People kid Alexis Montgomery that her dogs eat better than she does.
Twice a day, Wuncho, her 4-year-old Irish wolfhound, and Caedie, her border collie pup, sumptuously dine on raw meat, raw fish and uncooked bones, including turkey necks, chicken backs, liver, mackerel and lamb.
Montgomery introduced Wuncho from birth to BARF, the unappetizing acronym for the "Bones and Raw Food" (also, "Biologically Appropriate Raw Food") diet that emphasizes human-grade meats along with never-cooked bones, crushed vegetables and supplements.
"It's not a fad. It's not going away," says Montgomery, 60, who lives in Riverside. "We're saving the lives of our friends."
The gold standard, say advocates of this natural-feeding movement, is a pet diet that closely adheres to what predators ate in the wild, namely, raw meat. The pet-food recall last spring -- believed to be caused by contaminated protein concentrates -- added raw-food converts and buttressed longtime supporters' contempt for commercial products.
"Cats are carnivorous," says Antoinette Fabre, of Temecula, who feeds her four felines raw rabbit with bones and has eliminated dried grains from their diet. "They're meant to be eating road kill, not cereal."
However, the raw diet doesn't draw universal raves. A study published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association in 2003 found that a diet of uncooked meat might cause a potentially fatal salmonella infection.
Many veterinarians aren't familiar with the BARF trend or discourage it.
"There's a big push as a result of the recall," says Dr. Diane Craig in Tustin, president of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association. "I personally haven't used the diet.
Fabre says one vet she knows wouldn't even discuss raw-food nutrition.
Holistic veterinarian Dr. Nancy Modglin in Loma Linda left this voice mail: "I work on an individual basis with each animal. I'm not an advocate of a raw-food diet."
'Nothing Voodoo' About It
On the other side, Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, 53, owner of All About Cats Health and Wellness Center in Yorba Linda, recently testified in Washington before a Senate subcommittee about what she believes is the magic-bullet cure for sick pets: raw meat. Joined by a growing number of pet owners, Hodgkins has sold 4,000 pounds of raw meat and bones in the last eight weeks.
"There's nothing voodoo or mysterious about eating natural, whole, fresh ingredients," says Hodgkins, who promotes a raw-meat diet in her book, published last month, "Your Cat: Simple Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life."
Until a decade ago, Hodgkins, who's had stints at Hill's Pet Nutrition and Heska veterinary science corporations, used only commercial pet products.
"I believed what I'd been told," she says. But when her beloved 4-year-old cat named Punkin nearly died from diabetes, she began studying pet-food labels and discovered a diet rich in carbohydrates.
She tossed Punkin's dry food and substituted a diet of canned meat, low in carbs and high in protein and fat. Within days of the new regimen, Punkin was off insulin. Hodgkins eventually switched completely to raw meat to avoid carbs altogether.
"The bias against raw food is ingrained in us by the very large pet-food industry," she says. "It has duped us into believing that artificial, packaged food is the only way to feed a cat."
Some Pros and Cons
She says there's tremendous opposition from commercial producers of dry pet food because animal owners love the convenience of leaving it out for days. In her testimony, she called for the removal of a special "nutritional adequacy" claim on pet-food products.
Pet Food Industry President Duane Ekedahl responded in an e-mail that bones can be dangerous to cats and dogs; bones and raw foods pose health risks to owners and pets; and a BARF diet can be messy and may not be nutritionally complete and balanced, and its products are difficult to store. He described most pet food as "one of the most highly regulated food products."
Critics also claim that raw feeding is expensive. One or 2 pounds of high-quality meat mix that owners defrost and serve can cost $2.50 to $7.
"It's not much more than premium dry or canned food," Hodgkins says. "But consider that your cats are healthier, resulting in huge savings in vet bills."
Marian Temple, 59, trashed her commercial dog food 11 years ago.
"Eating kibbles is like eating a Big Mac daily," says the Riverside resident. For Mr. Journey, her 4-year-old Irish wolfhound, she buys meat at Albertson's, ethnic markets, Elwell's Farm in Santa Ana and the SoCal BARF Co-op.
Mr. Journey, says Temple, is healthy and thriving. She and others who raise dogs on a BARF diet report shiny coats, gleaming teeth, sweet breath and smaller, odorless stools because their bodies absorb more of what they consume.
Hodgkins says few veterinarians are raw-food proponents because for most, 25 percent of their practice's income comes from sales of pet food.
"The pet-food industry has shut down education for pet owners," she contends. "They want to sell you their product."
However, the raw-food diet is beginning to make a small dent in mainstream thought, she says. "And it's no more complicated than ground meat and bones."
Where to Find Raw-Feeding Information:
"Your Cat: Simple Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life" by Elizabeth Hodgkins, available at amazon.com
"Give Your Dog a Bone: The Practical Commonsense Way to Feed Dogs for a Healthy Life" by Ian Billinghurst, available at dogwise.com
"The Ultimate Diet" by Kymythy Schultzee, available at dogwise.com.
"Raw Dog Food" by Carina Beth MacDonald, available at dogwise.com
Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins,
All About Cats Health and Wellness Center
23661 La Palma Ave., Yorba Linda, 714-692-8228
Don't BARF If:
You haven't done in-depth research.
If your dog is very old, chronically ill or has a compromised immune system. Check with a holistic veterinarian.
Someone in your household is very young or very old or has a poor immune system and might be sickened by exposure to bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella in raw meat.
If you're worried about choking. But remember, raw bones are a source of calcium. Many raw feeders choose to grind the bones to eliminate risks of perforation or blockage. Taurine, found in beef heart, is a good calcium source for cats. Otherwise, animals develop orthopedic problems.