The Raw Diet vs Kibble Debate - risks + benefits of raw, home cooked + commercial diets

Diet is a touchy subject that can elicit some pretty strong opinions, with people seemingly falling into 2 camps. The first is those who believe raw feeding your dog or cat will result in the best health possible while at the same time blaming commercial diets, especially dry kibble, for causing all of the different diseases our pets can suffer from.

The other group claims that raw feeding is incredibly dangerous, irresponsible and has absolutely no place in the feeding of dogs or cats.

There is of course actually a third group which you might fall into. People who are looking to provide the best diet possible for their dog or cat and want to know what the evidence is behind different feeding practices.

Finding this balanced view is pretty challenging but here goes!



First, a bit of background about why this is an issue at all.

Social and cultural sensitivities

It is only relatively recently that this discussion around raw feeding has become mainstream, although I would still say it is the vocal minority who strongly advocate in its favor. This, of course, doesn’t make them wrong, and as more people have started to approach the feeding of their dog or cat in the same way that they feed themselves, there has been an increasing trend in the hunt for more “natural” and homemade diets.

Feeding dogs and cats has also transitioned from simply providing the nutrients they need, to incorporating social, cultural and environmental sensitivities that are of increasing concern again when it comes to feeding ourselves.

This is where things get interesting as I’ve already discussed in part in my article all about the link between a particular form of heart failure in dogs and the feeding of grain-free, boutique and exotic diets. Diets that have most likely only come into existence to meet the demand from pet parents because of their perceived rather than proven benefit. Diets that have been conceptualized by marketers rather than nutritionists.

Feeding for health

Let’s be clear from the start, whenever anyone (vet, nutritionist, pet owner or self-styled expert) makes any kind of therapeutic recommendation, and this is exactly what a diet recommendation is, the initial goal should be to do no harm. More than this though, the overriding aim should be to help a dog or cat live a healthier, longer life.

Anyone making such recommendations can only do so if they are either based on scientific evidence or, where this is absent, sound clinical reasoning and an understanding of risk management.

This is exactly the same way and dog or cat healthcare intervention or recommendation should be determined.

Of course, there are other ways that recommendations can be made, but rather than go into them here, I’ll direct you to my post all about the Dunning-Kruger effect and other posts in my evidence matters series. I could also delve into the many conspiracy theories out there too but I’ll simply hope you’ll recognize them for what they are!

And this brings us onto the topic of raw feeding compared to the feeding of commercially processed food, be that wet food from tins and pouches or dry kibble.

 
how can you possibly decide what to feed your dog when every single google search throws up a vast amount of conflicting information? Certain websites will publish nothing but praise for raw food, others will do the exact reverse
 

Raw vs cooked diet pros and cons

How can you possibly decide what to feed your dog or cat when every single google search throws up a vast amount of conflicting information? Certain websites will publish nothing but praise for raw food, others will do the exact reverse. Add in the fact that the vast majority of this information on both sides is based on an individual’s experience or personal opinion, with the evidence backing it up being near on impossible to track down and confusion reigns.

So which is it? Does feeding a raw diet to your dog or cat result in:

  • improve general health

  • a stronger immune system with fewer allergies

  • better intestinal health

  • improved skin and coat quality

  • healthier teeth and gums

  • more muscle and energy

  • reduced obesity

  • less cancer

On the flip side are you actually more likely to compromise your own health alongside that of your pet by feeding raw food through:

  • Nutritional deficiencies

  • Infectious disease transmission

  • Intestinal obstruction and perforation

  • Multi-resistant infections

  • Tooth fractures and oral trauma

What do we mean by raw and cooked?

This highlights a couple of problems from the very outset. What do we mean when we say a raw diet and what exactly is a cooked commercial diet? We are potentially clumping very different foods together and calling them the same thing.

Raw diets can be anything from commercially produced frozen or freeze-dried packaged food, a raw meaty bones diet, a biologically appropriate raw food diet (BARF), or any of a number of other home-prepared diets. It could simply be a person who feeds their dog nothing but uncooked mince. You’ll appreciate how different these diets are from one another.

When it comes to commercial diets there are similar issues. Do we mean the cheapest food available, produced by a company with little experience in formulating a pet food, with a focus on obtaining ingredients as cheaply as possible regardless of their questionable source? Or instead, do we mean diets that are formulated by a large team of expert nutritionists, that contain high grade, human quality ingredients and have gone through thorough analysis and feeding trials. Again these diets should not be expected to be similar in terms of the health outcome for the pet being fed them.

Is it an either-or choice?

The other question is: is it really an all or nothing situation? Is the topic as black and white as is often made out? Is one form of feeding really so optimal and the other so detrimental that it is as clear cut as the vast majority of commentators make out (on either side).

Let’s have a look at the evidence!

The Benefits of Raw Diets

Are raw fed dogs healthier?

Let’s start with the most basic question and work our way forward from there.

Are the majority of dogs fed on raw food generally healthy?

Even this is hard to say for certain as the evidence out there is poor at best. I would imagine the answer is a resounding yes, most pets fed on raw diets are reasonably healthy (whatever that means!).

When surveyed in one study, the vast majority (over 98.5%) of pet owners felt their dog or cat to be healthy. While the study did not split the results based on feeding type, given that 16% of dog owners and 9% of cat owners were feeding bones or raw food as part of the main meal, and 3% of owners were feeding an entirely home-prepared meal; most of these pets fed a raw diet (either in part or entirely) would have been considered healthy. Now, this study is pretty poor evidence. After all, what does healthy really mean, and is an owner survey really the best way to determine this (check out my article on the placebo effect if you want to know more)?!

Still, when evidence is lacking you’ve got to go with what you’ve got.

Other raw feeders point to the fact that dogs are suffering from more diabetes, cancer, immune problems and a raft of other conditions compared to the halcyon days of years gone by.

The two causes of this being...you guessed it...vaccination and commercial pet food.

Of course, when it comes to the evidence for these claims, it’s authors simply claim that they don’t just believe it to be true, they strongly believe this to be true and so it must certainly be the case simply due to their strength of feeling.

There is no evidence, apart from anecdote, that raw fed dogs suffer fewer allergies. There is no evidence that they suffer from less diabetes. There is no evidence that they don’t develop epilepsy. There is no evidence...this is getting a bit boring isn’t it!

Now on the flip side, I have no evidence to put to you that it is not the case. The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. Commercial feeding may be resulting in the increase in specific disease, and while I (strongly ;) ) doubt this in the majority of individuals across the pet population as a whole, we just don’t know for certain.

Of course, there are other explanations for any (real or apparent) increase in disease incidence, such as improved diagnostic testing, more owners willing to undertake advanced health care procedures and treatments, a pet population that is living for longer than it ever used to, and theories such as the hygiene hypothesis as to why allergic disease, in particular, is becoming more common.

Speculation is one thing. What I take serious issue with is people passing off opinion and conjecture as unquestionable fact, often slinging mud at those who question their assertions in the process. Not only is this irresponsible, but it could also have some seriously damaging consequences such as those detailed in my post discussing the use of homeopathy in pets.

Intestinal health

Let’s move onto intestinal health and function, the next claimed benefit of raw feeding.

There is a single review paper which concludes that the idea that the digestive enzymes present in fresh food increase how well the nutrients within the food are able to be absorbed by the gut has some merit.

Not a ringing endorsement, rather the suggestion that this could be a sound idea.

Fecal quality and stool volume is a popular topic of conversation with raw feeders. The claim being that raw fed cats and dogs produce less fecal material, and what is produced is dryer and less sloppy.

This is then taken as evidence that not only are raw diets more digestible, but that this by implication means the individual must also be healthier than commercially fed pets.

Now I have no reason to doubt the stool quality difference and the fact that this is easier to pick up on dog walks, facts claimed by so many. For me though, it is a jump too far to claim that this improved digestibility automatically means that an animals health is supercharged in comparison to their poor commercially fed companions.

Let’s consider this. Egg is incredible digestible and eating nothing but this would mean that you would produce very little stool (and it would most likely be a little dry nugget as a bonus). I ask you though, would a diet of nothing but egg be a healthier option than your current diet?

Of course not.

We also need to look at the evidence, however scant it may be. From what I can see, in the one study looking at a comparison of digestibility, stool character and gut bacteria between dry, wet and raw diets the results are pretty dull. There was no difference in digestibility, fecal quality was not much different (with raw diets actually causing softer and higher volume stools) and there was actually a potentially negative change in gut bacteria in the raw fed dogs.

This study does though come with the caveat that each diet was only fed for a relatively short time and so long term conclusions are impossible to make. An issue I’ll come back to a number of times in this review.

Raw diets avoid evil grains

Another claim frequently made is that dogs are wolves and do not have the capacity to digest the grains found in commercial pet foods. At best these grain additions are just worthless bulking agents that are used because they are cheap, but are in effect the same as adding sawdust to a diet (something I have seen written many times!).

At worst though, these grains are responsible (at least in part) for all manner of ailments afflicting the modern day pampered pooch, from skin allergies through to diabetes and cancer.

Given wolves evolved over millennia and dogs have only been our closest companions for 20,000-40,000 years, a mere blink of the eye in evolutionary terms, surely there is something in this claim?

Let’s consider this however. There is clear evidence that one of the earliest adaptations of the domestic dog's ancestors allowed them to thrive on starch-based diets. In other words, allow them to make full use of early man’s table scraps. Dogs have in fact been shown to possess genes that allow them to utilize starches.

It’s not wrong though to suggest that in “normal” situations, the process of evolution is a pretty long and drawn-out affair, on average taking one million years for a new species to emerge. Dogs though did not come about through “normal” natural selection and survival of the fittest in the same way other species have typically developed.

Humans instead have aggressively and relentlessly selected for the characteristics that make dogs suitable companions. The ability to protect but not attack the family, the ability to provide companionship, the ability to work livestock without eating them, the ability to be a child’s play-thing and look “cute”...and presumably the ability to thrive on kitchen scraps and leftovers without vomiting all over the place.

Can you really tell me that breeds as different on the outside as Great Danes, Chihuahuas and Whippets are exactly the same as wolves on the inside?

There is no controversy in the fact that there are massive differences in genetic diseases between dog breeds. Why then is so hard to accept that, when it comes to the digestive process, wolves and dogs are most definitely not the same?

It is true that dogs do not have an absolute requirement for starches, meaning that if they are eliminated entirely from the diet a dog will not by default suffer from a serious nutritional deficiency.  “Not dying” though is a pretty low benchmark to set as optimal, when what we all really want to do (regardless of where you stand in this debate) is optimize health rather than just ensure survival!

Grains can be a valuable source of a number of vitamins and minerals and may very well contribute to an improvement in body health.

That is not to say of course that all grains are made equal, nor that grains should make up the bulk of the ingredients. It is also not to say that grains are beneficial to include in a diet. Again there is little evidence to suggest that they are definitively responsible for improving health.

It might be much easier to make bold claims filled with certainty. It is probably also easier to hear these claims as they take away the stress and difficulty of having to make a complex decision. Unfortunately, the reality is far from clear-cut.

I’ll get into this later, and I have discussed grain-free diets in more detail in my article discussing the link between grain-free diets and heart failure.

Raw fed dogs have cleaner teeth and healthier mouths

This is perhaps one of the areas where a small amount of common ground can be found between die-hard raw diet supporters and those who strongly advise against it being fed to both cats and dogs.

Pets fed on raw meat and bones have cleaner teeth and healthier mouths...or do they?

 
pets fed on raw meat and bones have cleaner teeth and healthier mouths. Or do they?
 

Anecdotal evidence is almost overwhelming (but I’ve already mentioned how this can be misleading). I would even add my voice to the mix, as I feel the patients I see in my consult room that are either fed a raw diet or who receive bones, by and large have significantly cleaner teeth.

Does this mean that they have healthier mouths though?

Not necessarily.

When we think of dental disease and poor oral health we picture heavy tartar with inflamed and ulcerated gums. Not only is this process painful, but it also has a detrimental effect on overall body health. If I’ve said I believe raw or bone fed dogs have healthier teeth, why then am I suggesting that this is not always resulting in healthier mouths?

The reason is this: I also feel that dogs fed on bones (which is the situation for a significant proportion of raw fed dogs) suffer from a much greater incidence of broken teeth. Slab fractures of the large upper premolar known as the carnassial being the most common. Now, this incidence is going to be heavily dependent on the type of bone given to a dog. Those fed on the large weight-bearing bones of cows or sheep are at most risk, with those being fed softer bones like chicken necks being much less likely to develop fractured teeth.

When a fracture is present though, not only does this result in painful exposure of the root canal, it also gives bacteria an easy highway to the base of the tooth causing dental abscesses and generalized effects on the health of the rest of the body.

To make matters worse I also tend to find that owners are hesitant to do anything about these broken teeth. Instead, choosing to leave them untreated because the pet doesn’t stop eating and the other effects they may be having on their dog remain hidden.

And hey, the teeth look clean right!

All that said, again what does the actual evidence suggest?

Interestingly enough, the evidence that raw fed dogs have cleaner teeth than those fed commercial kibble of wet diets is actually very weak. It is there for bone fed dogs, with some support for the fact that bones reduce periodontal disease.

When it comes to other forms of raw feeding however, there is simply no evidence that any other form of diet makes any difference.

What would be interesting would be a comparison between dogs fed on bones and those fed on commercial diets designed to keep teeth clean that also get given dental chews certified by the VOHC and who’s owners brush their teeth. Don’t hold your breath though, this is a study that will (almost certainly) never be carried out.

Raw diets are safer than kibble

Pet food recalls trigger a lot of anxiety in dog owners. It’s perfectly understandable, no matter how you feel on the subject you must recognize that the main driver behind the choice to feed a pet dog a specific diet is to maintain and optimize their health. The last thing anyone wants is to make pets sick.

Of course, you may subscribe to the belief that veterinarians and the pet food industry are in cahoots, conspiring to keep pets unwell so they can be milked for all they’re worth. Have no fear, I’ll be discussing conspiracy theories in just a bit!

There have been several prominent pet food recalls, with the most recent one to hit the headlines being the contamination of several different brands with toxic levels of vitamin D. If you want to learn more, I’ve written extensively about this vitamin D related dog food recall.

The next most recent serious, widespread recall was the 2007 melamine pet food recall. Contaminants in vegetable products imported from China, and then used in the manufacture of dog and cat diets, resulted in kidney failure and the owner-reported death of around 3,600 cats and dogs.

Then there’s the link between grain-free diets and heart failure in dogs. Interestingly though with this, there is also the suggestion that home-prepared diets are also implicated.

Either way, make no mistake: commercial cooked diet contamination, manufacturing errors, as well as mis-formulation, all have the potential to kill.

There have even been reports of pentobarbital being found in some foods, a drug used to euthanize animals!

Surely then the best thing any pet parent can do is to feed a raw diet or prepare their dogs food at home from the base ingredients.

Recommending this approach however ignores at the very least the multiple recalls that have affected raw diets, primarily due to the contamination with Salmonella or Listeria (more on this later). It ignores the FDA’s warnings about the risks of feeding raw diets as well as giving dogs bones.

It also ignores repeated findings that home-prepared diets are by and large unbalanced, and even when rotated have the potential to result in nutritional deficiencies which could compromise health or even result in death.

Let’s talk about this lack of evidence

There’s no evidence...there’s that phrase again. But what does it mean and why do we not have any clear answers?

No evidence means that there have been no studies at all, or no studies of any size, quality or reliability carried out to allow an answer to be given one way or the other with any degree of certainty. It could also mean that any information out there is mixed and so no conclusion can be made one way or the other.

This is very different from saying there is evidence that there is no benefit in a specific intervention. In this case, the health benefits of feeding either raw or commercial diets.

With raw feeding being such a hot topic surely there is a lot of interest in finding out the answers to these questions?

Of course there is, but studies are expensive to run and take a lot of time and expertise. At least that’s the case if they are well designed and run properly.

This fact means many raw feeders will claim that it is only the big pet food companies that can afford to fund any form of investigation into pet food. They ask the question who would support a good quality diet when there is so much for “The Man” to lose (by which I mean big pet food companies of course).

There is even the thinking that if raw feeding was found superior, vets would be sued left right and center over their previous nutritional advice. Pet food companies would be destroyed, vet schools would fail and society would crumble. OK, I made that last one up but the feeling by some is that the lack of studies points to a cover-up. Better call in Mulder and Skully (I’m dating myself here!).

I would like to challenge both of these arguments surrounding the lack of high-quality studies into raw feeding. Sure, the raw food market is much smaller than the cooked food market, but in the US alone it was still an industry that in 2017 generated $195 million, with year-on-year growth of around 16%. Maintaining this growth would put 2019 sales at around $262 million.

That’s not chump change, and there should be more than enough in this pot to be able to put some into research. Especially if the results are as these companies are likely to expect, that raw diets are good for health and better than cooked commercial diets.

Imagine how powerful this data would be when it came to further grow their sales!

Something else I’ve read repeatedly is that raw diet studies would be unethical because every different kind of feeding type would need to be tested, some of which would clearly be inappropriate (feeding nothing but raw chicken for example). Again this is rubbish, and anyone making this claim does not understand how science works.

Any trial only need include diets that are felt to be properly balanced and completely optimized for health. In other words, simply start by testing the best of the best in commercial raw diet options, and ideally compare that to a commercial cooked diet. That’s not to say it is easy to run these studies, far from it, but it is nowhere near as complicated or convoluted as some make out when trying to explain why none have been run to date.

No test dog need suffer, unless of course they experience any of the risks associated with either feeding practice!

Studies like this would not cover home-prepared diets per se, but a positive finding in commercial raw diets would lend considerable weight to any form of raw feeding practice.

As for there being a big cover-up...by who? Cooked pet food manufacturers have no reason to spend money testing the benefits of raw feeding unless they were planning to enter that market. If they were, and found a positive result with raw feeding, then it would give them the market edge which they would sing from the rooftops when launching their new product.

Would it destroy their other pet food sales? No, the fact is that even if all the purported benefits of raw diets were proven to be true beyond doubt, raw feeding will not be something every pet owner would even consider. This could be due to the risks of raw diets (which I’ll come onto very soon), convenience, or simply due to the cost, with commercial raw diets generally being more expensive than the cooked counterparts.

And if you truly believe that all vet’s want nothing more than to keep their patients sick in a quest to line their bulging pockets then you really have some trust issues you need to work through.

Do the raw diet benefits outweigh the risks?

So, those are the (potential) benefits of feeding a raw diet to your dog or cat.

Convinced and ready to make the switch or happy with your pet’s current diet?

Well, it’s vital that you know about the potential risks before drawing any kind of conclusion.

And this includes risks to ourselves as well as our pet dogs and cats.

 
the pros and cons of raw vs kibble for dogs
 

Raw Diet Feeding Risks

Raw diet deficiencies

This one is primarily for all of you feeding, or thinking about feeding, home-prepared diets and actually covers any form of this, not just raw diets. Making sure you are providing the minimum requirements for every nutrient without then overdoing others is a real challenge.

There are repeated reports of dogs and cats developing either deficiencies or excesses that then result in serious diseases being seen. Admittedly, a lot of these reports are through the feeding of ridiculous diets. Surely anyone would appreciate the fact that feeding puppies a diet that consisted of 80% rice and 20% raw meat (a real example!) is not going to end well.

Time and again though, I personally see new puppies being fed the most ludicrous of diets on the strict instructions of their breeder. Nothing but either Porridge or Weetabix breakfast cereal is not all that uncommon and, unsurprisingly, fails to meet the requirements of a growing puppy.

A common counter by those who feed home prepared diets is that feeding a variety of different recipes will get around this potential risk. It’s certainly true that this will help, and I absolutely believe that not every single mouthful or meal a dog or cat eats needs to be completely balanced.

In some studies though, even when this diet rotation and variability is considered the overall result was that an individual pet still did not receive all of their minimum requirements. It might seem that they are healthy, but underlying deficiencies are likely to be detrimental to long term health, causing problems that may not even appear to be linked to the diet they are eating.

Infection risk

It should be no surprise that raw meat contains bacteria that are killed with cooking. In fact raw diets, both home prepared and commercial, are often contaminated with Salmonella, E.coli, Campylobacter, and Listeria as well as Toxoplasma, Neospora and Cryptosporidium.

It may well be that a healthy, adult dog or cat will never become unwell from eating food contaminated with these organisms. There will however be the potential for spreading them in their environment. The young, old and unwell however will be at a greater risk of developing serious infections and these have the potential to be life-threatening.

But often are these bugs found in raw food? Numbers clearly vary, but if we start with Salmonella, it has been found on 80% of raw chicken diets tested and is also frequently present in diets containing other ingredients. This compared to 0% of commercial dry foods.

E.coli has been found in between 50-100% of commercial raw diets, again compared to 33% of commercial dry diets and 8% of commercial wet diets. Even worse though, in one paper 1-in-4 of these raw diets contained the E.coli that can cause kidney failure in people and 4-in-5 contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria!

Make no mistake, these bugs can result in disease in dogs and cats and have been known to kill. In one outbreak alone, caused by the feeding of meat unfit for human consumption, 27 puppies from 8 litters were affected, with 10 puppies dying. Cats are not immune, with fatal Salmonella infections also being reported.

This might not be common but it should not be ignored, especially when it comes to infection risk in people. Even healthy pets who suffer no outward sign of disease have the potential to shed these bacteria in their feces - more on this later.

The problem with bones

Let’s move onto the feeding of bones. I’ve already discussed the impact bones can have on oral health and dental disease. Bones can result in outwardly cleaner teeth, but can also be the cause of some really nasty, painful broken teeth. The risk of this does depend on the type of bone being fed, with the large, weight-bearing bones of animals like cattle and sheep being the worst offenders.

The other big and more serious risk of bone feeding is the bone getting stuck somewhere within the intestines. Blocking the way and ultimately punching a hole right through the intestinal wall. This is bad news!

Any animal with an intestinal obstruction needs it cleared as a matter of urgency. Something that typically requires emergency surgery. Even when caught nice and early, whenever the intestines have to be cut into, the risk of serious complications is around 1-in-10.

If the bone fragment is sharp, or the blockage has been present for some time then there is a real risk of the intestines being punctured and the dog or cat developing septic peritonitis. This can have a fatality rate of around 50%!

It’s not just cooked bones that have this risk, and even something like chicken necks have the same risk, especially if given to a larger dog who then decides to swallow one whole. Many, even the majority of dogs may be absolutely fine if fed on bones, but the risk is there and I’ve seen these problems time and again.

Owner raw feeding risks

In honesty, this is generally the biggest reason that a lot of vets don’t recommend feeding dogs and cats raw food. There is a risk from all the bugs we spoke about a few minutes ago being transferred to the people in that pet's environment. That includes Salmonella, the strain of E.coli that has the potential to cause kidney failure, and of course we can’t forget about the bacteria resistant to some antibiotics.

There are a number of risk points that we need to consider:

  • Diet preparation

  • The feeding area

  • Chew toys and licking

  • Poop management

So the first risk of raw feeding is simply the act of preparing any raw diet, be that simply putting a commercial diet in a bowl through to preparing a raw banquet from scratch.

Common sense dictates that this would be no higher risk than preparing a meat diet for yourself. After all, how often do we get sick after handling raw meat so long as we adopt good hygiene practices? Be sure to use dedicated raw meat utensils and chopping boards, practice good hand hygiene and take your time to avoid contaminating any other surfaces.

Do the same when preparing your pets meal and this risk factor is reduced.

The same risks are present in whatever area you choose to feed your pets. Dogs and cats do not have the best table manners, and you can be sure that their food makes it out of the bowl and onto the surrounding floor and walls.

Hygiene again is vital but consider this: it has been found that the normal ways of cleaning and disinfecting food bowls are all pretty ineffective at getting rid of Salmonella, including soaking in bleach or putting in the dishwasher.

Everything may look nice and clean but there may be bugs still present just waiting to make you sick.

After eating, your pet is then going to be spreading these potentially harmful pathogens in their environment. That ball your dog carries around the house, your cat grooming themselves and transferring the bugs from their mouth to their fur just waiting for you to stroke them. What about your dog licking your hand or kids face?!

No matter how much you clean, there is little you can do about some of these potential issues.

The risk of your pet’s poop is the final source of bacteria passing from our pets to us. Clearly, a dog who is unwell with diarrhea could be shedding some pretty toxic stool. But don’t be fooled by solid poo and a healthy animal. It is pretty common for perfectly healthy pets to have the harmful bacteria we’ve already spoken about present in their stool for up to a week after the contaminated meat was eaten.

So this is the risk that raw feeding has for us, as dog and cat owners who choose to feed raw. But just how common are these infections being transferred from pet dogs and cat to people?

The reported numbers are really low.

There have been outbreaks of Salmonella passing from an infected animal facility to the humans working there as well as also infecting their family back home. In one outbreak 18 humans were affected after 36 animals become infected, with some of the animals even dying.

It is Salmonella that is the biggest risk, resulting in the most hospital admissions when compared to the other bugs already mentioned. In the UK alone Salmonella is also responsible for 200 deaths a year (from all causes, the vast majority likely to be from the handling of contaminated human food). So while infection risk to the humans in a raw fed pet’s environment may be low, death is a potential outcome.

A tiny risk, but a pretty severe outcome.

Should your vet recommend raw feeding therefore, they could certainly be open to legal action should someone become unwell as a result of their recommendation!

Much like our pets, it is the most vulnerable that are more likely to succumb to infection and experience severe disease. Namely young children, the elderly and the immunocompromised.

It’s one thing to accept the small risk yourself, but if you live with someone, or your pet interacts with a person who fits into one of these categories, then you had better make sure you are ready to accept the entire responsibility of being the cause of serious illness should they become unwell.

Is Cooked Commercial Pet Food The Best?

With all this talk about a lack of evidence into any benefits of raw feeding coupled with the many known risks, is feeding a cooked commercial diet the best thing to feed your pet?

It would be understandable to assume that all pet foods are subject to extensive feeding trials, making sure that an animal remains healthy after being fed a given diet for a period of time. The reality is very different, with a large number of diets simply being analyzed in the lab to ensure they contain a minimal quantity of certain nutrients to meet a minimum standard.

This is very different from ensuring that they are all formulated to optimize health.

The form the nutrients are present as within the diet does not even mean that they will be digested and absorbed by the intestines. To make matters worse there may also be other interactions of the ingredients within the diet that have unexpected health consequences. A perfect example of this is the recent revelation that there is a link between some grain free, exotic and boutique dog foods and the development of heart failure.

When feeding trials do take place, they are also generally only pretty short. Blood samples may be taken before and after feeding and an overall assessment of any change in health made. Again, this is very different from saying that the diets are resulting in the best health possible for any specific individual throughout their entire lifetime.

Much like the raw feeding though, this lack of evidence simply means that it is impossible to say one way or the other as to whether specific diets are optimizing health or not.

Many raw feeders will claim that cooked commercial diets are resulting in a pandemic of diabetes, kidney failure, cancer and any number of other illnesses. There is just no hard and fast evidence out there that this is the case, and again when people make claims like this about commercial diets they are making the rather ridiculous assumption that all such diets are created equal.

It may be that some diets do increase the risk of these diseases. It may well be though that others have the complete opposite effect. When it comes to making claims against commercial diets, many raw food advocates will readily criticize the feeding trials run and health evidence (or lack or) present, yet in the same breath pass off the complete lack of any data about raw feeding as completely understandable, unimportant or part of a wider conspiracy. The hypocrisy can be jaw-dropping.

A note on prescription diets

When it comes to “prescription” diets, the evidence situation is actually very different compared to the situation just described for the standard maintenance diet. There is some excellent data showing certain very specific diets help in the treatment of very specific diseases.

Take kidney failure as just one example. Feeding a kidney diet will on average double life expectancy compared to feeding a standard maintenance diet. It’s for reasons like this that diet has a big part to play in the treatment of many different conditions our pet dogs and cats might face in their lifetime.

The big caveat with the bulk of evidence and research looking into commercial diets is that the studies were either run or funded by the manufacturer. Clearly, this is a huge conflict of interest but that does not mean they should be discounted. It is just something to consider, especially if at any point there appears to be a body of evidence developing from independent studies pointing to the complete opposite conclusions to that of industry-backed studies.

Contamination and fatal overdoses

The one big risk of feeding a commercial diet is, as I’ve already discussed, a mis-formulation resulting in disease. This could be an unpredictable interaction between ingredients, as is likely to be the case with certain grain-free and exotic diets causing heart failure. It could be diet contamination as in the 2007 melamine poisoning outbreak that resulted in hundreds of deaths (at least). Finally, there is the potential that a manufacturing error sees the formulation of a diet become toxic. Something that is the case in the recent recall of specific dog foods due to them containing deadly levels of vitamin D.

This latest vitamin D recall has also affected the premium pet food company Hill’s. For those of us that champion premium pet foods, this is a serious blow in our argument for feeding them in preference that you can read more about in my communication with Hills about the quality control issues this latest recall raises.

None of these commercial cooked food risks should be discounted from a discussion about the feeding of raw vs cooked diets to our dogs and cats. Yes, they may be very rare isolated events, but then dogs, cats or people being fatally poisoned as a result of raw feeding is hardly a daily event either.

Should you feed your dog a raw diet or kibble?

With all this discussion, what is the best diet for your dog or cat?

Should you ignore the known, every-day raw food health risks (to both pets and people) and pin your hopes on the completely unproven health benefits these diets offer?

Should you instead disregard the occasional major health scares of commercial diets?

In my mind, the known risks that every raw fed pet will face makes the recommendation of raw feeding at this stage irresponsible. When there are no known benefits with this practice, why would you subject your pet, or your family, to these risks?

It may be that in the future it is shown that certain raw diets are in fact either just as healthy or healthier than the best cooked commercial diets. But until this is the case, and until these diets can be produced in a way that greatly reduces infection risk, raw diets are not something that I would ever recommend feeding.

Now though, if you came to me saying that you were raw feeding your pet, you understood all of the risks and discussion surrounding raw diet feeding, and your pet was completely healthy then I would not try and dissuade you otherwise.

I might disagree with your conclusions but if you are otherwise fully informed then I respect your right to make whatever decision you see fit.

As I have said many times before, a lot of topics when it comes to pet health optimization have large grey areas where there is plenty of scope for a difference of opinion. Recognizing this to be the case is really important if each individual is to feel empowered to make the best choice for their family.

It is unhelpful to simply state that raw feeding is the wrong choice to make, alienating a significant number of pet owners who are fully aware of all the issues surrounding this practice and taking serious steps to minimize the known risks.

It is also just as unhelpful to claim that raw feeding is the best way to optimize health, while dismissing the potential risks involved and shaming those people who choose to feed a cooked commercial diet.

Personally, I feed my cats a range of different commercial diets. Their primary diet is dry kibble, with a range of different wet foods added on occasion to make sure they don’t become dry food junkies and will be willing to accept any diet change needed should they become unwell. This choice is right for them as well as my family.

What is right for yours?

References