The Scoop on Raw Pet Diets

By Clint Pumphrey, Animal Planet

Scientists believe that all domestic dogs descend from a single pack of gray wolves that roamed China about 15,000 years ago, and all domestic cats descend from five felines that lived in the Middle East more than 100,000 years ago [source: McGourty, BBC News]. But with so much evolution between today’s pets and their ancient ancestors, should Spot and Whiskers be eating the same raw food diet as their forefathers? This question became an especially hot topic of debate after a 2007 recall of more than 100 brands of processed pet food in the United States. The concern was over food containing wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, a substance used to make plastics and fertilizer. About 2,000 dogs and 2,000 cats died from ingesting tainted food [source: Mann].

Because of the melamine scare, many owners have begun feeding their pets less-processed foods, including raw food diets. While this approach has many forms, the most popular is the Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods diet, or “BARF” diet. It recommends a menu of bones, fleshy meat, organ meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs, flax seed, garlic, kelp, alfalfa, and cod liver oil, vitamin E, zinc oxide, and manganese oxide supplements.  Some owners swear by this diet, suggesting it’s closer to what their pets’ ancestors might have eaten in the wild. They claim animals on this diet are thinner, fitter and happier, with fewer allergies, fleas and everyday aches and pains than animals that eat processed food. While researchers haven’t produced any studies that test these assertions, the anecdotal evidence is compelling. But are there risks? And how do you prepare the meals?

Raw Pet Food Risks and How to Prepare the Cuisine

Before you go out and get your pet a T-bone to munch on, consider the risks and drawbacks of the raw food diet. Foremost among these is the threat posed by salmonella and E. coli. Present in a frighteningly large percentage of raw meat, these bacteria can cause illness and death in animals. Owners can also become infected either through direct contact with meat or through indirect contact with pet feces. Raw bones can also be hazardous. They can chip or fracture an animal’s teeth, or worse, shards of bone can break off and get lodged in, or puncture, its gastrointestinal tract. Experts also question the nutritional value of raw food diets, specifically the balance of potassium, calcium, phosphorus and zinc they provide. Finally, raw food diets are expensive. Owners can expect to pay upwards of $70 a month for raw meat, fruit and veggies, while processed food can cost as little as $10 a month.

If, after considering the benefits and risks, you choose to put your animal on a raw food diet, the switch can typically be made right away.  However, if your pet is older or has digestive or immune problems, you’ll want to introduce the raw food slowly. The key to the raw diet is variety, so there are endless ways to prepare it. A typical meal might include some type of meaty bone (chicken backs, chicken wings, turkey necks), ground meat (beef, turkey, lamb), organ meat (beef kidneys, chicken liver), whole eggs, pulverized fruits and vegetables, and supplements. For owners short on time, some companies sell prepackaged frozen patties with all of these ingredients already mixed together. Animals react in various ways to the new diet; some will eat everything you put in front of them, while others may never develop a taste for raw food. You’ll have to experiment to see what they like.

Remember to consult your veterinarian before making any major changes to your pet’s diet.

Another Alternative: A Middle Ground between Processed Kibble and Raw Food

If you want to feed your pet something a little better than heavily-processed kibble, but you’re wary of the raw food diet, you might look into high-quality bagged and canned pet food. These products can typically be identified by their labeling, which often promotes “human-grade” ingredients.

The more specific the ingredient list, the better. For example, “beef” is better than “beef byproducts.” You should be the most suspicious of vague ingredients like “meat byproducts meal,” which may contain euthanized dogs and cats, or even road kill!

See Sources

Related:
10 Foods Poisonous to Pets
What’s Really in My Pet’s Food?
10 Safe “People” Foods for Your Dog
How to Cook for Your Pet

95 comments

Karen J G.
Karen J G.3 days ago

I've seen in my own cats an enormous difference in how their digestive systems handle raw meat compared to even home cooked meat, never mind canned food. The differences are easy to see and to smell. Raw fed cats generally have very small, virtually odourless poop. Cooked food produces more than twice the volume of solid waste and it's much wetter. It also stinks badly. I can never tell when my cat has used her kitty box, but on cooked meat, the stench permeates the apartment fully.

There's no doubt that cats can survive on a dry or canned diet, but that isn't the same as THRIVING, so far as I'm concerned. I have an 18 year old feline with Inflammatory Bowel disease, quite possibly due to being fed kibble for many years. She also had terrible gingivitis, and now, as a result, she has no teeth left. But the only raw meat she can't handle is beef, which makes her vomit. Everything else she's ok with. Any kibble and most canned foods, even the highest quality, causes diarrhea and/or vomiting for this cat.

But an all raw, prey model diet, she has thrived. She has very few attacks of her digestive ailment eating raw, compared to daily attacks while eating man made diets.

She has the softest, glossiest coat, maintains her weight and has consistently excellent blood test scores on all her vet exams since she was switched to the prey model diet. She was adopted at age 12.5 and as I write, she's 18 .5 years old now.

She eats all kinds of meat, skin, fat, liv

Karen J G.
Karen J G.3 days ago

Dogs and cats are carnivores and that makes it simple for me. They need meat. Real meat. Bones with meat scraps on them, or the BARF diet, don't provide enough meat. Over the past six years I've come to believe that a raw, PREY MODEL diet is the best thing you can provide for carnivores, be they cats, dogs or even fish. But for this post I speak specifically about feeding cats, as I have never had a dog, thus, no personal experience feeding a dog..

Cats are actually classed as 'obligate carnivores'. Can you really imagine a tiger or a cougar doing well being fed kibble, assuming they'd touch it in the first place ? Be they big or small, cats need real meat, with plenty of taurine in it. Taurine is an essential amino acid, one cats are unable to synthesize, just as humans have a number of essential amino acids we can't synthesize. You often see the term 'complete protein' used to describe food for humans that has all these amino acids and only a very few plants have 'complete protein'.

So man made cat food must be supplemented with taurine to ensure there is enough of it. But a good prey model, ( not BARF! ) raw diet with a variety of appropriate meats provides more than enough taurine along with all the other nutrients needed, such as calcium and other minerals and vitamins. Liver is essential too, for Vitamin A, among others. Btw, those dry diets that start with 'fresh chicken' or some other fresh meat are not really so much better than others. Meat is about

Valerie G.
Valerie G.5 years ago

thank you Samantha.

Marcia Machado
Marcia Machado5 years ago

Thanks

John S.
Past Member 5 years ago

I use a high quality dried food and he's in great shape. No table scraps equals no begging equals happy life. Occasionally I buy him some Biltong because he share with me, and its a training treat I can put in my my mouth when I'm using my hands.

Kimberly Fulton
Kimberly Fulton5 years ago

LOL @ Jay Evas - that's great!

colleen prinssen
colleen p.5 years ago

I thought some of the bacterias only hit people hard. dog bodies(if not immune comprised) can handle raw eggs and chicken.
we can't

it's funny when they say "No people food to pets", but pets, as mentioned ate our leftovers(and why those Asian wolves came to us) that "pet food" is better, but cheap mass made pet food is harming them?

people food is only people food if processed with salts, and flavors. human food is human food when others cannot eat it(ok aside from human food allergys)

Diane L.
Diane L.5 years ago

(cont)..........actually "roadkill" may be healthy sources for petfood, providing such roadkill was processed in a reasonable amount of time. Why NOT use the meat of a deer, elk, or moose that was hit and killed on a highway? The animal died of trauma and/or blunt force injury, not disease or toxic chemicals. Get real.

Mara, lots could contribute to your couson's bulldog being sick when fed raw food other than the food, and vice versa. While there is nothing wrong with Purina One at all, it isn't THE highest quality, but it's also not the worst. I know of some who swear their dogs to great on BENEFUL. I have to wonder how much BETTER they'd be on Chicken Soup of Innova, however! BENEFUL hasn't been on the market long enough to show that it isn't the "twinkies" of processed dog food. Oh, wait, that's Kibbles N Bits! My bad!

As for the bulldog, many breeds have so many genetic and breed-specific health issues, as I said, impossible to say. Daschunds have many issues related to their bodies (backs, specifically), while other breeds have more skin-related or digestive issues. So, it's unfair to say your Daschund does well on junk, while your friend's dog that may have inheritible DIGESTIVE issues does poorly on good food. I have a GSD that does great on Purina ProPlan, while my Golden starts losing hair and itching on that food. They're all different.

Diane L.
Diane L.5 years ago

A raw food diet is ideal, providing one makes sure that all the animals' nutritional needs are met. It's very difficullt to do in today's enviroment. It's hard enough to find meat that isn't raised on factory-farms and laced and loaded with hormones, antibiotics and chemicals for our own consumption, let alone our pets. However, it can be done. Simply throwing a chunk of roadkill to FIDO won't "cut it", though. If you watch wild dogs or wolves, coyotes, etc., they do consume more than just the muscle parts. They also eat internal organs and bones. What is left is undigestible parts such as hide, hooves and beaks.

Not all of us can even afford the money or time to feed an entirely raw food diet, either. Processed food is not AS good, but then if one reads labels and does their homework, they can find quality kibble, and for small dogs, cans that do not contain a ton of by-products and chemicals. Remember that anything in a can will contain gluten, and many kibbles by nature, have to have preservatives. Stick with the high-end ones, such as Wellness, Innova, Blue Buffalo, Natural Balance, and those that have as few ingredients as possible, starting with REAL meat, whichever the source.

However, even the poorest quality petfoods do not contain euthanized animals. The petfood industry actually IS highly regulated. It's against the law to use the bodies of animals PTS with chemicals. (to be cont).

Jay Evas
Jay Evas5 years ago

vague ingredients like “meat byproducts meal,” which may contain euthanized dogs and cats, or even road kill!

------------wtf? how the hell does companies get away with this crap. give me a list i'll sue the hell out of those douchebags