If you are considering feeding your dog raw food, you may be a bit overwhelmed by the choices available. Which diet should I choose? Do they really live up to the manufacturer’s claims? What about the risks of raw meat? We’ve put together this summary of the important information you need to know about choosing a raw dog food.
What Is Raw Dog Food?
As the name suggests, feeding your dog raw food involves giving them a diet that has not been cooked. This is generally a blend of meat, offal, and vegetables, though manufacturers often emphasize the high protein content as a selling point.
There are two common types of raw dog food that you can buy:
- Frozen – where ingredients have been mixed and then kept below freezing to reduce spoilage
- Freeze-Dried – where ingredients have the moisture removed to help preserve them. This process changes the appearance of the ingredients, but there is no heating involved, so the food is still considered raw.
Some people also opt to feed their dogs a home-prepared raw diet, but this is not recommended. Numerous studies have shown that recipes for such meals (either online or in books) are unbalanced, and often have low levels of many important nutrients.
Some manufacturers claim that raw food will improve your dog’s coat or their dental health. Raw diets are often high in fat, which theoretically could improve your dog’s coat if their old diet had lower levels of essential fatty acids. There is some evidence that chewing on bones will reduce the amount of tartar or plaque on dogs’ teeth, though evidence suggests that this does not improve the health of the teeth below the gumline, so periodontal disease is still, of course, possible. As with any diet, It is important to get regular dental checks with your veterinarian, even if your dog’s teeth appear clean.
Risks of Raw Dog Food
There are some known risks involved in feeding raw diets. Many studies find that 20% – 60% of commercial raw dog food diets are contaminated with dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, or Campylobacter. Thankfully, issues are rare, but infections that do arise can lead to severe illness, sepsis, and death in both dogs and humans (from handling the contaminated food and interacting with their infected dog). Dog owners should appropriately weigh this risk, especially if there are immuno-compromised people in the household. It is also worth noting that the freeze-drying process does kill off some bacteria, so those foods may pose less of a risk.
Handling Raw Dog Food
If you do choose to feed your dog raw food, be very careful about preparing it. Following the steps below will reduce the risk of humans catching bacteria from the raw food.
- Always wash your hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap after preparing raw food.
- Clean and disinfect food bowls, utensils, and surfaces that have touched the raw food immediately after feeding.
- Store raw dog food well away from human food, and do not prepare it in the same place that you prepare human food.
How to Choose a Healthy Raw Dog Food
It is very important to be careful when selecting any food for your dog, and that goes for raw as much as any other diet! A lot of the information on the packaging or the website will be advertising, but it is important to look past that to the details that matter.
A Balanced Diet
The most important thing when choosing a diet is to make sure that it will provide all the nutrients your dog needs. Various studies have suggested that some commercial raw dog foods have struggled to achieve this in the past, so it is especially important for us to consider here.
If you live in the U.S. or Canada, then pet food is regulated by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). They offer three different ways that manufacturers can prove that their food offers a balanced diet:
- Formulate it to meet the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles
- Put it through an animal feeding test
- Formulate it to be the same as another diet that has been through a feeding test
You should be able to find out which of these standards a food meets by looking on the packet, or by checking the manufacturer’s website. Some diets will say that they are “intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only.” This means that they are not balanced food, and should not be your dog’s main diet. It is fine to feed a little of these, but they should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily food, by weight.
Right for Their Age
It won’t surprise you to hear that different age dogs have different nutritional needs.
There are four different “life stages” recognized by AAFCO:
- All Life Stages
- Growth (puppies)
- Maintenance (adult dogs)
- Gestation/Lactation (pregnant or nursing dogs)
If a diet is designed for Growth or All Life Stages, then it should specify if it can be fed to puppies who will be over 70lbs as adults, as they have slightly different needs from smaller puppies.
Always choose a diet that is right for your dog’s life stage. Otherwise, the diet may not contain everything they need.
Formulated by Experts
Creating a balanced dog diet is a complicated process. The AAFCO Nutrient Profiles will offer guidance on paper, but there are subtle differences in how ingredients behave under certain conditions, or when they are mixed with other ingredients. Therefore, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association recommends that diets should only be formulated by experts, i.e., either veterinarians who are board-certified in nutrition or scientists with a PhD in Animal Nutrition.
Regular veterinarians can give you personalized diet recommendations, but they are not trained to create diets themselves. Many people will also call themselves “pet nutritionists,” but this is not a protected title, so look at their qualifications instead (like DAVCN, which is an actual Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition).
To find out if a company employs the right kind of experts, check out their website.
Nothing Too Exotic
Some manufacturers will advertise that their diets contain unusual ingredients, sometimes with a claimed health benefit. However, it’s best to be cautious with these kinds of foods. Scientists have less information available on these more unusual ingredients, so there may be a higher risk of a diet being unintentionally unbalanced if it uses this kind of food.
Should I Choose Organic?
Some raw food manufacturers will advertise that they use organic ingredients. However, there is no scientific evidence that organic ingredients are better for our pets than regular ingredients, or that this approach reduces the risk from bacteria in raw food. Feeding organic food is, therefore, a personal choice.
Should I Choose Human-Grade?
Human-grade food is now advertised in many premium pet foods, including raw food. There is currently no scientific evidence to show that human-grade food is safer for your pet, but it does suggest that some care is being taken when choosing ingredients. There is also no evidence that it reduces the risk from bacteria in raw diets.
The most important thing when choosing a diet is to make sure it will meet all your dog’s nutritional needs. Raw dog food does come with some risks, both for pets and their parents, which should be considered. If you decide to feed raw, then choosing a well-formulated, expert-approved diet made from sensible ingredients should provide your dog with everything they need.