Why we should question scientific research

There is a great deal of truth in Mark Twain’s famous quip (‘lies, damned lies and statistics), especially when one looks at how the results of scientific research are often twisted. Jonathan Self considers a canine study that was poorly constructed and wilfully misinterpreted and yet was widely quoted in the national media.

I believe that a handful of vets and academics are wilfully misleading dog lovers on purpose. How? By attacking the increasingly popular ‘raw food’ diet – a perfectly safe diet that has been proven to dramatically improve canine health and wellbeing – on the grounds that it is dangerous.

A good example is the way in which researchers at Bristol University recently twisted the results of their work. Last summer the Daily Mail quoted one of their researchers, Professor Avison, who said that: ‘The fashionable [raw food] diet is not the safest choice for a domesticated dog.’ He went on to claim that his research: ‘Adds to the increasing body of peer-reviewed evidence that raw meat feeding is associated with various bacterial infectious diseases risks in dogs.’

Essentially, Professor Avison is suggesting that there is a risk that dogs fed raw meat will transmit harmful bacteria – in this case E. coli – to their human companions. What absolute rubbish.

Professor Avison knows full well that E. coli, of which there are hundreds of varieties, is a bacteria commonly found in the intestines of both healthy people and animals. In most cases this bacteria is not only harmless, but actually aids digestion. People and dogs need E. coli to be healthy!

True, certain strains of E. coli can cause symptoms including diarrhoea, stomach pain, cramps, and low-grade fever. However, the vast majority of cases of E. coli infections are mild and do not cause a serious health risk. Only a tiny, tiny percentage pose any real danger to humans or dogs. He is correct, too, that some strains of E. coli have become resistant to antibiotics. This has nothing to do with our four-legged friends but is due to the overuse of antibiotics in factory farming and over prescription by human doctors and vets.

If Professor Avison and his colleagues were being honest, they would point out that the E. coli risk to humans really comes from contaminated meat, fruit, vegetables, soft cheeses and water. It can also be transmitted as a result of touching an infected surface such as a shopping trolley handle or a baby’s nappy. For dogs, the risk comes from swimming in contaminated water, drinking from contaminated puddles and licking contaminated grass, as well as eating contaminated food.

Could a dog transmit E. coli (harmful or otherwise) to a human? In theory, yes. That’s why we should wash our hands after stroking a dog and also why we shouldn’t let them lick our face.

But it is vital to keep it in perspective. E. coli poses very, very little risk to either humans or dogs.

There is a bigger issue here: the manipulation of scientific research results to support a false argument. One of Professor Avison’s studies, for example, involved 600 dogs of which only 43 were fed a raw meat diet. These dogs did not live in laboratory conditions but swam in lakes, walked in the countryside, played in parks and so forth. There was no control group. The study protocol had no inherent logic. In fact, the research was actually designed to discover what the risk factor was for dogs from certain E. Coli strains, according to whether the dog lived in an urban or rural setting. In other words, it had nothing to do with their diet.

So, how did it become an anti-raw dog food story?

The big, processed pet food manufacturers – who pocket £3.1 billion a year from turning waste ingredients into kibble and canned food – are worried about the trend towards feeding a more natural, traditional diet to dogs. No matter how much they spend on advertising, sponsorship and ‘educating’ vets they can’t stop the raw food movement. Dog lovers who have switched their dogs to a raw food diet tell other dog lovers of the benefits, and so the word spreads. In Professor Avison’s study some 8% of the dogs were raw fed. In cash terms that means the processed food manufacturers are already losing out on £248m of sales a year. You can see why they could be concerned.

I have no idea whether pet food or pharmaceutical (they don’t like raw feeding either, because it leads to healthier dogs) companies fund the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Bristol University, where Professor Avison is employed, but it is interesting that his spouse is a vet who sells kibble.

You’ll notice I have said very little here about what raw feeding is, or why I believe it is the best diet for your dog. There are lots of books on the subject and plenty of independent research to support the practice. Membership of the Raw Food Veterinary Society – a group of vets and vet nurses who promote the diet – is growing daily. If you are a dog lover, you must make up your own mind. Bear in mind, however, that there is an orchestrated campaign out there to discredit raw feeding. I would urge you not to believe everything negative you read on the subject.