The BARF (“Bones and Raw Food”
or “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food”) diet is a
system of holistic nutrition which is championed by Dr Ian Billinghurst
who is an Australian vet. Dr. Billinghurst has published several
books on health and nutrition. The best known of these is called
“Give Your Dog a Bone”. The BARF Evolutionary philosophy
is at first glance an attractive one; it seems to be truly natural
because it tries to emulate the lifestyle of the dog in the wild.
But, after due consideration I am of the opinion that the BARF
theory, like the emperor’s new clothes, does not stand up
to critical inspection.
The BARF or “Evolutionary” Diet is based on the principle
that domestic dogs should be fed on a diet which replicates as
closely as possible the diet of the wild dog. According to Dr
Billinghurst domestic dogs have been fed on processed (cooked)
foods for only approximately 70 years and this is not a long enough
time to adapt to cooked foods.
To replicate the diet of the wild dog he recommends that all carbohydrate
should be avoided and pet dogs and cats should be fed on a diet
based on raw meaty bones and raw vegetables . Dr Billinghurst
insists that because of this evolutionary history the BARF DIET
is the ONLY correct way to feed the modern domestic pet dog.
The problem with the evolutionary argument is that domestic dogs
bear little relationship to the original wild dog. Very early
in their association it is likely that man selected and bred those
animals which suited his purpose e.g. guarding, hunting, more
docile, less independent – even better suited to the food
provided by man.
There are practical reasons why the diet of the wild dog is not
automatically suitable for the domestic dog. The modern dog and
its lifestyle bear no similarity whatever to the wild dog. We
provide shelter in heated houses, they do not have to forage or
compete for food, they eat every day, and they have little exercise
compared to a wild dog.
Many dogs have dietary sensitivity which means that they need
a highly digestible diet, low in protein and low in fat. I can’t
see how that could be achieved with a BARF diet.
Modern farm livestock is reared in such a way that the fat content,
even in “lean” meat is very high. So a diet high in
meat will inevitably be high in fat too.
The Carbohydrate Question
According to Dr Billinghurst dogs cannot digest carbohydrate.
In reality, the dog has very sophisticated, sensitive and efficient
mechanisms for breaking down carbohydrate and ensuring its absorption.
This could not have evolved if carbohydrate was detrimental.
But, according to BARF, carbohydrate causes so many health problems
e.g. inflammatory disease such as pancreatitis. While it is true
that low-quality or refined carbohydrate may be undesirable, what
vet has not recommended chicken and rice to treat gastro-intestinal
There are other major flaws with the BARF philosophy. One which
flies in the face of the facts is the assertion that raw food
is more digestible and that cooking destroys that digestibility.
Simple common sense and experience tell us that cooking actually
increases digestibility. Increasing the digestibility of the food
is an important way of treating bowel disease and problems of
malabsorption. Cooking does this.
I suspect that any success claimed for the Raw Food system is
due to a much more mundane explanation than its grandiose but
erroneous philosophy. This is that any benefits are due to the
avoidance of ingredients which cause dietary intolerance.
My main criticism of the BARF philosophy is its self-righteousness.
BARFism puts forward a flawed theory with a certainty which bears
comparison to religious fundamentalism; it brooks no dissent.
It advocates a system which is impractical and does not fit well
into the lifestyle of present society, denying the possibility
of alternatives, thereby condemning those pet owners, the majority,
to feelings of inadequacy for failure to follow its teachings.