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Raw Diets For Dogs: Seven Things Every Pet-Owner Needs to Know About the Science of Raw Dog Foods
While raw diets are no longer exactly the “hot new thing” in the world of pet food, they are still a common choice among dog owners. They’re also a topic that tends to generate a lot of conflict and confusion, for reasons I’ll address below.
Understanding what the science says (and doesn’t say) about the potential costs and potential benefits of raw diets is something that every dog owner should be reasonably conversant with. And I’m reasonably confident that I have written as much about this subject as anyone in the country. So my goal with this article is to boil everything down to the seven most important points, with links to further reading that readers can use to explore any individual point with a bit more detail and nuance.
Let’s jump right in.
Fact 1: There is No Medical or Experimental Evidence Supporting the Idea That Raw Dog Foods are Per Se Healthier Than Cooked Ones.
The bulk of the back-and-forth over raw dog foods concerns this one fundamental point. But the reality is that both sides of the debate (proponents and detractors of raw feeding) tend to often agree on the important stuff, they just tend to talk past one another when discussing what it means.
As I explained in greater detail here, there is as yet no persuasive evidence suggesting that raw ingredients are healthier for dogs than cooked ones in any specific way. It is true that cooking raw ingredients via any of the common pet food manufacturing methods (extrusion, baking, etc.) tends to change their nutritional makeup in some predictable ways. But it is also true that those changes are so minor as to not matter in the grand scheme of things.
The analogy I like to use is steaks. The nutritional content of a bloody rare steak is somewhat different from the nutritional content of a well-done one. The heat does indeed change some of the nutrients. But the changes are truly inconsequential. Which is why no one serious in the human nutritional science community is advocating that we all eat our steaks bloody rare because that makes them materially “healthier” than the same cuts cooked well-done. Or that we avoid grilling our vegetables, for that matter.
Fact 2: However, Many (Not All) Raw Dog Foods Share Some Common Nutritional Qualities That Have Been Shown to Be Healthy For Dogs
As recently as five years ago, raw diets were about the only types of dog foods that you could find that didn’t contain an obscene amount of digestible carbohydrate and a measly amount of meat -based protein. And, as I explained in my book and have written countless other times, there most definitely is persuasive evidence that dietary carbohydrates tend to do unhealthy things to canine bodies (like promote fattening, induce blood sugar spikes, and hijack basic metabolic processes) while proteins tend to do healthy things (like promote muscle growth/maintenance).
In other words, while the “rawness” of a raw dog food might not deliver any specific health benefits to the animal that eats it, the relatively low carbohydrate content and relatively high protein content that are usually found in such a diet most definitely do. As such, switching a dog from a garden variety kibble to a raw dog food usually is a healthy choice for the animal.
But it is important to note that raw diets are no longer the only way to feed your dog a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. In addition to so-called “fresh” diets, like the Farmer’s Dog, there are now kibble products that contain less carbohydrate and more protein than most raw ones. (Such as my company’s Ketona line of dog foods.)
And, similarly, not all raw diets are low in carbs and high in protein. More often than not, raw foods have better nutritional profiles than kibble ones. But not always. (This product, for example, is about 40% digestible carbohydrate!) So you need to take your analysis at least one step beyond “kibble or raw?” if you want to truly make a healthy choice for your dog.
Fact 3: Raw Dog Foods Require More Sanitation and Preparation Work Than Kibbles
This is less about nutrition and more about convenience. But it’s certainly an important part of the conversation.
Cooking food products is the most common way of killing any microbial pathogens that might be lurking within them. And removing the water from foods is the most common way of ensuring that new pathogens don’t quickly cause spoliation. If that doesn’t immediately strike you as intuitive then think about grapes—a bag of fresh grapes will become moldy in just a few weeks if it isn’t refrigerated, where a box of raisins (dried grapes) has a shelf life of upwards of six months.
Obviously, raw dog foods haven’t been cooked. And they usually haven’t been dehydrated either. So consumers need to perform some amount of sanitation and precautionary work (like cold storage) in order to ensure that raw pet food products don’t become contaminated with illness-causing bacteria. This means keeping the products frozen or refrigerated until they are ready for use and then cleaning and disinfecting any surfaces they come into contact with.
Fact 4: The Risks of Contamination Apply to People, Not Dogs
This is a really important one, because (as I’ll explain momentarily), it’s a subject that has been intentionally distorted by some pretty influential folks.
While it is indeed the case that handling raw pet food products (at least raw meat-based ones) does introduce the risk of bacterial contamination, there is no evidence that any of the common pathogens tend to actually make dogs sick. So a failure to properly store your favorite raw dog food might result in bacterial contamination, but it is unlikely to actually make your dog ill in any serious way. With a few million generations of meat-eating under its evolutionary belt, you can rest assured that the canine gut has developed adequate resilience to common meat-borne pathogens.
People are a different story. Carelessly handling contaminated raw meat products (or coming into contact with the mouth or feces of a dog that has consumed such products), does raise the possibility of introducing pathogens such as salmonella bacteria into your own system. And that can make you quite ill. But, at the same time, all that can be avoided by being thoughtful and careful as you prep your dog’s meals—washing hands, sanitizing dishes, and taking all the other precautions that reasonable folks use whenever they are handling raw meat.
Fact 5: Many Vets Have Been Duped Into Forming Poorly-Reasoned Positions About Raw Dog Foods
I frequently offer folks the following bet. Go to your veterinarian and ask her whether she recommends feeding a raw diet to your dog. If she tells you anything other than “no, because there’s no evidence that raw diets provide any benefits and there’s a high risk of your dog getting a food-borne disease from a raw diet,” I’ll buy you a year’s worth of whatever dog food you like. I haven’t lost yet.
The reason there’s such uniformity within the veterinary community on this issue is because a small group of industry-affiliated veterinary nutrition researchers devoted several years of their respective careers to publishing academic papers that promoted and allegedly “supported” this very industry-friendly perspective on their raw diet competitors, to the point that they managed to influence what virtually all vets are taught about the subject during veterinary school (and in continuing education courses after graduation). Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the perspective is an article of faith in all but a few corners of the veterinary ecosystem.
That’s unfortunate, because the reasoning supporting the position doesn’t hold water. While it’s true there is no evidence that raw ingredients are inherently healthier than cooked ones, as I explained above, that’s besides the point. The point is that raw diets more often than not feature very different nutritional profiles to cooked ones (i.e., more protein and less carbohydrate). And there most definitely is evidence that a lower-carbohydrate, higher-protein nutritional profile is healthier for a dog than the alternative.
Second, while it is certainly possible that human beings can pick up food-borne illnesses by failing to take adequate safety and storage precautions when handling raw pet foods, there are almost no documented cases of similar illnesses developing in dogs.
That this perspective could become so ubiquitous despite its clearly faulty reasoning does not cover the veterinary profession in glory.
(If you want to do a deep dive into this subject, definitely check out chapter five of my book. I’ll also link a few of the more influential papers so you can see the list of vets who were involved in the original campaign against raw diets: here’s one, here’s another, and here’s a third one.)
Fact 6: Raw Diets Cost 4-8 Times As Much as Kibble
There are at least two forces that make raw diets so much more expensive than kibbles.
First is the cost of refrigeration. In order to keep them from spoiling, raw ingredients need to be maintained in a frozen or refrigerated state from the moment they are produced right up until a day or two before they’re going to be consumed. From the factory to the warehouse, from the warehouse to the retailer, from the retailer to your home, and everywhere in between. Those costs are enormous.
Second is the cost of shipping water. Raw pet foods typically contain about 75% water whereas kibble products only contain about 10% water. This means that a thousand calories worth of raw diet likely weighs about 8-9 times as much as a thousand calories worth of kibble. Again, that adds tremendous cost to the raw product supply chain.
Like it or not, those costs get passed onto the consumer. Cleverly, raw diet producers unitize their products quite differently than kibbles (you won’t find raw products available in the equivalent of a 30-pound economy bag of kibble), so at first glance the prices can appear somewhat similar because a true apples-to-apples comparison is so difficult.
But when you do the math (go here if you want to learn how it’s done), you’ll see that most commercial raw diets clock in at about 4-8 times the cost of so-called “premium” kibbles. If you have a small dog, that might only represent the difference between $1.00 per day and $5.00 per day. But if you have several dogs or even one very large one, the price differences can be astronomical.
Fact 7: Commercial Raw Diets Are No Less Likely Than Kibbles to Meet AAFCO’s “Complete and Balanced” Standards
Another vestige of the anti-raw campaign I described earlier is the idea that all raw diets introduce an unwarranted risk of nutrient deficiencies. But the reality is that there’s no evidence that commercial raw diets raise deficiency risks. There is certainly evidence that homemade raw diets feature nutrient deficiencies more often than commercially-produced kibbles. But that’s because balancing micronutrient content is quite difficult and beyond the abilities of many well-intentioned dog owners.
But the process used to verify that commercial raw diets contain the correct amount of vitamins and minerals is precisely the same one that’s used with commercial kibble diets. You can rest assured that if you buy your dog a “complete and balanced” raw pet food, it’s risk of developing a nutritional deficiency is no higher than if you fed it kibble instead.