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What are the benefits of raw dog food?

benefits of raw dog food
(Image credit: Getty)

The benefits of raw dog food are a talking point. In recent years, people have begun to pay more attention to their own diet and the diets of their pets. As health-conscious individuals have moved towards “paleo” diets, gluten-free diets, and other alternatives for their own consumption, the possible benefits of the best raw dog food have also gained traction among pet owners who are seeking a more “natural” diet for their pets over the best dry dog food or the best wet dog food.

Regardless of whether owners feed a homemade or commercial raw food diet, these diets are typically centered around several key ingredients: Raw muscle meat (often fed on the bone), raw organ meat (such as liver and kidneys), vegetables, and possibly eggs or dairy. Supporters of raw food diets believe that these diets are more healthy than traditional commercial dog food, not only because of the specific ingredients that are included or excluded, but also because those ingredients are provided in an uncooked form. 

Although there are many purported benefits of raw dog food, there is little research to substantiate many of these claims. Instead, studies of raw food diets have found that these diets predispose dogs to nutritional deficiencies and food-borne illness. Potentially serious bacteria and parasites are frequently found in raw food diets. These food-borne infections pose a risk to both dogs and their human family members.

If you are considering a raw food diet for your dog, it is important to carefully consider both the pros and cons of these diets in order to make an educated decision. Evaluate the supposed benefits of these diets carefully, while also remaining mindful of the risks inherent in this feeding practice. 

The case for raw dog food

benefits of raw dog food

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. Raw food may give you more control over the ingredients in your dog’s food.

Many dog owners prepare their dog’s raw food diet at home, which allows them to have complete control over what ingredients are included in the food. This approach can be especially beneficial for dogs that require a limited-ingredient diet due to food allergies or dietary sensitivities. Additionally, home-prepared foods provide added reassurance to dog owners who are concerned about feeding their dogs preservatives, animal byproducts, or other ingredients that may be found in commercial dog food. 

Some owners purchase commercial raw food diets, which are typically provided in a refrigerated or freeze-dried form. In this case, it is important to carefully research the food manufacturer and read the pet food label carefully, in order to ensure that you understand exactly what you are purchasing. 

2. Raw foods are associated with improved, shiny coats.

Raw food diets are often associated with creating a rich, shiny coat in dogs that are fed these diets. In many cases, the shiny coat that accompanies a raw food diet is attributed to increased levels of essential fatty acids in the diet. (These fatty acids are also found in high-quality commercial dog foods, but may be present in lower quantities in poor-quality commercial diets.) 

While fatty acids are beneficial for skin and coat health, there is no evidence to suggest that their benefit is related to whether or not they have been cooked. The same coat improvements that are seen with raw dog foods may also be seen with a high-quality, properly formulated commercial or homemade cooked diet. 

3. Raw food diets result in smaller bowel movements than commercial diets.

Most raw food diets contain relatively low levels of fibre, compared to traditional commercial dog foods. Given this low fibre quantity, dogs that are fed a raw food diet often produce smaller, less bulky bowel movements than dogs that are fed a commercial diet. While this may or may not be advantageous for the dog, it certainly offers convenience for pet owners who must pick up their dog’s waste in their garden or on walks! 

Again, it is important to note that similar benefits could be observed with any low-fibre diet, and this is not an inherent characteristic of raw food. 

4. Raw food diets can promote weight loss in overweight dogs.

Raw food diets are primarily meat-based. The relatively low levels of carbohydrates found in raw dog foods may help promote weight loss in overweight dogs. Additionally, owners who are preparing their dog’s raw food diet at home are often more careful about which ingredients they include and the exact quantity of food that is fed to their pet. This “portion control” is probably just as much of a contributor to weight loss as the actual composition of the diet. 

The case against raw dog food

benefits of raw dog food

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. Raw food diets can make your dog sick. 

Approximately ten years ago, the US Food and Drug Administration conducted a survey of foodborne illness in pet food. In this study, they found that commercially available raw food diets are far more likely to be contaminated with foodborne pathogens than conventional commercial diets. In fact, nearly 10% of raw pet foods tested were positive for Salmonella and over 15% of tested samples were positive for Listeria monocytogenes. These are foodborne illnesses that can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, and other signs of illness.  

Since then, other studies conducted throughout the world have shown even more concerning findings. A 2018 study conducted in the Netherlands found that 23% of commercial raw diets contained E. coli 0157:H7 (the strain involved in serious human illness), 80% of foods contained antibiotic-resistant E. coli, and 20% contained Salmonella

Studies have also demonstrated that raw food diets in the UK and European Union may contain Brucella suis, a foodborne illness that can cause fever, pain, lethargy, and decreased appetite in infected dogs, as well as causing abortion in pregnant females.

2. Raw food diets can cause illness in human household members.

Even if your dog avoids developing signs of illness related to a raw food diet, you and other members of your household may still be at risk. 

First, there is the risk inherent in handling a raw food diet. Just like when you handle raw chicken or other meats, the bacteria found in raw food may spread to your hands, countertops, and kitchen utensils, and infect you and your family members. 

Additionally, however, there is the possibility that your pet may spread infection to you after eating their meal. If your dog eats his raw food and then kisses you, any bacteria that were present in the food have now been spread to your face and hands. 

Finally, dogs that are subclinically (asymptomatically) infected with Salmonella or another food-borne illness will shed the infection in their faeces, potentially spreading the illness to you or your family members. 

3. Homemade raw diets may not be properly nutritionally balanced to meet your dog’s needs.

Dogs require specific amounts of key nutrients in order to ensure optimal health. These nutrients include not only macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, but also micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. 

In many cases, homemade raw food diets are deficient in key micronutrients that are essential for normal development. Even if the correct nutrients are present, they are not always present in the correct ratios. For example, calcium and phosphorus must not only be present in adequate quantities, they must also be present in a specific ratio that is determined by the dog’s life stage. Achieving the correct balance of nutrients for optimal growth and development is challenging, and many raw food diets fall short of reaching this goal. If you do elect to feed a raw diet, it is important to work closely with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that your dog’s diet contains adequate nutrient levels.

4. Homemade raw food diets that contain whole bones can cause internal damage. 

Many homemade diets include bones or other large ingredients that can cause intestinal damage. There are a number of risks associated with feeding bones. Chewing on bones is a common source of dental fractures in dogs. These tooth fractures are painful, and must be addressed with extractions or advanced dental procedures, such as a root canal. 

Large fragments of bone can become lodged in the oesophagus, stomach, or intestines, leading to an obstruction that must be addressed through surgery. Smaller bone fragments, especially splintered bone fragments that may result when bones are chewed, can damage or even perforate the gastrointestinal tract as they pass through. 

While bone material is a valuable source of calcium, feeding your dog whole bones presents a number of risks. 

Raw dog food: Weigh the evidence carefully

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While raw dog food is associated with a number of purported benefits, many of these benefits are unproven. Additionally, raw food diets are associated with a number of risks, which have been well-documented. Evaluate the pros and cons carefully before selecting a diet for your dog. 

If you are looking to have more control over your dog’s diet while minimizing risk, consider working with a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a homemade cooked diet that is appropriate for your dog. 

References

• Schlesinger DP, Joffe DJ. Raw food diets in companion animals: a critical review. Can Vet J. 2011;52(1):50-54.

Food and Drug Administration. Get the Facts! Raw Pet Food Diets can be Dangerous to You and Your Pet. 

• van Bree FPJ, Bokken GCAM, Mineur R, et al. Zoonotic bacteria and parasites found in raw meat-based diets for cats and dogs. Vet Rec. 2018;182(2):50. doi:10.1136/vr.104535

• Davies RH, Lawes JR, Wales AD. Raw diets for dogs and cats: a review, with particular reference to microbiological hazards. J Small Anim Pract. 2019;60(6):329-339. doi:10.1111/jsap.13000

• Kölle P, Schmidt M. BARF (Biologisch Artgerechte Rohfütterung) als Ernährungsform bei Hunden [Raw-meat-based diets (RMBD) as a feeding principle for dogs]. Tierarztl Prax Ausg K Kleintiere Heimtiere. 2015;43(6):409-420. doi:10.15654/TPK-150782