- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Raw food is all the rage among humans, and we might wonder if our pups can eat it too. Dogs can technically eat raw meat, but several health risks come with consuming uncooked meat. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that dogs eat cooked meat to avoid bacterial contamination, like salmonella, listeria, and E. coli. (Just like humans!) If you’re looking to feed your dog a raw meat-based diet, Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM at The Animal Hospital of West Monroe and co-founder of How To Pets, says beef, chicken, turkey, rabbit, certain types of fish, and organ meats are the safest choices.
While the risks of raw meat can affect all dogs, it’s never safe for:
- Puppies under a year old
- Dogs with a severe disease (e.g., kidney failure, liver failure, or cancer)
- Dogs with a health condition that either causes immunosuppression or are on immunosuppressive medication
Why Do Some People Feed Their Dogs Raw Meat?
Some pet parents feed their dogs a raw food diet, or the BARF diet (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food), because they believe it’s closer to their ancestral diet and a healthier alternative to commercial dog food.
Raw diets have become popular due to their appeal as unprocessed, whole foods. Additionally, pet parents like knowing what’s in their dog’s food instead of buying pre-made food that may be interpreted as unnecessary ingredients, like food additives.
While a raw diet mainly consists of meat, it also includes non-meat products like grains, vegetables, and fruit. Fortunately for our omnivorous canine companions, they can also process and benefit from these plant-based foods.
Dr. Ochoa says this earlier, wild diet is believed to align more closely with the diet of dogs’ wolf ancestors by providing what they would’ve eaten in their natural state, better supporting their overall health and well-being. Additionally, she says some dogs go on a raw diet because of the possible behavioral benefits, increased palatability, and higher-quality protein compared to commercial dog food.
What Happens If Dogs Eat Raw Meat?
While a raw diet certainly benefitted pre-domesticated dogs, Dr. Ochoa says it may not be as beneficial for modern, evolved dogs as it may lead to the following.
- Nutritional imbalances. “Raw meat diets can be challenging to formulate correctly to ensure that dogs receive a balanced and complete diet,” Dr. Ochoa says. “Dogs have specific nutritional requirements that need to be met, including appropriate ratios of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.”
- Bacterial contamination. Raw meat diets carry a higher risk of bacterial contamination, such as salmonella and E. coli. Dr. Ochoa says these pathogens can pose a significant health risk to dogs and humans, particularly those with weakened immune systems. Properly handle, store, and prepare raw meat to minimize the risk of bacterial transmission.
- Digestive upset. “Some dogs may experience digestive upset when transitioning to a raw meat diet,” Dr. Ochoa explains. She adds that sudden diet changes, including higher amounts of raw meat, can cause diarrhea or constipation.
- Dental fractures and injuries. Dr. Ochoa says that contrary to popular belief, raw bones can risk dogs’ dental health. “Cooked bones are well-known for splintering and causing injuries, but even raw bones can lead to dental fractures or gastrointestinal obstructions if not carefully selected or chewed,” she explains. “Individual dog size, age, and chewing habits should be considered when determining whether raw bones are appropriate.”
What Are the Possible Benefits of Raw Meat for Your Dog?
Some formal evidence supports improved stool quality and altered gut bacteria in raw-fed dogs. Other benefits include high energy, fresh breath, and healthier teeth, skin, and hair.
“Anecdotally, some pet parents observe that a raw diet has improved their dog’s overall health, coat quality or, in some cases, allergic skin disease,” says Dr. Primrose Moss, VetMB, MRCVS, a UK-based small animal veterinarian, “Similarly, if they switch from a diet that doesn’t agree with them (every dog is unique so there isn’t one perfect diet!), they may seem healthier or have better stools on a raw diet. However, there’s no real evidence that dogs are healthier on a raw diet.”
Besides anecdotal benefits, Dr. Ochoa says other pros of feeding a raw diet include:
- Weight management. “A raw diet with high protein content can help maintain a dog’s weight at healthy levels due to its lower carbohydrate content,” she says. Additionally, she adds that older dogs might benefit from a raw diet to maintain muscle mass and cater to their changing nutritional needs.
- Potential allergy relief. For dogs with food allergies or sensitivities, pet parents may attribute their dog’s alleviated symptoms to a raw meat diet. Dogs might find relief when you eliminate common allergenic ingredients in commercial dog foods, such as grains and specific proteins. However, Dr. Moss points out that many of these dogs may have done equally well if they switched to an alternative, high-quality cooked diet.
- Improved immune function. “The natural enzymes and nutrients present in raw foods can enhance a dog’s immune system, potentially leading to better overall health and disease resistance,” Dr. Ochoa says.
Before switching your dog’s diet, always speak with your vet, and remember, more research is needed to determine the direct benefits of feeding a raw diet.
What Are the Risks of Raw Meat for Your Dog?
While not enough large-scale, reliable evidence fully supports or goes against a raw-food diet, there’s enough evidence to indicate the potential health risks that may affect human health.
Dr. Moss says while dogs may be asymptomatic and seemingly unaffected after eating raw food, they may still pass pathogens onto humans in contact with them.
“Dogs fed a raw diet have been shown to shed bacteria, including salmonella, at a much higher rate than non-raw-fed dogs,” she says. Dogs can pass this bacteria onto pet parents through their mouths and muzzle after eating raw food. Additionally, she explains that although dogs’ acidic stomachs can help defend them from pathogens, they’re far from perfect.
“It’s rare to have a day in practice when I don’t see a dog with an upset stomach, and anecdotally, I’ve seen this correlate with owners feeding raw meat as a treat,” she says. “Raw diets also increase dogs’ exposure to parasites.” To combat this risk, Dr. Moss recommends worming raw-fed dogs more frequently.
Lastly, no substantial evidence suggests enzymes, which are destroyed by the cooking process, help dogs to digest raw food.
How Does Cooking Meat Reduce These Risks?
Cooking your dog’s food has several benefits, including the following.
- Younger and older dogs can digest cooked meat easier.
- Cooking meat and carbs makes digestion easier.
- Raw food might be missing essential vitamins. (Dog food is often overseen by nutritionists and has a more comprehensive nutritional profile.)
The exception to this is bones. It’s best to skip cooking bones since it can make them unsafe for your dog to chew on.
How to Introduce Your Dog to Raw Meat
When introducing your dog to raw food, slowly incorporate it into their diet over at least four days. To help your dog adjust (assuming they like it and tolerate it), gradually mix the raw food with their usual food each day, starting with 75% of their regular food and 25% raw until their meal is entirely their raw diet.
No evidence shows dogs need to go on a completely raw diet for its acclaimed benefits to take root. But if you’d like your dog to try it, consider the differences in serving sizes between raw and cooked meat. Feed your dog small, bite-sized portions of raw meat so they can safely chew and swallow it.
Although dogs can technically eat raw meat, avoid offering your dog just any raw meat from the cooking prep table — some are more dangerous than others. Most uncooked meats carry similar risks but avoid raw pork, bacon, and sausages especially since they may lead to trichinosis, a parasite infection.
Are you looking to add a bit of green to your dog’s diet? “Raw vegetables are a great addition to dogs’ diets, including raw diets,” Dr. Moss says. “These can include courgettes, carrots, pumpkin, leafy greens, and other vegetables.”
Lastly, she adds that vegetables should comprise 10–20% of a dog’s diet. However, if you’re preparing a raw diet at home, follow a diet plan that a veterinary nutritionist has explicitly formulated for your dog to avoid nutritional imbalances and disease.
When Should Dogs Avoid A Raw Diet?
Just as with humans, diets are not one-size-fits-all. Every dog has unique nutritional needs; in some cases, a raw meat diet may do more harm than good.
“Any dog with a health condition that either causes immunosuppression or requires them to be on immunosuppressive medication should avoid a raw diet,” Dr. Moss says. “Any pet with severe disease (e.g., heart/kidney/liver disease, diabetes, or cancer) should not be fed a raw diet due to the risk of pathogens.”
Additionally, Dr. Moss recommends avoiding a raw diet in dogs under a year of age unless a feeding trial has been carried out to ensure it’s safe for growing puppies. (Thankfully, there are plenty of high-quality puppy food options.)
“A balanced diet is especially critical in growing pups when a small imbalance can have catastrophic results,” she says. “The best diets have been thoroughly tested and found suitable for growing puppies in feeding trials.”
Whether you feed your dog raw meat or not, please consult a vet before changing your dog’s diet to keep them happy and healthy!