8 Reasons Why Veterinarians Are Against Feeding Raw Diets to Dogs
Many dog owners speculate that veterinarians are against raw feeding for the simple fact that they are after the money and ultimately want you to buy the expensive bags of food they sell in their offices.
This belief is very widespread and has created a movement that has hurt the veterinary field, making it appear as if veterinarians are all greedy, money-driven individuals who put their wallets ahead of a dog's health and well-being.
Of course, there are some bad veterinarians as there are bad doctors, but it's very disturbing when dog owners are prompted to listen to the advice of the average Joe with little credentials who happens to own a flashy website offering nutritional advice and recipes, in lieu of a veterinarian (who has studied many years and keeps up-to-date by undergoing post-graduate continuing education so to stay at the forefront of any new techniques, research, and trends which emerge constantly in the veterinary field).
Interestingly, there are sometimes veterinarians as well who are making claims that vets are after the money and do not recommend raw primarily because they are greedy. Due diligence is needed though. Often times, such vets appear to be providing advice for free (often in exchange for your email to hook you up), and then once they have gained your trust, they'll try pushing their books and try selling you their supplements and food recipes. This makes them equally after the money as the vets they are allegedly bad-mouthing in the first place.
Also, one must consider, if it's all about the money, why haven't veterinarians started selling raw foods on their own? With the raw food market exploding, and commercial fresh diets representing millions in annual sales, you would expect vet's offices to join the trend and start making some easy cash, but this seems still far from happening currently and for many good reasons.
So if not for the money, why are traditional veterinarians reluctant to recommend feeding dogs raw diets? Turns out, if we give them the benefit of doubt and look beyond the loads of speculation bombarded over the internet, they have their own reasons.
The scope of this article is therefore not to condemn or condone raw diets, but to provide an alternate view on this subject along with research and references to back up the reasons why veterinarians may be reluctant to suggest raw diets.
Reasons Veterinarians Are Against Raw Feeding
Before going into depth on reasons why veterinarians are against raw feeding, let's take a look at some false claims being made over the internet. One big myth is that veterinarians receive zero education in nutrition. This myth by the way is not limited to the veterinary field, but it's also popular among human medicine.
Human doctors indeed are often accused of not knowing much about nutrition as well. And as it's happening in the veterinary field, you'll find oodles of fad diets being spread like wildfire by people with little or no credentials who accuse doctors of knowing nothing. People are following such diets found on the web which in turn may put them in danger or risk malnutrition.
Well, here is a fact: It's not true that veterinarians don’t know anything about nutrition. Nutrition is part of a veterinarian's curriculum.
Sure, such education will never be as comprehensive as what a veterinary nutritionist would learn, but it's there. Then, once vet school is over, veterinarians are free to continue their education and learn more about nutrition-and many do.
Most veterinarians do have at least a semester course on nutrition in general. And a lot more information on the subject is scattered throughout other courses in vet school. So the idea that we know nothing about the subject is simply ridiculous.— Brennen McKenzie DVM
1) Nutrition Is a Complex Topic
The topic of nutrition is not an easy one. Indeed, it's quite complex (for a good reason board-certified veterinarians undergo several extra years to receive education and training on this comprehensive subject).
And then, there are so many types of dog foods on the market nowadays that it is very difficult to hold count. It just seems like every week a new company pops up and dog owners expect their vets to know everything about it.
Asking a vet whether a dog food is suitable for him is not as easy as asking a doctor if you can eat bacon when you have high cholesterol. Dog food is fed on a daily basis, and other than a few treats or table scraps, it's the core of your dog's diet.
On top of this, dog food is made of a long list of ingredients, you must, therefore, look at the order the ingredients are listed, the guaranteed analysis, whether the food is balanced and suitable for the dog's life stage. Reading dog food labels has become more of an art and this is just half of the job.
After reading the label, you must then keep into account whether it's suitable for a specific dog considering several individual factors such as the dog's age, breed, medical history, activity level, etc.
Here's the thing: There's no easy answer to this question: "Dr. Joe, I have seen a lot of people on a website talking about this great food, would this be a good diet for Rover?"
Veterinarians have dog owners waiting for their appointments back-to-back, and therefore, at a time where everybody seems to be in a rush, it would not be fair for them to take an extra hour to just sit down and discuss Rover's nutrition while other clients are impatiently waiting.
It's therefore not surprising if veterinarians don't look forward to going in-depth on such a broad topic at regular appointments. It's likely not because they don't want to, and more often than not, not because they don't know. In most cases, veterinarians stay on top of the topic of nutrition, it's just that it's a very complex subject and certainly not something they can answer with a short yes or no.
And the topic of raw diets is even more complex because of several factors that will be mentioned below. If we were therefore in their shoes, we would likely feel the same way. A little empathy for our vets will go a long way, considering how stressful their jobs are (suicide rates are among the highest among veterinarians).
"Asking about nutrition as a “by the way” as your vet is leaving for her next appointment isn’t fair. Just as you’d schedule an appointment with your vet if you had questions about your pet’s itchy skin, go ahead and schedule one for your questions about diet."
— Dr. Amy Farcas, veterinary nutritionist
2) A Lack of Evidence and Data
Most mainstream pet food companies sold at veterinary offices have likely had sales reps who brainwashed veterinarians in making them believe their foods are the best, but in compensation, these companies at least have offered plenty of scientific data to back-up their claims, something that is rarely available for alternative diets such as raw and home-made diets.
Ignoring all of this data in favor of the opinions of lay, internet-educated people who have labeled themselves as experts in the field (yet without any credentials) is not a good way to practice medicine that is evidence-based.
This is likely the biggest flaw of raw diets. Sure, there are loads of anecdotal reports of dog owners noticing better weight management, healthier teeth, reduced allergies and a glossier coat, but actual scientific evidence through peer-reviewed studies to support these claims is lacking.
People advocating raw foods also make statements about how a raw diet most closely resembles what a dog's ancestors ate (wolves), but veterinarians argue that this doesn't keep into account the evolutionary, biological and dietary changes associated with domestication.
For instance, a study has found that as dogs became domesticated, their ability to digest starches increased. Indeed, increased starch digestion constituted a crucial step in the early domestication of dogs. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that dogs thrive on a diet high in starches.
"To say that because dogs can digest starch proves that they thrive on a high-starch diet is like asserting that because people can process ethanol and glucose we thrive on a diet rich in rum and cookies!" says holistic veterinarian, Doug Knueven.
On top of this, advocates of raw diets ignore the many characteristics separating modern dogs from wolves, such as reduced aggressiveness and altered social cognition capabilities, not to mention morphological alterations such as reduced skull size, teeth and brain size. There are many differences between dogs and wolves!
Comparing dogs to wolves is somewhat like comparing humans to apes. Not to mention that the average lifespan of a wolf in the wild is not very long when most dog owners wish for their dogs to live for at least a decade and more.
At this time, there are no scientific studies showing any health benefits of raw meat diets. Their appeal is based on word of mouth, testimonials, and perceived benefits. However, studies show that there are significant risks to feeding raw meat diets.— Lisa M. Freeman, veterinary nutritionist
3) The Risks of Salmonella to People
A raw diet for dogs isn't as easy as pouring a bag of kibble in a bowl or opening a can and plopping it on your dog's dish. There are risks to the people preparing it that dog owners need to be aware of, which adds to the list of liabilities.
The major risk is for dog owners contracting salmonella, from the unsafe handling of raw meat.
So if veterinarians would recommend raw diets, they likely would feel responsible for ensuring that dog owners do so safely. This would involve pointing out the risks associated with handling raw diets such as:
- Knowing how to safely store and thaw raw meats
- Washing hands before and after being in contact with the raw meat
- Having utensils and a cutting board exclusively dedicated to its preparation
- Avoiding feeding dogs in the kitchen
- Feeding small amounts that are consumed quickly
- Washing all food and water bowls preferably using a sink that found in a separate area other than the kitchen or bathroom
- Avoiding having young children, the elderly, pregnant women and the immunocompromised (people with HIV, undergoing chemotherapy or using anti-inflammatory medications) handle raw diets or surfaces where it is prepared.
- Using caution in handling the dog's stools considering that this organism can be shed as well in the dog's feces. According to one study, Salmonella was found in approximately half of the dogs that were fed a single meal of contaminated raw food and these dogs shed Salmonella in their feces for up to 7 days.
Although salmonella is the pathogen most commonly mentioned when it comes to raw diets, there are also risks of contamination with other organisms, including Campylobacter spp, Clostridium spp, Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus.
Veterinarians who recommend feeding raw meat or eggs without giving full disclosure of the risks and precautions may face legal ramifications.— Sherry Sanderson, board-certified veterinary nutritionist
4) Risks of Salmonella to Dogs
The internet is flooded with web sites and dog owners who discredit veterinarians and commercial pet foods in very convincing manners, and this leads to dog owners being strongly influenced by them.
You'll find lots of anecdotal testimonials of dogs who literally recovered from health issues courtesy of feeding a raw diet, but it's unfortunate, that there are little reports of dogs who were harmed by a raw diet. Veterinarians know these latter instances too well.
One main risk is the risk of salmonella. Raw food advocates often make claims that there are no risks for salmonella or other pathogens in dogs considering that dogs have a more acid stomach and their digestive tract is shorter so to lower the chances for bacteria to set in.
Yet, veterinarians attest that this is not true. The GI tract of humans and dogs is remarkably similar both from a morphological and pathophysiological standpoint. A dog's digestive tract is not shorter compared to a human's when viewed in proportion to their smaller body size, explains veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lisa M. Freeman.
On top of this, there is no difference in regards to gastric pH and no evidence to prove that the difference in length of the gastrointestinal tract plays a protective role. Dogs do get salmonella, and when they do, they develop similar symptoms that humans show.
And even if dogs were fed human-grade meat, the risks would still be there considering that approximately one-third of raw chicken sold for human consumption has tested positive for Salmonella!
It's unfortunate, but modern times have increased the risks of bacterial contamination. While meat can be sourced by healthy animals, it all gets contaminated on the way from the slaughterhouse to the display case making it totally different from the “fresh kill” meat eaten by feral omnivores and carnivores, points out veterinary nutritionist Dr. Rebecca L. Remillard.
So while it's true that healthy dogs may be capable of coping with the ingestion of some pathogens, one must consider that young dogs or old and immunocompromised ones (such as those suffering from cancer) may not, explains veterinary nutritionist Marjorie L. Chandler.
This is why Dr. Dressler, also known as the "dog cancer vet," in his book "The Dog Cancer Survival Guide," recommends that owners of canine cancer patients cook meat at low temperatures, just long enough to kill the microbes rather than feeding it raw.
5) Possible Nutritional Imbalances
Most raw diets for dogs lack food trials or nutritional AAFCO analysis reports. This makes them at high risk for nutritional imbalances which can have deleterious effects on any dog, but particularly vulnerable are young, growing puppies.
This has been proven through published reviews and studies. One study in particular (Dillitzer et al, 2011) looked at the levels of 12 nutrients and found that 60 percent of homemade diets had major nutritional imbalances.
Nutrients often lacking are essential macrominerals, such as calcium, and trace minerals, such as iodine, selenium, copper, and zinc. Such diets also lacked essential omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, linoleic acid and arachidonic acid and contained inadequate levels of vitamins E, D, and B12.
Such nutritional deficiencies in dogs could lead to substantial issues such as poor skin and coat, chronic diarrhea, pansteatitis, osteopenia, skeletal abnormalities, rickets, bone fractures and anemia, to just name a few.
On top of lacking nutrients, raw meat diets may contain nutrient excesses and imbalances such as imbalances in the important calcium: phosphorus ratio.
If an owner elects to feed a home prepared diet they should be counseled on the risks of this feeding strategy and cautioned that nutritionally-related disease can mimic other forms of chronic illness.— Lisa Weeth, veterinary nutritionist
6) Risk for Blockages
Bones, which are often fed as part of raw diets are often believed to provide many benefits such as cleaner teeth and mental stimulation. Raw bones are typically believed to not cause harm as cooked bones do, considering that raw bones are less likely to splinter. Veterinarians though have another version of the story and witness problems with bones on a regular basis.
Problems may start in the esophagus. A piece of bone can become trapped within the dog's esophagus causing pain, regurgitation shortly after a meal and trouble swallowing.
Further down the digestive tract, pieces of bones may lodge and be unable to pass out of the stomach into the intestines or may get caught in the curvy portions of the dog's intestinal tract. Surgery in these cases may be needed to try to remove the bone from the stomach or intestinal tract.
On top of risks for obstructions, bones can cause choking, and when they are sharp, they can cause tears or punctures in the dog's esophagus, stomach or intestine which can lead to life-threatening situations.
Not to mention, even if bones pass through uneventfully, dogs may still have trouble passing bone fragments along with their stools which may lead to pain, constipation and bleeding from the rectum.
7) Risks for Teeth Fractures
Whether bones are raw or cooked, they can potentially fracture a dogs' teeth so this is something veterinarians must consider as an extra risk factor associated with raw feeding.
Among pet dogs, the fourth premolar teeth (carnassial teeth) found on the upper jaw appear to be the most predisposed to fractures compared to other teeth. This is because dogs generate tremendous biting forces with these teeth.
Problems often take place when dogs chew on items that are as hard as or harder than the tooth, which can trigger a potential fracture. Common culprits of fractures, therefore, include bones (cooked or raw), cow hooves, cage bars, rocks and nylon or hard plastic toys.
Affected dogs may not always show signs of pain or infection, and their appetites may remain unaltered. Left untreated though fractured teeth can lead to complications such as chronic pain, pulpitis, facial swelling, and tooth loss.
8) Some Other Risks
There are some other problems that can be associated with raw diets that go beyond the presence of pathogens, fractured teeth and gastrointestinal obstructions.
While it's true that many raw meat diets cause dogs to have a shiny and soft coat because of their high fat content, these same fat contents may cause health problems for some dogs. High fat levels may predispose dogs with sensitive GI tracts to vomiting and diarrhea or even a bout of pancreatitis.
A study conducted in 2012 also found an association between dogs eating raw meat diets and developing hyperthyroidism (Kohler et al, 2012). In the study, several dogs developed clinical signs of high thyroid levels including weight loss, aggressiveness, tachycardia, panting and restlessness.
Finally, another study revealed that dogs fed raw meat diets showed significantly higher levels of blood urea nitrogen, creatinine and hematocrit (Wynn et al, 2003).
The Bottom Line
As seen, veterinarians have many good reasons for not feeling comfortable in recommending raw diets. And why should they if there are dog foods that give them peace of mind knowing that they are manufactured by well-known and reputable companies who conduct nutritional research, offer diets that are balanced, undergo strict quality control testing to catch any pathogens, and are often formulated by veterinary nutritionists?
On top of this, major veterinary organizations have issued position statements on raw diets advocating their risks and not acknowledging them may be considered a form of malpractice.
The American Veterinary Medical Association policy clearly claims: "The AVMA discourages the feeding to cats and dogs of any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process to eliminate pathogens because of the risk of illness to cats and dogs as well as humans."
Last but not least, the goal of any therapeutic intervention instituted by a veterinarian such as the recommendation of a specific diet is to first “do no harm" so how can they recommend a raw diet if studies and major veterinary organizations point out substantial risks of infectious diseases to the dog, the dog’s environment, and the humans in the household? As seen, things are more complicated than thought!
So Are Raw Diets a Big No-No?
With this info in mind, does this mean that you shouldn't feed a raw diet to your dog as all raw diets are bad? Not necessarily, what you should or shouldn't feed your dog is beyond the scope of this article considering that this article is meant to simply go more in-depth as to why veterinarians aren't comfortable recommending raw diets.
Dog owners too though need some understanding. Many dog owners seek raw diets because they have become frightened due to past commercial food recalls such as the 2007 melamine contamination (which killed hundreds of pets!) and the most recent 2019 excess vitamin D cases. Yet, not many dog owners are aware of the fact that raw foods are often recalled too as can be seen in this directory of pet food recalls: Pet Food/Treat Recall History
If you have your mind though set on raw and are looking for a raw diet custom-tailored for your dog, your best bet is to conduct significant research before embarking on one and consulting with the real experts in the field: that is, board-certified veterinary nutritionists.
These specialists aim to provide a diet that is optimal for the individual pet, based on individual factors such as age, health, body condition and activity level. You can locate one near you through the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
Veterinary nutritionist Rebecca Remillard offers customized home-made diets for dogs and cats for a fee on her PetDiets.com website.
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- A recent study identified 12 dogs with hyperthyroidism caused by eating raw meat diets (Kohler et al, 2012)
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- Bite-Sized Disasters: Unbalanced Diets and Raw FeedingWorld Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017 Lisa Weeth, DVM, MRCVS, DACVN
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.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli