Is a raw diet right for my dog?: The Pros and Cons

When it comes to our dogs, it goes without saying that we want to make sure they are as happy and healthy as can be. A huge part of that is deciding what to feed.

There are a wide range of different diets for dogs but no other diet in recent years has generated more arguments and divided opinions as the raw diet. On both side of the debate are dedicated dog owners and veterinarians.

Raw feeding has increased in popularity over recent years. While they still make up only a small proportion of the diets being fed, raw diets are here to stay.

So, if you are thinking about trying a raw diet for your dog but not sure if it is the right choice, I have answered some of the most commonly asked questions in this blog post.

What is a raw diet exactly?

A raw diet is exactly what it sounds like: feeding your dog a diet comprised entirely of uncooked foods. A raw diet typically consists of uncooked muscle meats, organs such as liver and kidneys, raw eggs, vegetables like sweet potato and spinach, some dairy such as yogurt, some fruit, whole or ground bones and supplements to balance the diet.

Is a raw diet healthier?

When it comes to raw food diets for dogs, some of the commonly claimed health benefits are:

  • Better digestion
  • A stronger immune system
  • Improved general health
  • Healthier coat and skin
  • Reduced stool volume and odour
  • Improved breath and body odour
  • Healthier teeth and gums
  • Less cancer

But, is there good science behind these claims?

Despite the increasing popularity of raw diets there have been no long-term, larger studies that support any of the claimed health benefits above. One small 2017 study compared raw, fresh cooked, fresh cooked grain free, and dry foods found that:

  • There was no significant difference in the digestibility among the foods
  • Stool quality was not much different
  • Dogs who ate a raw food diet had a potentially negative change in gut bacteria
  • Dogs fed a nutritionally balanced raw diet remained healthy, but did not demonstrate any extra health benefits above those of dogs fed other foods

This study does though, come with caveats:

  • Each diet was only fed for a relatively short time and long-term conclusions are impossible to make.
  • The result of the study is based upon the foods compared and conclusions cannot be applied to all raw diets or all dry food

So, where do we now stand, is a raw diet healthier?

The short answer to the question is ‘no’. But the slightly longer, and perhaps more accurate answer, is, ‘based on the evidence we have right now, no’.

This does not mean that there are no benefits; it simply means that we do not know, and that the numerous health claims for raw foods are not based on scientific evidence.

Is a raw diet ok for all dogs?

Definitely not.

While there is a lot of disagreement when it comes to raw diets, one thing both vets and dog owners will agree on is that a raw diet is not for every dog.

A key factor is going to be the current and past health of your dog. For example, any disease or medication that weakens your dog’s immune system is reason enough to be cautious.

There are also specific diseases, such as liver disease and pancreatitis, in which a raw food diet is generally not recommended.

I would also avoid feeding raw meat diets if a human member of your family is immunocompromised, and the same goes for therapy dogs that visit such people.

Is it ok to feed raw bones to my dog?

Yes, but choose your bones wisely and please keep in mind a few limitations.

Feeding large quantities of raw bones can cause hard and dry stools that stay stuck inside your dog’s colon or rectum. Raw meaty bones, i.e., bones that are covered in meat and sometimes skin such as chicken wings and turkey necks, are less likely to cause this problem.

Never leave a dog unattended with a bone. Your dog could be too eager to gulp down their treat and choke, especially if there are other dogs present when things could get a little competitive. Bones have a remarkably high resource value.

Raw bones can splinter and cause obstruction in the digestive tract. This is bad news because if the bone fragtment is sharp ultimately this can punch a whole right though the intestinal wall. Some will dismiss this, but the reality is that it can happen. I’m not suggesting a high-risk factor, just making you aware it can happen.

Be sure that your dog’s teeth are in good shape before feeding whole bones. Choose a bone which is appropriate to your dog’s age, size, breed, and experience with chewing bones and don’t let your dog become possessive over them.

Should I worry about bacteria in raw meat?

Of all the questions I am asked, concerns about E. Coli and Salmonella come up most often.

Raw meats can carry bacterial pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli as well as microscopic parasites like Sarcocystis and Toxoplasma. These pathogens can pose potential health risks to both dogs and people. Research tells us that these are the facts. You can read more here, here and here.

Some people claim that dogs are immune to the bacteria in raw meat. True, most healthy dogs are able to deal with the bacteria in raw meat and bones, but dogs can and do become sick from them sometimes. It is important to note that the illnesses that some bacteria cause will put younger, older, pregnant, stressed or ill dogs at higher risk of complications.

Overall, the bigger risk of illness caused by food-borne harmful bacteria is for the people who share their home with a dog that’s fed a raw food diet, especially those who are young, old, pregnant, or immunosuppressed, such as undergoing chemotherapy or on steroid therapy.

You can be exposed to bacterial contaminates both when preparing your dog’s raw food diet, by inadvertently encountering your dog’s faeces or when your dog licks your face. Even if a dog shows no signs of illness, they can be carriers of these bacteria. A dog’s stomach acid can neutralise the infections, but they can still pass the bacteria on to other dogs or people they come into contact with.

That’s not meant to sway you away from raw diets but rather to make you aware of as many potential risks as possible so you can deal with this information in a smart way.

If you’d like to feed your dog a raw diet, then use common sense to reduce the risk of contamination. Be careful cleaning the environment, and what the food has come in contact with. Run dishes through the dishwater and, ideally, don’t have the raw food where you prep your own food. It’s also important to practice good hygiene in general, such as washing your hands with soap and water after handling raw dog food, and having children be in the habit of washing their hands and faces if they’ve been licked.

Do you formulate raw home-prepared diets?

Yes, I’d certainly be happy to consider a raw meat diet for your dog but please keep in mind these limitations:

My raw diets still contain supplements to ensure the diet meets NRC recommended allowances for healthy nutrient intake. Some people might find this surprising and might not agree with the use of supplements. Nevertheless, the fact remains that successfully feeding your dog a fully balanced raw diet without the use of supplements is challenging at best, impossible at worse.

I never use raw bones to meet calcium requirements in my diets. The reason for this is that the absorption of calcium from bone has been shown to be highly variable. Calcium and phosphorus need to be delicately and accurately balanced relative to each other to avoid health issues.

I only use meat and offal legally suitable for human consumption. ‘Pet meat’ products vary greatly in quality and are often inconsistent in their nutritional composition. An excess or a deficiency in essential nutrients can cause several serious health issues. For that reason, I favour a more precise approach to the nutrient content of the diet.

The take-home message

There may be (potential) benefits to feeding a raw diet, but so far, we don’t have any reliable studies to show that it’s better for your dog’s health. On the flip side, we have no evidence that it is not the case. There are, however, evidence that pathogens from raw foods can compromise your own health alongside that of your dog.

So, with all this discussion, should you feed your dog a raw diet?

The right decision depends on the health status of your dog and other family members, your personality, life, and comfort level.