseases; it’s just another example of something that bones have been doing for so long that we have not been aware of.
I often have people say to me, “You can’t feed a dog like a wolf; dogs are not wolves!” Have we manipulated the dog so much that the “wolf diet” is no longer appropriate?
That’s a myth that was designed to sell dog food! It’s true that we have changed the appearance and mindset of the dog over thousands of years. But commercial foods have only been around for, maybe, 7-10 dog generations. It’s a biological impossibility for the dog’s digestive system – the dog’s basic physiology – to have been altered to such a degree in such a short period of time that it cannot deal with real food. The truth is, the dog is having major problems dealing with processed foods. That is why we see so much degenerative disease in modern dogs.
When the dog food industry tries to sell you that sort of nonsense, you have to ask yourself, “What did people feed their dogs before there was dog food?” And, more importantly, “What were dogs like before the advent of the commercial dog food industry?” Dogs were doing fine before the dog food industry came along. There is epidemiological evidence showing that prior to “dog food,” there were occasional instances of a limited number of diseases due to nutritional deficiencies or excesses. These were diseases that are simple to diagnose and simple to fix. Today we have a vast number of exceedingly complex degenerative diseases that are difficult to diagnose, difficult to treat, and very dangerous to the dog. These modern degenerative diseases, which are a direct result of a lifetime being fed cooked and processed foods, are exceedingly common.
We have paid an enormous price for exchanging an ad hoc, home-produced, human-type diet for the commercial, “scientific” diet. These modern diets are cooked and totally lacking in the protective nutrients. They are almost always based on cooked grain. That is, full of starch, a carbohydrate that is totally inappropriate for dogs. These foods either totally lack essential fatty acids, or have excessive Omega 6 fatty acids. Any fatty acids that are present are heat-damaged fatty acids. At best these damaged fatty acids are useless, and at worst, highly toxic. In combination, these problems are a potent recipe for diabetes, arthritis, auto-immune disease, renal failure, and the enormous levels of cancer currently seen in pet animals. We know that cancer is due to mutations; the question is, what’s causing the mutations? I suggest most strongly it is the biologically inappropriate commercial food.
As long as we’re trading pet peeves . . . Consider the nutritionists who say that dog owners are not smart enough to figure out how to feed their dogs a complete and balanced diet. We somehow manage to feed our kids – not to mention ourselves!
Feeding our pets is simple. All we have to do is figure out what dogs and cats ate in the wild, and mimic that, using foods that are available to us today. Dog food manufacturers believe it is hard because they make it hard on themselves! They attempt to make a product suitable for feeding dogs and cats from totally inappropriate foods. Their job is not only hard, it is impossible!
Are you aware of any large clinical trials for studying the benefits of BARF over commercial pet food?
Not as yet. It would not pay the pet food companies to undertake such trials for obvious reasons. However, I am aware of thousands of small, in-home trials! These consistently demonstrate that when pets are switched from commercial food to BARF, their health improves dramatically.
There are plans afoot to unify raw feeders – including the raw food manufacturers – as members of a world-wide BARF organization. This will enable us to gather data from our members – the troops in the trenches. We are going to ask them to do blood work pre- and post-BARF. We will ask them to gather any radiographic results, we want to know what sorts of foods they are feeding and what kinds of dogs are being fed BARF. We want to gather sound, verifiable, scientific data to back what we’re saying. The data is available. All we have to do is talk to our members. There are lots of people doing this and they have exceptionally healthy dogs.
However, as more people adopt this method of feeding, there is going to be less and less disease for the vets to treat. This has the potential to make large numbers of vets redundant. This would not be a good outcome for pet owners because there will always be some problems that only a vet can fix. The solution is for the veterinary profession to switch to preventative mode. That is, change their emphasis from diagnosis and treatment to spending more time assessing and preventing problems, in much the same way that dentists have gone from “drill and fill” to adopting a more preventative approach. It should be noted at this point that when the dentists made this switch, they increased their incomes dramatically.
That is why it is important that BARFers with (apparently) healthy dogs make it their habit to visit their vets, often, for checkups and blood tests. It is important that their own vets draw the blood and interpret the results. This way the vets can not only remain solvent, but also, they will see the improvements for themselves. What better way can their be for BARFers to earn their vet’s support? And at the same time, we are gathering invaluable data.
Are you aware of any cases of dogs dying from impactions or intestinal perforations?
We see intestinal perforations almost never. The ones I have seen have always involved cooked bones. I have seen one case in the last five years. We saved her. She had eaten a cooked T-bone which became lodged in her esophagus above her heart. If she had not been panicked into swallowing it by her owner, she would have chewed it up just fine. Large bowel impactions are relatively common – one every couple of months. These almost always involve either cooked bones or old dogs or both. These do not involve fatalities, just enemas – an unpleasant job for the vet and the patient.
Bones caught in the mouth – both cooked and raw – are relatively common, maybe one every three or four months. No fatalities here, of course. Often we do not even charge for removing them. In our practice, large numbers of our patients are fed raw bones at least three or four times weekly. This should give readers an appreciation of how rare these problems are. Well worth any small risk – in my opinion. We encourage owners of dogs that have had impactions to only feed ground soft bones in small amounts with plenty of healthy oils and vegetables. We never discourage people from feeding raw bones.
One of my own clients had his dog die shortly after being fed a chicken wing. We took radiographs and there they were: you could see fragmented bits of bones sitting in the dog’s stomach. Did the chicken wing kill the dog? There was no evidence to suggest that. The autopsy certainly did not support that view. However, after closely questioning the owner, I suspect that what actually killed the dog was an anaphylactic reaction to one of the new combined flea, tick, de-worming products that had also been given just a few minutes before the dog’s death.
Another person rang me to tell me her puppy had died shortly after chewing a chicken neck, and that the vet who had attended the puppy told her that the bones that the puppy had eaten had pierced its lungs and killed it. I asked, “Was a necropsy performed? Were radiographs taken?” The answer was no to both questions! I then asked, “So how does this vet know that the wing had pierced the lung?” She said, “I don’t know.”
I suggested that she go back and ask a few more questions. It turns out that the vet had just made up that explanation, based on what he assumed had happened. An autopsy returned an open verdict with cause of death unknown. The point is, sudden deaths are not uncommon in the veterinary world. It is easy to make bones the scapegoat. Not only that, many needless operations are performed because a radiograph – taken for some other problem – revealed the presence of bones in the intestinal tract: a normal piece of feces with pieces of bone in it, happily working its way through the dog’s system. Also, I am aware that there are some vets who say, “I see X number of these perforation/impaction/fatalities due to bones every week.” They say these things with the best of intentions, but they are not necessarily telling the truth. Their good intention is that they assume they would see X number of cases if a lot of people fed bones. And they are trying to discourage this in a misguided attempt to do what they think is in the dog’s best interest.
However, the facts are that I rarely see these problems in my practice – and, more than any other vet, my clients feed whole raw bones! Furthermore, there are thousands of us who have always fed our dogs this way, and we’re not experiencing problems, only fantastic health.
Dr. Billinghurst, thank you so much for taking time out to talk to us. Our readers are certain to benefit from the information you’ve shared with us, and we look forward to presenting more information about BARF diets in time.
You’re welcome. In the meantime, I invite WDJ readers who BARF-feed their dogs to register with us for our planned study. See “Resources” for contact information.