Are raw dog food diets for me?

So, really, is raw meat good for dogs? When you decide to bring a dog home, you will be faced with a number of decisions about health and well-being that at times can become overwhelming. One of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is what sort of diet to feed your dog. Diet options are in a wide range, from traditional kibble, fresh, cooked food, and a raw diet. Raw meat-based diets have been gaining popularity among owners recently. To give you an idea, the number of owners feeding raw diets has increased about 15% per year over the past few years, and from 15 to 25% of dogs are fed raw diets. As these figures are currently rising you may be asking yourself whether providing a raw diet to your dog is a good idea.

Typical raw dog diets consist of organ and muscle meat and bone sourced from other animals, as well as raw eggs, dairy, and raw vegetables. As with any diet there are pros and cons that we will outline, for you on this article.

We will cover some important issues about dog raw diets that will help you decide if it is the best option for you and your dogs:

What are some drawbacks of raw feeding dogs? (CONS)
Feeding your dog raw: Now for the positives! (PROS)
Avoiding the risks of feeding your dog raw food
Slightly cooking your dog’s raw food
The best method to (lightly) cook raw meat for your dog
How about puppies eating raw meat?
Raw bones for dogs

What are some drawbacks of raw feeding dogs?

One of the largest drawbacks to feeding raw food is that it can be very difficult to ensure this diet meets your pet’s nutritional demands.

While traditional commercial pet food is tailored to meet the health needs of the common dog, raw diets require much more management and manipulation on the part of the owner to ensure you are meeting your pet’s needs. Mere meat and bones alone will not provide your pet with enough nutrients to get by, and while some raw food companies combat this by including nutritional additives in their feed, this is not always the case.

Raw dog food can be a hassle to prepare and generally are quite a bit more expensive than traditional pet food. While you do not have to physically cook the food (hence the term “raw”), it still requires extra time to chop and prepare compared to simply scooping kibble into a bowl.

Dogs have been eating meat for thousands of years but also have the capacity to digest some carbohydrates (like those contained in carrots)
Raw food for your dog include a variety of ingredients but it is almost always referred to as dogs’ ancestral natural food: meat

In addition to nutritional requirements, cost, and convenience, another huge potential problem with raw dog diet is the safety of both the pet and humans in the household. Since raw food is uncooked, the opportunities for bacteria to infiltrate into the animal’s system or you the owner from handling the food are plentiful. Most people who feed their dogs raw food are conscientious of this danger and practice good hygiene practices or purchase raw dog food from established and legit companies that obtain their ingredients from safe sources. Nonetheless, the danger still exists especially with immunocompromised (depressed immune system) or elderly dogs and owners. The source of raw ingredients (in case you are directly buying them to assemble your dog food) is also a critical point to consider.

Salmonella is one of the most common food poisoning bacteria in meat (and other foodstuff). Bacteria can produce toxins that could potentially make your dog sick
Salmonella is one of the most common food poisoning bacteria in meat (and other foodstuffs)

Feeding your dog raw: Now for the positives!

Many people think dogs and gray wolves are separate species. Scientists not so long established that dogs and wolves are subspecies (a division within a species), which in simple terms means they are the same species. Actually, you can see this in the scientific names:

Gray wolf = Canis lupus

Dog = Canis lupus familiaris!

(the word familiaris is just the difference in animal taxonomical terms).
Dogs and wolves are just the same species (dogs have been just domesticated for humans through many centuries). Images courtesy of Taylor (wolf) and Josef Reckziegel (dog) at Unsplash

Wolves are hunters, scavengers, and carcass eaters. Modern dogs are used to eating whatever humans cater them (some proper and some inappropriate foodstuff), but never forget, in their instincts dogs are actually “civilized” wolves. Therefore they highly enjoy raw food.

Raw meat and organs are considered to be the closest possible food to the ancestral dogs, as wolves, used to have. This alignment is extremely appealing to owners. Mimicking our pet’s natural and ancestral environment and lifestyle as closely as possible is thought to help comfort them (this is what we call enrichment). Taking this even further, mimicking our pet’s natural diet has medical benefits as well. The microflora in our pet’s digestive tract thrives on the ingredients of their natural raw diet, as that is what their digestive tract was specifically designed to eat. This suggests that raw food can actually help improve gut motility and health in our pets. Raw meat has bioavailable (ready and easy to use by the body) vitamins and minerals.

In addition to the ancestral relationship and gastrointestinal benefits of raw dog food, this approach can be a solid option for a pet with a food allergy to ingredients commonly found in commercial dog foods. One example is chicken, which may produce alimentary allergies in some dogs. While hypoallergenic commercial dog foods with poultry alternatives do exist, they often come at a higher price. Furthermore, owners can feel more confident in ensuring they are avoiding allergens by simply feeding pets with raw diets.

Important cautionary tip: If your dog is not allergic to chicken, remember to privilege boneless chicken as chicken bones splinter easily and can get stuck or puncture the gastrointestinal tract, (you can always remove the bones in advance during preparation).

Meat has tones of molecules bioavailable to dogs

Finally, on the pros, raw dog food provides medical benefits for our pets beyond improved gastrointestinal function. Dogs fed raw diets generally have less of a problem with obesity and lethargy. Further, they often have a superior dental quality to animals on commercial diets. This is likely due to teeth cleaning themselves via grinding up the bones in the diets (more about this later in the article). Lastly, dogs on raw diets usually have healthier-looking coats, possibly due to the omega-3s found in muscles and organs.

Okay, I’m sold. But how do I avoid the risks?

If you’ve made it this far, you probably can see already that raw feeding your dogs definitely have their place in today’s lifestyles. Dog raw diets offer some wonderful benefits for our pets. However, they do come at a cost. As mentioned previously, feeding raw food is generally more expensive and less convenient than traditional diets. While the expense of raw diets can be difficult to fight, the inconvenience can be lessened by “meal prepping” for your pet and freezing portions in aliquots for the week. This lessens the burden of chopping and preparing food for each meal.

For convenience raw food for your dog can be made into portions and frozen. Vacuum sealing provides a longer shelf life and freshness

Regarding the safety issues of raw foodstuff, there are some methods available to avoid them. For starters, hygiene and handling of the food are key.

When preparing your pet’s food, treat the raw meat as you would anytime you were preparing your own food. Separate utensils for raw vs cooked meat, clean all surfaces thoroughly, etc. If possible, wash and pre-treat raw products and ingredients with a non-toxic antiseptic solution. A really cheap and effective antiseptic solution can be made by adding two tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar (whatever you have at hand) to 4 cups of water. You can dip the raw food you are preparing for some 3 to 5 minutes in this solution to kill most bacteria that happen to be on the surface of the food.

Use rubber gloves to protect yourself. Finally, lightly cooking the food is an option to reduce some of the bacterial load that might be present. If you choose to lightly cook the food, be sure to avoid overcooking, as many of the medical benefits of raw diets depend on the diets still being largely raw and undercooked.

What if I want to slightly cook my dog raw food?

Meat has many of the nutrients a dog needs. However since dogs have evolved along with human beings for already millennia, they have developed enzymes to digest some forms of carbohydrates. Therefore some raw vegetables can supplement your dog’s diet. Raw meat is highly proteic and has fat contents to both meet your dog’s daily protein and fat requirements. Glucogen is one of the main carbohydrates for fast glucose (energy) access.

Water-soluble vitamins in meat basically include the B group (Thiamine or B1, riboflavin or B2, nicotinic acid, cobalamin, or B12).

Although water-soluble Vitamin C is mandatory for dogs’ health, meat is low on vitamin C. Therefore, dogs rely on building their own vitamin C in their liver.

Fat-soluble vitamins in meat include retinol (vitamin A), calciferol (vitamin D), tocopherol (vitamin E). Fat-soluble vitamin K is higher in liver and chicken meat.

Meat has water and fat-soluble vitamins. In general, water-soluble vitamins are less stable to heat (therefore are commonly lost during cooking)

Minerals in meat include calcium, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus. But perhaps the most important are copper, zinc, and iron. Iron in particular is present in a form called heme (iron in a heme carbon ring). Iron is required to make hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the red blood cells (actually iron highly contributes to the color of blood). Heme iron is highly bioavailable (usable) and prevents anemia in mammals.

When lightly cooking meat the goal is to kill possible present bacteria while keeping vitamins and minerals intact. The most heat sensible vitamins are water-soluble. Of the water-soluble vitamins in meat, the most sensitive to heat is thiamine (B1). The most resistant is vitamin B12. In general water-soluble vitamins can be considerably reduced in meat during cooking because either heat destroys them or they (being water-soluble) leach from meat in the juice or broth produced during cooking. Fat-soluble vitamins are more resistant to heat (but get destroyed with high heat like for instance frying at 180 oC). Fat-soluble vitamins also drip into melted fat during the cooking of meat.

Minerals (except iron and zinc, and perhaps cupper) drip into the meat broth during cooking. You may already be thinking (rightly) that the broth produced during meat cooking will have an important content of vitamins and minerals. Therefore don’t throw it away, and give it to your dog!

Considering heat destroys or makes vitamins go away when you go on and decide you want to lightly cook your dog raw food you will have to consider the best type of cooking and the appropriate time.

A distinction can be made between fresh and raw dog food, fresh meaning lightly cooked

AnimalHackers

What is the best method to (lightly) cook raw meat for your dog? 

Of several cooking methods tested, steaming is the one that better preserves vitamins. So probably you ask yourself for how long to cook so that harmful bacteria becomes destroyed without compromising vitamins and minerals. Most meat contaminating bacteria will be killed at 60 oC (140 oF). This is the pasteurizing temperature point. What you want to achieve is reaching that temperature at the core of the meat chunk. Obviously, the thicker the meat piece the longer it will take heat to reach the central part.

Depending on the size of the meat chunk, steaming will be enough for light cooking in between 3 to 10 minutes. Ideally, you should check the core temperature with a meat thermometer and take the meat out of the steaming process after reaching 60 oC (140 oF). You can also try quick-cooking (3 minutes) in a wok which will provide light cooking as well. The trick is to verify that the core of what you are cooking reaches the correct temperature and stop cooking at that exact time.

If you are afraid the nutritional content of raw food suffers after cooking you can always supplement your dog food with vitamins. Tip: water-soluble vitamins (B group and C) which are very sensitive to heat are difficult to overdose your dog in case you decide to supplement. Just following the recommendations of the manufacturer of a high-quality dog vitamin supplement will bring extra benefits for your dog.

You could also consider freeze-dried dog food. Freeze-dried food has the same advantages as raw food (regarding nutrient quantity and quality). Additionally, it is more convenient and has a longer shelflife. It is commonly used as treats for your dog or food for your puppies …. speaking of what ….

How about puppies eating raw meat?

Puppies should be weaned at about 3 to 4 weeks of age. It is perfectly right to feed your puppy with high-quality raw food. This brings several advantages such as a wider bioavailability of nutrients that allow for a natural growth rate with stronger bones. At this age,  the nervous system of your puppy is developing and raw foods highly contribute to the process (which will make training and behavior easier to handle). As with adult dogs, healthy bacteria thrive in your puppy gut when they are under a raw diet, which in turn (among other benefits) provides a very strong immune system (more resistance to infectious disease and fewer allergies).

Puppies eating raw foods (after weaning) grow at a much-controlled pace than those fed with other diets. Image courtesy of Berkay Gumustekin from Unsplash

Raw bones for dogs

Raw bones are a way to supplement some minerals to your dog (calcium and phosphorus) while keeping them entertained for quite a while (this could be one of the resources for anxious dogs). However, cooked or small (smaller than the dog mouth width) bones are a don’t. Cooked bones become brittle during the cooking process and can puncture any part of your dog’s digestive system. Dogs should be supervised while they are chewing bones to check the bones are not disintegrating into potentially harmful splinters. Bones can be offered to dogs for short periods (suggestion 20 minutes sessions) and may be stored in the refrigerator for some days.

Raw bones can be given to dogs for chewing, provided they are bigger than your dog’s mouth and do not splint easily (like cooked or pork bones). Image courtesy of Maria di Lorenzo from Unsplash

Hopefully, after reading this article, you will have a better idea about the complex issue of feeding raw diets to your dog. While the drawbacks are very clear, there are also clear and firm workarounds to ensure feeding raw is a healthy, smooth process for both you and your furry companion. Should you choose to take on a raw diet, we hope you will see a true difference in your pet. By mimicking their ancestral diet, we can provide our pets with a stronger gastrointestinal tract, greater skin quality, superior dental quality, and help avoid chronic allergens some of our pets face in commercial foods. All of these qualities together can make a world of difference and add to our pet’s quality of life.

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