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Raw diets for puppies: A vet’s view

Raw diets for puppies: Dalmatian puppy sitting in golden field looking at camera
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Raw diets for puppies are becoming increasingly popular amongst dog owners and breeders.  Also known as Bones and Raw Food (BARF) or Raw Meat-Based Diets (RMBD), these feeding strategies rely on feeding primarily raw meat. To try to make the diet nutritionally balanced, they may also incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, and vitamin supplements.  Unfortunately, raw diets carry significant health risks to your pet, as well as humans, and there is no scientific evidence that this type of diet is beneficial. 

Professional organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) have all released statements advising against the use of raw meat diets due to the risks posed to both pet and human health.  Before considering a raw diet as the best puppy food for your new furbaby, make sure you understand the common pitfalls of this type of pet food.

Contamination risks of raw diets for puppies

One of the biggest concerns with raw diets is the risk for bacterial and parasitic contamination in raw meat.  Dozens of studies have found that raw diets are frequently contaminated with bacteria, such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli. These bacteria are commonly associated with food poisoning in people. Contamination with parasites, such as Toxoplasma and Sarcocystis, has also been demonstrated in raw meat diets in further research.  These contaminated diets have the potential to cause severe illness, and puppies are much more susceptible due to their immature immune systems.  Suppose your heart is set on feeding raw. In that case, it's best to wait until your puppy's intestines and immune system are fully mature and consult your veterinarian before making the switch.

Your puppy is not the only one at risk from a contaminated raw diet.  You wouldn’t want to rub a raw chicken breast across your face, but when your dog eats raw meat and gives you a slobbery kiss, you are exposed to all the same bacteria.  Several studies have shown that dogs eating raw diets contaminated with Salmonella will shed the bacteria in their saliva and feces, posing a risk for transmission to humans.  This is especially concerning in a puppy fed a raw diet because puppies so often explore their new homes with their mouths!  Young children, the elderly, and immunocompromised persons are at the greatest risk of illness from these common contaminants, so it is strongly recommended to avoid raw diets in these households.

Many pet owners opt to use a freeze-dried diet, thinking that it is a safer alternative to traditional raw diets.  Unfortunately, the freeze-drying process does not kill all infective agents.  Many bacteria can survive and even thrive after being freeze-dried.  In fact, laboratories often use freeze-drying to preserve bacteria for research, so you can see how this would not be an effective method of dealing with bacterial contamination in your pet’s food!  Instead, opt for cooked diets, which destroy bacteria using high temperatures during the cooking process.

Nutritional adequacy of raw diets for puppies

Labrador puppy sitting on kitchen floor looking up at camera

(Image credit: Getty Images)

A balanced diet is essential to help your puppy grow and develop correctly.  When puppies are growing, their nutritional demands are high, meaning they are very susceptible to dietary deficiencies and excesses. These nutritional imbalances can sadly lead to lifelong or life-limiting health problems.  Unfortunately, one study examining both homemade and commercial raw diets found several nutritional inadequacies.  This problem is even more prevalent in homemade raw food diets, and one European study found that 60% of homemade raw diets had one or more serious nutritional imbalances that could lead to illness.  Many raw food manufacturers do not provide adequate labeling and nutritional adequacy data for their products, making it difficult for pet owners and veterinarians to know whether the diet is appropriate for a growing puppy.  

Long-term, feeding an unbalanced can have disastrous consequences and may lead to serious health problems such as panosteitis, Vitamin D deficiency (Rickets), and hyperparathyroidism.  If you plan to feed your dog a raw or cooked homemade diet, you should wait until your dog is fully grown and always use a recipe from a qualified veterinary nutritionist.

Benefits of raw diets for puppies

Studies show no evidence of any proven benefits to feeding a raw diet to your puppy.  Some owners report reduced fecal output and a glossier coat; however, this is likely explained by the lower fiber and higher fat content of these diets, both of which can be achieved with a commercial cooked diet. Other raw food advocates maintain that it leads to better overall health and a stronger immune system; however, there is no evidence to support this. Therefore, with so many safe and effective cooked diets available on the market and with veterinary nutritionists strongly advising against raw diets for dogs, it makes much more sense to avoid the risks posed by a raw diet.

Choosing an appropriate diet for your puppy

If you’re wondering how to choose puppy food for your furbaby, we have a few helpful tips. Firstly, be sure to choose a commercial diet that is specifically labeled for puppies.  If your puppy is a large or giant breed, there are breed and size-specific diets that ensure your puppy receives an adequate balance of minerals to support their growth.  Your puppy should continue to eat commercially cooked puppy food until he is fully grown, which is around one year of age for most breeds.  

To help you choose an appropriate product, you can learn how to read a pet food label, consult your veterinarian for product recommendations, and check to make sure the pet food manufacturer you choose meets the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s standards for reputable pet food companies.

Raw diets: A risky choice for puppies!

The bottom line is that raw diets are not recommended nor proven beneficial for any dog.  However, puppies are particularly susceptible to the risks of raw diets due to their immature immune systems and rapid rate of growth.  The diet you choose for your puppy has a major impact on their growth and development.  So, set your puppy up for success later in life by choosing a puppy food that is safe, effective, nutritionally complete, and balanced. 

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Since obtaining her doctorate in veterinary medicine, Dr. Racine has worked exclusively in small animal general practice. Her work has been featured in blog posts, articles, newsletters, journals, and even video scripts.