Feeding your dog or cat a raw food diet - What do you need to consider?
Are you thinking of feeding your dog a raw diet? Read our article to find out all you need to know about raw feeding your dog a raw meat-based diet to help you make an informed decision. Similar considerations should be made for cats. 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.
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In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of pet owners choosing to feed their pet a raw meat-based diet. However, a raw diet requires careful handling and must be tailored to your dog’s needs. Here our vet discusses the possible benefits and risks of feeding a raw meat diet, the difference between homemade and commercial raw diets.
What will this article cover:
What is a raw food diet?
Is raw food a more natural diet?
What are the possible benefits of feeding a raw diet?
What are the possible risks of feeding a raw diet?
Should I feed a homemade or commercial raw diet?
How can I limit the risks of a raw food diet?
What is a raw food diet?
A raw diet is any diet primarily containing uncooked meat. This can include homemade (not recommended) or commercially available raw diets. Feeding a raw diet must be carefully thought out and take into account specific health conditions, lifestyle and age.
Is raw food a more natural diet? Should dogs be fed like wolves?
It is a common misconception that a dog’s natural diet is raw meat and that dogs are unable to digest the carbohydrate content found in traditional cooked dog foods. Since domestication thousands of years ago, dogs have eaten foods more similar to humans, and unlike wolves, domestic dogs are very capable of digesting carbohydrates. A dog’s digestive and metabolic traits appear to be more associated with omnivores such as humans, i.e. they are able to eat and digest both meat and plant based foods.
What are the potential benefits of feeding a raw diet?
Palatability: some pets may find a raw diet more appealing to eat. However reduced appetite or inappetence can be a sign of illness so if you are concerned your dog has stopped eating well please seek veterinary advice. If you have a picky eater and would like more information on how to address this, read our Fussy Eater article
Oral hygiene: some raw meat diets claim to improve oral hygiene and help with bad breath due to the texture and abrasive action of the raw food against the teeth. However, there is little evidence for this and there are dry food options available designed to help clean teeth. For more information, read our article on bad breath and dental disease
Food allergies: Food allergies are actually rare and often over-diagnosed. The gold standard way of diagnosing food allergies is by conducting an exclusion diet. Occasionally, if an allergy to an ingredient(s) in a traditional diet is found, it may be managed using a raw meat-based diet. To find out more, read our article on food allergies
Smaller poo: many pets fed a raw meat based diet produce less waste. It has been suggested that is because raw diets contain less bulking agents and non-absorbable components
Calmer behaviour: it is possible that a raw meat-based diet could help your dog become calmer as a result of containing fewer carbohydrates and additives. However, studies have shown that some dogs may become livelier while many will show no change in behaviour. Feeding your dog a high quality traditional dry or wet food diet can also help with calmer behaviour
Improved digestibility: raw diets are often high in protein and fat, which means they have better digestibility. However, it is not always appropriate to feed a highly digestible diet, and foods that are high in fat can lead to health issues such as pancreatitis
What are the potential risks of feeding a raw diet?
Malnutrition: Making a homemade raw dog food nutritionally complete is challenging and a veterinary nutritionist must be consulted if trying this at home. Feeding a commercial ‘complete’ diet will reduce the risk of nutritional deficiencies. However, it is important to consider the age and health of your dog to prevent complications such as skeletal diseases during development, dangerous protein levels in kidney disease, high fat levels in dogs prone to pancreatitis and other diseases such a secondary hyperparathyroidism
Pathogens: bacteria and other pathogens such as Salmonella, E-coli, Listeria and even Mycobacterium (TB) that can be dangerous for humans and pets are frequently found in higher levels within raw pet food when compared to cooked diets. When meat is cooked, these pathogens are killed. Even if your dog is able to digest these pathogens without illness, they can be passed to humans via their mouth and stool, as well as through poor handling of the meat. These pathogens are particularly dangerous to people with low immune systems such as children, the elderly and those that are immunosuppressed. Recent evidence has shown that some of the bacteria found in raw meat-based diets are resistant to multiple antibiotics. If you are thinking about feeding a raw diet, read our section on limiting the risks of a raw diet 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. Raw bones like hard chew toys, increase the risk of fractured teeth
Intestinal obstruction. If feeding raw bone, please be aware that pieces of bone can still break off and cause oesophageal or intestinal foreign bodies and blockages. Increased calcium and accumulation of small bone fragments can also cause constipation
Should I feed a homemade or commercial raw diet?
Raw diets can be either homemade - ingredients bought separately and combined at home, or commercial - ready prepared and packaged, often bought frozen and thawed prior to feeding. Making sure that home made raw diets have the correct nutrients for your pet at their specific life stage is very difficult and should only be done with the advice of a qualified veterinary nutritionist. A nutritionist can advise on specific raw dog food recipes to ensure the diet is balanced. It is also difficult to control or test the number of harmful bacteria or pathogens present in raw meat bought from the supermarket or a butcher.
Using a ‘complete’ commercial diet is a much better option. Any dog diet that is labelled as ‘complete’ is bound under law to provide all of a dog’s daily dietary requirements. Supplementing a complete diet can actually do more harm than good because it could change the ratio of essential nutrients (for example, the calcium to phosphorus ratio) required for healthy development. It is also advisable to buy a product manufactured by a brand that is a member of the Pet Food Manufacturing Association (PFMA) to ensure quality. Their members must meet higher standards than the minimum legal requirements.
Companies producing a commercial raw diet are also required to test their products for harmful pathogens. However, it is important to note that commercially available raw dog foods have tested positive for harmful pathogens and care must be taken when handling and feeding raw food - read our section on limiting the risks of a raw diet below.
How can I limit the risks associated with a raw diet?
There is always an inherent risk to using any raw meat in the household, and we can never abolish this completely. However following the below steps will help to limit the risk as much as possible.
Buy a commercially prepared ‘complete’ frozen diet. This will ensure a balanced diet and reduced pathogen load
Thoroughly defrost the meat before feeding. Diets which are frozen and thawed will destroy some (but not all) pathogens that could make you and your pet unwell
Use leak proof containers and specific labelled utensils and bowls to prevent cross contamination
Wash your hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap after handling the diet
Clean food bowls and utensils after every use. Use a metal bowl with a smooth surface to allow full decontamination. The surface of plastic bowls is much harder to clean. Scrubbing with soap alone will only remove 33 % of bacteria. Scrubbing and soaking with bleach has been shown to kill 77% of bacteria in a metal bowl. Make sure you thoroughly rinse off any bleach residue
Limit contact with your dog’s mouth. Do not allow your pet to lick your face or kiss your pet around the mouth, particularly after they have eaten a raw meat meal. Wash any part of your body with antibacterial soap that has been in contact with your dog’s mouth
Care when collecting your dog’s poo. Ensure you do not come into direct contact with your dog’s poo and wash our hands thoroughly after disposal
Avoid a raw diet if you have young, elderly or immunocompromised family members. It is safer to avoid raw meat based diets altogether in households with immunocompromised members as their ability to fight off any possible infections will be compromised
Free webinar: Navigating the pet food maze: What's true and what's fake news? Dr Marge Chandler DVM, consultant veterinary nutritionist, hosted by Royal Canin (October 2019)
Still have questions?
If you would like more advice on nutrition or raw feeding, please book an online video appointment to have a chat with one of our FirstVet nutrition vets.