Wolves are hunters. They take down their prey and eat it raw, sometimes burying it to store for leaner times ahead. Dogs are descendants of wolves, but over thousands of years they’ve evolved to become the companions that sleep at our feet. Wolves can do it, sure, but can dogs eat raw meat?
This question is at the basis of the BARF movement. Why the b-word? Depending on whom you ask, it stands for either Bones And Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. It advocates feeding an entirely raw diet to your dog, whether you buy commercially-prepared raw food or prepare it yourself. Supporters of a raw diet cite benefits such as a return to dogs' natural diet, healthier teeth, smaller stools, and higher overall health. It’s an answer to many dog owners’ frustrations with traditional commercial dog food.
But is it the right answer? Veterinarians say no for two major reasons. First, raw meat carries risk of disease and infection that cooked meat does not. Second, formulating a nutritionally-complete, balanced diet is beyond the knowledge base of most dog owners. Finding the right commercially prepared dog food is an easier, more effective way for most dog owners to give their dogs a balanced diet.
Proponents of raw food diets counter with the following. First, they assert a dog's stomach is different than ours and therefore better able to handle raw meat and anything that comes in it. The second idea is that vets recommend against raw food because they’ve been taught nutrition by commercial food companies, hence their recommendations of various commercial foods.
As a pet professional and a concerned dog mom, I’ve looked into various feeding methods- raw, homemade, prescription, commercial. With each one, my questions have been:
• Does this provide a nutritionally-balanced diet for my dog’s specific needs?
• Is it safe?
• What benefits does it provide?
• Is this the best way to get those benefits?
• What does my vet think about this method for my dog, based on her medical history and unique needs?
In doing my study of dog nutrition, I consulted veterinarian Dr. Laci Schaible to get her take on raw diets for dogs. Dr. Laci, via her website VetLIVE, has lowered the barrier to pet health care. You can go there to ask a vet and chat live for unbiased and personalized veterinary answers and money-saving tips. In her previous life, she worked for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services as a Senior Veterinary Medical Advisor, so she’s got first-hand knowledge of what exactly goes into the food we feed our dogs. Here’s what she had to say:
“You've probably heard that raw food has a risk of transmitting roundworm infections, tapeworm infections, Salmonella, Clostridium, etc. etc...Yep, it's all true that these are risks of feeding your dog a raw diet. I've been on the inspection floor of the plants when a cut is made into the meat and you find these parasites. They are killed either by heating or freezing the meat. Feeding raw means that you are accepting the risk that the meat is contaminated and you risk your dog's health.”
Incidentally, the conditions Dr Laci mentions could lead to vomiting, diarrhea, abdonimal obstruction, fever, and blood loss. I don't want take the chance of those infections and parasites getting in my dog’s food. Would you?
Dr. Laci continued to explain how raw meat many feed their companion dogs is different than the meat eaten by wolves and wild dogs. They are eating different things. “(Raw meat is) not clean by any means, the government does not deny this, and that is why it has to be cooked. When a wild dog kills an animal in the wild, he is not eating the carcass of an animal that has come from a filthy belly of a USDA regulated slaughterhouse.” The argument that dogs eat raw meat in the wild doesn’t work because it’s not about their ability to process it, it’s about the quality of what they’re eating.
While she does not endorse a raw meat diet for dogs, Dr. Laci offers these tips for those who still want to feed raw:
• Get your meat from a local butcher you know conducts his operation with the highest attention to care, monitoring, regulation, and sanitation to avoid the pitfalls of factory-raised and slaughtered meat. If they are careful enough, you won’t have as high a risk of infection and parasites.
• Make sure your dog’s diet is nutritionally complete and balanced. This means supplements and vegetables in addition to the meat.
• Beware of marketing jargon. Some companies advertise “human grade” raw food you can buy commercially. “Unfortunately, a raw company claiming their food is ‘human grade’ means absolutely nothing legally,” says Dr. Laci, “meaning they have no standards they have to adhere to.” It sounds nice, but it’s no guarantee that it’s safer than any other raw meat for dogs.
So, can dogs eat raw meat? Technically, yes. Does that mean they should? So far, the answers my questions have always steered me away from raw diets. Where a raw diet loses me is the question of whether it's the best way to get those benefits I mentioned earlier. There are far better ways to give my dog a healthy, balanced diet without the risks raw meat carries. So for my dog's diet the answer is clearly no.
Please do your own homework. After that, if you feel the benefits outweigh the risks, make sure the raw meat you buy is not a potential vessel for disease. Also, consult with a vet nutritionist to ensure your dog’s diet is balanced and complete. For those of you wondering, a custom diet is the route I chose, due to some specialized needs my dog has. If you need a recommendation to a nutritionist, let me know here - Contact us.
Next, learn about what human food dogs can eat.
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