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Is Raw Dog Food Right for Your Best Friend?

Jim TrummMay 8, 2018

In the last two years, many pet parents have become interested in the idea of feeding their dogs a diet of uncooked food. What began as a do-it-yourself approach to dog food has now been adopted by a number of businesses that market raw dog food and raw food diet plans for dogs. Some of these companies now even deliver raw food directly to your doorstep. Of course, what’s trendy isn’t always what’s good and what’s good isn’t always trendy. What should conscientious dog owners make of the raw dog food movement?

What’s the Theory Behind the Raw Dog Food Trend?

People who promote raw food doggie diets base their claims on evolution. They contend that because today’s canines are distant relatives of the grey wolf, whose internal organs resemble those of their modern-day descendants, the best diet for dogs is one that resembles that of their ancient ancestors.  One British raw dog food company boasts that its products are “as close as possible to what [dogs and cats] might have eaten as wild animals.” 

Animal scientists, however, note that today’s dogs are not the same as their wild ancestors. Dogs and humans have evolved alongside each other for approximately 30,000 years. During that time, canine nutritional requirements have evolved to be consistent with the kinds of food people eat. Unlike the grey wolf, domestic dogs do well on a varied, human-prepared diet. Humans and dogs have developed together for many millennia, to the point where dogs have even acquired the ability to digest starch. 

Are Raw Dog Food Diets Nutritious?

Raw food enthusiasts claim that the diet brings about numerous benefits, including shiny coats and healthy skin, better oral and digestive health, more robust immunities, a diminished allergic response, weight loss, and smaller, less smelly poop. However, numerous critics of raw food diets point out that these claims have not been tested or assessed by scientific studies and are anecdotal at best.

People who feed their dogs raw food tend to believe that the diet is more nutritious than cooked or processed food. But animal nutritionists disagree. As Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, a professor of clinical nutrition at Tufts University's school of veterinary medicine, notes in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association, “these arguments do not generally fare well under careful scrutiny and are not supported by sound scientific evidence.” 

Dr. Freeman found that many raw food diets for dogs are deficient in Vitamins A and E and contain too much Vitamin D. The high fat content in raw diets may cause gastrointestinal problems and increase the incidence of obesity. Raw diets also lead to high levels of thyroxine, which suggests an overactive thyroid. What’s more, raw diets that contain bones may be harmful to a dog’s dental health and pose a risk of puncturing internal organs in the digestive system.

Do Raw Food Diets Spread Disease?

Still other veterinary nutrition professionals point out the increased danger to dogs—and their human companions—from bacterial agents that are frequently present in uncooked food. In 2014 and 2018, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued warnings about the risk of dogs being infected with salmonella and listeria as a result of ingesting raw food. As for the argument that we ought to be feeding dogs what they eat in the wild, one of the experts cited in the FDA report notes that while it’s true that wild canines eat raw food, “we don’t know how many of these animals get sick or die as a result of doing that. Since sick feral animals are rarely taken to a veterinarian when they’re ill, there’s no way to collect that information.”

The assertion that raw dog food contains a higher level of potentially dangerous bacteria has been supported by several studies. In 2014, the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN) found significantly higher levels of salmonella, listeria, and e-coli in raw dog foods than in other types of feed.  Canadian scientists determined that 21% of the raw dog food samples they examined tested positive for salmonella. Scientists working for the FDA came to the same conclusion in 2018. 

Other veterinary professionals warn that feedings dogs raw food may put people's health at risk.  Handling raw food, getting kisses from a dog who has just eaten raw food, or coming into contact with dog feces may transmit harmful bacteria to human companions. In 2016, a study of dogs and cats in New Zealand revealed that those animals that had been fed raw diets had significantly higher instances of Campylobacter, the bacterium that causes acute gastroenteritis in humans. 

These and other studies have led many veterinary associations and pet journalists to warn against raw food. 

How to Make a Raw Dog Food Diet Safer

While the weight of scientific evidence clearly disfavors raw diets for dogs, if you want to try it anyway, there are some things you can do to make a raw diet safer.

  • Check with your veterinarian. It’s not a good idea to decide how to feed your dog based on articles you’ve read on the internet (even this one). Your vet knows your dog and his or her health history. There may be some reasons why your particular dog should—or should not—be on a raw food diet. If you’re preparing raw food yourself, make sure you are following a diet designed particularly for your dog by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.
  • Consider using a varied diet, rather than an all-raw diet. This may help to avoid the nutritional imbalances that can occur when a dog is fed nothing but raw food.
  • Handle raw food for your dog the same way you’d handle raw meat for yourself. Freeze it until you’re ready to use it. When you are ready to serve it, avoid getting any of the raw food on countertops or other kitchen surfaces. Clean your counters and containers thoroughly, ideally with a disinfectant. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling the food.
  • Don’t leave raw food sitting in your dog’s bowl. If he or she doesn’t eat it in a reasonable time, toss it out and sterilize the bowl. And remember to secure your garbage pail so that your dog doesn’t start to look on it as a place to go for a midnight snack.
  • Don’t let your dog kiss your or your family members’ hands or face just after eating raw food.