It's called the BARF diet — and it's the hottest thing in San Francisco pet stores these days. No, it's not food that makes your pet throw up; BARF stands for biologically appropriate raw food. And its advocates are passionate about its advantages over old-fashioned commercial pet food.
"Dogs and cats in the wild would eat raw meat," said Susan Yannes, who co-owns Pawtrero pet store and bathhouse on Mississippi Street. "They didn't have doggie barbecues."
The idea is to mimic as closely as possible what your pets would have eaten way back when — in the natural state, before they became so close to humans that they started eating the same sort of processed food (some would say processed crap) many of us eat.
And the trend is growing — fast. Matt Koss, who owns Primal Pet Foods, a supplier of frozen raw animal feed, reports 20 percent annual growth. He cites a massive pet food recall in 2007 as a spur to his business, adding that "there's more and more consumer awareness about pet food." Primal Pet supplies food to 2,000 pet stores nationwide, 15 in San Francisco.
But the BARF diet also has its critics — and not just in the multibillion dollar pet food industry.
Yannes got into the raw food business when one of her dogs developed skin problems. "We were feeding him standard dry dog food, and the vet said it was fine," she said. "His coat had all these bumps, so they gave him allergy medicine."
Instead, she tried shifting the dog to an all-natural diet — "and a week later, he was fine."
That's a common story among some pet owners, who say that raw meat, combined with raw bones and some specially prepared grain and vegetable matter, makes dogs and cats healthier and happier. "Business is growing," Yannes said. "People who try this don't go back."
The argument is similar to what you hear from people who have given up processed human food in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables and organic, free-range meat. It's more natural; all that processing (and even heat) destroys essential nutrients.
A summary published on Pawblog that Yannes passed on to me sums it up: "When switching your pet to a raw food diet, there are many differences you will notice in a few weeks, including improved breath and white teeth, better digestion resulting in much smaller and firmer stools, less itching, scratching, and allergies, increased energy, healthy skin, and a shiner coat."
The reason? "Dogs and cats stomachs are designed to digest raw meat and soft bones, utilizing the very strong concentrations of hydrochloric acid as well as the short length of their gastrointestinal tract. Any bacteria are taken care of with this acid."
But some vets — including those that support and practice non-Western medicine — are more cautious.
"A raw diet is fine," said Dr. Randy Bowman, a vet at Pets Unlimited. "Dogs were meant to eat raw food in the wild. But we've come far beyond that. Their gastrointestinal system has evolved, and they don't need it."
Adds Dr. Jeffrey Bryan, a veterinary oncologist who teaches at the University of Washington: "I think highly processed foods are problematic, but I wish we had more scientific evidence on the value of the raw diet."
I think it's safe to say that the raw food diet isn't for everyone. For one thing, it's more expensive — but if it winds up keeping our dog out of the vet's office, it will more than pay for itself over time. More important, it requires a fair amount of work — and a lot of attention.
Raw meat has to be handled carefully. All the preparation surfaces have to be washed, and the pets' dishes need to be washed with soap and water after every meal. That's because raw meat — even organic, free-range stuff — contains bacteria that can carry diseases to pets and humans.
And according to Bowman, even the best grade of meat can carry diseases: "Even human-grade meat that's processed and shipped distances carries bacteria, and it's not meant for raw consumption." Bowman suggests that pet owners at least sear the meat first, since the bacteria tend to be on the surface.
Dr. Rebecca Remillard, a veterinarian and pet nutritionist, is one of the harshest critics of the raw diet. "This is not a safe practice," she writes on her Web site. "Dogs fed raw meat or eggs may develop mild to severe gastrointestinal disease from consuming products contaminated" with disease-causing bacteria.
Koss says that's just misinformation. "Bacteria and pathogens are a concern in the entire food industry," he said. "But if the food is handled properly, there is no danger at all to pets."
Susan Lauten, who has a master's degree in animal nutrition and a doctorate in biomedical science, runs a veterinary consulting business in Knoxville, Tenn. She agrees that, for the most part, healthy dogs and cats can safely eat raw food. But she's less enthusiastic about comparisons to the diet these creatures ate in the wild.
"In the wild, dogs didn't live very long," she told me. "And one reason was that they got sick from eating contaminated meat."
Lauten has a different concern about the raw diet. Animals that eat raw meat can release salmonella and other dangerous pathogens in their stool. "You don't want that around if you have kids or immune-compromised people," she said. "You can clean up after your dog, but you might not get everything."
And she raised another issue: economics. "Do you tell people that they can't have a cat unless they can afford the most expensive kind of food?"
Dr. Hannah Good, who practices holistic veterinary medicine in Santa Cruz, argues that "there's a lot that can be accomplished by going in a different direction than kibble." She noted that "a lot of diets are 100 percent garbage."
But she also said that high-grade kibble diets are balanced to include all the nutrients an animal needs.
And what do the vets feed their pets? Good said her dog "eats whatever I eat"; she prepares a version of her own meals for her canine companion. Lauten's dog has inflammatory bowel disease "and does very well on a commercial veterinary diet."
Bryan, who thinks what a dog eats is an important factor in its health, doesn't do the BARF thing either: "I give my dog Science Diet."