Pet Health: Raw-food diets come with risks, and claims of nutritional benefits are unfounded

Note to Reporters: This Pet Health column is part of a monthly public-education series written by Colorado State University veterinarians; it may be published in media outlets with credit to the author, Dr. Camille Torres-Henderson.

We often hear about new trends in diet and exercise for people, so it may not be surprising to encounter dietary trends for pets. One gaining interest is the raw food diet.

You might have seen this dietary approach called “Paleo for Pets” or the “ancestral diet.”

These descriptions arise because the main ingredients are raw meat, bones and organs, typically from sources such as beef, lamb, chicken and turkey. Raw pet food may also include raw eggs and unpasteurized dairy products. The diet is uncooked or undercooked, is devoid of grains, and is meant to mirror what canines and felines ate before domestication.

A pet nutrition book, titled “Give your Dog a Bone” and published in 1993 by Australian veterinarian Dr. Ian Billinghurst, helped spark the raw-food movement for dogs. The feeding approach has grabbed more attention as manufacturers have introduced brands that are widely available at pet-supply stores.

Adherents claim that pets eating raw diets have shinier coats, healthier skin, cleaner teeth, improved immunity and easier weight management. Impassioned testimonials about raw food diets often include anecdotes that might seem persuasive.

Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence to support such claims, and the veterinarians at Colorado State University do not recommend feeding raw diets to pets.

We advise that pet owners analyze nutritional claims and look for the research to support those claims, especially if they seem too good to be true.

An inquiring consumer could ask, “How was this conclusion reached?” Look for references to research that has been both published and peer-reviewed; this approach is built on scientific rigor and helps ensure valid data.

Although little is truly known about the benefits of raw food for pets, there are several well-known risks that pet owners might consider.

Risks associated with feeding raw food:

• Raw food has an increased risk of being contaminated with harmful bacteria, including Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. These pathogens can cause dangerous illnesses in pets – and the people who handle raw pet food. For these reasons, federal agencies including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend against raw food diets for pets.
• Raw food diets have been shown to have nutritional imbalances.
• The bones in raw diets can cause fractured teeth and intestinal trauma.

Veterinarians at the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital recommend the following when considering nutritional options for pets:

• Feed a diet that is balanced and appropriate for the age of your pet.
• Puppies and kittens should be fed a diet that is formulated to meet the specific needs of a young animal. Avoid diets stating they are for “all life stages.”
• Feed a diet from a company active in nutritional research and continuous improvement to formulations, with strict quality control, and that employs a boarded nutritionist.
• Home-cooked pet diets should be made with the help of a boarded nutritionist. Meat in homemade pet diets should be cooked until the internal temperature of 165 degrees F is reached.
• Any dietary change should be made slowly, over five to seven days, to avoid stomach upset.
• Consult your veterinarian with any questions or concerns regarding nutrition and your pet.

Many of the websites promoting raw food for dogs equate the nutritional needs of our household pets to those of “ancestral” wolves. Interestingly, research recently published in the respected scientific journal PLoS Genetics revealed that dogs and wolves evolved from a common ancestor between 9,000 and 34,000 years ago. In fact, the study shows, dogs are more closely related to each other than they are to wolves.

This provides us with a good indication that the best diet for today’s wild wolves is different than the best diet for today’s domesticated dogs. In other words, what’s best for the gray wolf is not necessarily what’s best for your golden retriever.

The American Veterinary Medical Association provides extensive information on raw food diets:

Dr. Camille Torres-Henderson is a veterinarian with the Community Practice service at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Community Practice provides general care, wellness services, and treatment of minor injuries and illnesses for pets.