Raw food diets for dogs have grown in popularity over the last several years. Proponents claim that raw food is healthier than traditional dog food. However, most veterinarians do not recommend raw diets for their patients. What’s true and who’s right? The truth is that there are many misconceptions about raw food diets. Purported benefits have not been validated and many pet parents are unaware of the risks associated with a raw diet. Before deciding to switch to a raw diet, make sure you understand the pros and cons of raw food diets.
What exactly is a raw diet?
Raw food diets, also known as BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) or PMR (Prey Model Raw) diets, involve feeding dogs raw meat, bones, organs, and sometimes vegetables and fruits.
According to JAVMA, raw diets are “diets that include uncooked ingredients derived from domesticated or wild caught food animal species that are fed to dogs or cats living in home environments.” These diets may include bones, skeletal muscle, byproducts, organs, unpasteurized milk, and uncooked eggs. To further complicate matters, raw food diets can be commercially available or home-made.
Why do people think raw diets are better?
There are several reasons why people feed their pets raw food diets. Proponents of raw food diets believe that raw food diets have many benefits. Is this truth or fiction?
1. “Raw food diets are closer to what our dogs’ ancestors ate in the wild.”
Advocates for a raw food diet believe that domesticated dogs have the same nutritional needs as their wild ancestors. Since dogs descended from wolves, they believe that our dogs’ diets should mimic what wolves eat. Wolves are carnivores whose digestive systems have evolved to process raw meat, bones, and organs. Proponents of the raw food diet argue that traditional dog food is overly processed and contains carbohydrates and other additives that can lead to a host of health problems, including obesity, dental disease, and gastrointestinal issues.
While this idea may seem to make sense, it is based on the flawed assumption that domesticated dogs have the same nutritional needs as wolves. A new study that compared the genome of domesticated dogs with wolves found that dogs have evolved and adapted significantly from wolves. “The genome signature of dog domestication” shows that they have adapted to a starch-rich diet. Unlike wolves that are pure carnivores, dogs are in fact omnivores.
As omnivores, domesticated dogs have evolved so that their gut can digest and metabolize plant-based ingredients in addition to meat. However, dogs still need a diet that is high in animal protein and fat to meet their nutritional needs. Protein is necessary for the growth and maintenance of muscle tissue and fat is important for energy, insulation, and the absorption of vitamins and minerals. Though dogs are not carnivores, the take home point is that they require a balanced diet that is high in animal protein and fat and low in carbohydrates and fiber. Their digestive system is not equipped to handle large amounts of carbohydrates or fiber. Diets that are high in carbohydrates can lead to weight gain, digestive problems, and other health issues.
2. “Raw foods are more easily digestible than processed kibble.”
There is a common belief that raw food diets are more easily digestible than kibble. Proponents of raw food diets often claim that dogs are better adapted to digest raw meat and bones. There is some evidence from studies that raw food diets are more digestible but most of these studies were done in cats and not dogs. For example, one study that examined feeding raw or kibble to African wildcats reported better crude protein digestibility in raw diets though this did not apply to fat, dry matter, or energy digestibility.
A study in dogs that compared extruded dry kibble (commercial dog food), high-moisture roasted refrigerated, high-moisture grain-free roasted refrigerated, and raw diet reported mixed results. When compared to kibble, raw diet had better digestibility in fat but not crude protein or energy (high-moisture grain-free roasted refrigerated had higher crude protein digestibility than raw). Ultimately, a review of the literature shows little scientific evidence to support the claim that raw food is more digestible than kibble in dogs. In fact, raw food diets can be tough and fibrous and cause gastrointestinal problems such as constipation, diarrhea, and even blockages in the digestive tract. While raw food diets may seem like a more natural and therefore more digestible option for dogs, the evidence does not support this claim.
3. “Raw food diets are better for your dog’s teeth.”
Another myth about raw food diets is that they are better for your dog’s teeth. However, a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition reported that home-prepared diets had a higher risk of a dog having oral health issues than commercial dry food (41% versus 22%). Another study reported a 42% decrease in the accumulation of tartar with larger kibble. Ironically, raw food diets that include bones may injure your dog’s teeth. Bone is added to raw food diets to provide calcium and phosphorus. However, if the bones are not ground completely, bone fragments can break a tooth or cause gastrointestinal problems.
What are the risks of feeding a raw diet?
While the purported benefits of a raw food diet are questionable at best, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that raw food diets may actually be harmful to dogs. Raw diets may contain dangerous bacteria, bone fragments that can cause problems, be nutritionally deficient, or be harmful to people.
One of the primary concerns with raw food diets is the risk of bacterial contamination. Raw meat and bones can carry harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, which can cause serious illness in both dogs and humans. One study reported that 80% of home-prepared raw chicken-based diets were contaminated with Salmonella versus 0% in commercial kibble. Commercial raw meat-based diets have not fared better. Another study reported that 21% of 166 commercial raw diets were contaminated with Salmonella. Dogs can become sick from these bacteria by ingesting contaminated raw food or by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces. And, it is not just dogs, humans can also become sick when they come in contact with bacterial contaminated food, bowls or feces
Raw food diets contain bones as an ingredient. Raw bones are often included in commercial raw food diets as a natural source of calcium and other nutrients. However, these bones can be very hard and if they are not ground sufficiently, bone fragments can cause dental fractures, broken teeth, and other serious dental problems. In addition, bone fragments can also cause gastrointestinal injuries and lead to constipation.
Another risk associated with raw food diets is the potential for nutritional deficiencies and imbalances. Home-cooked diets, and even some commercially-available raw food diets, often lack essential nutrients which can lead to a range of health problems. For example, a lack of calcium can result in weakened bones and teeth, while a lack of vitamin D can cause rickets. Additionally, raw food diets may not provide enough fiber or carbohydrates, which can lead to gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and diarrhea. A recent European study found that 60% of homemade raw diets had major nutritional imbalances and did not meet the nutritional needs of the pet.
Not suitable for all pets
It is also important to note that raw food diets may not be suitable for all dogs. Dogs with certain health conditions, such as pancreatitis or kidney disease, may not be able to tolerate a high-protein diet.
Health risks for humans
Raw food diets also pose a risk for humans. Handling raw meat and dishes can expose people to harmful bacteria like salmonella, E. coli and listeria. These bacteria pose even greater problems for people who are young, immunocompromised, old, or pregnant.
What is the final verdict on raw food diets?
While proponents of raw food diets claim that raw food diets can improve dogs’ overall health, coat, and digestion, there is little evidence to support these claims. To date there are no published randomized controlled studies that support the purported benefits of a raw food diet. On the other hand, there is a growing body of evidence that highlights the potential risks of raw food diets.
Besides the questionable benefits and known risks, raw food diets can be expensive and time-consuming to prepare. Unlike traditional dog food, which is readily available and requires no preparation to serve, raw food diets require careful planning and preparation. The meat and other ingredients must be sourced from reputable suppliers and the food must be stored and handled properly to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination. Additionally, the cost of raw food diets can be prohibitively high, especially for larger dogs or households with multiple dogs.
Even though raw food diets may seem like a healthy alternative to traditional dog food, the risks associated with these diets far outweigh any potential benefits. The risk of bacterial contamination, nutritional imbalances, dental damage, and the cost and time involved in preparing raw food diets makes them impractical and potentially dangerous.
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) “does not advocate nor endorse feeding pets any raw or dehydrated non sterilized foods, including treats that are of animal origin.” Likewise, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) discourages the feeding to cats and dogs of any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process to eliminate pathogens because of the risk of illness to cats and dogs as well as humans. Remember, if you have any questions about your dog’s diet, talk with your veterinarian to choose the best food for your pet’s individual needs.
“Dogs and cats are naturally resistant to salmonella or other bacteria”
FALSE! Pets are not immune to bacteria. Dogs can contract Salmonella, E-coli, Listeria, and other bacteria, just like humans and other animals.
“Any food can be contaminated with, it’s not just raw food”
While this is TRUE, bacterial contamination is much more likely with raw diets.
“Bones in raw diets are good for pets”
FALSE! Bones can fracture teeth, cause gastrointestinal injury, and constipation.
“Freezing or Freeze-Drying kills bacteria that could be found in raw diets”
FALSE! Many of the bacteria that are found in raw meat can survive freezing.
Q: Is a raw dog food diet safe?
A: While proponents of raw food diets claim their benefits, most veterinarians do not recommend them due to potential risks. Raw diets can be contaminated with harmful bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, which pose health risks to both dogs and humans. Additionally, improperly formulated raw diets may result in nutritional deficiencies or imbalances, potentially causing health issues in dogs.
Q: What are the potential benefits of a raw dog food diet?
A: Proponents of raw food diets claim several benefits, such as improved overall health, coat condition, and digestion. However, scientific evidence supporting these claims is limited. Raw food diets are often thought to mimic what dogs' ancestors ate in the wild, but dogs have evolved as omnivores and require a balanced diet that includes animal protein, fat, and limited carbohydrates and fiber.
Q: What types of raw food are typically included in a raw dog food diet?
A: Raw dog food diets typically consist of raw meat, bones, organs, and sometimes vegetables and fruits. Some variations of raw diets, such as the BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) or PMR (Prey Model Raw) diets, may include a combination of these ingredients. It's important to note that raw diets can be commercially available or homemade.
Q: Are there any risks associated with a raw dog food diet?
A: Yes, there are several risks associated with raw dog food diets. Bacterial contamination is a significant concern, as raw meat and bones can carry harmful bacteria that can cause illness in both dogs and humans. Dental damage can also occur due to the hardness of raw bones, which can fracture teeth or cause gastrointestinal injuries. Additionally, homemade raw diets may lack essential nutrients, leading to nutritional deficiencies or imbalances.
Q: Should I consult with a veterinarian before starting my dog on a raw food diet?
A: Yes, it is highly recommended to consult with a veterinarian before starting your dog on a raw food diet. Veterinarians can provide guidance based on your dog's individual health needs and assess the potential risks and benefits. They can also help ensure that the diet is balanced and meets your dog's nutritional requirements.
Q: How should I transition my dog to a raw food diet?
A: If you decide to transition your dog to a raw food diet, it's important to do so gradually. Start by introducing small amounts of raw food alongside their regular diet and gradually increase the proportion of raw food while decreasing the previous diet. This gradual transition helps minimize digestive upset and allows your dog's system to adjust to the new diet.
Q: Can all dogs eat a raw food diet?
A: Raw food diets may not be suitable for all dogs. Dogs with specific health conditions, such as pancreatitis or kidney disease, may require dietary restrictions that a high-protein raw diet may not accommodate. It's crucial to consider your dog's individual health needs and consult with a veterinarian before making any dietary changes.
Q: How do I ensure that my dog's raw food diet is balanced?
A: Achieving a balanced raw food diet can be challenging, especially with homemade diets. It's important to work with a veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a balanced diet that meets your dog's nutritional needs. This includes considering the appropriate ratios of animal protein, fat, and essential nutrients while minimizing the risks of bacterial contamination.
Q: Can I feed my dog only raw meat?
A: Feeding your dog only raw meat may not provide a balanced diet. Dogs require a combination of animal protein, fat, and other nutrients to meet their nutritional needs. A raw meat-only diet may lack essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients necessary for optimal health. It's essential to formulate a balanced raw food diet that includes a variety of ingredients to ensure your dog's nutritional requirements are met.
Q: Are there commercial raw dog food options available?
A: Yes, there are commercial raw dog food options available. These commercial raw diets are formulated to meet the nutritional needs of dogs and may provide a more balanced option compared to homemade raw diets. However, it's important to choose reputable brands that follow proper food safety protocols and consult with a veterinarian to ensure the chosen commercial raw diet is appropriate for your dog.