What Are The Benefits and Risks of Raw Dog Food?

Filed in Dog Health on October 15, 2020

Benefits and Risks of Raw Dog Food

Raw food diets are growing in popularity with many supporters claiming that they’re the healthiest option for your dog.

Yet if you talk to a veterinarian about going raw, they will most likely caution you not to. 

In this article, we’ll give you an overview of the benefits and risks of raw food diets.

If you’ve already made up your mind to choose raw dog food, check out my article on the best raw dog food delivery services.

Benefits of Raw Dog Food Diets

Different raw meat and vegetables

You’ve probably seen claims on social media about raw food diets being the healthiest option for your dog. 

Claims by Supporters of Raw Dog Food

Those who support going raw claim that raw foods provide: 

  • better digestion of nutrients compared to kibble, 
  • a shinier coat, 
  • healthier skin, 
  • increased activity or energy levels, 
  • dental benefits (such as reduction of plaque and better smelling breath), 
  • less stool production, and healthier stools.

So is there any truth to these above claims? While research on the subject is still lacking, there are some studies that have observed benefits of feeding dogs a raw diet.

Studies on Raw Dog Food Benefits

There have been studies that agree that raw diets are more digestible than commercial dry dog food (1,2).  There is also some evidence that raw diets promote gut health. 

A study published in 2017 compared the feces of dogs being fed raw meat-based diets to feces from dogs eating kibble diets. Dogs on the raw diet produced less stool and had a better fecal score (meaning the consistency of the feces was better). 

Similar research done the same year found that dogs who were fed a raw diet had greater bacterial diversity in their guts than those fed kibble.

It’s true that raw diets are often more palatable to dogs. They may also result in a shinier coat, since these diets are higher in fat than kibble. 

However, this can be a double-edged sword. While fat can be healthy for dogs and result in a beautiful, shiny coat, too much can also lead to gastrointestinal problems.

Aside from the studies we’ve just shared that support certain benefits of raw meat-based diets, there isn’t any current research supporting the other claims made by proponents of raw food diets. 

In fact, many of the authors published in respectable veterinary journals make a point of explaining that the evidence raw food proponents cite is largely anecdotal or from low-quality studies.

While there are certainly some benefits that are supported by sound scientific research, many more studies need to be performed.

Until that time, researchers and others in the veterinary community likely won’t stand behind raw diets as the healthiest and safest option for feeding our dogs.

Risks of Raw Dog Food Diets

Dog eating raw meat

While there are certainly benefits to a raw food diet for dogs, there are some risks involved as well. 

The main risks of feeding a raw diet are nutritional deficiencies, pathogens, and bones.

Potential for Nutritional Deficiencies

Almost every study you can find published in veterinary journals will discuss the possibility of nutritional deficiencies in dogs that are fed raw diets. These deficiencies can happen with either homemade or commercial raw diets.

One such study,  published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) by Lisa Freeman, Marjorie Chandler, Beth Hamper, and Lisa Weeth described nutrient deficiencies in raw diets as “insidious.” 

Those authors cited a study that found 60% of the homemade diets observed had serious nutritional imbalances. Another study referenced by Freeman and her co-authors examined 200 raw diet recipes; 95% of them had at least one nutrient deficiency.

Potential for Pathogens

The risk of pathogens such as Salmonella, E. Coli, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Brucella is also serious. It’s an obvious concern for raw food prepared at home, but commercial diets also run this risk. 

Commercial manufacturers of raw diets do attempt to reduce pathogens through high-pressure pasteurization, but this method cannot completely eliminate bacteria. 

Some strains of bacteria will be less susceptible to this treatment than others, and it’s also possible for pathogens to grow resistant to pasteurization.

Many supporters of raw diets will tell you that there’s no need to be worried about your dog getting sick due to Salmonella or other pathogens. Some will even go so far as to say that your dog’s body was made to digest raw meat, and thus is able to handle bacteria without getting sick. 

However, this is simply not true. While it is possible for dogs to carry Salmonella without getting sick, the JAVMA article highlights a number of studies that have reported Salmonella infection in dogs as a result of being fed a raw diet.

These pathogens are a risk to both your dog and yourself. You can be exposed to pathogens from raw diets when you prepare meat or get licked by your dog. 

Not only that, but dogs can shed pathogens in their stool for up to seven days. Hand washing after food preparation and stool cleanup is critical.

It’s important to note that kibble can also carry pathogens. However, contamination is found at a much lower rate compared to raw meat.

Danger of Bones

Another risk of raw diets that is often downplayed is the danger of bones. You probably know that you should never give dogs cooked bones, since they’re brittle and can break into sharp pieces that can damage your dog’s intestines. 

You may have heard that raw bones, on the other hand, pose no threat. However, raw bones can also be dangerous for your dog. 

According to Lisa Freeman and her co-authors from the JAVMA study mentioned previously, raw bones can fracture teeth and injure the gastrointestinal system. It is possible for them to obstruct or even puncture a dog’s esophagus, stomach, small intestine, or colon. 

Some commercial raw diets add ground bones to their formula instead of whole bones, which is a safer option.

Challenges to Claims Made by Supporters 

Finally, one last thing we want to mention isn’t technically a risk, but worth discussing. Some people claim that raw diets are optimal for dogs because they mimic a wolf’s natural diet, being high in protein and low in carbohydrates. 

On the surface, this seems like a perfectly logical argument, since dogs are descended from wolves. However, it is important to remember that dogs are not wolves and have evolved to have different digestive systems.

Freeman and her co-authors explain that dogs, unlike wolves, have the ability to digest starch. Therefore, carbohydrates in kibble are not as problematic as raw diet aficionados make them out to be. 

This significant difference between the digestive systems of dogs and wolves challenges the notion that a wolf’s diet is truly optimal for dogs. 

This is coupled with the fact that wolves live vastly different lifestyles and have shorter lifespans than dogs.

Precautions For Raw Dog Food Diets

White dog looking at dog food

If you’re still interested in feeding your dog a raw diet, there are some precautions you should take for the sake of your and your dog’s health.

If possible, you should seek the help of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. This professional can create a balanced diet for your dog so that you can ensure she is getting all of the nutrients she needs. 

If you’re unable to speak directly with a veterinary nutritionist, look for recipes and meal plans created by these types of professionals. 

If you prefer to buy a commercially manufactured diet, be sure to research the company and its procedures. Find out whether the diet was formulated by someone with the appropriate qualifications, and make sure the food meets AAFCO guidelines for nutrition.

Let your veterinarian know that you will be feeding your dog a raw diet so that they can adjust the routine tests your dog receives to make sure that they’re getting the correct nutrition. 

The JAVMA study (discussed earlier) suggests that your dog receive a serum biochemical analysis, hematologic analysis, and urinalysis yearly.

Because raw meat has a considerable risk of carrying pathogens, it is critical that you follow the FDA’s food safety guidelines. The FDA suggests that you:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after preparing and serving your dog’s raw food.
  • Wash and disinfect all items and surfaces used to make and serve the food.
  • Thaw meat in the refrigerator or microwave, not on the countertop or in the sink.
  • Don’t leave uneaten food in your dog’s bowl; cover it immediately and refrigerate it or dispose of it.
  • Don’t let your dog kiss your mouth; wash any area of skin that your dog licks.

It’s also important to let others know about your dog’s eating habits before they interact with your dog. 

For instance, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals are much more susceptible to infection from pathogens. 

It’s important that they know the potential risk to their health so that they can decide whether or not they feel comfortable interacting with your dog. If they do, remind them to wash their hands after spending time with your pooch, especially if the dog licks them anywhere.

Final Thoughts

Though raw food diets are becoming a popular choice among dog owners, they should be considered with caution. 

While commercial kibble has been around for years and has been thoroughly tested and studied, the same cannot be said for raw diets. 

Currently, increased digestibility and a decrease in stool production are some of the only benefits supported by research. 

On the flip side, there are many concerns about nutritional deficiencies and pathogen contamination. 

Should you decide to go raw, it’s important to take proper safety measures to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses in yourself and your dogs.

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