Raw diets

Raw pet food has increased in popularity recently, and its market share continues to grow. Pet owners have been entranced by flashy marketing, anecdotes given by friends, and even certain celebrity veterinarians advocating for raw feeding. Most pet parents have heard that raw is the supposed “cure-all” for so many issues: allergies, sensitive skin, stinky farts, dental problems, arthritis,  and even cancer. Raw diets are allegedly more natural, keep pets in better body condition than kibble, and support the immune system.

All this sounds great, doesn’t it? The only problem is that none of these claims can be backed by scientific evidence. Many raw feeders make statements that they believe to be true, which is called an anecdote. However, anecdotes are not evidence, and science does not back anecdotes. What science does tell us is that feeding raw meat based pet foods actually poses many health risks to you, your furry companion, your family, and the public. 

What is raw?

Raw means uncooked. The raw umbrella encompasses many foods and treats, some of which may surprise pet owners. Raw meat, organs, bones, eggs, and unpasteurized milk are all raw products. Raw meat based diets can be labeled as raw, or they may be “raw infused” kibble with raw meat bits added in. These products can be fresh/refrigerated, frozen, freeze-dried, or dehydrated. Raw meat based diets also include homemade diets that incorporate raw meat, eggs, or bones. Raw treats include rawhides, marrow bones, hooves, pig ears, chicken feet, bully sticks (bull penis), and dehydrated or freeze-dried commercial treats (e.g., liver, heart).

Busting raw myths

As mentioned above, many myths surround raw diets. It is necessary to debunk these myths before raw diets and their dangers are explored in greater detail.

MYTH: Dogs and cats are carnivores; they thrive on a meat-only diet.

FACT: Dogs are omnivores: with domestication, their digestive systems have evolved to be able to digest many different sources of nutrients. Additionally, they do not technically require meat-based products, because they can get all their nutrients from other sources. Cats are obligate carnivores, which means there are certain nutrients they must obtain from meat products (see Nutrient requirements for more information). However, like dogs, they have evolved through domestication and can digest many different types of plant products as well.

MYTH: Raw diets are more natural.

FACT: AAFCO defines “natural” as being derived from plant, animal, or mineral sources. Nearly all ingredients found in most traditional commercial pet foods are natural, with a few exceptions. Raw diets are not the only option if pet owners are looking for a “natural” diet. (See Pet food marketing for more information.) In regards to a “natural lifestyle,” this is irrelevant because dogs and cats are domesticated. If they were living as nature intended, they would not share our homes, our beds, or our lives.

MYTH: Raw diets cure allergies, dry skin, and dull coats.

FACT: Raw diets are high in fat compared to kibble or canned foods. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to maintaining skin and coat health, and they are often found in high proportions in raw diets. Raw diets are not the only foods with increased Omega-3 fatty acids; there are many kibbles or canned diets with increased percentages of these nutrients. Moreover, increased Omega-3 fatty acids do not cure skin problems, they simply help nourish the skin. Visit Food allergies for much more information.

MYTH: Raw bones prevent dental problems and keep pets’ teeth clean.

FACT: There is no scientific evidence to back this claim. The chewing motion necessary to break bones may break plaque from teeth, but bones have the potential to cause many health problems. Bones can cause teeth breakage, choking, or foreign body blockages in the digestive system. Raw bones also contain lots of bacteria, which does nothing to help oral hygiene. For more information, go to Bones and chew toys.

MYTH: Dogs’ and cats’ stomachs are more acidic than ours, which is why they don’t get sick from the bacteria in raw meat.

FACT: Dogs, cats, and humans all have very similar stomach pH of between 1 and 3 (acidic). While most bacteria thrive around neutral pH (between 6 and 8), many can still survive in acidic conditions. Humans, dogs, and cats are all susceptible to bacterial illness associated with contaminated food.

MYTH: Pets eating raw diets have smaller, less smelly poop, so the diet must be healthier because there is less waste.

FACT: Raw diets usually contain very few grains or fiber sources because these ingredients need to be cooked in order to be digestible. Therefore, they are high in fat and protein, and low in carbohydrates (including fiber). Decreased fiber will cause stool to have less bulk; however, this does not equate to health. Fiber is good for maintaining healthy bowel function and decreasing nutrient density, which is especially beneficial for overweight pets. (See Nutrient requirements for more information.) Additionally, just because a smaller stool is observed does not mean there is less waste. Animals eating lots of protein and fat do indeed waste nutrients they consume but don’t need, even though you may not notice it in the stool. Unused protein is excreted in the urine as urea, while fat can be stored in the body if it is not used for energy. 

MYTH: Raw diets boost immune function and can prevent or cure diseases like cancer, arthritis, diabetes, megaesophagus, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and others.

FACT: There is absolutely no scientific evidence showing that these claims hold any merit. The immune system is a complex and ever-changing network of cells and messengers, and it cannot be “boosted” through diet. (The best way to ensure your pet’s immune system gets the nutrients it needs is to feed the right amount of a complete and balanced diet that is appropriate for the animal’s life stage, and keep them in ideal body condition.) In addition, raw diets contain many bacterial pathogens that constantly attack the immune system, causing it to always be fighting and producing inflammatory cells. As for curing diseases, raw diets do not have this power. What is more, none of the diseases listed above can even be cured! They can be managed medically or nutritionally, but a pet owner would be hard-pressed to find a board-certified veterinary internal medicine specialist (DACVIM) or board-certified veterinary nutritionist (DACVN) who would suggest a raw diet to manage any of these diseases. Pets with chronic diseases are immunocompromised, which means their immune systems do not function properly, and feeding a raw diet would increase the risk of illness due to bacterial infection. Pets with health conditions should not eat raw diets.

Why raw can be dangerous

Bacterial contamination 

This is one of the most important reasons to avoid feeding raw meat products to your pets. All raw meat products contain pathogenic (i.e., disease-causing) bacteria. The FDA has a zero-tolerance policy against Salmonella, which means that pet foods which are found to be contaminated with this bacteria are recalled. However, the FDA does not have policies for other disease-causing bacteria like Listeria, E. coli, Mycobacterium, Campylobacter, Brucella, Yersinia, or Clostridium. There are also many parasites found in raw meats, such as Toxoplasma, Sarcocystis, Cryptosporidium, Trichinosis, Taenia, Neorickettsia helminthoeca, and Echinococcus

Pet food companies are relied upon to “self-police,” meaning they should have internal inspections and quality control measures in place to ensure they do not put unsafe foods on shelves. This is because it is impossible for the FDA to inspect every batch of food from every facility before it’s shipped to stores. Raw pet food companies are notorious for producing contaminated products, largely because the only way to kill bacteria and parasites is to cook the meat, which is something raw manufacturers do not do. Even frozen, freeze-dried, or flash-frozen raw diets contain bacteria; freezing does not kill these pathogens. Contaminated pet foods only get recalled by the FDA if someone gets sick and the incident is reported, so just because raw products are still being sold does not mean they are safe or free from pathogenic microbes. (Visit Recalls for more information.)

Bacteria and other pathogens can live in the pet’s saliva, in their food dishes, on their skin, and in their bedding, and can be shed in their feces and urine. Any animals or humans that have contact with a pet who eats a raw diet are at risk of contracting these pathogens. Regarding other animals, this includes the dog park, playmates, or other pets that live in the home. For humans, this includes the people living in the home, as well as guests or people who pet your dog while on a walk. Veterinary hospitals are also a dangerous place to take pets who eat raw diets, as these buildings are often full of sick patients. Exposure to a raw-fed pet in the building can be detrimental to the health of many patients in the hospital.

Not complete and balanced

Homemade raw diets, like all homemade pet food, can be very dangerous. Working with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist will ensure your pet’s homemade diet is safe and balanced (see Homemade diets for more information). However, nearly all board-certified veterinary nutritionists are against feeding raw meat based diets. Therefore, homemade diets should not include raw meat, bone, or egg ingredients.

Even commercial raw diets can be unbalanced; most are labeled for intermittent or supplemental feeding only, meaning they should not be fed as the main diet. Some raw diets might not even have a nutritional adequacy statement (see How to read a pet food label for more information). Eating an unbalanced diet can lead to serious nutrient deficiencies and long-term health consequences for your pet.

Raw diets are not made by reliable pet food companies. Raw manufacturers do not employ board-certified veterinary nutritionists, perform feeding trials, or do scientific research. Learn more about choosing a reliable pet food manufacturer at How to pick a pet food, part 1.

Physical injury

Raw bones can break, chip, and wear down teeth. Small bones can get caught in the roof of the mouth or between teeth, and larger hollow bones can become lodged around the lower jaw. They can also cause lacerations (cuts) in the mouth or digestive tract. Bones can cause your pet to choke, or they can become what is called a foreign body: an obstruction in the digestive system that requires surgery to remove. For more information, check out Bones and chew toys.

Interference with nutrient absorption

Raw egg whites contain an enzyme that interferes with an animal’s ability to absorb a nutrient called biotin. Biotin is a B-vitamin which is needed for skin and coat health, and inhibiting its absorption can lead to dermatological problems. 

Raw fish contain enzymes that destroy a nutrient called thiamine. Thiamine is a B-vitamin that is very important for many cellular processes in an animal's body. Eating raw fish can cause pets to become deficient in thiamine, which can lead to severe problems in the nervous, cardiovascular, and immune systems.

Other types of raw products

Unpasteurized milk

Milk can cause diarrhea or severe digestive upset due to the lactose (a sugar) it contains. Dogs and cats are “lactose intolerant,” meaning they do not have very much of the enzyme lactase, which helps break down lactose. Therefore, consuming too much dairy can cause digestive upset, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Raw or unpasteurized milk contains just as much bacteria as raw meat products. Pasteurization is the process by which dairy products (and other human drinks, like juices) are cooked to destroy most of the pathogenic bacteria they contain. 

Fermented raw (kefir)

Fermented raw meat or milk products contain a lot of bacteria as well. The process of fermentation may even cause overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria which are already present. There is no scientific evidence suggesting that fermented raw products are safe, healthy, or complete and balanced. A recently published scientific study has shown that many popular pet kefir products are also mislabeled, and are therefore misrepresenting what is in the container.

Pets who should not eat raw products

Puppies and kittens should never eat raw diets. Young animals are immunoincompetent, meaning their immune systems are not yet fully developed, and they are much more prone to illness caused by the pathogens present in raw diets. Pregnant and lactating animals can pass bacteria or parasites to their babies through the womb or milk, so these mothers should not eat raw diets either.

Elderly pets, pets with health conditions, or pets with chronic diseases should not eat raw diets because they are immunocompromised. This means their immune system is not able to fight too many things at once, and they are therefore more prone to becoming sick from the pathogens present in raw food.

Animals living in households with infants, children, pregnant, elderly, sick, or chronically ill family members should not eat raw diets. These people all have reduced immune function, which makes them much more likely to become ill from the bacteria in raw pet food. Pets who eat raw diets carry the bacteria in their saliva, on their fur, and in their feces. Touching pet food dishes, cleaning up after the animal defecates, or even cuddling with and being kissed by a pet who eats raw food can cause illness in a human.

What about raw fruits and veggies?

Raw fruits and vegetables are generally safe to feed your pets. However, there is a small risk of bacterial contamination, which can be due to mishandling, improper storage conditions, or contamination of the soil in which the plant was grown. Therefore, always wash fruits and vegetables with water before feeding them to your pets. Additionally, make sure you avoid any fruits or vegetables that can cause illness (see What not to feed: unsafe foods for pets for more information).

For healthy raw fruit and vegetable treat options, check out Treats, table scraps, and food toppers.

Why traditional commercial diets are safer

Cooked pet food, such as kibble or canned food, has a much lower risk of containing pathogenic bacteria. Cooking destroys these microbes, while keeping the nutritional value of the food intact. The process of canning also sterilizes the product, meaning the food is free from all microbes. Kibble has a very low risk of contamination if it is formulated, manufactured, and stored properly (see Food storage for more information). Pets eating cooked commercial diets are at much lower risk of bacterial infection, as are their human families and other pets in the home. If your pet is eating a cooked diet, you probably don’t have to worry about getting sick if you touch their food dish, and you can safely snuggle them, kiss them, and clean up their feces (although you should still wash your hands after doing that!).

What if my vet suggests I feed raw?

Veterinarians who advocate for raw feeding should be encouraged to review the scientific literature outlining the risks associated with feeding raw meat products to pets. Additionally, they should familiarize themselves with the position statements of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding raw pet diets.

Doctors of veterinary medicine, like human medical doctors, take an oath when they graduate school. The oath mentions they will “first, do no harm” (not exactly quoted in the modern versions of the oaths, but the general idea still holds). Advocating for raw feeding is undoubtedly going against this oath, for it endangers animals, humans, and the public.

Veterinarians should also be reminded that they could potentially be sued if they advised feeding a raw diet and it resulted in a pet’s death or human illness. Protecting the health and well-being of one’s patients, their families, and the public should be paramount to all veterinarians.

If you do feed raw. . .

Many pet parents will feed raw regardless of the scientific evidence and warnings from public health experts. If you are one of those owners, ensure that you take necessary precautions to keep your pet, family, and the public safe. First and foremost, stay educated and up-to-date on the scientific literature, as well as position statements by regulatory agencies and veterinary associations. Additionally, ensure you visit the FDA’s website regularly to see if the food or treats you feed have been recalled (visit Recalls for more information).

Wash your hands, countertops, kitchen surfaces, food dishes, and floors immediately after preparing and feeding raw food to your pet. Feed your pet in an isolated, easily-sanitized location in the home (i.e., not in a high-traffic area of the house). Store pet diets and dishes away from all human products. Wash pet toys, bedding, and apparel frequently. Ensure your pet does not contact immunocompromised, young, or elderly humans or animals (this includes in the home, the dog park, pet shops, and on the street). Clean up after your pet defecates immediately, especially if in a public place, and throw the feces into a tightly closed trash receptacle so children and other animals cannot access it.

When you take your pet to the veterinarian, be sure to warn the hospital staff ahead of time that your pet eats a raw diet, so they can clean the waiting room and exam room thoroughly after you leave. Staff may also wear gloves, gowns, or other personal protective equipment (PPE) to make sure they do not bring pathogens from your pet into other parts of the hospital. The veterinarian may want to do routine blood work each time you visit, to ensure your pet is staying healthy while eating their raw diet.

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