Of all the dog food trends out there (gluten-free! limited ingredients!) raw food is one of the most persistent. There’s a perception out there that raw is better because it’s how pups’ ancestors (aka wolves) ate. And while it’s definitely less processed, which is a nutritional win, there are potential consequences that come along with raw that aren’t as well publicized. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that healthy dogs who eat raw food diets will sometimes develop adverse effects ranging from increased gas production to life-threatening concerns such as salmonellosis or listeriosis. We took a closer look at the research that’s out there on raw food to assess the risks:
Risk #1: The potential for bacterial contamination
So here’s the really icky part: Another study in 2013 in JAVMA of 20 commercially available raw food diets found that more than 7 percent contained salmonella and E. coli bacteria was present in nearly 60 percent. Even worse, when a dog poops after eating raw food, the bacteria could potentially lead to human exposure and infection. Yes, any food is subject to contamination, but the risk is higher for raw food simply because it’s not cooked. Freezing won’t help, says Judy Morgan, a veterinarian and author of Canine Kitchen Capers. “Bacteria will not be killed by freezing, only by cooking,” says Dr. Morgan, who explains that even if you go the DIY route, “most grocery store meats are contaminated, because the USDA assumes the meat will be cooked before eating.”
Risk #2: The challenge of ensuring a balanced diet
It’s tough to correctly balance any homemade dog food, and that includes raw: A recent study published in JAVMA found that most homemade raw diets are deficient in one or more essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals or a combination of those. A raw food diet should be 80 to 85 percent meat, bones and organs with 10 percent ground bone to have the correct calcium to phosphorous ratio, something that’s essential for heart, immune, neuromuscular, and endocrine function. “If the bone content is too high, constipation will result,” Dr. Morgan says. And then there’s the issue of fruits and vegetables, which most raw diets omit. There’s no consensus on whether your dog needs them, but according to Amy Shojai, a former vet technician and author of New Choices in Natural Healing for Dogs and Cats, in order for a dog’s diet to be nutritionally complete, it should contain them.
Risk #3: The side effects of difficulty digesting
Dogs can experience issues with digestion, specifically when the bone content in raw food is too high. If this is the case, constipation will often result. Raw bones can also pose another problem: there’s the potential for the whole bones to be a choking hazard, to break their teeth or to cause internal puncture. Raw vegetables and grains can also be difficult to digest, Shojai says—cooking them at a low temperature will help.