As a vet I am commonly asked questions such as, can my dog eat raw meat? Is raw better for dogs? Is raw dog food complete? Why feed raw? This article will answer these questions and more.
So, what makes me qualified to talk about raw feeding your dog? Well, for one thing, I’m a vet, and spent six years at university learning in great detail about how your dog’s body and digestive system work, and what they need to survive and thrive.
I also took food safety and public health modules as part of my vet degree, which believe me, is key.
What’s more, I actually did my dissertation on raw meat diets in dogs (before they became so faddy and popular…I was interested before it was cool).
This means I am more qualified to discuss the subject than your groomer, your breeder, or the sales associate at your local ‘All Natural’ pet food store.
Be offended if you wish, but my point stands.
- Raw Feeding: The Vets’s Perspective
- Dogs Are Not Wolves
- Raw Diets For Dogs Are Rarely Balanced
- Does Raw Food Help Your Dog’s Immune System?
- What Are The Benefits Of Raw Feeding Dogs?
- What Pet Food Regulations Apply to Raw Dog Food?
- You Can Absolutely Catch Salmonella From Your Dog
- Feeding Raw Meat Spreads Multidrug Resistant Bacterial Infections
- Conclusion – Yes, By Now You Should Be Scared
Raw Feeding: The Vets’s Perspective
As a veterinary doctor with a particular interest in (the dangers of) raw food diets, I almost struggle to read some of the articles that Google vomits up regarding the topic.
Some of what is being published online, widely repeated, and shared on social media, is quite simply bullshit.
And what’s worse, is that well-meaning pet owners who want the best for their dog, are being falsely convinced that raw feeding is a good idea.
This genuinely upsets me.
I see first-hand and on a regular basis the haemmorhagic gastroenteritis (that’s puking and pooping blood). I deal with the bone obstructions, where a bone fed as part of a BARF (bone and raw food) diet lodges in the intestines, requiring an emergency (and very expensive) surgery to save the pet’s life.
FYI – Bone splinters can also damage your pet’s oesophagus (food pipe), stomach or intestines, and chewing on bones can fracture your pet’s teeth. At best they tend to cause constipation and stomach pain due to the high levels of calcium they contain.
I have noticed that the current resources published online regarding raw food diets, tend to fall into two categories:
- The scientific; these are valuable resources (such as controlled research studies and meta-analyses), but are typically very difficult for the non-scientific reader to understand.
- The non-scientific. I’m talking owner reviews, blog posts from unqualified individuals (or sadly, sometimes from qualified individuals who receive financial incentives to promote a certain diet) and claims published by pet food companies themselves.
My aim is to build a bridge for you, between the scientific and the understandable.
I am going to provide you with ACTUAL, scientific evidence about raw feeding, but in a way that doesn’t require a medical degree to understand.
I spent hours (unpaid) trawling through the double-blinded controlled studies and the meta-analyses, so that you don’t have to.
You can thank me later.
Be aware that if a sentence or paragraph in this blog post features names in brackets, such as “(Example, 2023)”, this is a reference to whatever high-quality research paper I am pulling that particular nugget of information from.
You will notice that references like this are sadly lacking from the internet’s many APBIs (Articles Published By Idiots).
OK, housekeeping done…Let’s get started.
Dogs Are Not Wolves
Raw feeding enthusiasts will often argue that, because dogs are descended from wolves, it is more appropriate and natural for a dog to eat raw. However – and I really can’t say this enough, as a veterinary doctor – dogs are not wolves.
I’ll just repeat that once more, for the breeders, groomers and sales associates at the back:
DOGS. ARE. NOT. WOLVES.
In case you’re still struggling with this concept, I have also made a helpful diagram:
Our domestic dogs are genetically different from their wild ancestors. They have a much better ability to digest carbohydrates (Freeman et al., 2013). The ideal diet for a dog is different to the ideal diet for a wolf (Kolle and Schmidt, 2015).
We also expect and want our domestic dogs to live longer than a wild wolf; this raises an important scientific question about whether the diet a wild animal eats in order to survive, is actually the best diet in terms of keeping them as healthy as possible for as long as possible.
In fact, experts recommend that conventional, processed dog food should make up the majority of a captive or zoo-kept wolf’s diet, in order to maximise both their health and their lifespan (AZA Canid Tag, 2012).
Unlike vets and scientists, pet parents understandably approach feeding their pet with the same mindset as feeding their families. And when we think about feeding our families, we take social and cultural factors into account when making food choices, not just nutritional factors.
Because our pets are a part of our family unit, we have a natural desire to put thought and love into the food choices we make on their behalf, and to vary their diets so that they don’t “get bored” or “miss out” on all the joys that we enjoy ourselves from a varied diet.
Listen, I’m a pet owner as well as a vet. I do understand.
But the problem is, a varied diet isn’t always necessarily best for our pets. A sudden diet change tends to produce diarrhoea and/or vomiting in dogs, because their guts and their gut microflora takes time to adapt to processing different foods. This is why veterinary professionals will always recommend that any diet change be undertaken gradually, over a period of several days, to avoid unpleasant gastrointestinal effects.
What’s more, a “natural” diet isn’t always best for our pets either, as counter-intuitive as this may sound. Commercial diets (by which I mean traditional cooked dog meats and kibble which you can find in pet stores) are formulated in a lab, by qualified scientists.
Yes, it’s all very clinical and “unnatural”. But it ensures that these diets contain perfect levels of everything your dog needs, in perfect balance and harmony; not too much, and not too little, of each component.
These lab-produced diets are also very carefully and continually tested and audited to ensure that they remain safe and consistent in terms of their contents, from batch-to-batch. Whereas studies have repeatedly found different levels of fat, protein and carbohydrates in raw food diets, than the levels advertised by the producer on the ‘Nutritional Information’.
Consider this: fatty offal is significantly cheaper than the higher-protein lower-fat prime cuts. Would you really know if your dog’s raw food producer decided to switch out 10% of the advertised prime cuts, with more offal?
I am well aware that “gross” by-products of the human food industry are frequently included in commercial pet foods, and it’s only natural that we might hesitate to feed our beloved pets these yukky things which we would never dream of eating ourselves.
But, just like dogs aren’t wolves, dog aren’t people, either.
Most dogs salivate at the very thought of these offcuts. And, what’s more, these offcuts are generally very nutritionally valuable and healthy for our pets. They are perfectly fine to feed your dog, even if it makes you feel squeamish.
A final point, if you’re somebody who cares at all for the environment or animal welfare generally: if we stop using offcuts in the pet food industry, these by-products will inevitably be wasted, which is a damn shame from a waste and environmental point of view.
It also indirectly means more farm animals need to be produced to feed our dogs, thus intensifying the drive for high density/factory farming, and reducing farm animal welfare.
Just think about it for a second. We already can’t sustain the volume of animal products our society consumes; not even close in the long term. So it’s highly illogical to increase the demand for animal products further by catering to a misplaced emotional desire to feed Roxy and Rex meat of the calibre one might purchase from the Deli section of the local farm shop.
And, as we’ll go on to discover, raw diets aren’t healthy and are a health hazard to you and your dog. You aren’t doing your pet or those around you and favours, by choosing to feed raw.
Raw Diets For Dogs Are Rarely Balanced
Because doing so correctly is very, very difficult, and is well beyond the scientific capabilities of your average small dog food company.
It is well known amongst the veterinary and scientific communities that raw meat diets are frequently nutritionally imbalanced, particularly in terms of levels of calcium (typically too high, in bone-containing raw diets, and may be too low in some other raw diets), copper, zinc, iodine, vitamins A and vitamin D (Kolle and Schmidt, 2015).
This can absolutely be dangerous for your pet. As a single example amongst many, take the report of nutritional osteodystrophy (translation: nasty disease affecting the skeleton) reported in two litters of 6-week-old puppies fed a BARF diet (Delay and Laing, 2002).
Or the case of vitamin A overdose in a cat fed a pork based raw diet (Polizopoulou et al., 2005). The cat returned to health when the diet was changed back to commercial canned food.
In a nutritional analysis of five raw food diets (Freeman and Michel, 2001), ⅗ were deficient in calcium and phosphorus; ⅖ were deficient in potassium, magnesium and zinc; and ⅖ contained excessively high levels of vitamin D, which (if fed for long enough) will lead to overdose.
Ask any vet (who isn’t being directly or indirectly paid to say otherwise); raw diets are rarely nutritionally balanced.
Does Raw Food Help Your Dog’s Immune System?
It is a widely spread myth that raw meat diets create a stronger immune system (especially in articles published by idiots…fight me; I will use my veterinary doctor powers to shoot laser beams at you).
This myth arises from the fact that dogs who are raw fed have been shown in some studies to have higher levels of white cells (infection fighting cells) in their blood, compared to their non-raw-fed counterparts.
But’s let’s take a moment to think about what this actually means, from a scientific point of view.
When I find high white blood cells in a patient, it doesn’t tell me that the patient’s immune system is of Clark Kent level strength.
It usually tells me that the patient’s immune system is heading into overdrive fighting off an infection.
Raw meat diets contain an excessive amount of pathogenic bacteria, that is, potentially harmful bacteria which can give your dog (or you, if you don’t wash your hands well enough) a nasty bout of food poisoning.
High white cells simply means raw fed dogs are constantly fighting off food poisoning.
Their immune system is under constant strain and will be less able to successfully defend your pet from the next infection they might encounter.
What Are The Benefits Of Raw Feeding Dogs?
I am more than happy to admit that there is one proven benefit. Actually, possibly even two.
Want to know what they are?
The only proven benefit of raw feeding supported by good quality scientific research is a glossier or shinier fur coat. This is a direct result of the high fat levels typically found in raw food diets.
Yes, the same fats that will clog your pet’s arteries. Sound like a trade-off you’d be interested in?
I thought not.
Also – the exact same result can be achieved by adding vegetable oil to cheap canned dog meat (I am not recommending that you do this – I am just making a point).
A second possible benefit is that raw-fed dog’s stools may be smaller and firmer (Sandri et al., 2017), thus making life as an owner easier and more pleasant.
However, when you weigh this up against the large amount of evidence that the stools of raw-fed dogs are teaming with pathogenic bacteria, I know which poop I would rather pick up.
What Pet Food Regulations Apply to Raw Dog Food?
Raw dog food production is actually quite strictly regulated.
Sadly, this does not mean such foods are safe.
Let me explain.
In theory, EU legislation has a zero tolerance policy towards Salmonella in raw pet food products. It’s actually stricter than the policy regarding Salmonella in raw meat intended for human consumption. This is because the expectation is we’ll cook our meat before it is consumed, thus killing any harmful bacteria.
This policy is a great idea in theory – but it simply isn’t working.
Likewise, in America, the Food And Drug Administration (FDA) and The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) are supposed to ensure all pet food available for consumers to purchase is safe to a high standard. But that’s not really been working, either.
One American study (Strohmeyer et al., 2006) analysed 240 samples from 20 different commercially prepared raw meat diets for dogs. Almost 6% of the raw diets tested were positive for Salmonella (whilst none of the cooked diets they tested were positive). E. coli was found in almost 50% of the raw diets, and 33% of the cooked diets.
A second study (Joffe and Schleisinger, 2002) found that a whopping 80% of raw chicken-based diets tested positive for Salmonella, and again, none of the cooked dog food samples tested positive.
Be aware too, that what goes in, tends to come back out again: stool samples from 30% of the raw-fed dogs contained Salmonella, and all cooked-fed dogs produced negative stool samples.
This is important because you are (or should be) picking up your dogs faeces on a daily basis. And guess what…
You Can Absolutely Catch Salmonella From Your Dog
There is (excuse the pun) a shit tonne of research confirming that raw-fed dogs shed more pathogenic bacterial in their stools.
This is especially important to be aware of if young children, elderly individuals or immunocompromised individuals (such as those receiving chemotherapy) come into contact with your dog.
In fact, I cannot overstate how big of a public health risk raw meat feeding is.
Uncooked meat contains bacteria and parasites that would normally be killed by heat during the cooking process. Freezing does not kill all types of pathogenic bacteria.
Even if you’re being very careful, handling raw meat diets and handling faeces from dogs fed raw meat increase your risk of coming into contact with E.coli, Salmonella and other pathogens, as well as your risk of spreading these pathogens to others.
Feeding Raw Meat Spreads Multidrug Resistant Bacterial Infections
Finley et al (2008) looked at 166 commercial raw meat diets randomly purchased from pet stores in three different Canadian cities, and found Salmonella present in 21% of samples.
Very worryingly indeed, eighteen “serovars” (different types) of Salmonella were found that exhibited multidrug resistance. This means if your pet or you contracted clinical Salmonellosis (food poisoning) from this meat, we would be hard pressed to treat it with antibiotics.
A second Canadian study found a strong association between feeding raw meat, and faecal shedding of E. coli with antimicrobial resistance (Lefebvre et al., 2008).
Many other studies also exist; should you be interested, including:
- Leonard et al., 2015
- Groat et al., 2016
- Wedley et al., 2017
- Morley et al., 2006
(Full references can be found at the bottom of the page).
And do you know what happens when antibiotics stop working?
People (and our pets) start dying from infections that were previously treatable…because we don’t have any drugs that will work for ’em.
This isn’t scare-mongering, people. It’s fact.
I have several patients who are living with infected skin wounds that will literally never heal; chronic bladder infections; and painful slowly-progressing ear infections due to multi-drug resistant bacteria that we simply don’t have any antibiotics to treat.
Treating infections without antibiotics is at best difficult, and in some cases quite simply impossible.
We need to do everything we can to stem the tide of antimicrobial resistance or we are all going to start paying for it.
Finally, multi-drug resistant Salmonella and E.coli has also been found to be prevalent in pork and poultry meat available for pet food manufacture in Italy (Bacci et al., 2019), which raises particular concerns about the use of imported meat for raw meat and bone diets.
Conclusion – Yes, By Now You Should Be Scared
Last of all – if none of the above has been enough to convince you that raw feeding your dog is a bad idea – just know that whenever we have a raw-fed patient admitted to hospital, we keep this patient in an isolation ward.
We also make sure all our doctors and nurses barrier nurse this patient (that is, wear full PPE for any interactions with them).
This is how serious of a risk dogs fed raw meat pose to our staff members and our other patients.
Raw feeding is bad for your pet, for you, for those around you, and for the environment and animal welfare as a whole.
But, if you’ve made it to the end of this article, you already knew that.
Sharing this article helps other pet owners make an informed decision regarding feeding:
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