Song, my 4-year-old Greyhound, loves to eat raw eggs. Each mealtime, I crack open a couple of our hens’ freshly laid eggs on her kibble, and she gobbles them down. And that’s not all. My retired rescued racer can’t get enough raw, grass-fed ground beef and chunks of fresh venison. When I’m cooking up some burgers or chili, I gladly share some of that wholesome protein with her.
But I wonder: Are raw eggs and meat safe for her to eat?
After doing some research and talking to experts, I’ve discovered two distinct camps. Raw diet supporters say it’s safe and even beneficial to feed uncooked protein to dogs. Critics — including the American Veterinary Medical Association — argue the food safety risks aren’t worth the benefits.
If you’re thinking of adding raw meat to your dog’s diet, keep reading. Here are the facts you need to know.
Raw Food 101
So, what is a “raw food diet?”
Made popular by Australian small animal surgeon Ian Billinghurst, who wrote “Give Your Dog A Bone” in 1993, a raw food diet is one that’s centered on foodstuffs that resemble those eaten by dogs’ wild wolf ancestors.
The American Veterinary Medical Association describes raw diets as those that usually contain some or all of the following: muscle meat from animals, often still on the bone; whole or ground bones; organ meats like liver and kidney; raw eggs; raw vegetables and/or fruit; and possibly some dairy products, such as unpasteurized yogurt or milk. As the name implies, the food is not cooked prior to feeding.
These meals come in various forms. Raw meaty bones and scraps can be purchased from your favorite meat market and prepared at home. If the “eww” factor is too high, ready-to-serve raw diets supplemented with fruits and vegetables can be found at the pet store. Some of these convenient options are formulated to be a complete and balanced meal for your dog.
Compared to the rest of the dog-owning pack, a relatively small percentage of people feed their pets raw diets. The American Pet Products Association reports in its 2011/2012 National Pet Owner Survey that only 21 percent of respondents feed their dog natural, organic or raw food.
That’s not a huge number — but those who feed raw food swear by it.
“The dogs assimilate the nutrients better, and they’re also eating real live food,” says Bette Schubert, who founded Bravo! Raw Diet after her dog died from aflatoxin poisoning from a grain-based kibble. “They’re not eating food that has been manufactured. They’re eating real live food that’s closer to what they eat in the wild.”
Proponents, citing mostly anecdotal evidence, say that the naturally occurring enzymes and bacteria in raw foods boost the animal’s immune system and keep its digestive tract functioning properly. A raw diet, they say, keeps their dogs’ teeth healthy and clean, their skin problem-free, and their coats thick and lustrous. It also reduces the amount and odor of stool and helps the pet maintain a lean body mass, they say.
Proponents also note changes in dogs’ behavior when fed a raw diet. High-energy dogs take on a calmer demeanor. Working dogs work harder. Sporting dogs perform better in the field.
“If you practice raw feeding and you look at your dogs, you’ll see how healthy they are and how happy they are and how well they do in performance, whether they’re in shows or obedience,” says Christine Swingle of Bonnie Brier West Highland White Terriers in Vernon, Connecticut. “These dogs can perform. A lot of my Westies are in Rally-O and Agility, and these dogs are performing, they’re doing great — and they’re raw-fed.”
Swingle has been feeding her dogs raw food since 1996.
“We’re giving our animals that extra edge of health,” she says.
Those who caution against raw feeding point to the risks — and there are plenty of them.
They say raw food diets can endanger the animals, poisoning them with a lethal dose of dangerous bacteria, obstructing their airways or perforating their intestines with raw bones, or failing to meet their nutritional needs. They say cross-contamination from handling the raw food can also endanger humans.
“There is no nutritional advantage to feeding raw foods over a cooked diet, but there is the very real risk of illness and death,” says Dr. Rebecca Remillard, founder of Veterinary Nutritional Consultations Inc. in Hollister, North Carolina. “Dogs and cats fed raw foods are susceptible to foodborne illnesses and can die from those infections.”
Raw meats may harbor dangerous bacteria, such as E. coli or salmonella. When food is not handled properly, whether at the slaughterhouse, the distribution center or in the home, those little bacteria can proliferate and cause stomach upset, gastroenteritis and worse after being consumed, Remillard says.
“Approximately one-third of the poultry sold for human consumption has tested positive for salmonella,” she says. “Although many procedures have been regulated into the meat and poultry industry to reduce the level of contamination, bacteria persist and we should consider all products contaminated. Some bacteria produce meat spoilage while others cause disease in people and pets.”
And while bones provide some stress relief for dogs, they offer little or no nutritional value, Remillard says. They can, she says, do more harm than good.
“The belief that dogs and cats need bones to chew on has been sadly demonstrated as false throughout the veterinary clinics and hospitals in this country,” Remillard says. “Feeding bones, raw or cooked, should be discouraged. They have caused intestinal obstruction, perforation, septic peritonitis and death. Intensive medical and surgical therapies are needed to survive a bowel obstruction”
Although the muscle and organ meat provides plenty of protein, pure raw diets lack the complete nutritional balance that dogs need to thrive. Remillard says that prepared commercial food deemed complete and balanced for a particular life stage is best.
“Federally regulated, commercially prepared foods have processing methods and quality assurance programs that limit the potential of foodborne illnesses in pets, and offer guarantees, a nutritional profile and bioavailability,” she says.
Do Your Research
As for Song, I’ll continue to supplement her diet with raw eggs and meat from critters raised on our farm. I know exactly where the food comes from and how it’s processed. She loves it, and it seems to be doing her body good — and that makes me happy.
If you’re thinking of going raw with your dog’s diet, your first and most important step is research. Learn as much as possible about canine nutrition. Talk to a traditional allopathic veterinarian as well as a holistic veterinarian, and ask them both about their experiences with raw diets. Keep in mind that the two camps remain deeply divided. Gather the facts and make an informed decision for yourself.