I recently became a dog parent to a wonderful standard poodle named Cooper. We did our research and went with a breeder who checked all the boxes of a responsible, reputable one: a written contract with a health guarantee, a great socialization program, the puppy’s medical record and pedigree, and a seven-week temperament test video and report, to name a few.
When the day came to meet our puppy, the breeder brought us into a room to sign paperwork and asked us what we planned on feeding him. “Royal Canin Puppy Kibble,” I said proudly, knowing it was vet-recommended and met all of the high-quality AAFCO* nutritional criteria for growing puppies. His face immediately turned into a scowl. He sternly asked, “Why?” Taken aback by the hostility in his response, I stumbled to try to explain my reasoning.
He went off on a tangent about how raw food is superior, how kibble is processed and unhealthy, and how vets only recommend it because they get kickbacks from the kibble companies. I was worried I would not be able to take home my puppy after this admission so I agreed to try it. He sent us home with five boxes of Big Country Raw food, big bricks of raw beef that the puppies were fed while in their care.
Just like the human diet debates, there are all sorts of claims about what the best diet is for dogs. Advocates of feeding a dog a raw-meat-based diet (RMBD) claim that it is the most biologically appropriate diet for dogs because it mimics how their ancestors ate. Manufacturers and proponents purport numerous benefits to this diet such as shinier coats, reduction in allergies, stronger immune systems, more energy, and smaller poops.
RMBDs can be either homemade or commercial and come in different forms: fresh, frozen, freeze-dried, or dehydrated. It can include organ meats, muscle meat, whole or ground bone, raw eggs, raw fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The commercial forms are meant to be nutritionally complete or balanced, and home-prepared RMBDs are often based on a rotation of ingredients with the belief that this rotational variety will provide a complement of essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals to pets.
Expect to pay a hefty fee for the commercial products out there. For example, based on Big Country Raw’s cost and portion calculator, I would be paying $108 per month for my pup’s food. Whereas currently, a 37-pound bag of Royal Canin Large Breed Puppy kibble lasts for 3 months, and is around the same price.
There are very few scientific studies on the long-term health benefits of feeding dogs an RMBD over any other pet food. What I did find were many testimonials and anecdotes, and a questionable study on a blog about the perceived benefits of this diet. Many veterinary professional associations discourage RMBDs and cite health risks associated with this diet.
- Food safety risks — i.e., contamination with pathogens. There is a good reason why we cook our meat: to eliminate harmful pathogens that can make us sick. Despite popular belief, dogs are not immune to these hazards, and can become infected with Salmonella, Clostridium, E. coli, and Campylobacter, which can be fatal. Not only does this affect the pet, but also the human family members and anyone in contact with the pet due to bacterial shedding. In addition to microbiological risks, there are physical risks such as weakened bones, fractured teeth, and gastrointestinal obstruction and damage.
- Nutritional imbalances: There is concern that both commercial and homemade RMBDs may have important nutrient deficiencies and excesses. A 2011 study that analyzed the nutritional content of raw food diets found that 60 percent had significant nutritional imbalances. Even if these diets meet the minimum nutrient amounts, they may not provide an optimal nutrient profile. It can be difficult to formulate a nutritionally balanced home-prepared meal and it is easy to underestimate portion sizes. Compared with the fat content of typical dry kibble, many RMBDs are high in fat, which may cause mild to severe gastrointestinal issues in some pets or increase the risk for obesity in others.
My takeaway: Many claims of benefits are largely based on anecdotes rather than scientific evidence, and fall under the naturalistic fallacy. There may be possible benefits to a raw food diet. But in my opinion they largely ignore the potential life-threatening consequences. Even though there is a lack of inspection oversight and enforcement of all pet food in Canada, I think I will stick to my vet-approved kibble. And cook the raw meat the breeder gave us that is still sitting in the freezer.
* AAFCO: The Association of American Feed Control Officials is a group of American state and federal officials, including officials from Canada and Chile, who regulate animal feed and pet food in the U.S. AAFCO establishes the ingredients that can be used in nutrition profiles for dogs and cats, and sets practices for conducting feeding trials designed to test the nutrition profiles of pet food. They also develop a standardized approach to pet food and labelling.