Yorkshire terrier with tongue out, raw feeding in dogs and cats

What do I need to know about raw feeding?

Raw meat-based diets are a recent commercial food alternative for pets. Raw diets may be beneficial for your pet depending upon any specific health conditions that they may have, their lifestyle or age. However, there is little scientific research to support claims of their health benefits. Emerging research highlights some of the dangers of raw diets, including containing pathogens that are harmful to both humans and animals. Here our vet shares their advice about how to store, prepare and feed raw diets, to reduce risks for your pet and members of the family.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet

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What is a raw diet?

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of pet owners choosing to feed their pet a raw diet. A raw diet is any diet containing uncooked meat. This can include homemade (not recommended) or commercially available raw diets, which are often bought frozen and thawed prior to eating. All diets should be appropriate for the species, Body Condition Score (BCS), life stage, and therapeutic indication.

Should dogs be fed like wolves?

Interestingly, dogs are not evolved from wolves but they do share a common ancestor. Dogs differ genetically from wolves and therefore they do not require the same diet. Since domestication, around 10-15,000 years ago, dogs have eaten foods more similar to humans. Wolves have a metabolism that is three times faster than dogs. However, dogs are very capable of digesting carbohydrates, compared to wolves.

Does a raw diet provide all the necessary nutrients for a pet?

All commercial dog foods described on the packaging as ‘complete’ are bound under EU law to provide all of a pet’s dietary requirements. Adding food to an already complete commercial diet can actually cause nutritional deficiencies; for example adding cooked chicken changes the calcium to phosphorus ratio, which is especially important for growing dogs. So there is no need to supplement your dog’s diet with any extras, if you are feeding a complete commercial pet food. If you do want to add something else, adding a small amount of a good quality balanced wet dog food is much better than adding cooked chicken.

Your dog’s age and breed must also be carefully considered to provide the correct diet. Puppies should be fed to a lean Body Condition Score (BCS); as a general rule, you should be able to feel their ribs with gentle pressure, and they should not be fat. They should also not be over-exercised. A steady growth rate is safer than growing too fast, as they will reach the same genetic potential!

It is interesting to note that all pet food products must pass a fit for human consumption check at slaughter.

What are the advantages of feeding a raw diet?

  • Palatability: some pets may find a raw diet more appealing to eat
  • Oral hygiene: some raw meat-based diets state//claim that they improve oral hygiene for dogs and cats due to the texture and abrasive action of the food against the teeth. However, dental brushing and regular dental hygiene appointments remain key to preventing plaque, halitosis and dental problems. Read more about dental hygiene in cats and dogs
  • Food allergies: these are rare in pets and frequently over-diagnosed. Food allergies are clinically diagnosed using an exclusion diet. Occasionally, if an allergy to an ingredient(s) in a traditional diet is diagnosed, it may be managed using a raw meat-based diet
  • Smaller stools: many pets fed on raw meat based diets excrete less waste. It has been suggested that this may be because raw diets contain less bulking agents and non-absorbable components
  • Calmer behaviour: it has also been suggested that raw based meat diets contain less sugars and additives, which may contribute towards pets having calmer behaviour
  • High in fat: raw diets are often high in fat, which means that they have good digestibility. However, it is not always appropriate to feed a highly digestible diet, and foods that are high in fat can lead to pancreatitis

What are the disadvantages of feeding a raw diet?

  • Chronic diarrhoea: pets fed on raw diets have a high prevalence of chronic diarrhoea
  • Nutritionally complete? Many raw meat diets are not nutritionally complete or balanced. Therefore, they do not contain the correct balance of vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients needed for good health. This is commonly seen in home-prepared diets, as well as in some commercial raw food diets
  • Nutritional deficiencies: deficiencies are common. Supervision from a specialist veterinary nutritionist is essential to help ensure that home-made raw diets are both complete and balanced. Contrary to general opinion, changing your dog’s diet everyday will not balance out deficiencies
  • Pathogens: bacteria and other pathogens that are dangerous for humans and pets are frequently found in raw pet food. When meat is cooked, these pathogens are killed. However, raw diets by definition are not cooked, therefore poor handling and hygiene increase the risk of transmitting infectious diseases to you and your pet. These pathogens are particularly dangerous to children, elderly and immunocompromised people. Guidance about safe cleaning is provided below
  • Infection: blood tests in cats that are fed a raw meat-based diet show high levels of white blood cells in their blood. This is indicative of fighting an infection, rather than an enhanced immune system. They also shed increased levels of Salmonella spp. in their stools
  • Tooth fractures: there is no evidence that feeding raw bone decreases plaque or periodontitis in cats or dogs. Feeding raw bones is not necessarily safer than feeding cooked bones. Raw bones, or hard chew toys, increase the risk of fractured teeth. For example, slab fractures of the fourth premolar (large upper ‘carnassial’ teeth) at the back of the dog’s mouth
  • Intestinal obstruction: pieces of bone can also break off and cause oesophageal or intestinal foreign bodies and blockages. There is also a risk of secondary hyperparathyroidism, a painful bone disorder caused by an incorrect ratio of calcium to phosphorus in the diet

Can I make a homemade diet for my dog?

Technically yes, you can make a complete and balanced homemade diet for your dog. Commercial dog food production is highly regulated to ensure that they meet a pet’s nutritional needs. Therefore, the most important aspect of making a homemade diet for your dog is that the nutrients must be in the correct ratios to ensure that the diet meets all your dog’s nutritional requirements.

Unfortunately, the average number of calories in a homemade diet varies hugely. It is very difficult to ensure that a homemade diet meets even the minimum nutritional requirements for a pet and deficiencies are common for many of the essential dietary nutrients, even protein. Common deficiencies include calcium, vitamins and micro-minerals.

What can I do to limit the risks when feeding a raw diet?

  • Buy a commercially prepared frozen-thawed diet: diets which are frozen and thawed will destroy some (but not all) pathogens that could make you and your pet unwell. Make sure the food is fully defrosted before being fed. Store it in the fridge once defrosted until you feed it to your pet
  • Be hygienic: defrost and prepare your pets food in a separate area to your own food. Use different utensils and bowls to prevent cross contamination. Wash your hands with soap after handling the diet. Clean food bowls appropriately after every use
  • Balanced diet: a commercial complete diet will be nutritionally balanced. However, professional guidance must be used when feeding a homemade diet to ensure that it is balanced
  • Young or elderly family members or those with a weakened immune system: it is safer to avoid raw meat based diets altogether
  • Individual needs: do not feed raw based meat diets to immature animals who do not have fully developed immune systems. For example, animals under the age of 4 months, those on long term steroid medication, or whilst on a course of antibiotics

How should I clean my pet food bowls if I feed a raw diet?

This is a very important task if you feed your pet a raw diet. Raw meat carries a large number of bacteria and other pathogens that can cause significant illness in both humans and animals, some of which are potentially fatal. It is for this reason that we are taught to keep raw and cooked meat separate in the kitchen when preparing human food. Meticulous handling and rigorous hygiene measures will help to reduce the risk of infections occurring.

It is important to note that freezing decreases the number of bacteria (Colony Forming Units) in raw food but does not kill most bacteria! Freeze dried pet food diets have tested positive for, amongst others, Escherichia coli, Yersinia enterocolitica, Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter spp. and Salmonella spp.. These pathogens can cause very serious illnesses. Sadly, in the UK, there has been one human death, and four people have been infected, from E. coli O157 (STEC) from handling raw dog food. Also in the UK, cats have been infected and have died from Mycobacterium bovis after eating a raw venison diet.

In order to reduce the risk of contamination and infection for you and your pet, cleaning any equipment used in food preparation as well as their food and water bowls is vital. Pet bowls are made from a variety of materials, such as ceramic, plastic, metal and glass. The material that it is made of will directly affect how easy it is to clean. Here is a short guide to some common cleaning methods:

  • Using simply warm water to scrub your pet’s bowls will have no effect on removing bacteria
  • Scrubbing with soap or with 10% bleach or using a dishwasher: will kill only up to 33% of bacteria
  • Scrubbing and soaking in bleach will kill 77% of bacteria in a metal bowl, but 50% of bacteria in a plastic bowl
  • Meat must cooked, and contaminated items must be washed, at 71.5 degrees for 15 min to kill Mycobacterium bovis, which causes tuberculosis in humans

What are the next steps?

Here are the next steps to take in order to ensure that you and your canine friend remain safe and healthy:

  1. Talk to your vet about your concerns about your dog's health or diet
  2. Consider sourcing ethically-produced animal products to feed your dog
  3. Ask your vet to recommend a specialist veterinary nutritionist, who can formulate a specific diet for your dog and supervise their health and wellbeing

Read more

When to contact a vet?

Here you can book a video appointment to have a chat with one of our FirstVet vets for advice, treatment, and if necessary, referral to your local vet.

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