By Megan Richman, D.V.M.
What is a raw diet?
Raw diets, also known as raw meat-based diets (RMBDs), are composed of uncooked ingredients derived from wild-caught or domesticated food animals. This can include internal organs, skeletal muscles, and bones from poultry, fish, or mammals. It can also include uncooked eggs and unpasteurized milk products. The RMBDs are either commercially produced or homemade. Commercial RMBDs are typically frozen, freeze-dried, or fresh, with the intention of being nutritionally balanced. Homemade raw diets usually consist of raw muscle meat and bones with the meat on them, in addition to vegetables and fruits.
Are raw food diets healthier for my animal?
This question can be controversial depending on who you ask. Raw food producers will claim this is the best food you can feed your pet. But veterinarians, i.e. the professionals on the subject, are very opposed to these diets. An RMBD sounds lovely in theory since it is composed of ‘natural’ ingredients. However, there is a severe lack of scientific evidence that shows any health benefit to feeding your pet an RMBD. In fact, the American Animal Hospital Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, and Canadian Veterinary Medical Association have all adopted statements that highly discourage the RMBDs and the inclusion of raw or undercooked animal source proteins in dog and cat diets. Zero studies have been performed looking at the long-term benefits and risks of feeding an RMBD.
Can my pet get a bacterial infection from eating a raw diet?
YES 100%. Just like in our kitchen or at restaurants, raw meat products are likely to carry bacteria. These products pose a health risk not only to the pet that eats them but also to the owner.
Any person or animal that comes in contact with the food preparation area can be exposed to bacteria.
A study performed on commercially available raw meat diets for dogs showed that 53% were contaminated with non-type specific E. coli (NTSEC). 6% of diets were contaminated with Salmonella enterica. This can have significant health consequences on you and your pets.
Animals eating raw diets shed these bacteria (Salmonella, E. coli) as well as others isolated in feces (Clostridium). In one study, 50% of dogs fed a single meal of contaminated raw food shed Salmonella in their feces for up to 1 week.
In an additional study conducted at a Greyhound breeding facility where the dogs were fed RMBDs, Salmonella enterica was recovered from 66% of all samples types (fecal, food and environmental), in addition to 93% of fecal samples. Several different strains of Salmonella were recovered from raw meat fed on the first day of the study; it was concluded that Salmonella enterica infections and environmental contamination were common at this facility, with a large portion likely due to the introduction of an RMBD.
Moreover, bacteria such as Clostridium are a great health risk to the animals eating the diet in addition to the people in the household. Clostridium is particularly dangerous to those who are pregnant, old, young or immunosuppressed.
A recent study found that 16% of samples from raw meat-based diets were contaminated with Listeria, another dangerous health risk to both humans and animals.
A study performed in Canada found that 21% of all raw meat diets were contaminated with Salmonella, and that these bacteria were resistant to approximately 75% of antibiotics tested.
Most bacteria found in raw meat diets can easily survive freezing and dry freezing. Even meats purchased at high quality, expensive grocery stores are not exempt from the health risks that come along with uncooked meats. Think about it this way — would you eat raw chicken or raw ground beef?
What are the potential health concerns for RMBDs?
Think about what happens when you or your family member gets served raw chicken or bad sushi — not a pretty picture. Health problems reported with these pet diets include:
- Bones blocking or tearing the esophagus, stomach, or intestine
- Fractured teeth
- Gastroenteritis (inflamed stomach and intestinal tract)
- Pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas — and you do not want to anger this organ or it can lead to a hospital stay for your pet)
My dog descends from wolves — my cat descends from lions! So why shouldn’t my animal eat what they ate?
Depends if you want your dog or cat to outlive a typical wolf or lion. While wolves in the wild do eat raw meat, berries, and plants, unfortunately, their average lifespan is only a few years.
Given that we all love our animals very much and want to have them in our lives for as long as possible, it is not optimal nor recommended for our pets to eat this way. Wolves and dogs evolved in different directions thousands of years ago when dogs became domesticated. Researchers have found strong evidence that dogs genetically adapted eating diets of cooked meat and starches as they became domesticated. Therefore, feeding your dog solely raw meat in the mindset that he/she is a docile wolf, is not optimal for you or your pet.
Are raw meat diets balanced?
Negative my friend. Most raw diets are extremely deficient in some very important electrolytes and nutrients. The addition of bones, chicken necks, veggies, fruits and eggshells to the raw meat does not create a balanced diet.
A common nutritional deficiency seen in RMBD is calcium. Calcium is critical to proper muscle function, strong bones and teeth, nerve impulse and transmission, clotting, and regulation of cells.
Decreased levels of calcium (hypocalcemia) can cause clinical signs of tremors, persistently itchy face, muscle spasms, and seizures. When severe enough, you may need to take your animal to a local emergency clinic before they progress to more severe signs. This deficiency can lead to disastrous issues with growing animals and can result in fractured bones.
Board-certified veterinary nutritionists at the UC Davis Veterinary School of Medicine just published a study evaluating over 100 popular raw meat-based recipes for cats.
Many of these diets called for raw animal products without mentioning the risks of bacterial contamination, or included bones but did not mention the importance of grinding them to prevent stomach or intestinal tears.
In this same study, 7% of recipes called for ingredients that could be toxic to cats — onions, leeks, garlic powder. Moral of the story — please be careful!
Okay, I get it, I shouldn’t feed my pet a raw meat based diet, but I still want to feed them meat: How can I avoid these health risks to my animal and my household?
Thank you for listening to science! The easiest way to do this is to just cook the meat! I highly recommend feeding commercial diets approved by veterinary board-certified nutritionists. All board-certified diets will have undergone clinical trials and are Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) certified. Board-certified diets are balanced to give your pet the optimal diet. Board-certified Brands include Purina, Iams, Royal Canin, and Eukanuba. If you are 100% set on feeding your pet a home cooked diet, the only way to make sure it is nutritionally balanced would be to go over it during an appointment with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist! Please do not google home cooked pet diet on Dr. Google. A lot of these search results are significantly imbalanced and may lead to minor or major health problems.
Dr. Larsen, a UC Davis board-certified veterinary nutritionist said it best — “Homemade diets are not necessarily better. If you are going to use one, you have to make sure you do it safely and they should be balanced and appropriate.”
Please keep in mind I am not criticizing those that feed raw meat based diets; however, I do want to inform the general public and those that may be feeding the diets without truly knowing the associated risks involved. We all just want what is best for the animals!
About the Author
Megan Richman is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, obtaining her DVM from UC Davis in 2019. She practices veterinary medicine at Pet Emergency and Specialty Center in the greater San Diego area.
This blog post is sponsored by Fluxergy. We are bringing our point of care PCR device to the veterinary market.