By Teresa Traverse
While you can just go down the street to your local pet store to buy a bag of high-quality dog kibble, many pet parents are now opting not to. Dog food recalls and other safety concerns have many owners exploring the raw dog food trend.
If you’re wondering if feeding your dog raw meat might be the right choice for your four-legged family, use this guide to help you weigh the benefits and risks of a raw food diet for dogs.
What is a Raw Food Diet for Dogs?
Raw dog food diets usually consist entirely of raw meat and produce. Raw food proponents say that this more closely mimics what the wolf ancestors of domestic dogs ate and is a healthier alternative for pets in comparison to heavily processed dry or canned foods.
“According to some veterinary nutritionists, dogs that eat raw whole foods tend to be healthier than those on other diets,” says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, DVM, owner of California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW). “There are inherent beneficial enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and other energetic qualities in meats, fruits, vegetables and grains in their natural, unprocessed forms that are denatured or destroyed upon cooking.”
Types of Raw Food Diets for Dogs
You can purchase commercial raw dog food diets from the store, make your own, or, in some communities, purchase raw dog food from butchers.
Tim Marzonie, butcher and owner of Butcher Block Meats in Chandler, Ariz., sells raw dog food to his customers. His beef dog food is a blend of organ meat or hearts, kidneys, liver, and a little beef trim to hold the entire mixture together. His chicken dog food consists of necks and backs with the bones in.
Marzonie cautions pet owners to ensure that bones are uncooked if you’re feeding your dogs chicken (or other) bones. Cooked bones can splinter and seriously damage your dog’s digestive track. Marzonie grinds all of the meat products together and sells the raw dog food frozen in 16-ounce cups.
If you’re headed to the butcher to get raw dog food, you’ll want to pick your butcher carefully. You’ll need to ensure the shop is using high-quality ingredients and not putting spoiled meats in the raw dog food mixture. Marzonie says to ask the butcher where the shop is getting its product from, and be sure to tell the butcher that you’re planning on feeding the raw food to your dog before you make the purchase.
When Raw Dog Food Diets May Not Be Right for Your Dog
Of course, a raw dog food diet is not for everyone.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, handling raw meat is probably not for you. It also takes time to prepare raw food, and you might not have a schedule that allows for the added steps of a raw food diet. In addition, feeding dogs raw food can be more expensive, so it may not be a sustainable diet choice that fits into your budget.
Tips on Getting Started with a Raw Dog Food Diet
If you do decide to try a raw-food diet with your dog, it’s best to get advice from and work with a certified canine nutritionist or knowledgeable veterinarian. Avoid the following potentially toxic foods if you plan on preparing raw dog food at home:
- Onions, Garlic and Chives
- Grapes or Raisins
- Anything containing the sugar substitute xylitol
- Macadamia nuts
What are the Potential Benefits of the Raw Dog Food Diet?
Proponents of raw dog food cite a long list of potential benefits including:
- a reduction in allergies
- improved dental health
- less shedding
- better coat quality
- higher energy levels
- less stool production
- reduced inflammation
What are the Potential Dangers of a Raw Dog Food Diet?
Raw dog food diets also have their detractors.
“I don’t know of any medical studies that demonstrate any benefits at this time for going raw,” says Kimberly Pate, DVM, and an associate veterinarian at Sunset Veterinary Clinic in Edmond, Okla.
If the meat is contaminated, there’s a chance you or your dog could get an infection. When you work with anything raw, there’s always a potential risk of contracting salmonella, listeria, or other food-borne illnesses. Also, Dr. Pate says, it can be difficult to provide a balanced diet if you aren’t careful about monitoring what goes into your dog’s food.
There’s also a possibility that dogs could crack their teeth on a bone, or that bones might get stuck and/or perforate the intestinal track, Dr. Pate says.
Tips on Handling Raw Dog Food
Hygiene is very important when handling raw dog food. Doctors recommend to always wash your hands before and after handling raw meat. You’ll also want to avoid cross contamination. After you’ve chopped raw meat on a cutting board, be sure to wash the surface before placing another food on it to decrease the chance of bacteria spreading. And it should go without saying, any obviously spoiled, rotten, or diseased meat should never be fed to dogs.
Tips When Shopping for Raw Dog Food
Whether you’re heading to the store for a commercially prepared raw dog food or you’re sticking to canned food or kibble, there are a few important tips to consider.
Read the labels carefully, says Dr. Pate. If the food is labeled “for intermittent or supplemental feeding only,” it’s not a complete and balanced diet.
You’ll also want to make sure you’re buying food tailored to your dog. If you have a puppy, buy puppy food. If your dog is an adult, be sure to purchase the adult varieties. Pate warns against being drawn into marketing techniques and always recommends working with your veterinarian to determine what’s right for your dog.
You’ll also want to look for foods that meet AAFCO standards. Be sure to look on the bag to see if the company has a veterinary nutritionist on staff.
“Is there a number you can call? Do they give tours of the facility? Does the bag of dog food tell them how much to feed the pet?" asks Dr. Pate. "If you’re not seeing how to feed the pet and you’re not able to contact a nutritionist on staff, those are concerning things,” says Dr. Pate, adding, “when in doubt, ask a veterinarian.”