The Truth about Raw Food for Dogs

Two leading veterinary organizations recently came out against raw food for dogs, but there's more to the story.

February 12, 2014


by Jean Hofve, DVM, author of the upcoming book Paleo Dog


Recently, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published yet another article about the horrible dangers of feeding a raw-meat based diet. They seem to have made a habit of it, as a new one seems to crop up every couple of years, and all seem to have the same refrain: Raw food for dogs can be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria and owners who opt for homemade raw diets make nutritionally imbalanced meals, leading to long-term health problems for dogs.

There are good reasons to be cautious about feeding raw meat to pets. Vets' main objections fall into two categories: worries about safety (primarily, bacterial contamination), and concerns about nutritional adequacy. But there are also benefits.

Raw Food for Dogs: Is It Really Safe?
It's true that dozens of kinds of bacteria, viruses and parasites may be present in raw meat. In fact, one article listed more than 50 pathological organisms—every bug that had been found in any raw meat, anywhere on the planet, ever. It’s true that bacteria such as SalmonellaListeria, and Campylobacter can also be found in human-grade meat that you buy at the store.

There are other organisms that may be found in raw meat, such as Toxoplasma, a protozoal parasite. However, freezing the meat for at least 72 hours destroys the parasitic cysts, killing the organism.

While it’s essential to follow ordinary safe handling procedures with any raw meat—these pathogens can, after all, make the chef sick—our dogs and cats are relatively resistant to these bacteria due to their extreme stomach acidity and relatively short digestive tracts. There are a few cases in the literature of dogs and cats that have become ill from Salmonella, while the thousands of pets whose health improves on a raw diet are not such big news.

Moreover, there are a few little facts that this paper (and others) conveniently forgets to mention:

1. Up to 36 percent of normal, healthy dogs and 18 percent of cats test positive for Salmonella. Where does it come from? The environment, for one—Salmonella is ubiquitous. And from dry pet food, as evidenced by numerous recalls of Salmonella contaminated pet food. The authors of this most recent paper do mention one recall, but inexplicably not the most recent episode, in which 49 people became ill (ten of whom had to be hospitalized) after merely touching dry dog food in 2012. In fact, in the very study cited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) as evidence that raw food is dangerous, the authors concluded, "To date, raw pet foods have not been associated with salmonellosis in humans."

2. The vast majority of pet foods recalled due to Salmonella contamination have been dry kibble pet food; there have been very few, limited recalls of commercial raw diets associated with Salmonella—and in none of the cases of raw recalls did any animals or humans become ill.

3. Most documented cases of humans getting Salmonella from pet food have been due to the humans handling dry kibble pet food. There has been only one documented case of a human getting Salmonella from his dog—and that particular human had fed the dog soup that had been sitting (unrefrigerated) for days.

More from Dr. Hofve: The 5 Worst Ingredients in Pet FoodHow to Deal with Your Pet's Food Allergies

Is It Nutritious?
When people are feeding a homemade raw diet, they have a tendency to “drift” away from the original recipe. Perhaps the pet prefers certain meats or other ingredients, or maybe they run out of a supplement and forget to buy more for a few days...weeks...or months. And this can cause serious nutritional deficiencies that can harm a pet. Indeed, there have been many cases where animals (particularly cats) have been fed only raw meat—which contains almost no calcium. After several months of stealing calcium from their bones to make up for the deficiency, those bones start breaking.

Another problem is that the vast majority of recipes in books and on the internet are not complete and balanced. If a person uses good, basic supplements and a wide variety of whole foods, a serious deficiency is unlikely to develop. In theory, one could develop, but other than meat-only diets, such deficiencies have never been documented to occur.

On the other hand, processed commercial pet foods have experienced quite a few problems, including multiple recalls for thiamine deficiency (hundreds of animals sick or dead) and Vitamin D excess (unknown number of animals affected).

So Why the Resistance?
The AVMA is the professional organization that represents the interests of US veterinarians. It's basically a lobbying or trade organization, dealing mainly with politics, including the politics of money. The AVMA’s annual conference, for example, is paid for not only by the registration fees from veterinarians who attend, but also by exhibitors who spend enormous amounts of money to have booths in the exhibit area. Some of these booths are huge and elaborate, and the biggest and fanciest are erected by the biggest pet food companies, including Hill’s, Iams, Purina, and Waltham's. It’s no wonder that, in 2012, the AVMA created a whole new policy statement condemning raw meat diets for pets.

These big pet food companies are all owned by vast multinational corporations whose primary products are not pet food, but who have found that pet food is a very lucrative line. Science Diet is owned by Colgate Palmolive Co.; Iams (including Eukanuba and Natura) by Procter & Gamble Co.; Purina by Nestlé SA; and Waltham’s (including Royal Canin) by Mars Inc. They expend millions of dollars every year to woo veterinarians and veterinary students to ensure a steady stream of buyers from those vets' clientele.

Despite their size and wealth, these companies apparently feel threatened by the natural and raw pet food movement. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that every one of them had products involved in the 2007 melamine pet food recalls; and they may are undoubtedly aware that, since then, homemade pet food has acquired (they might say "stolen") up to 15 percent of their market share. Threaten their profits, and the claws really come out!

The lead author of the new paper, Lisa Freeman, DVM, of Tufts University, wrote another raw-bashing paper in 2001. The earlier paper failed to disclose the tiny detail that it was entirely funded by Nestlé-Purina. The current paper does not disclose any conflicts of interest, either—but her primary "consultant" works for Purina.

You CAN Avoid the Risks.
There are commercial raw diets (frozen, freeze-dried, and dehydrated) that have been formulated to meet nutritional standards and that have good quality control standards to minimize contamination. Those diets will provide a good foundation for the newbie raw feeder, as well as for travel and other situations where a homemade diet is not possible.

Tens of thousands of dogs and cats have been eating raw meat homemade diets for decades with no ill effects. They aren’t getting sick—in fact, most people report that their pets are healthier than ever! Holistic veterinarians have recommended raw feeding for many years; and they’ve heard story after story of health problems resolved—skin issues, digestive problems, even seizures—all disappeared when the animals were taken off commercial pet food and fed a raw diet. Pets look good, and clearly feel good! 

If you are interested in raw feeding, first get educated. Then start slowly. Lightly cook the meat at first if you prefer; and make a gradual transition. Always add the proper supplements, based on a balanced recipe. Even a little raw can go a long way toward making up for the diseased and unwanted animal “parts” and waste grains that make up the bulk of commercial pet foods. Whatever they’ve been fed before, dogs are still carnivores, and they will do best when you honor the wolf spirit inside every dog!

Tags: pet care