Yes, You Can Feed Chicken to Your Pets (Probably)
You heard me. CON-TRO-VERSIAL. I know.
If you’ve been reading about raw feeding for a while, you have probably come up against an article or someone in a Facebook group, or even a nutritionist who says you shouldn’t feed your dog or cat chicken. Blanket rule: no chicken. I recently encountered someone who had received an unsolicited newsletter from their vet, specifically warning them not to feed their dog chicken!
Time and time again I meet people who tell me they’ve heard they shouldn’t feed their pet this humble poultry, but they don’t actually know why. Just vague statements that it’s inflammatory, or a “reactive” protein, or that they’re worried it will cause paralysis, but they’re not really clear on how.
These reasons are not completely plucked from thin air, but I don’t think they warrant an all out indiscriminate ban on feeding chicken. So why do people advise against it?
Chicken is inflammatory
Inflammation has become a bit of a buzzword to describe any adverse event in your health, kind of like “toxin” has come to mean anything bad in the environment. In reality, inflammation is actually what happens when your immune system is doing its job. In the case of a flesh wound, for example, skin becomes inflamed to protect the wound and prevent bacteria from entering. The pain, swelling and redness you experience in this situation is a sign of a healthy immune system, and without it wounds would be far more susceptible to infection. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is bad news. This kind of inflammation occurs when the above immune response occurs, but the trigger of the response is not removed, so it happens continually and can eventually lead to other more serious problems. Using the above example of a flesh wound, it’s kind of like if you kept picking the scab and never let it heal.
One of the ways inflammation can manifest in the body is if we continually eat foods high in omega 6 fatty acids, which can trigger the production of inflammatory chemicals in the body, and not enough foods high in omega 3, which has anti-inflammatory potential. Omega 6 is not inherently inflammatory, on the contrary it is an essential fatty acid necessary for growth and deficiencies can lead to serious health issues. The problems arise because these two fatty acids compete for the same conversion enzymes. This wouldn’t be an issue if we were still consuming a 1:1 ratio of them, but the modern diet is far far higher in omega 6 than it is in omega 3, at least in part due to changes in agricultural farming methods. And on that note, you’ll never guess what is high in omega 6, but low in omega 3. OK, maybe you will. That’s right, it’s chicken. Chicken is inherently higher in omega 6 than it is 3, however this has been exacerbated by the fact that we now tend to feed poultry a diet that is incredibly high in *drumroll please* …omega 6. Historically they would have eaten a range of grasses and insects, which provides them with a far more balanced fatty acid content in their diet, whereas now they eat mostly corn and soy.
But this doesn’t mean feeding chicken to your dog or cat will immediately create inflammation in the body. If you feed a diet that contains a lot of factory farmed chicken and very little omega 3, then yeah, there’s a good chance you will experience some inflammation. But I wouldn’t recommend doing that anyway because that’s not a balanced diet. And that’s not the chicken’s fault, it’s yours. Like any protein, chicken should be fed in rotation with ideally at least 3 or 4 other proteins. If you are able to source organic and pasture raised chicken, I suggest you do it. And you should be adding a dedicated source of omega 3 to any homemade diet to offset the omega 6 in… well, pretty much bloody everything (not just chicken).
Chicken is a reactive protein
To be perfectly honest this isn’t actually even an entirely meaningful statement, let alone an accurate one. Was the chicken naughty at school? Did it growl at other chickens when you took it for a walk?
I am being facetious and I know that what people mean when they say this is that chicken tends to create adverse reactions and symptoms of an intolerance or allergy more than other proteins. Whether this is true or not I couldn’t say because I’ve never seen any evidence to support or refute this claim. But if I did see such evidence, I would want to ensure it was relative to the rate of chicken consumption. I would hazard a guess that chicken is probably the single most common protein fed to pets, so it stands to reason that there would be more reactions to it than to other, less prevalent proteins. A simple numbers game, if you will.
But this prevalence can not only be correlated to the “reactiveness” of chicken – it can also account for the cause. This is a rare instance where correlation and causation may well be one and the same. You see, allergies and intolerances are often mistakenly confused. A true protein allergy is a rare thing that creates an acute, almost immediate reaction, that is often gastric (of the tummy) and sometimes epidermal (of the skin). An intolerance, however, tends to manifest over a period of months or years and can present in similar but usually less severe ways.
A leading cause of food intolerance in animals is being fed the same food over and over and over, coupled with that food not being very good for them. So, for example, if you fed a chicken flavoured dry dog food to your pooch for several months, this would create inflammation in the gut because dry food is high in processed carbohydrates, which is not a suitable macronutrient for dogs to eat in large quantities. Over time this would erode the lining of the intestinal tract, causing microscopic holes to form, allowing tiny particles of food to seep through and into the bloodstream. Because this food is not where it is supposed to be, the immune system quite reasonably does not identify it as food and it sends an immune response to fight it (in this example we’ll say the immune response is a skin condition, because they often are). Good job immune system, gold star for you. Of course you don’t realise that your suddenly very itchy dog is reacting to his food because he’s ALWAYS eaten that food, so you quite reasonably keep feeding it. Next time it encounters chicken, however, your dog’s immune system goes, “Hey! I remember you! You’re bad news, let’s rumble” and thus you and your four legged BFF have embarked on a long and prosperous journey with a chicken intolerance.
If you’ve had a similar experience and your dog is reacting to chicken then you may just have to give it a miss. But if you’re not currently experiencing a reaction, it’s not necessary to completely eliminate chicken from the diet to prevent one. You just need to feed it as a part of a varied, fresh, balanced diet.
Chicken causes paralysis
This was a fun few weeks in the raw feeding community, wasn’t it? So the back story here is that Melbourne University conducted a study that determined dogs fed raw chicken necks experienced a higher rate of a bacterial pathogen that may lead to a condition that can cause paralysis.
Except that none of that is true.
It wasn’t a Melbourne University study, it was conducted at a veterinary clinic affiliated with the University of Melbourne. And they didn’t actually determine that dogs fed raw chicken necks were any more at risk of developing paralysis than those not fed raw chicken necks. In fact, the prevalence of this bacteria in the gut of dogs fed raw chicken was about the same as the already established rates of prevalence in the gut of all dogs, regardless of what they are fed. And frankly it was a stretch to even call it a study. The sample size was pitifully small (74 dogs) and the control group (ie. the healthy dogs) included staff members’ pets. You can read more about why this “study” is bogus in this article, which I highly recommend you do.
Chicken is not perfect. No meat is, independent of a balanced diet. But I personally believe that it has many positive qualities that make it an excellent choice for a lot of pets: it’s cheap, it’s easily accessible and it is a great meaty bone option for dogs and cats of almost any size. It is entirely up to you what you choose to feed your animals but if your pet does not experience an adverse reaction to chicken and you would like to feed it to them, I say feed it. I do.
If you’d like to learn more about how you can provide a balanced homemade diet, with or without chicken (hey it’s your life, man) check out my shop today.