Raw Diets for Pets
Is a Raw Food Diet Good for Pets?
Raw meat diets for pets have increased in popularity dramatically in recent years. But are they actually good for your pet?
One one hand, we have pro-raw advocates who claim that a raw meat diet can greatly benefit the health of cats and dogs. However, on the other side are those who are wary of raw feeding due to the reported associated risks.
The internet, true to form, is full of conflicting and heavily opinionated information, and it can be incredibly confusing. We all just want to do what's best for our pet, but what information can you actually trust? Are there studies to support raw meat diets? What does the science really say?
To help you navigate the topic, we've collated some popular 'pros' and 'cons' of raw feeding, and discussed what evidence there is to support each claim.
What is a raw meat diet?
First, a little clarification. The definition of a raw meat diet is one that includes uncooked ingredients derived from food animal species and that are fed to dogs or cats living in home environments.
Many pet owners choose to prepare raw diets at home, but ready-made commercial diets are also available. The most common types of commercial raw meat diets include fresh, frozen, or freeze-dried. Many of these diets are formulated to meet AAFCO nutritional guidelines for cats and dogs, but some are labelled as intended for occasional or supplemental feeding only. (It's always important to check the label to ensure your pet is receiving a complete and balanced diet!)
What are the benefits of a raw meat diet?
With so many benefits reported on the internet anecdotally, it's unsurprising that the raw food movement has become so popular. We've listed the most commonly claimed 'benefits' below and delved into each one a little deeper.
Many pet owners find their cats or dogs prefer the taste of a raw meat diet, and that it's easier to tempt fussy eaters. This is easy to imagine, and is of course more of a general statement. While there has been research which suggests that dogs prefer to eat high meat diets over high carbohydrate diets1, there has not been the same level of research into whether raw meat is more palatable than cooked meat or other types of pet food. We are happy to conclude that the palatability of a raw diet depends on the diet itself and your pet's personal preference.
2. It Mirrors The Ancestral Diet.
Many believe that a raw diet is better because it is closer to your pet's natural, ancestral diet. The theory goes that dogs should be fed a diet that mirrors their wild ancestors, the Grey Wolf, due to DNA similarities. This 'ancestral diet' theory argues that the dog's anatomy (ie teeth designed for cutting and slicing, shorter intestinal tracts) is built for a carnivorous diet.
This is a nice thought, but if this idea is to be considered as justification for a raw meat diet, there are a few important points to consider:
A) Your dog is not a wolf. Dogs were domesticated by humans approximately 33,000 years ago, and consequently have evolved considerably. While there is evidence to suggest that dogs do not require carbohydrates1, they have certainly evolved the ability to digest them. A life alongisde humans brought with it a much more varied diet, which over time saw dogs evolve a number of features that allowed them to digest plant-based foods2. These features include an increased gene expression for pancreatic amylase, the ability to convert maltose to glucose, and increased uptake of intestinal glucose. Therefore, dogs are generally considered biologically omnivorous. Early wolves had none of these genetic abilities.
In fact, dogs share only 98% of their DNA with wolves - about as much as humans share with bonobos. If you don't feel that your diet should mirror a bonobo's (or hey, maybe you do like a quasi-vegan-insectivorous diet?) - then we probably shouldn't argue that dogs need to be eating a raw meat diet like wolves purely due to DNA similarities.
B) Early wolves had a very short lifespan. Depending on their size and breed, the average domestic dog can live up to 20 years (sometimes longer!). Whereas the lifespan of a wild wolf is only around 5 years. This not only demonstrates the difference between the two species, but it also helps us understand how 'living wild' doesn't always mean 'living better'.
C) Hunted meat is not the same as meat from your local shop. There is a perception that feeding your dog raw meat from the butcher is as good as your dog consuming freshly killed prey. But think about how different it is in terms of hygeine. Meat from freshly killed prey is just that - fresh. Wild dogs devour meat from their prey within 1-2 hours of the kill. Whereas, store bought meat has been handled in an abattoir, transported, and refrigerated over at least 1-2 days by the time it is finally fed (and that's if it's 'fresh'!). So, there is a lot of time for nasty bacteria to grow. This is why us humans don't eat raw meat from the butcher.
'Sure, but don't dogs have much tougher guts than us?!' - Contrary to popular belief, dogs are just as likely to get food poisoning as we are. Dogs on raw meat diets often experience mild bouts of loose stool, and have been found to shed much larger quantities of harmful bacteria in their faeces - including Salmonella, Listeria and Yersinia spp3,4,5, which can be spread to humans. Read more about this below.
3. Increased Digestibility
Raw diets are believed to be easier to digest because essential nutrients such as enzymes, vitamins, and amino acids haven't been destroyed by cooking.
On the enzymes: Yes, it's true that certain enzymes found within food are destroyed during the process of cooking6. But in general, these enzymes aren't necessary for digestion. Cats and dogs already have all the enzymes they need within their gastrointestinal tract and pancreas, and don't require exogenous enzymes for digestion. Plus, most enzymes from raw food are destroyed in the stomach anyway.
On the digestibility: Regardless of enzyme activity, are raw diets still more digestible? There are actually a number of studies7,8 in different species of cats that have indeed found raw food to be more digestible - however one of these studies found that this is mostly just in terms of protein (ie, the digestibility wasn't improved for fat, carbohydrates, or energy).
So does this mean that protein is more bioavailable if it has been cooked? Interestingly, the effect cooking has on protein depends on what type of ingredient the protein is drawn from - in particular, whether it is from plant material or meat. (Remember - plants provide protein too!). For protein derived from meat, heat processing can have negative effects and reduce its bioavailability. But for protein derived from plants, cooking can actually improve the bioavailability. This is because the heating process denatures some of the antinutritional factors that are naturally found in plants. For instance, legumes contain trypsin inhibitors that reduce bioavailability of protein. Heat processing denatures these inhibitors and therefore increases protein bioavailability, making legumes easier to digest after cooking.
What does improved digestibility mean? Ultimately, higher digestibility = smaller, firmer poos. (See our next point for more about this!)
4. Smaller, firmer stools with less odour
Another proposed benefit of raw diets is that they create smaller, firmer stools with less odour. In general, this is believed to be true - but it may not be due to whether the food is raw or cooked, but more about the meat vs carbohydrate content. (Typically a higher meat content diet produces smaller, firmer stools)1. Plus, whether there is a 'difference' or an 'improvement' really depends on what you compare it to. For example, if you swap your dog onto a raw diet after previously feeding them cheap, poor quality supermarket food, then you will likely notice a big reduction in stool size. However, if you already feed a premium diet that is already high in meat content, you might not notice much of a difference in stool size if you swap over to a raw diet.
What causes smaller stools? As mentioned, a high meat content can contribute to smaller stools. But in general, it really comes down to digestibility. If the diet has a high level of digestibility, this results in less digest in the colon, and therefore less faecal output.
But are smaller stools actually a good thing? Smaller stools are without a doubt better for the pet owner, as it means you'll have smaller, less smelly landmines to pick up in the yard! But with regards to your pet, small stool size doesn't automatically mean a happier tummy.
It's easy to assume that smaller stool size must mean that your dog has a healthier gut. For the most part, this is true - however it is a little more complicated, and depends on why the faeces is so bulky. In particular, it comes down to the ingredient in question, and whether the ingredient is of plant or animal origin.
Bulky faeces could be due to undigested plant matter, or undigested meat (or a combination of both). Undigested plant matter in the form of fibre has been shown to be beneficial for the gut, as it feeds the 'good bacteria' present in the colon. (So a bit of bulky poop could be good for your dog if it's due to high quantities of beneficial plant fibre!)
However, undigested meat protein can result in unfavourable compounds such as ammonia, phenols, insoles, and amines - which can play a role in diseases such as colorectal cancer9.
Ultimately, this means that while a raw meat diet may in fact create smaller stools, this doesn't automatically mean your pet has a healthy gut, as a little bit of 'bulk' can be a good thing if it's due to plant fibre.
5. Improved Immune Function.
Another claimed benefit of raw diets is that it can improve your pet's immune system. Interestingly, this claim may also hold some merit. A study conducted on domestic cats fed a raw diet for 10 weeks observed a significant increase in lymphocyte (immune cells) and immunoglobulin production, compared to a control group who were fed a commercial canned diet10. However, it's possible that these increased levels of immune cells were due to exposure to Salmonella in the raw meat, as the cats fed the raw diet were also found to be shedding higher levels of this bacteria in their faeces. Other possible reasons for this immune cell increase include exposure to pathogens, changes in the gut bacteria, or nutritional deficiencies.
So ultimately, it's possible that a raw diet could stimulate the immune system and improve immune function. But it's also possible that this is simply due to higher levels of bacterial contamination, which brings with it its own risks. See below for more about this.
6. Decreased risk of cancer.
Many pro-raw advocates claim that a raw meat diet can reduce your dog's risk of cancer. There is actually potential for this claim to hold merit, but further testing is required.
How can a raw diet decrease your dog's cancer risk? The mechanism comes down to the effect cooking has on the food. When muscle meat is cooked at high temperatures, it produces compounds called heterocyclic amines.11 In very high concentrations, these compounds have been associated with cancer. While the concentrations of heterocyclic amines found in pet food are quite low12, it's possible that they still may have mutagenic activity. It's unknown whether there is a cumulative effect of excess exposure to these compounds, but further testing is required to know for sure.
What are the dangers of a raw meat diet?
We've discussed the proposed benefits of raw feeding, now we're going to delve into the risks. Unlike some of the benefits, the risks of a raw meat diet are actually quite well documented and heavily supported by research. The two major risks with feeding a raw meat are bacterial contamination and nutritional inadequacy. Let's delve into what this means...
1. Bacterial contamination.
All raw meat can harbour harmful pathogens, regardless of whether it is sold for humans or for pets. Even when the best hygiene practices are followed, contamination can occur at any point in the meat-production process from slaughter, to transport, to handling. This is why us humans take great caution with eating raw meat!
In particular, Salmonella species of bacteria has been reported in a number of studies investigating raw diets in pets.3,4,5 Salmonella is a common cause of food poisoning in both pets and humans.
As mentioned before, there is a common myth that dogs and cats have 'tougher guts' and are less likely to become sick from food pathogens. However, this is untrue, and many dogs will of course experience gastrointestinal upset if fed contaminated uncooked meat. Plus, even if your dog doesn't get sick, they can still introduce a risk to your family.
Raw Meat is a Zoonotic Risk. The risk of bacterial contamination isn't just a concern for your dog, it can affect people in the household too. Animals fed a raw meat diet have been shown to shed these harmful organisms in their stool, and their feeding areas are also found to be 'hot areas' for germs. One study demonstrated that dogs can shed Salmonella bacteria in their faeces for up to two weeks13.
In fact, the risk of this bacteria spreading to humans is so high that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) does not recommend feeding raw diets to pets.
2. Nutritional inadequacy
Nutritional adequacy is the second major concern with raw meat diets. Imbalances have been found with both commercially produced and home-made recipes.
Providing a complete and balanced diet is vital for your pet to live a long and happy life. Most pet food is designed to be complete and balanced with regards to macronutrients like energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates, fibre, and all vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, a correct balance is important for all animals, but is particularly vital for felines, who can face deadly illnesses if their diet is deficient in certain nutrients such as taurine.
Home-prepared diets, regardless of whether they are raw or cooked, are unfortunately usually found to be imbalanced. Studies into homemade recipes - particularly those obtained from books or on the internet - have found considerable concerns about deficiencies and excesses of essential nutrients, including calcium-to-phosphorus ratio, Vitamin A and E, Vitamin D, and fat.14,15,16
If you are set on preparing a raw diet at home for your dog, we strongly suggest consulting with a veterinary nutritionist for a complete and balanced recipe that suits your pet's size and lifestage.
What is the best raw diet?
How do you avoid the risks of a raw meat diet, but still enjoy the benefits? There are now diets available that manage to retain the benefits of a raw diet, but are still nutritionally balanced and prepared in such a way to avoid bacterial contamination. We have collated our top recommendations for pet owners who wish to feed a raw diet that is safe and nutritious. All of the diets below use high quality ingredients with fewer grains and carbohydrates, and a high meat content. Plus, they are all balanced to be in line with AAFCO feeding guidelines.
What is freeze-drying or air-drying? Many of the diets below are freeze or air dried. Freeze or air drying is a non-cooking process which preserves food without destroying any of the raw nutrients. Food is dried under pressure, which removes the water content but locks in the natural nutrition. Freeze and air-dried food is a much more hygenic alternative to traditional raw food, due to the reduced risk of contamination.
K9 Natural and Feline Natural
With options for both cats and dogs, K9 Natural and Feline Natural produce freeze-dried pellets, canned food, tasty toppers, and treats. All of their recipes are developed under the guidance of leading veterinary nutritionists, and in line with the latest nutritional research from Massey University. Plus, all recipes use grass-fed meat, cage-free chicken, and sustainably sourced ingredients!
This freeze-dried formula is made with 90% nutritious New Zealand meat and is extremely palatable. The rehydratable pellets can be fed dry or wet, and can be used a complete diet, or mixed in with other food.
K9 Natural wet food is a convenient way to feed your dog an all-natural, high meat diet. With meat, organs, eggs, and beneficial vegetables, this diet is 100% balanced for adult dogs.
These delicious treats for cats are made from 100% beef and organs. They are freeze-dried to retain raw nutrition in a safe and hygenic manner.
Featuring predominantly meat and organs, Feline Natural wet foods are packed with wholefood ingredients and are complete and balanced for all life stages.
Ziwi Peak Cat and Dog Food
Ziwi is a top quality line of natural cat and dog food, made using fresh free-range and sustainably-sourced ingredients. Their range includes air-dried kibble, canned / wet food, and treats. Most of their recipes contain green-lipped mussel for skin and joint health, as well as natural kelp, parsley, and chicory root for fibre.
This air-dried diet is made with 95% meat, organs and bone. It contains green-lipped mussel and is highly palatable for fussy eaters.
With a high content of fresh meat, Ziwi canned formulas are a convenient and long-lasting way to deliver natural, holistic nutrition to your dog.
This tasty wet food is formulated specifically for carnivorous cats. It high in meat and perfect for tempting fussy eaters.
Air-dried to retain raw nutrition, this line of diets is known for being highly palatable. With a complete and balanced recipe, it is also grain free and all ingredients are sourced sustainably.
Other great natural options
While the above recommendations are great if you're after a diet as close to 'raw' as possible, there are plenty of otherc commercially produced kibble options that are also nutritious, natural, and made with high quality ingredients. Our top recommendations include:
With numerous different protein options, Instinctive Bite has something for every dog. This chicken variety is great for dogs in need of a low-fat natural food.
Open Farm offers grain and gluten free humanely and and sustainable sourced natural pet foods with very high quality proteins.
Using a grain-free formula and fish as the only protein source, this diet is very well-reviewed by owners of itchy dogs.
Taste of the wild create high quality, grain-free diets that are based on a pet's ancestral diet with quality meats, fresh vegetables, and probiotics for balanced nutrition.
- Roberts MT, Bermingham EN, Cave NJ, et al. Macronutrient intake of dogs, self-selecting diets varying in composition offered ad libitum. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr. 2018;102:568-575.
- Axelsson E, Ratnakumar A, Arendt M-L, et al. The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature 2013;495;360-364.
- Sato Y, Mori T, Koyama T, et al. Salmonella virchow infection in an infant transmitted by household dogs. J Vet Med Sci 2000;62:767-769.
- Lefebvre SL, Reid-Smith R, Boerlin P, et al. Evaluation of the risk of shedding salmonellae and other potential pathogens by therapy dogs fed raw diets in Ontario and Alberta. Zoonoses Public Health 2008;55:470-480.
- Finley R, Ribble C, Aramini J, et al. The risk of salmonellae shedding by dogs fed Salmonella-contaminated commercial raw food diets. Can Vet J 2007;48:69-75
- Meade SJ, Reid EA, Gerrard JA. The impact of processing on the nutritional quality of food proteins. JAOAC 2005;88:904-922.
- Crissey SD, Swanson JA, Lintzenich BA, et al. Use of a raw meatbased diet or a dry kibble diet for sand cats (Felis margarita). J Anim Sci 1997;75:2154-2160.
- Vester BM, Burke SL, Liu KJ, et al. Influence of feeding raw or extruded feline diets on nutrient digestibility and nitrogen metabolism of African wildcats (Felis lybica). Zoo Biol 2010;29:676-686.
- Larsson SC, Wolk A. Meat consumption and risk of colorectal cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective studies. Intl J Cancer 2006;119:2657-2664.
- Hamper BA, Bartges JW, Kirk CA. Evaluation of two raw diets vs a commercial cooked diet on feline growth.J Feline Med Surg. 2016 Dec;18(12):991-996
- Sugimura T, Wakabayashi K, Nakagama H, et al. Heterocyclic amines: mutagens/carcinogens produced during cooking of meat and fish. Cancer Sci 2004;95:290-299.
- Knize MG, Salmon CP, Felton JS. Mutagenic activity and heterocyclic amine carcinogens in commercial pet foods. Mutat Res 2003;539:195-201.
- Joffe DJ, et al. Preliminary assessment of the risk of Salmonella infection in dogs fed raw chicken diets. Can Vet J. 2002;43(6):441.
- Freeman LM, Michel KE. Evaluation of raw food diets. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2001;218:705-709.
- Taylor MB, Geiger DA, Saker KE, et al. Diffuse osteopenia and myelopathy in a puppy fed a diet composed of an organic pre-mix and raw ground beef. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2009;234:1041- 1048.
- Dillitzer N, Becker N, Kienzle E. Intake of minerals, trace elements and vitamins in bone and raw food rations in adults dogs. Br J Nutr 2011;106:S53-S56.