We love our dogs and want to provide them with the most nutritious food possible, but deciding which food is best is not easy. Pet food industry marketing often complicates the issue and presents conflicting viewpoints. One type of diet that is becoming increasingly popular, the raw meat-based diet, is also one of the most polarizing topics in veterinary nutrition.
A recent article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reviews the potential risks and benefits of raw meat-based diets. One of the main points put forth in the article is that there are strong opinions on each side of the argument but little scientific data supporting either side.
Advocates cite the following reasons for why feeding a raw meat-based diet is beneficial:
- Better palatability (taste)
- Cleaner teeth and less odor to the mouth, body and feces
- A shinier haircoat and healthier skin
- Improved immunity, behavior and energy
- A more natural diet, resembling what a dog in the wild would eat
- Avoids the harmful effects caused by processing and the inclusion of by-products or chemically synthesized additives and preservatives, which might increase the risk of some cancers
- Avoids the potential contaminants that commercial dog foods may contain (e.g., the 2007 recall due to melamine)
- Reduced poop production and improved colonic health (extrapolated from human studies)
Opponents of raw diets point to the following:
- Increased health risks to humans from handling raw meat and everything it touches as well as from exposure to increased numbers of bacteria in the dog’s feces
- Increased health risks to the dog and other pets in the household
- A high incidence of nutritional imbalances
Several professional veterinary organizations recommend against feeding raw meat-based diets, including the American Animal Hospital Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, and Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. The Delta Society’s Pet Partners Program excludes animals eating a raw meat-based diet from participating in their therapy animal programs. These organizations cite the risks to the pet, other animals, and humans as the basis for their decision.
Studies show that Salmonella is found in one-fourth to one-half of raw meat-based diets, with a high number of resistant isolates being found. This means many of the antibiotics commonly used to treat infections caused by these bacteria will not work. Salmonella can be found in commercial diets also, but the risk is much lower. Dogs and cats can become ill due to Salmonella, but the greatest risk is to the humans in the household. Many other types of bacteria are also found in raw diets. If bones are included, fractured teeth, penetration of the digestive tract, and gastrointestinal impaction are all possible as well.
Many raw meat-based diets have nutritional imbalances which can be harmful to the dog. One study evaluated 200 recipes for healthy dogs and found that 95 percent of the recipes had at least one essential nutrient below the recommended minimum amount. Many had multiple imbalances. Because it is very difficult to formulate a nutritionally-balanced home-prepared diet, a veterinary nutritionist should always be consulted first.
Further research is needed to substantiate the risks and benefits of raw diets. Each individual animal and the characteristics of the household should be evaluated (with input from a veterinarian) before deciding which diet is best.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Current knowledge about the risks and benefits of raw meat-based diets for dogs and cats. Freeman LM, Chandler ML, Hamper BA, Weeth LP. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013 Dec 1;243(11):1549-58.