Some pet owners believe a raw meat diet is the healthiest option for their dog. The assumed (and sometimes proven) benefits include anything from them gaining a healthier coat, healthier teeth, greater energy levels, lower risks of arthritis, a stronger immune system, and more. Any one of those health benefits should have any dog owner at least considering (and doing more research) ditching kibble or pre-cooked wet food in favor of some raw meat.
While we wouldn't say a person should or shouldn’t choose Diet-X over Diet-Y for their pet, the results of a recent study support the notion that you should seriously think twice about feeding them a raw meat diet. And it’s not just for your dog’s health, researchers say. Your health may be at risk too if your dog’s on a raw meat diet.
The study, which was published in the BMJ journal Vet Record, was conducted by analyzing 60 frozen packs of raw dog food made by 10 manufacturers in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany and the UK for bacteria that could pose a health risk. All of the raw-meat based dog food analyzed in the study contained uncooked meat, edible bones and organs from beef, chicken, lamb, turkey, pig, duck, reindeer or salmon and it didn't undergo any form of heat treatment to eliminate or reduce microbial content. The results were pretty straightforward: a surprising amount of frozen, raw dog food is contaminated in any number of shocking ways.
Researchers found 31 of the 60 packs contained bacteria levels exceeding the European Union’s standard threshold. This included four packs containing salmonella, and the common food-poisoning culprit campylobacter. Possibly even more disturbing were the 18 samples that had clostridium perfringens, which more or less equates to “feces and poor hygiene standards.” And if you think it’s strictly salmonella or some kind of food poisoning confined to a couple of brands or types of food, you’re wrong. The levels of contamination varied among all the different manufacturers, and even different products from the same manufacturer contained different contaminants and levels of contamination. It’s enough to lead some to just toss out the idea of a raw meat diet altogether, not because the assumed benefits don’t exist, but because there may be no way of knowing if you’ve given your pet reliable and clean food.
Researchers didn’t go as far as to say you ditch the raw meat diet, though. They simply used the findings as a reason for being more cautious and aware of what we’re feeding our dogs. They say to be sure to keep all meat frozen until it’s going to be used, then thawing it at a maximum heat of 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). To protect yourself, be sure to keep the thawed meat completely separated from any of your own food, including handling it with entirely different utensils at home. Even something as simple as your dog licking your face shortly after eating could spread any potential contamination, they said, putting you at the same potential risk, if not worse. Researchers also said a raw food diet shouldn’t be considered for dogs in homes with infants, elderly, or other people with potentially compromised immune systems.
"This research offers further compelling evidence to support vets' concerns about the potential animal and public health risks associated with feeding pets a raw meat-based diet," said Daniella Dos Santos, junior vice president at the British Veterinary Association. "We would advise any owner wanting to try a raw meat-based diet for their pet to first consult a veterinary surgeon."
Meanwhile, many mainstream veterinarians, studies like this recent one, and the Food and Drug Administration argue there are too many risks involved with this type of diet. So is it all worth the potential risk? Surely there must be some benefits to this diet if so many would argue its potential danger.
The modern framework of the diet was introduced in the 1990s by Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst. He called his diet BARF, which was an acronym for Bones and Raw Food, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food: Raw, meaty bones and vegetable scraps, while commercially made grain-based foods were harmful to a dog’s health, he argued. The idea is simply to offer dogs a diet closer to what their wild ancestors would have survived on. The most commonly assumed health benefits include shinier coats, healthier skin, cleaner teeth, more energy, and a smaller stool. Of course, transitioning a domesticated dog from dry food to raw isn’t something you can do in one step. Starting with a day of fasting, it’s suggested you slowly transition from a split of raw diet serving and regular diet servings until your dog’s full diet consists of raw food. Ideally, this raw meat diet will consist of more than just a pound of hamburger meat slapped into a bowl.
“The additives range from bone to organ meat to vegetables and supplements,” says Dr. Cathy Alinovi, DVM, a holistic veterinarian who is also certified in Veterinary Food Therapy and Chinese Herbal Therapy. Raw diets can also include some cooked grains and veggies as well.
“And many people combine freeze dried dog food products (base mixes of veggies, vitamins, and minerals) with raw meats,” explains Dr. Judy Morgan, DVM, who is certified in Acupuncture and food therapy and is a member of the Botanical Veterinary Medical Association. The benefit to this, Morgan and Alinovi would say, is that it balances out your dog’s nutritional offerings, ensuring they get all the nutrients they’ll need.
“The difference is not so much in how a nutritionist and an owner define raw, the difference is more in what is considered balanced,” Alinovi says. “For those who purchase commercially prepared raw diets, the calcium is already balanced. For those preparing raw food at home, ground egg shell or oyster shell can provide the dietary boost in calcium that is needed beyond what is provided in bone.”