Article about critical thinking and the public health risks of raw feeding dogs
By veterinarian and (geriatry) zootherapist Caroline Kilsdonk, February 2016. Translation: Laure-Anne Visele
Illustration credits at the end of the post
The article below is a translation of a Caroline Kilsdonk blog post: “Laisser la place à l’expert” (in French). In this post, Caroline reminds people to exercise caution towards the human health risks of raw-feeding dogs, she questions expertise-cum-arguments-from-authority and she encourages us to base our advice on well-established fact rather than compelling personal experience. Caroline touches these hot button issues with her characteristic intellectual honesty.
About the author: zootherapist in Canada
Caroline Kilsdonk is a veterinarian, mother of four, zootherapist, bioethics Master’s student and talented blogger. Her intellectual output fascinates researchers and laymen alike.
She shares her moving reflections on bioethics, science, the dog-man relationship, zootherapy, and much more, in her (French-speaking) blog: Raison et compassion. To find out more about Caroline’s work in zootherapy, read her interview on Canis bonus.
About Canis bonus: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague
Laure-Anne graduated in Zoology, completed her certifications in dog training instruction, and got a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).
If you are based in Rijswijk, Delft, Den Haag or region and need ethically sound and evidence-based advice on your dog’s behaviour, you can get in touch with Laure-Anne here.
Make room for the expert
I have followed dog food trends with great interest over the past few years, particularly the controversies surrounding raw food. Many are convinced of a raw diet’s benefits and, once converted, some tend to strongly encourage others to follow suit with non-veterinary consultants encouraging their clients in that direction without hesitation.
I never intervene on the respective benefits of kibble vs. raw food – or, for that matter, on the kibble vs. a homemade cooked balanced diet. It is a complex matter with many variables like the quality of the kibble in question and the health of the individual dog (are there relevant digestive or dermatological issues for example?). And I have grown wary of even mentioning the (real) risks to the dog’s health. The raw food question has become so emotionally charged that discussions can quickly go awry. The one point where I do intervene is this: I ask people exercise caution when using raw meat, particularly in the presence of young children or elderly/sick persons. Strangely, even this message can be taken badly.
I am a doctor in veterinary medicine, I have recently completed postgraduate courses on zoonoses, and I am studying for a Master’s in bioethics (taught in a public health school). My background demonstrates a solid scientific education and a will to keep up with the latest developments as well as a concerns for ethics in (human and animal) public health.
Is my background enough for you to accept what I say uncritically? No.
No academic background guarantees that someone is telling the truth on any given subject. I could have a PhD in canine behaviour and still tell you that socialising pups is useless based on personal anecdotes. I could say I have seen dozens of ex-puppy farm dogs growing up into happy, healthy family dogs. Whilst this is possibly true, it would be obvious to you that it does not constitute enough evidence; possibly because you are already convinced of the benefits of socialisation… Let’s take another example.
Let’s say that someone has a Master’s in animal nutrition (often focusing on cattle feed, by the way, which, is a long way away from feeding carnivores). Let’s say they tell you that raw feeding your dog presents no risk purely based on the fact that they have fed their own dogs raw for years with no problem. Why would you accept that uncritically?
We have precious little data supporting the possible benefits of raw food and the arguments I often hear in favor of raw food have little grounding in science. I know better than to emit an opinion on these «advantages» as long as we don’t know more. The risks of raw food, on the other hand, are undeniable: well-known, documented, and published. Of course you are a grown-up, you are sound of mind, so you are free to make these decisions for your dog even if it brings certain risks to him or her. Where I have a bigger problem is when many people encourage others to also start feeding their dogs raw, without warning them against the risks.
Anecdotes can have a certain value as long as you don’t try to draw universal conclusions from them
My response was this: “No. When I say there are risks to human health, that is not a matter of personal opinion. No personal anecdote or personal experience to the contrary carries any weight against the thousands of scientific papers and position papers that have been published.” [see reference section for details] The administrator then asked me in private to make room for the expert, to which I promptly complied: I left the group!
What does an «expert» need to merit our trust?
- He has solid knowledge of the fundamentals of the topic
- He knows the individual case well.
- He does not base his advice on personal experience.
- He is open to revising his position in light of new information.
- He does not adopt a black-and-white stance, and is capable of nuance.
- He does not go counter to science (such as opposing any form of vaccination)
- He can call for caution on certain points (like certain types of vaccines at a certain age)
- Whilst it is entirely reasonable to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism towards individual research findings, totally ignoring thousands of valid research studies boils down to rejecting the scientific method. To say “I am against all vaccination” is the equivalent to claiming that “There are no risks inherent to raw feeding.”
I do not believe myself to be an expert in canine nutrition. When I intervene on a point, I endeavour to inform myself and not let personal beliefs taint my objectivity. Of course no one can show perfect objectivity, but at least we have to try to be neutral.
I hope my message will get through and that you will exercise caution with the health of those around you who are more vulnerable. If you are a dog consultant and promote raw food, I hope that I have sensitized you a little towards exercising caution around the human health issues.
* The objective of this text is to transmit a message of caution to protect people with fragile health. I do not aim at one person in particular, which would not be my style.
- Preacher: “Blasts from the ram’s horns” from book “Blasts from the ram’s horns” p. 286, 1902, Chicago Publishers. With thanks to the University of Connecticut’s Libraries. Downloaded from Flickr Commons on 28 February 2016 (No known copyright restrictions).
- Shouting coins: “Shouts“, with thanks to Fabrizio Morroia. Downloaded from Flickr Commons on 28 February 2016 (No known copyright restrictions).
- Citations needed: “Wikipedian protester“, with thanks to Randall Munroe. Downloaded from Wikipedia on 28 February 2016 (CC2.5)
- Subjective Venn: “Critical thinking“, with thanks to opensource.com. Downloaded from Flickr Commons on 28 February 2016 (CC2.0)
Caroline’s blog (in French): Raison et compassion (reason and compassion)
Organisational position statements on raw food:
Other Canis bonus articles by/with Caroline:
Other related Canis bonus articles:
- Vegan dog: about polarizing trends in dog food
- Dog experts and gynecologists: about various expertise status in canine consultants and the need for regulation
- Dog Food Logic: Review of Linda Case’s evidence-based book “Dog Food Logic”
- What is “Evidence-based” in “Evidence-Based dog behaviour therapy practice?”: First post in a series on the evidence-based concept in dog behaviour interventions
- Canine McCarthyism: Blog post about canine anti-vaxxers