Updated November 29, 2020
Are raw diets beneficial? There are strong arguments on each side but the jury’s still out. As a vet, I definitely see some dogs who do better on a raw diet.
Possible Raw Diet Benefits
- Dogs’ coats seem to get shinier. This is probably due to higher fat levels in raw diets.
- Weight management may be easier.
- Unexplained chronic diarrhoea can get better on raw diets.
- Some dermatitis cases also improve.
Dogs in the last two groups probably have intolerances to ingredients in commercial diets not found in home prepared foods.
But the fact remains: where is the evidence? A big part of the problem may be how hard it is to collect the evidence in the first place. You can read what makes a good scientific study here.
My opinion is that a well-designed raw diet is likely to be at least equal to feeding a complete and balanced commercial formula. Notice, however, that I said well-designed. The complexity of nutrition means it’s easy to make mistakes.
I’m not talking about relatively minor matters, like whether the diet has grains or not, I’m talking about diets bad enough to kill. Five great examples immediately come to mind.
Most normal dogs can tolerate higher fat levels in their diet but for some dogs, it can lead to pancreatitis. Whenever vets see a vomiting dog with a sore abdomen, the first thing they think about is this common disease.
2: Puppies and kittens pre-1970
I have the great advantage of being able to draw on the experience of vets who worked in the 1960s. Yes, that’s my parents. If you ask them what were the major problems in the time before pet foods one of their answers will be “diet”.
Simply, diets need a very precise ratio of calcium to phosphorus. Both too high or too low have their own negative effect on bone development. The minute you separate meat (high phosphorus) from bone (high calcium) you’re in trouble without analysis.
If you get these levels wrong, especially in growing animals, their bones will weaken. While a bowed leg is itself a permanent problem, when the spine collapses it can be fatal.
3: Cats on fresh pet meats
Australia has an ongoing problem with pet food regulation or the lack of it. One cheery example is that if you feed a certain ‘fresh’ pet meat to your cat without adding other foods, they will die of thiamine deficiency. It’s a terrible way to go.
Then there’s the recent debacle with BFF foods or the previous one with Orijen foods. It keeps happening because cats are both picky eaters and highly specialised at the same time. That’s a recipe for disaster if you don’t get it just right.
4: Kids with Salmonella
It’s been shown that when pet foods contain Salmonella kids also catch it and get sick. Dogs and cats often hardly show the signs, but it’s very serious in young humans I’m told.
Now consider the fact that a survey here in South Australia found that 38.8% of fresh poultry sold for human consumption was contaminated with Salmonella. That’s why we’re told to treat raw poultry very carefully. It won’t be any lower in pet food store products.
Sources for these statements are listed below.
5. Paralysis in Dogs
In 2018 it was shown that a dog disease called acute polyradiculoneuritis was linked with raw chicken diets. While the link isn’t causative, it’s likely that a bacteria in the chicken triggers an immune mediated disease.
Should I Feed A Raw Diet??
The biggest nutritional threat to dog and cat health isn’t which diet you choose, it’s how much you feed. This represents a real health emergency and is only getting worse. While it’s possible that raw diets may cause less obesity, I see overweight dogs and fat cats on all diet types and this has to be our first focus.
I’m very comfortable that dogs on well-made raw diets are healthy but costs and inconvenience are a factor. For the majority of dog and cat owners, commercial foods are a safe and reliable base for good nutrition. For those that prefer to use raw diets, it’s important to accept a higher risk if you go it alone.
How To Make Raw Diets Safer
Here are some easy ways to reduce the chance of accidental harm.
Don’t Use Poultry
Tests on Australian meats at the retail level show that lamb and beef have a Salmonella contamination rate of only 0.1 to 0.6%. That’s not zero, but it’s a lot better than 38%. Our meat inspection and hygiene system generally works well, just not for chicken. Raw mince is also more likely to be hazardous and is best avoided too.
It should therefore be no surprise that commercial raw BARF diets containing poultry have been shown to be contaminated by Salmonella. In 2018 it was also discovered that Acute Polyradiculoneuritis is linked to eating raw chicken.
Buy Only Human Grade Meats
I love the independents and I’m very sorry for what I’m about to say. The only thing you have to go on when buying fresh pet meats in Australia is trust. Our pet food industry has no recall or reporting system, and food hygiene standards are not enforced. That means we’re all in the dark.
Nowhere is this more true than in the shady origins of some pet meats. The UK outbreak of tuberculosis in cats and high levels of E. coli contamination in dog meats (both reported in 2019) shows that such problems are not confined to our borders.
I’ve looked at the raw food company websites and I can’t find any that test their batches for microbial contamination. The low Salmonella figures above only relate to meats from your local butcher or supermarket. The whole human supply chain from farm to you is tightly regulated.
Batch testing may not matter if food is prepared obsessively. Excellent manufacturers will meticulously clean their equipment, only use quality meats, adhere to best before dates and practise strict hygiene. That’s why I also say it’s not just buying human grade meat that’s important, it’s buying it from shops selling it for the humans themselves!
Wait Until Adulthood
As I said earlier, growing animals are at much higher risk if the diet isn’t balanced. Adults can be a lot more flexible without harm.
Don’t Feed Meat Alone
Dogs are adapted to a more varied omnivorous diet than their wolf cousins. Too many raw diets are essentially just meats and treats. That’s not good. Elswehere I have featured a raw diet which includes rice, pumpkin, carrot, peas, and apple. I also recommend raw bone feeding for most dogs.
The graph is from a Spanish study which found that dogs on home-made diets had a higher incidence of mammary cancer. It’s important to note what the researchers themselves said about this.
“This finding should be interpreted with caution, with regard to the question of whether commercial food per se is protective against mammary tumors, because of the potential influence of other factors. For example, in most of the dogs eating homemade food, a high frequency of consumption of table scraps and treats occurred.”
What about cats? I see many that manage to get by on mainly raw chicken necks but it’s not safe enough for me. Plus you have to accept the whole Salmonella thing (as I do).
A good compromise is to give cats at least 50% commercial food just as a safety net for all their odd requirements. And grass too!
Avoid Extra Fats
Despite the popularity of coconut oil in human nutrition, vets advise against its use in dogs. Addition of any fats or oils to diets will inevitably increase the risk of pancreatitis.
Handle Food Safely
If you do feed pet meats, or poultry products, here are some guidelines for looking after your own family’s health:
- Keep fresh meat frozen until use
- Use separate tools, utensils and boards for pet meat
- Wear disposable gloves and wash hands thoroughly after handling
- Avoid raw pet diets in households with people who have lowered immunity
Are Vets Biased?
In conclusion, I would also like to say a word about vets and conflicts of interest. Much has been said about vets selling the same foods they recommend, and I agree it looks bad. The best and worst thing that happened here to vets has been the rise of the big pet stores like PetStock and PetBarn, and more lately the online sellers.
The funding of vet courses by food companies is also unfortunate, but given the needs of universities, that’s unlikely to change. However, I don’t think it’s money well spent. The intelligence and independent-mindedness of the students that come through our practice speak highly of their ability to make up their own minds. Vets aren’t one giant homogenous mass; in fact, it’s more often our differences that stand out, not our similar views!
Yes, plenty of vets are opposed to raw diets, but they will honestly believe in the advice they give, just as others believe raw diets are great. We can only hope time will tell.
Behravesh, C. B., Ferraro, A., Deasy, M., Dato, V., Moll, M., Sandt, C., … & Urdaneta, V. (2010). Human Salmonella infections linked to contaminated dry dog and cat food, 2006–2008. Pediatrics, 126(3), 477-483.
Fearnley, E., Raupach, J., Lagala, F., & Cameron, S. (2011). Salmonella in chicken meat, eggs and humans; Adelaide, South Australia, 2008. International journal of food microbiology, 146(3), 219-227.
Finley, R., Ribble, C., Aramini, J., Vandermeer, M., Popa, M., Litman, M., & Reid-Smith, R. (2007). The risk of salmonellae shedding by dogs fed Salmonella-contaminated commercial raw food diets. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 48(1), 69.
Phillips, D., Jordan, D., Morris, S., Jenson, I., & Sumner, J. (2008). A national survey of the microbiological quality of retail raw meats in Australia. Journal of food protection, 71(6), 1232-1236.
Rhoades, J. R., Duffy, G., & Koutsoumanis, K. (2009). Prevalence and concentration of verocytotoxigenic Escherichia coli, Salmonella enterica and Listeria monocytogenes in the beef production chain: a review. Food microbiology, 26(4), 357-376.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!