VetVits July 04, 2016

The choice of dog food can be a hot topic for discussion amongst canine enthusiasts. Should you feed a grain free food? Is commercial kibble okay or is a home-made menu better? One particularly controversial topic is the feeding of raw food diets.

Early proponents of raw feeding included veterinarians Tom Lonsdale and Ian Billinghurst. They felt that because dogs evolved from wolves that lived on carrion and live prey, they should be fed in a similar manner. What’s the real story though? Does it really work?

Why just raw food?

While it’s true that dogs originated from wolves, they have adapted over the centuries to survive on a wider range of foods. Researchers have found that there have been changes to the genetic makeup of the domestic dog when compared to that of the wolf; these changes show that dogs have adapted to starch in their diet and can indeed benefit nutritionally from grains1.

There is no uniform ‘recipe’ for a raw food diet. Some commercial manufacturers produce patties or mince that contain meat plus extras such as fruit, vegetables, and oils to add nutrients. Others market supplements that are mixed with raw meat to make the diet more balanced. Dog owners also create their own menus based on internet research or information from other sources. This means that many dogs may be fed a diet that hasn’t been evaluated for such factors as nutrient content and digestibility.

Pros and cons of raw food diets for dogs

Supporters of feeding raw report that their dogs enjoy a healthier skin and coat, reduced allergies, and improved immunity but there are no scientific studies to support these claims; their reports are purely anecdotal. The inclusion of raw bones in the diet has always been considered a good way to keep a dog’s teeth and gums in good condition. This has been confirmed by a recent paper which showed that chewing bones did remove dental calculus in a group of dogs2.

There are, however, a number of serious drawbacks to feeding your dog a raw diet. Chewing on raw bones can result in painful tooth fractures which need extraction or root canal treatment. Pieces of bone can cause intestinal obstructions. Even if the chewed bone moves through the gastrointestinal tract without causing harm, it can still become impacted in the large intestine leading to constipation and the need for enemas.

There are questions about how well balanced a raw diet is in terms of its nutrient content, too. One published paper reviewed the literature on raw feeding and found there to be multiple nutrient imbalances in various menus3. A major human health concern associated with feeding dogs a raw diet is the risk of infection with bacteria such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, Clostridia, and E coli4. Symptoms can include vomiting and bloody diarrhoea. Even if a dog doesn’t become unwell with Salmonella infection, they can become carriers. This means that they shed organisms in their faeces which can potentially infect humans5. People most at risk are those who may be immunosuppressed, such as the very young, the elderly, and patients being treated for chronic diseases.

How to safely feed dogs a raw diet

There are some dogs that shouldn’t be fed a raw diet because of the risk of potential bacterial infection and poor nutrient balance. Pregnant dogs fall into this group; Salmonella infection can result in abortions or death of the puppies soon after birth.

Puppies are also at risk from a raw diet. When they’re growing, it’s essential that they receive not only enough nutrients, but also nutrients in the right ratios. The calcium/phosphorus balance of a growing dog’s diet is particularly important because if it’s not correct, pups may suffer from bone disorders and poor growth6.

If, in spite of the risks, you still prefer to feed raw food to your dog, then there are steps you must take to ensure your pet’s health and that of the people around them. Your dog’s meals should be formulated by a veterinary nutritionist to make sure they’re balanced. You must pay close attention to hygiene: your pet’s meat should be kept well away from the food intended for your family and you should use separate utensils and bowls for each. You should also wash your hands thoroughly after preparing your dog’s meal.

Feeding raw food to dogs is increasing in popularity. However, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support any health claims and there are several potential risks associated with nutritional deficiencies and bacterial infection. Dog owners need to give careful consideration to how they will safely feed their dog if they choose to follow this path.

1Axelsson, E., Ratnakumar, A., Arendt, M., Maqbool, K., Webster, M., Perloski, M., Liberg, O., Arnemo, J., Hedhammar, Å. and Lindblad-Toh, K. (2013). The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature, 495(7441), pp.360-364. 2Marx, F., Machado, G., Pezzali, J., Marcolla, C., Kessler, A., Ahlstrøm, Ø. and Trevizan, L. (2016). Raw beef bones as chewing items to reduce dental calculus in Beagle dogs. Aust Vet J, 94(1-2), pp.18-23. 3Atwood IV, KC. "Raw Meat and Bone Diets for Dogs: It's Enough to Make You BARF ..." 2015. Accessed: 30 June 2016 <https:></https:> 4Schlesinger, D. and Joffe, D. (2011). Raw food diets in companion animals: A critical review. Can Vet J., 52(1), pp.50-54. 5Finley, R., Reid-Smith, R., Weese, J. and Angulo, F. (2006). Human Health Implications of Salmonella-Contaminated Natural Pet Treats and Raw Pet Food. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 42(5), pp.686-691. 6Taylor, M., Geiger, D., Saker, K. and Larson, M. (2009). Diffuse osteopenia and myelopathy in a puppy fed a diet composed of an organic premix and raw ground beef. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 234(8), pp.1041-1048.

Author info: Dr Audrey Harvey is a graduate of the University of Queensland, Australia, and has worked in small animal practices for 25 years. She is particularly interested in obesity management and the role of exercise in resolving behaviour problems in dogs.

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