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Should You Feed Your Pet a Raw Meat Diet?

Advocates say it’s the “natural” diet for cats and dogs, but here’s what vets have to say.

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Food trends for pets often mimic food trends for humans. When processed human food became a thing, so did processed pet food (like canned pet food and dry kibble). When low-fat food was popular for humans, dogs were fed that, too. When the paleo diet was surging, so was grain-free kibble for pets. 

Today, there’s a continued quest for all-natural, wholesome, back-to-basics foods. Movements like keto, paleo, plant-based, and “clean eating” have people ditching chips for chia seeds, and filling their carts with raw or minimally processed ingredients.

“Natural” pet foods have been trending for a few decades now, but more recently, they’ve reached their ultimate form: raw meat. 

The raw meat diet for cats and dogs is exactly what it sounds like: chunks or slabs of raw meat (often with the bone still in), as well as organ meats, raw eggs, and unpasteurized dairy. Some raw food companies also include small amounts of vegetables (like sweet potato), nuts, seeds, and fruit.

Advocates of raw meat diets for pets say that it’s the “natural” diet of dogs and cats, citing their wild ancestors (wolves and lions, for example) as proof. Raw meat companies often describe their food with terms like “biologically appropriate,” and they boast of being free of grains, chemicals, and “fillers.” Sounds pretty good, right? 

Well, maybe not. Veterinarians agree that some cheaper brands of pet food are overly processed and not recommended, but they disagree that raw meat diets are the way to go. Here’s why:

1. Raw meat contains pathogens.

Lions may safely enjoy eating raw meat in the wild, but today’s meat supply isn’t quite as safe and “clean” as a zebra on an African savanna. That’s because factory farming practices house thousands of animals in tight quarters, and pathogens like salmonella (which is a bacteria that comes from the poop of animals) spread easily in such conditions. In a test of raw food samples for pets, about 25 percent of the samples contained harmful bacteria, according to VCA Hospitals.

That’s why there are strict food safety guidelines about cooking meat to specific temperatures, which kills off any potential pathogens. However, giving raw meat to your pets puts both the pet and the human handling it in danger. This is especially dangerous for humans with compromised immune systems, and there have already been cases of human death due to this trend.

2. Raw meat diets are not always nutritionally balanced.

Commercial pet food (in its canned and kibble forms) fall on a spectrum of quality. The better brands of pet food are often certified as “complete and balanced.” This certification means the food meets the strict nutritional standards set by the AAFCO, or the Association of American Feed Control Officials.  

In order to earn the “complete and balanced” certification, the food must contain the right nutrients, in the right ratio, for the age and breed listed. For example, large senior dogs require a much different ratio of nutrients than kittens, so a food that claims to be for large senior dogs would only be “complete and balanced” if it was properly formulated for those needs, as designated by AAFCO.

That’s where raw meat diets get risky. They are not formulated to meet these nutritional standards for dogs and cats, and they do not undergo the same quality and safety inspections, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. 

3. Bones are a major safety hazard.

Some raw meat diets for pets often come with the bone attached. Bone fragments can block or puncture the digestive tract, which can be painful for your pet and may even cause death. (Learn more about the risks of bones for pet health here.)

While many raw meat companies for pets use “soft” bones, it’s best to avoid bones altogether (except the rawhide type, of course). 

Raw meat for pets sounds “natural” in theory, but domestic cats and dogs have evolved quite a bit since their wild beginnings. For example, wolves and domestic dogs now have completely different digestive systems, and dogs are now omnivores instead of carnivores. Grains are not only tolerated by domesticated dogs, but they are now an important component of the doggy diet.

You’ve heard this advice before, but it doesn’t hurt to get a reminder: Be cautious of fad diets (for both you *and* your pets).