Raw food diets for pets: the pros and cons

Raw food diets may be all the rage but are they good for our pets?

We live in an age of intense nutritional awareness with more of us than ever before trying to make informed choices about what we eat in order to stay healthy and live longer.

Given that our pets are family too, many raw food fans believe that feeding their pets what they put on their own plates is not just good enough but superior to traditional diets of meat or pellets.

There is a huge amount of conflicting information out there about raw food diets and pets, some of it based on ideologies and theories and some on scientific principles and it is exceedingly difficult to find out what is true.

But let’s start here:

What is a dog’s natural diet?

Although dogs were domesticated from wolves, they have evolved significantly to adapt to living with humans. Not only have we manipulated their appearance and selected for certain behaviours, but their digestive tracts have also changed. This is because they have lived alongside humans for thousands of years and in many cases have eaten leftovers from human diets during the domestication process. Thus, the domestic dog now needs a higher carbohydrate diet than their wild wolf predecessor.

What’s the motivation for raw food?

Feeding is one of the ways that we express our love to our dogs so it is natural to be concerned about what we are feeding them, and to make every effort to give them the best nutrition we can.

Some of the motivations we’ve encountered for feeding raw food diets include:

a) that they are a better quality diet than what is commercially available.

b) scepticism about large food companies, and a preference to being in control of their pet’s diets.

c)  that their dogs prefer the raw food to a kibble-based diet.

d) or concern that the dog has to eat the same diet day in and day out. From my own experience of the many dogs I’ve owned, I do not think this is a major concern for dogs. Mine have always been enthusiastic about  their pelleted diet and ask for food at mealtimes. Some prefer certain brands over others. That being said, dogs are opportunistic feeders and will grab any opportunity to eat tasty food, which I think we often interpret as a preference for table food. Dogs also have fewer taste buds than humans so they do not have the subtlety of taste that we may experience. Dog’s gut bacteria adapt to the diet that they are eating and sometimes changing the diet often can increase the risk of diarrhoea and other digestive upsets and this is generally not recommended. In many cases I feel that we anthropomorphise our dog’s eating behaviours, which means that we view their feeding through the lens of how we feel about food. Ultimately, it is our responsibility as pet owners to ensure that the food we provide our dogs is safe, wholesome and balanced.

What is the typical raw food given to pets?

This can vary very widely depending on where pet owners source the food and whether they buy ready formulated diets or use recipes and formulate them themselves. But raw food diets are generally protein-based, using readily available protein sources such as chicken or beef. This meat may consist of muscle meat as well as organ meat (such as heart, spleen and liver). Some formulations and recipes will include vegetables, eggs, fish and bones or bone meal.

The pros

With a raw food diet you are completely in control of what you feed your dog. Some dogs have specific dietary requirements and allergies or food intolerances and by you knowing exactly what they are eating it can sometimes be easier to manage these conditions. You can create some variation in your dog’s diet by feeding different ingredients. Many people report that their dogs are healthier and have shinier coats on a raw food diet. Unfortunately, there is not much scientific research available on the benefits of these diets and most of the benefits are based on anecdotal information.

The cons

• Raw food diets can be quite costly, especially when sourcing quality meats. They can also be quite messy to work with, which is off-putting to many people.

• Raw meat always has the potential for carrying harmful bacteria. If the raw food is not handled correctly and your kitchen and utensils are not disinfected properly then you stand the risk of introducing bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria into your kitchen. This can put you and your family at risk. Dogs can also become asymptomatic carriers of these bacteria which means they may have the bacteria in their digestive tract and shed the bacteria into your home without them showing symptoms of illness. This is particularly dangerous for people who are very young, elderly or who have compromised immune systems.

• Parasites such as tapeworm and Toxoplasmosis can also be found in raw meat products and this can put your dog and your family at risk.

• It is quite difficult to balance your dog’s diet specifically for their breed and life-stage and there are not always scientifically based recipes available to do this correctly. This can lead to nutritional imbalances and diseases.

• Risk of bacterial infections, parasitic infections and diseases related to nutritional imbalances have been widely studied, and these risks are unfortunately a reality.

• Eating raw food can increase the buildup of plaque and calculus on the teeth, so these dogs may need more regular dental cleanings.

• Bones, chicken heads and necks and chicken feet can cause obstructions in the digestive tract which can be costly to treat and deadly in some cases.

• Raw food diet suppliers are not always regulated and there is very little quality control and legislation governing this industry in South Africa at present.

Precautions needed when feeding raw food diets

• Make sure you buy the raw meat from a reputable supplier and ensure that the meat is fit for human consumption. Buying meat that is condemned, or offal, increases the risk of bacteria and parasite introduction.

• Freeze the raw food to try and eliminate some of the potential bacteria and parasites. But, freezing does not kill all the potential pathogens. Where possible cook the food to destroy these bacteria and parasites.

• Do not feed raw pork to your dog as the risk of tapeworm is higher from pork.

• Deworm your dog on a monthly basis and ensure that you treat it for fleas as well. Fleas and tapeworms are in the same lifecycle.

• Use separate knives and cutting boards for handling of the raw food. Make sure that you regularly clean and disinfect all utensils used, the surfaces that came into contact with the raw food as well as the dog’s bowls.

• Make sure all family members wash their hands thoroughly after handling the food and after touching their dog.

• Inform your veterinarian if you are feeding raw food diet as this may affect the dog’s overall health and if hospitalised may put other patients at risk for diseases such as Salmonellosis.

How do I make the ‘raw food’ decision?

Think carefully about your motivation for feeding raw diets and discuss this with your veterinarian.

Have your veterinarian assess your dog’s suitability for a raw food diet. In some cases, such as large breed puppies or elderly dogs with underlying health issues, these diets may not be the best choice.

Discuss your reservations about commercially available foods with your vet in order to get all the facts about the available diets.

Do your research when it comes to raw food diet suppliers in your area and the risks involved, and make sure that you are able to manage and decrease the risk to your household.

Ultimately, your veterinarian is here to assist you with making the best decision for your pet and your household so please don’t hesitate to contact us to help you with this decision.

Article by Dr Ingrid de Wet of Country Animal Clinic