Few things will turn south an otherwise civil conversation about dogs faster than the topic of what to feed them. As a practicing veterinarian and bird hunter who spends a great deal of time engaged in tailgate banter, I’ve both received and dished out my share of subtle eyerolls and outright looks of bewilderment at the litany of half-truth, anecdotal gospel, and vigorous defense of something as simple as the contents of ol’ Duke’s food bowl.
The raw food concept, which has gained traction among a growing number of hunting dog enthusiasts, offers more fodder for those contentious debates. Its proponents argue the raw diet enhances their relationship with their pets through the procurement of premium ingredients and meal preparation. Raw enthusiasts often choose this approach as a means to promote their dog’s overall wellness or as an alternative tool in the management of chronic medical conditions.
Raw food is awash in anecdotal support and undeniably exudes a feel-good, hands-on vibe for the DYIer or budding naturopath. While a bowl of fresh, whole food ingredients offers a large helping of curb appeal compared to brown kibble, does the raw diet provide any substantive benefits over what you’re already feeding your hunting partner? Part of the controversy surrounding raw diets lies in the inherent challenge of extruding any scientifically supported data from the overwhelming noise of social media groups.
What is a Raw Diet? At some point in the not-so-distant past, pet nutrition transcended mere routine husbandry. The act of keeping our dogs fueled for work and play morphed into a polarizing topic with strong opinions and stronger market share for companies capable of tapping into the demand for what consumers view as more wholesome, natural, or biologically appropriate food. Raw food is no exception.
While the formulas vary considerably, they all focus on a perceived simplicity and superiority in uncooked ingredients over commercial dry kibble. Proponents make claims of improved digestibility or enhanced nutrient integrity over cooked formulas, even though these claims have little supporting evidence.
These diets come in a variety of forms that include whole lean muscle, fat, bone, organs, produce, and occasionally grains. They are commonly pieced together from homebrew internet recipes with ingredients from the local butcher, seafood market, or produce stand. Many hunters save their processing scraps from last fall’s buck or bull. Several commercial options exist for prepackaged frozen, refrigerated, or freeze-dried meals as well.
Who Feeds a Raw Diet? Not everyone arrives at the decision to feed raw through the same path. I’ve learned in practice that the motivating factors vary considerably among dog owners.
For many, the act of hand-prepping ingredients enhances the experience of pet ownership, much in the way my grandmother seemingly gleaned satisfaction from making me a sandwich in my childhood. These same owners have a vested interest in knowing exactly what goes into their pet’s food—at least in terms of bulk ingredients—and consider their farmer’s market formulary the pinnacle of wholesome nutrition. I’ll admit to salivating on occasion at my clients’ description of their dog’s weekly menu, especially if the appointment gets scheduled towards my lunch hour. Who doesn’t enjoy venison carpaccio and fresh produce?
Other clients arrived at feeding a raw diet out of necessity, perhaps even reluctantly. The choice to limit ingredients to a few whole foods provided the only means to manage variables when investigating severe, persistent adverse food reactions or allergies. For some of these clients, it’s not hyperbolic to claim the switch to raw saved their pet’s life. While that’s far from an endorsement, I’m not one to advocate meddling with a menu that provides my patients significant relief from debilitating allergies, even if it’s flawed in its execution or offers no compelling, quantifiable explanation as to why it works.
Another subset of well-meaning but misguided clients have adopted a raw meat-only protocol, as if their couch-loving canine is a carnivore not more than a single generation removed from mythical prairie-roaming wolves that dined exclusively on bison backstrap. In fact, the canine became one of the first domesticated species in part due to its ability to roll with the ever-changing buffet of detritus and handouts from early human encampments.
The Challenges of Raw Foods While fully fortified with feel-good, raw diets remain relatively lean in peer-reviewed scientific support for their efficacy and thinner still in demonstrating their superiority to commercial kibble. I’ll let that fact set in and brace myself for a declaration of war from the far-raw militia, followed by a hyperlink to a biased fluff piece as evidence to the contrary. Yes, it’s a tough morsel to swallow, but a lack of scientific support doesn’t necessarily preclude a raw diet as a reasonable choice for some dogs and their highly committed owners.
Food-Borne Illness Most of the small volume of raw diet research is fraught with bad PR. Namely, raw pet food diets have a link to increased risk of food-borne illness. While dog owners, veterinarians, and nutritional scientists may squabble about the details of digestibility and nutrient balance, the principal reason these diets lack widespread support lies in the increased likelihood of promoting a potentially dangerous zoonotic disease. Much like that medium-rare burger I crave despite the menu’s warning, consuming raw food on the regular carries a risk of gastrointestinal illness that would have otherwise been mitigated through cooking.
Understandably, improperly handled and uncooked raw meat and produce frequently harbor pathogenic bacteria that can wreak havoc on the intestinal tracts of both canines and humans. The immediate concern would be for GI distress and an explosive mess from your dog, but the real potential black eye for raw diets comes from the possibility of human infection and the accompanying public health risk it poses. The young, old, and immune-suppressed (both pets and people) are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak.
As careful as you are with washing and handling raw ingredients, as a fellow human I feel comfortable claiming that most of the rest of our species lacks the discipline to implement the necessary sanitary protocols required to run a safe raw dog food kitchen.
Though they’re certainly not the majority, I have been forced to endure a few clients’ dubious strategies for homebrewing raw diets on the cheap. For the record, I can’t advocate the use of discarded meat beyond its expiration date or cuts from questionable roadkill. If preventing food-borne illness is at the cornerstone of your raw diet program, it doesn’t matter how sweet of a deal you scored.
A Dietary Dilemma Raw and home-cooked recipes rarely follow guidelines that ensure they meet a dog’s nutritional requirements. This fact turns off most of my veterinary colleagues to the raw option. Their concerns for the nutrient balance in your pet—while occasionally flawed in their delivery—are generally warranted. Small omissions or unintended imbalances in micronutrients can have enormous consequences for the health of your pet.
Before you dive into a raw diet, I highly recommend browsing the Petfoodology blog from the veterinary nutritionist team at Tufts University. They’re the equivalent of foodies in the world of dog nutrition and they excel at translating academic material into easily digestible bites. Their page serves as a touchstone of civil discourse and a review of what has been scientifically documented in a web full of polarizing propaganda.
While I generally don’t recommend raw diets, I’ve found it’s far easier to connect with clients if we work together to feed a safe and balanced raw formula than burning energy and bridges strong-arming in another direction. We all want what’s best for our dogs, even if we disagree on how to get there.