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The Pros and Cons of a Raw Food Diet for Your Dog

Amanda was raised with dogs and has kept dogs all her life. "Dogs aren't just pets," she says, "They're workmates, friends, and family."

A raw food diet for your dog may seem to be more natural but it increases the risk of bacterial infection and malnutrition

A raw food diet for your dog may seem to be more natural but it increases the risk of bacterial infection and malnutrition

Should You Feed a Raw Food Diet to Your Dog?

Are you thinking of feeding a raw food diet to your dog? It's an increasingly popular choice among pet owners and even some vets now recommend it. But it's not a decision to take lightly. This article discusses the arguments for and against a raw food diet to help you make up your mind.

Raw food diets for humans fall in and out of fashion all the time, but at least people can choose if they want to eat only uncooked foods and can change their minds if it doesn't suit them. Raw food diets for dogs are more controversial as the dogs themselves don't have a say in the decision. But what are the facts? Is it good for a dog to eat only uncooked meat, vegetables, and fruit?

While many working dogs and greyhounds bred for the race track are often fed such diets, is it the right thing for the family pooch? Those in favor of the approach claim it's a more natural feeding regime than canned or dry commercial pet foods. They say it's a diet closer to the food a domestic dog's wild ancestors would have eaten.

Those against feeding only uncooked food to dogs, which includes many vets and the Food and Drug Administration Federal Agency, claim scientific studies show the health risks associated with raw meat and vegetable diets for dogs are too high. The main risks are bacterial infection, poor nutrition, and injury from splintered bones.

Most raw food diets for dogs include not only meat but a range of fresh fruits and vegetables

Most raw food diets for dogs include not only meat but a range of fresh fruits and vegetables

Essential Nutrition for Dogs

All dogs need water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Too much or too little of any of these nutrients can harm your dog.

High-quality prepared dog food contains all the essential nutrients your dog needs in proportions appropriate to his breed, age, and size. Feeding a raw diet makes it hard for you to know exactly what nutrient balance your dog gets.

If you are determined to feed your dog only uncooked foods, then consider getting advice from an expert animal nutritionist or buying commercially prepared meals recommended by your vet. Most vets and pet nutritionists can provide ready-made recipes for you to use. But as food preparation is expensive and time-consuming, you might want to keep a supply of pre-made food just in case.

What Does a Raw Food Diet for Dogs Include?

While raw food dog feeding regimes vary, most include some or all of the following ingredients:

  • meat on the bone
  • marrow bones
  • internal organs such as kidneys
  • liver, brains, and heart
  • eggs
  • vegetables
  • fruit
  • yogurt

Many raw food diet enthusiasts prepare their dogs' meals fresh from scratch. Others use commercially prepared dog foods based on uncooked ingredients.

The Paleo Diet for Dogs

A well-balanced raw food diet for dogs most closely resembles a popular human dietary regime known as the "Paleo Diet". The name derives from the idea that the diet closely resembles that which our Stone Age (or Palaeolithic) ancestors may have consumed. The underlying concept is that such a "natural" diet must be better for us than processed, pre-packaged food. People who favor raw food diets for dogs make similar arguments.

There's a lot of sense in much of the underlying thinking and research has shown that, if done right in order to maintain full nutrition, the Paleo Diet can be healthy, balanced and make a positive contribution to well-being. The key is to do it right. You must understand what full nutrition involves and how to get it from any diet regime you follow.

The same applies to dogs. If you want to follow a raw food diet for your dog at all costs, a range of foods and recipes based on the same principles as the Paleo Diet may be the best way to ensure your dog gets everything he needs.

Dogs have been hunting companions for humans since the Stone Age. Back then, they probably shared in the hunters' spoils. They certainly didn't eat canned food!

Dogs have been hunting companions for humans since the Stone Age. Back then, they probably shared in the hunters' spoils. They certainly didn't eat canned food!

Typical Raw Food Dog Diet Ingredients

Ingredients

Meat: raw beef, pork, lamb, and poultry

Bones

Raw eggs

Carrots, turnips, potatoes, broccoli

Milk and yogurt

Apples, pears, berries

Changing Your Dog from a Commercial Diet to Raw Food

If your dog is used to a commercially prepared diet it may be a good idea to move slowly on making the transition to a raw food diet. This is partly to give his digestive system time to adjust, and partly to make sure he'd happy to eat everything you offer and doesn't go hungry.

The best approach may be to add a little of his new food to what he regularly eats each day. Over time, decrease his old foodstuff and increase his new foodstuff until the transition is complete. If there's anything he won't eat, don't try and force him. Let him decide.

Advocates of the raw food diet claim it's more akin to that eaten by their wild cousins, the wolves

Advocates of the raw food diet claim it's more akin to that eaten by their wild cousins, the wolves

The Scientific Evidence

Studies published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (2001)1 and The Veterinary Nurse (2015)2 concluded that all five of the homemade raw food dog diets studied led to nutritional deficiencies which posed a risk to health. They also suggest homemade, raw diets may not contain enough calcium and phosphorus to keep bones strong and healthy. If fed to puppies, this can lead to bone deformities as the animals grow.

Advice published by the Food and Drug Administration3 suggests that over half of commercially prepared raw food diets may contain harmful bacteria including salmonella and E. coli. These bacteria pass into the feces and may also harm humans who come into contact with them.

Benefit Claims and Risks

Claimed BenefitsPotential Risks

Healthier gums and teeth

Choking, broken teeth

A more natural diet

Unbalanced, poor nutrition

Healthier, more energetic dog

Risk of life-threatening bacterial infections from raw meat

To Feed or Not to Feed Raw

Feeding a safe and nutritionally balanced raw food diet to your dog can be time-consuming and expensive. Vets recommend dog owners wishing to avoid feeding commercially produced food can prepare homemade dog food if they follow a recipe planned by a certified animal nutritionist. However, most vets agree that a commercially prepared dog food certified by the Association of American Feed Controls is the safest and healthiest choice for your pet.

References

  1. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association November 1, 2001, Vol. 219, No. 9, Pages 1222-1225 https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.2001.219.1222
  2. Chan, Daniel & Lumbis, Rachel. (2015). The Raw Deal: Clarifying the nutritional and public health issues regarding raw-meat based diets. The Veterinary Nurse. 6. 336-341. 10.12968/vetn.2015.6.6.336.
  3. FDA's Advice: Know the Risks of Feeding Raw Foods to Your Pets. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/ucm403350.htm.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2018 Amanda Littlejohn

Comments

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on September 28, 2018:

Thanks again, Dr. Mark, for a valuable contribution and useful insights.

"Dogs still cannot open the refrigerator door so if they are fat there is no-one to blame but the owner." On that we absolutely agree. In fact, I'd go as far as to say, there's no such thing as a "bad dog", only a bad owner.

Raw diet full-time, just as therapy, or processed food; it remains a complex issue and perhaps we don't have sufficient scientific research on all fronts to make conclusive statements (hence my "claimed" and "potential").

But the key point is that if you have a dog, then you need to do your "due diligence", find out as much as you can, and follow the best practices you're aware of to take care of your hound.

Thanks again for a great contribution to the discussion.

Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 28, 2018:

I always switch dogs that have skin problems to a raw diet as part of their therapy. I know that many owners will not stick with it but adding those extra fresh vitamins during the initial therapy seems to help.

You notice I did say seem. I am not able to prove it and those people that claim that a homemade diet is proven to be better can not prove it.

Why do most people not stick to it? The big con of feeding a homemade diet is that it is not convenient. Opening a bag of dog food is easy, like going out to McDonalds instead of taking half an hour to prepare a meal.

Yes, I agree the treats are a real problem. When I practiced in Chicago it was a bigger problem than here but I cannot prove that it is because of the food or the "excessive treats" policy. There is really no excuse. Dogs still cannot open the refrigirator door so if they are fat there is no one to blame but the owner.

Dogs on processed foods do tend to overeat though. The companies will tell you it is because their foods taste great, but the sad fact is that I think it is because the foods do not meet the dogs needs.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on September 28, 2018:

Hi Dr Mark,

Thanks for your interesting perspective. As this is an article about the pros and cons of a raw food regime, I'm delighted that you have voiced your opinion.

I think "claimed" benefits suggests that the benefits may or may not be true and that "potential" risks suggest the risks may or may not be actual. "Potential benefits" and "claimed risks" would work the same way.

The main reason for obesity in dogs isn't that they're being fed one or another dog-food brand. It's because they are being fed too much (of anything) and are also given fatty/sugary treats and table scraps on top. Coupled with insufficient exercise, particularly for medium to large-sized breeds, that leads to an overweight dog just as it does in people.

I'm happy to state my bias: I'm not convinced by the raw food argument. The reason is, that after presenting the pros and cons as this article does, I think the cons weight more heavily in the balance.

Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 27, 2018:

Interesting article but skewed. Just look at your chart where you compare claimed benefits to potential risks. Why not claimed risks? If you really want to discuss the pros and cons, why not point out that the huge numbers of obese dogs in the US are being fed processed diets that are full of high levels of corn fat. (Look at the best selling dog food brand in the US, Ol Roy. It is AAFCO approved, by the way.)

If you are in favor of feeding your dog processed food that is your choice. You should use a more honest title, though, like "Why Raw Food is Bad for Your Dog".

By the way, as I am sure you already know from your reading, the raw food proponents are just as bad about this. They will put up an article about "Pros and Cons" and only discuss unproven "facts" about why raw food is so much better than processed.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on September 22, 2018:

I agree, Ethel, that a purely raw diet may not be best - and it's certainly not the easiest way to feed your dog a full, nutritious diet. Occasional fruit and vegetables (although never grapes, which can be fatal) is fine and most dogs are happy to have boiled rice, too.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on September 22, 2018:

Hi Shelley. Thanks for your comment. Yes, it's very important to heed the advice you get from your vet. And if you have doubts, there's no reason why you shouldn't seek a second opinion.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on September 22, 2018:

Thanks for an interesting read.

I am not convinced a raw food diet is best. I do think we all need to take care which products we feed our dogs and if they are pets food they like matters. We all like a treat sometimes. My little dog liks raw carrot and apple now and then but only small amounts. He is one that easily gets an upset tummy. Perhaps as he is a small dog. He came to is aged between two and four so finding a diet that works for him has taken time. Now and then I add plain boiled rice to his food and the bonus is he loves it.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 22, 2018:

I hope people would follow what their vets recommended for all these reasons!