The Raw Truth About Raw Feeding

By Claire Roulston
Updated on February 19, 2020

Raw feeding has become increasingly trendy in recent years.

Is it the most natural way to feed your dog or is it a potential bacterial health-hazard? The truth is that it can be either one, depending on how you feed.

I’m going to go through the pros and cons, dispel the myths, while trying to give you the facts as I see them on raw feeding.

Disclaimer: my dog is rawfed and has been since she was a puppy. Her breeder fed raw and I continued as after researching it, I felt it was the right thing for her. She’s currently sponsored by a UK raw brand, but this post is not endorsed by them. I hold a PhD in immunology, so I’m able to make sense of the science and pseudo-science that surrounds raw feeding.

So, what is rawfeeding?

Feeding your dog a diet based on raw meat (and possibly a small amount of fruit and veg) as similar as we can make to what their wild wolf-like ancestors would have eaten.

Why feed raw?

Proponents of raw feeding claim it’s more natural, more nutritious, less likely to cause skin or gut irritations and allergies as there are no additives or fillers, better for oral hygiene, causes less behavioral problems, basically better for the overall health of your dog. There is also the side-effect that without large amounts of starches in the diet their poos are smaller and less stinky!

So, are the health claims for raw true?

Yes, and no. It really depends on what quality of food the dog was fed previously, if they have any underlying health conditions and the quality of the raw food.

Is it more expensive? How much will I need?

That depends on the brand you use. Most come in around about the same price as premium kibbles and cooked meals. For an adult dog you will feed 1.5-3% of their ideal bodyweight in food per day. Young puppies need as much as 8-10% of their current bodyweight per day.

Can I just go to the grocery store and buy some raw mince?

No, please don’t! Dogs need a mix of muscle meat, offal (such as liver), kidney, spleen, lung (in countries where this is permitted to enter the food chain), skin, and bone, and most probably a small amount of fruit and veg too. Proponents of the “whole prey diet” argue that dogs should only be fed meat and have no need for vegetables.

You can either make friends with your local butcher and get the off-cuts, then join some (quite frankly scarily opinionated at times) online forums and Facebook pages for raw-feeders that will help you (or completely confuse you by all saying contrary things) to make meals for your dog.

Or, you can buy pre-prepared minces from companies that specialise in shipping you frozen complete nutritionally balanced raw diets for dogs. In the UK we have Bella and Duke, Natural Instinct, Nutriment, PaleoRidge, Cotswold Raw, Poppy’s Picnic, Nature’s Menu and others. For US readers, there is Darwin’s, Nature’s Logic, Tucker’s Raw Frozen, Aunt Jeni’s, Stewart Pet, Balanced Blends, Raw Bistro Pet Fare, Cali Raw and others will deliver and/or are available in pet stores nationwide.

It’s worth asking Google for raw food suppliers in your area and asking local raw feeders who they use. Like most raw feeders I started with pre-prepped minces and have now progressed to feeding a mix of the minces and DIY-ing my dog’s dinners.

But what about the bacterial risk?

Here, I’m afraid, you MUST do your homework. Check the raw food brand’s website, phone them up and ask about batch testing. Ask Google (again) to see if they’ve had any recalls. If you buy in the USA or UK from brands that batch test for pathogens, are DEFRA/USDA registered and inspected then the bacterial content of the meat should be so low as to cause no harm.

The largest contaminated pet food incident was from a Salmonella-infected kibble, and there have been more kibble recalls than raw recalls over bacterial contamination fears (although to be fair kibble is a much higher % of the market). A recent study asking raw feeders to self-report if and when they/their pet got sick from suspected food poisoning found only 39 cases out of over 16,000 households surveyed (less than 0.2%). Of these 39, only three were confirmed by vet/medical laboratory analysis. So, the take-home message is that illness risk is very low.

However, it is RAW meat so you should always handle it as such. Clean all utensils with hot soapy water, disinfect surfaces, and if your dog is a messy eater then wipe their muzzle/ruff with a soapy cloth/baby-wipes after meals (some people use snoods to keep spaniel ears out of the food, and bibs on flat-faced and fluffy breeds that are likely to slobber down their fur). Store in the fridge/freezer and follow manufacturer’s guidelines on defrost times/temperatures. Don’t leave raw food bowls sitting out after feeding. Please use common sense and good food hygiene.

If you start buying meat (even human grade from the supermarket) that’s not from a raw dog food supplier, then be exceedingly careful. There will have been no testing for bacterial load. Only feed if you have a healthy, used-to raw-feeding dog whose stomach will deal with the bacteria. Do not feed if there is anyone in the household who is immuno-compromised or if you are not able to be there immediately after meals to clean up and be accountable for hygiene.

If your dog is a therapy dog, you may find they are banned from being fed raw. This is a bone of contention (pun intended) with many raw feeders as if fed responsibly (all batch-tested raw foods, good hygiene etc) then raw is no more a risk than kibble. But, the therapy dog organisations don’t want to be sued, and as cynics have pointed out, they are mostly sponsored by the large kibble producers… This may change, but in the meantime, few therapy dogs can be fed raw.

But why should I? My dog’s current food says on the bag it provides optimum nutrition…

All dog foods say they are wonderful (it’s not good marketing otherwise is it?), but some are better than others. The nutritional standards for pet foods have not been updated since the 1970s, but we now know a great deal more about pet nutrition.

In the USA and the UK, you can market kibble as “chicken” if it contains only 4% chicken by dry weight. So, the other 96% of the kibble pellet can be made up of starchy carbohydrates that some dog breeds find hard to digest (more on that later), whatever meat was cheapest, rendered meat (the left-overs boiled off the carcasses, abattoir waste…).

Not all kibbles are equal, in some the main ingredient is human-food grade meat as named on the bag and no nasties. The impartial website All About Dog Food rates the UK (and some USA) most popular foods, and gives you the lowdown on what they contain. You may be in for a surprise.

So, with raw I know what my dog is eating?

Yes, if a raw food says “chicken” it will be chicken meat/organs/bone (except on complete minces where it may contain additional organ meat (liver etc) from another species, but this will be clearly stated in the ingredients list). Most raw food companies make a point of traceability from farm to consumer, and source locally. Raw food is considered more nutritious as the naturally occurring vitamins, digestive enzymes and minerals haven’t been destroyed/made less bioavailable by cooking. Most kibbles need to be supplemented with artificial vitamins and minerals to reach the minimum standards for pet food required by most countries.

Ok, I’m interested – what’s in raw?

Sally the Samoyed (Photo: @scotlandwithfluffywolf)

Sally the Samoyed (Photo: @scotlandwithfluffywolf)

Most commercially prepared raw diets follow the “80:10:10” model, most with added veg/fruit. This has been the convention (I cannot find the original source, if anyone knows please get in touch) for over 30 years of people doing DIY raw feeding. It’s suggested you feed by weight 80% muscle meat, 10% bone and 10% offal (of which half should be liver). This is the roughly the same % as you’d find in a “whole prey item” (for example a rabbit). Some raw feeders will suggest that feeding raw meat in these % of the diet is all you need to do, that dogs are carnivores and have no need for additional fruits or vegetables in their diet.

However, most raw feeders agree that while dogs are descended from wild wolf-like carnivores, domestic dogs today have evolved somewhat from their wild past. Also, modern wolves eat tubers, leaves, seeds and berries along with meat they scavenge and hunt. Therefore, most raw feeders feed 80-90% “meat” (the 80:10:10 of muscle:bone:offal) with 10-20% fruit or veg. The veg can be lightly steamed or pureed to make it more digestible. Most commercial minces are sold containing fruit/veg so are considered a “complete” food if you use a variety of different proteins (chicken, lamb, beef, fish, duck, turkey etc).

You are feeding almost all meat. I thought dogs needed starches for energy?
Agh. There is one scientific research paper that has been quoted and misquoted by both sides (kibble and raw feeders) as each claim it supports their views.

In short, carbohydrates (starches) are digested by an enzyme called amylase, humans have this enzyme in their digestive tract and in their saliva. So, we begin to digest starchy foods as we chew and swallow them.

Wolves and dogs mostly produce amylase in their stomachs. Wolves have low amylase levels and so are poor at digesting starches. Some European dog breeds that evolved alongside farming societies for thousands of years have far higher amylase levels and are more efficient at digesting starches, whereas many northern and “primitive” breeds have wolf-like starch digestion.

Short answer, it depends on the breed whether your dog will be able to fully digest starchy kibble (and if they can’t, then “grain free” potato-based will not be any easier for them than standard wheat/corn kibble as it doesn’t matter the source, they can’t digest the starch).

Some dogs will greatly benefit from a meat-based raw diet, others may benefit from/be able to digest some starchy vegetables alongside their meat, it depends on their breed history.

For all breeds a low starch raw diet is conducive to good dental health. Whereas dogs have no/little amylase in their saliva, they have bacteria in their mouths which can digest starches and use these this to feed on and grow, quickly forming tooth plaque. Typically, rawfed dogs (even if not being fed bones to “clean teeth”) have considerably lower levels of plaque and gum disease.

Now I know what to feed, can I DIY some meals with meat/bones from the butcher and a bit of veg?

Yes, of course you can! But: there’s a few buts involved here. First, freeze and defrost before feeding. Freezing for 2-3 weeks kills any parasite eggs and most (but not all) of the surface bacteria. Raw meat sold for human food is sold with the assumption that you will be cooking it, so it is allowed by law to contain considerably more bacteria than raw dog food. If you have anyone in your home who is immunocompromised or vulnerable to infection, or children who are likely to hug/kiss your dog (or be hugged and kissed by the dog immediately after it’s fed) then it’s a good idea to only buy raw from dog food suppliers that bacteria test and not from the grocery store or butchers.

Be careful about the size of bones (always feed raw – cooked can splinter) you feed relative to the size of your dog. Large shin and knuckle marrowbones, the classic butcher’s “bone for the dog” can crack a dog’s teeth. No weight-bearing bones from anything larger than a bird (so no beef/lamb leg bones), and always watch your dog when they have a bone. To begin with it’s best to break the bones before you feed them, so the dog can’t swallow it whole, so hit the turkey leg/chicken wing/lamb rib with a meat-hammer a few times until you feel the bone has broken up.

What about cold pressed/dry raw?

Raw food manufacturers and conventional kibble producers are bringing out “cold pressed” and “freeze-dried” raw ranges. These are raw meat or raw meat and fruit/veg that has been air or freeze dried. They claim these diets have the nutritional benefits of raw with the convenience of kibble.

Personally, I am wary of these diets, first because they are dried and very nutrient dense, so a dog needs only a tiny amount per day, and either your dog is hungry, or you overfeed. When I’ve tried them with my dog, she has scoffed the lot in seconds and then been ravenous and very thirsty, and what came back out as poop was seriously unpleasant because of the quantities of water she drank.

Secondly, because they are dried/freeze-dried the meat isn’t always (check with the supplier) subjected to the same standard of bacterial testing as for raw but drying may not kill 100% of the bacteria.

Next, most say to store at room temperature. As soon as you open the bag you are letting in air and moisture and bacterial contamination. While the product may have been screened before it left the factory, by the time you are nearing the end of the bag it could potentially have picked up high levels of bacterial growth. The larger kibble companies have done extensive testing on shelf-life of their kibbles, the dried raw diets are too new, and typically made by small companies, so have not undergone the same level of testing. If you are using these foods I’d suggest you wash hands and utensils as you would for raw meat and be extra careful with food-hygiene.

Can I mix kibble and raw?

Most raw feeders would say “no”. They’ll tell you that they digest at different rates, that there’s a different stomach pH needed to digest protein and starch… Hardcore raw feeders are so evangelical about “raw is best” that they fail to notice that for most of us raw isn’t always practical.

You may need to leave a meal for the dog daycare or dog-minder to feed, or you could be travelling without access to a fridge/freezer etc. Most raw feeders I know mix in a high-quality kibble meal from time to time with no ill effects. Some people use kibble between meals as training treats. Some people use a few kibble pieces as a crunchy topper to their dog’s meals. There is no evidence that mixing raw and kibble is harmful.

Anything I can’t feed?

It’s called RAW feeding for a reason. Bones splinter when cooked so don’t feed cooked bone. Many raw feeders avoid pork due to high fat, the highest risk of tapeworm and bacterial infection, and poor welfare standards on larger commercial pig farms. If doing “DIY” raw then always freeze-defrost first.

But I heard that grain-free diets were causing dogs to develop heart disease?

There is some evidence that a dietary lack of two amino acids (protein building blocks), specifically taurine and/or methionine may cause DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy) heart disease. There have been more cases of DCM from dogs fed on grain-free diets, than from those fed traditional corn/wheat based kibbles. Grain-free foods use any of potato, sweet potato, pea protein, other legume or soya protein as fillers in place of the corn/wheat.

It is suspected that these starches and pea/bean proteins interfere with taurine absorption in some dog breeds (most notably golden retrievers). Raw food manufacturer’s have taken these findings onboard and while some raw brands still include peas and potato in their foods, most do not include these ingredients. Read the ingredients and if the brand you are considering contains potato or legumes and you are worried about DCM risk then move to another brand.

My vet says no raw ever

Most vets do. But this is changing. There are now holistic vets who promote raw, and an international society of raw feeding vets. Vets tend to be anti-raw because they get little training in nutrition, nutrition lectures are sponsored by the large multinational kibble companies, and they are at the front-line when things go wrong and see the raw feeding accidents when people have fed a bone that is too large and got stuck, or when a dog is malnourished from being fed only hamburger mince from the supermarket. Most raw feeders know vets are anti-raw so don’t ever have the feeding conversation with the vet. Their vet will have seen many healthy rawfed animals without knowing it.

Should I feed raw?

Sally the Samoyed tucks into dinner (Photo: @scotlandwithfluffywolf / Instagram)

Sally the Samoyed tucks into dinner (Photo: @scotlandwithfluffywolf / Instagram)

Your choice! If you have a breed which can digest starches and you are feeding a high-quality kibble or cooked meal and your dog is getting a nutritionally balanced diet, you may see little difference in them if you switch.

Many people have reported health benefits for raw fed dogs, these include better dental health, brighter coat, less anxiety, and more energy but less hyperactivity and don’t forget those smaller poops to pick up!

If you have anyone in your family who is immunocompromised be extremely careful with food hygiene (this stands whether you feed raw or kibble).

If your dog is a therapy dog, you may find that their conditions of work state no raw feeding.

If you have a northern/primitive breed, then raw can be a better option as it can be easier for them to digest.

Likewise, if you have a dog with allergies it can be easier to select foods with raw, as raw food labelling is more transparent (meats tend to be labelled as beef or chicken not “meat derivatives”).

Finally, how much freezer space do you have?

Sally the Samoyed off leash (Photo: @scotlandwithfluffywolf)

Sally the Samoyed off leash (Photo: @scotlandwithfluffywolf)

This practical but often overlooked consideration is the main sticking point for a lot of people. There tend to be substantial discounts available if you order raw in bulk, and many companies won’t ship less than 20lbs/10kg. Do you have space to store 10-50kg of raw food?

If you have recently switched to raw, always fed raw, or gone the other way from raw to kibble then I’d be interested to hear your stories. As always you can send hello.bark a message or come say hello on my dog’s Instagram @scotlandwithfluffywolf. Any dog or photography related topic I’ll be delighted to chat with you!