Raw Pet Food: Is Your Raw Deal the Real Deal?

Before throwing Sparky a raw steak, consider the factors involved when choosing a raw diet for your dog or cat.

Flown fresh down from Alaska
Is a raw diet safe for your family? Photo: Ernesto Andrade

Raw diets continue to gain in popularity. Veterinarians are strongly divided on the issue of feeding or recommending raw pet food.

To say the least, this is a very controversial subject, and people don’t simply hold opinions about what they feed their pets. They can be obsessed, fanatical and tyrannical, qualities that don’t make rational discussion easy.

The horrible food recalls and the multitude of poor quality pet foods on the market have made people more interested in alternatives, and I support that wholeheartedly. But there’s still so much to learn.  If we see eye to eye on that, I think there can be a lot more honesty when we talk diets.

I am befuddled when a client asks me “what I think” of a particular raw diet or raw diets in general.  It’s not “what I think” that matters but what we should know. My informed opinion should be just that: informed.

We have a lot of veterinary nutritionists, raw pet food manufacturers and public health officials still scratching their heads about making sure these diets are complete and safe. These experts are people who care about the health of our pets and our own health.

Here are the main concerns:

  1. Nutritional balance and completeness of raw diets
  2. Overall safety of these diets
  3. Claims of benefits of these diets

Fair and Balanced

There are commercial raw diets available, such as Primal and Bravo, that meet AAFCO’s minimum requirements. There should be no nutritional deficiencies when feeding your dog or cat these diets.

Feeding your own raw diet is a different story. Some pet caretakers are in a raw food co-op, or they buy their own raw meat and feed it to their pets. These diets are most likely not balanced, not complete and not safe.

Safe for Your Pet, but What About You?

If your vet comes off a bit prissy about raw diets, it is often because of safety concerns. Raw diets have been proven to carry a much higher risk of Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli and other pathogens. There is some risk to your pet, but the far greater risk is to you or your family. Bones create problems too, sometimes serious, but pathogens are the main safety issue.

The concern about infections spreading to humans is the main reason the AVMA is on the record as not in favor of raw diets, and why service organizations, such as the Delta Society’s Pet Partners, refuse to have a working or therapy dog on a raw diet. If a dog is to become a therapy dog and was fed a raw diet, that dog must be off the diet for 4 weeks because of continual shedding of pathogens to humans. Add to this the fact that a therapy dog would be going into hospitals or nursing homes where the humans are in a high-risk category.

Your Household

If you have young children, senior citizens or anyone considered immunocompromised in your house, raw diets should be considered with great caution.

No matter how “clean” you believe your food prep routine is, Salmonella can live in food and water bowls despite thorough cleaning, and your pet can shed the pathogens for a long time. Yes, your pet may already have Salmonella from commercial pet foods and not be sick. It’s a matter of degree. The chance of transmission of Salmonella from your pet, your pet’s food bowls or your own hands is much greater when a raw food diet is fed.

Preparing and feeding a raw pet food diet carries more risk than preparing your family’s dinner. Your chicken thighs should hit the frying pan or the oven quickly after you get it out of the refrigerator. Washing chicken is most likely more risky than just getting those bird parts into the heat source!

This is something to think about for people who are using raw, human-grade food for their raw pet diet. Pathogens are way higher in human-grade food than in most raw pet foods because our meat is meant to be cooked.

“But Salmonella is found in other foods too,” you might say. “It’s in commercial dry foods and who knows what else!”  This is true, and there is no risk-free food, for your pet or for you. But cross-contamination of serious bacteria to humans is a greater risk when you are preparing raw diets than if you were feeding a commercial or home-cooked diet.

“But I can get Salmonella from lettuce or peanut butter,” you may argue. This is also true. But you do not sleep with your lettuce. Remember the shedding factor. Your dog’s Salmonella may not make him sick, but it can travel all over your home. It leaves the dog dish and can be found in sinks and on doorknobs, in beds and playroom floors.

These bad bugs are nothing to be sniffed at. They can make people, particularly babies and the young, incredibly sick. We’re not talking bad-lunch-buffet-diarrhea-gone-in-a-day sick. We are talking dangerously sick. You and your adult partner may be at very little risk if you choose to feed a raw diet properly. Other households: Take special care.

Raw Food as a Cure-all

This section will be short and sweet. Proponents of raw food diets have made far-reaching claims about the benefits of these diets. I respect anyone who researches diets, cares about what they feed their pets and has an open mind. So far there is no evidence that raw food prevents everything from fleas to cancer or that a raw food diet provides your pet with benefits that no other diet can afford.

Because we live in a consumer-driven society, and because raw food diets are gaining in popularity, I think they are here to stay. I look forward to the ethical people working at the very good raw diet companies to do some evidence-based studies in the near future. As always, veterinarians in research institutions are also working to provide pet parents with solid information.

Variety Is My Spice of Pet Food Life!

I grew up in a family that fed me steak tartare, homemade eggnog with raw eggs and raw meatballs. I was probably exposed to Salmonella and toxoplasmosis hundreds of times. (Vegetables, ironically enough, died a horrifically slow death in our house. Only the color gave you a hint as to whether it was a carrot with all the benefit boiled out of it or a pea.)

Our pets ate what we ate when I was growing up. They probably had nice appetizers of Camplyobacter with a side of E.coli while I was eating raw ground sirloin and raw eggs. They also ate pet food, which was garbage compared to some of the foods manufactured today. The mixture of raw and cooked food to their diets most likely gave them benefits not found in the pink-slime Gaines burger that was Pepe the land-shark poodle’s favorite food.

I offer these old-world tidbits to you to say I am not afraid of raw diets or DIY diets or pathogens — but it’s a veterinarian’s responsibility to talk turkey to clients about risk versus unproven benefits.

One hundred years ago, when I was a little girl, there were no commercial pet foods. Our pets were not exposed to fillers and preservatives and environmental toxins as they are today. They also didn’t live as long. It was commonplace to have an animal die of “diarrhea” and dehydration, diabetes and parasites, maladies that are not even considered that serious today.

With knowledge comes power to keep our pets living longer, healthier lives. An open, rational mind is key when it comes to looking at that food bowl. Bone appétit, everyone!

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