A couple of weeks ago, we asked Just Right dog owners what they wanted to see on the blog, and the response was overwhelmingly, What’s the story with raw food diets? You’ve probably heard of them – maybe a family member sent you an article about raw diets, or maybe an owner at the dog park swears by them. So, is there any truth in the benefits to a raw food diet? That’s what we’ll explore today – if a raw food diet could be right for dogs…or just risky.

Rise of the Raw Food Diet: Carnivore vs. Omnivore

The raw food diet trend has been one of the fastest growing trends within the last few years. Unfortunately, the entire diet trend came about because of the misconception that dogs are wolves, and therefore dogs are carnivores. Dogs and wolves are close relatives, so it makes sense that a diet focused on raw meat would benefit them, right? Sure, but so much scientific evidence points to the fact that dogs are omnivores instead – from tooth structure, to digestive tract length, genetic structure, and enzyme production – feel free to dive into all the reasoning here. Dogs are related to wolves, but aren’t wolves…just as humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, but aren’t chimps. And that’s a good thing, because the life span of wolves in the wild is only few years and you want your dog with you for the long-haul. At the end of the day, no matter how confident and outdoorsy your dog may be, he’s not a wolf, so giving him a wolf-like diet would be drastically unbalanced.

The War Against One Nutrient: Carbohydrate

A favorite argument of the raw food movement is that since “dogs are carnivores”, they shouldn’t be fed diets that include carbohydrate, which is often founds in fruits, vegetables, and other plants. Because the raw food movement doesn’t believe that these foods are right for dogs, ingredients like corn gluten meal and wheat immediately get called “fillers”, despite their dense nutrient profiles. Dogs don’t consume carbohydrate and digest it because they’re “forced” to, but because their bodies are elegantly designed to process carbohydrate and reap the benefits from it. When fed a complete and balanced diet, carbohydrate in dog food can help dogs not only survive, but thrive. For a deep dive into what constitutes fillers in dog food, check out the linked article that fact-checks the conversation about fillers from the perspectives of a veterinarian, animal nutritionist, ingredient buyer, and food safety specialist.

While dogs don’t require carbohydrate in their diet, they do need enough glucose to fuel their central nervous systems…and carbohydrate is the most efficient way to supply that needed glucose. According to Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, “Without dietary carbohydrates, there is added strain on lipid and protein metabolic pathways to supply glucose.” In other words, when your dog’s body converts fat or protein into energy, it’s a much longer, more effort-intensive, less efficient process than simply breaking down the readily available energy that carbohydrate provides. If a protein-heavy diet - like a raw food diet - is all you’re feeding your dog, then he’s missing out on an extremely optimized source of energy, as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals.

By the way...While “carbohydrate-free” and grain-free dog food aren’t the same things (grain-free food still has carbohydrate), you can choose whether you want grain-free dog food or not with Just Right by Purina. It’s just a matter of preference.

Does Cooking Food Kill Enzymes & Nutrients?

Yes, in some cases. But when it comes to your dog’s nutrition, does that actually matter?

Champions of raw dog food diets say that because cooking kills some enzymes, a dog’s body has to make more enzymes just to digest it, putting additional stress on his digestive system. However, there aren’t any scientific studies to support this claim, or any studies that even point to negative effects of eating cooked ingredients. In reality, the enzymes found in raw food – especially the enzymes in plants – are there to help the plant grow and develop, and have nothing to do with helping a dog’s digestion…especially since those enzymes are just destroyed during digestion anyway! A dog’s body will produce the enzymes it needs to break down the food, so killing enzymes through cooking is irrelevant to your dog’s health. How about nutrients – does cooking reduce an ingredient’s nutrient content? Sometimes, but not always. Take an example from the human raw food space: In the case of tomatoes, the levels of Vitamin C (which is common in many foods) do drop as you cook them, yet at the same time, levels of the antioxidant lycopene (rarer in foods) actually increase with cooking! Cooking can release nutrients that would be otherwise unavailable in a food’s raw form, and even make foods easier to digest.

While humans have to consider the tradeoffs like raw vs. cooked tomatoes to get our nutrients, dogs have it easy. Conventionally prepared dog foods like personalized blends from Just Right by Purina are 100% complete and balanced. That means that we account for the nutrients that may be reduced during the cooking process to ensure that exact right amounts that your dog needs them end up in his food. No tradeoffs, no compromises.

The True Risks of Raw Dog Food Diets: Contamination & Disease

Just as it’s probably not safe for you to eat a slab of raw chicken for dinner, your dog also benefits from properly cooked foods. The alternative – raw meat primarily – can be pretty nasty. According to several studies comparing raw food dog food diets to conventional ones:

  • Of the diets tested, almost 6% of the raw food diets were positive for salmonella, while none of the conventional diets were positive
  • E. coli was found in 50% of raw food diets tested
  • 80% of raw chicken diets and 30% of stools collected from dogs fed raw food diets were positive for salmonella. On the other hand, none of the dry foods or the stools from conventionally fed dogs were positive for salmonella

More research needs to be done, but there are clearly some major concerns with raw diets, especially around salmonella spreading from a dog’s bowl to the rest of the family where kids are at the greatest risk for exposure. One study, for example, highlighted that there can be very little that a raw-feeding dog owner can do to curb the spread of salmonella, finding that “standard methods of cleaning and disinfecting food bowls were minimally effective at eliminating salmonella. This included soaking with bleach and cleaning in a dishwasher.” Other risks of raw meat dog food diets include gastroenteritis (GI inflammation that results in vomiting and diarrhea), and septicemia caused by bacterial infections like salmonella and clostridium.

The True Risks of Raw Dog Food Diets: Nutritional Imbalances

If the potential risk of contamination wasn’t bad enough, there’s a significantly higher risk of raw dog food diets being unbalanced and therefore not providing all of the required nutrients at the right levels that your dog needs. According to an article from the veterinary school at Tufts University, a European study found that 60% of raw meat dog food diets had “major nutritional imbalances” when they calculated the levels of 12 nutrients in 95 homemade raw diets. The article goes on to point out that “even if these diets meet the minimum nutrient levels and don’t exceed the maximums, they may not provide an optimal nutrient profile. For example, many raw meat diets may be very high in fat compared to typical canned and dry diets, which may make the coat look shiny, but could cause health problems for some animals.”

Our Verdict

When Just Right dog owners emailed us asking for a blog on raw dog food diets, we were thrilled to get a chance to dissect the topic. But honestly? This was one of the hardest blogs we’ve had to write. Not because there isn’t enough evidence to refute the points, but because so much of the raw movement is wrapped up in complicated, intertwined food philosophies. “Anything processed is evil.” “Food should be natural or bust.” “No company can be trusted.”

Raw dog food is very difficult to talk about, because no matter how much research is out there, folks hold true to their philosophies. And that’s fine; everyone is entitled to their own opinion. As for Just Right by Purina, we’re going to keep making what we know is true: high-quality, nutritionally dense, and completely balanced personalized blends designed to help each unique dog thrive.