Is Raw Food Diet
Healthy for Dogs? A Veterinary Perspective
The question of
whether a raw food diet is healthy for dogs is a controversial one in
veterinary medicine. As veterinary professionals, it’s our responsibility to
look at the available evidence objectively and make recommendations that
support our clients in providing the best nutrition for their canine
companions. In this comprehensive guide, I’ll explore the proposed benefits and
risks of raw diets, factors to consider when evaluating commercial raw
products, and evidence-based feeding guidelines for dogs at different life
stages. My goal is to empower you, as a veterinary student, to have informed
discussions with clients and make nutrition recommendations tailored to each
patient’s needs. Let’s dive in!
What is a Raw Food Diet for Dogs?
A raw food diet, sometimes
called the “biologically appropriate raw food” or BARF diet, focuses on
uncooked meats, bones, fruits, vegetables, vitamins, and minerals. The primary
protein sources are muscle meat, organ meats, raw meaty bones, and eggs.
Proponents of raw diets aim to mimic the natural ancestral diet of wild wolves
and dogs. This contrasts with commercial kibble that is cooked at high
Raw food diets for
dogs typically contain:
✅ Raw muscle meats:
chicken, turkey, beef, bison, venison, lamb, etc.
✅ Raw organ meats:
liver, kidney, spleen, lungs, etc.
✅ Raw meaty bones like
chicken necks and wings
✅ Raw eggs with shells
✅ Raw fruits and
❌ Grains, legumes,
fillers that are common in commercial kibble
Food is sometimes
served frozen or lightly cooked to reduce pathogen risk. But temperatures
aren’t high enough to significantly impact overall nutrient composition.
Portion sizes vary based on the dog's age, size, and activity level.
👍 Proposed Benefits of Raw Dog Diets
Why do pet owners
choose raw diets despite the higher cost and handling risks? Here are some of
the major proposed health benefits of raw diets
1. Improved Digestibility
Since raw ingredients
aren’t exposed to high temperatures, proteins retain their natural
3-dimensional conformation. This optimizes enzymatic activity and may enhance
creates advanced glycation end-products that may irritate the GI tract in dogs
prone to food allergies or sensitivities.
2. Healthier Skin and Coat Condition
The natural omega
fatty acid content in raw meats, eggs, and oils contributes to skin and coat
health. Omega-3s, in particular, reduce inflammation and excessive shedding.
Nutrients like zinc
and vitamin A promote skin integrity and healing.
3. Better Dental Health
Chewing raw meaty
bones scrapes plaque and tartar off teeth. The mechanical action is nature’s
toothbrush! This helps reduce dental disease risk long-term.
Raw bones are safer
for teeth than cooked bones which become brittle and prone to splintering.
4. Increased Energy Levels
Raw diets have
increased protein bioavailability to support muscle maintenance and an active
Omega fats also help
stabilize metabolism and energy production.
5. Healthy Body Condition
The moisture and
protein content of raw food is more satisfying compared to dry kibble. This
allows dogs to feel full with smaller portions, preventing obesity.
Active dogs utilize
protein efficiently without depositing excess calories into fat stores.
6. Improved Stool Quality
Digestive enzymes in
raw ingredients facilitate better absorption of nutrients, resulting in less
Stool volume and odor
is often reduced on a species-appropriate raw diet.
7. Allergy and Intolerance Relief
triggers like grains and additives may reduce symptoms for dogs with food
allergies, intolerances, or chronic ear infections.
Rotation between novel
protein sources prevents the development of new sensitivities over time.
8. Support of the Immune System
Raw enzymes and
nutrients help fuel immune cells and antioxidant activity.
nutritious organ meats provides vitamin A, B vitamins, trace minerals, and
other beneficial compounds.
9. Cancer Risk Reduction
Some proponents claim
raw diets help prevent cancer development compared to carb-heavy commercial
diets. This theory requires more research for confirmation.
Those are the major
advantages that motivate pet owners to feed species-appropriate raw diets. But
what does the veterinary evidence actually show regarding health impacts? Keep
reading as I analyze key scientific studies next.
🧪 Health Impacts: What Does the
interest among pet owners, few scientific studies exist evaluating raw diet
effects in dogs. Most data is anecdotal or comes from surveys. Let’s review
some of the best experimental research available to date on raw feeding
Improved Nutrient Digestibility
In 2021, a study
published in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition compared
digestibility between four diet types in sled dogs:
1. Extruded kibble
2. Baked kibble
3. Lightly cooked meat-based diet
4. Raw beef-based diet
Dogs fed the raw diet
showed superior protein and fat digestibility compared to
extruded and baked kibbles. The cooked and raw home-prepared diets performed
similarly for most nutrients.
This supports the
theory that cooking alters protein structure, reducing enzymatic binding
affinity and subsequent absorption.
impacts should also be explored. Enzyme activity originates from both
endogenous secretions and gut microbial
populations. Since different diet types influence microbial colonies, this is
another avenue affecting digestibility apart from cooking methods alone.
Alterations to the Fecal Microbiome
In 2022, a study
published in Animal Microbiome explored how two commercial diets (cooked vs
raw) impacted the canine fecal microbiome:
Rich in carbohydrates
appropriate raw food (BARF) diet
After observing the
dogs for just under one year, raw feeding substantially increased microbial diversity compared to
kibble. Firmicutes decreased while Fusobacteria proportions
On the cooked diet, 5 species made up over 60% of all sequencing
reads. On raw, no species dominated over 5%. This denotes reduced dysbiosis and suppression of potentially
While microbial shifts
don’t confirm health impacts directly, gut dysbiosis is linked to numerous
chronic and immune-mediated conditions in dogs. Optimizing GI microbiota
through species-appropriate nutrition may support balance and disease
Notes of Caution From Additional Studies
important to highlight contradictory study outcomes as well.
Additional research on
raw commercial diets found:
Increased risk of shedding pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria in stool
samples. This raises zoonotic concerns for pet owners and veterinary staff
handling raw products without proper precautions.
from significant formulation errors meeting canine nutritional
requirements for key minerals
and vitamins like calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, thiamine, Vitamin D, and
Vitamin E. This highlights quality control issues with some raw ingredient
suppliers and manufacturing processes. Monitoring patient blood nutrient levels
cholesterol and glucose levels compared to cooked diets. Impacts of long-term
hypoglycemia and hypolipidemia need clarification.
differences in blood cell counts, chemical panels, body condition, or stool
consistency compared to premium commercial kibbles. More data is needed on
broader health indices.
veterinary literature shows mixed findings regarding risks and benefits.
Individual patient reactions can vary widely too. The public often
oversimplifies published studies to promote one feeding strategy while ignoring
equally credible conflicting data.
As scientists, we must
acknowledge contradictory evidence while continuing to expand available
research on raw diet impacts.
What Factors Should Veterinarians Consider
When Evaluating Commercial Raw Diets?
If client owners wish
to feed a commercial raw diet after considering the pros/cons, veterinary
guidance is crucial to help identify quality products that optimize nutritional
intake and minimize harm.
Here are key questions
to ask and criteria I recommend applying during raw diet assessments:
1. Was the product formulated by a licensed
nutritionists have advanced post-graduate training in animal diet requirements
and related health conditions. They stay continually updated on the latest
research to formulate science-backed products. Veterinary dietitian involvement
indicates stricter quality control during the design process.
2. Does the company culture emphasize food
Seek out raw brands
with clear communication about testing procedures, kitchen sanitization
protocols, grinding/processing equipment, and ingredients sourcing.
Microbiological contaminants can introduce serious health risks. Companies
focused on food safety help mitigate this.
Assess their supplier
standards as well. Ethically-sourced, humanely raised animal ingredients are
3. Is all supplementation clearly documented
with a nutritional analysis available?
Unlike with commercial
kibble, no official feed trial protocols exist for raw products. Analyses
indicate minimums or maximums for key nutrients. But due to batch variability,
further testing post-production is ideal to confirm nutritional
phosphorus, essential fatty acids, key vitamins/minerals. Are levels sufficient
for basic requirements across all life stages according to the latest National
Research Council guidelines?
4. How diverse are protein and vegetable
produce, supplemental oils, and vitamin sources frequently. This prevents
developing intolerances over time if feeding the same formula long-term.
antibiotic-free animal sources when possible. Variety also provides a diverse
range of micronutrients.
5. What quality checks are performed on
incoming meat supplies and post-production batches?
facilities comply with FDA and USDA food production regulations. Verify fair
pricing structures compensating meat suppliers appropriately for testing.
testing every 3-6 months provides extra assurance on safety and nutritional
consistency. Labs can confirm pathogens like Salmonella while analyzing changes
in calcium, omega-3s, or other nutrients.
6. Does the company offer further education on
raw storage, handling, and sourcing for clients?
Food borne pathogen
risks require extensive owner education on raw food handling in the home.
Brands with freely available articles, charts, or staff nutritionists to
discuss questions demonstrate greater dedication to consumer health education
and nutrition counseling.
Using those quality
benchmarks when surveying different raw products helps veterinarians guide
clients towards reputable companies with stricter safety mechanisms and
nutritional standards. No government agency regulates these products currently.
So independent veterinary verification is crucial protecting animal and human
Evidence-Based Feeding Recommendations for Raw
If recommending a
properly vetted raw food diet for canine patients, tailor nutritional intake to
different life stages. Here are generalized feeding guidelines:
Puppy Raw Diets
Puppies require higher
calorie counts in small frequent meals for speedy growth. Target optimal ratios for development:
25-28% protein from sources like chicken, beef organs, eggs, fish
5-15% fat from
meat, fish oils
1-1.2% calcium from raw bones, calcium supplements
1.1-1.4 grams protein per pound body weight daily
Split calories over
3-4 meals spaced evenly. Provide raw meaty bones 20-50% of the time for dental
and psychological benefits.
Monitor growth rate
for rib and hip bone protrusion. Adjust quantity to maintain ideal conditioned
Adult Raw Dog Diets
Adult dogs require balanced nutrition for lean body condition, high energy,
and peak immunological function. Target:
18-22% protein from muscle meat, organs
8-15% fat from
egg yolks, fish oils, poultry skin
~1.0% calcium from ground eggshells, bones
0.75 grams protein per pound body weight daily
Split into 2 meals
daily. Incorporate bone-in poultry or recreational bones 2-3 times weekly for
satisfaction. Adjust amounts based on breed, activity level, and metabolic
Monitor body condition
score every 6-12 months.
Senior Dog Raw Diets
For senior dogs over age 7, adjust macro ratios to reduce risk
of obesity and related diseases:
5-12% fat depending
0.5 grams protein per pound body weight daily
Give bone-in chicken
twice weekly for cognitive stimulation. Provide glucosamine/chondroitin and
fish oil supplements to support joint health and inflammation. Antioxidants
like vitamin E and turmeric may also benefit aging dogs.
Feed smaller meals in
elevated dishes. Monitor body condition and adjust calories to maintain ideal
nutritional targets as starting guidelines allows for individual adjustments
based on energy requirements and health conditions.
Takeaways: Key Discussion Points for Clients
If client owners still
wish to feed a commercial raw diet after considering all variables above, have
an open discussion covering these key points:
Some studies show
improved digestibility and microbiome diversity compared to extruded, cooked
diets - especially regarding protein and healthier gut flora ratios
Pathogen shedding in
stool raises disease transmission risks to humans and other pets
are common without veterinary nutritionist involvement
regulations or quality control checks compared to commercial dog foods
Requires safe food
handling practices the average owner may not consistently execute - risk of
illness for pets and family members
traumatic tooth fractures; always supervise recreational raw bone consumption
expense over conventional diets
My job is to:
1. Help clients objectively evaluate risks vs
benefits of raw feeding for their lifestyle and dog’s needs
2. Guide clients choosing commercial raw diets
towards brands with stricter quality control and nutritional standards
3. Monitor patient blood work and body condition
for positive or negative diet impacts
4. Adjust diet ratios as needed for dog’s age,
health status, and activity level
5. Provide resources optimizing food safety and
handling raw diets properly at home
With vigilance, an
appropriately designed raw diet from a reputable company may offer digestive
and wellness advantages for some dogs. Close veterinary monitoring is key
catching any nutritional imbalances or health effects early. Pet owners also
need thorough education mitigating contamination hazards in the home when
preparing raw ingredients.
There is no
universally “right” solution for every patient. Informed discussion of both
pros and cons empowers clients to decide which option aligns best for their
needs and resources.
and clinicians must approach all therapeutic diets - whether conventional or
unconventional – with an open yet discerning, evidence-based mindset. Different
options carry different risks which owners have a right to consider before
deciding on health interventions for their family members.
I hope this
comprehensive guide brought greater clarity to this convoluted topic - one
we'll continue unraveling through future research. Wishing you wisdom
navigating these conversations with grace and facts as Ambassadors of veterinary
medicine and science! 🐾