What is Raw Diet?

Feeding raw diets or BARF (Biologically appropriate raw foods) is increasingly popular amongst dog owners. Feeding a raw diet is controversial and not recommended by many authoritative veterinary associations. This is because of the lack of proof it is beneficial and the risk of infection, especially to people. 

Those in favor of a raw food diet argue the diet is similar to what a dog would eat in the wild. Those against raw foods reason that wild dogs have a shorter life expectancy than our pet dogs. 

In addition, veterinary nutritionists have found many BARF diet recipes to be lacking in essential micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, (in particular the calcium to phosphorus ratio) and inadequately balanced for long term health. Thus, any short term benefits could come at a price in the longer term. 

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Raw Diet Procedure in Dogs

Feeding a raw diet involves careful research to find balanced recipes, approved by a veterinary nutritionist. The latter is important or the dog may suffer long term deficiency diseases. 

The owner can either source raw meat (as per the recipe) from a butcher, or purchased packs of frozen meat designed for BARF feeding. As well as giving meat protein, it is important to include offal, organs, and bones for nutritional balance, plus fresh vegetables and fruit.

For any change of diet, but especially when transitioning from processed foods to raw, the dog must be changed over gradually. To do this, add in raw food to the dog's existing diet, and over several days to a couple of weeks, decrease the amount of commercial food and increase that of the raw. This allows the intestinal bacteria to adjust to digesting a diet high in raw ingredients. 

Be vigilant for vomiting and diarrhea. Be aware that raw meats often contain listeria or salmonella. Thus if the dog has a digestive upset it is best to get them seen by a vet, and in addition be extremely careful to wash your hands before putting anything in your mouth. 

Efficacy of Raw Diet in Dogs

Many proponents of raw dog food cite an improvement in their dog's coat, feces quality, and dental health. 

With regards to improved feces, this is often due to the restricted ingredients which has eliminated foods to which the dog was allergic or sensitive. Therefore the results are real, but might equally be obtained by sourcing a commercial food that lacked those ingredients. 

In addition, there is a risk of inducing health problems as a direct result of feeding raw food. These include: 

  • Broken teeth: From chewing on raw bones 
  • Digestive upsets: From salmonella or listeria found in raw meat 
  • Healthy excretors of Salmonella: Not all dogs become ill, but will excrete salmonella in their feces. This poses a risk to people, especially those with weak immune systems. 
  • Bone impactions: Splinters of bone may knit together in the bowel to form an impaction, and bone splinters can penetrate the gut wall and cause peritonitis. 

Raw Diet Recovery in Dogs

A gradual change from commercial diets to raw foods is essential. 

In cases where a dietary allergen is eliminated by feeding a raw food diet, it can take up to eight weeks for the bowel inflammation to settle and the benefits in terms of stool and coat quality be seen. 

With regards to dental health, it takes weeks or months of chewing for existing tartar to be scoured away and the clean teeth exposed. Some caution should be exercised if the dog has pre-existing gum inflammation or periodontal disease. Heavy chewing could further inflame the gums and provide an entry point for bacteria from the dirty mouth to enter the bloodstream and cause sepsis. 

Cost of Raw Diet in Dogs

The cost of feeding a raw diet varies depending on the source of the meat. Feeding good quality meat usually works out similar in cost to purchasing a top end commercial diet. When feeding budget cuts of meats and offal, the cost is often less than a commercial diet.

However, it should be remembered that intensively reared animals (those in the cheaper meats) are more likely to carry salmonella or listeria. With this in mind, the gold standard is to feed meat and offcuts from organically grown meat, which is considerably more expensive. 

It should be noted that freezing does not kill many types of bacterium that pose a risk of infection to people and animals. Thus purchasing pre-packed frozen raw meat, or placing cheaper meats in the freezer, does nothing to improve their inherent hygiene. 

Dog Raw Diet Considerations

There are arguments for and against feeding raw diets. Many people cite the high grain content in commercial dog food and argue dogs were never designed to eat grain. Whilst owners need to be savvy about the quality and quantity of grains in dog foods, it is not true to say dogs should not eat grains. 

A dog's digestion is more highly evolved than that of the early wolf ancestors. In addition, when a wolf made a kill they ate all parts of the carcass including the gut contents from grazing and herbivorous animals, hence exposing them to grains. 

Studies also show us that 25% of raw food samples contained salmonella or listeria. These are serious infections which are transmissible to people. Handling raw meat or feces from dogs eating raw diets, exposes the owner to a risk of infection. This is especially true for those with weaker immune systems such as the young, elderly, or those on chemotherapy. Indeed, it is this reason that many major veterinary associations advise against feeding raw foods. 

Raw Diet Prevention in Dogs

Whilst claims for the benefits of feeding raw diets are persuasive, it is important to know that to date there is no one single scientific study that backs up the claims made for BARF diets. In addition, raw foods represent a considerable risk of infection to both dog and owner. 

It is also salient to remember that although raw meats are claimed to be closer to the diet nature intended, those wild dogs eating such a diet have shorter life expectancies that pet dogs fed a premium commercial food. 

Currently many major veterinary organizations from the US, UK, and Canada do not recommend the feeding of raw diets to dogs.