It may surprise you to hear that what you choose to feed your dog is a hugely emotive subject, which sparks huge online debates, anger and even trolling. One aspect of that heated debate concerns one of the fastest-growing trends in dog ownership: the feeding of a raw meat diet.
Proponents of a ‘raw diet’ are often evangelical about the purported health benefits, believing it to be more ‘natural’, that it is closer to the ‘ancestral’ diet of the dogs, and claiming that it is how wolves eat in the wild.
Most people choose to feed their pets a complete commercial cooked diet, as it ensures they receive the right balance of nutrients, vitamins and calories. These would include the typical bags of dog food you find in pet shops and supermarkets. While some brands are better than others, these diets have been developed by scientists and tailored to the lifestyle, size, age and activity level of various dog breeds. Some of these diets are even adapted to manage certain medical conditions, such as allergies, or kidney disease.
There are no proven benefits to feeding raw meat to your dog over a good quality commercial pet food. There are also major flaws with the logic and beliefs behind the raw feeding movement, which puts it firmly into the pseudoscientific camp.
Firstly, when it comes to being more ‘natural’, we need to understand that pet dogs are not merely tamed wolves, but genetically very different creatures.
Secondly, much of this movement is based on a conspiracy theory that vets and dog food manufacturers are deliberately making your pet sick so they can make more money treating diseases.
Dogs are not tame wolves
The domestication of dogs started between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago, with genetic sequencing suggesting that dogs split from their wolf ancestors between these periods. Hunter-gathers used dogs to help them hunt and for protection, although there is evidence of dogs being buried alongside humans, suggesting that they were also valued companions – or pets.
As humans and their domesticated dogs left their nomadic lifestyles and started farming during the agricultural revolution 11,000 years ago, their diets radically changed. During this period, the genetics, biochemistry and digestive tracts of dogs adapted to the change in available food sources: they evolved from being mostly carnivorous to being omnivorous.
Crucially, dogs are not direct descendants of the modern-day grey wolf – instead, they share a common ancestor. The process of domestication has changed the dog genome in several ways, including their ability to digest cereal crops such as wheat.
A big difference between wolves and dogs is the dog’s ability to easily digest the carbohydrate starch. Unlike wolves, dogs produce large quantities of the digestive enzyme amylase, which enables them to break down starch, making it a valuable source of nutrition.
There’s no conspiracy to make pets sick
When it comes to the conspiracy theorists, it is difficult to engage in constructive dialogue with people who believe that vets, universities and pet food manufacturers are in cahoots to make pets sick in order to make more profit. They propagate the myth that vets receive no training on digestion or nutrition, and even suggest we are being given backhanders by pet food manufacturers. The belief that an entire industry of thousands of dedicated professionals, who have taken an oath to care for the animals under their care, are actively making pets ill to make more profit is clearly absurd.
Dog owners who feed raw diets clearly care very much for the health of their pet, however in a survey only 1% of owners acknowledged the possibility of health risks associated with raw feeding. Raw meat can be contaminated with parasites, protozoa and bacteria including E. Coli and Salmonella. These have the potential to make both dogs and their human owners very sick: there are reports of raw feeding leading to deaths of animals and their owners. It is easy to see how cross-infection between dogs and humans occurs: a dog eating raw, contaminated meat and then licking the hands or face of an adult or child could easily pass dangerous bacteria between people.
Although good hygiene practices help, it can be hard to avoid this completely. A recent study found that standard methods of cleaning and disinfecting food bowls were minimally effective at eliminating Salmonella, including soaking with bleach and cleaning in a dishwasher.
Additionally, raw feeding has been linked to nutritional imbalances, gastrointestinal issues and antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. Public Health bodies warn against the risks to human health in feeding raw food. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention “antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest public health challenges of our time.” Concerningly in one study looking into raw-frozen samples they found that they all carried bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics.
While one demonstrated health benefit of raw feeding is that raw bones given as chews reduce the build up of calculus on teeth, this benefit has not yet been followed up with an assessment of dental health at sub-gingival level, which is a more appropriate indicator of true dental health. Reduction of calculus does not translate into reduced periodontal disease, and rather concerningly, increases in tooth fractures were found when eating bones. It is also not uncommon for bones to cause obstructions or perforations of the gastrointestinal tract which require an enterotomy to treat. This is invasive surgery requiring a general anaesthetic and carries the risk of peritonitis and other complications. Given the weak evidence of any benefits, veterinary professionals should be cautious when recommending raw bones to support dental health in dogs.
Engaging with raw feeders
Vets should be clear with owners that it is possible to create a raw diet for dogs that is nutritionally balanced for their needs, but it should be based on accurate understanding of domestic dog genetics and modern nutritional science. Creating a homemade raw diet takes care, time and effort to get the balance right, and many owners are more than willing to do this. However, the risks to both animals and humans must not be understated or dismissed, especially as there are no proven benefits to feeding a raw diet over a good quality commercial diet.
It is hugely important that when giving nutritional advice, vets take the time to understand owners’ belief systems, their values, and their motivations for feeding raw diets, and meet them at their point of need and understanding.
Whether feeding a raw diet, a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet to pets, these decisions tend to be made to in accordance with the belief systems and values of the owners, rather than primarily for the health benefit of their pets.
Humans are free to make their own lifestyle choice to eat a more ‘natural’ paleo diet if they choose to. However, our pets are entirely dependent on us to make dietary choices for them. It is therefore unethical to inflict onto them potentially dangerous diets that have no proven benefits. They have no say in the matter.