Raw diet good for pet health and the environment

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Possums, rabbits, hares, wallabies and goats are all on the menu at ‘Raw Essentials’, a pet-food company which strongly believes in feeding our carnivore pets a true carnivorous diet.

If that diet includes meat, bone and organs from pest species which would otherwise go to waste, then so much the better for sustainability, the environment and our pets.

A bag of dog food
A variety of pest species end up in the freezers at ‘Raw Essentials’, including possums, rabbits, hares and wallabies. Image credit: Supplied

The pet-food company’s range uses around 10 tonne of pest-species meat, bone and organs every week. It is essential to include bones and organs in the mix to ensure the raw food diet is balanced, according to Anna Mair of ‘Raw Essentials’.

Possums eat an amazing diet – they’re the ultimate food for our pets, Anna reckons. The Auckland-based company sources possums from the length of New Zealand, while its rabbits come from South Island suppliers.

It’s all about feeding animals species appropriate nutrition, says Anna, who first met ‘Raw Essentials’ founder, Lyn Thomson, when they were working together as vets in an Auckland practice about 10 years ago. The two veterinarians were seeing chronic ill-health in their cat and dog patients, which they believed was linked to highly processed food, filled with inappropriate ingredients such as grains.

Kibble/pet biscuit diets are often high in carbohydrates and low in protein, leading to pet obesity problems. Weight issues melt away, Anna says, once cats and dogs return to a higher protein, prey-based, balanced diet of meat, organs and bones – the natural diet that they evolved to eat.

Realising the link between pet-health and diet, ‘Raw Essentials’ founders looked for sources of small dead animals. They teamed up with a small, family-based, pet-food processor in Christchurch and the two companies have grown together. The first ‘Raw Essentials’ shop opened in Grey Lynn in 2008 and there are now eight premises, seven around Auckland and one in Hamilton.

The company has resisted wholesaling through agents as they want to have face-to-face contact with their clients to make sure that pets are getting the right mix of food. There’s a lot of confusion about how best to feed pets. It’s important to make a choice, says Anna. If a raw diet and processed food are both fed in a mixed diet, the gut struggles to produce enough acid to properly digest the raw meat. Blockages, tummy upsets and a range of other problems can result.

The ‘Raw Essentials’ range also includes farmed product such as chicken, veal and lamb, so if possums and other pests are ever totally eradicated, there are other options. But in the meantime, with possums and other pest species in plentiful supply and a trending return to the ‘waste not-want not’ values of our grandparents, pest-based products are becoming a ‘sexy’ way to feed pets.

There is a growing public awareness of sustainability issues and an interest in where our food comes from. Possums need to be killed and they make a high quality pet-food, so it’s great to use them up. And they’re a local problem – which is where the sustainability comes in – no reliance on imported products, so less food miles are involved in pet meat production. All ‘Raw Essentials’ products are New Zealand sourced.

Anna says her workdays are now filled with clients’ stories of their pets improved health. But the benefits go further than that. When they see how their pet’s health has improved with a species appropriate diet, clients are taking steps to improve their own diet. That doesn’t mean people are dining on possums – at least not yet – but they are returning to more traditional ways of eating, with minimally processed food that fits our own biology as omnivores. It is, says Anna, a lovely overlap.