Is Raw Food Diet Healthy for Dogs? A Veterinary Perspective

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 temperatures.

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 vegetables

✅ Vitamin/mineral supplements

❌ 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 for dogs:

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 digestibility.

·         Food processing 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 lifestyle.

·         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 waste matter.

·         Stool volume and odor is often reduced on a species-appropriate raw diet.

7. Allergy and Intolerance Relief

·         Eliminating common 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.

·         Incorporating 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 Evidence Show?

Despite widespread 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 outcomes:

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.

However, microbiome 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 kibble diet

·         Biologically 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 increased.

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 pathogenic bacteria.

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 resilience long-term.

Notes of Caution From Additional Studies

However, it's 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.

·         Diets suffered 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 is advisable.

·         Lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels compared to cooked diets. Impacts of long-term hypoglycemia and hypolipidemia need clarification.

·         No significant 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.

Clearly, the 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 veterinary nutritionist?

Veterinary 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 safety?

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 ideal.

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 adequacy.balancing

Evaluate calcium, 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 ingredient selections?

Rotate proteins, produce, supplemental oils, and vitamin sources frequently. This prevents developing intolerances over time if feeding the same formula long-term.

Prioritize pasture-raised, 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?

Assure manufacturing facilities comply with FDA and USDA food production regulations. Verify fair pricing structures compensating meat suppliers appropriately for testing.

Post-production batch 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 wellness.

Evidence-Based Feeding Recommendations for Raw Diets

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

·         0.8-1.0% phosphorus

·         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 score.

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

·         ~0.8% phosphorus

·         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 rate.

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:

·         14-18% protein

·         5-12% fat depending on metabolism

·         <1.0% calcium

·         **<0.8% phosphorus **

·         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 weight.

Using those 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

Risk Considerations

·         Pathogen shedding in stool raises disease transmission risks to humans and other pets

·         Nutritional imbalances are common without veterinary nutritionist involvement

·         Few officials 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

·         Potential for traumatic tooth fractures; always supervise recreational raw bone consumption

·         Higher financial expense over conventional diets

Veterinarian Role

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.

Veterinary students 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! 🐾