Raw Diet for Dogs:
Is a Raw food Diet Right for
Your Canine Companion?

The following article on the raw diet for dogs was written by me for the Spring 2010 issue of Natural Dog magazine. I hope that you enjoy it and that it helps you to decide if a raw diet for dogs is right for your canine companion.

When it comes to feeding our furry friends, the choices used to be limited – wet or dry. And while canned and kibble have come a long way in recent years, a newer doggy diet is gaining popularity – raw food.

German Shepherd eating bone

Many pet parents, fueled by frustrations over an increase in chronic canine health conditions and concern over widespread pet food recalls, have decided to go “back to nature” in feeding their canine companions.

Sandy Hoekenga of Shelton, CT, did just that and is convinced that a raw diet helped save the lives of her two Boxers, Tess and Tye. When the puppies were just five weeks old, their breeder told Hoekenga that they had contracted Parvovirus and that the veterinarian recommended “euthanizing them immediately.” Hoekenga wouldn’t allow it. Instead, she authorized whatever treatment was necessary to try to save them.

A week later, she was thrilled to learn that both dogs were going to survive. “That’s when I knew my work was just beginning,” she says. “They came to me with severely compromised immune systems, and I needed to rebuild them.”

Hoekenga noticed that Tess and Tye were not reacting well to the canned prescription diet recommended by her vet. “Their stools were runny and full of mucus,” she says. “I felt there had to be a better option.”

That’s when she turned to Mark Poveromo, owner of Thomaston Feed, a holistic pet food and supply store in Thomaston, CT and author of the book To Your Dog’s Health! After listening to Sandy, Poveromo recommended that she place Tess and Tye on a raw diet to strengthen their immune systems.

Within a week, the dogs’ stools firmed and the mucus disappeared. Now just over a year old, they are strong and healthy. “I will keep them on a raw diet for the rest of their lives,” Hoekenga says.

But Monica Segal, author of K9 Kitchen: The Truth Behind the Hype and Optimal Nutrition, Raw and Cooked Canine Diets: The Next Level, cautions that raw food is not a panacea for all dogs. “There are dogs who can’t be helped with anything but a raw diet and there are those who can become ill from it, depending on the health challenges the dog faces.”

So, should you try a raw food diet for your canine companion? To help you decide, consider the following:

What is the theory behind feeding raw?
“Raw food most closely mimics the natural diet of our dogs’ ancestors,” explains Melinda Miller, president of the North American Raw Petfood Association. “If a canine captures and consumes a rabbit, they eat mostly its meat, organ meats such as the liver, kidney and heart, some bone and maybe a small amount of vegetation from its upper intestines. Most grain-free raw diets are just that.”

What does a raw diet offer that a cooked diet doesn’t?
A raw diet provides nutrients – such as amino acids, vitamins, minerals, prebiotics, probiotics and enzymes – in their whole, unaltered states. This means that they have not been diminished or destroyed by cooking. “A raw diet is much more readily assimilated by dogs than processed dry foods,” says Poveromo, “adding more nutritional ‘punch’ per serving.”

Can my dog get sick from eating raw meat?
Dogs can potentially get sick from parasites such as tapeworms or bacteria such as Salmonella or e-coli in raw meats. However, it is unlikely that a healthy dog will become ill. Here’s why:

• “Dogs have shorter digestive tracts than humans,” points out Segal, “which may help diminish the likelihood of parasites or bacteria causing problems as food passes through.”

• Dogs on raw diets produce strong stomach acids, with a pH between 1 – 2, to break down the proteins in the raw meats. This strong acid makes it less likely for bacteria to survive in a healthy dog’s gut than in a human’s, which operates with a stomach acid pH around 5.

• “Research indicates that about thirty-six percent of healthy dogs carry Salmonella in their digestive tracts,” says Miller. “It is interesting to note that these numbers are based on kibble-fed dogs – which means that Salmonella is a natural part of life for our pets, regardless of what they are eating.”

• Most parasites, such as tapeworms, are killed by properly freezing meats before feeding them. Prepared raw diets are frozen at temperatures low enough and for enough time (three weeks) to ensure the elimination of parasites. Those buying fresh meat can simply freeze it themselves before feeding.

An important exception is fish. “The risk is tremendous in feeding raw fish,” says Segal. “Some fish can contain parasitic cysts, particularly around the liver. If ingested, either flukes (flat worm parasites) or cysts will enter the dog, filling him with parasites.”

Is feeding raw difficult or time-consuming?
With the many varieties of prepared frozen raw foods on the market, a raw diet is as easy as opening a can of traditional dog food. If you can remember to remove the food from the freezer and thaw it in the fridge, you’re all set!

Are there research studies supporting a raw diet?
To date, no studies have been conducted to determine the long-term health benefits of a raw diet. This is most likely due to the fact that such studies are expensive, and the raw food industry has not had the funds to finance them. However, several raw food companies have passed AAFCO feeding trials, which, says Miller, “are the ‘gold standard’ of all pet food.” Pet parents looking for AAFCO approved foods can find the information on the packaging.

Why do some veterinarians advise against a raw diet?
Veterinarians want what they believe is best for their patients, but just like human doctors, many of them have not received formal training in nutrition. According to Poveromo, “Most of their time is spent on studying new medicines to combat all the illnesses out there – most of which are caused by poor nutrition, by the way.”

Are there times when a dog should not be fed a raw diet?
Dogs with weakened immune systems, such as those with chronic pancreatitis or compromised GI tracts, are at greater risk for potential bacteria from raw food than otherwise healthy dogs. In addition, says Miller, “Dogs on chemotherapy should avoid raw diets during active treatment due to their impaired ability to handle any type of extra bacteria.”

For pet parents that would like to try feeding a raw diet but are concerned how their dog will respond, Segal advises easing them into it gradually. “Start with a cooked diet and then transition to medium rare, then rare, then a little raw, then all raw,” she says. “Don’t just throw raw food at them.”

“With most medical conditions a raw diet should not be a problem,” says Miller, “but always work with your veterinarian.”

Dogs are individuals, and no diet – not even raw – can claim to be appropriate for every condition. However, there is much experiential evidence to suggest that a raw diet warrants serious consideration in various instances for our canine companions.

Perhaps Segal sums it up best. “Raw feeding can have strong benefits for a great number of dogs, but it’s not a magic bullets for all dogs in all circumstances. It’s one more tool in the toolbox.”

I hope you enjoyed this article about the raw diet for dogs. Please read our article about raw frozen dog food for more on this topic.

And, if you'd like to know more about what's in your dog's food, check out our article on dog food safety.

Only you can decide if a raw diet for dogs is right for your canine companion. Hopefully, this article shed some light on the subject for you. Always be sure to discuss any change in your dog's nutrition, including switching to a raw diet for dogs, with your veterinarian.

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