The Boston Globe March 16, 2003 CALL OF THE WILD Pet Owners Are Finding There Are Health Benefits To Feeding Their Dogs A Truly Natural Diet -- Raw Meat. By Amy Graves Kathleen Allspaw is a familiar face at the Bread & Circus meat counter in Framingham. She goes there once every three weeks to buy ground-up raw chicken, turkey, and lamb. But Allspaw won't be dining on any of this meat -- she is a vegetarian. The consumer is her dog, Lucy, a 13- year-old terrier mix. If the raw meat rather disgusts Allspaw, it also satisfies her interest in her pet's well-being. She is serious about dog food and strong- ly believes -- along with a rapidly growing number of pet lovers willing to go to the extra trouble and expense -- that raw translates into robust health and longevity. Two years ago, at age 40, Allspaw quit her job teaching elementary- school science to enroll in animal-related courses at Tufts University. She had become interested in animal nutrition years ago and now shops for and prepares all of her dog's meals. She even bought a dehydrator, so that her dog can savor homemade chicken jerky. No desiccated pellets of dry chow for Lucy. Rescued from euthanasia and nursed through health problems, Lucy is a spunky, plump terrier with one ear that points straight up. Her button eyes, dark brown, hold a visitor's gaze. While at the market, Allspaw also picks up some organ meats (lamb hearts, chicken livers) and ground buffalo for variety in Lucy's diet, plus yams, broccoli, and chicken browth once home, She purees the raw vegetables, makes a mushy mess of the chicken broth and parts, combines them, and adds grapefruit seed extract (to kill any parasites). Then she pours in a cup each of powdered kelp, lecithin, and nutritional yeast (a pet nutritionist calls this "healthy powder"), and in 45 minutes she has enough personalized dog meals to last three weeks in her freezer. Margo Roman, a holistic veterinarian in Hopkinton, helps Allspaw fine- tune Lucy's diet and exercise. Lucy should lose about 10 pounds to reach her ideal weight, Allspaw says, and alternative chow "is the best [thing] I can do for her." Like a lot of other raw-feeding converts, Allspaw started slowly. She fed Lucy cooked turkey and oats for years before initially switching to just raw chicken, without the grain. At dinnertime these days, Lucy scarfs down a bowl of her grub lickety-split, but like a lot of dogs, she had to be coaxed at first into this new way of eating. Raw meat and vegetables are thought by a growing number of owners and breeders to have enzymes that dogs and cats need. Raw-feeding disciples say proc essed food lacks these enzymes and takes more work for animals to digest. They believe that dogs on raw food have a higher energy level, glossier fur, stronger teeth, and a sturdy buffer against disease. The diet is based on what wolves and wild dogs find to eat (one reason it's uncooked). Bones, rich in calcium and said to work wonders on dogs' teeth, have to be served raw, because cooked bones splinter. The raw meat and vegetable approach has an acronym and a guru. BARF, or bones and raw food (elsewhere it's biologically appropriate raw foods), originated in Australia with veterinarian Ian Billinghurst, who saw dogs getting sick in the 1980s around the same time that commercial dog food became more common on the continent. His first book on feeding a natural or "evolutionary" diet, Give Your Dog a Bone, was published in 1993 and introduced at a three-day bichon frise conference in Sydney. Research physicians in California had reached a similar conclusion 40 years ago about the effects of feeding cats raw meat and milk and later extrapolated those results for dogs. The principal researcher, Francis M. Pottenger, found that over a 10-year period, cats given only cooked meat and pasteurized milk from leftovers on hospital trays did not live long enough to reproduce. Over the course of the experiment, Pottenger got more cats and fed them leftover raw food; those cats thrived. Patricia Connolly, curator of the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation in California, says the raw food movement has more followers in Australia but is catching on in the United States, especially among breeders and trainers of show dogs. "The flea problems go away; their coats look beautiful," Connolly says. "The golden retriever I have now I am feeding raw meat with some organ tossed in and pulped vegetables. "One way we judge how popular this trend is is how often we have to reprint the two books we publish," Pottenger's Cats and Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, she says. "Certainly we are noticing a lot more interest in our materials, our books and our videos. We used to sell Nutrition and Physical Degeneration [singly]. Then Amazon.com ordered two and three at a time, and now they order about 50 at a time, once a month." The foundation, a clearinghouse for alternative medicine and holistic nutrition, was founded 40 years ago on the basis of Pottenger's research and the work of Weston A. Price, a dentist in Cleveland who believed tooth decay in humans was directly related to poor nutrition. Most traditional veterinarians wouldn't dream of recommending raw meat for a dog because of the risks of food-borne bacteria. Holistic vets say dogs have a short digestive tract and strong stomach acid built to handle raw food. And more people are buying this argument and buying into a whole new way of looking at their pets' health. Lance Woodley, a dog trainer in Brookline for 23 years, has been feeding his German shepherds whole raw chickens, beef, kelp, and vitamins for a few years now. He started when he saw that the older one, Nico, wasn't doing well on commercial dog food. "He was always having ear infections and always having a loose stool," he says. "So I went to the raw and started making up my own. I don't cook anything." Woodley's puppy, Bina, goes through 2 pounds of meat every day; Nico eats about 3 pounds. Woodley prefers to buy meat that comes from animals raised without the use of steroids. That philosophy of holistic raw feeding (holistic diets for animals include free-range chickens and additive-free beef and organic vegetables) can get expensive -- unless you buy in quantity and own a freezer. "I try to get a lot of my clients to switch," Woodley says, "and a lot of them have." Ordering packaged, frozen raw food or visiting Bread & Circus on a regular basis isn't cheap, but pet owners who do think they save on veterinarian bills later. And it isn't just a practice among whole-foods aficionados. Skiptons, a discount pet food supplier in Dorchester, sells $50,000 a year in packaged raw food, says owner Steve Carlin. Two years ago, the store didn't sell it at all. "People come in every day asking about it," he says. Carlin just switched his 1-year-old bull mastiff to raw food. He's planning to buy a walk-in freezer so the store can carry more of the frozen brands. Diane Dewberry, a raw-food advocate who recently sold her dog-grooming business in South Boston, sees a future in it. She plans to open The Healthy Animal, a health food store for pets, this month. The Pembroke store will carry packaged raw foods, supplements, and brands of traditional food that most closely match the raw diet. Raw foods and supplements are widely available on the Internet; an online search yielded hundreds of discussion groups, raw-food distributors, and retailers (there are dozens of retailers in Mas sa chu setts alone). Dewberry thinks the market is just starting to take off. She feeds her dog, Josie, a 6-year-old basenji-Labrador mix that she got at a shelter, a rotating menu of raw beef, chicken, and turkey, with vitamin supplements and an organic grain mix. Like anyone who has switched to the Zone diet or macrobiotics, Dewberry is a true believer. "It certainly extends their lives," Dewberry says, citing a friend whose Irish wolfhound lived to the ripe age of 10 on a raw-meat diet (the breed's life expectancy is 6). "Josie has never had any medical problems, no teeth problems, nothing," she says. "I would never feed my dog any other way." Dogs that are converted from commercial to raw food undergo "detoxing," Dewberry says. "I've seen a change in coat color sometimes. Some dogs lose all their hair, then it all comes back again. It depends on how old the dog is and how much vaccination they've had." Dogs are typically overvaccinated, she says, raising another whole area of debate. Dewberry guesses that she spends about $10 a week on Josie's food. Because ground necks, backs, and organs are in less demand among humans, they retail for less than other cuts of meat. Hard-core practitioners prefer free-range chicken and organic meat, the more expensive, holistic alternative. About once a week, Josie gets whatever Dewberry is having for dinner, usually cooked vegetables and grilled fish. At her South Boston store, Dewberry had advised customers to go slowly on diet changes. "It is scary for a lot of people," she says, "because they were taught that you never feed anything raw." So are the rest of us slowly poisoning our dogs with commercial dog food? Even holistic veterinarians acknowledge that plenty of dogs reach their typical life spans on commercial chow. But they believe more and more dogs and cats are getting chronic disease, including cancer, too soon. "If you're giving your dog a dry food with 16 different flavor enhancers," Roman, the Hopkinton vet, says, "how can his intestines do what they're supposed to do?" Many commercial foods contain BHA/BHT, a preservative linked to renal failure in dogs, according to advocates of natural dog food. Labels require some deciphering, because "chicken byproducts" can mean lungs, kidneys, brain, spleen, liver, fatty tissue, stomach, intestines, and heads of a slaughtered animal. Pedigree, Alpo, and Science Diet are made primarily with meat byproducts. Judy Marvelli, owner of the Wizard of Paws in Middleborough, says Wysong, Solid Gold, and Wellness are three brands of dry and canned foods that do not rely on chemical preservatives or "parts." Her store also sells raw diets such as Bravo and Steve's. Raw diets are breed- specific, she says. "You can't feed a greyhound a high-fat diet, but a husky could eat a diet that's 90 percent fat, with meats like lamb." Dogs on raw diets drink a lot less water, Marvelli says. "They are getting their moisture where they should be getting it, from the food." Is this the wave of things to come? Content to drink from muddy ponds and eat whatever they find in the neighbor's trash, the dogs I know don't seem to know or care what's good for them. An experiment with my Australian shepherds, Chloe and Duffy, proved that however biologically appropriate, raw turkey necks are an acquired taste. They licked the necks with curiosity but no appetite. The same went for cooked sweet potatoes that I carefully peeled, mashed, and doused in orange juice to enliven their taste. (When I was advised to puree the sweet potatoes in chicken broth, I declined -- on the basis that a recipe for the first course of a dinner party is not something for a dog. A can of raw ground-up beef heart and liver mixed with water, made by Wysong, which aims to "simulate the archetypal carnivorous eating patterns of dogs and cats," went down their hatches in seconds flat. Funny, it sure smelled and looked a whole lot like regular dog food.