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Raw food for dogs – a good or bad idea?

What's best for your dog? And your household?

Dog eating raw meat

Dogs fed raw should not be allowed to run free on pasture ground

Q: I am thinking of changing my dog onto raw food, but my vet is not keen. Why are you vets so against raw?

A: Oh dear! You have opened a veritable can of worms that is overflowing with myth, mystique and misinformation. I hardly know where to start but here goes…

“All vets are opposed to raw food for dogs …”

No they are not. There are over 70 raw feeding companies registered with DEFRA and they supply many veterinary practices. I know of one that sells six tonnes of the stuff every month. Another has three deep freezers in the waiting room. (But decries practices that sell conventional dog food for being financially motivated!).

There is a Raw Feeding Veterinary Society, but Marge Chandler, co-chair of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s Global Nutrition Committee, suggested recently that there was little evidence to support the claimed benefits of feeding raw. And there is the rub.

As a veterinary surgeon, my advice to you has to be factual, scientific and evidence based. Mike Davies, a RCVS recognised specialist in veterinary nutrition stated recently that “feeding raw meat to pets is reckless, irresponsible and ethically questionable”. I spoke at the Scottish Great Dane Society AGM about bloat (which is reduced by feeding raw). The subsequent speaker was an amusing lady who was a proponent of raw feeding. After a short while, I had to get up and interrupt because she was just making facts up. Vets are not allowed to do that!

“Feeding raw is healthier!”

The argument is that wild dogs fared better than our current pets, but that is nonsense. They didn’t live as long. They were less evolved to digest carbohydrates. Steenkamp and Gorrel investigated the skulls of African wild dogs who ate a pretty natural diet of antelope: 41 per cent had periodontal disease; 83 per cent had teeth wearing and 48 per cent had fractured teeth, which are painful and debilitating. Feral cats on Marion Island had less tartar on their teeth but 61 per cent had periodontal disease.

Raw meat diets for dogs

Raw meat diets can lead to tooth damage

A study that looked at 200 homemade raw diets showed 95 per cent had at least one essential nutrient deficiency and 83.5 per cent 
had multiple deficiencies. Raw diets are likely to be deficient in calcium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc but have an excess of Vitamin D, which can be dangerous, especially to puppies. Contrary to popular belief, feeding raw bones can cause oesophageal, gastric and intestinal foreign bodies.

“Feeding raw is safe!”

Well it’s probably not and vets have an obligation to consider the risks to the 
dog and to the client and their family. 
Here are some facts: Campylobacter causes 280,000 infections and around 
100 deaths in otherwise healthy people every year. The Food Standards Agency reports that 73 per cent of UK chickens are contaminated with campylobacter. Salmonella kills around 200. Dogs that are fed raw may be symptomless but excrete more of these bugs in their faeces, which can affect humans in the household and will increase contamination of the environment.

raw food for dogs

Raw meat diets may contain parasites and bacteria that can cause illness in humans and animals

A group in Utrecht analysed 35 raw meat products from eight different widely available commercial brands. They found that nearly a quarter contained the bacterium E. coli. You’ve probably heard of it. Even worse 80 per cent of these bacteria were antibiotic resistant. Eight of the foods contained the protozoa Sarcocystis, which can be dangerous to livestock. Two of the products were found to have Toxoplasma gondii; a real risk to some pregnant women and, as you might expect, 20 per cent were contaminated with salmonella. Over half contained Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause serious illness in humans, is life threatening to neonates and can cause abortion in pregnant women.

The current, rational, evidence based veterinary advice

  • Raw meat diets may contain parasites and bacteria that can cause illness in humans and animals.
  • Pets used for therapeutic purposes and pets living in the environment of people with a weakened immune system (for example, the elderly, the ill and those on chemotherapy) should not be fed raw meat.
  • Dogs fed raw should not be allowed to run free on pasture ground, as their faeces may contain parasites that are harmful to livestock.
  • Raw meat diets should be frozen at -20 degrees for at least three days in order to kill parasites. (Most domestic freezers cannot achieve this temperature.) And remember, bacteria will not be killed by the freezing process and may be abundant in the liquid that runs from raw meat as it defrosts, making hygiene difficult.
  • Meanwhile, I await with bated breath, the long term, properly conducted clinical trials that prove that feeding raw actually conveys a significant health benefit to those that eat it.