Are Raw Diets Good For Dogs & Cats?

Updated September 3, 2021

Many dogs do well on raw diets, but there are also several pitfalls to avoid. This article aims to guide dog owners into the safest choices within this sphere.

Vets have a tendency to be against raw diets, but I will do my best to be logical and unbiased. Therefore I’ll start with some benefits we see in these dogs.

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.

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 very 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 major examples immediately come to mind.

1: Pancreatitis

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. Read here my 2021 raw diet advice for puppies.

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.

What about dog cancer diets? There’s a whole other page for that.

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.

Dog diet & cancer

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.

Further Reading

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.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

10 Replies to “Are Raw Diets Good For Dogs & Cats?”

  1. Hello – Is it ok to feed a mixture of homemade, raw and commercial dog food? Like (for example), give commercial kibble daily and alternate days of raw or homecooked?


    1. Hi Caz. Not only is it okay, it’s actually recommended by some veterinarians as a way to mitigate the risk of poor balance in homemade diets and faults in commercial diets. Mixing home-made, raw and commercial diets is not done more only because most people are firmly in one or the other camp.

  2. Andrew,

    We have an 18 month old Rhodesian Ridgeback who has an allergy to something. It results in itchiness and redness on his skin and lots of chewing and scratching. We have tried a number of vet prescribed drugs, but would prefer to avoid non-natural fixes if possible. He is currently on Apoquel, which is showing limited benefits/difference. We are trying your raw food diet. in the recipe you suggest using Balance IT and say to use their directions to determine the quantity. We recently received our order of Balance IT and on the container it says to consult your vet to work our how much to add (it’s not a grams per kg type of thing). So, we are at a loss. On the Balance IT website, it allows you to input your dog’s diet to calculate the amount of additive to include, but not all of the ingredients are listed. From that site, with the ingredients I could add, it suggests 15 gm/meal. This means the $70 container will last us less than three weeks. I hope that’s not right.

    Are you able to provide some advice on the amount of Balance IT we should use?

    Linkon (the dog) is around 38kg. He is 18 months old. He eats twice per day and each meal currently includes:

    100gm turkey mince (raw)
    100gm rice
    100gm pumpkin
    50gm carrot
    50gm apple
    15gm peas

    Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.


    1. Hi Peter. I looked back at the diet and Balance IT was added at a rate of 5g per 350g of cooked food. Therefore, it looks like your calculations are quite close- 15g would be for around 1kg of food. I’m sorry it’s so expensive for you. There is an alternative listed but it’s a little more hit and miss.
      However, I feel I must also say that it’s unlikely that your dog’s skin problems are caused by diet. I’ve tackled that here. To check if they are, you need to use an elimination diet for 8 weeks (follow the link for how) which over this timeframe doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced.

    1. Hi Mary – it’s both very hard and very easy! At the beginning you really have to just make an educated guess for what looks right, but the important thing is to weigh your dog at the start and then regularly (at least every two weeks), adjusting the amount until their weight is stable. Read more about feeding the right amount here.

  3. Hi Dr Spanner

    Thanks for this article. It is a very confusing subject. Great job on illuminating this for the regular concerned pet owner.

    It would be great if you could point dog owners to a resource that indicates how much of each supplement we should feed, given the size/weight of the dog. I don’t want to feed my dog a raw diet, but I do want to make a home made diet for my dog. The recent media on Advance Dermocare episode (I saw you on ABC News) has prompted me to consider feeding my dogs home made cooked meals. I’d like to make that meal as well designed as possible!

    Many thanks in advance.

  4. My 12 year old Lab mix was diagnosed with failing kidneys. The vet advised adding fresh meat & well cooked veggies to his diet and after doing this for 3 months went back for blood work and there was a noticeable improvement. That was when I decided to eliminate commercial dog food from his diet and do mostly homecooked with raw green tripe. 3 months later his kidneys were functioning normally. He recently passed away at the age of 16. His kidney were not the issue.
    I used a recipe given by the vet & added a calcium supplement. I made batches 2x a month and varied the meat and vegetables . I think feeding commercial dog foods- especially kibble- no matter how high quality is detrimental to dog’s health and their lives are already too short. Where I live here in San Francisco there is a community group of Raw Feeders who who purchase high quality organic meat sourced locally and these folks do not need any studies to convince them of the benefits when they are experiencing first hand healthier dogs that are living longer than their kibble fed canine counterparts. Maybe instead of a study, someone could gather data from dog owners in groups like SFRAW.

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