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Is Raw Meat Safe for Dogs? Expert Advice

A raw meat diet for dogs has become a social media craze, but is it a fad, or does it truly have health benefits? Most importantly, you may wonder if it's safe to feed your canine uncooked meat that could contain harmful bacteria. This article explores the benefits and risks of feeding uncooked meat to your pet.

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What is raw feeding for dogs?

A raw meat-based diet includes uncooked products from other animal species as a regular part of a diet. Typically, a raw feeding plan includes muscles, organs, and bones. Raw meat-based diets (RMBDs) are sometimes referred to as BARF diets (Bones and Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food). Raw meat diets can be either commercially prepared or prepared at home.

Commercially prepared raw meat-based diets are either fresh, frozen, or freeze-dried. They are usually formulated to meet the standards set forth by the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which dictates what comprises a nutritionally balanced diet for dogs. A diet which is not AAFCO-certified is not guaranteed to have all the nutrients that your pet needs.

Foods labeled for intermittent or supplemental feeding are not nutritionally balanced and are not intended to be fed as the sole source of nutrition. Supplementing a commercial diet with raw foods can also unbalance the diet if the raw food and any treats comprise more than 10% of the dog's daily caloric intake.

Home-prepared raw meat diets can be balanced if they’re developed with the help of a veterinary nutritionist. Unfortunately, without working with a veterinary nutritionist, pet owners will not know if the foods they prepare at home meet the needs of their dogs.

Reasons dog owners choose raw feeding

The underlying rationale for raw feeding is that the diet more closely matches the diet of the dog’s wild ancestors. Stated another way, raw feeding is considered more 'natural.' By feeding this more 'natural' diet, pet owners believe they're providing superior nutrition to their dogs. Some pet owners who choose raw feeding report that their pets have cleaner teeth from chewing bones and improved coat quality. There is also the perception that raw food is more palatable to dogs, meaning it tastes better.

Most of the benefits currently touted by fans of feeding raw meat to dogs are anecdotal and not backed by published, peer-reviewed research. However, studies indicate two plausible benefits of raw diets for dogs: better stool quality and higher digestibility. Better stool quality means your pet will have more well-formed stools. Higher digestibility means that your dog absorbs more nutrients from the food, often meaning they'll produce fewer stools. Digestibility and stool quality are interconnected in this way.

Keep in mind that not all raw diets are created equal and that dogs are individuals. Not all dogs will respond in the same way to a raw diet.

Current research indicates that the risks of raw meat diets outweigh the benefits.

The risks of feeding raw meat to dogs

Peer-reviewed studies have shown that raw feeding has two primary risks: nutritional imbalance and transmission of foodborne illness to pets and their human family. Because of the risk of foodborne illness, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has released a statement that discourages feeding any raw or undercooked animal proteins.

Commercially prepared raw diets that AAFCO approves should meet a dog's nutritional standards as long as they're fed to dogs of the proper life stages and sizes. However, home-prepared raw meat diets are at risk of nutritional imbalance, particularly if a veterinary nutritionist hasn't helped to develop the meal plan.

Specifically, calcium and phosphorus, essential for the health of your dog's bones and joints, can be included in insufficient quantities in raw meat diets. Calcium and phosphorus levels aren't just important individually — the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio is also important. Imbalances in this ratio can result in damage to the bones and the kidneys. Unfortunately, this ratio is often unbalanced (either too high or too low) in home-prepared raw diets.

Both commercially prepared and home-prepared raw meat diets come with the risk of food poisoning for dogs and people, with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, fever, increased gas, and dehydration.

A 2022 study found that out of 19 conventional kibble or canned diets, none were contaminated with Escherichia coli, while 14 out of 21 (66%) raw meat diets from retail stores or online distributors were contaminated with E. coli. Another 2022 study found that about one-third of raw meat-based diets were contaminated with Salmonella species and Listeria monocytogenes, two bacteria responsible for foodborne illness in people. The same study found that one-third of dogs on this diet had Salmonella species, L. monocytogenes, and Campylobacter jejuni (another cause of food poisoning) in their feces. A 2021 study looking at the organisms in feces of dogs with bloody diarrhea identified three fatal cases of salmonellosis in dogs fed a raw meat-based diet.

Aside from being common causes of foodborne illness in dogs, these bacteria are zoonotic, which means they can pass from animals to people. People can become infected with these organisms when handling the food or stool. Freeze-drying or dehydrating the raw meat does not kill the bacteria. In the previously mentioned studies, these bacteria were not found in dogs fed kibble food or in their feces.

A 2021 study comparing domestic dogs fed kibble and captive wolves fed raw meat found that the wolves had higher percentages of antibiotic-resistant organisms than kibble-fed dogs. Dogs were more resistant to antibiotics used in clinical medicine, while the wolves were more resistant to livestock antibiotics. This is a big deal because it means that antibiotics used to fight these specific organisms may not be effective for the animals or people who contract illness.

Lastly, raw bones are a choking risk. Your dog can choke on small bones, particularly if they try to swallow them whole. Dogs who regularly chew on bones are also noted to have an increased risk of injury to their gum and increased risk of tooth fracture.

Digestive differences between wolves and dogs

When compared with wolves, dogs have 36 differences in their genome, 10 of which play an essential role in the digestion of starch and metabolism of fat. These genes give dogs the ability to digest starchy foods better than their wild relatives. This means that dietary and metabolic differences between dogs and wolves don't occur because we feed dogs commercially prepared kibble; at this point, it's encoded in their DNA.

Alternatives to a raw meat diet for dogs

If you've decided that the risks of feeding raw meat outweigh the benefits, that doesn't mean you're stuck with kibble. Consider these alternatives:

  • Cooked meat. Dogs can eat cooked meat. Use a meat thermometer to ensure the meat reaches 165°F. Choose lean, boneless meats like chicken. Cooked bones become more brittle and should never be given to your dog.
  • Commercially prepared cooked diets. Some commercially prepared diets, such as Just Food for Dogs, use whole ingredients to prepare fresh, cooked meals. Look for a diet that has been AAFCO-approved to meet all of your pet's needs.
  • Cooked egg. Cooked eggs are a good source of protein for dogs.
  • Plant-based meats made for dogs. Think of this as the Beyond Burger or Impossible Meat for dogs. There is increased interest in vegan alternatives to meat, both for people and dogs.

As always, consult with a veterinary nutritionist to develop a balanced meal plan for your pet.

Safety tips for feeding raw meat to dogs

If you are planning to feed raw meat to your dog, follow these tips:

  1. Speak with your veterinarian first and consider working with a holistic veterinarian who may have more experience working with pet owners who choose to feed raw. However, your conventional veterinarian should be familiar with the risks of a raw diet. Your veterinarian will also know if your pet has health conditions that may increase their risk of illness if fed raw meat.
  2. Do background research into peer-reviewed scientific articles and publications by veterinary nutritionists before reading blog posts or visiting websites promoting 'natural' feeding.
  3. Get disposable gloves. Always use these when handling meat or dog feces.
  4. Keep children away from the food preparation area if the area hasn't been sanitized.
  5. Pick up your dog's fecal matter daily to decrease the risk of others coming into contact with contaminated fecal matter.
  6. Sanitize surfaces and utensils used in food preparation for your dog.
  7. Do not feed meats containing small bones, which could be a choking hazard.
  8. Consider a commercially prepared raw diet that meets AAFCO's standards instead of a home-prepared one, which may not be balanced.
  9. Be honest and open with your veterinarian about your pet's diet, especially if your pet experiences gastrointestinal upset.
  10. Have a financial plan for pet illness. Some pet insurance companies will not cover claims related to feeding raw meat, and illnesses that develop as a result of feeding raw meat may increase your premiums.

The decision as to what's best to feed your dog should be made between you and your veterinarian. If you want to prepare your dog's diet at home, work with a nutritionist to develop a healthy, safe plan that includes cooked meats. If you feed raw meat at home, ensure your meal plan is balanced and take precautions to protect your family from foodborne illness.

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