Is A Raw Diet Good For Puppies?

Australian raw feeders are still coming to terms with the horse meat scandal that killed and maimed so many Victorian dogs. Given the potential risk of buying pet meats, it begs the question: is it worth it?

In my vet practice we support raw feeding, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also have a watchful eye. I’ll cover the risks first. By knowing them and their solutions, you can do it more safely.

Afterwards, I’ll feature some of the first evidence to show a benefit for raw puppy foods.

Risk 1: Imbalance

Vets are a little obsessed with puppies getting a balanced diet, and if you know our history you’ll understand why. In the days before commercially balanced foods, many people got it horribly wrong. Prior to the parvo age, one of the leading causes of puppy death was an unbalanced diet.

We still see it from time to time (a milder case is featured here ). It happens when muscle and organ meats are fed out of proportion to a puppy’s calcium requirement. It’s sufficiently difficult to get right that you can’t just add back calcium powder either.

The solution can only be one of three things:

  1. Using commercially balanced diets for at least 75% of the total energy requirement
  2. Getting a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a diet for you (that’s an actual vet*)
  3. Buying a commercially balanced raw food for puppies, if you can find it

Which brings us to risk #2.

Risk 2: Contamination

This is a sensitive topic right now but at least it’s obviously real. Pet meat is poorly regulated, and therefore you can expect all of these to be found in it at some stage:

  • the wrong species
  • salmonella, campylobacter and other nasties
  • chemical residues illegal in human meats

I’m afraid that until the whole pet industry is better regulated, we need to be wary even of the pre-formulated, balanced raw meat diets here. If you do want to use one, personally I would choose the larger companies likely to have better quality control..

The solution has to be paying extra for meat processed entirely within the human supply chain. There will still be risks with any raw meat, but if you stick to beef or lamb, contamination rates are very low.

Risk 3: Fussiness

A fussy dog sounds like a joke. It’s no joke to anyone who has one.

My experience with fussy dogs is that they learn to be picky by being offered raw meats or home-cooked foods. Suddenly the biscuits don’t seem so good any more.

The solution is to set an absolute line in the sand by making clear boundaries that your dog can understand. ‘Only this much and no more’, or ‘only at this time’, etc. It’s just like getting kids to eat their meals. They can’t learn that hunger striking gets a tastier option or they’ll do it again and again.

Now to the benefits.

Is A Raw Diet Good For Puppies?

Done well, there are probably some positives to feeding puppies raw foods. These could include:

  • better skin & coat health
  • improved gut function
  • improved appetite

I say probably because up to now the evidence has been lacking. However I want to point you to a recent paper from Finland about raw puppy diets and skin problems later in life. Its results are shown here, and I’ll do my best to explain them afterwards.

Note that this is about prevention; a raw diet is very unlikely to fix your dog’s skin problem.

Raw Puppy Diets & Atopy

The common skin allergy of dogs is called atopic dermatitis. You definitely know a dog with this, even possibly your own. They get ear infections, itchy bellies, or lick their feet constantly. Diet is certainly not the main cause, but it might play a small role.

puppy diet vs allergy

This study (linked below) looked at the percent of adult dogs with atopic dermatitis based on their diet when they were 2 to 6 months old. The numbers across the bottom are the amount of each diet being fed. When there’s a statistically significant difference between dogs with and without skin problems, the bar is marked with an asterisk*.

What you can see is that there are multiple points where the likelihood of skin allergy is associated with:

  • a lower percentage raw diet, or
  • a higher percentage dry food

Ingredients Linked With Better Skin

The study authors went further and asked about specific ingredients. They found these three were associated with less skin problems:

  • Raw tripe
  • Raw organ meats
  • Human meal leftovers

Why might that be? The authors suggest the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ whereby an overly clean and sterile early environment might lead to an immune system more prone to allergy.

This makes sense when you look at the three ingredients:

  • Raw tripe will have the animal’s gut flora still present in many cases
  • Organ meats are also likely to carry bacterial contamination
  • Human meals are incredibly diverse (usually in a negative way of course)

A Raw Diet Plan For A Puppy

So let’s put all this together into a reasonable plan for a puppy diet.

Firstly, note that the actual amount of improvement is small, so nobody should feel that they have to feed any raw food at all.

Secondly, note that you don’t need to feed 100% raw to see a benefit. The authors recommend a diet:

  • at least 20% as raw food
  • below 80% as dry food

And in fact that’s a good place to stop. I would not go below 75% balanced commercial food. This is both to keep the diet adequately balanced and to avoid stomach upsets. One thing premium food is very good at is keeping the gut happy.

Thirdly, which ingredients? Raw tripe sounds ideal if you can get it, remembering to buy as fit for human consumption. It’s probably quite cheap too.

Human leftovers might be OK, but please look at our page on dangerous foods for dogs first. If you feed leftovers you need to do it in a very structured way, such as at a certain time in their bowl to avoid setting up bad habits like begging.

As for offal, it’s harder to do safely. You could add some liver or kidney, but no more than weekly to keep vitamin A levels down. Thyroid glands in mixed offals can cause excessive thyroid hormone levels. What you end up using will depend a lot on what you can easily buy and trust.

I also add raw bones from 10 weeks of age. It’s a personal choice, which you can read about here.

So in summary I’m advocating a diet that still relies mostly on good quality balanced commercial dog foods, but tweaks them a little by adding a small amount of selected raw foods. This approach is a typical ‘vet’ compromise, and I am resigned to it pleasing exactly no-one. But it’s what the best evidence** tells us.

As the owner of an atopic dog, it’s what I’ll try with my next puppy. And if better evidence appears in the meantime, you can bet that it will be posted here.

Big disclaimer: whenever you choose to go away from a 100% balanced, cooked diet, I can no longer guarantee complete safety.

* A quick note about online nutritional advice. It’s not a level playing field because the law uses something called ‘the reasonable person test’. In other words, if you follow ‘Joe Blow’s You-Beaut Diet For Puppies’, and your puppy dies, you may not be able to sue him. That’s because the courts will probably say that a ‘reasonable person’ would not be expected to trust this diet. Of course, if Joe Blow is a vet, then a reasonable person would be expected to believe him, and you can sue him. This is why vets generally play diets with a very straight bat, and the outlandish ones are not published by vets.

** The study is not without its flaws. By asking owners to remember their puppy’s food some years back, it will introduce a measure of recall bias. In other words, owners of adult dogs with and without skin disease might not recall the puppy diet in exactly the same way. It also relied on an owner assessment as to whether skin disease existed or not. This would be a problem if people who choose raw diets judge skin disease even slightly differently to those that don’t. Lastly, bearing in mind that significance is defined as less likely to have occurred by chance than one in 20, by asking about 46 different food variables, it’s nearly inevitable that some will achieve significance even by chance alone. Definitely more work is needed here to drill down on these individual ingredients in an intervention study.

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
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!

Hemida, M. B., Salin, S., Vuori, K. A., Moore, R., Anturaniemi, J., Rosendahl, S., … & Hemida, M. B., Salin, S., Vuori, K. A., Moore, R., Anturaniemi, J., Rosendahl, S., … & Hielm‐Björkman, A. (2021). Puppyhood diet as a factor in the development of owner‐reported allergy/atopy skin signs in adult dogs in Finland. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine Full text.

Andrew

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