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Raw Dog Food: Dietary Concerns, Benefits, and Risks

Are raw food diets for dogs an ideal meal plan or a dangerous fad? Experts weigh in.
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Raw dog food diet: What it is continued...

“The change in the coat was pretty immediate,” Benjamin-Creel says. “Also, their breath was much better.”

Benjamin-Creel makes the food herself, giving yogurt in the morning and raw ground pork, turkey, or beef mixed with some rice in the evening. To cut costs, she stocks up on ground meat when it’s on sale. “It’s not cheap,” she says, “but I think we’ve avoided a lot of old-age issues.”

The cost of a raw dog food diet varies with the ingredients used and how it is prepared. For a 30-pound dog, a one-day supply of one variety of a frozen, commercially available raw chicken diet costs about $2.50; others may range up to $5 a day. A super-premium, commercial dry dog food costs about $1.

Raw Dog Food Diet: What the research shows

Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, headed an evaluation of raw dog food diets published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association in 2001. She cautions pet owners against them, saying that many dog owners are choosing raw diets based on online myths and scare tactics about commercial pet food.

For pet owners who want to avoid commercial food, Freeman advises a cooked homemade diet designed by a nutritionist certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.

Freeman, a nutrition professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, says that many of the benefits attributed to a raw food diet for dogs, such as a shinier coat, instead are the result of the high fat composition of the typical raw diet. High-fat commercial foods that would produce the same effect are available, she notes, without the risk of an unbalanced diet. Supplements can also be used as an alternative to increasing fat in the diet.

The evaluation looked at five raw diets, three homemade and two commercially available. All had nutritional deficiencies or excesses that could cause serious health problems when given long term, according to the report.

Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, has seen those problems appear in some dogs as poor coats, bad skin, or weak bones. Too little fat means a bad coat; but too much fat and not enough protein can cause mild anemia, says Wakshlag, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Wakshlag -- who accepts some research funding from Nestle Purina PetCare -- says homemade raw diets also may lack enough calcium and phosphorous, causing bone fractures and dental problems. Depending on the quality of the diet, the calcium or phosphorus may also be difficult to properly digest, even if present in adequate amounts.

Studies of raw pet food also have shown bacterial contamination. The FDA issued suggestions in 2004 for manufacturing raw pet food more safely, citing concern about the possibility of health risks to owners from handling the meat. A 2006 study of 20 commercially available raw meat diets found that 7.1% contained a type of salmonella. E. coli bacteria was found in 59.6% of raw meat diets. These bacteria can also be shed in the feces, leading to a potential source of human exposure and infection.

The study also sampled four canned and dry dog foods. It found E. coli in all of the commercially processed, cooked foods during one of the four sampling periods, and in one brand of dry food during another sampling period.

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