The Raw Debate
What is the best food to feed domesticated dogs?
People are very passionate when it comes to the subject of what they feed their dogs, and with good reason. A good diet can contribute to a long and healthy life and even psychological well-being for our pets. The question is, what is the best food to feed domesticated dogs? While the majority of people feed a commercial kibble or canned food, many owners today are looking for other options.
A raw food-based diet is one approach that has grown in popularity over the last decade, but along with this growing popularity has come growing controversy regarding the benefits of feeding a raw diet.
One of the reasons people cite for feeding a raw diet is that it is a more “natural” diet for dogs. The theory is that wild canids would eat a diet mainly consisting of raw meat and bones, so people should try and mimic this diet when feeding their pets. However, the pet dogs that live in our homes do not resemble their wild cousins. We have bred dogs to have a range in size from the tiny Papillon to the massive Neapolitan Mastiff, and a variety of builds from the light-framed Whippet to the bulky Bulldog. In addition, there are breeds like the Bedlington Terrier that are prone to specific nutrient deficiencies. With all of these physiological differences between our pets and wild canids, can we be certain that what a wild canid eats is indeed an ideal diet for Rover?
One of the biggest challenges in deciding whether to feed a raw diet is the overwhelming amount of conflicting information, and the fact that much of this information is anecdotal in nature. There are numerous websites and message boards extolling the virtues of a raw diet and there are others condemning raw diets as unsafe and unhealthy. When choosing how and what to feed your dog, you need balanced information—information that outlines both the good and bad so that an educated choice can be made.
Below, we outline the major benefits and concerns regarding raw diets to help you in deciding if a raw diet would be right for your dog. Keep in mind there are benefits and risks associated with all choices of food for your dog, so you must decide if the benefits of a raw diet outweigh the potential risks. When making the best choice for your dog, it’s important to remember that what is right for you and your dog may not be right for someone else and their dog. A raw diet may not be appropriate for all dogs and before you decide what is right for your dog, you should discuss your options with your veterinarian. Consulting a canine nutritionist can also be very beneficial when designing a diet specific to your dog’s requirements.
Types of Raw Diets
There are two major types of raw diets: commercial and home-prepared. Commercial raw diets, which may be fresh or frozen, supply all of the dog’s requirements and are typically in a meat patty form.
Home-prepared raw diets usually consist of raw meat and bones, with veggies, fruits, supplements, and added grains. These diets may not be balanced each day but, if designed properly, should meet the dog’s requirements over the long term.
Safety. Over the past couple of years, there have been a number of pet food recalls. When preparing your dog’s food at home, you have total control of what you include in your dog’s food and where those ingredients are from.
Health. Raw diets (especially home-made diets) allow you to meet your dog’s specific needs. Raw diets can be prepared to avoid foods that your dog is allergic to and can be made to meet your dog’s specific nutrient requirements. The high water content present in raw food may allow you to feed more while still keeping the calories low for portly pooches.
Processed foods often have added preservatives that enhance product shelf life. Food that has been freshly prepared and has not been processed or had preservatives added is commonly considered a healthier choice. Commercial raw diets are usually frozen, which means they don’t require added preservatives.
The bones that are part of the raw diet are anecdotally considered to be good for dental hygiene, which can be good for overall health.
Other. Feeding a raw diet may provide your dog with a natural outlet for her chewing tendencies; this may help to improve her overall behaviour.
Safety. Raw diets have been found to contain Salmonella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium botulinium, and Staphylococcus aureus, all of which are known human and canine pathogens. These bacteria are shed in dog stools and may be transferred to carpets and furniture as the dog moves around the house. These pathogens usually only pose a serious human risk to the immuno-compromised, the elderly, and young children; however, this is a very important consideration if you are feeding a raw diet and have people in these risk groups living in your home.
In addition, there is a potential risk to dogs from certain pathogens found in raw foods, such as Neospora caninum, found in raw beef, Nanophyetus salmincola, found in raw salmon, and Trichinella spiralis, which is found in raw pork and wild game such as deer, elk, and moose. All of these pathogens can make your dog sick and are potentially fatal.
Feeding bones can cause choking, intestinal blockage or perforations, and chipped or broken teeth.
Health. Because it can be difficult and time consuming to adequately balance a raw diet, nutritional deficiencies, especially in vitamins and minerals, are a significant possibility. To complicate the matter even further, some nutritional deficiencies take many months to show up and you may not see the problems with feeding a particular diet until the animal has been eating it for months or years.
Raw vegetables are often poorly digested by dogs. Most of the nutrients in raw vegetables are rendered more available when they are lightly cooked and then ground.
Convenience. Feeding raw food is expensive and time consuming. The preparation of balanced meals for your dog every day can be a challenge to fit into a busy lifestyle. As a rule of thumb, if you are eating out more than three meals a week, you are likely too busy to properly prepare meals for your dog, so a home-made raw diet may not be the best choice for your life schedule.
Raw diets are particularly inconvenient if you travel frequently, whether your dog goes with you or stays behind. Many hotels are not equipped to deal with raw food storage, not all commercial brands are available everywhere, and some boarding facilities charge a premium for dogs on raw diets because of the space required for food storage.
Unfortunately, there is little scientific research on feeding raw foods. This means that some of the information provided here is based on anecdotal evidence and has not been proven at this time. Much of the existing research on raw diets surrounds the microbial risks of raw meats and is very important to take into consideration. Hopefully, future research into raw diets will allow you to make a more informed choice about what to feed your dog.
Laura Scott holds a Master’s degree in animal nutrition. She lives with two Golden Retrievers, a 12-year-old couch potato and 2-year-old who loves training and competing in dog sports. Liz Pask is a PhD candidate studying nutritional toxicology. She has two Labrador Retrievers who train and compete in a variety of sports.