Q: I've heard a lot about raw dog food, but it seems pricey. Is it safe? Are the health benefits substantial?
A: Raw diets for dogs (including raw meat) have become increasingly popular. Some pet owners -- even some veterinarians -- swear by them, convinced that raw food more closely resembles the diet eaten by our pets' wild cousins. And some pet owners are nervous about recalls of popular dog food brands contaminated with bacteria and other toxic substances. So what's best for our dogs?
I think raw-food diets are unnecessary at best, and high-risk at worst.
Raw diets are more expensive than commercially produced foods. WebMD.com estimates a frozen, commercially available raw diet might range from $2.50 to $5 a day for a 30-pound dog, versus a dollar a day for a super-premium dry kibble.
However, two problems with raw diets outweigh cost -- food safety and nutritional balance. Purported benefits are anecdotal, with few rigorous studies addressing claims that raw diets are better for reducing obesity, dental disease and allergies; promoting healthier coats and skin; or boosting immunity. And the truth is, wild animals rarely live as long and healthy lives as most of our pets do.
Lisa M. Freeman, D.V.M., a nutrition professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, evaluated three homemade and two commercially available raw diets in a 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association. According to the results, all five had nutritional imbalances that could cause serious long-term health problems. And many of the potential benefits were found to be the result of the typical raw diet's high fat composition. High-fat commercial foods (or nutritional supplements) would produce the same result without risking an unbalanced diet.
By contrast, we already know a great deal about the food-poisoning risks associated with handling raw meat. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine both warn of the risk of salmonella, E. coli and other bacteria lurking in raw-diet ingredients (including meat and eggs) that haven't been cooked or treated to kill disease-causing agents that can affect both pets and humans.
Assorted major veterinary professional groups, including the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists, American Animal Hospital Association and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), also discourage raw-food diets for the same reasons.
Raw-diet advocates point out that consumers should simply observe the same food-hygiene precautions they do when preparing their own chicken and steak dinners. But our meats are cooked, so all we have to do is take care in cleaning up utensils, cutting boards and countertops. If we're serving raw meat to our dogs, every surface those meats touch has to be thoroughly sterilized -- after every single meal.
AVMA says studies have found that 30 percent to 50 percent of both commercially prepared and homemade raw-meat diets were contaminated with disease-causing organisms that can be passed to humans by contact with the food itself, the pet or environmental surfaces: "A disturbing number of these organisms have proven resistant to multiple antimicrobials." And dogs eating raw meat may shed those pathogens in their stools. People most endangered by exposure to those bacteria are the very young, the elderly and those who are immune-compromised.
The New York Times reported in its "Well" blog that some makers of commercial raw-food diets claim to prevent contamination through high-pressure processing that eliminates harmful pathogens. One brand, Stella & Chewy's, says it sends batches of its food to independent labs for testing, with results available on the company's website.
But there are other risks beyond contamination, since many raw diets include bones, which when chewed and swallowed may cause intestinal obstruction, perforation, gastroenteritis and fractured teeth. Your dog could end up needing emergency surgery and even die after ingesting bones or fragments.
Dog owners wary of commercial kibble and canned food can home-cook for their dogs after consultation with a veterinary nutritionist to make sure their homemade diet is balanced. A more convenient alternative is to start with a top-quality commercial dry food and supplement it with appropriate servings of healthful, fresh organic vegetables and fruits (avoiding anything containing ingredients known to be toxic to dogs, including grapes and raisins, onions, garlic, avocados, chocolate, caffeine, coffee, macadamia nuts, high salt content and artificial sweetener xylitol). Your veterinarian should be able to give you additional guidance.